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Stammering in law lectures

Michael Jefferson | 01.12.2000

Michael Jefferson is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sheffield. He has two children, and has stuttered all his life. He provides his personal view on stammering.

Michael JeffersonI grew up in a village near Barnsley, then in the West Riding, now in South Yorkshire. My father, Roy, died aged 29 of TB when I was six months old. My mother, Betty, had to go out to work (she was a kitchen maid, which was the name given then to the dinner ladies who cooked the food) and I was to some degree brought up by my grandmother, Florrie. I attended the same primary and grammar school as Michael Parkinson, the charming presenter of chat shows. I decided to do Law at university after a suggestion by my history teacher. I gained good A-levels including French and German. I don't remember stuttering in a foreign language at school, but one of the masters informed the A-level board that I stuttered. I did my German oral at the institution at which I now lecture.

After an entrance exam and interviews I gained a place to read Jurisprudence, one of the names for Law, at Keble College, Oxford. Fans of Monty Python will remember the travel agent sketch in which 'Keble Bollege Oxford' is reiterated several times: the speaker could say his 'Ks' but not his hard 'Cs'! And of course Sheffield is the setting of the Full Monty - but I don't think there's any link! I graduated with a second class degree and then did a master's degree in civil law. Readers will be interested to know that one of the people who interviewed me (and became in the wonderful language of Oxford my 'moral tutor') stuttered.

He later became Vice-Chancellor of that University, the top post, and is now a 'Sir'. When he left to be the head of a different college, my new moral tutor was blind. He later became a professor. I was also lectured by Sir Rupert Cross, who was blind. If blind people could lecture, so could I!

I got a job at Liverpool Polytechnic, now John Moores University, and then I moved to Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Metropolitan University. I joined my present University in 1992 and I am in charge of the courses on criminal law, employment law and discrimination law. I have acted as admissions tutor, which involved a lot of phoning and addressing sixth formers of all classes, creeds and backgrounds and their parents as well as mature applicants, and I supervise research students, which involves in part attempting to refine their ideas.

Such researchers come from all over the world and can have all kinds of different abilities, knowledge of English and understanding. I also check on standards at Universities at which I am external examiner. For example, I sometimes deal with appeals against the class of degree on the basis that the awarding body ought to have taken the candidate's illness into account.

In the last decade I have written four books, two of which are students texts in their fourth edition, have taken over the writing of two books from others, and contribute regularly to an encyclopedia. I lecture three times a week to groups of some 300 and this figure will rise to 400 at the start of the next academic year.

My stuttering has affected my professional life as well as my social life in many ways but let me concentrate on the former. Like many others I find myself stuttering over the phone more than I otherwise do but perhaps unlike others I am more fluent speaking to large groups than small ones and while I am tense speaking to practising lawyers and businesspeople, I don't think that I'm necessarily more churned up inside than others. Many stutterers do find difficulty addressing large groups and I remember on my wedding day devoutly wishing that I would not stutter as I repeated the marriage vows.

I have been fortunate in that there is no one approved pattern of lecturing styles and my method is to say the point fairly slowly and then repeat it in slightly different words, thereby giving the listener time to write it down. In seminars, which consist of a smaller number of students, part of what I do is to prompt and to ask questions and rarely do I find it difficult to do so. I do, however, find it hard not to stutter when I am talking on a one-to-one basis as occurs when I am approached at the end of a lecture by someone wanting to understand more completely a point made in the lecture or by a personal tutee over a domestic or financial matter.

Particularly as a teenager I used avoidance techniques and I pressed my nails into my palms in a painful effort to stop stuttering. Over time I 'grew out of' these practices, except that I'm sure that I substitute words without thinking - it has become part of me. I have had three sessions of speech therapy: first for several years when I was a child; then for a short time while I was a student; and now in my middle age. The first involved the methods of the time including the metronome; the second was it seemed to be aimed at helping me to ask for items in shops; the third is, to use a trendy word, more holistic than the others. It has consisted of suggesting various techniques, some of which are helpful to me, some of which I find difficult adopting. No doubt others disagree: it's a personal matter.

Among the techniques I found helpful were: putting a 'postit' note on the telephone to remind me to slow down; making eye contact with the interlocutor; not butting in; and monitoring my speech. The therapist kindly allowed me to 'rabbit on' about myself and has been very helpful. She went well beyond the call of duty when she sat in on one of my lectures, taking notes as to my dysfluencies. I have recently joined 'Sheffield Speakeasy', a self-help group, and at the first meeting I attended I took part in a relaxation session for the first time in my life.

I look forward to stammering being a part of me but not dominating me!

From the Winter 2000/2001 issue of 'Speaking Out'