Looking for Signs at CU

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Published on February 21, 2017

“I saw a flasher,” is the first grammatically correct sentence I learned in American Sign Language.

Sandy Gooen, a sophomore at Barnard College, taught me this phrase just a few days after I learned the ASL sign for “flasher.” We were both playing a game of Name 5 at a session of Columbia’s ASL club, CU Sign. To earn a point in our signed version of Name 5, you need to fingerspell (i.e., spell using ASL’s manual alphabet) five things in a given category before the blue synthetic sand at the top of a little plastic hourglass runs out. Our instructor, Ibrahim “Ibby” Ali, then teaches us the ASL signs for the words we spell.

My team had drawn the category “misdemeanors.” “Flasher” and “public urination” were among the many, very useful locutions I learned that day.

I came to Barnard hoping to begin studying ASL in a formal, academic setting. How ASL uses the whole body to create meaning and to transmit emotion and emphasis blew me away, and the endeavor seemed promising because of the sheer diversity of languages offered here. There are some, including Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and Quechua, an indigenous language of the Andes, that I didn’t even know how to pronounce.

It never occurred to me that ASL, currently the third most studied foreign language at American colleges and universities (surpassed only by Spanish and French), might not be one of my choices.

I was wrong.

Columbia does not offer any undergraduate ASL classes. Moreover, if a student takes an ASL class at another accredited university, those credits do not count at all at Columbia, and only count as an elective at Barnard. It turns out that CU Sign, which meets weekly on the third floor of the Diana Center, is the only place on campus for students to learn ASL.

While the club’s informal sessions do not compare to a professional collegiate language class, I have attended a few meetings and am beginning to develop my ASL vocabulary, including the name signs of some celebrities.

Want to learn my favorite ASL name sign? An article in The Washington Post likens it to “what might happen if a stiff wind came in contact with [this politician’s] hair.” Place your right hand flat on top of your head. Then, keeping the heel of your palm resting against the side of your head like a hinge, lift your fingers until your hand is vertical. Congratulations! You just signed “Donald Trump.”

Trump’s presidency is another reminder that there is still a long way to go when it comes to deaf inclusion. While there were a few ASL interpreters assigned to specific seating sections at his inauguration in January, a group of students from Gallaudet University, the world’s first university established specifically for deaf and hard of hearing students, were seated elsewhere and allegedly denied an ASL interpreter. The interpreters weren’t broadcast on most channels. (Some speculate that Trump arranged this because he is embarrassed by his name sign.)

This is a clear instance of audism extending beyond individual acts of discrimination against deaf people—it is an institutionalized system of oppression that intersects with other systems of oppression. Samantha Valente, a sophomore at Barnard who is deaf, reiterates that audism exists on campus. She tells me that “people assume because your hearing is slow, your mind must also be.”

“People” refers to students, faculty, and administrators. Audism that played out on a national stage, in front of 30.6 million viewers, pervades within Columbia’s gates as well. A decades-long dispute between administrators and activists demanding a more inclusive curriculum points to a lingering desire to dismantle the culture of ableism and growing national interest in ASL as a foreign language.

Ivy League institutions, such as Harvard, have also begun to offer ASL classes as recently as last semester.

It would seem, then, that there is a place for ASL on campus. Why doesn’t Columbia offer ASL classes or recognize it as a foreign language?

Inconsistent History

The exclusion of ASL on our campus is particularly ironic considering that Columbia College’s 10th president and Barnard College’s namesake, Frederick Barnard, was deaf. A 2016 Eye article quotes one of Barnard’s contemporaries, who recalls him using a horn at board meetings to hear suggestions and complaints. He would often put the horn down while he read slowly from his report. Board members would object, but he couldn’t hear them.

As a Barnard student myself, I feel like I should have known this. But until Peter Connor, co-chair of Barnard’s French department and director of Barnard’s Center for Translation Studies, brings it up to me as a potential “winning argument” for creating ASL classes at Barnard, I had no idea Barnard himself was deaf.

It’s easy to forget that,” Connor says, leaning back in his swivel chair. “[Barnard doesn’t] make a lot of noise about it.”

Prior to his work at Columbia, Barnard taught at multiple schools for deaf children. And though he was an active member of New York’s deaf community in this way, he did not bring ASL to Columbia.

In spite of Columbia’s continued failure to recognize ASL as a foreign language, the University’s very own Teachers College was the home of a Master of Arts program in the teaching of ASL as a foreign language from 2000 to 2016.  

