Friday, February 28, 2014

Innovation, Connection, and the Spreading of [unpublished] Dissertation Ideas

By this point I assume most academics have read or at least heard about Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece Professors, We Need You! in the New York Times and the countless angry, supportive, dismissive, and defensive responses to his plea.  I personally come down on the side of agreeing with Kristof, knowing that the many caveats and "well but wait's" are all valid criticisms of his brief argument.  Despite all of these rebuttals and my own awareness of the structural barriers academics face in their attempts to make their work publicly accessible and more importantly, meaningful, I think he's got it right. Academic research is far too often unintelligible to lay audiences (and even to other academics... have you seen what's being published in the flagship journals lately???), or is published in obscure journals, or hidden behind paywalls.  

This debate over the availability and accessibility of the "public intellectual" comes alongside a growing industry movement recognizing the importance of sharing ideas.  Steven Johnson's TED Talk "Where good ideas come from" and  Seth Godin's "How to get your ideas to spread" have been particularly inspiring for me as I think about issues of innovation and convention (thanks to Jenn Lena's production of culture class for always sticking with me...). This quote from Steven Johnson sticks out to me as I reflect on Kristof's statement: 

"We often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property, you know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything that we have, so that those ideas will remain valuable, and people will be incentivized to come up with more ideas, and the culture will be more innovative. But I think there's a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them."

I take these issues seriously in my own work.  I've been told often by the powers-that-be at Vanderbilt that I'm a "creative" scholar.  I've also been candidly told that these evaluations should not be understood as compliments.  But I don't care if my creativity puts me at the fringes, I'm going to follow Godin's advice and "be remarkable." Doing so allows my ideas to move forward so that my scholarship might actually begin to engage a broader public audience.  

So with that in mind I've made the decision to no longer withhold the ideas I've been developing over the last 6 months to write in a dissertation that perhaps only 4 people will read.  I acknowledge issues of intellectual property that might come up as a result of me publishing this information on a public blog--and hope that my readers are respectful of this issue.  Nonetheless I am committed to being a public intellectual, and even more importantly, to starting dialogue about my research in hopes that together we can move ideas forward.  So here I go [*big sigh*]'s the outline of my dissertation.  I look forward to starting the dialogue with criticisms, critiques, and suggestions. (Note: names, dates, and identifying information have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my participants.)

Outsiders Within:
Cochlear Implants, Oralism, and the Deaf Community (Outline)

