Dr. Welch also talked with us about her own personal experiences in academics and studying at a Higher Education level, discussing both her position as someone coming back to education after a break and studying as a single parent. Hers is a telling example of how university education does not necessarily need to follow the standard path of A Levels to Degree to Masters and can involve changes and breaks in between. Discovering she had dyslexia during her PHD, she also discussed with us the importance of providing access to students with learning difficulties, and how academics can benefit from providing better access to those with learning difficulties, through developing on different ways of interpreting and viewing information.
Interview by Emily Saunders and Samantha Holderness
Sam: According to your biography on the University of Winchester website that you have been diagnosed with dyslexia. What approaches have you used to overcome it in an academic setting?
I did not know I had dyslexia until after my PHD about seven or eight years ago. I was marking work and the person who was second marking worked in study skills and looked at the comments I had made and the style in which I wrote and recommended that I should be tested for dyslexia. I went to have a test found out that I was along with having short term memory problems and a hint of dyspraxia. There is a real difficulty for dyslexics as it is not a hegemonies thing as there are different ways of looking at dyslexic and being dyslexic. The most important and crucial way to go about it is to ensure editing is done early for assignments. With essay planning during my undergraduate degree that I did not even realise I did this but I tell my students to do this now. When I wrote an essay or notes I would write them really spaced and then I would cut them up into small separate paragraphs pile them on the floor and think to myself these are the paragraphs and information that I want from breaking them down like that, rather than writing an 8,000 to 20,000 piece which is much harder for dyslexics.
I have a PHD and I am dyslexic my two children were diagnosed with dyslexia and my two children are. The eldest graduated with a 2.1 in BSc. Environmental Sciences and the youngest is about to graduate this year hoping for a 2.1 or a 1st. You should not let it deter you. It is important to remember you can do it, but you need to find ways around it and plan your time better. You have to think carefully about what you do, particularly going off into tangents. However as a lecturer and researcher that has been good for me as dyslexics we see things in different ways that perhaps other people have not by saying that is not right. Thinking about it there is a very good analogy about non dyslexics and dyslexics think and how their brains work by looking at how cards are stacked. So say for a non dyslexic there would have the cards stacked into separate corresponding piles, the ones in one pile, the twos in another and so on. If someone said to them to find the four of spades the will go through the four pile to find the four of spades. However for dyslexics the pile of cards are all spread out unevenly, half upside down so you have to literally shuffle through all of them to get to the four of spades. By saying or look there is a one of spades, a queen of spades and then there is another one. So it takes you long to get there but you can build up different connections. There are advantages of being dyslexic and become far more creative as a thinker and come up with different approaches but that is fine of you have the luxury of time. Most of us haven’t unfortunately so with an essay you have to know that for writing an essay up before a week 12 deadline it has to physically be written by week 11 so that you can use that whole week to correct it to proof read, send it to someone else to proof read it, reading it out aloud before submission. The important thing is to think ok I’ve got two weeks to research this if I don’t do it by the necessary week then tough that is what I am going to write my essay on. As a dyslexic it is too overwhelming so yeah discipline, time and editing is very important. Now recently there is a now an organisation for dyslexic academics that has come to attention since early March. It is the first time there has been a group that has come out as dyslexic academics it is a bit of a hidden secret as I don’t know how many there are at Winchester, I should imagine that I am not the alone one.
Sam: It is more common when you think when you talk about dyslexic, you would not always assume it but when you talk about it you realise other people are in the same boat as you. With all things really when it is talked about in the open it becomes easier to deal with it and go about it without suffering in silence.
It should not be a stigma. It should be something that needs to be brought out. Everybody has got the strengths and for dyslexics their strengths may very well be they are slightly more creative people/thinkers than non-dyslexics. Non dyslexics for instance they may have other strengths like researching one specific topic. However with dyslexics there is still that idea, where is the Dunce’s hat standing in the corner as a dyslexic you can’t always think of answers. You are usually one of those typical people that think if only I said that sooner. It is the way your brain works going back to the stack of cards analogy you are shuffling through them all to get to an answer rather than sifting through specific piles like the pile of four. As a dyslexic you need longer in class, less having to do with quick fire dialogues that can be quite intimidating. Non dyslexic academics could do with learning more about dyslexic.
