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Princeton expands ASL program, adds Deaf culture class

<h5>A student signing ASL, the abbreviation for American Sign Language.</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
A student signing ASL, the abbreviation for American Sign Language.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Following last spring’s decision to establish a formal language sequence for American Sign Language (ASL), Princeton has expanded its ASL course offerings, hired an additional ASL professor, and added a new class on Deaf culture.

The expansion allows students to use ASL to fulfill the University’s language requirement and will expose a greater number of students to Deaf studies and disability studies.

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Noah Buchholz, who has taught ASL since 2018 and will teach LIN 215: American Deaf Culture in the spring, is a Religion and Society Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary. Until recently, he was the only permanent ASL professor at Princeton.

“I hope this course will motivate students not only to explore Deaf culture but also to learn more about disability issues,” Buchholz wrote. “Disability is at the core of structural oppression and thus ought to be at the core of social justice. I hope this course will help students not only appreciate the beauty of Deaf culture but also better understand how we can make this world more inclusive.”

Recent efforts toward ASL program expansion

An ASL course was first offered for credit in spring 2018 through the Program in Linguistics, and the program’s expansion was approved by the Faculty Committee on the Course of Study in April 2021. Although the committee was already considering a proposal from the Program in Linguistics, the issue became more visible to the University community because of a spring 2021 referendum written by Elaine Wright ’21 that advocated for ASL to count toward the language requirement.

Wright, who is deaf, also wrote a guest column for The Daily Princetonian on this subject in November 2020, in a follow-up to Assistant Opinion Editor Genrietta Churbanova’s previous column. She was inspired to advocate for ASL at Princeton after she noticed that other universities had more developed ASL programs.

“As I continued to speak with Noah [Buchholz] and with other students and also with my peers at other universities that had more complete ASL programs, we were realizing that Princeton wasn’t quite up to par and really wanted that for us, for myself and for other students,” she said.

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“I must applaud Elaine Wright and the whole campaign for rendering students' positive attitudes about ASL highly visible,” Buchholz wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’. “We all were inspired by the referendum. I think this helped make clear that students are genuinely interested in what ASL and the Deaf community have to offer.”

The new ASL language sequence includes four ASL courses: ASL 101 (Beginner's I), ASL 102 (Beginner's II), ASL 105 (Intermediate), and ASL 107 (Advanced). Like other introductory language classes at Princeton, ASL 101 and 102 now meet daily — a change from past iterations that met three times per week.

LIN 205, which has been offered since 2018, was originally named “Beginning American Sign Language” but is now “A Survey of American Sign Language.” The class has traditionally served as an introduction to ASL for interested students. It will be offered every spring, although it will not count towards the language requirement.

“Some of the main reasons behind keeping LIN 205 are that we want to give as many students as possible the opportunity to learn ASL and to spread the awareness of ASL, Deaf, and disability issues even more,” Buchholz wrote.

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Buchholz is no longer the only ASL professor at Princeton. Daniel Maier, who has a Masters of Science in Deaf Education and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at Gallaudet University, taught ASL 101 in the fall and will teach ASL 102 in the spring.

“It has been an incredible experience working with Daniel Maier,” Buchholz wrote. “He has been bringing many innovative ideas for teaching ASL to the table. I can't wait to see more of his future contributions.”

Maier described his experience teaching at Princeton for the first time in an email to the ‘Prince.’

“Teaching at Princeton has been rewarding and positively challenging as a teacher and a sign language linguist,” he wrote. “The Princeton students I have seen so far are passionate, gifted, and invested in learning. It is truly wonderful to work with such excellent students.”

Origins, topics, and primary goals of LIN 215

Buchholz said that American Deaf Culture was included in the proposal for expanding the ASL program submitted by the Program in Linguistics to University administration.

“I had always thought about possibly teaching a course on Deaf culture here at Princeton someday, but I was too focused on developing the ASL courses. So, I'm grateful that the Program in Linguistics proactively came up with this idea,” he wrote.

According to the course description, the class “explores the history, culture, and language of the Deaf in the United States.” Students will learn about Deaf history, language, literature, art, and politics, and will also examine topics Deaf people engage with today, such as audism, ableism, intersectionality, disability rights, and education.

Buchholz explained that many people are not familiar with Deaf culture.

“They might be aware about the existence of sign language, but they don't realize that the Deaf community also possesses a rich history and culture,” he wrote.

The class will also discuss how Deafness relates to the broader disability rights movement: “Even if the students do not use ASL in their careers, I believe that their experience in the ASL sequence or Deaf culture classes would enable them to be better advocates and change agents for millions of deaf and hard of hearing people in the US and beyond,” Maier wrote.

Isabel Rodrigues ’23 is enrolled in LIN 215 in the spring. She has never taken ASL, but she has been engaged in disability inclusion efforts as a member of the ‘Prince’ accessibility working group, which motivated her to take the class. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ she expressed her excitement about the upcoming Deaf culture class.

“I'm glad that they're recognizing that there's interest on campus in learning more and starting to supplement some of the actual learning of ASL with more culture-focused classes that are going to give better context, so it's really exciting,” she said.

Rodrigues is Head Copy Editor and Head Podcast Editor for the ‘Prince.’

“I think first of all, just in general, if you're offering a language, you have to teach about the culture. I know we get a little bit of that as we're learning ASL, but to have a full class focused specifically on Deaf culture is really important,” Wright concurred.

Buchholz hopes to further expand ASL, Deaf studies, and disability studies at Princeton. He would like students who complete the introductory language sequences to have the opportunity to take more advanced ASL courses, such as a class in ASL literature. Buchholz also proposed that perhaps one day there will be a Department of ASL and Deaf Studies or a Department of Disability Studies at the University.

“Speaking of what Princeton could do in the future, I really hope that the increased visibility of ASL and Deaf culture on campus will help make Princeton more accessible and inclusive,” Buchholz wrote. “I hope one of the results of this is an increase in the number of disabled faculty members, staff members, and students.”

Naomi Hess is an associate news editor who focuses on university policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached at nihess@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.

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