Social life is structured around categories (e.g., race, religion, and deafness).  Individuals and scholars alike treat these categories as static and the groups within broader social categories (e.g., black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, Deaf vs. Hearing) as mutually exclusive.  Yet, social reality is not always packaged in discrete categories.  For example, mixed race individuals introduce the concept of racial liminality, interfaith marriages between Jews and Catholics produce children who are born with ambiguous religious and cultural ties, and Deaf people who have cochlear implants challenge the distinctions between Deaf and Hearing. 
I argue that these “outsiders within” and the communities they straddle warrant scholarly attention.  Studying those who do not squarely fit into these categories provides an opportunity to better understand how categories are used to create communities, which actors are central to these communities, and how communities adapt to social change.  In this dissertation I utilize the case of the Deaf community to understand the outsider within. Specifically I ask the following three research questions: a) In response to outsiders within, what cultural symbols are used to enforce and simultaneously make porous community boundaries?, b) How does occupying the social position of outsider within affect an individual’s conception of her community identity?, and c) How do both community boundaries and individual identities change as outsiders within are socialized into the community?
I use the metaphor of bridges and walls throughout the dissertation to explain the ways in which outsiders within navigate community life and also to explain community-level responses to these “pollutants.”  In particular, my preliminary findings have pointed to four cultural symbols that are used as both bridges and walls around the Deaf community including history, language, bodies, and technology.  I have designed the chapters of this dissertation to allow me to produce an in-depth review of each cultural symbol and an analysis of how each is used as both a bridge and a wall to include and exclude outsiders within.
In Chapter One I introduce readers to the concept of the outsider within through a review of existing literatures, comparative cases, and my research methodology.  This chapter will set the stage for the analysis in the remaining five chapters of the dissertation by also providing my reader with a theoretical and contextual roadmap to guide them through subsequent analyses of symbolic bridges and walls in the Deaf community.
I have two aims that will guide the writing and analysis of data presented in Chapter Two.  First, I aim to introduce readers to the history of Deaf culture, education, and medical treatments for hearing loss. Secondly, I will critically examine cultural events I have observed during my ethnographic research that celebrate Deaf history as both a bridge into the community for outsiders within and a wall that protects the community against the oppression and ignorance of the Hearing world. 
Historical narratives play a significant role in the socialization of outsiders within the Deaf community. For example, during the summer JumpStart program I accompanied a group of 40 oral deaf students on a fieldtrip to the US Capitol building.  As we arrived at the Capitol steps students reached into their pockets, pulled out cell phone cameras, and hurriedly took snapshots of themselves and their friends posing in front of the awe inspiring structure.  Minutes later one Deaf instructor, Paul, ran to the top of the steps waving his arms and making low booming noises—which are often still detectable by people who have even profound levels of hearing loss—to gather the attention of the students. With exaggerated signs and facial expressions Paul declared, “Welcome to the Capitol Building! This is an important building for American history.  Also, this building is important for us Deaf people.  25 years ago Gallaudet students marched to these steps and fought for our rights during the Deaf President Now! student protest.  DEAF POWER!”[1]  Faculty and students erupted in cheers and Deaf applause[2] as they mirrored Paul’s sign, “DEAF POWER!”[3]
This event served two functions, first, to briefly introduce the historic Deaf President Now! student protest of 1988. In his brief introduction—which would be expanded upon in the weeks to come—Paul emphasized signs such as “our” and “us.” These linguistic markers acted as a symbolic bridge designed to connect students on the fieldtrip to the Deaf community through a sharing of Deaf legal history.  However, because these oral Deaf students were enrolled in a language emersion program the speech was made in ASL, a language in which none of the students present were fluent, the symbolic wall of language separating them from community insiders remained intact. As unknowing students mimicked the sign “DEAF POWER” the group headed away from the Capitol steps towards the Smithsonian museums.  As we left I came to realize that most of the students in attendance that afternoon did not see the symbolic bridge that had been constructed for them to cross.  It would not be until much later in the semester that the oral Deaf students would begin to notice the small bridges that were built using the bricks of historical narrative that would enable them to take their first steps into the Deaf community. 
I further my analysis of American Sign Language as a bridge into and a wall around the Deaf community in Chapter Three.  Linguists argue that language serves three symbolic and practical functions—a marker of social identity, a medium for social interaction, and a source of culture (Lane et al. 1996:67).  In this chapter I analyze the ways in which both outsiders within and established community insiders negotiate the functions of ASL in the Deaf community. Oral Deaf students are encouraged to attend the summer pre-orientation program to gain exposure to the language in an attempt to ease the transition for these students from a world of spoken language to one of manual communication.  Students arrived to the 2013 summer program eager to learn and optimistic about their abilities to gain fluency.  Yet, to the dismay of several students, fluency did not come with haste.  Jason, a 23 year-old oral Deaf transfer student tearfully confided in me during an interview 3 weeks into the summer program (in spoken English), “I’m never going to get this. I thought coming here was going to be right. For once I was going to communicate without struggling… But now I can’t understand anything!”  Even in his despair Jason pressed on through the program attempting to find an entrée to the community that he was barred from by a linguistic wall. One evening late in the fall semester Jason and I went to a loud bar for a drink.  Instead competing against the undiscriminating amplification of hearing aids he took them out and we had our conversation in ASL.  In the midst of our discussion I corrected one of his signs, and to my surprise he confidently stated, “You can’t tell a Deaf person how to sign!” The improvement in Jason’s fluency over the course of the semester had provided him a bridge not only to communicate with me in another language, but also to define himself as “Deaf” in opposition to me, a hearing outsider. In Chapter Three I will focus my analysis on language as both a bridge and a wall for outsiders within paying particular attention to the effects of time in the socialization of these students. 
In Chapter Four I analyze the challenge against the audiological prerequisite for membership in the Deaf community. Specifically through a focused analysis of Hard-of-Hearing[4] students I demonstrate how students connect to one another through similar audiological diagnoses.  For example, I will analyze the common phrasing used by students in initial interviews, who stated they chose to come to Gallaudet to “find others like me” to describe the ways in which bodies are used as a bridge for outsiders within.  Yet, despite students’ initial recognition of similarities, embodied diversity in the range and quality of hearing loss is often used to exclude Hard-of-Hearing students from activities at the core of the Deaf campus community.  For example, at the height of the fraternity rush I observed Ronald, a 22 year-old Hard-of-Hearing transfer student having a conversation with his teammate Tim, a self-identified Hard-of-Hearing junior, about not being admitted to a prestigious fraternity. Tim confronted Ronald with the reality of his outsider status, “Delta Pi is for ‘DEAF DEAF’ people.  You know… like profound. Deaf parents, ASL, the whole thing.  You’re too Hearing for them, dude.  But its okay, I am too.”  Delta Pi fraternity’s admittance criteria is a symbolic wall that prevents Hard-of-Hearing outsiders within like Ronald from gaining complete access to the community.  In Chapter 4 I analyze instances such as these that highlight the importance of the body in defining boundaries of the Deaf community.  
Moral panic around cochlear implants was at its height in the early 1990s.  Today, despite the positioning of the cochlear implant as a panacea for the deaf by medical practitioners and educators, my research shows that young Deaf community members no longer construct walls to position implanted individuals as community outsiders. In Chapter Five I analyze cases such as Rebecca, a 20 year-old self-identified Deaf woman who has bilateral (2) cochlear implants to understand how cochlear implants have fallen from a marker of abandonment of the Deaf community to something as common and accepted as a hearing aid.  When asked about her own Deaf identity Rebecca tells me (voices), “I’m a tomato.  With tomatoes people think they’re a vegetable, but really they’re a fruit.  That’s like me. People think I’m hearing because my implants help me hear and I speak really well, but really I’m Deaf. I’m a tomato.”  For Rebecca, her cochlear implants provide a bridge into the Hearing community rather than as a wall separating her from her peers in the Deaf community. Previous scholarship on the Deaf community’s response to cochlear implants shows that older generations of Deaf community members saw this bridge into the Hearing community as a rejection of Deafness; implanted individuals were considered traitors to their community. Rebecca’s Deaf identity as an implanted individual and the responses to her and others like her has been one of the largest departures from existing scholarship on Deafness that I have discovered through this research. In this final empirical chapter of my dissertation I propose to make a strong intervention into the literature on Deafness, disability, and technology through the analysis of the shifts in views on implants across generations and cohorts of Deaf people.  Additional interviews and observations with Gallaudet faculty, staff, and alumni will help me to understand when, how, and why the Deaf community underwent the dramatic shift in views on cochlear implants “from hostility to huh?” (Christiansen and Leigh 2014).
In my concluding chapter I will return to my discussion of comparable cases to demonstrate the ways in which my research on the pressures against the boundaries of the Deaf community can be extended to broader theoretical conversations about community boundaries and category pollution. I will also provide policy suggestions for organizations and agencies that serve the Deaf community with specific attention to outreach towards implanted and oral Deaf individuals.

