Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving


April 12th, 2008

I’ve been interpreting this semester for eleven weeks. Undergraduate classes meet either two or three times a week, so Friday would have been roughly class session #30 (with some cancellations/holidays factored in). That is some 25 hours of interpreted interaction (50 minutes each session). About two weeks ago the instructor of one course started actually prepping me during the few minutes between my arrival and the start of class. This could be structural, meaning that the first activity in class now requires students to solve a problem based on formulas learned the previous session, giving us this “window” in which to converse. However I think there’s also been a different kind of noticing….as if – finally?! – all that moving around as I track writing on the chalkboard across its fifty-foot expanse suggests that I am doing something.
Well, of course it’s obvious that I’ve been doing something, but what, exactly? 🙂 As the semester progresses the material becomes more challenging and complicated. This has meant I need to be closer to the instructor as she writes on the board, thus (I hypothesize) more visible: in her field of peripheral vision at least, if not actually an object of the direct gaze. Indeed, we have made eye contact more frequently – again, either as a result of me being closer to the teacher’s visual space or because I’ve had to ask more often for clarification or repetition. There was one day last week when I had to say, “I’m sorry, did you say..” or “I’m sorry, did you mean…?” three or four times in the span of a few minutes.
My getting lost so often may have prompted the teacher to be more assertive in preparing me for ‘what’s to come,’ in the day’s particular lesson. (She even pre-warned me about a particularly tough section coming up in a few weeks so I have plenty of time prepare!) What happened on Friday, though, really caught my attention. During the check-in, in which I was informed we were only covering two new formulations but they are both rather complicated, I said I might have to interrupt more often because of the complexity. Actually, I explained,

The deaf student looks down to write notes while you continue lecturing. I have to retain the explanation in mind while the student writes, meanwhile you continue with the explanation and there is only so much I can recreate when the student looks up and I try to catch her up from where she looked down all the way to where you are now.

Interesting,” she said quietly, as if for the first time the fact of what I need to coordinate in this tripartite interaction of time, mode, and meaning became apparent.
And I too thought, “interesting” that this is the time frame in which the natural development of trust between us (the teacher and me) has enabled a conversation that might actually enhance the bilingual communication dynamics in the class. I note this because, as usual, on the first day of class I spoke with the teacher about some of the issues that might come up during interpretation, such as asking her to slow down or repeat material. Her reaction – a very common one – was a bit startled (?), even taken aback. I hesitate to ascribe too explicitly what she actually felt in that moment, but it seems to me many, many people (especially teachers) are not exactly thrilled with having to make an accommodation with their teaching style. The rarity of someone who embraces the challenge is striking by contrast to this usually mild mode of resistance.
What excites me about this teacher and this situation now is by comparison with another class, in which the teacher still refuses to acknowledge my existence. The set-up there is a bit different, I am next to the projection screen, some 15-20 feet away from the teacher as she speaks. Occasionally our paths cross when she wanders away from the lectern to expand on a concept that requires no writing, but usually she is writing on her notepad laptop which is projected onto the screen in real time. In other words, it is almost like a teacher writing on a chalkboard, but instead of the horizontal motion across the board, erasing, and returning to write again, the projection screen is vertical, top-down in the manner which the students themselves are taking notes. The result of this different arrangement is that my position is more static. I need to be where the writing is, and this keeps me distant from the teacher.
I would say this doesn’t necessarily create an obstacle, however in this instance the environment is actually hostile. When the teacher walks over to highlight something on the screen, she studiously avoids looking at me. I’m not talking shying away from eye contact, I mean acting as if I am not even there. Possibly (I speculate) if she was using the board in the traditional way (left-to-right across the front wall of the classroom), we would necessarily “encounter” each other more and some interaction would have to occur. I suppose she could ignore just as vigorously, but at some point wouldn’t that become an obvious problem? This is what I think occurred in the other class; by seeing me struggle – hesitate, pause, scan the board furiously for the referent – the teacher witnessed the labor of what I’m doing (and eventually decided to do something about it).
In the hostile situation, the teacher is (apparently) invested in not “doing something” and – because I am structurally “out-of-the-way”, even the chance for dynamic growth into an awareness that doing something might be worthwhile (or helpful, or polite, or whatever you want to call it) to enhance the communication process (i.e., learning opportunity!) for the deaf student is foreclosed. My being situated away from the action, away from the teacher, prevents the development of bilingual norms that are inclusive. (Instead, what is modeled is an exclusive norm which presumes nothing needs to change – an homogeneity of learning is assumed and imposed irregardless of equitability, efficiency, or even some kind of basic cross-cultural consideration.)

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