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Visiting Cornell Professor Celebrates Creative Sign Language

Visting Cornell Professor
Celebrates Creative Sign Language

by Mariam Zakhary '13

Rachel Sutton-Spence photo by Martin Haswell
Rachel Sutton-Spence is teaching Sign Languages and Their Social Contexts this fall. photo by Martin Haswell

Rachel Sutton-Spence, whose primary research interest is deaf folklore and creative sign language, is this year's Julien and Virginia Cornell Visiting Professor. A senior lecturer in deaf studies at the University of Bristol's Graduate School of Education, she is one of a small number of sign language linguists teaching in a British university and is recognized internationally as a leader in her field.

"My research interests lie in creative sign language, especially in the areas of British Sign Language (BSL) poetry, humor and folklore," she says. "My research aims to change the narrative in Deaf Studies, celebrating the rich contribution that sign languages and their community members can make to the deaf and hearing worlds."

Much of Sutton-Spence's work is directed towards the close study and promotion of sign language literature and folklore within the British deaf community. To that end, she works with BSL poets to bring greater understanding and appreciation of their art form to wider academic and public attention. She also teaches research methods and is currently working to create the first online, annotated anthology dedicated to BSL literature and creative sign language. Sutton-Spence is the co-author of The Linguistics of British Sign Language (1999) and author of Analyzing Sign Language Poetry (2005), among others. In 2009, she co-authored Humor in Sign Languages: The Linguistic Underpinnings with Professor of Linguistics Donna Jo Napoli.

Hosted in the linguistics department, Sutton-Spence is teaching Sign Languages and Their Social Contexts this fall. She is also enrolled in intensive first-year Greek, an experience, she feels, that gives her a better understanding of the Swarthmore student experience. Next semester, she will teach Sign Language Literature and Folklore.

"Totally brilliant," is how she describes her Swarthmore experience so far. "It is wonderful - warm, welcoming, extraordinarily enabling, and intellectually broadening," she says. "And everything they ever tell you about Swarthmore students is true. They really are an exceptional group of young people and a genuine pleasure to teach and to learn from."