American Sign Language instructor Andrew R. Bottoms was concerned that he would not have enough students to fill Linguistics 73a: “Beginning American Sign Language 1,” the first ASL class Harvard has offered in more than 20 years.
To his surprise, Bottoms estimated at least 70 students showed up on the first day to vie for the 15 spots available.
“I can’t even explain that feeling,” he said, through an interpreter, of having students overflowing the classroom and sitting on the floor and on top of desks. “I certainly knew American Sign Language was a class that was in high demand, but I was not expecting this.”
Various student and faculty efforts, including a 2014 Undergraduate Council referendum to support the campaign for ASL courses, culminated in Harvard’s announcement this summer that it would reintroduce ASL into its course offerings. The College chose Bottoms, an instructor in the deaf studies program at Boston University who is himself deaf, to teach a sequence of ASL courses in the fall and spring.
One usual motivation for language courses—the College’s language requirement—could not have been a reason for the course’s popularity, though. Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy does not allow ASL to fulfill the requirement, since the class does not have a written component.
“It’s something that I’m struggling with, because there is documentation that American Sign Language is a language,” Bottoms said. “I understand the want for measurement, the want for testing, the want for proof of learning. We have that. It’s just a different mode.”
Emily G. Davies ’18, the university initiatives coordinator for the student-run Committee on Deaf Awareness, advocated for the course and publicized it during shopping period. She said she is now petitioning Harvard to recognize ASL for language credit.
Although the class was originally going to be capped at 15 students, Bottoms raised the number of slots to 20 because of its popularity and used an application to select the students that would fill them.
“I ended up asking individuals what they’re contribution to the class was in terms of relevancy to the Deaf community,” he said.
Yasmin Yacoby ’19 studied ASL in high school and wanted to pursue it further. In her application, she mentioned an interest in becoming an ASL interpreter for theater performances.
Some students in the class, like Yacoby, entered with previous ASL experience, but Bottoms’ class, a totally immersive experience because he does not use an interpreter, may be different from what they have experienced before.
“It’s definitely not the way that I learned sign language. It’s being taught in a very different way, which is exciting for me,” she said. “Now it’s kind of like learning like you’re a kid and you learn when someone’s talking to you.”
Similar to Yacoby’s analogy, Bottoms said he jokingly refers to his ASL students as his “newborns.”
Another distinctive feature of the course is its emphasis on the culture of the Deaf community. On the first day of class, Bottoms showed a documentary about discrimination against deaf individuals, he said. He said he plans to introduce aspects of Deaf culture, such as the fact that ASL speakers are direct in their language in a way that may seem inappropriate to an outsider.
“I am against the idea of simply teaching language without understanding community because without community you don’t have language,” he said. “As a disenfranchised community and an oppressed minority, unfortunately we have experienced significant cultural appropriation.”
ASL is guaranteed at Harvard only for this year, but Bottom said he hopes the large amount of student interest in his course will encourage Harvard to increase its ASL offerings. Davies said she is optimistic that with a successful first year, Bottoms can return to teach the next sequence of courses.
“Clearly this is a thing that students are interested in and students want to have,” she said.
—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @miackarr.