‘GU²’ class helps university students bridge gap between cultures

November 04, 2013

Author: Megan Clancy

"GU²" is clever wordplay for a collaboration between two Washington, D.C. universities that share the same initials -- Georgetown and Gallaudet. While combining resources enhances learning about academic subjects in most university partnerships, this collaboration has a different focus: because most of the Georgetown students are hearing and most of the Gallaudet students are deaf, sharing the same project, GU², gives them deeper knowledge about each other's culture, language, and identity.

The proposal for the collaboration was made in 2011 by Dr. Sylvia Önder, a Georgetown visiting anthropology professor who teaches a "Cultures and Identities" course. She contacted Dr. Thomas Horejes, who teaches "Sociology of Deafness and Deaf People" at Gallaudet, and he was receptive to the idea.

"Deaf culture is a great challenge for anthropology, since it is not based on a traditional ethnic group. Most hearing people have never thought of themselves as hearing, so they have to start from scratch with trying to figure out what to think about a group that has been an oppressed minority," said Önder. "Also, the deaf community is incredibly diverse in all the ways that the Georgetown student body is diverse."
At the beginning of the fall semester, both faculty members had their students visit each other's campuses to get acquainted and learn about campus traditions and landmarks. At Gallaudet, the Georgetown students also learned about DeafSpace, video phones, and using visual cues like switching lights on and off to get a deaf person's attention. They were also shown the deaf-friendly environment at Union Market, adjacent to the Gallaudet campus.

Önder was aware that, out of their element, many of the students would be uncomfortable at first, but encouraged it as part of the learning experience. "I felt a bit awkward and nervous at first, since I was in a new environment of which I was not previously familiar," confessed Mekleet Teferi, a Georgetown student majoring in environmental biology. "I was also frustrated at times, because I desperately wanted to communicate with the other students but couldn't because I had practically no knowledge of ASL." By taking the course, however, Teferi is gaining insights on a group of people that she had known very little about. "It helped me see issues of culture and identity through a different lens. I had the opportunity to learn more about deaf culture, a culture I was not very familiar with before taking class. I feel like even as of right now, I'm more culturally aware and knowledgeable than I was months ago."

Gallaudet student Micah Kothe reported a similar experience. "It is tough when we as human beings with no commonality in communication try to interact with each other," Kothe noted. "The GU Squared course helps me with my personal growth by making friends with hearing students without fear of shyness by becoming more confident." 

Also at the start of the semester, the students watched Sound and Fury, a 2000 Academy Award nominated documentary feature about a family's struggle over whether or not to give two deaf children cochlear implant surgery. One of the central characters in the film, Heather Artinian, who was age 5 at the time the film was made and later on received two cochlear implants, is now a Georgetown University student majoring in government. Stephanie McCoy, another Georgetown student who is taking the GU² course, also has a cochlear implant. Although McCoy, who doesn't know sign language, identifies with the hearing community, she said "I still feel isolated since I'm not 100 percent hearing." On the other hand, John Isaacson, a Gallaudet student who grew up in a deaf family, also has a cochlear implant that he received at age 12 to communicate better in mainstream settings, but he still considers himself part of the deaf community.

After the film was shown, Artinian, who was a guest during the class discussion, shared her input about the controversy in the deaf community over cochlear implants. "I think the idea of Georgetown collaborating with Gallaudet is great," said Artinian. "Anytime that anyone is willing to open up their minds and learn about different cultures and identities, it moves society forward. I can only hope that both communities gain some perspective from this." The students from both campuses discussed identity, parents' authority to make decisions for their deaf children, experiences living in a "hearing-privileged" world, and educational choices for deaf children. Both Önder and Horejes said the discussion was spirited.

The students are becoming further acquainted with each other's worlds through shared readings and discussions held by video conference on social stigmas, medical issues, and identity. "We are often afraid of what we do not know," said Horejes, which leads to deep-seated ideological assumptions about another group, and therefore leads to prejudice. It is the goal of GU² "to eradicate these assumptions by developing a shared course that engages in discourse about culture and identity." Another intended outcome, he said, "is to reveal the ways how there are many different ways to be human."

These objectives are accomplished not by avoiding differences but by bringing them to the forefront and dissecting them. The idea, said Önder, "is to get students to be able to encounter differences and then engage in a thoughtful dialogue that starts with a careful explanation of one's own position and a careful listening to the different position of another, followed by real collaboration on a mutual project (i.e. visiting each other's homecoming or sporting events)." If this works, it will benefit all involved, not just the students, but also the professors also."   By collecting responses from students via online and written assignments, Önder hopes the results of this research help confirm her hypothesis that emotional engagement and even discomfort with a new and different culture can have a significant impact on the process of education and experiential learning.

The hearing and deaf students bridge their communication gap with the help of the Internet (blogs, online chats, and surveys) and video technology to supplement American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. Horejes added that "Gallaudet was able to ensure interpreting access to facilitate communication." The use of technology enabled students from both universities to engage in rich dialogue about identity and culture, said Horejes. Both faculty members compare student notes during the videoconferencing assignments to identify if there are similar or different patterns of thought when discussing a singular article or concept.

"This class helps me learn about different identities and how different people can be ... and that's what makes everyone unique," said Isaacson. Georgetown student Timothy Loh, from Singapore, who is majoring in culture and politics at the School of Foreign Service, served in a deaf ministry in his home country for two years. He explained that although the ministry brought him into contact with the deaf community, "deaf pride is not as strong [in Singapore] and deaf culture is not the same as back home." Through the class, Loh is hoping to get to know Gallaudet students on both academic and social levels.

Kothe compared the GU² class to the process of mixing two colors to get a third. If Georgetown is represented by the color red, and blue represents Gallaudet, he said, "this collaboration will make us a fabulous team, which is represented by [the color] purple."

See students and the professors from fall 2011 in action.