Center for Deaf Documentary Studies working to educate, document, and present Deaf life stories

June 15, 2016

Author: Nathan Ramsier

In under four minutes, English major Maggie Kopp summarized a 1960s NASA research project involving deaf men, and her work to collect their stories, to a rapt audience at Gallaudet's first annual Research Expo. As the country prepared for manned space exploration, NASA and the U.S. Navy recruited 11 Gallaudet men who would participate in experiments on weightlessness, motion, and gravitational forces.

Immune to motion sickness, Kopp explained that these deaf bioastronaut test subjects immensely aided space survival research, helping scientists understand how human senses overlap, adapt, and compensate for one another.  

As Kopp surrendered the stage to the next student researcher, it was clear that her work was far from finished.  

"After designing a storyboard, and with the help of archival correspondence and conversations with the surviving members of the 'Gallaudet 11' through email and in person, I'm now working on an exhibition so this story can get the attention it deserves," said Kopp.

Kopp has fully immersed herself in this research project, initiated with the support of Gallaudet's Center for Deaf Documentary Studies (CDDS), where Kopp has interned since September, 2015.  

"CDDS is the only humanities-based research center at Gallaudet, and we have a unique role in documenting the experiences of deaf people," said Dr. Brian Greenwald, '96, professor of History and CDDS director.  

CDDS aims to educate students in the documentary arts, explore the lives of deaf people, and cultivate awareness of human diversity. The center pursues these goals with a multi-faceted approach of education, documentation, and presentation.  

Crossing many disciplines, CDDS builds networks to educate students about documentary film, photography, and narrative writing by organizing cross-listed courses, presenters, and workshops, and providing a network of knowledgeable faculty and staff. It creates documentation by identifying significant topics, conducting archival research, and bringing the findings to life through a variety of mediums. Finally, CDDS presents the documentary products via screenings, exhibitions, and publications.  

The Gallaudet University Museum, which has its own mission and vision statement, is now part of CDDS. Together the team works to present Deaf life and support the University's Strategic Plan.   

As Kopp's internship demonstrates, student involvement is essential in meeting these goals and integral to the overall mission.

"Maggie Kopp's work on the U.S. Navy/NASA project has been exemplary," said Greenwald. "She has not only finished impressive research but also designed the framework for a future exhibition."  

Kopp is joined by graduate assistant, linguistics major Joey Aguilera, who is developing the center's website. "CDDS is an invaluable part of Gallaudet University that can give meaning to our understanding of culture, social life, and history," said Aguilera.   

The vision for CDDS was originally shared during a 2012 open forum hosted by the Office of the Provost. On April 8, 2014, the Center was officially launched. Today it has found solid footing with office space in the Sorenson Language and Communication Center (SLCC), a small but energetic staff, enthusiastic collaborators, and a handful of funded projects.  

"Despite the rich significance of the humanities in a 21st century world, funding is brutally competitive," said Greenwald. "We greatly appreciate support from the University, and we also seek external support to create documentary products on Deaf life."  

The NASA project is just one of many research endeavors currently underway at CDDS. On March 6, 2016, CDDS and City Lore cohosted a panel discussion in New York City entitled "Life before Captions: Deaf NYC Stories." The center is now building on this conversation to explore the large and diverse deaf community in New York City. CDDS also played a significant role in organizing Gallaudet's spring semester panel discussion on the acclaimed documentary The Central Park Five.

During the 2016 Homecoming weekend, CDDS will cohost a free event with the Gallaudet University Archives and the Office of Alumni Relations to digitize personal photographs, letters, and documents. This October 28 event, "Capturing Deaf Heritage," will include presentations on the importance, methods, and applications for preserving cultural documents. 

The CDDS was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (PY-234457-16) to support the presentation and documentation efforts.  Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov

*Note: Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.