Support Team Internship: One Link in Developing Competence

iCORE Logo (Innovative & Creative Opportunities for Research & Education)Support Team Internship:

One Link in Developing Competence

Patricia Clark, Elise Coco Mongeon, Leana Jelen, Lydia Dewey Pickard, Gustavo Navarrete-Guastella , Emily Balzano
University of Rochester, American Sign Language Program 
The sayings, “practice makes perfect,” “you learn by doing,” and “experience is the best teacher,” have reflected well the typical approach to developing competence in the field of interpreting. While anecdotally true, the lack of a systematic model has contributed to frustration on the part of students, practitioners and consumers alike.  It has not been until recently that light has been shed on this issue. While observational and job shadowing tools are necessary and beneficial in any supervised learning situation, one additional tool is proposed that can be applied at three points in the lifelong journey toward competence. The Support Team Internship (STI) allows students to engage in cognitive processes necessary for interpretation by working in the supporting role alongside a mentor interpreter, monitoring the interpretation, providing feeds when needed, and discussing and debriefing after the assignments. This paper provides an overview of the STI tool and includes the reflections of the instructor/mentor, as well as three interpreters and two current interpreting students who began their interpreting journey with this model. 
Within the field of signed language interpreter education, there has existed a pattern of learning theory and skills of interpretation followed immediately by doing. Though this pattern often is supplemented with observation and discussion of existing practices, there remains a lack of scaffolding of skills in the transition between a novice interpreter’s training and effective practice. Current literature in the field identifies an overwhelming need to bridge an interpreter’s training and subsequent practice in the field. Through their survey of various stakeholders in the interpreting profession, Witter-Merithew and Johnson (2005) recognized that “there is an existing competence gap between successfully exiting an Interpreter Preparation Program and entering a successful practice” at three major points in the professional journey of interpreters:
1. Between theory and practicum in educational programs;
2. Between graduation and practice; and
3. Between certification and higher levels of competent practice.
Witter-Merithew and Johnson also called for the need to develop a systematic approach to bridging these gaps. Though this gap has been identified several times, a tangible solution has yet to be disseminated to new graduates of Interpreter Education Programs (IEPs).
The Support Team Internship (STI) was an outgrowth of an independent study in interpreting developed with students majoring in the ASL Program at the University of Rochester. Using Wilson’s (2001) “open process” for teaming as a starting point and with the permission of all participants, students began to work in a support team position (sometimes colloquially referred to as the “B interpreter” position). The students’ responsibilities were to observe and process the live interpreted environment and to be prepared to support the interpreter whenever information was missed or misinterpreted. The expectation was that when working in the supporting role, students would cognitively process in real time just as a practitioner would, with the reduced pressure of never working in “the hot seat.” In contrast to passive observation, this practice was designed by the lead author to allow students to engage actively with the practitioner’s cognitive process while learning and practicing effective teaming techniques.
Competent Practice Model
Observation > (Shadowing) > STI > (Shadowing) > Practice
In their research of interpreter education practices, Witter-Merithew and Johnson (2005) examined experiences of stakeholder groups including interpreters, deaf consumers, agency owners, policy makers, and educators in a venture called the Entry-to-Practice Competencies Project. The researchers collected information from the stakeholders through individual and group interviews, online discussion boards, and surveys. The results showed a widespread concern for interpreters entering into the field immediately upon graduation from their IEPs, which was echoed by each group of stakeholders. One interviewee commented that the community at large “owns the gap and is therefore [collectively] responsible for coming up with a solution for lessening or eliminating the discrepancy (p. 15).”
Witter-Merithew and Johnson (2005) go on to explain that there is a difference between competent autonomy and default autonomy of practitioners: “It is important to clarify the difference between competent autonomy, based on professional merit, and ‘default autonomy’, which is without merit and results from isolation, insufficient training, and market trends and conditions” (p. 22). They found that interpreters tend to subscribe to the latter, resulting in practitioners working in isolation with minimal support from colleagues or mentors. Because this is widely accepted as the norm within the profession, not much is done to try and change it on the individual level, therefore perpetuating the competence gap.
Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) discuss the concept of participatory action research. They frame research as a social practice. This notion ended up being the very framework on which the STI method rests and guided the tool’s development through the years. In their paper, Kemmis and McTaggart combine the traditional concept of action research, used since the 1940s, with the idea of participatory research, which comes from a more community-based, inclusive agenda. “Three particular attributes are often used to distinguish participatory research from conventional research: shared ownership of research projects, community-based analysis of social problems, and an orientation towards community action” (p. 273). The following is from Kemmis and McTaggart and shows the cycle which drives critical participatory action research:

