Reflections on a Career in Communication Disorders

by Gerald M. Siegel

Presented at the Council of Academic Programs in Academic Sciences and Disorders in Jacksonville, Florida, April 10, 1999

I'm delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you, especially here in the Sea Turtle Inn For the last 20 years, turtles have insinuated themselves into my life. It all began when I became director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota. For reasons I'll discuss later, the Center selected the turtle as its logo, and from the moment I became director, turtles - fashioned out of every imaginable substance, began to invade my office and my home. I now have close to 200 and a story with every one of them. The turtle story that has gone into the folklore of my family, however, involved my mother. She was visiting us from New York one spring and we took her to see the Como Zoo in St. Paul. After walking in and out of many exhibits, my weary mother sat down for just for a moment on a large stone turtle placed invitingly in front of one of the buildings, to catch her breath before again helping us to chase after our young children. As she sat down, the statue slowly heaved itself up and lumbered a few steps forward, before freezing again into immobility. The turtle was ancient, huge, and alive! If turtles can hear, that poor creature - and several others in the zoo, sustained a permanent hearing loss, from the shrieks of terror from my mother, and delight and amusement from my children.

But I didn't come here today to talk about my mother. I came to talk about myself. My motivations are not entirely self-serving. I truly believe there is a great need to record the history of our field and of course one way to do that is to tell our stories. I recently retired, after 40 years as an academician, and I'd like to take this occasion to tell something of my own story as a professional in the field of communication disorders.

I began my studies at Brooklyn College in 1949, when there were fewer than 1,500 members in ASHA. When I graduated with my BA degree in 1953, the membership had skyrocketed to about 2,400. One of my professors was Robert West, the first president of ASHA. The men and women who created our discipline were alive and active when I made my first tentative explorations and a good part of the attraction of the field was that it was so new. Even now, 46 years later, we are still a young and vibrant discipline. Although I can't pretend to have contributed to the early history of the association, I was witness, at least, to some of it. All of us have stories that are part of our communal history.

My earliest experience with disordered communication goes back to my own family. My father stuttered occasionally, although I tried very hard to keep it from him, because of the Diagnosogenic Theory. He would have stuttered much more if he had more opportunities to speak, but he married into a family that shouted and pounded the table in ordinary conversation and he was a quiet and diffident man.

I discovered the field of speech pathology by a quirk. At Brooklyn College, entering freshmen were required to take a pretentious "speech pedagogy" examination.

Despite my New Utrecht High School Public Speaking Medal, I was assigned to a remedial speech class because I spoke a dialect of English called "Hebronics," characterized by dental /t/, /ng/ click, flattening of the vowels, and a gentle alveolar spray. That is, I sounded like the people in my Brooklyn neighborhood. As Jimmy Durante said, "I was mortified." Jimmy Durante failed the speech pedagogy test, by the way.

Ahh, but destiny is a trickster, and my miserable and melancholy miasma mutated into a marvelous manifestation of major mentorship when I met the teacher in that class, a diminutive man with flaming red hair. His name was Oliver Bloodstein. "Call me Oliver," he said on the first day of class. And I did - thirty years later. Dr. Bloodstein set the pattern for my professional life. He invited me to his home, introduced me to his family, taught me the thrill of research, and guided my MA thesis in the area of stuttering - a daring challenge to Jon Eisenson's propositionality hypothesis that I wrote without a hint of a Brooklyn accent, and that used a Lindquist, Type VI, Extended, analysis of variance.

Bloodstein was an inspiration. He cared about people. He loved scholarship. He wrote, and others read what he wrote. He spoke, and we pondered what he had said. The ultimate ego trip, and I decided to emulate him. He had studied with Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa and so that is where I went for my Ph.D., to follow the footsteps of Seashore, Johnson, Travis, Van Riper, Grant Fairbanks, Bryng Bryngelson, Hildred Schuell, Jean Seaberg, and so many others.

Before I left for my first trip beyond the reach of the New York City subway system, Eileen and I made a ceremonial call to Eileen's Aunt Ida, the reigning matriarch in her family. Aunt Ida was already old and her mind didn't remain focused for very long. Her Brooklyn apartment was dark and cool. The furniture was plush, and like Aunt Ida, overstuffed. She sat regally in a chair with a high back Her husband, Morris, said: "Ida, this is your niece, Eileen. Rose and Jack's daughter. And her husband Jerry. They got married last year. We told you."

Ida didn't respond.
"We came to say goodbye," I said. "We are going far away. To Iowa."
Ida brightened. She shifted in her chair. "To vere?"
"To Iowa. In the middle of the country."
Ida leaned forward now, interested but puzzled.
"I-O-VEY. You have to go on a ship to I-O-VEY?"

