Changing Course(s) at Brown

June 13, 2005

Supporters of American Sign Language spoke (and signed), and Brown University listened. Several months after announcing that the university would no longer offer courses in ASL for academic credit, Brown officials reversed course last week.

"I am pleased to report that the university has decided to provide resources to the Center for Language Studies with the intent that it continue to offer credit-bearing courses in ASL," Paul Armstrong, dean of the college, said in a statement. 

Brown had offered ASL courses for academic credit for several years, but in February, the language studies center, responding to concerns about the quality of instruction and oversight of the courses, said the ASL program needed to be either upgraded or eliminated. Two university curricular committees concluded that the program "did not rank as a high priority" for additional funds, and based on that review, Brown administrators decided in February to continue to sponsor the courses but to phase them out until they are offered in 2006-7 only through the university’s continuing education division, for a fee.

Upon learning of the decision, a group of students waged a campaign to save the courses, and as publicity spread, faculty members at Brown questioned the decision and told Brown administrators that they believed American Sign Language had significant implications for their own scholarly research, in fields as diffuse as cognitive science and social entrepreneurship. In response to those concerns, Brown officials appointed Sheila E. Blumstein, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and a former interim president of Brown, to report "on the connections of ASL to the curriculum and to faculty research."

In his e-mail last week, Armstrong said that Blumstein's report "found many significant links between the ASL program and the work of faculty and students in a number of academic departments." While the report "also acknowledged concerns about the quality of the courses and their oversight," Blumstein "recommended that steps be taken to address them, including the provision of additional funds for ASL instruction and the establishment of a faculty supervisory committee," Armstrong said.

Based on her report, the two curricular committees, the College Curriculum Council and the Academic Priorities Committee, reversed their earlier recommendations, and the university decided to invest some additional funds for the program, which will allow the language studies center to hire a full-time lecturer to teach ASL, and to maintain the courses as for-credit offerings.

Adee Thal, who just graduated from Brown and who helped lead the campaign to save the courses, said in an e-mail message that it is "quite refreshing to see that students do have the power to rally together for what they want and bring about change," while acknowledging that the reversal "certainly would have not happened without the faculty and community involvement." 

She and other advocates for the program said they hoped Brown would become a leader in the growing field. "With the right people and the right intentions, this can become something very big, and make Brown a pioneer in the Ivies with ASL," said Thal, who was Brown's only deaf student this year and a teaching assistant in the ASL courses. "I only regret that I am no longer on campus to see the progress -- but it was a very good note to graduate from Brown on."

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