Emily: You have a set idea about what the symptoms of dyslexia are. When you actually get told them you can see them in the person. If teachers don’t have this knowledge and they are marking their work and you go through your whole school life not knowing about it.
University is great for dyslexics actually because if you are at school doing GCSEs or A Levels the teachers have to teach to a curriculum. Somebody else sets the questions and somebody else marks them. You are in many ways duty bound to teach those facts to get that student the best marks possible. This might not necessarily suit dyslexic students but as academics we will set far more open questions, for instance discuss gender in medieval England. Then you can take one aspect of gender and dig into that. We do not say it has to be between 1420-1430 in the west of England type thing. You have that flexibility that can play to dyslexics’ strengths. So for people that did not do as well at A Level can really shine at University.
Sam: I also feel you can build more of a personal rapport also with lecturers who mark your work so they get to know you more in tutorials which is something that just couldn’t happen in school due to the shear amount of students at school.
There are some very odd things like if you are dyspraxic you might have problems with light and bright light. So knowing that you are dyspraxic and why you might have a problem you might notice it more in the middle of the room. If people knew and are able to own their own different abilities that would be very helpful but because it is a hidden disability it often gets forgotten about. I very rarely put my lecture notes up on the learning network on PowerPoint before class as I do find students just read those. My lecture notes are very full and I found my students like that, I like having a lot of information and I give a lot of information. People can choose to use this information or not it is their choice. My powerpoints might be slightly text heavy but everything is there and I think as a dyslexic I found l that I need the reassurance. When I was doing my Undergraduate studies I needed the reassurance from the lecturer to know I got it right as I had always been below par. So actually having a lecturer say these are the main points and I found all those, actually I am not as stupid as I think. It is really said if you are a dyslexic and you are un-diagnosed you are still considered slightly below par and not that intelligent. It is not you are just differently intelligent but things are changing and I do think this new group they are having a fortunate fervour.
Sam: That is a good thing across the board and for all different academic fields. It is something that would be very useful and it would be interesting to see what would happen in the future with it as well.
Yeah. There are many difficulties I can’t learn languages for toffee! I have short term memory so I can’t learn languages so there are all sorts of things are can’t do but there are all sorts of things I can do. That is why I do all the visual stuff that is what I like *researching erotic calendars and death*. Nobody else has ever researched these… surprise!
These might be strange but these are one of my strangest images. [shows us visual images in the form of calendars that are being researched]. These are particularly bonkers so an image of people having sex on the back of a coffin is another one. So for what I have done, the coffin is a masculine signifier (death) and Eve (representation of a woman). In our current way of looking at the world we are far more life enhancing, rather than back in the day when we had death touching up a prostitute [previous visual image] with death stealing life, we are now trying to conquer death. So now we have the woman in front of the signifier of death, whereas beforehand she was being enveloped by death. This has enabled me to look at this in a very academic way that I’m sure the photographers had thought and those in the images. It has been very fun doing this research a lot and I do think I am on to something. Sex and death is perfect you can’t go wrong with it. *someone is going to read about one or the other*. Yeah although I would like to add that I don’t do anything about this in my personal life, it is purely research!
Emily: Also from your biography it says you studied as a single parent. I just wanted to ask what kind of advice you would give to going into higher education?
