Spotlight on Graduate Students: Aaron Shield
A scribble in the margin of an old notebook gave Linguistics doctoral student Aaron Shield the idea that became his dissertation topic: to study the use of sign language in deaf and hearing autistic children.
What drew you to study your current area of research
I have always been fascinated by sign language, since the time I first saw deaf kids signing when I was only five years old. After that I begged my parents for sign language lessons. Later, I went on to study a number of spoken languages, which I also loved – especially Italian. When I came to UT, I was re-introduced to that early interest in sign. The American Sign Language program is housed within the Linguistics department, so there were signers around me all the time, as well as several deaf graduate students. To study signed languages from a theoretical linguistics framework is still very cutting edge: signed languages challenge our assumptions about what human languages are, possessing many of the same characteristics as spoken languages yet showing obvious differences due to the visual-spatial modality. In any case, I rediscovered sign language at UT, and have been working on various issues in sign linguistics since then.
How did this evolve into a focus on autism?
At first because of all the attention in the media. I started thinking about how closely certain social behaviors – such as facial expression and eye contact – are related to linguistic meaning in signed languages. And I started wondering how autism might impair sign language specifically, in ways that wouldn’t be visible in spoken languages. As it turns out, linguists don’t know very much about autism, and people who study autism don’t tend to know much about linguistics. So I’m trying to bridge that gap in some way.
Where do your best ideas come from?
My subconscious. It sounds new age, I know, but it’s true. I struggled for well over a year before I came to my dissertation topic, Sign Language in Deaf and Hearing Autistic Children. Yet when I looked back in my notebooks from the year prior, I found that I had scribbled “deaf autistics” in the margin. It was a doodle from class, yet it contained the seed of the idea that I am most deeply involved in and committed to now. The idea was there all along, and it had even emerged – in the form of a daydreamy doodle. If only I had reread my scribbles a year earlier!
What advice do you have for people entering graduate school?
Don’t participate in the competitive kvetch – people complaining about how much work they have. It’s a huge pastime in graduate school, and also a huge waste of time, and only makes you feel nervous that other people might be working harder than you. Just focus on your own stuff and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.
If you weren’t in grad school what would you be doing?
Med school. My parents still would ask me if I didn’t want to maybe go to medical school until well into my third year of graduate school. Luckily for me, my brother is now a second-year medical student, so my parents will get to have a doctor son after all.
What’s your definition of intelligence?
Curiosity and the ability to think critically. Curiosity about the world, curiosity about other people: the constant desire to want to know why things are the way they are. It’s a fascinating world and there is so much to learn, always. I find myself most impressed with people who ask questions that come from a genuine place of wanting to know. And critical thinking is perhaps the most difficult but most important skill of all. The ability to ask: How do I know the things that I think I know? Why do I think I know these things? What are the alternatives? These questions are rarely asked, yet vitally important – not just for the intellectual pursuit, but for a civil society.
What do you want your degree to mean?
A six-figure salary and a place in TV punditry. Just kidding. Hopefully, that I’ve been trained to conduct cutting-edge research in my field, that I have areas of expertise beyond what anyone else has done before, and that I am adding to the world’s knowledge through my work.
Q & A by Elisabeth McKetta, September, 2007