Student questions rule precluding non-education majors from receiving credit for American Sign Language

Some students have expressed concern over the college’s exclusion of American Sign Language from the general education foreign language requirement. SUNY recommended that colleges allow ASL to fulfill the requirement in summer 2017, according to Dean of Academic Planning and Advising and professor of English Celia Easton. 

Easton mentioned how Geneseo’s general education requirement stems from discussions administrators held after SUNY originally required it. 

“For many years, the SUNY guidelines said that students in certain majors, including education, could use [ASL] to satisfy a language requirement if a college had a language requirement…we had a long debate about what it should be,” Easton said. “[When Geneseo implemented its requirement] we were thinking about language for students in general as languages that are spoken or have been spoken . . . and that also have a culture associated with them.” 

Childhood and special education major junior Stephanie Pearl presented on Geneseo Recognizes Excellence, Achievement and Talent Day about a directed study entitled “American Sign Language as an Independent Language.” Pearl believes that Geneseo should open up the language requirement to allow students that are not education majors to use ASL to satisfy their requirements. 

“We’re right next to Rochester, which has one of the largest deaf communities in the world, so it would make sense that Geneseo of all places would have that happen,” Pearl said. “It’s silly to me that it’s only allowed for education majors because deaf people don’t only exist in schools, deafness is not cured at age 18 when you graduate. Saying only teachers need to know this isn’t right … deaf people need a society to communicate with those people.” 

The way that Geneseo considers its language requirement partly concerns the number of students who enter the college with certain experience with a language, according to Easton. In recent years, Easton noted that more students entered Geneseo with some ASL experience in high school. 

If students or faculty were interested in changing the requirements, they would need to make a proposal through the College Senate, according to Easton. Easton, whose position focuses on enacting policies rather than changing them, believes that the college would need to hold discussions on the matter before altering any policies. 

“People see this issue from different perspectives,” Easton said. “If you’ve done any preliminary research on this, you know that there are professors of language across the nation who say ‘no, we think the study of language has to do with speaking, reading, writing and culture.’ And there are other professors in linguistics … who say ‘yup, we agree and ASL fits those requirements.’ Not everyone is aware of the research and not everyone is aware of the presentations.” 

Pearl believes that those who dismiss ASL on the basis that it isn’t spoken misunderstand the language. 

“I’m told a lot that ASL isn’t a real language, that it’s a written language. If you look at the definition of a language, ASL fits every single criteria of what a language needs to be,” Pearl said. “It has grammar, structure, syntax. It’s not just a bunch of gestures, it’s a full language and it didn’t stem from English.”