I recently fulfilled a promise to a Deaf-centric Facebook group I’m part of to post a braindump of some of the project thoughts I’ve been having. These are what the rough draft thoughts of a researcher look like; don’t hold me to these, I’m putting them out there so that we can someday trace this thought-history. At best, this is a rough memo/working snapshot of my thoughts at this particular moment in time.

I am - hopefully - working towards being able to offer full-blown electrical engineering undergraduate content in ASL (this is a tremendous and daunting task, and I have a lot to learn along the way). It’s my field, and I know I have a gift for teaching it and creating materials for learning; I want to… not so much “make good materials for DHH students,” but “make the best materials for anyone looking to learn my field, period” - and then have it JUST SO HAPPEN that those materials are in ASL (with captions and voiceover). So if people want the good stuff, it’ll be signed. That’s what I want my contribution towards turning the tide to be.

Better description of this: Imagine high-quality, open-licensed, online introductory college course materials for technical topics (my realms are computer/electrical/software engineering, so I’ll be focusing there).

They happen to be in ASL, and are full-blown exemplifications of all the gorgeous linguistic affordances ASL has for spatial descriptions, personification, collaborative signing (multiple people using their hands and bodies to illustrate a concept together – I’m the wire, you’re the electrons rushing through, etc.) and so forth.

I’ve experimented with some of this with hearing non-signers, both students and faculty; if I tell them the topic and start signing with conceptual clarity, they can often voice me and get really excited. For instance, if you know some basic programming, see the expansion videos for “function” (https://aslcore.org/computerscience/entries/?id=function) and “call (a function)” (https://aslcore.org/computerscience/entries/?id=call) in ASLCore - it’s a computing concept distinct from what we usually gloss as FUNCTION (“what function does that object perform”), and the hearing professors who’ve seen it have mentioned it’s the clearest explanation they have ever seen, in any language (and again, they don’t know any ASL).

Those are from pilot round of developing vocabulary for https://aslcore.org/engineering/ and https://aslcore.org/computerscience (we’re currently at that first-draft pilot point, and there needs to be a lot of work on feedback/refining, but I’m veering off on a tangent there). But imagine an entire college course on introductory program where the lectures look like that. And the homework/activities have visuals (diagrams, etc.) that echo the signs and then later explain how the concepts are written out in English (or whatever) as a secondary language (for the course). And the labs involve prototyping these concepts with your hands/bodies/props/drawings/etc. first, and THEN doing the math/code/circuitry/etc. implementations.

Also critically: this is not material designed just for DHH learners or those who already know ASL. It is a living showcase of how amazing ASL can be for learning advanced technical topics. Take all the things Deaf theatre is trying to do, and bring it into the classroom. (Again, I do college-level STEM stuff, so I’m going to start on my home turf.)

For this, there are also access streams (in the vein of subtitles/audio descriptions/transcripts) so that others can access the beauty of the descriptions in ASL. These are specifically NOT interpretations into English. Instead, I’d take the approach the Flying Words Project started – what supplementary information do people need to learn how to see the beauty in the ASL versions? So: sound effects, voicing of strategic words, explanatory “here’s how to watch this” bits available before key lecture videos, animated overlays showing what our classifers are depicting, etc. (there’s a recent video I’m trying to find that does this for an ASL poem).

Also: this would be designed so there would be workable combinations for DHH-nonsigner, hearing-sighted, hearing-blind, and DeafBlind audiences – I want these accessible to as many people as possible.

The dream would be to someday be able to have materials for every single typical within-major core course in a standard electrical/computer engineering curriculum, which is generally something along the lines of these four courses/topics:

  • introduction to programming and software engineering
  • analog circuits (DC and AC)
  • digital logic and computer architecture
  • signals and systems (this is how audiological devices work, btw - imagine labs that have students explaining how their CI works.)

Bonus rounds:

  • microelectronics/mechatronics
  • analog and digital / wireless communications

This is a lifetime of work. Tremendous work. Requiring many people and many years. I won’t finish. This won’t look anything like I imagine, and I’m still getting up the courage to dream about it in public (hi).