  • Planning a change
  • Acting and observing the process and consequences of the change
  • Reflecting on these processes and consequences
  • Replanning
  • Acting and observing again
  • Reflecting again, and so on . . .(p. 276)

The STI tool has followed the cycle above in its development. It has now undergone four iterations since its inception in 2007 and has evolved from the time of the first cohort.
Dean and Pollard (2001, 2006) are well known for their work with the Demand-Control Schema (DC-S), which is a widely used tool in the interpretation field that focuses on ethical decision-making. While assessment of oneself as well as the environment is included in the DC-S tool from an ethical approach, the need to consider and improve one’s linguistic interpretation processing skills while interpreting is not included. For this reason, the STI tool is proposed to work in conjunction with the DC-S in order to encompass both ethical and skill-based considerations.
The STI and Its Inception
The STI is a mentoring tool used by a team comprised of an experienced interpreter and a novice interpreter. It was developed at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY among ASL Program students under the supervision of Patricia Clark, the program’s staff interpreter/instructor. Since it began in 2007, there have been four iterations of the STI tool with different cohorts of graduating students. To date, five novice interpreters have been mentored using this tool and all have since gone on to either complete or pursue graduate degrees in the field of interpretation. Three of those students are featured here.
For the purposes of this paper, we will use the terms novice interpreter, and mentor or experienced interpreter to delineate the two practitioners being discussed. Even though, for the most part, the mentor is an instructor and the novice a student, the STI tool can be applied to working practitioners who may desire to enter into new settings and broaden their interpretation work. This feature of the STI will be discussed in the Future Implications/Outcomes section. We use the term support teaming to refer to the novice interpreter processing information for the purpose of providing feeds to the experienced interpreter. During this process, the novice interpreter is able to experience multitasking to enrich the processing ability. The term support teaming encompasses monitoring the work of the experienced interpreter.
First conceived to provide authentic experiences to students interested in extending their understanding of the interpretation process, the mentor initially was concerned about the pervasive training gap that existed between theory and practice. Observation alone was insufficient in providing novice interpreters with an understanding of all that was involved in the process; even when supplemented by discussion, a novice is not actively engaging with the practicing interpreter during observation. The STI tool allows the novice to mentally process content without being primarily responsible for the final interpreted product. The novice supports the mentor for the entirety of an interpreting assignment and is responsible for feeding the mentor when something is missed, misinterpreted, or misheard. Thus, the novice interpreter is necessarily required to process the environment and language as though he or she were interpreting. As will be shown through personal accounts, this approach gave novice interpreters a unique view into how it feels to interpret without the added pressure of having to produce any linguistic product directly to the Deaf or hearing recipients.
The STI is different from observation of practitioners at work. While observation allows the novice to recognize interpretation choices and interactions as well as the effects of these, the novice is not an active participant in the process, has no vested interest in the outcome, and thus does not fully appreciate or comprehend the processing factors influencing the mentor’s decisions. In contrast, the STI requires the novice to listen to the source message, compare it with the experienced interpreter’s target message, analyze omissions, and consider the accuracy and effect of the message in order to decide whether a feed is necessary. This multi-level processing for the novice, without actually speaking or signing, invites him or her into the process safely and allows the novice to begin developing processing as well as teaming skills in authentic interpreted settings. The STI differs from the concept of shadow interpreting (also known as verbatim repetition) because, traditionally, shadow interpreting limits the novice interpreter’s output to that of the mentor’s. This limitation can be observed for spoken as well as signed language interpreters in training who utilize shadowing. The STI, on the other hand, requires novice interpreters to monitor the experienced interpreter’s output as well as formulate their own interpretation on a mental processing level, thereby allowing novices to compare the two products and learn from the process as a whole.
Post-assignment debriefing sessions are key in the STI experience, both for the purpose of education and clarification of techniques observed, and for promoting development of a trusting, supportive relationship within a team. The novice is encouraged to prepare for this meeting by recording his or her experience and questions immediately following the assignment. The resulting discussion is grounded in the authentic experiences of both the novice and experienced interpreters, allowing both the opportunity to learn from one another. With both members of the team vested in the outcome of this dialogue, questions such as why particular feeds were not utilized, or whether the novice’s feeds were effectively given or incorporated into the interpretation, can be discussed in authentic ways. This allows novice and experienced interpreters to assess their work effectively and discuss ways to improve upon it. Thus, the student gains real experience in practicing linguistic, cognitive, and interpersonal dynamics of interpretation.
STI in Practice
The STI is a real, viable solution to closing the gap between education and practice and a benefit to experienced practitioners entering a new field of interpretation work. Post-internship debriefing with the first student in 2007 substantiated the benefits of the STI, motivating further tests of efficacy with two and then three additional students in 2008 and 2010, respectively. The tool was used successfully with one experienced interpreter who became an “intern” in an unfamiliar academic setting. This was performed to allow the interpreter to develop expertise in processing new knowledge domains safely without jeopardizing the professionals and consumer interactions.
The STI was first used in the spring of 2007 with a student (referred to as Student A) who was conducting an internship under the mentorship of the tool developer (the mentor) at the University of Rochester. The internship began as an independent study experience, which Student A pursued after taking a course focusing on translation of frozen texts in American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Initially, she only observed the mentor’s live interpretation work but as time went on, the mentor suggested Student A act as the support team interpreter for the duration of that particular assignment. Student A agreed and recalls the following: “When [the mentor] asked me to try support teaming, I was dubious that I would be able to handle the cognitive work required, as I had never actually interpreted anything in my life.” The use of the STI tool solidified Student A’s future career goals because she was able to genuinely experience what it was like to interpret, although she was not put on the spot to turn out a complete linguistic product. Student A remembers clearly how she felt during her first experience with STI:

As I sat there, I could feel a part of my brain being activated that had never worked that hard before. To my surprise, I found it was possible to manage all the cognitive tasks and have enough mental energy left to provide feeds to [the mentor] when she needed them. This was definitely a watershed moment for me.

Based on feedback from this first user of the STI and its success in creating a safe processing opportunity for students interested in pursuing interpreting, the STI was used with a second cohort of students.
The second cohort of students who were mentored using the STI model with the mentor included two students in the spring of 2008 (hereafter referred to as Student B and Student C). As with Student A’s experience, Student B and Student C began by studying fundamentals such as the history and theory of interpreting followed by observing the mentor’s interpreting work in various environments. This foundation was built during the fall of 2007 and the STI tool was introduced during the spring of 2008. Though these Student B and Student C were working with the mentor simultaneously, they each had their own unique experiences using the STI. Student B recalls how she felt when asked to interpret filmed material in a classroom setting prior to practicing with the STI: “I remember the first time [the mentor] had us try to interpret from a recorded lecture – it felt impossible!” This statement reflects the gap that has been discussed extensively in the field of interpretation – that between education and practice there must be a transition that is both safe for the novice interpreter and effective in developing competency.  “The STI gave me an early understanding of this, and it actually helped me to start thinking as an interpreter at very early stages of my formation as an interpreter.”  Student C relates his first experience with the STI:

The first time I accompanied [the mentor] to an assignment to serve as her support feed team was an unforgettable experience. It was unforgettable for multiple reasons; I was incredibly excited to actively participate in an interpreting team and I had the expectation of it being a piece of cake. To my surprise by the end of the assignment I was utterly exhausted, and remember I was never actually the “on” interpreter, I was only serving as support for [the mentor]. While working the assignment I promptly realized that I had to actively process all the information [the mentor] was processing, I had to monitor [the mentor’s] interpretation to make sure I was ready to give her whatever she needed, and be able to anticipate what chunks might require more energy for the “on” interpreter in order to provide appropriate support. By the end of this first assignment I was beat, just from the mental aerobics I had to perform as a support-team interpreter. This was a rude awakening for me, an exciting one too, interpreting is not as easy at it looks!

