Campus News

Grand gestures

Christopher Patterson

Lecturer teaches students how to express their thoughts, words with use of sign language

Editor’s note: A multimedia piece about Patterson is online at

Perhaps with the exception of final exams, you won’t find a quieter class on campus than the American Sign Language courses taught by Christopher Patterson, communication sciences and special education lecturer.

For a hearing person, the nearly silent class is a bit of a jolt.

“My first class (in ASL I) was awkward because it was so quiet,” said Adam Thielbar, a senior communication studies major, who is now in his third sign language class with Patterson.

At the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to find even an acting class more expressive than this one. That’s because part of the key to effectively using sign language is to convey meaning not just with your hands but also with your face-really your entire body.

To an outside observer, the class sometimes seems like a game of charades, which isn’t entirely off base.

“What do you do when you’re a deaf person and you don’t know what to sign?” Patterson asked his class through signs. “You gesture.”

Through his sign language courses, Patterson, who is working on his doctorate in elementary education, is training students to be teachers able to teach deaf or partially deaf children, to be ASL interpreters or to just be citizens able to communicate with and better understand the deaf community.

That matters to Patterson, in part, because he is deaf.

Patterson’s upbringing in Albany and Tifton-which included some frustrating moments with school teachers ill-equipped to teach a deaf child-has informed his desire to improve education for deaf students.

“I grew up feeling like I wasn’t getting appropriate services,” he signed.

In an interview assisted by Katie Wilson, a sign language interpreter in UGA’s Disability Resource Center, Patterson signed that he wanted to make the educational experience for deaf students better than he had it in school.

Through research, Patterson said he wants to study how deaf children acquire fluency in ASL to find best practices for teaching others.

Sign language courses for hearing students, as you might expect, operate a little like any foreign language course. Instead of discouraging the use of English in the classroom, no talking is allowed in Patterson’s classes. That forces students to communicate with their hands, faces and bodies instead of their mouths.

“He (Patterson) will call you out,” said Samm Dyar, a junior international affairs major.

Dyar, who describes herself as a “loud” person, said not speaking has been difficult but learning the language has been worth it.

“I have fallen in love with the beauty of the language,” she said. “For me, it is very natural, because I’m a naturally expressive person.”

At the same time Patterson tries to teach his students how to communicate in sign language, he also is trying to instill some of the culture of the deaf community.

In that arena, the classroom has its limitations.

“You have to go out and meet deaf people,” Patterson signed. “You have to go out and be immersed in it.”

To give students that exposure to the culture, Patterson requires them to participate in events in Athens that center around the deaf community.

One part of deaf culture that students are learning through experience is how often hearing people stare at individuals using sign language. It’s a pet peeve for many in the deaf community.

“People don’t realize that deaf people don’t want to be stared at all of the time,” Patterson signed.

Perhaps because sign language skills translate to opportunities across fields, Patterson’s classes have become quite popular-with waiting lists for ASL I classes. Patterson said he’s impressed by the variety of majors of students outside of the College of Education who take the course.

His goal is to see the program expanded at UGA to provide more ASL classes and, perhaps one day, a minor in deaf studies to include classes in deaf culture and history.

“I am hoping that UGA will have a reputation related to ASL,” he signed. “I’m really hoping our program just takes off.”