Faculty debate sign language status

Students will be able to fulfill foreign language and culture requirements with American Sign Language in coming years if the University adopts a faculty proposal.

Geralyn Schulz, chair of the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, drafted the proposal with Curtis Robbins, another faculty member in the department, and said she is “optimistic” about getting it approved.

Schulz said the proposal includes linguistic and cultural evidence to support the initiative and surveys of other institutions that accept ASL as fulfillment of a foreign language requirement.

The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the University Honors Program each offer two levels of ASL. CCAS and the Honors Program took over the classes two years ago, when the Graduate School of Education and Human Development canceled classes due to financial reasons.

“I think that people make the argument about the cultural aspect of ASL, and I think that they are just not educated about all of the culture surrounding the deaf community – there is a rich culture there,” Schulz said.

Although some faculty members staunchly oppose accepting ASL as a General Curriculum Requirement, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean William Frawley said he welcomes the proposal, calling it an “interesting” and “complex” issue.

“Most of all, because this is an issue that generates heated debate, it is important for all sides to respond with balance and judiciousness, and to study the scholarship on ASL language and literature, and deaf culture, to make a knowledgeable decision,” Frawley wrote in an e-mail last week.

CCAS’ Curriculum Committee, which may review the proposal this semester, includes about 10 faculty members who meet throughout the semester to discuss changes to the CCAS curriculum. The first meeting of the semester has not yet been scheduled.

Walter Rowe, chair of the Curriculum Committee and professor of forensic science, said the committee met about once every two weeks last semester but has yet to meet this semester because members do not have enough material to discuss. He said he knows of the proposal but cannot guarantee that it will be on the agenda for the first meeting.

Senior Josh Lurie said he has been trying to get ASL approved as a foreign language since he took his first ASL class as a freshman.

Lurie said Frawley signed off on his personal exemption request last year to use ASL as a foreign language requirement, adding that Frawley was supportive of Lurie’s efforts. Lurie said his request had been denied a year earlier.

“The movement to get it approved as a foreign language is going really well,” Lurie said. “There is a lot of red tape involved, and it has taken me years to understand the process. Now it is just a matter of when the committee is going to meet.”

Rowe said he has not seen the proposal and is not yet convinced of its merit.

He said he and other faculty members do not know if ASL culture and literature have the same academic merit as other foreign languages, adding that the issue faced “some rather spirited debate” over the past few years, with some faculty members opposing the initiative.

Chinese professor Jonathan Chaves said he is opposed to accepting ASL as a foreign language equivalent, although he favors ASL instruction.

“There is a radical distinction between an artificially created language that is connected to the culture of a civilization,” Chaves said.

After hearing of the initiative, Chaves wrote a letter to the editor for ByGeorge’s Aug. 21 issue opposing ASL as a GCR.

Sophomore Jermaine Brown, the only deaf undergraduate at GW according to Disability Support Services, supports the approval of ASL as a foreign language, citing linguistic, cultural and historical components of the language.

“(A)SL, like many foreign languages, has a culture, history, literature and its own structure,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “If (ASL) is not to be considered a foreign language, then what is it?

“(M)any of us are used to spoken language where the information is being transmitted through the channel of the ears, but in sign language, one must have a keen visual motor to acquire information,” Brown added.

Several universities in the metropolitan area, including Georgetown, George Mason, Howard, Catholic and American universities, accept ASL as a foreign language requirement.

Michelle Biltcliffe, an administrative assistant in George Mason University’s modern languages and culture department, said the university does not offer any ASL classes but accepts credit for ASL classes completed at other universities and allows the credits to count toward its foreign language curriculum requirement.

Schulz, of GW, said she thinks more students would enroll in ASL courses if they could satisfy a GCR.

“All of our ASL I courses are filled every semester, and our ASL II courses are gaining in popularity,” she said. “I have no doubt that a lot more of those folks in ASL I would be in ASL II if they got to fulfill a general requirement with it.”

Schulz said that if the proposal is not approved, faculty members plan to gather more evidence and resubmit it.

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