Last day of the Deaf Academic Conference here in Copenhagen, Denmark. I’ve had to process it for several hours before I could bring myself to write this blogpost. I presented a short feedback session and it was frustrating as my Universal Sign was quite subpar and I knew it and I only had fifteen minutes to talk about a really complex, convoluted theory (posthumanism). Needless to say, I enjoyed the other presentations more.
What struck me the most today, however, was the passionate defence of the need for a deaf space where hearing people could not “monkey watch us”. The phrase struck me with a visceral punch. I could think of other reasons for not wanting hearing academics in this space. Reasons such as being interrupted by hearing people when I am conversing with anyone, either hearing or deaf, and completely losing control of the conversation. There… yes… I do feel like a monkey when these things happen in my family, in my conversations with hearing friends, at gatherings, in classrooms, and out in the common spaces such as malls, parks, and even on my own front deck at home when the mail deliverer comes to visit. But that isn’t monkey watching. It is the case of the monkey doing the watching.
But what is this monkey watching? We deaf academics discussed the possibility of allowing hearing academics into our conferences, even if only to allow them to watch us sign among ourselves. The older deaf academics objected vociferously. We don’t want to look after the hearing, consciously editing what we say in front of them, taking care of their inability to understand us, and to ensure their comfort. Corrie Tijesseling, one of the early founders of the Deaf Academic conferences in the early 2000’s, listened to the younger deaf academics discuss the need for exposure of their work, to allow hearing people to become exposed to their deaf perspectives, to become aware of their issues and experiences. With great wisdom and passion, she defended the deaf space as an entity that needs to be protected as it is a true incubator for the development of deaf academics. The argument became more complicated in considering which language to adopt at this conference. For a few minutes only, we did seriously entertain about the use of oral languages used by oral deaf people who don’t want to learn sign language. Then we said no. We want an interpreter free zone. Because we are the monkeys with the PhDs, dammit. We are gaining ground in academia on our own terms. Instead of wasting hours trying to pronounce words with our deaf voices, we sign fluently, quickly, efficiently just like the hearing academics do with their spoken languages.
Aside from monkey watching, the issue of exposure of our work, of gaining ground in the academia is still very important. As an older person working on a PhD now with maybe ten years of work life left in me, I am no longer consumed with the idea that I’m going to save the deaf community or make a huge mark on deaf life, deaf culture or languages. Academia just allows me to use my gifts of writing and research, but the deaf academic space is way more fun, imaginative, relaxed and creative. Deaf spaces like the Copenhagen conference makes me think more deeply about who we are as deaf people and what we have to offer the hearing world just because we are deaf. No amount of monkey watching will advance our research.
If the deaf space allows us to conduct thought experiments, forge new frameworks for deaf studies, or build bridges with the scientific community through deaf scientists, we can then publish our work, present at other hearing conferences, and build bridges with hearing people. The nurturing comes first and the exposure of our work comes much later. We shouldn’t try to grow up too fast. While I appreciated the presence of the older deaf academics and the high energy of the young deaf academics, their fingers flying, reaching out to new futures, I hope that the deaf academic sandbox will always be there for us older deaf academics and for the up and coming young and brilliant deaf PhDs. I want to thank the organizers of the Copenhagen Deaf Academic Conference 2017 for a wonderful time. The committees and their volunteers ran a tight ship and were eager to help lost souls like me. Their hard work including evaluating proposal submissions, scheduling, managing technology requirements, and the general hospitality was simply topnotch.
Far away from the monkey watching, let us all resist the temptation to grow up too fast by staying young and playing in our deaf academic space.