The program, which had been founded and coordinated by native ASL signer Russell “Rusty” Rosen, was shut down in August 2016 due to declining student enrollment. Rosen is now a professor and coordinator of the City University of New York at the College of Staten Island’s ASL program, which notably has seven instructors and 500 students.

While Rosen’s graduate program was terminated, TC still has Master of Arts, Master of Education, and Ph.D. programs in deaf and hard of hearing education. These programs teach people how to teach deaf children but not how to sign. They include only one very basic ASL course. That said, there are many courses about “language development,” which refers to imposing spoken English on deaf students, rather than helping them embrace ASL.

That is not to say, though, that there hasn’t been a push among the undergraduate community to offer ASL courses. In a period of time which Connor describes “as much as 15 years ago, as few as 10,” he approached Barnard’s Committee on Instruction with a formal proposal to have Barnard recognize ASL as a foreign language. At this point, Barnard wasn’t granting any credit for ASL classes taken at other accredited universities.

Ann Senghas is a professor of psychology at Barnard whose research focuses on the emergence of a new sign language in Nicaragua. She is also the director of the Language Acquisition and Development Laboratory at Barnard and co-signed the ASL foreign language recognition proposal. But Barnard’s COI rejected it.

It wasn’t until fall of 2006 that student advocacy for ASL started. CU Sign launched a new initiative with a much more ambitious objective: to bring ASL classes to all four of Columbia’s undergraduate colleges. The group circulated a petition that garnered signatures from 500 students and faculty members.

It really felt like the campus was abuzz with people demanding greater access to ASL,” Chloe Ward, who graduated from Barnard in 2008, says.

Ward, currently an art historian and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, was president of CU Sign from 2004 until 2008. (And she knows how to sign along to the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin.) Ward explains that the petition that ran under her tenure gave the club leverage to approach administration about the issue.

And so it did.

On Feb. 26, 2007, Senghas presented a 49-page proposal to Barnard’s COI on behalf of CU Sign. According to a Spectator article from 2006, Ross Johnson, a member of CU Sign who graduated from Columbia College in 2010, was simultaneously working on a proposal for Columbia’s Committee on Instruction.

After much deliberation, Barnard’s COI rejected the motion to grant ASL classes foreign language credit and the motion to offer ASL classes on campus. The committee agreed, however, that ASL classes taken at other colleges and universities should count for elective credit.

This new policy was announced and officially instated in April 2008. (Senghas is currently in charge of reviewing the curricula of ASL classes that Barnard students take elsewhere to determine whether or not they qualify for elective credit.)

Columbia’s COI, on the other hand, rejected the proposal. Andrew Plaa, dean of advising for Columbia College and Columbia Engineering and a member of the COI, says that there must be an existing ASL department or program at Columbia for students to receive credit for ASL courses taken at other institutions.

When asked whether or not the University recognizes ASL as a linguistically independent language, Plaa says that “Columbia hasn’t made that decision.”

Since 2008, the fire behind the movement at Columbia seems to have dwindled. Administrators today still cite similar concerns about whether or not ASL qualifies as a foreign language, and in which academic department an ASL program could be housed.

Gooen and Valente both tell me that they have reached out individually to administrators to ask about the absence of ASL classes on campus, but I am under the impression that, in recent years, there hasn’t been a organized student effort like the one observed under Ward’s leadership as CU Sign president.  

Yonina Frim, the current president of CU Sign, nods in agreement when I share this thought. She laments that a quarter of the club’s executive board graduates every year. “It’s really hard to pass that torch and make sure the next person is going to be as committed as the previous one.” In addition to running CU Sign, Frim does a lot of art in her free time. I ask her what her favorite ASL sign is. She says “imagination.”

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Though Frim affirms that CU Sign would still love to see ASL offered on campus, she acknowledges that in recent years, the club’s new initiative has taken a backseat to its efforts to keep the weekly functions of the club alive. This topic is no longer “abuzz” around campus—the movement has lost some of its momentum.

Patricia Denison, Barnard’s associate provost, says that because there has not recently been an organized demand by students or faculty to the COI for ASL recognition, “it has not been on the radar.”

Given that Columbia will not give academic credit for any ASL classes unless a department or program exists and Barnard will not grant foreign language credit unless it is offered at Columbia, little progress can be made until the administration’s concerns are addressed.

