sharp curves and time-out-of-time (TOOT!)

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. There is what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on within the context of a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say. This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too.

My neighbor is thinking about going back to college but – like many people – is not sure what he wants to study. I asked Kevin if he knew the difference between psychology and sociology. He did. (I wish I had recorded his answers; they were great!) He said something to the effect that psychology is about the mind and how a person thinks of things, and sociology has to do with how people relate with one another.

Taking a sharp curve in conversation

Then I asked if he knew the implications of this difference in terms of time. “What?” He was puzzled and asked me to repeat the question. I elaborated: If you start from psychology, you make the individual the center; if you start from sociology, you make the interconnections the most important. “Oh!” He got it, saying something about the inter-relatedness of all things. “You lost me for a minute.” Teasing, he added: “You took a sharp curve there, but I gotcha!”

Kevin is one of those flexible kind of folk who is accustomed to having things come at him unexpectedly, not according to the usual ways. His reflexes are quick. Usually quicker than mine! Foin. With most of my friends (and many of my colleagues, too), it occasionally happens that I do or say something that catches them momentarily at a loss, then they’ll pick up and make the next move and it’s my turn to sputter.

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. I am still learning how to help people productively engage with difficult group dynamics by saying, as one boss and I described it, “stuff about stuff” – meaning, being direct and clear about social challenges as they emerge in collaborative work situations.

Time-out-of-Time, also known as “tooting”

There is a facilitator’s technique of structuring a “TOOT” to allow participants in a learning context to reflect on a particular topic or process or experience. The kids’ punishment called “time out” is cultural (not everyone uses it or even knows about it), but the idea of being discharged out of a group’s shared timestream into the corner (or wherever) is another kind of structured use of time. The intentions behind these activities are acceptable because they are familiar; even though someone may not like doing them, they are relatively comfortable because they are (more-or-less) common social experiences.

Then there’s what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on in a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say.  This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too. Lately, I’ve been pushed to this edge in almost every group I belong to. Now, if you start from a psychological perspective, it could be that I’m becoming increasingly disassociated from reality (since I am ignoring certain social norms). But if you start from a sociological perspective, then the question becomes something like, what is it about the relationships in these groups that keeps giving me reason to say stuff (about stuff)?

Each approach (the psychological, the social) has something useful to contribute to understanding the dynamics of whatever it is that is going on (with me, with the groups), but neither will capture the whole picture by itself. Psychology and sociology are complements of a greater phenomenon, call it culture or human evolution or the social construction of knowledge (or whatever academic or religious flavor you prefer).

Communication as science

The young discipline of communication is based on the notion of equilibrium between the individual and the social. This is not the typical chicken-or-egg question, because the basic assumption of communication is mutuality. My personality (e.g., tooting or not) is “called out” by the group, just as my participation in the group adds to (or detracts from) the character of the group: its norms and performance (for instance, as a team working toward certain goals). The fancy jargon word is constitution. It is a tricky word to define, so I am linking to the disambiguation page in Wikipedia, specifically to the section labeled “other uses.

Notice: “the well-being of an organism” and “to maintain or improve health” in addition to legal, medical, and political definitions of constitution. Not only are constitutions things (a noun) but also activities (a verb). The concept of constitution is the philosophical equivalent to the observer effect in quantum mechanics: at the sub-atomic level, physicists get what they look for because those dang-blasted tiny particles respond to being observed.

So it is with human behavior. We perceive what we’re looking for – or, more accurately, we understand things based upon the lens used for thinking. This is why applied social science, especially action learning/action research based in communication theory, can be useful in getting groups through difficult dynamics. In communication, everything is always happening simultaneously, there is no “cause” and “effect” – instead there are cycles and stages and intersections which involve history and the biographies of everyone involved.

Maybe its rocket science. For me it is a way to live with integrity.

Index: PhD Defenses

Coming soon: Ambarish Karmalkar and Arturo Osorio

Dr Linus Nyiwul, Resource Management
working the system: market enforcement of emission standards

Dr Siny Joseph, Resource Management
How COOL is your seafood?

