Mixed Signals for ASL

On the upswing nationally, sign language is on the defensive at Brown.
April 25, 2005

American Sign Language is on the ascent as an academic discipline nationally, with student enrollments swelling and an increasing number of colleges allowing undergraduates to take courses in signing to fulfill foreign language requirements.

This spring, though, the trendlines for ASL have been going the other way at Brown University. Administrators revealed in February that based on the recommendation of two faculty committees, they had decided to shift all sign language courses to the university's non-credit continuing education program. In the weeks that followed, students and some faculty members argued that Brown was underestimating student interest in the courses and ignoring significant interest among faculty members in research related to ASL. Now, Brown officials are reconsidering their decision.

The situation offers an interesting look at one institution's process for making curricular choices and the challenges an emerging field can have navigating those straits.

Brown has offered ASL courses for academic credit for about four years, and demand for them is high -- typically about twice as many students want to take the lower-level courses than there is room for. But the program, which is offered through the university's Center for Language Studies (home to several languages that haven't earned their own departments), has no full-time instructors or staff members.

Last fall, says Paul Armstrong, dean of the college at Brown, officials at the language center said they believed that the ASL program should either be upgraded, in part through the hiring of full-time, fully credentialed instructors, or eliminated. "They felt it was not right to do it in a way that's less than fully effective," he says.

The university asked two panels that are responsible for curricular review, the Academic Priorities Committee and the College Curriculum Council, to review the program and recommend whether the additional investment would be a good one, compared to Brown's other needs. "When we talk about curricular priorities, we're looking at dollars at the margin," says Armstrong. "Do we put these dollars to work for ASL, or for an additional section of visual arts, for example?" 

Using a set of criteria that included such things as the program's connection to and relevance for undergraduate majors and graduate programs (unlike many elite colleges, Brown does not have a foreign language requirement for students), faculty research, students' career aspirations and community relations, the two panels concluded that "ASL, because it was not directly connected in some of those important ways, would not rank as a high priority." 

Based on that recommendation, Brown administrators decided to continue to sponsor the courses but to phase them out until they are offered in 2006-7 only through the university's continuing education division, for a fee -- a "good compromise," Armstrong says.

Students didn't see it that way. "The Academic Priorities Committee just doesn't really know how beneficial ASL actually is to Brown and the surrounding community," says Willa Mamet, a senior who has become the first Brown student to create concentration in deaf studies. "We thought the criteria they had they had used to challenge the program were easy to counter from our perspective," says Eric Tong, a senior who works as an undergraduate teaching assistant in the lower-level ASL courses. 

Mamet, Tong and several other students, including Adee Thal, a senior who is Brown's only deaf student and the other undergraduate teaching assistant in the ASL courses, began a letter writing campaign among alumni and students and urged faculty members with a research interest in ASL to make sure administrators were aware of it. The student outcry has been significant -- the campus was a "sea of blue" one day last week as hundreds of students bought and wore t-shirts expressing support for the sign language program, says Tong. But the faculty response is what has gotten administrators' attention.

"During the last couple of weeks, faculty have written to me and provost saying, 'I don't think you had all the facts about the importance of ASL in a distributed way around the university,' " says Armstrong. "It's becoming clear to us that when the committees reviewed this, the research interest in ASL was less obvious than it might be with other languages that are connected through formal academic programs." He says he has heard from a faculty member in German studies interested in disability studies and a sociology professor interested in social entrepreneurship, for example, and other professors who study linguistics and the cognitive sciences. 

Citing the newly discovered research interest in ASL, Brown has asked Sheila E. Blumstein, a former interim president of Brown and a distinguished professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, to re-assess the research relevance of ASL and report to the Academic Priorities Committee. If the committee concludes that "yes, this has a higher priority than we thought," Armstrong says, Brown will make the needed investment in the ASL program. He declined to specify exactly how much money that would entail.
Tong acknowledges the program's limitations at the moment, but says he is confident "with proper investment, it could eventually reach a place where you'd have a program to be proud of."

While the Brown situation is still playing itself out, a years-long campaign by ASL advocates at Boston University resulted last month in administrators agreeing to let proficient users of sign language place out of the university's foreign language requirement.

The BU arts and sciences faculty approved a resolution that "ASL be included among the languages by which students may meet the [College of Arts and Science] foreign language requirement on the basis of bilingualism, that is, by demonstrating on a college-administered test that they are currently bilingual in English and another language."


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