Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Teaching Deaf History to Hearing Undergraduates

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Teaching Deaf History to Hearing Undergraduates

Article excerpt

SINCE 2012, I have offered a course called "The History of the American Deaf Community" three times at the University of Virginia. Cross-listed between the university's American Sign Language (ASL) Program and the history department, the class attracts a diverse array of students. When I teach the course, I sometimes imagine that my students are like me 30 years ago: curious and educated but largely oblivious to the story of Deaf people in the United States.

Two key differences exist. When I was in college (at Yale), I did not know any American Sign Language, but some of my current students do. Furthermore, while my students now are all hearing, I am late deafened. Since the age of nine, my hearing has gradually faded. By college, I had increased difficulty understanding spoken conversation, whether in the classroom or dining hall. Inspired by the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest at Gallaudet in 1988, after graduating in 1989 I moved to Washington, DC, hoping to find some answers.

Gallaudet exceeded my expectations. When I eventually found a job on Kendall Green in 1990,1 discovered that ASL is a rich language with its own idioms and structure; that the Deaf community is quite welcoming; that, in the wake of DPN, palpable energy ran through campus; that Deaf people have succeeded in a variety of fields; that they share a vibrant poetry and storytelling tradition in ASL; and, through the work of such historians as Jack Gannon and John Vickrey Van Cleve, that they have a fascinating history.

Eight years later, as a doctoral student in English at the University of Virginia, I decided to write my dissertation on deafness in nineteenthcentury American literature. In addition to considering fiction by hearing canonical authors such as Elerman Melville and Mark Twain, I did archival research to recover work by Deaf writers from the period, such as Laurent Clerc, John Burnet, and Adele Jewel, who produced a variety of speeches, essays, poems, and autobiographical pieces in English. I became engrossed in Deaf history. My research led to two book publications, which gave me the pleasure of being involved in academic conversations about Deaf history at conferences, through articles, and elsewhere.

Fast-forward to today, when I hold a joint faculty position between the ASL Program and the English department at the University of Virginia: Flow do I share this intriguing history with a class of hearing students at the University of Virginia, which is not close to a large Deaf community? (We are 45 minutes away from the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton.)

First, let me give some quick facts about the course, "Elistory of the American Deaf Community."The most recent semester I offered this class (fall 2015), I had twenty-three students, which is a bit more than the previous average of fifteen. The students had many different majors, from sociology to Spanish to environmental science. Seven of them had taken some ASL and were familiar with the basics of Deaf culture.The others had no previous experience with Deaf topics. (Perhaps I should explain that I teach with a sign language interpreter.) The course covers Deaf history in America from colonial times until 1990. We proceed in mostly chronological order. In trying to engage such a mix of students, I have found the following strategies useful.

First, whenever possible, we study Deaf primary sources. Students read original writing by Clerc, John Carlin, Laura Redden Searing, and others in a collection I edited, A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing, 1816-1864 (I do not get any royalties from book sales, I tell them). Those pieces not only show the gradual formation of a Deaf community in antebellum America but also reveal the contentious Deaf-Deaf debate in the 1850s over the idea of forming a separate Deaf commonwealth in the West. …

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