Addressing concerns

Going into this article, I had many misconceptions about deafness, deaf etiquette, deaf culture, and ASL itself.

For one, I used to think that “sign language” was a lazy way to say “American Sign Language.” I didn’t realize that, just as with spoken languages, there are many radically different signed languages used in different places across the globe. For instance, while ASL uses a one-handed manual alphabet, British Sign Language is two-handed.

I used to assume that all deaf people needed interpreters to communicate. I was very wrong. According to Barnard’s Office of Disability Services, every single deaf and hard of hearing undergraduate registered uses speech as their primary mode of communication. Of the seven deaf and hard of hearing people I interview for this article, only one is a native signer.

I was not yet aware of the important distinction between ‘deaf’ with a lowercase d and ‘Deaf’ with an uppercase D. Deaf with a lowercase d implies the medical condition of deafness, whereas Deaf with an uppercase D refers to people who identify as members of a linguistic and cultural group.

I also used to think that “hearing impaired” was a perfectly acceptable term for deaf or hard of hearing people. Gooen explains to me that it is an offensive and inaccurate term. If someone is born without hearing, no part of them is impaired. In hindsight, this seems obvious: I would never call a short person “height impaired.” When Gooen laments how widely used the term still is, I ashamedly recognize myself among the guilty.

Deaf exclusion and the rejection of ASL is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not one that is constrained within the gates of Columbia. Until the 1960s, many academics in the United States still viewed ASL as a lesser or fragmented version of English. Many people viewed deaf and hard of hearing people as mentally limited.

Fifty-seven years ago, however, William Stokoe—an American linguist—published a linguistic study of ASL. He pioneered the use of analytic tools traditionally associated with spoken languages, like phonology (which explores how differences between units of sound, which are inherently meaningless, create meaningful distinctions between words), to analyze signed languages. This approach brought to light the integrity of ASL as a language in its own right. His piece, Sign Language Structure, revolutionized the way academia perceived signed languages.

 ASL’s linguistic status is no longer up for debate—the language is now considered to be complex and fully conventional, with syntax and grammar independent from that of English.

But Denison says that foreign languages are currently defined by Barnard and Columbia as “written and spoken” and “grounded in a culture that is one of a region, of a people, or of an ethnicity.”

All of the professors I spoke to challenge this definition of a foreign language. “[ASL] is almost like the exemplary foreign language because it’s so foreign,” Connor says. “How do you construct meaning from a different set of signifiers that are not orally based, but visually based? You know, that’s the kind of question that really gets you thinking in interesting ways about language, I think.”

In an interview with Spectator in 2008, Flora Davidson, Barnard’s then-associate provost and chair of the COI, explicitly brought up one of Barnard COI’s concerns about ASL counting as a foreign language. She said, “ASL is an American language, and the objective of the foreign language requirement is to allow students to experience a different culture.”

Barnard professor Mara Green—Columbia’s only self-identifying “linguistic anthropologist,” whose research largely focuses on signed languages in Nepal—had a decisive response to this statement. “I think it’s problematic to assume that English is the only American language.”

In fact, the United States has no official language. So what does it mean to be an “American” language? Is Spanish an American language?

Michele Friedner, a deaf colleague of Green’s and a medical anthropologist at Stony Brook University, has a different issue with Davidson’s concern. “I think that it’s very problematic because you don’t want to presume that there is such a thing called ‘American culture,’” she tells me.

The fact of the matter is that there is a rich culture associated with ASL and Deaf communities within the Unites States.

I call Felicia Williams, an ASL professor at Gallaudet, to hear about Deaf culture from a first-hand perspective. Because she’s a native signer and my ASL skills are next to nonexistent, I call her through Sorenson, a telephone service that automatically connects the hearing caller (me) to a remote ASL interpreter, who is then connected via video chat to the deaf call recipient (Williams).

Through the voice of an anonymous woman, Williams tells me that deaf people tend to ask each other more personal questions. She adds that “there’s a lot of touch, you know, touching somebody’s shoulder to get their attention, whereas in the American culture, there are some boundaries.” Also, because maintaining eye contact is necessary for communication in ASL, it’s considered rude in Deaf culture if you look away while someone is talking to you.

Gooen points me to another culturally-specific aspect of Deaf social life: the ASL slang words “true biz” and “pah.” They can be roughly translated to “literally” and an expression of relief and pride, but they don’t really correspond to perfectly any word in English. Laughing, Gooen tells me that “pah” is their favorite sign of all time.

