The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
When LSA freshman Hannah Shipley started learning more about the deaf and hard of hearing communities in her first-year seminar, her interest in taking American Sign Language courses piqued. Upon further research, Shipley found out about the waitlist of more than 100 LSA students for RCASL 100, the ASL language sequence’s prerequisite course, which could block her from taking any further courses for two years.
After speaking with her linguistics professor, Natasha Abner, Shipley started a petition in hopes of increasing the opportunity to learn ASL at the University of Michigan for both the deaf and hard of hearing communities and her hearing classmates.
“She explained to me how small the program was, that there’s only one professor, that the Intro is only offered every other year and that the waiting list is so long that some graduating seniors will never get it,” Shipley said. “I was really frustrated … The only thing that came to mind was the petition. So really it started out of frustration that a program for a community that’s so marginalized is so small.”
According to the University’s ASL professor, Paula Berwanger, ASL 100 consistently has a waitlist of more than 100 LSA students in addition to more than 20 students from other schools across campus.
In RCASL 100, Introduction to Deaf Culture, students do not learn ASL; rather, they learn about deaf culture in the United States, deaf identity and the historical roots of the language. After completing RCASL 100, students are permitted to continue on to elementary and intermediate sign language courses.
Because all students still have to take ASL 100, those who place into ASL 102 or further get precedence in registering for ASL 100. Additionally, Berwanger wrote in an email to The Daily that students who are deaf, hard of hearing or who have immediate family members using ASL get preference. LSA students are also shown preference.
“As more high schools now offer ASL, the number of students testing into ASL beyond the first-semester language class has steadily increased,” Berwanger wrote. “Due to this increase, fewer than 12 students from the waitlist (who have not studied ASL previously) are able to begin the ASL sequence each year with the first-semester language course.”
The ASL program was established in 1999 in response to a student-led initiative to bring ASL courses to the University. Though the program was originally housed in the Department of Linguistics, it moved to the Residential College with the reopening of East Quad Residence Hall in 2013. While the RC houses ASL, ASL is not part of the RC language program.
The fourth semester of RCASL satisfies the LSA language requirement, but not the RC language requirement. Still, RC Director Catherine Badgley said the RC is looking into updated plans for all of their courses, including ASL, to adjust resource allocation and waitlists.
“The ASL Program became part of the Residential College in 2013, and enrollments in ASL courses have been robust since then,” Badgley said. “In the RC, we are in the process of reviewing long-term plans for all of our academic programs in light of enrollment trends, faculty availability, and resources.”
According to the Modern Language Association’s most recent report on United States higher education enrollments in languages other than English, ASL is the third most studied language following Spanish and French. Berwanger said the limited number of ASL professors is a nationwide issue and Shipley noted ASL differs from most other languages taught because of its high student demand and low supply of professors and courses. Even compared to other less frequently taken languages, Shipley said, ASL has a long waitlist.
“There’s obviously some languages that most people take that have endless sections and that don’t have waitlists because there are endless sections and endless professors,” Shipley said. “Then there are other languages that have the same issue where the programs are really small, but ASL differs because of that waitlist. There’s just a higher demand for it.”
Badgley said the waitlist signifies growing interest from students in both ASL and supporting marginalized communities. She also praised the student-led aspect of the petition.
“We are aware of the strong interest from students in having more courses in ASL and applaud the activism behind this petition,” Badgley said.
Dentistry student Joseph Samona wrote in an email to The Daily his experience as a deaf student at the University has been positive with regards to accommodation and interpreters.
“My experience at U of M has been great,” Samona said. “I was born profoundly deaf and I grew up with American Sign Language. At U of M, I have been using ASL interpreters for my education and having these kinds of accommodations play a big role in my education.”
While Samona has not taken ASL courses at the University, he said other students he knows who have taken it have enjoyed delving deeper into the language and culture.
“I have not taken any courses but I know few students that did,” he wrote. “They love learning ASL because it is a unique and creative language. They also got a chance to be involved with the Deaf community where they can experience the Deaf culture.”
Samona said he supports the petition and believes it will positively impact all students at the University.
“I think the need to expand the ASL program is important for the University of Michigan,” Samona wrote. “There are many students that have shown strong interest in ASL and this will be a wonderful opportunity for them to learn ASL and the Deaf culture.”
LSA junior Zachary Layle is president of the ASL Club, an organization bringing together hearing, deaf and hard of hearing people from the University and the Ann Arbor community to learn and practice ASL. Layle agreed that RCASL 100’s long waitlist, along with the course sequence having only one hearing professor, limits learning opportunities for interested students.
While he considered taking the University’s ASL courses, Layle ultimately decided to learn through the club, which he said is a decision he is happy with.
“I’ve learned an immense amount just from going to meetings and just practicing when I can,” he said. “I mean I’ll walk down the street and see a chair and I’ll fingerspell for ‘chair,’ so just little things like that. And I’ve grown immensely from where I started.”
Layle is also supportive of the petition and has circulated it through the club in hopes of getting more professors and resources for ASL.
“I think it’s awesome,” Layle said. “I’ve sent it out to any other groups I’m involved in and I said, ‘Hey, please just sign this. This is very important.’ Because it desperately needs to be expanded and even one more teacher would immensely improve the program at the University.”
While Shipley’s main goal with the petition is to shorten RCASL 100’s long waitlist, she also wants the University to allocate more resources to the program. She hopes to eventually see a minor in ASL through the program.
“The biggest concern is eliminating that waitlist,” Shipley said. “But with that comes a huge bottleneck effect, like if you get all these students off that Intro 100 or 101 waitlist, then what are you going to do when you get to 102? So ideally we’d like to add more sections of each course, really each level of ASL. The end goal would be an ASL minor, which doesn’t exist right now.”
Layle believes the University can improve both the resources and attention it gives to ASL and the ASL program. Layle stressed the importance of treating ASL as its own language and allocating the necessary resources to it
“I think a lot of hearing people see ASL and deaf culture as not its own language,” Layle said. “They don’t put it on the same level as they do say Spanish or Russian or French. It’s got its own culture, it has its own slang, it has its own grammar. It’s its own language and it deserves to be treated like every other language.”
Reporter Sonia Lee can be reached at email@example.com.