A new home for ASL in the classroom

Penn's Deaf Studies/ASL minor was approved unanimously by SAS faculty in April

· October 1, 2012, 8:36 pm   ·  Updated October 1, 2012, 8:43 pm

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College senior Kelby Reed and College freshman Connor McLaren take an ASL/Deaf Studies course in Williams Hall. This marks the first semester that students at Penn can minor in ASL/Deaf Studies.


As students settle into their class schedules with the drop period coming to a close Oct. 12, the American Sign Language/Deaf Studies minor is also settling in as an officially recognized academic track.

The six-course minor was approved by a unanimous vote by the School of Arts and Sciences faculty last April, becoming the first program of its kind in the Ivy League.

According to ASL Program Coordinator Jami Fisher, who is also a lecturer within the department, the minor focuses heavily on advanced ASL and linguistics courses.

Among the program requirements, the minor features an Academically-Based Community Service component — a capstone course in which students collaborate with the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

The program is also highly interdisciplinary, Fisher added. Students may apply one credit from a course outside of ASL — in topics ranging from the psychology of languages to biomedical engineering — to complete the program.

“We have students taking ASL that come from all different major backgrounds, and there are often courses pertinent to both their major and ASL,” she said. “We want to show how ASL is really useful in all facets of research and professional experiences.”

While Fisher said most students have not formally declared the minor yet, she added that many have expressed an interest in pursuing it.

“We have a very large incoming cohort of ASL 1 students. All four sections are full,” she said of one of the first requirements for pursuing the minor.

Though upperclassmen may retroactively declare the ASL/Deaf Studies minor, Fisher said she does not know of any students graduating this school year who will do so. Most of the students who have indicated interest in the minor are currently sophomores or juniors.

Many of these individuals are members of Penn in Hand — a student group for those interested in ASL and deaf culture. Penn in Hand was heavily involved in petitioning for the minor’s approval last semester.

According to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck, the level of student engagement in developing the minor has been part of what makes the program so unique.

“It’s really a tribute to the hard work of the students … who didn’t give up on the program,” he said.

Penn in Hand President and College junior Connor Bartholomew said she is currently trying to plan out the rest of her courses so that she will have enough time to earn the ASL/Deaf Studies minor.

Though she initially took ASL courses to fulfill her language requirement, Bartholomew said the subject is now “my favorite class at Penn, no matter what semester I’m in.”

Bartholomew added that she is thrilled by the idea of having something on her Penn transcript to recognize her involvement in ASL/Deaf Studies beyond a certificate.

“I jumped up and down when the minor got approved — I was so excited,” she said.

Some also believe that Penn’s relatively extensive ASL program may even serve as a draw to the University for prospective students.

College sophomore Emma Kelly, for example, said one of the reasons she chose Penn was for its array of sign language offerings.

“In my final decision, it brought it over the top that Penn had an ASL program” that students could use to fulfill the language requirement, she said.

Philadelphia’s large deaf community also drew her to the University, she said.

Having enrolled in three ASL courses at Penn already, Kelly said she has been extremely satisfied with the program. One of its greatest benefits, she explained, has been the opportunity to learn from deaf instructors.

“That really brings it into perspective. You can’t communicate with them unless through sign language — it immerses you in sign language,” she said. “I have learned more in three semesters than I did through four years in high-school Spanish.”

College junior Kelly Bannan also hopes to pursue the new minor. She is currently enrolled in her fifth ASL course at Penn — an immersive class focusing on literature, poetry and theatre — and will have two more courses to complete after this semester.

Bannan believes that aside from enabling students to gain academic recognition for their commitment to ASL/Deaf Studies, Penn’s minor also serves a symbolic purpose.

“It’s good for us and the ASL community,” she said. “A lot of people still don’t recognize [ASL] as a language. This is one more step toward getting the message out that it is its own language and has its own culture.”

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