Two Gallaudet English professors participated in an all-deaf panel during the 2024 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Philadelphia on January 6. The plenary session, “Expanding Deaf Narrative: Scholarly, Critical, Creative, and Production Approaches,” was moderated by Dr. Jennifer Nelson, and featured Dr. Kristen Harmon as well as author Sara Nović, Dr. Jason Farr from Marquette University, and Dr. Christopher Krentz from the University of Virginia. (In the photo above, Nelson is in the middle and Harmon is at the far right.)

The group discussed American Sign Language (ASL) publishing, eugenics and Deaf writers, writing ASL in English fiction, and sign gain through poetics. “It was a really great experience — all-deaf vibes and good leadership in scholarship, deaf scholarly ecosystems, and visibility,” says Harmon, who notes that this was one of very few such panels in MLA history.

ASL is commonly taught at U.S. universities, and statistics show it is one of just a handful of languages that have seen recent gains in enrollment. Despite this, ASL has not been much of a presence within the MLA, a global organization with 22,000 members. Over the past 20 years, there have only been 16 panels at MLA meetings related to ASL and ASL literature, explains panel organizer Dr. Brenda Jo Brueggemann of the University of Connecticut.

So it was significant that the 2024 conference featured not only this panel as a plenary, but also another session that included Nelson, who directs Gallaudet’s Honors Program, presenting about Deaf Gain. Brueggemann hopes that the field will do even more to address this disconnect. “The way to get more deaf members and more ASL/Deaf panels is to advocate for more ASL tenure-track positions, methinks,” she says.

The panel was a great opportunity to showcase the richness of ASL literature, says Krentz, who observed that attendees skewed young and were attentive throughout the session. Nović got universally positive feedback. “People were pushed out of their comfort zones both by the material itself, and the nature of the presentations in ASL,” she says. “It was decentering for them in a good way!”

Farr praises the accessibility of the event. “We had interpreters, a CART typist whose captions were projected onto large screens, access copies, PowerPoint presentations with captions, microphones, and the list goes on,” he says. “There was so much thought and community care that went into the organization of the panel and what that created was so powerful: a conversation in which all could participate.”

Harmon felt the impact of opening up this dialogue to everyone at the MLA conference. “In addition to boosting our own morale as deaf scholars in a hearing-dominated organization, it’s important that Deaf authors and scholars continue to share their work with hearing audiences who, often to their surprise, find interesting and relevant connections to their own work,” she says.

To Nović, the panel was a step in the right direction. But there’s still a long path ahead. “I’d love to see multiple panels that reflect the true multicultural nature of our community so people can understand the intersectional nature of the deaf community, and to avoid tokenization as we go forward,” she adds.

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