Thinking About Teaching Online as a Deaf Faculty Member

Pure and unconditional hospitality, hospitality itself, opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whoever arrives as an absolute foreign visitor, as a new arrival, non-identifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other.

-Jacques Derrida

We all want to be Frye at the podium. Standing in a sunlit classroom, the windows open to a September breeze wafting across the ivy-covered quad. Students sit rapt at their desks, nary a phone or laptop in sight, as the sonorous tones of our voice fill the room, later to be transposed for posterity as a Massey Lecture.

The fiction of professorial authority has been challenged by the COVID-19 crisis and the abrupt shift to online teaching. Some colleagues may panic at the demands of online technology; others, like Mark Kingwell, may mourn the loss of “face-to-face Socratic engagement, the special benefits of group interlocution with nothing but a shared text before us.” But what happens when our Socratic dialogue is interrupted by a sign language interpreter’s requests for repetition of what are to them unfamiliar terms or names? What happens to group interlocution when a deaf student is 60 seconds behind in the discussion due to the time lag in interpreting from English to ASL and the student’s own processing of information? Is this really engagement with special benefits for everyone if no allowance is made for communicative stops, lapses, multimodality, or multidirectionality?

Officially, during the COVID-19 crisis, instructors are doing “emergency teaching online” without purporting to teach online courses. As much as possible, our teaching is supposed to be an approximation of what Kingwell calls “real seminars and lectures,” while acknowledging our online efforts are “poor shadows of the real thing.” But what is here posited to be “the real thing” is predicated on the assumption of a typically hearing/speaking body and the emulation of normative communication standards. Thus, there is a strong orientation toward synchronous lectures and class meetings via Zoom or Google Meet, which, as safeandsilent, Kusters et al., and the World Federation of the Deaf note, present new barriers for deaf learners and deaf faculty members. There is much less of an initiation into the capabilities of online learning and the myriad possibilities and responsibilities for human communication.

For example, I need to develop and teach a brand-new M.A. course that will be wholly online for the foreseeable future. I will assign students the responsibility of moderating online discussions of course readings; these discussions need to be accessible to me as their instructor. In thinking through the ways in which this may be possible, I hit on the idea of asking students to add captions (or a transcript) if they decide to produce a video about a given topic. When I broached this idea with colleagues, I was met with scepticism. It’s too hard! It takes too long! Is adding captions a course objective? Incidentally, however, few colleagues seemed familiar with the range of ways that captions can be added to a video.

I have since determined that I will offer my students step-by-step instructions regarding how to add captions and/or produce a transcript of a video or audio presentation, even if they decide not to complete the moderation assignment via either mode of delivery. Aren’t captions just another mode of human communication that happens to be enabled by the online environment? And shouldn’t a university environment committed to principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion be open to facilitating access by and for everyone involved?

For deaf faculty and learners, access to online teaching and learning may require thinking beyond the provision of sign language interpreters, who can have more limited utility in a remote format but who are often assigned sole responsibility for the deaf person’s access. As De Meulder and Haualand note, this view of interpreters as a quick fix has consequences that are borne mainly by deaf people. Online learning can enable more text-based, direct communication between participants: an affordance not always available in the face-to-face classroom. Online learning should facilitate a shift and an expansion in our repertoires, a discovery of new ways of communicating and engaging.