Twitchy Bias

Apr 12 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I've written in the past about what it's like living with Tourette syndrome. In general, my tics don't really bother me, they're just there in the background and for the most part I can suppress them if the situation calls for such action. Thus, normally my tics are not a problem for me when I do things like teach or give a seminar. Especially if I am "in the groove" while I'm teaching or speaking, then urge to tic really becomes suppressed on its own. Sometimes when I'm stressed or tired, and having problems focusing, then it is more of a challenge to suppress my tics during class or meetings. And on days like those, teaching can be very draining since a lot of my energy is directed toward suppressing my tics, and then they tend to get pretty bad for the rest of the day. That said, this is all from my perspective. Although I may think that I am suppressing my tics because I can push them out of my consciousness, it doesn't mean that they are completely invisible to everyone else. This is why absolutely hate seeing video of myself, because I realize three horrifying things about myself: (1) that my voice is really high, I never quite realize how high my voice really is until I hear it recorded, (2) I need to lose about 20 pounds and (3) that even though I'm not thinking about them my tics are really obvious.

Fortunately my students have had the tact to not really comment about them, at least not openly to me, and imagine that they simply get used to them. One time there was one student who wrote on the teaching evaluation "the professor’s tics are very off-putting". Which was a complete asshole remark to make, but at least they let me know that I may need to do a better job in controlling my tics during class. Seeing my twitching on video also makes me think about how I come across to my colleagues. Since I’ve started my job, only two people have ever asked me about the tics, one was a friend who was just curious the second wanted to learn more because they had a child with Tourette's. Everybody else seems to just ignore them, but again maybe that's just what I see. It could very well be that they discuss them amongst themselves when I’m not around, and I've often wondered if my Tourrette’s clouds their perception of me as a serious colleague. I recently read an article about how disabled people are often perceived as less competent than fully able ones in realms that are completely unrelated to the disability. I think that is human nature that when we perceive any form of weakness in a person, we are biased to somehow take them less seriously or think about them as being less competent. And so I worry. Although I do not consider my Tourette's to be a disability, I often wonder when sitting at a faculty meeting if my colleagues will ever so slightly take the twitchy guy perhaps slightly less seriously. I'm sure not everyone does this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some do. It doesn’t help that the science I work on is somewhat out of the mainstream from what goes on in my department, at least in first appearances, and so I feel a little bit like an outsider. And I have noticed that for example when certain faculty are asked to talk about their research in front of potential donors to our department, or to showcase the research in the department for whatever reason, I am always overlooked, even though my publication record is as good or better than other people, and I think my research is pretty cool and exciting. And again this might have nothing to do with the fact that I have tics, might have a little bit to do with it, or might have everything to do with it. And I will never know since a lot of these biases are unconscious, and the people harboring them might not even know they have them.

6 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Interesting questions re bias. As someone who has seen you speak professionally, I certainly noticed it but it quickly faded to background and wasn't distracting, at least to me. I wouldn't think of bringing up someone's physical issues or appearances with them unless they were quite a good friend, so that may explain why no one asks...that and it's probably quickly obvious that it doesn't impair anything else about you!

    But you might be right that it's the sort of thing that would cause you not to be asked to be in one of the showcase-for-donors type things. There are probably some people who are bothered by it more than others. But, it can also be a decision based on the donors' interests or desire to showcase more translational / relatable stuff. Hard to know.

  • BethAnn McLaughlin says:

    Great post and absolutely something I've seen discussed. I've never heard anything I thought was negative (IMO) but folks in the know will say something almost as a 'heads up' for folks to others just to say they know they have a tics, thick accents, studder etc. Maybe so people are prepared to react w their best selves? It's really helpful to hear what it feels like on the other side
    Maybe there's a place in there as a teachable moment for undergrads/others who evaluate teachers. Seems we do a poor job of telling them about things like unconcious bias before we ask them to judge us.

    • namnezia says:

      But it is precisely these kinds of 'heads-up' that start putting up barriers. Once you are warned about a speaker's stutter, ticks, missing leg, etc. then it becomes the gorilla in the room and makes it harder to establish a normal conversation when you meet with them. Sure you'll be polite about the tic, might at the end say "interesting person, cool science", but you might also be a little relieved that your time to meet with them is done, and you might not necessarily seek them out again for further interaction or collaboration or if you see them at a meeting.

      And same with leadership positions, when was the last time you saw someone in a meaningful leadership position with a tic or stutter, or in a wheelchair? Unless you're a super genius like Stephen Hawking, or President Roosevelt there aren't many examples. And a big part of it that for these jobs networking and chitty chatting is a must, and folks are less likely to be chitty chatty with someone that is physically different in some way.

  • potnia theron says:

    excellent post. There are lots of less-obvious biases. This is one. I've always felt that physical disability (from my days in PM&R), including Tourette's and spasticity are there, and ignored.

  • eeke says:

    Others I've known have given full disclosure about their condition. People are naturally curious but may feel it's inappropriate to ask someone they don't know personally about why they are twitching, why they don't walk normally, can't see, etc. Once they understand the reason, it fades into the background (at least for most people) and don't notice it anymore. Have you tried disclosure before? I guess it would not be an easy thing to do, but you are in a position to try the experiment and see which works better.

    Michael Jackson's life may have been very different had he been up front about having vitiligo.

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