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Additionally, Deaf people have developed incredible ASL poetry and literature.

Still, another concern that Columbia and Barnard administrators have pointed to regarding ASL’s legitimacy as a foreign language is the written component. But considering the many colleges across the country that do recognize ASL as a foreign language (formerly including Columbia’s own Teachers College),it becomes curious why this issue is a dealbreaker for Columbia and Barnard.

Connor says that a common misconception about ASL is that it is “somehow impoverished because it doesn’t have a written culture in the way that some other languages do. … ‘So you learn French in order to read Molière, and so you learn ASL in order to read whom?’ is what they were sort of saying.”

While there are some experimental versions of ASL systems of writing, they are not widely used among deaf people in the United States. Friedner tells me that rather than fixating on the adoption of a writing system, “increasingly, there has been pushback about this writing legitimacy.” This is especially true in the digital age.

Williams tells me that classes at Gallaudet are bilingual—it’s up to the professors to decide whether homework can be submitted in a formal register of ASL or in written academic English. For example, students in Williams’ ASL Composition class typically create video rough drafts in ASL. “They sign it, and then they review it and make sure that the content is clear, make sure that the delivery is good,” she tells me, “and that’s how things are graded.”

People who think ASL needs to have a written component are “missing the point,” according to  Williams. “We have body language, facial expressions . . . so there’s not that translation in a written form.” She says that to disallow it from fulfilling the foreign language requirement on those grounds is unfair.

Administrators have also questioned ASL’s status as an independent language. In the same 2008 Spectator article, Davidson expressed another concern: “Is ASL a language or a dialect of a language?”

But as explained in the 2016 article written by John McWhorter, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, there is no agreed-upon distinction between a language and a dialect. “A language is a dialect that got put up in the shop window,” he writes. In other words, a student in any foreign language class is just learning a popularized dialect. Moreover, ASL itself has various regional and ethnic dialects, including Black American Sign Language.

I pose Davidson’s question to Green over a Skype video interview. We agree that she probably meant to ask something more like, “Is ASL just a version of English you do on your hands?”

“So no,” Green responds, decisively. “It is a language with its own linguistic properties, grammatical properties that are neither based on, nor reducible to, nor dependent on English.”

In fact, Green was initially “entranced” by signed languages due to their distinctness from spoken ones. For example, time is spatial in ASL. The sign for “before” involves the hand moving backwards, while “will” involves movement forward.

“The past you throw behind you. The future moves in front of you,” she explains. “Even as a little kid, I found [that] really interesting.”

Green tells me that when she was first taught some signs in elementary school, they weren’t in ASL but rather in Signed Exact English.

She explains that SEE consists of ASL signs put in English word order and non-ASL signs fabricated to represent specific aspects of English speech—for instance, the “-ing” ending of verbs. It also incorporates many more initials from the manual alphabet.

“It is actually no longer a debate,” Green explains. “Except among… ”

There is a long pause. A dog barks somewhere in Green’s house before she settles on her claim. 

“It is no longer a debate among people who have either academic or experiential expertise on the matter.” 

How Columbia Compares

In lieu of an ASL class on campus, most people interested in learning the language join CU Sign, like I did. The student-run organization is a useful way to get some exposure to the language and to Deaf culture. But CU Sign has its limits. Frim agrees that meeting for an hour once a week in an informal setting does not compare to taking a college-level language course. Ali, the smiling instructor of the club’s weekly sessions, is deaf and a native ASL signer, but is not trained in teaching ASL.

Frim openly admits that, even after four years of participation in CU Sign, she is still “very much a beginner” in ASL. She wishes she could have the time and energy to take professional ASL classes off-campus, “but unfortunately I don’t.”

 Gooen, on the other hand, commits almost four hours a week to an ASL class at the Sign Language Center downtown. Wearing a shirt that reads, ”Ask me about my fear of strangers,” Gooen tells me about their experience with this class between bites of a sandwich.

Every Wednesday night, they take the 1 train to the 2 train to the NQR to a stop near the SLC. This adds up to just under an hour of travel each way, and the class itself is two-and-a-half hours long. They describe the arduous journey as “quite a schlep.”

