Effects of professors’ language choice at Gallaudet
When the professor asked her to stay after class, Melissa felt her pulse quicken. She had always been uncomfortable with some of this professor’s behavior. She knew she should speak up and ask him to stop, but for a student to confront a professor was risky, especially before grades were posted. It did not seem to be a wise decision as she considered the power he held over her academic and professional future. She decided to put up with his behavior and just get through the program. It was only a couple years, after all. But she did wonder what the other students would say when they saw how she allowed him to interact with her. She hoped they would understand, and not look down on her. She felt trapped.
Across the room, Nicole watched as the professor once again ignored her and focused his attention on another student. Professors like him always seemed to have that special relationship with girls like Melissa. In class, the professor tailored his lessons to her, focused on her questions, and made side jokes to her. He barely responded when Nicole would ask a question, giving vague half-responses, and moving on before the answer was clear. She resigned herself to the fact that while Melissa and other girls like her would float through the course, Nicole would have to work extra hard just to receive the same grade in the end.
Another professor saw Nicole exit, eyes down and shoulders slumped. Curious, he looked past her into the room, and sighed. Even with the Melissa’s back to him, he could tell from her posture that she was uncomfortable. What could he do, though? He had mentioned his colleague’s questionable behavior to their superiors. The professor’s reputation prevented many students from registering for his classes, except those courses required for graduation, and faculty members attended training against this behavior. He had raised the concern directly to the professor, whose response was a declaration that he had worked here for thirty years and knew which policies were enforced, and which simply needed to be on paper for political reasons. His conduct continued, and tenure inexorably protected him from any consequences.
Unfortunately, this professor’s behavior is not unusual. The most educated, and even well mannered professors sometimes fall into patterns of conduct they never intended. However, the resulting choices affect everyone involved. By virtue of their positions, professors wield a magnitude of power that demands serious consideration. It is no wonder that under the kinds of pressure they face in teaching, sometimes the easier choice is made, rather than the right one. But the implications that these actions carry are critical, especially to those under the professor’s power. (The same holds for directors and board members interacting with professors who are their professional subordinates.)
Why is it that tenure protects these kinds of professors against professional consequences? The answer is because we are not discussing an illegal action, such as sexual harassment. We are discussing behavior regularly bemoaned by students, and brought up in faculty and staff training, but which is not explicitly prohibited under any law or policy: exclusion of deaf community members through deficient visual language. Gallaudet University’s Administration and Operations Manual is explicit about advocating for students’ overall well-being, but interpretation of the broad goals into daily behavior is left to each individual:
Employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner which at all times contributes positively to the health and welfare of the students and reflects well on the reputation and mission of the University…To encourage such behavior, the University prohibits discrimination and harassment and provides equal opportunities for all community members. (Standards of Conduct and/or Workplace Violence, 1.1 and 1.5)
Furthermore, as the only institution of higher education in the world designed specifically to educate and serve deaf and hard of hearing persons, Gallaudet University is a leader in communication accessibility and promotes direct visual communication among all members of the campus community. (Reasonable Accommodation, 1.10, emphasis added)
Contributing positively to the welfare of students and reflecting the mission of being a bilingual institution, especially as the university promotes direct visual communication is understood by most people to mean communicating in ASL any time on campus when not behind closed doors. However, the reality is that on a daily basis English can be heard in almost any hallway on campus. When members of the Gallaudet community who hold positions of power interact with their subordinates (be that professors to students, or administrators to professors), their choice of language is no minor decision. Many employees in powerful positions choose to speak English to hearing or hard-of-hearing subordinates in areas where deaf community members are present or may enter. This sends messages of exclusion to other students and colleagues who access language only through the visual modality, and puts the addressee in a difficult situation. The addressee must choose to respond in-kind, condoning those messages, or prioritize the values of equality and respect at the risk of damaging rapport with someone in power. Anecdotal evidence on campus suggests that students who respond to spoken language (whether accompanied by a spattering of signs or not) with American Sign Language (or their best attempt at it) are not met with explicit retribution, but rolled eyes, heavy sighs, and other signs of micro-aggression. In the moment this is disheartening and intimidating. Later when the student receives a low grade, is passed over for funding or work opportunities, or reprimanded for minor mistakes, the student may wonder if the blame lies with the choice to prioritize accessibility over professor approval. The stories that students from various departments share with each other serve as warnings to newcomers, and add an element of stress unique to Gallaudet students.
Professors and administrators who choose oppressive communication strategies cannot be dismissed as ignorant. Their defensive statements broadcast their awareness that their choice is counter to the expected and accepted behavior, but their actions indicate that they are unaware of the pain in those they ostracize. Common declarations defending the choice to exclude deaf community members resonate with sentiments such as: “This conversation does not concern them. When it is something important, then I’ll sign;” “I sign all day in class. I should be able to use my own first language when on my own time;” and “My deaf friends have told me they don’t care. If someone asks me to sign, I will.” However, behind each of these justifications is the idea that it is the Deaf person’s responsibility to ask for accessible communication. While that responsibility is indeed delegated to individuals everywhere else in the country, Gallaudet is an institution where that should not be the case. Friends confessing to each other in tears do not often express their pain to the ones who caused it: “I came to Gallaudet because I thought it would be place where I would not be reminded every minute that I live in a country where the majority of people look at me as something to be fixed or pitied, or as a burden. When I walk in the room and see that the people in there had been speaking, but switched to ASL when I walked in, I feel like just being who I am is an inconvenience for them. That they wish I’d never entered and are just waiting for me to leave.” Few people would respond to someone expressing this kind of pain with apathy, but nevertheless, people on campus continue to communicate through speech (with or without a few signs thrown in).
It is understandable. For most hearing people, ASL is not their first language. When communicating only visually, it is more difficult for them to express their thoughts and understand what the other person is saying. It is understandable that they would feel it is their right to use their first language. Though it may be their right, the consequences of each choice must be weighed: the impact that speaking has on other members of the Gallaudet community must be compared to the impact of entering a private room to use English, walking five minutes to leave campus, or making the extra effort to communicate in a second language. When professors and administrators make these choices, their position of power exerts an especially strong influence on those around them.
Melissa thought of the friendliness this professor had always expressed towards her. She recalled his support while she had applied for summer internships and scholarships. She did not want to offend him by responding to his speaking with signs, making clear that she disagreed with his choice. But then she thought of the hurt look on her roommate’s face as they discussed speaking on campus. She hoped rather than taking offense at her decision, her professor would be encouraged to reconsider his own, and they could both continue to develop their ASL throughout her time in the program. She looked at the open door, then back to her professor, smiled hopefully, and raised her hands to respond.
“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King
Editor’s Note: Though penned by a current Gallaudet student, the authorship of this essay belongs to all those whose stories it tells. Melissa’s, Nicole’s, and the witnessing professor’s stories in this article do not reflect only one person’s dilemma. The true author of this article is any student, staff, or faculty member who reads it and says, ‘Yes, I have felt that.’