Learning how to cope with specific challenges first-hand is something which Student B noticed while using the STI with the mentor:

I got to see how an individual with an accent adds another level of processing for the interpreter to handle. It seems obvious that language with an accent would be more challenging to interpret but, because of the STI tool, I was able to experience what it felt like to deal with this extra challenge.

It was at this point that the mentor realized the STI could be useful as a tool to provide working practitioners a means to learn how to interpret in genres/settings they had not yet experienced. With extensive experience in graduate-level post-secondary work, the mentor worked with a practitioner with no experience in the field of cognitive science. Using the STI tool the practitioner teamed with the mentor in an advanced course on cognition. This tool safely introduced this practitioner to interpreting this particular genre while providing the experienced interpreter with the support needed to ensure accurate interpretations.
Adjustments were made for the third cohort based on feedback from previous cohorts to include actual interpretation exposure during classroom sessions. This exposure incorporated a taste of the process for development of interpretation skills beginning with re-telling, then consecutive interpreting, and finally, simultaneous interpreting. In order for students to understand the challenges of providing an accurate, culturally sensitive interpretation in both English to ASL and ASL to English, the experience of being completely responsible for the interpretation was introduced in a safe setting – the classroom.
After being exposed to the challenge of simultaneous interpretation of one text, one student in the third cohort relates how these sessions provided additional insight into her learning process in the classroom:

After we floundered and it was horrible, we were each assigned part of the video to break down into a detailed translation. This classroom exercise was helpful in showing the level of complexity required during a simultaneous interpretation, and these skills were directly put into practice while Support Teaming.

Another member of the third cohort began her foray into interpreting sooner in her academic career at the University of Rochester compared to previous students under the STI. All students thus far had been introduced to the STI in their senior years, but this student began during the spring semester of her sophomore year in 2010. During her time at the university, a Theory of Interpreting course was introduced and she sought an independent study with the mentor after taking that course. The student reflects on her overall experience with using the STI: “As somebody that can observe and work in the support team environment simultaneously, I was fortunate to be able to not only watch a skilled interpreter, but also practice the mental process of interpreting in my own time”.
In the years following the initial development of the STI tool, it has been used with the next generation of interpretation students. Student B (from the second cohort) mentored a student for two consecutive quarters at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), which is a college within Rochester Institute of Technology. With this new student, Student B started having the student observe her and then suggested that the student try to be the support team for a few assignments before actually sharing the interpretation task with her. Introducing this stepping-stone immediately incited a sense of relief in the interpreting student. Instead of transitioning directly from observation to practice, the STI tool helped bridge this gap and also built a sense of understanding between mentor and mentee. In Student B’s case, the novice interpreter felt overwhelmed at the idea of interpreting in front of the experienced interpreter at first so the STI tool was used as a confidence and trust builder between the two.
Implications for use of the STI
While this tool has been primarily used with interpreting students to date, this should not be considered the only demographic with which the STI has been used or shall be used in the future. The STI tool, which has proved to benefit recent graduates of Interpreter Education Programs, has been applied to experienced practitioners who wished to begin interpreting in settings or genres in which they felt like novice interpreters because of a lack of exposure to specific settings. The mentor has used the STI in a specific working relationship with one of her fellow practitioners. This experience benefited both the experienced interpreter and the intern interpreter in a knowledge setting that was new to the intern. It was fast-paced, interactive, requiring specific jargon and extra-linguistic knowledge in order to effectively interpret both spoken and signed information. The STI team discussed readings before the assignment to ensure understanding of the information that would be interpreted. Debriefing sessions following each interpretation event allowed the team to form a cohesive, trusting relationship, which continued to improve the work or both members of the STI team.
All five students specifically recall becoming fatigued rather quickly when beginning their journey with the STI. The exhaustion is likely similar to that of a novice interpreter who is just beginning his or her career. The fact that one can experience this fatigue while using the STI is evidence that the novice is processing at a level akin to the experienced interpreter. It is also beneficial in that the final interpreted product is coming from the experienced interpreter rather than the fatigued novice. As the novice continues in the support team role over time, use of the STI can be used to reduce this fatigue that is often experienced by novice interpreters. By identifying that such fatigue exists, one can develop strategies for how to mitigate its effects and to build up one’s stamina and ability to interpret for longer periods of time comfortably. The ability to develop this skill using the STI tool is an ideal situation, perhaps bringing us one step closer to closing the competence gap.
One of the most profound added benefits of using the STI tool is related to the practice of teaming. By its very nature, use of the STI forces the novice as well as the experienced interpreter to become actively involved in teaming with one another. However, this benefit was not the original objective of the tool nor was it immediately apparent. The implications for teaming were realized when the novice interpreters who had been mentored with this tool entered the field to work with others. Student C noted in his personal account how the STI training influenced his own teaming. He stated the following, referring to an occasion in which he and Student B were able to team together in the classroom as a part of their graduate training at Gallaudet University:

The click was almost instantaneous, we were able to jump into each other’s interpretation process and provide support exactly the way we each needed it. One of the great things about the STI tool is that it allows for the support team interpreters to really force themselves to jump into the other interpreter’s interpretation process.

The STI uses support teaming as its very foundation during the practice of interpreting as well as during debriefing, or post-conferencing. Weekly meetings between experienced and novice interpreters helped build a working relationship. The opportunity to develop the ability to talk about the work, while still in a safe low-risk environment, was an effective way for novice interpreters to develop professional vocabulary. Additionally, the mentor guided the novice interpreters in thinking about important issues and asking appropriate questions; this required advanced critical thinking skills. Evolving these critical thinking skills helped the novice interpreters, in turn, evaluate interpreted situations at a high level and problem-solve more efficiently once they entered the field as practitioners.
The STI tool has been developed in an attempt to respond to the competence gap between education and practice for novice interpreters. The mentor, in her work with three cohorts of American Sign Language students at the University of Rochester, has altered the STI through the years using an approach known as participatory action research put forth by Kemmis and McTaggart (2005). This approach allowed for improvement upon the tool based on feedback from the students who participated in the STI.
Through the use of support teaming, novice interpreters are able to process environmental, linguistic and interpersonal information in real time without the risk of being responsible for the final interpreted product. Because the STI tool gives novice interpreters a way to cope with linguistic processing challenges before practicing in the field, it is a perfect tool to be used in conjunction with the Demand-Control Schema (DC-S) from Dean and Pollard (2001). The DC-S provides interpreters ways to cope with the environmental, interpersonal, paralinguistic and intrapersonal demands in an interpreted. Adding the STI tool completes the interpreter’s skills toolbox by adding ways to cope with processing demands.
About the Authors
Patricia Clark, (CSC, MA in Linguistics, University of Colorado) is a faculty member of the ASL Program at the University of Rochester with over 35 years of experience teaching and mentoring interpreters.
Elise Coco Mongeon (NIC, MA in Interpretation, Gallaudet University) works as a freelance interpreter in Rochester, NY.
Leana Jelen is second year student at Gallaudet University-Department of Interpretation and freelance interpreter specializing in interpreting in the Jewish Community.
Lydia Dewey Pickard (NIC Master, MA in Interpretation, Gallaudet University) works as a freelance interpreter and VRS interpreter in Oregon.
Gustavo Navarrete-Guastella (NIC, MA in Interpretation, Gallaudet University) works as a staff interpreter for Gallaudet Interpreting Service. He specializes in trilingual interpreting in the community, working with ASL, English, and Spanish.
Emily Balzano is a first year student at Gallaudet University-Department of Interpretation with an interest in theatrical interpreting.
Our appreciation goes to Ted Supalla, former Director of the University of Rochester ASL Program, for supporting the independent study that led to the formation of Support Teaming, and to the University of Rochester ASL Program for its collaborative atmosphere. We also acknowledge the consumers and venues that allowed each student the opportunity to practice Support Teaming.
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