IM this article to a friend!

June 21, 2006

UMBC to phase out ASL courses in 2007.

From: Retriever - Baltimore,MD,USA - Jun 21, 2006

By Elizabeth Silberholz
Retriever Weekly Editorial Staff

This article is a re-run from issue 24

The Modern Languages and Linguistics (MLL) department recently announced their decision to cease all American Sign Language (ASL) instruction at UMBC.

According to MLL department chair Dr. Judith Schneider, the faculty of the MLL department decided to phase out instruction in ASL classes over the summer 2006, fall 2006, and spring 2007 semesters.

“The decision of the MLL department to phase out its offerings of three semesters of ASL did not stem from a belief that learning American Sign Language was not a valuable and useful experience for undergraduate students. It came rather from a need…to link budget and planning,” Schneider said. “We value knowledge about deaf culture in the United States, but we are faced with difficult choices in times of decreased support for state universities.”

According to Schneider, the decision was made “after considerable discussion over several years about our departmental mission and priorities.”

The decision was hit home when “administrative and external reviewer responses to our recent Seven Year Internal Review report…suggest[ed] that the department’s resources were spread very thin, and that it would be best if we were to focus on our strengths and on our primary goals,” she said.

“We carefully reconsidered our long-term goals and priorities…and the role of our programs in the context of UMBC’s Strategic Framework for 2016. These long-term goals include strengthening emphasis on international and intercultural communication at all levels: undergraduate, Master’s, and doctoral,” Schneider said.

A new focus

After much consideration, department eventually concluded that “The prime function of the MLL department is to teach languages other than English and teach about cultures other than U.S. culture,” thus eliminating ASL instruction as one of their department’s main goals.

According to Schneider, “We are the first to argue for a need for more resources in the area of language and culture studies, but we unfortunately have one of the smallest departmental budgets on campus…and we cannot satisfy the legitimate needs of all students at UMBC given our inadequate resources.”

Instead of continuing to support ASL, Schneider said that her department “must put our limited departmental resources into offering students an opportunity to learn about European, Latin American, African, and Asian cultures.”

Schneider said, “It would be more in line with the department’s mission, academic program priorities and strategic goals for 2016 to use funds currently dedicated to part-time instruction in ASL either to strengthen our Asian language program or to support our pilot program in the Arabic language.”

Though the loss of sign language classes at UMBC is regrettable, she said, “There are students in Chinese and Japanese and Arabic classes who would feel the same way if their programs were phased out or not allowed to expand.”

In summer 2006, the MLL department plans to offer ASL 101 first session and ASL 102 second session in addition to ASL 201. In fall 2006, ASL 102 and ASL 201 will be offered. Schneider indicated that spring 2007 will most likely be limited to a few sections of ASL 201 for “students still needing to finish the 201 proficiency level for the GFR requirement.”

By fall 2007, ASL classes will no longer be offered during the regular fall and spring semesters. However, Schneider noted, “The MLL department may continue to offer ASL courses in summer and winter sessions, depending on student interest and on whether or not some other department at UMBC takes up the project of teaching ASL.”

A few weeks after the MLL faculty voted to discontinue ASL classes at UMBC, the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences approved the verdict.

Up for adoption

Though Schneider supports her department’s decision to eliminate ASL classes in the MLL department, she suggested that students look elsewhere for sign language education.

Schneider claimed, “When ASL was begun in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, it was not the department’s intention that ASL serve as a sequence to fulfill the 201 level foreign language proficiency requirement. Historically, we decided to offer ASL simply as a service to a select number of students going into professional fields where ASL would be essential to give students…a first-hand experience in a nonverbal language.”

Schneider emphasized the limited scope of ASL courses at UMBC. “From its inception, the ASL program has functioned on a shoe-string with a part-time instructor who understandably did not have advising or research or service responsibilities,” she said.

“Every semester we distribute printed material to students explaining the limited scope of our program and attempt to screen the students who most need ASL,” Schneider said. “Because we only offer a limited sequence of courses given by a part-time instructor, we do not provide students with the adequate training to prepare them to use American Sign Language effectively in their careers.”

According to Schneider, “Well-developed [ASL] programs exist at CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County], Catonsville, and other community college campuses. It is our belief that UMBC students would be better served if they took the ASL program at those schools that have more adequately developed programs.”

Schneider also suggested that ASL classes might be more effectively offered by various UMBC departments outside of MLL such as the Education, English, or American Studies departments, or even the English Language Center.

Forced farewell

The April 5 decision to end ASL classes at UMBC came as a blow to Keith Robertson, the sole ASL instructor at UMBC, as well as to his present and former students.

Robertson, who has been teaching ASL at UMBC since 1990, stated that he was not “totally shocked by the unfortunate news.” However, he said, “I was very disappointed that I was not asked for an input before the faculty members made their ultimate decision.”

Since Robertson is deaf and thus “without an ability to communicate with [his] peers freely,” he feels that the MLL department has excluded him from many of their faculty functions and meetings. Robertson believes that this lack of “consideration to accommodate [his] communication needs” has perhaps contributed to his exclusion from the decision process concerning the fate of UMBC’s ASL program.

Most ASL students adore Robertson and are thus greatly saddened by the thought that he may be driven from campus.

Junior biochemistry major and former ASL student Caitlin Baum said, “Mr. Robertson is wonderful. He's very easy to talk to, and I often stop to speak to him if I see him on campus, even now that I'm out of his classes. Because he is deaf as well, you get an amazing amount of practice…having Mr. Robertson teach us Sign Language ensures that the students pick up the language quickly so they understand the assignments!...I love the fact that, even out of his class, I'm still learning from him.”

Due to relatively small class sizes, many ASL sections become very close-knit. One student noted that Robertson is inviting all of his students to his house this summer for a barbeque.

One student, fearing that Robertson will have to leave UMBC, argued that there is an “obvious demand” in the community for ASL classes. “How shameful is it that a public university cannot provide as many opportunities as [CCBC]? So many people want to learn [ASL]. If there were more professors, or a director…many more people would be able to take it and it could bloom into a great program.”

Senior and current ASL student Ethan Lee further illustrated the shock of the ASL program’s participants. He said, “I’ve never heard anyone complaining that it’s not a full program.”

Some students think that the MLL department is phasing out ASL classes because they believe ASL is easier to learn than other languages, thus encouraging students to enroll in ASL classes in order to effortlessly pass the school’s language requirement.

Junior and ASL student Greg Walsh said, “This is not an easy way out—it’s a very challenging class.”

According to Walsh, students are expected to give signed presentations, equivalent to any other language class’s oral presentations, watch signed movies, and even attend deaf events in the area.

Baum agreed that the class is challenging, “While some signs are simple, almost like pantomime…there are also signs that are subtle and important to get right…if you don’t practice regularly, you run the risk or erring in a sign slightly and end up unintentionally offending whomever you are speaking to.”

Robertson said, “ASL is like any other foreign language such as Chinese, Latin German and Spanish. I believe ASL is a third language commonly used in our country.”

Elizabeth Silberholz can be reached for questions or comment at

Copyright: Elizabeth Silberholz