She faded again before we could answer. Later, I discovered she had been right. We did have to cross an ocean - an enormous ocean of culture and experience to find our way from Brooklyn to Iowa, from dentalized /t/ to a career in speech pathology

Because I had been one of Bloodstein's students, and because word had gotten out that I had used a Lindquist Type VI - Extended Analysis of Variance in my MA thesis, it was assumed that I was a proficient therapist in the area of stuttering and I was assigned to work with clients in the stuttering clinic although I had had little practical experience.

I did my first therapy when Dean Williams's paper, "A Point of View About Stuttering" was about to be published. Johnson considered the Point of View to be the ultimate refinement of his own ideas and it became the guidebook for our therapy. In clinic sessions, my clients - that is, "persons who spoke with a nonfluent dialect"- learned to analyze the difference between saying, "My tongue got stuck on the roof of my mouth," vs., "I pressed my tongue against the roof of my mouth." I liked this kind of therapy. It reminded me of Sunday mornings at my grandparents' home where we analyzed each other's speech, and motives, and hidden meanings, over bagels, pickled herring, boiled potatoes, and table-pounding pinochle.

We took our therapy out of the clinic and into the streets. We set out from a building called The Gables and stopped strangers to ask directions to The Gables. We discovered that the local hardware store didn't carry ping pong balls, and so we stopped in repeatedly to ask for ping pong balls - until one day the manager enthusiastically laid in a huge supply of ping pong balls. We faked stuttering and I experienced some of the mischievous enjoyment at how uncomfortable our unsuspecting listeners seemed when we accosted them.

I also learned inadvertently how questions and earnest criticism are a way of honoring an individual. One afternoon, Charles Bleumel, an early pioneer of stuttering research, and one of the early recipients of the Honors of the Assoociation, visited Iowa City. He was already quite advanced in age and had just written a manuscript summarizing his final thoughts about stuttering. He was valiantly traveling across the country, giving readings at major universities, gathering criticisms for a final draft before it was published, in 1957, as The Riddle of Stuttering. He stuttered while he read. He fumbled with the pages; he sometimes lost his place and had to begin over. His ideas about stuttering did not reflect the Point of View and were of little interest in our group. At the end of his presentation, he looked expectantly at Johnson and the others who had been invited to hear him but he was accorded only a painful silence. There was no response. No questions. No criticisms. No comments. Finally, someone said, "Shall we go for lunch?"

I intercepted Bleumel as he was leaving and told him I'd appreciated his presentation. He glowed and said, "Oh, but you should have been at Brooklyn College. It was wonderful there. They tore into everything I had written."

My parents and grandparents had it right. You give honor by arguing, by disagreeing, by taking someone else's ideas seriously enough to tear into them.

I finally didn't do my dissertation in stuttering. Johnson was recovering from a heart attack and was not available. Instead, I became Fred Darley's first doctoral student, with a dissertation on the effects of various word cues on aphasic responses. I completed my degree and, at 25 years of age, I took my first academic job, in the speech department at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo. I was the only faculty member in an accredited program in communication disorders. I taught all of the courses in normal speech and hearing development, speech pathology, audiology, speech and hearing science, phonetics, and also a course in general speech. I supervised all of the clinical practice, maintained an outpatient clinic, and directed MA theses. I also took tickets for concerts and published two papers based on my doctoral dissertation. I have never been as smart as I was that two years in Fargo.

The chairman of the department was a theater man. He told me three things shortly after I arrived that established his expectations:

  1. I was going to be on the bowling team. To his credit, he kept me even after he saw my "guttural" performance.
  2. It was all right to do research, but I had better not do it with departmental pencils or on departmental time.
  3. He told me about an actor he had coached who was overweight, had poor personal hygiene, and an irritating voice - all of which made him a wonderful character actor - until his career was ruined by a meddlesome speech pathologist who lowered his pitch, induced him to lose weight, and initiated a program to improve his social skills.

I learned some valuable clinical lessons from my tenure in Fargo. A farm family from rural North Dakota brought their 7 or 8 year old girl in for therapy after having had surgery for cleft lip and palate. After several weeks of trying unsuccessfully to get a speech sample from the girl, I complained to the father that I was not having any success in getting his daughter to talk.

"In our family," he told me, "Girls are supposed to be seen but not heard." My first lesson in cultural diversity.

I worked with a young man who stuttered, but who owned 1,000 acres of rich Red River Valley farmland that was selling at $1,000 an acre. My annual salary was worth about six acres and I couldn't help wondering about the definition of "handicap."

added with permission
October 11, 2008