Reflections on a Career in Communication Disorders

Gerald M. Siegel

Iím 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 Iíll 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 Ė 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 didnít 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 Iíd 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 canít 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 also 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 Ė a daring challenge to Jon Eisensonís 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 Eileenís Aunt Ida, the reigning matriarch in her family. Aunt Ida was already old and her mind didnít 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 Jackís daughter. And her husband Jerry. They got married last year. We told you."

Ida didnít 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?" she asked.

"Yes, Iowa," I said. "Where the tall corn grows."

Ida pondered that for a moment. Then it seemed to connect with her own memory of a long ago voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

"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 Ė 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 Bloodsteinís 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 Williamsís 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 Ė that is, "persons who spoke with a nonfluent dialect" Ė 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 grandparentsí home where we analyzed each otherís 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 didnít carry ping pong balls, and so we stopped in repeatedly to ask for ping pong balls Ė until one day the manager enthusiastically laid in a huge supply of ping pong balls. We faked stuttering and I experienced some of the dread that my clients reported, and some of the triumphs; and even 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 Association, 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 Iíd 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 elseís ideas seriously enough to tear into them.

I finally didnít do my dissertation in stuttering. Johnson was recovering from a heart attack and was not available. Instead, I became Fred Darleyís 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 "gutteral" 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 Ė all of which made him a wonderful character actor Ė 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 couldnít help wondering about the definition of "handicap."

I played the guitar during therapy sessions for a child who had been injured in a car accident, and who seemed to respond to music when all else failed.

One of my most successful therapy outcomes involved a pulpit priest who had suddenly developed a strangulated voice. I didnít know the term "spastic dysphonia" Ė Iím not sure it existed at that time. After one session with me, he dropped out of therapy, gave up his pulpit, and joined an order of silent monks. He was cured.

So, in the space of two years, I became sensitized to cultural diversity; I convinced a wealthy stutterer to feel more sorry for me than for himself; I invented music therapy for a child with brain damage; and I stumbled onto ethnography. After these heady triumphs, it was time to move on.

My next job was at a state institution for retarded children in Parsons, Kansas, population 12,000. Another ocean to cross. Our son David was the first Jewish boy ever born in that community. (Iíll tell you about the bris Ė the ritual circumcision ceremony -- during the question period. I also have slides). At Parsons I experienced the exhilaration of doing research, and discovered that I could turn my questions and doubts into exciting explorations that didnít need to be muted by the needs of clients. In Parsons I had my first exposure to operant conditioning and behavior modification. My new colleague, Joe Spradlin, began systematically and successfully applying Skinnerís principles to such mundane tasks as toilet training and self-feeding Ė so that the professional staff would be less likely to shrink from contact with the children they were supposed to be serving. Spradlinís work was part of a developing revolution in the management of persons with severe disabilities.

After two years in Parsons, I moved to the University of Minnesota, in 1961. There I teamed up with Dick Martin and we initiated a long series of studies exploring operant conditioning and stuttering. For me, the attraction of that research was that we had discovered a paradox. In the version of learning theory proposed by Wendell Johnson that Martin and I had been taught, it was presumed that stuttering evolves in a punishing environment, and that any subsequent punishment will make the condition worse. That view had a profound effect on the kind of therapy and also the kind of research that could be attempted with people who stutter. And yet, formal learning theorists argued that punishment should suppress rather than increase the behavior. The challenge for me was to reconcile these very different views of the effects of punishment on stuttering behavior. We were very impressed with the work of Israel Goldiamond, an experimental psychologist, who was applying operant methods along the same lines as our own research, and so arranged to visit Goldiamondís laboratories at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Springs, Maryland.

The Institute for Behavioral Research was an incredible facility. Numerous fascinating experiments were underway, with humans and animals, all based on operant conditioning. Perhaps today it is hard to imagine the appeal of operant conditioning, back in the 1960s, as a way of explaining and remediating all kinds of maladaptive behavior, often in clients who had been abandoned by the professions as helpless and intractable. Einer Boberg, when he was a student at the U of Minnesota, had a sign over his desk that showed the depth of his own religious commitment. It said: "Reinforce others as you would have others reinforce you."

While we were visiting Goldiamond at the Institute for Behavioral Research, I needed to go to the bathroom. The secretary directed me down the hall, to the left. The building was still under construction and the doors were not marked, but I finally found and entered the lavatory. As I stood there, thinking the whimsical thoughts one often has at those moments, the lights in the bathroom flickered off. I paused, literally in midstream. The lights came back on and relieved Ė but not entirely Ė I resumed. Again the lights flickered and went off. For the next several moments, fascinated, I experimented with turning the lights on and off. I was astounded. Apparently, the entire building was wired for research on the consequences of behavior Ė all kinds of behavior. The correlation between my responses and the dimming of the lights was not perfect, making me suspect that some kind of partial reinforcement schedule was in place.

I finally finished my tour in the bathroom and found my way back to the office where Goldiamond was waiting. I was about to mention my experience to him, showing off my knowledge of intermittent reinforcement, when I overheard his secretary complaining, in an irritated voice, that she couldnít get anything done that afternoon.

"The electricity keeps going off," she said.

"I know," Goldiamond said. "Itís the workmen. Theyíre messing with the wiring. They should be out of here by the end of the day."

"It wonít be too soon for me," the secretary said.

I had just generated a very nice example of what learning theorists call "superstitious conditioning." The only experiment I was in was one I had concocted in my own mind. Itís an example, I think, of how intolerant we humans are of unexplained occurrences. How willingly we rush to explanation. I never told Goldiamond about my clever deductions while in the bathroom and, so far as I know, he never published the results.