Yes I did. Do it is the best thing you can do! I don’t have A levels I left school at sixteen. I worked in finance for ten years, married with two kids. Once you leave finance it is very hard to get back in. It was then when I decided to become a teacher, considering that I had two young children. So I decided to come here to Winchester to study for my Undergraduate and also that they provided a crèche then got divorced whilst I was doing my Undergraduate and doing my Masters and a PHD as a single mature student. Yes time management is hard, particularly if you are dyslexic when you have to make dinner on top of other things, also helping with my children’s homework as well as doing mine. When they were younger, my children had to sometimes come in when I was lecturing during the half term so in that way I don’t see it as a particular problem having kids in the classroom. As a mature student with kids it is worth it coming back to the classroom, I think it is worthwhile it is a great role model for you children. Additionally it is great for other students to have mature students in the classroom as they have had life experience. It is hard to manage your time but it is perfectly do able so I am a big believer in starting university later or coming back to Postgraduate study later on that is also perfectly possible to do it with kids. Now we have PHD students here in their 70s and 80s for the simply pleasure for doing it, a love of learning.
It is also such a shame considering that like you my youngest will leave university with a huge amount of debt but he will have something in living his subject. So despite the debt it is still very worthwhile doing but it is getting harder and harder for people who are older with children to come back and study. If you have children especially if you are a single parent and trying to study you can’t work as well so it is getting increasingly harder and that is a shame.
Emily: You want to make education accessible across the board, we have this set idea of doing your GCSEs, A Levels, University, Masters, PHD, getting a job. We both felt we needed to take a year out to clear our minds a bit and what we actually wanted to do. I came from a science background and wanted to return to study History at degree level.
Taking a gap year is really good by giving you an understanding of the world. If you work for a year it gives you an understanding of the real world and how difficult work life is with all the balances you have to do and with travelling it can broaden your mind. So I don’t think it matters what people do. If you want to carry on it is not a bad thing either but I don’t think it is a bad thing if you take time out and I don’t think it is a bad thing if you want to come back and do a Masters degree. I have not got A Levels and I have a PHD. I did this as a single parent, being heavily dyslexia and I did not even know. When all the cards were apparently stacked against me but I still managed to do it. I’m not unique so other people can. I don’t know what drove me to it but it did, it didn’t quite drive me around the bend but not far off! I didn’t genuinely think expect to go into academia as it was something I never intended to do. I thought I’d do my Undergraduate degree to teach and become an Educational Psychologist but I didn’t. I took a Masters degree instead. Then at the end of my Masters degree I thought I’d apply for a PHD but if I didn’t get it I intended to teach. I however got my funded PHD and did that. I was lucky as hard work and luck comes into it. It wasn’t my life goal to become an academic, I just fell into it actually but it is fine and I love it! With this death art and anatomy stuff I have met and I am now working with the most amazing sculptures and forensic pathologists. These are things are genuinely did not know about, I never did history at secondary school either and I am suddenly doing medieval history. It does open up all these doors to stuff you didn’t know and like.
Emily: We are both in the same boat where we are both open to going into whatever with no set idea what we want to do and I feel that is ok and that it should be stressed that is ok.
Oh yeah absolutely! You could end up with a job when you leave here that is not exactly what you want but it doesn’t matter as it is a job and it is getting you some money. Then you could either save up, travel or you will know what you don’t want to do. I don’t think anyone knows what they want to do, they just know what they don’t want to do and you start to whittle it down. If you are lucky you will fall into the right place and if you don’t and have a job you like you can take an out of school course.
Sam: There are ways of working towards it. It might not be a straight A to B you might have to go through to C and D to get to B but you will do it eventually.
And by the time you do get to B you’ll have known you have done the right path. You would have picked up all those extra skills that means when you do get to where you felt you are meant to be, all of those can play to your strengths. Having a you must do this in life is not particularly helpful, I think it is rather stressful really.
Emily: I do not regret studying sciences at A Level. I did Maths and Biology I am looking at it from that perspective sometimes. It is such a different experience.
It is! And it could very well be that actually you have that extra science analytical approach to history and that is fine and there is a whole lot of history for that to play into, whereas mine is the visual side and with me the scientific side I feel I will not do that too well. Actually it works and then you have two different sets of research and somebody else will come along and combine those and then you have got something else to take it into different ways. It is great how those little bits of knowledge stick together in a way like a pieces to a jigsaw puzzle.
Somebody has got to do the weird and wacky!
Many thanks to Christina without whom we would not have been able to write this interview and Lillian for helping to organise it! ^^D