‘I’ve never read Dickens’: Being a Dyslexic Victorian Historian

This paper was given at British Association of Victorian Studies annual conference in 2022. There will be dyslexic errors and quirks.

A row of Charles Dicken’s novels.

It was at a previous BAVS conference that I confessed that I had never read the novels of Charles Dickens. It was in response to someone’s observation, during an afternoon coffee break, that this year’s programme brimmed with papers on Dickens. There was marked silence at my confession. I shifted uncomfortably and quickly noted that I had watched many BBC adaptations and listened to numerous audio cassettes that had brought Dickens’ worlds to life for me. While this example might serve to speak of how history and literary worlds collide in Victorian Studies, there is for me a personal story to be told around the assumption about the written word and text as the sacred relic of scholarship.

In this paper I want to consider my personal experience as a dyslexic Victorian historian and towards the end I want to think messily about book writing. In doing so, I will build on a growing awareness that auto-ethnographical approaches allow, in the words of Tracey Loughran, ‘marginalised peoples to reclaim power’ (2018: 248). This is necessary because as Nicole Brown contends ‘little is known about the actual experiences of disabled, chronically ill and/ or neurodivergent academics.’ (2018: 6) This has led disabled scholar Laura L. Ellingson to contend that autoethnography helps disabled and ‘marginalised academics at all stages…to voice experiences of bias, exclusion and microaggressions’ (2021: 21)

It is important to note before I begin that my invisible learning disabilities make it easier for me to pass in the neurotypical, ableist university. This is strengthened by the fact that I am white and can also appear, with my hyphenated surname ‘Matthews-Jones’ and southern accent, to be born middle class. Nor do I speak for all dyslexic or neurodivergent staff.

However, I am keen to be open about my disabilities. I found it really powerful to write on my Twitter header that I was ‘dyslexic’ and then ‘dyslexic & ‘dyspraxic’ once I had had my work placement assessment. Indeed, one of my most read blog posts is on this topic. Published in 2014, ‘Being a Dyslexic Academic’ has been read nearly 2300 times. It is probably the only thing that I will ever write that will be disseminated on Mumsnet. From this blog I have received emails from prospective PhD students and ECRs to ask questions about what it means to be dyslexic person working in a higher education. I have had hushed conversations with scholars about our shared dyslexic experiences.

Front Cover of Nicole Brown’s edited book.

In some way this presentation is an extension of my earlier blog. It reflects where I am now as a Victorian historian in my career and a growing belief that I had when I became a Reader to use my status to speak more about what it means to be dyslexic and have disabilities. This is important not only because we need role models, but because academic staff are less likely to disclose their disabilities than professional or support staff. In the UK 4.6% of academic have disclosed a disability. This is despite 20% of the working population in the UK being disabled. Within the academy Nicole Brown has argued that there are two outcomes: firstly, that disabled students (both UG and PG) are less likely to transition into academic roles and / or secondly, academic staff don’t feel that they should disclose their disabilities because there are no longer any ‘benefits’. Much of this is down to specific higher education culture, which I will return to. As a dyslexic academic I think it is telling that in 2016 one academic in The Guardian’sAnonymous Academic’ series wrote: ‘‘I’ve finally admitted that I’m a dyslexic academic – and I’m terrified’. No one should be afraid to tell institutions or their colleagues about having a learning disability. As the anonymous author wrote, ‘I worry about the assumptions that will be made about my ability… It’s worth remembering that it was only a few decades ago that dyslexia was seen as an excuse for laziness or stupidity.’

The Dyslexia Association currently defines dyslexia as a ‘specific learning disability’ that will affect people differently for life. They note that dyslexic people have ‘difficulty processing and remembering information’. They also report that ‘any people who have dyslexia have strong visual, creative and problem solving skills’ and that it ‘is not linked to intelligence but can make learning difficult’. These more positive attributes are often side-lined. More problematically, I have found the idea that higher education recognises (to some extent) that you need ‘reasonable adjustments’ when you are student, but not when you are a staff member. The outcome is that we don’t always know then how dyslexia affects people after their taught programmes. Or to put it another way, how dyslexic scholars mediate the academic world that seems to think our disabilities disappear when we gain our PhD certificates?

Higher education now asks us to think about how we create diverse and supportive environments. If we are to become inclusive in higher education, disabled staff, along with other marginalised groups, should not just be accommodated, but also made to feel at home. While universities often subscribe to the social model of disabilities, which recognised that society and culture places barriers are placed on you, they rarely reflect on their disabling barriers. I sometimes wonder if the reason that they don’t is because they would then have to confront the fact that as a sector we do ultimately exclude disabled people through selection and grades. At a personal level, it means that disabled staff often must fight and remind people that we exist. It can be exhausting and alienating. Rather than thriving, we are trying to survive in a world that makes us feel unwelcomed.

