The American-French connection in the founding of Deaf education is the stuff of legends.  Somewhat lesser known in the United States is the pivotal role of the partnership between French sociologist Bernard Mottez and Gallaudet University’s Harry Markowicz. Their collaboration, starting in 1975, is credited with helping initiate France’s Deaf Awakening, which began to shift the country away from oralism.

So Dr. H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Director of Gallaudet’s Deaf Studies Program, was honored to continue this tradition of transatlantic cooperation as a visiting professor in Paris this past March. He was invited by EHESS (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, or the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), the same institution where Mottez and Markowicz made history. Although it has been decades, Markowicz — a Gallaudet Professor Emeritus who passed away in 2020 — is still fondly remembered by his Parisian colleagues. “Mention Harry to them and they light up,” says Bauman, who shared his first office at Gallaudet with Markowicz.

Two men stand in the front of a room that appears to be filled with people. Another man sits in between them, looking up at the man to the left.
Dr. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (pictured at left), Director of Gallaudet’s Deaf Studies Program, delivered seminars that covered a range of topics during his month as a visiting professor in Paris.

Bauman’s visit centered on seminars that covered a range of topics: sign language poetry translation strategies, exploring the theory of Deaf Gain and the overlooked detriments of being hearing, and viewing sign language through the lens of “eco-poetics.” This last area is something Bauman has started engaging with recently, and he appreciated the opportunity to venture into new territory.

As an example, Bauman uses the ASL sign for “tree.” It is no coincidence that it looks like a tree, with an arm standing in for the trunk and fingers extending out as branches. “Our gestural, iconic representations in sign language respond to the way nature speaks,” he says. “We don’t just arbitrarily invent gestures without the natural world presenting itself to us.” Taking that idea a step further means that poems in sign language are collaborative efforts. “We’re making them with nature,” he adds.

These are not new ideas, but rather ones that date back to the 19th century. “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet wrote about the natural language of signs,” says Bauman, who spent part of his time in Paris learning more about this perspective from archives. “We’ve just distanced ourselves from it to such a strong degree.”

Bauman was heartened by the responses he got from his presentations, and he was grateful for the opportunities arranged by his hosts, Fabrice Bertin, Andrea Benvenuto, and Olivier Schetrit. They toured the first deaf school, Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, and had a memorable museum visit, where hearing and deaf people communicated about the art through gestures. “It was not through French Sign Language or spoken French,” Bauman says. “My wife, who is an artist, said it was one of the best explorations of art that she has ever participated in.”

This exchange of ideas will continue, notes Bauman, who is excited that Bertin, a French deaf historian, will be coming to Gallaudet this fall. Bertin’s book on 19th century French Deaf protest leaders, is also being translated by Gallaudet University Press. “With such a rich history of exchange, we look forward to an even more robust future of collaboration,” Bauman says.

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