By the way, I noticed a similar, and wonderful, example right here at this conference just yesterday. It was during Kathy Chapmanís presentation concerning a method for clinical training. During her talk, the remote control she was using to change her "power-point" slides became inoperative. She pressed the appropriate buttons, but nothing happened. Gip Seaver was operating the equipment and, as a keen observer of human behavior, he noticed the problem. From then on, whenever Kathy pointed the remote and pressed the button, Gip advanced the slide at his console. Kathy continued to point and press, as though she had some direct effect on the slides Ė rather than on Gip. At one level she was right: Whenever she pointed and pressed, the slide changed, and thatís really all she needed to know. It was just her understanding of the underlying mechanism, had she chosen to comment on it, that would have been awry.

Martin and I worked together for more than seven years, exploring the operant nature of stuttering. I am quite proud of that work, not because it produced anything like a cure or an explanation for stuttering, but because it set the stage for the creative work of so many others, and because it prompted the kind of boisterous arguments I used to hear around the pinochle table at my grandparentsí home. I also think that Martinís research made it possible to work directly with children using approaches that were unimaginable under the influence of earlier theories.

Iíve always enjoyed collaborative research that is close to the boundary of some other field. One of the joys of our own discipline is that it offers rich opportunities for that kind of cross-over collaboration. For the last years of my professional career, I worked closely with Herb Pick, an experimental child psychologist, on the role of feedback in the production of speech. The theme of that research can be summarized by an old routine by the Marx brothers:

Chico says to Groucho: If youíre so smart, tell me, how come we have ears on the sides of our head?

Groucho: Thatís easy. So we can hear ourselves (auditory feedback).

Chico: No, that ainít right. Itís so we can see (visual encoding).

Groucho: So we can see? (Scientific skepticism.)

Chico: Yeah. ĎCause if you didnít have ears, your hat would slip down over your eyes (deductive reasoning).

In that feedback research program we studied the kinds of compensations speakers made when they heard their own voices filtered, or amplified, or delayed, or mixed with noise; and in the last studies I did with my students we began to look at feedback properties in sign language, as well. Iíd love to talk about the research, but I can seen that some of you have already let your hat slip down over your eyes.

Instead of a research presentation, here are some things I learned as I traveled across the ocean from New York to Iowa, North Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, and eventually here, to Jacksonville.

    1. Once youíve left New York, the corn beef and the bagels will never be the same. Even in New York.
    2. We have become so preoccupied with the marketing of services, and defending our turf, and proving our worth, that we fail to impress our students with the sheer joy that can come from research. The last great frontier that cries out for exploration is not outer space, it is the inner space between our ears, and what better medium for studying the mind and human behavior than speech and its disorders. Students see us moan and groan and complain about journal editors and about tenure, and about how hard it is to write, and how much time research takes. And of course, thatís all true. Itís amazing how decent persons, our friends and colleagues, can become so mean spirited and hostile when they assume the title of editor. But, we also need to let our students in on the exhilaration that comes from solving puzzles, posing questions, formulating hypotheses, defending and even changing our ideas. We need to let our students know what a thrill it is to pursue a research idea, to see a story taking form in the data, and eventually to see our work in print, to know that all across the country, and the world, others are reading our ideas, thinking and arguing about them, even complimenting us by criticizing our work.
    3. My last point is that we need to help our students appreciate how precious are good questions. There is the story about a chasid Ė a young religious student who immersed himself day and night in the holy books looking for the answer to a most perplexing question. Finally, in despair, he traveled many days to have an audience with his Rebbe. (Rebbe is a Hebronic word for "mentor.")

"Rebbe," the chasid said, "I canít eat or sleep or pray Ė I canít even study any longer until I know the answer. Tell me Rebbe, what is the meaning of life?"

The Rebbe stared at the young man for a moment, then leaned over and said, "You are young, and you are foolish."

The startled student said, "But why, Rebbe? Iím only looking for an answer to my question."

The Rebbe said. "Why would you waste such a wonderful question on an answer. Answers drive us apart. Itís questions that bring us together."

As a clinical field, we are naturally very intent on finding answers. But we mustnít lose sight of the importance of questions. Answers often prove ephemeral. Good questions, as we know too well, seem to go on forever.

I began with a story about turtles and I will close with one last story about turtles. It is this story that lies behind the choice of turtles as the logo for the research center I mentioned at the outset.

The great psychologist and philosopher, William James, was giving a public lecture. During the lecture he commented that even though we have great scientific knowledge, no one knows for sure why the earth remains suspended in space and does not simply fall from the universe and plunge us all into eternal oblivion.

At the end of the lecture, a little old woman Ė it is always a little old woman in these stories Ė approached the professor and assured him she knew why the earth did not fall from out the sky. "It is because the earth rests safely on the back of a gigantic turtle," she told him.

The great professor, basking in the enthusiasm his lecture had provoked, smiled benevolently, and said, "Thatís all very well, Madame, but what is holding up the turtle?"

"Oh," she said. "Another turtle."

Professor James was becoming a bit impatient now. "This sort of reasoning will get us nowhere, my dear woman, because we must then ask what the second turtle is resting on."

The woman responded without hesitation. "You donít understand, Professor. Itís turtles all the way down to the bottom."

In conclusion Ė the two most cherished words in the English language -- I wish you well as you search for answers, and for questions, in the continuing effort to enrich the education of our students, to ennoble our field, and to bring informed and wisely wrought programs of therapy to those in need of our services, and may you always have the generous support of turtles, all the way down to the bottom.