Increasingly the academy is asking questions about ‘unconscious biases’ within the sector. The Royal Historical Society has done some great reports on gender, LGBT+, and Race and Ethnicity inequalities. But, as I speak, there is no equalities report for understanding the lived, professional experiences of disabled staff in the History community. This is disappointing because we know that universities have reinforced specific exclusionary practices. It also indirectly implies that there is a hierarchy of inequalities, where often disability can sit towards the bottom. We need to have practices that bring marginalised groups together. Otherwise, we are continuing to obscure ableism and deny intersectional discrimination. This is harmful because it allows the dominance of ableism to persist in our institutions, structures, and publishing platforms. It also forces dyslexic academics like me to pass and to hide authentic selves, because we might not be thought as professional, intelligent, or academic enough. It reminds me of Sarah Burton’s argument that Neo-Liberalism in the academy ‘creates an atmosphere of extremes’, where we are either ‘boasting’ or ‘exhausted’; where failure is measured and personalised (2021: 23). Where do disabled or neurodivergent academics get to inhabit when the metrics and spaces don’t seem to accommodate us? What hope do we have when abled, neurotypical academics appear to be only just surviving? Louise’s paper had been a wonderful example of how epistemologies expand when dyslexic academics get to interpretate and explain through our ways of knowing.

Now, I love being a Victorian historian – see it even rhymes- rather than a nineteenth-century historian. There’s something about the Victorianist community that makes me feel connected to the past and how to know. I was so happy when a friend who is an English professor told me that they thought I was a ‘literary historian’ because of how closely I read texts and wasn’t sacred to use small evidence to move through the past. But, when I initially put this paper’s abstract in for the 2020 BAVS conference, I was angry, demotivated, and exhausted. I was struggling to find my place in the neurotypical academy. I had simply reached the point where I felt I was doing everything I should, but backwards or wrong. Worst still, I felt lonely. The surprise of my not reading Dickens reinforced my feeling of not quite being in this academic world. Once again it cemented the idea that it was all about books and the written word.

In a recent auto-ethnographic writing, Kara Barnette has argued that dyslexic scholars often experience ‘epistemic loneliness’. Writing from a personal point of view, she goes on to argue that she was, and I quote, ‘outside of the world neurotypical people individuals live in, and I feel that no matter how hard I try, my sense of the world will never go beyond myself. This loneliness goes beyond a desire to move within a neurotypical world; it extends to an alienation that I feel towards my own sense of self’ (2022: 76). In 2020, I was forcing myself to ask how I could find myself intellectually because, while we often talk about how universities systematically discriminate against disabled people, this conversation has not yet been had within our disciplines.

Now I want to consider my dyslexic book journey. I feel uncomfortable saying this but for me the pandemic allowed me pause, reflect, and reset. I was able to calibrate. This was possible because the pandemic had contracted the neurotypical world by limiting my daily face-to-face engagements with overwhelmingly abled people. Transitioning and responding to a small, albeit virtual world, was less taxing for me. When people spoke of feeling tired because of online meetings, I did not understand it. Rather the anxiety I faced trying to figure out where I needed to be was gone. I didn’t have to remember when these meetings were because Teams reminded me. I wasn’t pushed into being hyper-mobile or hyper-professional all the time. I was not inclined to go to conferences or dash around the country catching archive fever. I was not having to perform being a neurotypical academic or having to translate myself to people. Similarly, finding comfort in the pandemic had also been made possible to me because of my dyslexic capacities that mean I am adaptable and a dynamic problem solver. I really felt that some of strengths as a dyslexic person were showcasing themselves.

Picture of a north Norfolk road sign saying ‘Slow You Down’.

Stillness also helped me to stop vibrating around my ‘book’ and feeling stressed that it was not done. It was almost as if by being body-still my brain was able to focus. I wrote more. More meaningfully, for the first time in my academic career, I can confidently tell you that my book will be an exploration of what it meant to be at home in the British settlement movement and its adjunct communities. Yet, I do have to be honest, I resent the narrative around book writing and, as a dyslexic person, it is honestly the most disabling tool that I have had to engage with. We all know that the academic monograph is highly prized in the humanities. It is often understood to be the research output that marks us out from STEM subjects that publish collaboratively and in journal form.

According to Geoffrey Crossick humanities scholars often see books to be the ‘most effective way of communicating several years of sustained research on a single topic…It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic’. It is often used to differentiate prospective job candidates. Yet, our obsession with the book reinforces specific cultural and social practices. The currency we have given it validates our subjects’ exclusion practices of marginalised and often underrepresented groups. Speaking as someone who is dyslexic, I worry about the number of scholars with invisible disabilities, who are unable to get interviews because they do not have this output. Obviously, I was able to get an academic job without a monograph. However, I do genuinely believe that if I was in this job market now as a British historian, I would not be able to get a job, such is the esteem we have given to it. This is further strengthened by the encouragement of double weighting particular kinds of books at 4* in the Research Excellent Framework by Panel D.

