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Harvard to Offer American Sign Language Course in Fall

By Brandon J. Dixon, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard will offer a class in American Sign Language for the first time in more than 20 years, following advocacy from students and instructors from across the University.

But because the course does not include a writing component, it will not count for a student’s foreign language requirement, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy. The course, offered in FAS, will be available to undergraduate and graduate students, and for cross-registration.

Andrew R. Bottoms, an instructor of literacy and language education at Boston University, will teach the course, which, for at least the next year, will be capped at 15 students. Bottoms currently teaches in Boston University’s deaf studies program, a curriculum in American sign language and deaf culture that Bottoms helped developed.

“I wanted to set Harvard on the right course,” Bottoms said. “And what I want is for those classes to continue, to flourish, because I know there’s a lot of demand for it across the country.”

The University has been slow to re-adopt ASL compared to peer institutions after it abandoned the program in 1994, citing financial difficulties. According to a recent study commissioned by the Modern Language Association, as of 2013 ASL is the third most-enrolled language, besides English, in colleges across the nation.

After Harvard’s original ASL course dissolved in 1994, students sought other avenues to pursue their interest in the language. The Committee on Deaf Awareness currently offers extracurricular course offerings of ASL on Sundays through the Phillips Brooks House Association, though the infrequency of the course makes it difficult for students to grasp the nuances of the language, Emily G. Davies ’18 —the University Initiatives Coordinator for the Committee on Deaf Awareness said.

Bottoms, who said he was previously unaware of these courses, said he is happy the additional courses exist, and that he intends to serve as a resource for students pursuing further knowledge in deaf studies. He stressed, however, that the informal courses must combine an introduction to ASL and an education in deaf culture to be truly effective.

“That’s necessary if you want to understand deaf people in the community, if you want to understand the history and culture of deaf people,” Bottoms said. “If the university focuses on ASL courses in the absence of deaf studies courses, then students won’t understand or gain a respect or understanding of the deaf community.”

Over the last few years, people advocating for the resurgence of the course at Harvard have intensified their efforts. In 2014, a referendum calling for the Undergraduate Council to formally support the campaign for ASL courses was added to the spring voting cycle after more than 700 students signed a petition to get it on the ballot.

Voters overwhelmingly supported the referendum, but because of the low turnout at the vote—only 18.5 percent of undergraduates participated—the UC did not back the referendum until a subsequent vote, where the council unanimously supported the reintroduction of the classes.

Davies was one of the leading advocates of the course. Last fall, she approached assistant professor of linguistics Kathryn Davidson to sponsor the course at the faculty level.

“Because it’s a new course, it has to be supported by a professor,” Davies said. “When I found that I wasn’t able to help from a student’s perspective anymore—especially when you’re figuring out the logistics of trying to find a new professor—they [Harvard] didn’t want student input at that point, and Professor Davidson was extremely helpful with that.”

When a colleague told Bottoms Harvard was looking for an instructor for the course, Bottoms said he jumped on the opportunity.

Bottoms said that his goal is for students to learn to use ASL as naturally as they might their native language, both in and outside of the classroom.

“These students are essentially in their infancy, and I want to give them natural stimulation so that they can incorporate the language naturally and, before they know it, become conversant in the language without thinking about it,” Bottoms said.

Davidson and Bottoms expect demand for the course to exceed the class’s capacity, and hope expand it in the future.

“This ASL course sequence this year is a trial, so right now we can't guarantee that it will happen every year in the future,” Davidson said. “But if it goes well and there is continued interest by students, there are many possibilities for more ASL at Harvard. Professor Bottoms and I would love to see that happen.”

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.

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