|About the Author: Grant Meredith is an academic within the School of Science, Engineering & Information Technology at Federation University Australia, a digital disruptor and social media influencer. He leads the applied Technologies for Empowering People for Participation in Society (TEPPS) research program where he enjoys making “assertive technologies” to empower people (including people who stutter).|
As a person who stutters, I see it as my duty to help other people to find their authentic voices, tell their unique stories and to express their opinions. But I am not exclusive with whom I help to find their voices and assist to build communication confidence within. This year’s conference title, “Growth through speaking”, resonates deeply with me as a university lecturer. People consider a lecturer on the surface level to simply be a teacher. When in fact, those of us who are “academics” know that the role is much more than the classroom alone. It is a role whose demands are often at the detriment to our social and home relationships. To be honest, I have no teaching qualifications at all. I believe that guiding and supporting the life decisions of students to be a very important part of my role from within the classroom and well beyond the lecture hall. Essentially it is about enabling the proud and loud voices of students to be heard and for them to gain the confidence to approach the “real world” beyond a degree path. One of my tools to assist such personal growth is to provide strategic targeted speaking opportunities to students. So you may be surprised how a lecturer who fluently stutters can enable the personal growth of those who do not stutter via “speaking”. I stutter extremely fluently and overtly. Even though I grimace and push through blocks as a lecture it is still seen as extremely effective and I do not care about it at all. Like Hugh Jackman is seen as a “triple threat” in the entertainment world with his ability to dance, act and sing. I am known as a “triple threat” within the stuttering world as I block, prolong and repeat. In my opinion my stuttering abilities are much stronger than most average people who stutter. My strategy of providing personal empowerment opportunities ties into trying to understand the individual needs of each of my students as much as I feasibly can and then provide speaking opportunities for them to encourage their personal growth.
Aside from my information technology-focused academic role, I am often asked to teach presentation skills to university-based leadership groups and first year students. These are always challenging sessions and you never know what will eventuate from them in terms of audience response, as per any class really. I never introduce myself as a person who stutters as I do not think it is relevant to the presentation and to be honest the audience will find out soon enough. I am a shameless overt stuttering academic. I remember such one session where I was the second speaker for the day and the first speaker was discussing presentation structure. I on the other hand was there to present about building presentation confidence. The first speaker asked the audience what characteristics they disliked about some public speakers they had experienced in the past. One young lady stood up and said that she hated listening to people stuttering. I immediately turned to the facilitator and said “well this is going to be an interesting afternoon” while high-fiving him. I actually felt bad for the young lady as my presentation would now perhaps be a little uncomfortable for her and I think she was actually referring to the behaviours of some overtly nervous presenters. Always after such presentations I receive personal thank you messages from students around how empowering simple techniques can be in terms of public speaking and that seeing a person who stutters presenting confidentially is inspirational.
But apart from the larger scale group presentations and sessions there are the little personal victories which make my career so satisfying in terms of witnessing individual student growth. I teach quite often overseas through a partnership between my university in Australia and a university in Guangdong Province, China. I lecture only using English to different class of Chinese students every year for whom English may be at least a 2nd, 3rd or 4th language. This is always a challenging circumstance for all involved and there is no consistent English-speaking competency level among the students that I would be teaching. One year I was teaching a female Chinese student, who I noticed was always very hesitant to talk in class and was overtly very reserved. One day all students were asked to prepare and present a two-minute public speech about themselves as a fun little getting to know each other activity. This girl was very nervous and upset about having to do presentation and began to retreat within herself even more. I spoke to her in private and explained to her that she could do the presentation in a private room with only myself or with a smaller audience if she wanted to. But that it was a presentation that she had to do. Ever since I had known her she used a speaking voice that was always only just above a whispering tone and wavered in an unconfident manner. But that day I told her that I believed that she could do a great job, that her classmates wanted to know more about her and that her story should be heard.
The next morning she arrived to class and looked a little different. She actually had a slight smile on her face and she was standing up straight with shoulders back. So the presentations began with each student taking their turn describing their home lives, hobbies, favourite foods etc. Then her turn came and to my surprise her voice was loud, her presentation was clear and she had obviously rehearsed. This was a life changing moment for us both. No longer was she this quiet little mouse hiding in the corner. She was loud, proud and expressive in a foreign language. She sat down after the class clapped for her and she had the largest smile that I had ever seen on a face. She was obviously so happy with herself and the reception that resulted from her presentation. For the rest of my three weeks lecturing onsite she was a different person and on the final day there were many tears shared at the leaving event. She expressed that no one had shown her such personal faith and care before and she did not want me to leave her and the class. She graduated the year after and now works for a major Chinese technology company. She had found her voice with just via a little faith and guidance. These are the moments for which my job has such meaning and satisfaction.
Another example of encouraging voice and empowerment occurred with one of my Australian students. Over the last three years I have been taking over groups of Australian students from my School as part of an Australian Federal Government initiative called the New Colombo Plan with me to Shaoguan, China. The New Colombo Plan aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region. I have taken 30 students in total so far on such trips and all of them change in some form by pure exposure to a very different culture to their own. But during these trips I find opportunities for each and every student to assist to build their character in some form. I have previously gotten to know each of these students via teaching them and also at various planning meetings for the journey. For one such student I saw a great opportunity to raise his confidence and pride. After classes one night we were invited to a very large English Corner event organised by a Chinese English language club from a different campus. When we are on campus these events are usually very large and highly attended as this university does not have a lot of foreign visitors. Plus the Chinese student club members are eager to practise their English language skills and learn more about different cultures. So I had learned that at the event that night we were going to be greeted by between 300-400 Chinese students and that a small concert had been planned in our honour. But I had a plan in mind for one of my Australian students and it was a big one. I had known this student for over a year and I had noticed that socially he was not overly confident or keen to interact. Just before leaving the main campus to go to English Corner via minibus I tapped him on the shoulder and said “There will be about 300 students waiting for us and I have nominated you for doing the welcome speech”. At first, he looked pale and shocked contemplating the thought of such a presentation which in fact would have been a little stressful for myself. I told him that he would do a great job and that if he needed help to just ask me. After a moment of contemplation, he nodded his head. On the bus ride over to the other campus he was began writing his speech.
When we arrived at this new campus, we were bustled into an upstairs classroom which was full of hundreds of screaming and cheering Chinese students. My students usually find this whole experience surreal as they are literally treated as superstars. I looked at the student who I had appointed and nodded at him. As the rest of my party sat down and the cheering reduced, he wiped the sweat from his head. He confidentially walked up to the front of the stage and presented a welcome speech to the captivated crowd and visiting Chinese lecturers. He was sure of his words, had a narrative running through his speech and maintained eye contact. In turn at the closing of his speech the crowd cheered even more loudly and wanted selfies with him. For a few minutes of that night he was the guest of honour and from that point onwards a very different person. For a year after that experience while he was still an undergraduate student, I caught up with him in the corridor from time to time and he was always so thankful for the overseas trip and the mentoring I had provided him. I am planning to catch up with him soon for a coffee and chat as a graduate. He is currently working for a web-design company.
These are but some of the empowering moments in my life that make the long hours and stresses involved with being an academic worthwhile. I hope that you understand not that it is not only people who stutter who need to find their voices. It is the need of all of us to find and use that empowering voice of self to show the world who we are and to share our stories. All that we all need from time to time is a little encouragement and self-belief. We have the opportunity due to our speech difference to show others a positive life-path forward.
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