Even though people know I have invisible disabilities, it has not stopped them from telling me that I should ‘just write the book’. The irony being that neurotypical academics often bemoan the difficulties of writing their books. I know this because I read a lot of advice books about ‘how to write the book’ and attend workshops on this topic. For me ‘just write’ is loaded because even as I watch others struggle to write their books, I don’t understand what my neurodivergent struggles will be or how to discuss it.

Yet, dyslexic people are known to be more anxious and stressed in situations that they have no control over or do not necessarily understand. I don’t even know what writing a book looks like because we don’t really talk about developmental writing, copy editing or messy writing we do. Advice is largely focused on project planning and management. I continue to struggle with how to emote and translate my feelings around writing the book. When I have tried to talk about it, some people have told me that I don’t have to write this book, I could just write another book. Writing is therefore never a feeling of ‘just’. There is no justice to be found in my writing processes because I can’t visualise what it means to ‘just write my book’. What am I supposed to do when words and ideas don’t anchor, but float around? When structure does not flow, but balloons and meanders? How do I kill the words and sentences?

Of course, what people cannot understand with this phrase- ‘just write the book’- is the trauma that is consistently being evoked for neurotypical scholars. We have often come from educational settings that have dismissed us or signalled us for ‘accommodations’ that often meant we were removed from certain learning environments to be given extra support. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 15 years old. An age when I was old enough to absorb the things teachers said to- and about- me: ‘would do well to read her work’, ‘rushes her work’, ‘lazy’. I will never forget the feeling that people saw me as polite, nice but a tad dim. But I was quietly determined as a child. I was serious. I had ambitions. My mother says that my ability to read suddenly happened at the age of 8. Snap your fingers and that was me. The words were imprinted in my brain, and I suddenly knew what the shapes were. From that moment I didn’t stop. Yet, my teacher, a nice man who sharpened his and our pencils with a pen knife, didn’t believe me when I told him that I had read a book he considered too advanced for me. He quizzed me about the story. I passed his test without satisfying his qualms: he simply did not believe that I had read the book I was returning to the class shelves. He ended up talking to my mother. She told him I had read this book. He left it at that after her response. It left me with the feeling I had done something wrong. It was this feeling that I carried when people seemed surprised by my admission about Dickens.

It is perhaps not surprising that my formative education years left me with the feeling that no matter how hard I worked it wasn’t hard enough or good enough. It left my mother frustrated and infuriated with a school system that didn’t wish to hear her tell them how hard I worked. For years, she asked for them to test me for dyslexia, but for years they refused. In the end, it was my mother, a comprehensive-school educated shop assistant, who in 1999 paid the £250 needed for the educational physiologist to tell her what she had always known: her daughter was dyslexic. Not lazy. It came for me at just the right moment. 15 extra minutes per hour for my GCSE exams. I left school armed with 10 GCSEs from A to C. An ‘A’ in my favourite subject, history, and a determination that I would leave my village for university. I did not know then that writing would become such a key component of my life.

Black feminists have long argued that the values we place on written words and prose styles are white and male. When this was stated to me as an undergraduate, I felt something visceral. How I was being asked to ‘be’ was always going to feel slightly alien. While I initially pushed this onto the idea of being a woman in a man’s world, I am increasingly drawn to disabled activists and crip scholars who have extended these assertations to ask, ‘what kinds of bodyminds can exist in academia’. (2019: 15) As Travis Chi Wing Lau has powerful posited, with reference to the American graduate practice of 24-hour exams, ‘whether or not the academic culture of speed leaves any space for neurodiversity’ (2019: 15).

This question can be extended to our commitment to bulk, in the form of the monograph. Why should certain knowledge making tools get to be esteemed so much more and lead to specific opportunities? Why do we agree to marginalise our disabled peers? Book markers are more likely to get promoted through research, given funding, or be invited to give key-note papers. Instead, Lau proposes that, ‘Academic labour might be better understood not as the quantifiable results of pages written, pieces published, or courses taught, but in terms of the psychic and physical labor [sic] that attends to researching, writing, and thinking.’ (2019: 17)

I count myself lucky that I have not been pushed by my line manager to publish my book or perish and that I work in a post-1992 setting where there is more flexibility around research. In the last couple of years, he has often remarked on the positivity I now convey when discussing my book. Of course, this still does not remove my feeling of academic failure or the sense that I am always working on something that is going nowhere. But, my commitment to publishing my book was helped by the space the pandemic gave me to think and reflect. It has also coincided with me finding external support in this virtual world to help me write my book such as coaching and writing groups. This partially happened because abled and neurodivergent academics were asking for specific tools.

To return to the anecdote that opened this paper, this was the first time that I was forced to confront that I had not only not read Dickens, but that I did not feel at home at with my dyslexia. Yet, home-making is made in moments of discomfort. After all it this conference, and through my Victorianist friends, that I am continually remind me that Dicken’s did not publish in book form, but through serials. I still have not read Dickens.

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