Brenda Schertz appointed to lead American Sign Language program

By: Samantha Stern,  Cornell Daily Sun
April 12, 2019

Cornell will roll out some of its first American Sign language courses — to be taught by newly-hired Prof. Brenda Schertz, American Sign Language at the University of Rochester — in fall 2019.

The courses are an eventual result of a Student Assembly resolution passed in March 2018, led by the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project, which urged the University to offer ASL courses as an option for the language requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences, The Sun previously reported.

Schertz was hired through the efforts of a search committee chaired by Prof. Molly Diesing, linguistics, and launched by the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Our goal was to find an outstanding ASL instructor with sufficient experience and dynamism to establish a program from scratch at Cornell,” Diesing told The Sun in an email. “We particularly wanted an instructor with native or near-native fluency.”

Brenda Schertz was that match for “many reasons,” according to Diesing.

As a member of the Deaf community and born into a Deaf family herself, Schertz is a native signer. When asked why she decided to become an ASL Professor, she recalls her childhood as the only Deaf student in her public school — which prompted her to decide to “swim rather than sink,” she said.

“I taught ASL to my peers so that I could interact with other students,” she said in an email to The Sun. “This led to the growth of a group of girls who could communicate in sign language.”

Schertz first taught ASL professionally as a college student at the Art Institute of Boston, when she was recruited to teach interpreters at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, what she recalls as the “best summer job ever.”

At the University of Rochester, Schertz is currently a full time lecturer in ASL, boasting a vast background in ASL teaching. She has taught at multiple universities such as Northeastern University, Emerson, the University of Southern Maine and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, worked as an ASL consultant to theatre productions and previously served on the board of the American Sign Language Teacher Association.

“The chance to help establish a new ASL program appealed to me because Cornell seems like an excellent place to provide innovative learning opportunities, matching current learning trends with our students, and making greater use of digital resources,” Schertz said. “Cornell’s superb reputation — in particular for immersive language learning — was another factor that led me to this opportunity.”

As for her vision for the program, she’s focusing on the immersive aspect of ASL learning that will create a community of ASL users on campus and allow students to develop a deeper appreciation for the language, she told The Sun.

“American Sign Language is representative of one facet of human diversity, being of one of a vast number of languages that humans have developed,” Schertz said. “Research has shown that ASL is as elegant and complex as any spoken language.

“Deaf history and ASL Literature are rich and worthy of more exposure and appreciation,” she continued.

Diesing also noted the importance that the ASL program will have to the Cornell community, especially how the ASL classes are an introduction to not only the language, but also to Deaf culture and the Deaf community.

“The classes also offer a unique instructional experience –– ASL classes are by nature totally immersive, and the modality of expression is obviously entirely different from classes conducted in spoken languages,” Diesing said.

As someone who enjoys sharing the language and knowledge of the Deaf culture, Schertz said she anticipated “leading the way” with Cornell’s new program.

“I believe that this amazing three-dimensional and visual language should be available  to everyone,” Schertz said. “As with many other minority languages and their cultural groups, ASL is Deaf people’s contribution to the cultural mix that makes our lives richer … Now is the time for ASL to have a place at Cornell.”

Two sections of ASL 1101 will be offered in fall 2019, running daily Monday through Thursday. In the Spring 2019, Schertz will offer ASL 1102. As of now, there are no plans to hire more ASL professors, according to Diesing.

photo of Brenda Schertz