Gooen explains that they chose to take classes at the SLC, instead of at New York University or elsewhere in the city, because it is a private business owned, run, and taught solely by native ASL signers. It’s important to Gooen that their teacher isn’t just “a person who’s been studying ASL for a long time,” but rather someone to whom the language belongs. But because SLC isn’t a college or university, they don’t receive any academic credit—elective or otherwise—for these classes. Moreover, the classes cost upward of $150 per six-week session.

Students at other Ivy League campuses encounter similar obstacles. Of the eight Ivy League institutions, Columbia is one of five that doesn’t offer an undergraduate ASL course during the academic year. Until fall of 2016, ASL classes could only be taken at Brown University and University of Pennsylvania. However, progress has recently been made at Harvard University, which, after 20 years, reintroduced its ASL program in August.

The movement to bring ASL back to Harvard’s campus was partly driven by a well-circulated, student-initiated petition (like Columbia’s) from 2014, which was signed by 700 students. Last year, the efforts of Kathryn Davidson, a linguistics professor at Harvard, and Maya Chung, a sophomore at Harvard, finally pushed the class through the administration.

Chung is the director of the Deaf Awareness Club at Harvard and an earth and planetary sciences major. She self-identifies as a very visually oriented person and professionally makes scientific illustrations. She smiles as she shows me one of her favorite ASL signs, “mosquito.”

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The instructor of the new course at Harvard has been particularly influential. Andrew “Anbo” Bottom is a native ASL signer and grew up in a culturally Deaf household. His entire class is “voice-off,” which means students don’t speak. This way the students get an immersive experience with the language from the beginning. Chung tells me that they did oral presentations on Deaf culture at the end of the semester, “and that was like the first time I’d heard most of my classmates’ voices. It was really bizarre.

Harvard’s one section of ASL 1 was capped at 15 students, but according to Chung, over 100 students shopped the class on the first day. ASL 2, 3, and 4 classes have been approved by Harvard for next year.

While Harvard now offers an undergraduate ASL class, it still does not recognize ASL as a foreign language because the course lacks a writing component. Instead, the class counts as an elective and is housed in the linguistics department.

In fact, in spite of the national trend of ASL enrollment increasing rapidly since 1990, only two Ivy League universities—UPenn and Brown—explicitly state on their websites that they consider ASL to be a foreign language.

The Ivy League seems to be behind the curve in this respect. According to a list compiled by  Sherman Wilcox of the University of New Mexico, 187 schools across the country recognize ASL. At least 60 of these schools offer it as a major, a number which has steadily increased over the past 15 years.

A 2005 article published in The Associated Press writes, “While some linguists have questioned ASL’s classification as a foreign language, its growing acceptance at schools around the country has diluted opposition.”

Implications of the Lack of ASL Recognition

While Columbia proudly preaches its commitment to being inclusive, the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing undergraduates on campus make it clear that this promise is not wholly being fulfilled.

Both Columbia and Barnard’s Offices of Disability Services provide accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing students. However, by not explicitly recognizing the language and culture associated with this historically oppressed group, the University may foster ignorance among the student body that impedes the inclusion of deaf students on campus and discourages others from applying.

Pereira tells me that the stigma around deafness can make it hard for deaf students to find a presence on campus because, while she is proud to be deaf, other “people might even feel embarrassed about their disability.”

Laura Friedman, a Barnard class of 2011 alumna, agrees. I meet her at her office in the Hearing Health Foundation downtown, an organization that contributes to hearing research efforts. Friedman, who is hard of hearing, grew up speaking English rather than signing.

That said, she is familiar with the ASL sign for “I love you,” which combines the ASL letters I, L, and Y into an affectionate Spider-Man-like hand shape. Her mom used to sign it to her from the curb when she’d get on the bus to school in the morning.

Friedman knows what it’s like to be a student with a disability in the Columbia community. “We’re not empowering them to be open about their disability and to talk about it and to educate,” she says. “Instead, we’re covering it up.”

This lack of visibility seems to be the key to deaf exclusion. Williams suggests that offering ASL as a foreign language might help draw deaf students to Columbia because they’ll know that there’s support for and exposure to ASL and Deaf culture at the University.

Connor says that in a sense, the University is “participating in an exclusion of the Deaf and of their language and of their culture … [by] repeating a social stigmatization of a whole community by not actively seeking to include this very interesting language.”

While the move toward ASL inclusion has been slow and bureaucratic, CU Sign sessions give me hope. There has been, and still is, a group of passionate students willing to learn.

Williams tells me, “We really just need hearing allies.”

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