Deaf World: essay reflection

This is the ninth in a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource, and thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.

The next essay I read was an excerpt of Gilbert Eastman’s memoir, which is labeled “From Student to Professional,” from 1980. Based on a Google search, it doesn’t look like Eastman ever had a complete memoir published, and that’s tragic. Eastman describes his four years at Gallaudet, during which new administrators propose changes to the course curriculum to direct students to liberal arts. A big change worried the students, who were uncertain what such a big change would mean. But, the college earned accredited and saw record highs in enrollment, leading to hiring more faculty, including Dr. William Stokoe, the famous linguist whose research proved ASL is a language, not simply gestures.

Yet, students protested the sluggish signing of hearing professors and were dubious about Stokoe’s research to analyze the linguistics of sign language. In the end, Eastman was asked to teach drama at Gallaudet while he earns a master’s at a hearing college, and Stokoe advised him on his studies, making Eastman feel that Stokoe saw him as a person, not a deaf person. 

Firstly, I did not realize ASL wasn’t widely called American sign language until Stokoe compared it with British sign language in his research. I should read more about Stokoe, even though I’m not surprised Stokoe wasn’t fluent in ASL. Linguists seem more concerned with the pattern and structure of language rather than becoming good at any single language. However, I can see why the students didn’t trust a person attending MLA conferences and playing music with an orchestra; to them, he should take every opportunity to learn signing. 

Of course, I see this from my perspective as a former professor and person who gave feedback on curriculum changes. Students hate change. They hate new professors. They are not quick to trust. A lot is at stake: time, money, a sense of comfort. At Gallaudet, I’m sure students would also add “identity” and “authoritarian oppression” to their list of concerns. If Gallaudet is the only college for the deaf, what other options do they have? It’s possible a president could have argued students need oralism, so any change in curriculum is perceived as suspicious. In my experience, colleagues and I also pushed toward a liberal arts education, which teaches students to think through logical and ethical lenses, thus adapting to any line of work instead of learning one field/skill. Despite research in our favor, students complained. A lot. 

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

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