Three Lessons for Interpreter Education in a Flattening World

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Advice for Digital Immigrants

Doug Bowen-Bailey headshot wearing CIT shirt
by Doug Bowen-Bailey
CIT Webmaster
webmaster@cit-asl.org



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At the beginning of June 2016, I had a day that caught me both looking forward and reflecting backward when it comes to post-secondary education.  On the first Friday of June, my daughter had her last day of high school as I set off to my 25th college reunion.  The night before, I had listened to Michael Curry, a classmate at Macalester College – who is currently the President of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, reflect on his experiences back in college.  Yet, it didn’t get me thinking about my own college experiences, but instead what my daughter’s college experiences will be.  How will the changes in colleges, universities and the world they exist in, shape what she will face and learn?
Part of my reflection was influenced by listening to the audiobook of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  In this, he argues that digital technology – particularly the internet and wireless communications – have knocked down the walls that have divided people and countries from each other.  I certainly have experienced that.  After all, as the CIT webmaster, I had just collaborated with Ineke Crezee and George Major, our two editors for the International Journal of Interpreter Education,in preparing the final online version of Volume 8(1.)  Ineke and George live in New Zealand, and despite the challenge of figuring out which day they are living in…(often they write me from tomorrow), because of the fiber optic cable which lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, my work with them is much the same as my work with others in my own town.
In that context, I wanted to share some reflections for what interpreter educators need to consider in our interconnected world.

  • Navigation as an Essential Skill
  • Collaborative Entrepeneurship
  • Embracing Contradiction

1:  Navigation as an Essential Skill

In the Internet age, when our access to information has exploded, a vital skill for interpreters and students is to know how to navigate through all the information.  Ineke Creze, an interpreter educator from New Zealand, wrote, An Introduction to Healthcare for Interpreters and Translators in which she tried to distill that information because as Mitchell Kapor, n.d. has said, “Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”  So, it is important to have either a resource, like this book, or a strategy to be able to determine what information is most beneficial for learning or practice.  (See a review of this book here.)
For our students, mentees, or colleagues, assisting in the development of navigational skills like this is so important.  It is rooted in critical thinking to be able to assess the worth of information in a given context – and determine whether or how to apply it.  It is certainly influenced by one’s own experience, but it can’t be limited to only that.  We have to learn how to take other people’s experiences and perspectives into account.  So, in many ways, navigational skills are a form of wisdom.

2:  Collaborative Entrepeneurship

Another skill is to have creative thinking like an entrepeneur.  I recently watched Thomas Friedman give a talk at the Aspen Leadership Forum, and he talked about four pieces of advice he would give his daughters to do as they grow into adulthood.

  • Think like an immigrant.  The first piece is to have a “hungry” mindset that immigrants bring when they come to a new country.  Immigrants often come with incredible work ethic to try to improve their own life and the lives of their family and descendants without any sense that someone will be giving something to you.  So, it is a real dedication to avoid complacency.As interpreters enter the field now, they can’t come with any sense of complacency.  Technology is is impacting the contexts in which we work so rapidly that just assuming that you will do what interpreters have done in the past is a dangerous thing.
  • Think like a tech start-up.  Friedman uses the example of a Silicon Valley start-up to show the continuous drive for improvement.  He frames it as “always be in beta” which is the form of a software or invention that is good enough to put out in the world, but not good enough to be satisfied with.  So, in our approach to interpreting, we need to always be thinking of ways that we can be able to improve on our craft or the ways that we relate the people with whom we work.
  • Think like a waitress.  Friedman shares a story of going to the restaurant, Perkins, with a friend.  When the waitress delivered breakfast, she said to his friend, “I gave you extra fruit.”  Friedman noticed how this simple comment triggered an increased tip, but more than that, he was amazed by the waitress taking charge of what she could control.  In a corporate restaurant setting like this, she didn’t have control of many things, but she did exercise latitude over the use of the fruit ladle.  And so she used that to make an impact on her customer.Similarly, interpreters may be in many situations where they have limited decision latitude, but it doesn’t remove from us the possibility or responsibility to exercise what latitude we do have for an improved communication event.  So, “thinking like a waitress” is really about embracing our own power for positive results.
  • Think like an artisan.  Friedman’s fourth message is to take such a degree of pride in your work that you come off as an artisan.  He shares the example of people who make saddles for horses, who oversee or complete the entire process, and when they are done, are so invested in their work that they burn their name into the saddle.So, too, interpreters need to be so invested in the service that we deliver that, while we can’t burn our name in it, we are willing to stand by it with our reputation.

In this entrepeneurial thinking, it is also important that it is collaborative.  It is not simply trying to one-up the competition (i.e. other interpreters, agencies, businesses.)  It is about both collaborating and competing to come up with new ideas that better serve the communities and individuals we work with.
I think Brandon Arthur, who will be presenting at the CIT conference, is a great example of this in his work with StreetLeverage.  He has used entrepeneurial thinking through StreetLeverage to bring people to together to come up with something better than we could do on our own.

3:  Embracing Contradiction

The  third lesson for Interpreter Education is to be willing to embrace contradiction.  Though Friedman writes an entire book under the title, “The World is Flat,” he recognizes that truly it isn’t.  Richard Florida, just after the book was published, came out with an essay in the Atlantic, “The World is Spiky.”  While a metaphor like the flat world is helpful for seeing how the world is changing, it is still just a metaphor and doesn’t really replace the complexity and contradiction of how the world still is shaped.
The reality is that there are many imbalances of power in our world that technology sometimes helps to lesson and other times exacerbates.  And interpreters who are interested in effective communication need to be able to also see how those power dynamics effect our work.
One tool to support this is looking at social justice as a part of interpreter education.  The NCIEC supported David Coyne and Joseph Hill in the creation of a classroom infusion module on Social Justice.  You can learn more about this and the other infusion modules by reading the NCIEC’s article.    These resources are not beneficial only for the classroom, but also provide activities that can be used in mentoring.The other modules in the series focus on:  the diversity of consumers in VR settings, the VR process, interpreting in Healthcare, DeafBlind interpreting, and Deaf Interpreter-Hearing Interpreter teams.
Understanding the balance of power in these settings is an important piece of wisdom for implementing the framework of Dean and Pollard’s demand-control schema – knowing when to take more liberal approaches and when to remain more conservative.  It also plays into using Lee and Llwellyn-Jones’ concept of role-space.  If more power is distributed more equally, it calls for more conservative actions or more constricted role-space.  If there is a power imbalance, it means more liberal responses or enlarged role-spaces are justified.
So, being able to identify contradictions is an important skill to be able to navigate through a world where power is not always equally distributed.

Conclusion

While certainly not limited to these three skills, knowing how to navigate our abundance of information, being able to collaborate with the mindset of an entrepeneur, and identifying and embracing contradiction are three important skills for interpreter education to foster.  The changes that technology brings will continue in this flattening world, and our work as educators is to prepare our students to thrive in the future that they will help to build.
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