Report will examine relevance of sign language studies

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

After several weeks of persistent student protest and letters of support from students and faculty, the American Sign Language program at Brown might just be getting a reprieve.

Provost Robert Zimmer decided last week that the Academic Priorities Committee, which makes curricular recommendations at the University, should reconsider cutting back ASL studies, according to Dean of the College Paul Armstrong. The decision was made after Zimmer spoke with student supporters of the program and received e-mails from faculty.

The APC decided in February to reduce the ASL program because it lacks permanent faculty or a departmental home and because it does not apply to existing concentrations or study abroad programs. The current program, which consists of four classes – SI 10, 20, 30 and 40 – was to be transferred over a two-year period to the Continuing Studies program, where students must pay a fee to enroll in classes and do not receive course credit.

About 40 students are enrolled in ASL classes this semester.

In an e-mail to faculty members concerned about ASL at Brown, Zimmer said he asked Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and former interim president of the University, to write a report examining the relevance of ASL to existing faculty research and to the overall curriculum.

The report, which Blumstein said she hopes to finish within three weeks, will be submitted to senior academic deans and the appropriate committees, which, along with Zimmer, will decide the future of ASL studies.

Armstrong, who sits on the APC, said Blumstein was approached to write the report because she feels that ASL is important to her field of cognitive and linguistic sciences.

Blumstein said she still has not worked out exactly how she will conduct her research. “What is important for the provost and administration to understand is the impact that ASL has on the curriculum and the academic experience more broadly,” Blumstein said.

Blumstein added that her research will be based on faculty input about ASL, rather than student input.

Though Zimmer wrote in his e-mail that it is too early to anticipate the outcome of Blumstein’s review, he said the Office of the Provost does have funds set aside to continue ASL as a for-credit program.

“While the outcome of this review obviously cannot be anticipated in advance, I have indicated that, should there be a determination to continue ASL instruction inside the Center for Language Studies, that re-sources would be made available to ensure both the quality of instruction and faculty oversight of the program,” Zimmer wrote.

The University’s reconsideration of its cutbacks to ASL came as good news to student supporters of the program. ASL supporters have campaigned in the last two weeks to keep the program as a for-credit course, giving away 2,500 “Save ASL” buttons and selling 500 T-shirts. Supporters also launched a student petition and letter-signing campaign to urge the University to reconsider the cutbacks.

But although the news of Blumstein’s review may seem like a victory to ASL supporters, Willa Mamet ‘04.5, a leader of the student campaign, said she and her allies were not letting up their protests.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Mamet said. “But it’s not over. I think that resting on the success we had would be dangerous and inappropriate in terms of getting things done.”