Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

GU Graduate Receives MacArthur `Genius Grant’

Born deaf to parents who are deaf and the product of a bilingual household communicating in both English and American Sign Language, Carol Padden is a 1978 graduate of Georgetown, where she pursued a major in linguistics and an minor in psychology. After graduating from the university, she earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, and has been a professor there since 1983. Padden’s research focuses on sign language structure and deaf culture and community, and she received a boost recently when she was named a 2010 MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner, for which she will receive a $500,000 grant to use at her discretion. THE HOYA caught up with Padden over the phone in between conference stops in Indianapolis and Denmark to hear about her time at Georgetown, her work and what she plans to do with the unexpected grant.




You were born deaf to parents who are deaf and say you were raised in deaf culture – what was it like to enter public school for the first time at age 8 and be totally immersed in the hearing world for the first time?




It was a bit of a culture shock, I’ll say that. I had been going to a deaf school where there were small classes before [I attended] public schools. It was just a matter of adjusting to a very different type of educational setting. I didn’t have an interpreter – they didn’t provide interpreters until after I graduated high school. It was [difficult] trying to learn spoken English well enough to get along in a new school, to make friends. My family and I had decided to try it for one year on a trial basis and if it didn’t work out I could go back. But I guess it worked out. I remained at my neighborhood school until I graduated in 1973.






As a member of the deaf community, what inspired you to devote your professional and academic career to studying deaf culture and signed languages?




I’ve always wanted to explain something that was unusual and show how it was completely ordinary at the same time. I don’t like to describe something as exotic or special. I’ve always wanted to describe a way of life that I think is completely ordinary and explain how a sign language can develop.




What was your favorite aspect of Georgetown while you were here?




Well, I have to say the linguistics department was what I was looking for . solid training in linguistics. It was a fairly new discipline at the time I started in 1974. Ideas were changing about language and cognition. There was a lot more emphasis on thinking about language and mind and the theoretical aspects of language. Not just descriptions of language but on how humans view language, how we acquire competence, and how language changes over time. Georgetown was one of the best places to get training in that area, so I decided I’d move back home, transfer to Georgetown, and I was just delighted I was accepted. I was maybe 19. I was absolutely certain this was what I wanted my career to be, and the training I got prepared me really well for graduate school.




I’ve been in a faculty position at the University of California, San Diego, now for 27 years – it just doesn’t feel that long. It’s just an exciting place to be. I think having the solid background I got from Georgetown made all of that possible.






What went through your head when you found out you won a MacArthur “genius grant”?




You know I was doing something completely trivial when my phone rang. The interpreter came on and said that a man was calling from the MacArthur Foundation, so I had a few moments of confusion thinking, `Why would they be calling me?’ Then he asked me if I was alone. It felt like a lightning bolt. I was just completely and utterly caught off guard. I didn’t expect it at all. And then when he told me about the award, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The interpreter sat there and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was of course very happy and very, very surprised. And they went on and said I could tell one other person and just one person, so of course I had to tell my husband. I couldn’t tell my parents, I couldn’t tell my daughter. So after I hung up, I called my husband and I told him what I had won, and, you know, he threw up his hands and he covered his eyes and said, `Oh my God, I can’t believe this! This is wonderful! This is spectacular!’ And I thought, `That was the reaction I should have had!’ I was completely, completely stunned.






One of the most unique and important aspects of the grant is that it comes “no strings attached” – there is no reporting to do or hoops to jump through. Does this type of freedom inspire creativity and new ways of thinking or do you find it difficult to manage?




ost people get this grant at the beginning of their career. I’m getting it at what I think is one of the most exciting times in my career, and I can’t think of better timing. I’ve had a lot of ideas about looking at new sign languages in different places. I’m interested in modeling how languages emerge, develop and become conventionalized.




I’ve had a lot of ideas over the years, and I think, `You know, that’s pretty hard to get funding for’ or I don’t have it entirely worked out. You’re given the freedom to write, think about new directions, and maybe poke a little deeper into an idea you’ve just developed. You can even develop an entirely new direction in your work. It’s just a tremendous opportunity, and I’m very glad to have it at this point in my career.






What do you hope to accomplish after utilizing the MacArthur grant?




You know, I don’t have a grand plan right now. I want to do it step by step. I usually start with an observation or something that sort of captures my eye and I think how does that work? How would I explain it? What kind of theoretical apparatus would I need to make this come to life? So I really do my work step by step.

You really need to make clear about where you’re going and what steps to take next. I’ve always done that, so this is something I saw, maybe out in the field, an unusual way of using sign language and I think: `Why did they do that? Why did something like this come about? What would I need to be able to define it? So I will come back and play in my laboratory and think about who I need to talk to. What do I need to read? What do I need to learn in order to describe these things that I just observed?’




And then I start to put it together and I start to make a story out of it. Sometimes it becomes a book. Sometimes it becomes a series of articles. Sometimes it becomes a grant. I’ve been doing this long enough that I have a lot of instincts about what to do next, what to do after that. I try not to get too far ahead of myself. I really try [to] stay focused on an immediate goal in order to achieve a larger one.






– Interview by David Schuler

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