Editorial | Taking signs seriously

Faculty and administrators should work with students to create an American Sign Langauge minor

· January 27, 2012, 1:39 am   ·  Updated February 1, 2012, 1:44 am

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While students in the College of Arts and Sciences can sign their way through the language requirement, they have faced some unnecessary setbacks in their ongoing gesture to create a new American Sign Language minor.

Next month, a proposal to create an ASL and Deaf Studies minor through the Linguistics department will be re-evaluated by the College’s curriculum committee. This is the very committee that — just last semester — rejected the idea to create an interdisciplinary minor combining service with the study of sign language.

Students pursuing the minor would pair five core classes with an Academically Based Community Service class that would give them first-hand experience with the deaf community. The minor would be a way to formally recognize students’ continued interest in ASL beyond taking classes for the language requirement and simply as electives.

Since students received a “no” from administrators, an e-petition by Penn in Hand has gathered 170 signatures and over 50 students have participated in video petition using sign language to spell their names. Their inventive means of protest has shown that, even among the hearing community, ASL is a valued form of communication and that there is a clear demand to create a minor at Penn.

What’s apparently standing in the way is a “lack of standing faculty” who could teach classes for the minor, according College Dean Dennis DeTurck. This is both a questionable and unsatisfactory reason — one that insinuates that creating an ASL minor is not a priority for the College.

If the College took its student’s needs seriously and the ASL minor were really a priority, administrators would do more to ensure that more standing faculty could be recruited to teach courses for the minor or at least determine a time line and course of action to make this a possibility in the future.

If it’s a matter of limited funds to increase the number of standing faculty, perhaps it’s time to consider reallocating money from minors in other departments that have attracted fewer students over time.

Part of the beauty of learning a language is the opportunity to delve into the culture and history that surrounds it. ASL, with its 200-year history, has a valuable lesson to teach students — both hearing and deaf. For hearing students, it is a gateway to learn about the deaf community and their distinct form of communication. For those who are hard of hearing, the minor will provide a venue to study their disability in an academic context.

Arguments that Penn should not allow students to pursue ASL as part of a traditional minor because it lacks the same legitimacy as Chinese, Spanish, French or Arabic, are not grounded in truth. The ASL and Deaf Studies minor would, in fact, “allow students pursuing a wide variety of fields to expand their availability as professionals to the Deaf community” as Penn In Hand President Arielle Spellun wrote in a comment on theDP.com.

If this minor is created, Penn would have a hand in creating doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers and engineers who can communicate easily with the deaf community. In the College’s effort to be pragmatic about what resources to devote on academics, let it not forget the cornerstone of a liberal arts education — to provide learning opportunities and facilitate the desire of students to serve others.

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