ASL professor delights without speaking a word
February 1, 2012
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Students could not stop laughing during William Rennie’s class. And it’s not a giggle here and there, but a plethora of my-belly-hurts laughs.
Often spotted wearing a gray fedora, Rennie, who’s deaf, teaches classes without speaking a word. Still, he’s a comedian.
He was the first-born child in a hearing family and, at age 15, began teaching his classmates sign language as he continued to learn himself.
Rennie teaches five American Sign Language (ASL) classes at Cal State Long Beach in addition to another ASL class at Rio Hondo College.
Aside from his full teaching schedule, Rennie performs one-man comedy shows, according to his website.
“He’s a really funny guy, really interesting with the jokes that he has,” sophomore computer science major Gustavo Yepes said.
Rennie rubs the palms of his hands together, smiles and squints his eyes with intent before preceding to write “motivation” among the other notes on a piece of computer paper.
“I love it,” Rennie wrote.
He uses limited vocal expression as he mimes, and excitement shines through his eyes.
“Some of them are very motivated to learn,” he wrote. “I love it.”
Almost all of Rennie’s ASL classes are at capacity.
“I love his enthusiasm,” senior communicative disorders major Christina Dovico said. “He has this bombastic personality that’s just over the top — it makes you want to learn, makes you want to do the reading and it makes you want to come to class.”
Rennie offers his students high-fives, winks of encouragement and a charming smile to make the classroom more comfortable.
That might explain why Rennie earned a hot chili pepper on ratemyprofessor.com.
At the start of a new semester, Rennie’s wife comes to the first two days of class and translates for the new students, but after that, there is no verbal speech.
“I was really shocked at how much I actually learned within an hour because he’s so natural at teaching,” Dovico said.
Rennie uses his animation and creativity to tell stories and communicate his points in class. If necessary, he utilizes the white board as well.
One student made an incorrect sign for “you” with her thumb up and her index finger pointed toward the class.
Rennie gently pointed the student’s positioned hand toward him and took a “bullet.” Then he used both his hands to “shoot” fake bullets at the class.
Students then learned how to make the proper sign.
“Even if you were red in the face, he’s so personable and makes you feel really comfortable,” Dovico said. “He makes it so you won’t feel embarrassed.”
According to Rennie’s website, he has the desire to tear down the cultural walls between hearing and deaf communities.
He is dedicated to teaching the hearing world about deaf culture, and the deaf world about hearing culture.
Rennie has traveled all over the world to learn and connect with other deaf people.
He currently lives in Anaheim with his wife, their two children, three dogs and a bunny. He also has two older children who live in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“He’s really awesome,” senior interior design major Megan Deguchi said. “Sign language is actually really cool. And the way he teaches it, it’s really easy to understand.”