[1] As there is no direct ASL to English translation, all quotes are my own interpretations. 
[2] Deaf applause is the waving of hands side-to-side rapidly in the air, used instead of clapping to visually display approval and excitement. 
[3] The sign “DEAF POWER” is similar to the gesture used in the Black Panther movement. The iconic gesture is modified through the signer using her left hand to cover their left ear to emphasize a lack of hearing.
[4] From an audiological perspective, “normal” hearing is reserved for people who have a losses in the range of -10 to 15 decibels (db); slight—but still considered to be in normal ranges of hearing loss—is between 16 and 25db; hard-of-hearing labels are for those with losses between 26 and 70db; deafness as an audiological diagnosis is separated by severe (71-90db) and profound deafness is 91+db loss. To further illustrate the implications of hearing loss, leaves rustling make a sound at a level of about 15db, a couple whispering is produced at a level of about 25db, and a dog’s bark is around 70db.  Speech sounds are also produced at various decibel levels.  The “f”, “th,” and “s” sounds are the faintest at around 25db, while the vowels are produced at ranges between 40-60db.  Therefore, those labeled as “Hard-of-Hearing” are the groups who can hear many sounds, but are often most troubled by speech sounds.  However, with the assistance of devices such as hearing aids, FM systems, and loops many Hard-of-Hearing individuals are able to mange oral communication in ways that someone with severe or profound deafness cannot. 

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