More thoughts in the comments with musings/requests, to break up this… epic long post.

So here’s some of what I’m thinking, too.

I’m Deaf, grew up oral, and learned ASL as a young adult (in the middle of my PhD in engineering edu). My work has been situated in the realms of electrical, computer, and software engineering pedagogy in adult learning situations (college and beyond). I’ve done extensive work on building open online resources and communities centered around technical concepts - it’s something I have an international reputation for, a knack for, and a deep love of. I’m pretty uniquely positioned to bring together resources for this.

Honestly, I have constant doubts as to whether I should even be doing this, if this will become some kind of exotic signing inspiration porn thing, if I’m “Deaf Enough” as a non-native signer who has good spoken language skills, all of that impostor syndrome stuff (but also good caution in terms of checking my privilege and the ways people could misuse this kind of thing).

I also know things I want to be specifically watchful of from the start.

  1. I’m Deaf, and I use ASL pretty heavily in my own life and work, but I’m not a native signer. I want to direct recognition towards honoring and supporting the work of those more linguistically skilled than I am. Some of this material would be performed by CDIs, Deaf actors, etc. (Other materials would be performed by a wide variety of DHH technical professionals – with coaching by ASL specialists – so they can show their individual signing accents but with as much clarity as possible.)

  2. I’m trying to bring awareness to Deaf Gain in engineering/tech/computing education. I’m not an expert on Deaf culture; I want, again, to point to and provide resources to and honor the long history of people who have built and studied Deaf culture, arts, history, language, etc. They have the expertise, not me. (Engineers are particularly bad at assuming they can quickly become experts in anything, so it’s good for them to learn how to honor the skills of other fields.)

  3. So much intersectionality and privilege wound up in this, and I want to be thoughtful towards it. I will mess up a ton, and can only hope the communities around me will call me out so I can learn (and work to be someone worth teaching).

Last part of the braindump, wherein I specifically ask for advice.

Specifically, I have some time to learn and train up. It’ll take at least 2-3 years to write/get a grant to even start it anyway, and to get to a position in my career where I can even propose it (gotta deal with my ADHD and finish my damn PhD first). I have the technical/pedagogical knowledge and ways to improve on that – I can make an open online engineering course with excellent materials.

What I feel underconfident in are my linguistic/cultural skills. And I’m trying to dive into shoring these up in the time I have, but am wrestling with how to do so.

I’m comfortable signing. It’s become my preferred langauge in many settings, to my great surprise. But I also have all of 2 weeks of formal ASL classes, a mainstream accent, and spotty grammar knowledge largely gleaned from nerding out with sign language linguists and reading some of their papers/books.

I’m heavily biased towards academic ASL environments/people, and want to expand this range. Much of my sign exposure/usage is in academic/professional settings, and most of my close Deaf friends are academics. All that means that I can chat comfortably with signers who are fluent in either or both of ASL and English (and have flexibility and repair skills), but struggle with folks with marked language deprivation, little kids, Deaf+, international signing accents (“I wish I had some of the receptive and communication negotiation skills that CDIs have, but where do you learn that?”)

Yeah, I know, hang out with Deaf people. I am. Folks (in Rochester, anyway) have told me either “you’re fine” or “just hang out more with Deaf folks,” but… sometimes it helps to have guidance/structure to learn how to analyze and deliberately practice what you’re seeing when you hang out. And there’s the cultural aspect as well – growing up with a hearing family that doesn’t sign, mainstreaming my whole life, every moment I see what it could look like for this to be normal… is just precious. And also helpful towards figuring out how to build this project, which in many ways is “what if we had culturally Deaf engineering education environments? What would that look like?”

How would you cobble together a training program for this, knowing my long-term project goals? How would you think about it? I’m just going as fast and hard as I can, and bouncing off walls and picking up stuff, so any and all input is incredibly welcomed.