Dr Anuj Pradhan, Human Performance Laboratory,
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Anuj in a suit
(on Risk Prevention and Awareness Training for young/new drivers)

Brains: “an entity yet to be seen in world politics”

International Relations Theory
(political science)

The quote above is from a comment by blenCOWe to a blogpost, Theory of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner. Drezner’s blog entry is an example along the lines of this youtube video, Gay Science Isolates the Christian Gene, and a powerpoint presentation made by MJ Bienvenu at the recent biennial convention of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in which she offered deconstructions of audism from the organization’s official website. For example:

“English is not ASL on the mouth.”

The pedagogy of this style of teaching is aptly captured by Erin in her comment to Drezner:

“As Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann write, “The mirror approach is broader than simply deploying popular culture artifacts as a teaching aid. IR scholars can examine popular culture as a medium for exploring theoretical concepts, dilemmas of foreign policy, and the like.” (12).”

The mirror approach operates on the simple principle of substitution: take an existing discourse, and

    a) reverse the key tropes (as in “Gay Science” or unveiling audism in “The Heart of the RID Organization”),

    b) replace the key actors with an abstraction, or

    c) combine both.

A View from Communication Theory
The engagement spawned (ha) is impressive. A communication theorist has many choices for analysis: as a media text, from the viewpoint of audience, in terms of effects, as a language game (Wittgenstein), as a social use of information and communications technology, not to mention the rich data seeded throughout regarding regional, national, and gendered points of view (classist, ableist, etc), and the production of online identities. It can be critiqued from a variety of viewpoints, including (for instance) political economy, pragmatism, or cultural studies, and at differing levels, such as mass media or interpersonal communication.
My own take is to regard the entry and comments as an instance of discourse: academic, specific to one discipline, and (probably, as goes the zeitgeist) rooted more in space than time. The use of wit (humor) to display breadth, depth, and precision of one’s knowledge in fast repartee is the most valorized contemporary mode of intellectual engagement. Everyone who can find a way in, does, and those who can’t find their way quickly enough, don’t. By the time the entry point clarifies into a path (or the perceptible path finds its entry point), the exchange is over, the event is closed. The instigators and participants have moved on to the next sexy thing. The normative behavior is that the immediate “space” occupied by this interaction has been effectively controlled: everyone (who matters?) has had their say in shining flashes of inspiration.
What strikes me, as an action researcher and a constructivist, is multileveled. First, unadulterated admiration. I envy the lightening comprehension and instant formulation of coherent, contextualized, educative information. Second, awe. We know so much. Ok, so I’m liberally folding myself into the “we,” but seriously: look at the range of knowledge pouring out! It isn’t as if there aren’t tons of “us” out here who understand the historical momentum of the social forces we’re working with – or against, as the case may be. blenCOWe continues:

In terms of his liberal institutionalist and constructivist analyses, Drezner is counting on the fact that the zombies would have the cognitive ability to calculate the benefits and drawbacks to collaborating with other actors. As such, any ideas of building an international organization, including the presence of zombies, to deal with the presence of zombies or to build a world state inclusive of zombies appears to be quite impossible.

Lastly, when he addresses neoconservatism he recognizes that the zombie threat was an existential threat, noting that the threat from zombies is from their jealously over our freedom and not from their desire for our brains. Like the faults with the other theories, this analysis is based on the faulty assumption that zombies have the ability to make cognitive decisions like that. The unavoidable fact is simple, zombies pose a threat to humans because of their desire for brains and for no other reason.

Zombies pose a threat not only because of their desire for eating brains, but – crucially – because that primal desire is coupled with an accompanying lack of brains. The implicit message in the IR discourse about Zombies is that there are, already, zombies among us. I suggest there are three broad types:

  • the undead who have accepted a singular social and ideological “programming” as the one and only way to make sense of their lives,
  • the undead who have embraced a particular intellectual framework in order to cope with existential anxiety and/or the evolutionary pressures of anarchy, and
  • the undead who have selected to master the terms of the zeigeist, “Let’s get cynical!”

