The following article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Blind Teacher. It illustrates how it is possible for a blind teacher to combine teaching, research, and community service into a successful career.
“I had some very good teachers and school and always enjoyed my academic work from the time I was in elementary school,” says Dr. Otis Stephens. “It was just a natural thing to gravitate to teaching once I got into college and found out that I could in fact teach at the college level if I chose to go ahead and get advanced degrees.”
Stephens received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Georgia and his PhD. In Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. After beginning his teaching career at Georgia Southern University in 1962, Stephens moved to the University of Tennessee where, with the exception of a post-doctorial year at Harvard, he has taught since 1968.
Stephens views teaching, especially at the college level, “as one of the most satisfying things you can do. It gives you more of a chance to do what you want to do than anything I know of. I don’t know of any other field of work that enables a person to write his own ticket if he’s good like college teaching.” He adds that one must first “get into a good tenured position and be productive as a scholar.”
He considers mastery of Braille as essential to his success. “Although some people seem to be able to get along without Braille,” he says, “I could have never gotten very far into my field if I hadn’t had full access to it and been very proficient in the use of Braille. So, Braille for me was extremely important; I know it’s not important for everybody, but it was for me. The ability to write and ‘see’ words written so that you pick up the spelling and that sort of thing, which a lot of blind people seem not to know a lot about if they don’t ‘see’ the words in front of them. Unfortunately, a lot of non-Braille users turn out to be marginal in terms of spelling and punctuation.”
Stephens has enjoyed a distinguished career at the college level, teaching for over 35 yrs. in political science and ore than a decade as a joint professor in the University of Tennessee College of Law. He has published seven books, including a textbook and scholarly works in political science and law. In addition, he has authored numerous book chapters, journal articles, and law review articles in Constitutional law, criminal procedure, criminal law, and disability law.
His record in the classroom is equally distinguished. As a law professor, he has taught classes in constitutional law, jurisprudence, Supreme Court decision-making, law and public policy, and disability law. Moreover, he has won the University’s outstanding teaching award “three or four times.” To win the award once is considered a rare honor, and only a handful of the 1,500 member faculty has one it a second time. Stephens appreciates that the award is meaningful “because students have a lot of input into the selection and addition to other faculty. You go through a process of review. People come in and listen to your classes, observe you teaching. You are asked in most of the awards that I have gotten to write some kind of a statement of your teaching philosophy. It’s a fairly elaborate review process.”
While he enjoyed teaching political science, Stephens sees some differences from teaching in a law school. In law school, “you’re teaching with a group of people who have widely varied interests,” he says. “Within a political science department, you have a lot of commonalities. There are a lot of people who are interested in the same kinds of things, the same kinds of methods of approach to their subjects. In law, people come in from all kinds of backgrounds. People come in from having practiced law; from having taught at other law schools; from having done research, primarily in a law firm rather than having practiced or getting into the courtroom. There’s a tremendous variety of backgrounds. I think it makes it more interesting and probably enables people in law school, generally, to tolerate one another a little better than people in traditional academic departments.
“In more conventional disciplines, you often find a tremendous amount of conflict. You don’t find that sort of thing nearly as much in a law school, I think, because people in a law school are doing very different things from one another. They’re not always directly competing with one another. They’re competing, of course, for advancement, but they’re not necessarily competing with someone who is doing the same kind of research and writing that they’re doing.”
He views day-to-day teaching in a law school as not essentially different from the traditional academic department. “You have to be extremely well prepared in both, especially if you teach graduate students,” he says. Graduate students are more comparable to law students than are undergraduates. You don’t have quite the pressure of preparation with undergraduates that you do for graduate students or law students. You really have to be up and prepared for the latter. Don’t go into a law class unprepared because the students will challenge you pretty quickly. Undergraduates are not nearly as demanding on your day-to-day preparation, although you should, of course, be prepared to teach any course. Graduate preparation, but especially law school preparation, is extremely important. You really have to be up on your field, up on the material, and ready to have people take you on. You don’t get much of that as an undergraduate teacher.”
As much as he enjoys college teaching, Stephens believes that it is not for everyone. “If you go into college teaching,” he argues, “you need to have a PhD. And, secondly, need to commit yourself to do some writing and publishing. If you don’t like those things, then don’t bother with it; you’re just going to be frustrated.”
He also acknowledges that good interpersonal skills are important to a successful teaching career. He reflects that “You have to be able to relate to other people” but doesn’t believe that “this has a whole lot to do with visual impairment.” “You need to be friendly, get to know the other people around you, take an interest in what they’re doing as well as convincing them that what you’re doing is worth they’re knowing about,” he adds.
It was a post-doctorial teaching fellowship at Harvard that got Stephens on the path to law. “Rather than just using that to enrich my courses, which is what they said you should do with that, I came back and went to law school, he says. It was not easy. He continued with his regular responsibilities of teaching and publishing in political science. “The law school allowed me to come over and take as many courses as I could handle at one time. It took me about seven years to do that rather than the usual three year program, but I was able to work it out and ultimately graduated and took the bar,” he explains.
From 1996-2000, he served as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Because he had been teaching a single course in the Law School along with his political science classes since the early 1980s, Stephens was able to negotiate a full-time joint appointment once he stepped down from his administrative position. With the focus on his “writing and research, which I thoroughly enjoy,” he says, “The last ten years, I think, have been the most enjoyable part of my academic career.”
Stephens has, in addition, been active in the community. His major outlet in recent years has been Knoxville’s center for independent living, where he is now the President of the Board. He has also been involved in local political affairs, actively supporting candidates and taking stands on issues. “I’ve taken an interest,” he adds, “not only in disability rights issues but civil rights issues more generally as well.” He has also served as President of
The American Council of the Blind
as well as being a long-time member of its Board of Directors.
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