David Webber’s excellent, sensitive column on Joe Biden and stuttering (Nov. 29, Columbia Missourian) deserves not only praise but further elaboration.
The public wasn’t aware that Joe Biden had a stuttering problem when he successfully won elections to the U.S. Senate and as vice-president with Barrack Obama. Neither did I know that David successfully was coping with a stuttering problem when we interviewed him as an applicant for a faculty position.
Then Dean Larry Clark had special competence in the area of speech disabilities. He remarked to our small advisory group in the College of Arts and Sciences after David’s interview that he seldom had seen such control over this kind of problem.
Neither did our Department of Political Science consider that a problem for a successful career. He was the best of three excellent candidates.
Time validated those initial conclusions, as David achieved success as a teacher, researcher and an all-around faculty member and now as a Missourian columnist.
I also had a graduate student who stuttered but had significant difficulty in controlling it, despite a lifetime of professional assistance. Nonetheless, he had been successful at a community college and the University of California at Berkeley as a student.
His intelligence and self-discipline were excellent, and his career specialties matched mine. But how would he do as a teaching assistant, our major means of financial support? We soon found out as I and other faculty benefited from his teaching sections in the auditorium courses of Introduction to Political Science and international Relations.
Following the completion of his Ph.D., he returned to UC Berkeley as associate editor for South Asia for the prestigious Asian Survey journal and adjutant instructor. At Berkeley, as he had at MU and now at a private college in Ohio, he shared his student teaching evaluations. We are both proud of them.
An even more extreme example involved a blind applicant for a language teaching position in our South Asia Program. Rodney Moag had achieved a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Wisconsin and had written a textbook on Malayalam, a south India language, for the Peace Corps.
We deliberated in a lengthy session over the central question of how a blind person could instruct undergraduates without sight, even with an assistant.
Our conclusion recognized his successful record of teaching and research as well as a central fact: None of us were blind, so couldn’t fully appreciate the special qualities that enabled him to be successful.
Rodney successfully taught the unrelated languages of Malayalam and Hindi, as well as a linguistics course for several years before being wooed away by the University of Texas at Austin.
Postscript: A couple of years after he had joined Texas, I met Rodney at the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi. “Hello Rodney,” I said without him being aware that I was in the room or even in India.
Immediately, he replied, “Hello Paul,” and began a normal conversation as if it we had conversed the day before.
The moral of this recitation? David Webber concludes in his Missourian editorial that even though “few of us knew” that Joe Biden stuttered, “Maybe it doesn’t matter that much.”
I disagree. David is being too modest. Dealing successfully with what society generally perceives as a disability isn’t a handicap. It adds to the special quality of the concerned individuals.
Paul Wallace is professor emeritus of political science and instructor the Honors College at MU.