Now what?
With the “what” of varying ideological understandings so thoroughly grasped in the space of two days’ interaction, enter the dimension of time. I’m speaking of deep time (esp. deep history), small time (i.e., Bakhtin), and time inclusive of the future. Politically, time is apprehendible in norms of culture and forms of institutions. Simply, what changes and what stays the same? As the Human versus Zombie IR debate unfolds, applications are posed or elaborated, such as two-level game theory and accepting Zombies as a new class to be integrated into the existing global structure. Erin, quoted above, offered

“a brief survey (n=3) I conducted in the last 5 minutes unanimously suggest[ing] that zombies should probably be considered alongside Kosovo to understand IR theory.”

She also adds “an important caveat,” to her random sampling:

“…2/3 of respondents volunteered that they conditioned their response on zombie attacks, unlike extraterrestrial visitations, remaining confined to the realm of hypothetical thought experiments.”

While I agree with the pedagogical impulse, the effect of continuing to deploy only such discrete strategies extends temporally into the future, replicating the same momentum of monological thought that substantively prevents us from finding collective means for creatively managing the diversity of human ways of being. In other words, will the brilliance of insight and potential demonstrated by Drezner & Company be translated into wisdom with a voice?
Engaging intellectual battle in the abstract can be deeply satisfying and even entertaining, the case of Zombies in point. But what about those of us who don’t speak that language? Why must we continue to demarcate the differences in such ways as to reinforce the space of separation between them? This is an illness of extreme disciplinarity. There will always be gaps. Can we ply them creatively? To do so, I suggest we need to consider multilingual models, in particular the potential of interpreted interactions. In The Language Barrier as an Aid to Communication, Rodrigo Ribeiro argues the importance of not understanding in a case study involving the steel industry, technology transfer, and Japanese and Brazilian forms of life

the ‘language barrier’, which is normally thought as a problem, can aid communication by preventing people who hold potentially clashing concepts, beliefs and customs from directly confronting each other.

While I support Ribeiro’s conclusion of value based on non-confrontation and interpreters’ strategies of mediation, I suggest this is only one manifestation of the intercultural communication practice of multilingual/interpreted interaction. The Japanese and Brazilian interlocutors are learning – through this process – how to be with difference. What we academics need to help politicians create are systems that can deal fluidly with difference – ideological, linguistic, cultural, etc – that are, in essence, multilogical rather than monological. Among the strategies that could work are finding ways among ourselves to communicate with each other across, among, and between our fields of expertise.

Rock People and Feather People


One of my deep interests is change: particularly the relationship between personal change and societal change, and especially the individual and group tensions that are always involved. Is changing something we do from (internal) desire or willpower, or are we changed as a result of something (external) that happens to us? How is it that some people change easily (or seem to), and others never change (appearing as if they cannot)?

Tendency of stone
I know two stories about rocks and belonging. One of my teachers, Grandmother Spotted Eagle, told us about a lesson she received as a young girl in Arizona. This is how I remember it:

One day,” she told us, “I was instructed to go out and collect ten white rocks.” It took awhile for her to find and carry the rocks back to the camp, but she accomplished the task. What happened next was a surprise: “Then,” she explained, “I was told to return each one of them to the place where I found it, and put it back in the exact same spot.

The second story is from a visit to Hawai’i. While there, I learned that there are many stories about people who take a piece of volcanic rock home as a souvenir, and then have terrible luck until they finally send the rock back. It is as if the rock curses them for removing it from where it belonged.
Some people belong to a certain space like specific stones “belong” in their particular place. These Rock People are connected by nearly unbreakable bonds to deeply felt ways of relating to each other and the environment. Whatever the weather brings, they will endure it! Take them out of that cultural milieu and unhappiness follows; watch them return and rediscover pleasure.

Drift of feathers

heron and ducks.jpg
Grandmother Spotted Eagle also inspired my interest in birds, who figure prominently in American Indian culture. Later I learned about the use of canaries in mines, and began bird-watching. After looking so hard to identify different types of birds, it seemed that my ability to watch and comprehend ASL improved greatly! Unlike stone (under normal conditions), birds travel vast distances, propelled and protected by feathers whose density compared to rock is practically nonexistent. Once shed, a feather can be blown about by even a slight breeze. Change seems constant! