Profile: Dr. Stephanie W. Cawthon

A smiling white woman with straight, shoulder length brown hair. She is wearing a pink top and dark blazer, and a delicate chain around her neck.
  • Current title: Professor 
  • Location: The University of Texas at Austin, USA 
  • Field(s) of expertise: Education and Disability Equity
  • Years of experience in academia (since start of PhD): 24 years
  • Website: stephaniecawthon.com       
  • Twitter: @swcawthon

Where did you go to school?

After early childhood in a segregated setting for students with disabilities in Canada, I was in mainstream classrooms in both public or private U.S. schools. I went to Stanford University for my BA and MA (both in Psychology) and then University of Wisconsin at Madison for my PhD in Educational Psychology. 

What do you do now?

I wear several hats in my professional life. I am a full professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology, with a courtesy appointment in Special Education. I am the Founding Director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. I am also the Director of Research for Drama for Schools, a partnership with UT’s College of Fine Arts, and an Editor of Perspectives on Deafness at Oxford University Press. But no single role really captures what I do, so I started a new website: stephaniecawthon.com. Do check it out. 

What kind of hearing loss do you have?

Both ears, sensorineural and congenital, roughly 50DB-55DB (moderate range). In practical terms, speech is fine in some situations, not in others. I’m missing much of my upper range. I lip read a lot and fill in gaps with contextual clues even when I don’t realize it. Talking to me from the other room is a sure fire way to make sure I don’t know what you’re saying. 

How do you identify?

These days, I identify as deaf, inclusively defined. Until about five years ago, hard-of-hearing. Never as hearing, although many in my family would have described me that way. 

Do you use an assistive listening device?

I got hearing aids at about age 4 and used them continuously in public until recently. Now I use them as additional support in settings that are not accessible. I also appreciate captions to help fill in gaps when people are not signing. 

Do you sign?

Some. I first took a few ASL courses in college (liberating!) and then more much later, when I had deaf graduate students and colleagues who signed. I’ve had some private tutoring and learned a great deal working with a wide range of signers and interpreters over the years. Fingerspelling (expressive or receptive) at a natural pace is still the most difficult part of the language for me. 

How do you communicate at work?

If there is a deaf person in the room who signs, I will sign. In the last few years, this includes public presentations, which is terrifying — particularly when the interpreter is new or doesn’t know me. If the group is all non-signers, I will voice and, depending on the accessibility and availability of interpreters, will ask for access support for receptive language. When I am teaching a large class, I will sometimes sign, especially if I know I will be relying on interpreters for receptive language to communicate with my students. It’s too hard to switch back and forth from voicing in English and seeing ASL. 

What advice do you have to your former self?

I pretty much went full steam ahead for the 20 years from PhD and through full professor promotion. At one point, a senior colleague advised me to remember academia is a marathon, not a sprint, and to slow down. That felt pretty entitled coming from someone who didn’t have to face the negative biases and elevated standards of my cohort — especially compared with that of 30 years ago, when jobs were more plentiful and budgets were flush. Instead, my advice is to pay attention to the physical and psychological requirements of running a very fast marathon, because that is the reality for anyone facing an uphill battle in light of audism and other -isms that are still very much the drivers of perspectives in higher education. I now know the tremendous energy and personal costs required of running that fast marathon. But I also now know what helps: earlier bedtimes, more boundaries around the speed of responding to requests, the magic of saying “no,” yoga, therapy, relying on a support network, finding a creative outlet, and taking vacations. 

Has your professional identity as a deaf academic evolved? 

I think it’s pretty clear from my research that I have a personal connection to deaf people, but there was rarely a time early in my career when I put my deaf identity front and center in my work. A major pivot point was when my college asked me to be a presenter for a brown bag lunch series. Instead of focusing on a research study or line of inquiry, I presented a personal account of how my professional identity has evolved over the course of my career (so far). I called my presentation “Statistics Don’t Lie ‘Til You’re Trying Not to Be One.” I quite nervously signed it, with a trusted interpreter who knew me well. 

Something I name in that presentation — and have been working through ever since — is the twin impact of audism and imposter syndrome. I think many deaf academics and professionals come to realize the extent to which we internalize audism, which then sets up the tyranny of low expectations about us and can contribute to feeling like we’re totally fake (imposter syndrome). This has shown up in subtle and overt ways throughout my lifetime, both personally and professionally — such as the attitude that research in deaf experiences and deaf education isn’t as important as that of other fields. I was even told by a boss once to consider another line of research, because people aren’t really interested in it. Over 100 publications and nearly $25 million in grant funding later, I just smile.

What do you know for sure? 

As all ideas that mature, there is a deepening of the core essence of what you are doing. I think I always knew this in a general way, but as I quickly approach 50 — at what is typically the halfway point in an academic career (I finished my PhD just shy of 30) — here’s what I know for sure:

  • Systemic barriers and opportunities are the long term solution. That kind of work is not what I was trained to do, but I have a passion for it. Working towards systems change is my number one goal for the next half of my career.
  • Inferences about individual outcomes of deaf people require taking context and deaf perspectives into account. Research is very much about evidence — and how we view that evidence says as much about us as researchers as the data themselves. 
  • Disciplined work and progress in small ways add up fast. Even when you can only do a little, just do a little. I recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it has been the most influential boost in this pandemic productivity malaise.
  • It’s really hard to keep up with current literature without having a reason to read it. Write so that you have to read, so that you can then write. The most recent article I led, Evidence-Based Practices in Deaf Education: A Call to Center Research and Evaluation on the Experiences of Deaf People, will publish in Review of Research in Education in April 2021, and it was an opportunity to explore new fields and tie those perspectives with what I have already built over the past twenty years. 
  • One of my best and apparently rare skills is asking good questions. This is true in my role as friend, as colleague, as mentor, as supervisor, as leader. I have learned that there’s no right answer to most situations or problems, but there are great ways to think clearly about strategy and decision making when you have a chance to respond to good questions. 
  • I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next. There’s a shift coming, and I’m in that pause between letting go of one bar on the trapeze and catching the next. I love working in a leadership role and building places where people can thrive. This is inclusive of mentoring graduate students — having them as part of a larger team is such a critical experience in their development — and working with staff, who are some of the most important and under-recognized members of an academic community. 
  • Thought leadership and dissemination is one of the most exciting things that I do. I very much like giving media interviews and graduation speeches, using social media tools to build a community of thinkers, and writing and sharing information that has practical application. I love the intersection of research and communications, especially how strategy makes the whole endeavor coherent, both visually and in terms of message and content. Being asked to be on this blog is part of it! Thank you so much for the invitation.

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