Hearing (among) the Deaf: A Reflection on My Experience as a Doyle Fellow

By: Timothy Loh

October 15, 2015

Ten months ago, I received an email calling for applications for the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program, which aimed to "foster student engagement with difference and the diversity of human experience through scholarship and interreligious, intercultural engagement on campus, in the DC community, and around the world." As part of the program requirements, fellows were required to carry out original research projects looking at cultural and religious diversity. Having developed a taste for research over the previous summer as a Raines Fellow where I studied deaf education in Jordan, I was intrigued. Quite serendipitously, I stumbled upon my topic when at my church that Sunday, my pastor spoke about the miraculous healing of a man's inner ear, making me wonder how such narratives would sound to the Deaf members of my church, many of whom were my friends. I designed and wrote a research proposal looking at perceptions of deafness and disability in Christianity, and was very excited when I was informed I had been accepted as a fellow!

This fellowship was in fact not my first encounter with the wider Doyle Engaging Difference Program under the auspices of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. Two semesters ago, I had enrolled in a class called “Cultures and Identities,” focused on the social construction of identity and taught by Professor Sylvia Önder of the Anthropology Department. The class was offered in collaboration with Gallaudet University and we had the opportunity to meet and discuss issues of difference with their students. In our interactions with them, we experienced tension, frustration, and miscommunication, but to my surprise, Professor Önder told us that that what we were experiencing was not only expected but intended! I would later learn that the class was in fact a Doyle seminar targeted towards addressing themes of difference and equipping students to better engage with people from different cultures and backgrounds. We were not only learning about anthropology, but practicing it, and I credit that particular class for my current theoretical leanings towards anthropology as a discipline. The Doyle seminar left me with a deep sense of the importance of exploring issues of diversity, and my experience as a Doyle undergraduate fellow has only reinforced that conviction.  

Over the past year, the Doyle program has opened my eyes, at least more widely, to the diversity of human experience, both through the program requirements as well as through my conducting my own research. The last two semesters have seen me attend a Jum’ah service in Arabic, an Arab Christian worship service, an interfaith sandwich making activity, and countless events put on by the Berkley Center, like the roundtable with Berkley faculty discussing violent extremism to a meeting on interfaith dialogue with clerics from Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania, and Tunisia. It has also been a pleasure working with and learning from the other Doyle fellows, who are engaged in such different work from me but share my interest in deepening the university’s commitment to tolerance and diversity. Through all these activities and events, the most salient impact the program has for me personally is legitimizing religion as a field of academic inquiry: while I had completed the two-course theology requirement as part of Georgetown's core and had touched briefly upon Christian-Muslims relations in the context of the deaf school during my research in Jordan, I had never really studied religion from an academic point of view before, given a much sharper distinction between religious and academic discussion I was used to back home in Singapore. That changed with the Doyle Fellowship as I was exposed to the rigorous and important work that was being done on religion by many scholars associated in some way with the Berkley Center and especially as I began my own Doyle research project.  

Conducting research on the Deaf Christian experience was certainly different from the research I had conducted before in Jordan, and it raised for me many questions about the politics of ethnography. Anthropologists differentiate between emic and etic forms of fieldwork, the former focusing on the perspective of the insider and the latter focusing on the perspective of the outsider (very generally speaking). With my research in Jordan I was clearly an outsider, whereas in my research for the Doyle Fellowship the lines were a lot blurrier. Although I volunteered with the Deaf community in Singapore for two and half years before college, I had only really been involved with the American Deaf community beginning three years ago when I first came to the United States and had to earn legitimacy within the community; at the same time I had strived for the same three years to make the church I was attending my home and had built strong relationships with many of its members. In undertaking this project, I had to contend with what it meant to conduct research on people you considered your friends, especially on what could be considered a sensitive topic. I also had to delineate artificial start and end points for my fieldwork—unlike in Jordan when research began when I arrived and ended when I left, friendships I had here began before I started conducting the project and continued after it "ended." Negotiating the boundaries between insider and outsider was a constant balancing act. As always, there remained the question of privilege: by virtue of being hearing I did not have to face many of the systematic obstacles and institutionalized discrimination that deaf people faced and continue to face. No matter the depth of my involvement, deafness for me always remained (and arguably, would always remain) an academic interest rather than a lived experience, a social reality.

I am still in the midst of conducting my research project, even as my fellowship draws to an end. I had definitely underestimated the amount of work I had to do on top of my ordinary workload in college, and I am far from conducting the number of interviews I had intended to collect. It has been in fact been a sobering and powerful reminder that conducting good and responsible research is hard, and that the trust that my informants have in me and the relationship that we have oblige me to take their stories seriously and produce good work that accurately depicts their experiences and can be harnessed for their benefit.

Participating in the inaugural class of the Doyle Engaging Difference Undergraduate Fellows Program has been a tremendous privilege, and the experience has certainly helped me to engage more critically with religious, cultural, even embodied difference. Looking back at the past ten months has given me as an aspiring scholar a different perspective on what it means to engage difference and to build tolerance.

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Hearing (among) the Deaf: A Reflection on My Experience as a Doyle Fellow