This fall, American Sign Language (ASL) joined the long list of languages available for study at Vassar as a part of the Self-Instructional Language Program (SILP). SILP aims to allow students to study languages that are not commonly offered at colleges and universities. As such, it is structured very differently from the traditional classroom setting.
As the name of the program suggests, the majority of the responsibility is placed on the student to learn the language through a combination of audio and visual resources. Twice a week, students meet with a tutor who is a native speaker of their language of study in order to practice and perfect what they have learned from the book. This all may sound very daunting, but many students attest that it is also rewarding, allowing the student to have practical experience in communicating in their language of study.
Serving as the coordinator of the SILP since the fall of 2014, Lioba A. Gerhardi said, “By providing contact with native speakers and exposure to other cultures, the program also contributes to diversity on campus.” Gerhardi submitted her proposal to add ASL in January and September of 2015 with the support of faculty from the Department of Education and Director of the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, Mary Jo Cavanaugh. The SILP now consists of ASL, Gaelic, Hindi, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili, Swedish, Turkish and Yiddish.
Students’ enthusiasm in the course was vital in making bringing the course to Vassar. As Gerhardi noted, “The addition of ASL was set in motion by strong student interest … ASL is an important addition to our curriculum, as it recognizes the importance of deaf culture in society and our commitment to be inclusive.”
The ASL class received overwhelming interest when it first launched this fall. About 30 people showed up to the orientation meeting for the class which was meant to be capped at 20, and I was excited to be included as a member of the class.
Sophie Cash ’19 is one of these excited students. After taking two years of ASL in high school, she was disappointed to learn that Vassar did not offer it during the 2015-2016 school year. She went to speak to Gerhadi about her love for ASL and was delighted to learn that a plan to add ASL to the program was in the works: “I wish I could say I had a hand in making it happen, but I was really on the periphery of the initiative– just kind of on the side lines going ‘Yay! Thank God this is happening!’”
Last fall, Associate Professor of English Leslie Dunn’s media studies course on The Arts of Silence invited the sign language poetry group Flying Words to perform on campus, connect ing Vassar to the Hudson Valley deaf community and increasing conversation on campus about ASL and the deaf community.
Now, only one year after Cash and other students had the opportunity to meet these artists, Vassar’s new ASL classes will introduce even more students to ASL and learning about the deaf community in the United States.
“It’s just such an incredible way to access language,” Cash says. “Even setting aside the social element, it’s just great for people who are visual learners and really struggle with traditional language learning.”
Furthermore, Cash believes that offering ASL reflects well on Vassar: “Offering ASL really communicates that a school is enthusiastic about their students engaging with communities they may not normally communicate with…and the deaf community is just full of so many engaging and enthusiastic people. It’s really amazing.”
Cash is offering herself up as a tutor and someone to talk to and practice with: “I’m desperately trying to find people to practice ASL with!”
The instructor for the course is Mary McLaughlin, a native speaker of ASL who has taught the language to both deaf and speaking students at a variety of educational levels for more than 20 years. My interview with McLaughlin was done through Direct Video Phone, a service that connects the speaking caller to an interpreter who in turn makes a video call to the computer of the deaf individual you are trying to reach. This allows verbal speech do be translated to visual ASL and vice-versa. Messages can also be left via this service, a fact I learned as I waited in awkward silence with the interpreter on the line until the ringing stopped and it was time to leave a message. When she called me back, I was in for another surreal experience. As I was so used to her nonverbal communication patterns–the signs and the facial expressions alike–hearing her words out loud and in a male voice was a bit disconcerting. It’s amazing that after just three weeks, I’ve become so accustomed to nonverbal communication that having a conversation without being able to see her didn’t seem quite right.
The instructor for the ASL course is a major draw factor for the class. “We are very fortunate to have Mary McLaughlin as our tutor and examiner for ASL, and she comes to us with tremendous experience and enthusiasm,” Gerhardi remarked, and her students certainly agree. Rachel Kim ’20, a student in the class, said, “She gets so passionate about telling her experiences from the past and her patience is what allows all the students to catch up to the material and understand ASL little by little.”
McLaughlin has been teaching ASL for 23 years, starting in 1993 teaching a non-credit program for deaf children at Woodstock Elementary and eventually moving up to a credited high school class. From 2002 to 2009, Vassar offered ASL as a regular course through the Department of Education and McLaughlin was one of the three people to be interviewed for the teaching position. McLaughlin remembers, “There were about four students there that told their advisors, ‘We want Mary!’ … But I knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be hired because I didn’t have my [Master’s] Degree yet. They told me to go get my degree.” After discussing the matter with her friends, the general consensus was: “Come on, Mary, it’s Vassar. You have to go back to college.” So, in 2001, that’s exactly what she did.
McLaughlin said, “Going back to college was really a struggle. It was overwhelming … A tutor was hired to help me and when I graduated, they said, ‘How do you feel?’ and I just said ‘I feel great.’ This job really pushed me to get my Master’s Degree. So when the job opened up, I came running.”
McLaughlin is currently teaching ASL at three different schools and when asked if there is anything different about teaching at Vassar as opposed to the other schools, she was quick to respond. “At Vassar, students just seem more mature, more experienced … They’re very motivated to learn and learn about the world.”
McLaughlin affirms that overenrollment is fairly common. There were 30 to 36 people who tried enrolling in the class. “At Vassar they said the limit was 20,” McLaughlin recalls. “I’m willing to go to 22, and I’m always at 22. I can’t go any higher than that. I only have two eyes and I’m not verbal … I usually get 20 to 40 emails asking if I can override the enrollment limit, and I have to say no.”
For those who did get in the class, the no-talking policy in the classroom was a source of anxiety in the beginning. The majority of the nerves stemmed from the fact that no interpreter would be present after the first class and students questioned their ability to understand McLaughlin, regardless of McLaughlin’s assurance: “The interpreter is leaving now. I know you’re scared. It’ll be okay, I promise.”
Kim admits, “I was scared of taking ASL. I highly considered dropping the course because I doubted that I’d do well…but after attending the first class, I realized that it was a lot more fun than I realized. To this day, I always anticipate for the next lesson to be taught and for more of Professor McLaughlin’s stories.”
Besides being a great learning opportunity, the ASL class also boasts a fun environment and an engaging teacher. Kim says, “If I had to describe the tutor, Professor McLaughlin, in one word, it’d be charismatic … It’s impossible to deviate our focus from her because her humor and sarcasm are not things the class wants to miss.”
McLaughlin also doesn’t adhere to the grammar drilling style of many language classes: “She’s no stickler and doesn’t solely teach out of the book; When explaining stories, she incorporates the lesson’s vocabulary for the class to get a better understanding of how…to use sign language,” Kim explains.
By telling stories, McLaughlin allows her students to see sign language in a practical light, taking the opportunity to teach them slang and versions of signs used in the deaf community not found in a textbook. It also allows for a more personal connection between her and her students. Kim says, “By far, Professor McLaughlin’s stories are the highlights of every lesson. Although the class has only met a few times so far, we’ve learned so much about her, and anyone can easily tell that we’re all absorbed into her life stories.”
So, for those considering taking ASL next year and those who have not yet fulfilled your foreign language requirement, the new ASL course and teacher come highly recommended and the possibility of higher level ASL classes is currently being discussed.
Kim said, “For those who are interested in taking the ASL class, go for it. For those who are fearful that they won’t be able to catch up or actually absorb the material like I initially did, don’t worry, and instead, be excited! Professor McLaughlin supports you all the way, and because you’re in the same position as the rest of the students, the class is supportive of you too.”