Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

when hearies get it

May 29th, 2006

I was all on with “Wanda” the other day. 🙂 New situation, first day of a summer course. The teacher was tuned in. Rare. Honestly! Most hearing (non-deaf) folk tend to assume/ignore the interpreter. Either we know what we’re doing or we don’t; but they’re not going to get in the middle of it!
It’s a math class. We’re going along, no worries, then the teacher says something about a variable. Wanda asks the deaf student if she has a sign for it. I get drawn into the discussion and the teacher notices us (!) and asks, “Is there a question?”
Dynamics ensue! 🙂


Wanda, who is the “on” interpreter, responds with a meta-answer: “Sometimes we have to discuss vocabulary, which sign to use for a particular term.” I wanted to ask the teacher to explain “variable” so we could play with the concept, hear it in her words in English then consider how to convey it in ASL. I was hesitant though, just raised my hand. The teacher didn’t notice this and moved on. I suggested the multiple question sign (when you use all four fingers to trace the shape of a question mark), and class moved on.
I, however, went into deep analysis mode. (Surprise!) I wondered about the function of a meta-answer in this instance, instead of a narrative translation (e.g., “we’re discussing the sign for variable”). Wanda played along (thanks!), and told me that this was the second instance of the teacher appearing (to her) distracted by the interpreting process. [Note: I had arrived approx. 45 minutes late because of an overlap in job commitments.] So, there was already “history.” As Wanda and I talked about this (while the student worked some problems), she came clean (bravely!) that – upon reflection – she had felt a bit frustrated by being interrupted (!) while she was in the midst of working. (Just like Deaf people often feel when we interrupt them to clarify something in the middle of their talking?!)
[Note: I write the following in strong language to make the point clear; in reality, there wasn’t so much conscious intention, it “just happened.”] So, the function of a meta-answer in this instance was to “shut down” the hearing person’s interruptions into the interpreting process. By “function,” I mean the immediate goal of the act. The “act” is the answer provided by the interpreter. I described the answer as “meta” because it described why we were talking but not what we were talking about.
I worried about the impact of this function, because of the long-term effect it could have on the unfolding of communication norms in this group. From my immediate perspective, there was already more cross-cultural, bilingual interaction than most groups ever accomplish! I did not want this to stop! The deaf student responded to many, many questions; and the teacher adapted very quickly to the situation: eye contact with the deaf student, only one experiential “lesson” in hearing the interpreter’s voice and realizing it was the deaf student “speaking,” in addition to her obvious attentiveness to the interpreting process.
I wasn’t sure what to actually DO about all of this though, beyond making notes and engaging my teammate in discussion about it. Partly, my hesitation was due to team/power dynamics. Since I’d arrived late I considered her the Lead Interpreter. Also, she had more experience with this student than me; I had only just met the student the previous week. What norms were already in place? What was I potentially going to interfere with or even mess up? I certainly wasn’t going to overrule her after she had satisfied the teacher with an answer and the teacher had moved on. So….the two of us had a cool talk and that might have been the end of it, except . . .
The teacher came over at the end of class to ask how things had gone and if there was anything we needed to address! I am so impressed with her! We spoke for 20 minutes about the problem of interpreting “variable” and other language issues. The teacher explained how the concept of “variable” is hard to explain in English, and sympathized with our struggle to not only understand “variable” for ourselves but also to find equivalent expressions in another language. It turned out my improvization was satisfactory because it captures the general principle of “an unknown number.” The deaf student suggested (at first) a signed English “V”, but agreed when we discussed the fact that such a sign is only a code – realizing that a code does not convey information about the meaning of “variable.”
End result? We have a sign for variable that is conceptually accurate in/for this context. We have an agreement to pursue bilingual, cross-cultural conversations about meaning when such arises. I asked the teacher which she would prefer, now that she had the experience of conferring with us about conceptual accuracy. She said she doesn’t mind taking the time, whenever we need to do so. Is that cool or what?! Very cool. 🙂
And my teammate rocks. She not only humored me (!) but was curious herself and participated in both the practical discussion and through personal reflection. The deaf student, btw, was highly praised by the teacher, “I’m impressed,” she said, by the student’s recall of math concepts from study many years ago. All around, it’s going to be one awesome job. 🙂

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