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The Observer

A Class that Speaks Volumes Without Voices

American+Sign+Language+%28ASL%29+is+one+of+seven+world+language+programs+offered+at+CWU.+Lecturer+Jer+Loudenback+%28lower+right%29+is+Deaf%2C+so+students+may+only+communicate+with+him+using+their+knowledge+of+ASL.
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A Class that Speaks Volumes Without Voices

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of seven world language programs offered at CWU. Lecturer Jer Loudenback (lower right) is Deaf, so students may only communicate with him using their knowledge of ASL.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of seven world language programs offered at CWU. Lecturer Jer Loudenback (lower right) is Deaf, so students may only communicate with him using their knowledge of ASL.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of seven world language programs offered at CWU. Lecturer Jer Loudenback (lower right) is Deaf, so students may only communicate with him using their knowledge of ASL.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of seven world language programs offered at CWU. Lecturer Jer Loudenback (lower right) is Deaf, so students may only communicate with him using their knowledge of ASL.

Sean Quinn, Staff Reporter

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On the third floor of the Language and Literature Building at CWU, you walk into a classroom where students are communicating with a professor. Yet, you can hear a pin drop. But in the American Sign Language (ASL) program at CWU, this is the norm. In these classes, instructors maintain an ASL-only, no voices policy. Despite the lack of voices, students in this program are fully able to participate in classes with nothing but silent sounds, quick moving fingers and expressive facial gestures. It’s also a necessity, as the instructors in this particular program are Deaf.

Yes, that’s Deaf with a capital D. The two faculty in the ASL program, lecturer Jer Loudenback and professor Dr. Taralynn Petrites, refer to themselves as Deaf. This illustrates their strong attachment to Deaf culture and the Deaf community. Those who identify as “deaf” acknowledge their medical condition but do not associate with those two aspects. Petrites noted it’s important to know the proper way to address someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing.

“Regardless of the degree of hearing loss… ‘hearing impaired’ is a very negative term. It really causes a deaf person to feel like it will cause people to have a very negative reaction,” Petrites said.

Because the two faculty members cannot hear their surroundings, the minute students walk into their classrooms they remain silent. With the exception of occasional laughter, language is expressed through the movement of fingers or signs rather than with sound. There is no exception to this rule no matter which level of ASL class you take. If students encounter a miscommunication or lack of knowledge of vocabulary, they are encouraged to sign out words alphabetically or write questions down.

Yet students in Loudenback’s ASL literature class say they have no issues communicating with him despite the knowledge barrier. His students are in their third year of studying ASL at CWU, so they have grasped a deeper knowledge of signs.

When faced with a misunderstanding due to lack of oral communication, the students are encouraged to overcome it.

“[Loudenback] always asks us to be like Hermione from ‘Harry Potter,’” student Makayla Powell said. “The more you put into it as a student, the more you’re going to get out of it. He’s like ‘raise your hand, raise your hand if you don’t understand. If I’m going too fast, tell me to slow down.’”

Even though the signs are the same for everyone, students from Loudenback’s class said that everyone who communicates through ASL does so in a different way. It could be the speed of the signer that varies person-to-person, as well as their individual facial expressions. One man’s smile may not be the same as another woman’s.

“It’s very expressive. You have no idea what the context is until you look at their eyebrows and their smile and their facial expression. And their tongue,” classmate Lauren Serl said.

In his class, Loudenback stands at the front of the room and communicates using ASL and expressive body language such as wide-arm movements with emotions on his face. He has taught ASL formally for over 30 years. Although the environment could potentially welcome disruptions not audible to him, Loudenback is not pressured.

“I feel like students have taken this class very seriously. Same as in any hearing classroom,” Loudenback said.

During class, Loudenback uses numerous platforms besides ASL to teach, such as PowerPoint slides written in English and YouTube videos with other ASL signers. The class sits in one row, eyes focused on Loudenback’s hand movements and facial expressions. They must pay close attention, otherwise they miss critical information.

Another student in Loudenback’s class, Rae West, said that constant focus is crucial.

“Sometimes if you look away, or if you zone out…you’ll miss stuff. That’s the hard thing because you can’t listen,” West said.

Dr. Petrites is the only other ASL instructor within the program. Students in her lower level ASL classes are not expected to know as much vocabulary, so she signs at a slower, more visible expression.

When not teaching, she serves as the ASL program coordinator and advisor. She believes there are many reasons why students get a minor in ASL at CWU. She said at the present moment there is a high demand for ASL signers in the field. According to the CWU ASL program website, there are “over 20 million Americans [who] are deaf or hard of hearing, yet few people in our communities know enough ASL to be able to communicate with them.”

“Maybe they want [to] learn about [ASL] as a whole. Some want to become interpreters; some want to work in the field of special education. Other people want to feel it brings them out into the community possibly [in] social services or emergency services,” Petrites said.

Currently the ASL program is offered as a minor. There are six required courses in the minor, which is a total of 30 credits. Students can find out more information about this program by emailing Dr. Petrites ([email protected]).

Petrites also encourages both hearing and Deaf individuals to attend a “Deaf Coffee Chat.” These are held at the Starbucks on campus every second Friday of every month. It is an opportunity  welcoming people from all backgrounds to come and socialize using sign language. There will also be presentations and demonstrations given by ASL students at SOURCE presentations on May 15 and 16 all day in the SURC and on World Languages Day on May 17 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the SURC.

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