American Sign Language, offered for the first time at the University of Lynchburg, was such a popular selection as students registered for their fall classes this past spring that a third section of the introductory class, ASL 101, was added.
All told, there are 60 students taking ASL at Lynchburg this fall. The new classes, which will also include ASL 102 in the spring, can be used to satisfy language requirements of the DELL general education curriculum.
For Dr. Cheryl Coleman, one of the faculty members who proposed adding ASL at Lynchburg, the classes also will help “build connections between the humanities and other programs,” especially the health sciences.
“I envisioned ASL as a language that would be particularly useful to students who plan careers in health care, human services, social work, law enforcement, etc.,” Coleman, associate dean of the Lynchburg College of Arts and Sciences, School of Humanities, said. “The results of the poll I sent out to students in February of 2019 and the level of interest in ASL during spring pre-registration bore that out.”
She hopes that, eventually, 200-level courses will be added.
Coleman had been thinking about ASL at Lynchburg for a while, but a chance encounter with one of her former students finally got the ball rolling. “One day … a former student of mine at Lynchburg, who is our coordinator of Outdoor Leadership Programs, stopped by my office to talk,” she said.
“During the conversation, he happened to mention in passing that his wife, Miranda [Slusser], is a teacher for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the Lynchburg public school system and has her master’s degree in deaf education. ‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘She does what?’”
Further inspired and with a possible instructor in mind, Coleman and Dr. Alicia Carter, chair of modern and classical languages, got serious about having ASL added to the Fall 2020 lineup. “[Alicia] and I initially met with four local ASL educators, including Miranda, in the Lynchburg area, trying to figure out how to proceed,” Coleman said.
“Then Alicia worked diligently to develop courses and guide them through the approval process. You can imagine the challenge she faced since no one in her department is familiar with ASL, and usually faculty who have expertise in a particular area are the ones to build new courses.”
Eventually, the ALS classes were approved and Slusser and Dr. Bill Atwell, a local college professor and member of the deaf community, were enlisted to teach the classes.
“Miranda was a huge help to us, helping to educate Alicia and me about terminology, erroneous beliefs, and aspects of the language we knew nothing about, such as the importance of facial expressions,” Coleman said. “I think she and Dr. Atwell … will help to make our entire campus more aware of a community most of us know little to nothing about.”
Slusser first started taking ASL classes in ninth grade to satisfy a foreign language requirement. “I had an amazing teacher who inspired me to blend my two passions together, working with children and signing, to become a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing,” she said.
After graduating from high school, she continued her ASL studies in college and eventually earned a master’s degree in deaf education. When Coleman and Carter reached out to her about teaching ASL at Lynchburg, she jumped at the chance.
“Teaching ASL has been a goal of mine for a while, so I’m very excited to see this program come to be,” she said.
So far, the reaction from students has been overwhelmingly positive. “I have a few students who were interested in ASL as a major, something that isn’t offered … yet,” Slusser said optimistically just prior to the first in-person class.
“Other students have said that they have siblings that have taken ASL courses in the past and have wanted to learn for a while. Tonight will be our first in-person class and our first ‘hands up’ class, so I am very excited to dive in.”
Atwell, who has been deaf since birth and also teaches ASL at another local college, hopes the class will encourage his students to get to know people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
“Once a student learns and masters ASL, he or she will be drawn to the deaf community for practice and fellowship,” Atwell said. “My hope is that all students taking ASL courses will use the language to communicate with the deaf and not just for university credit.”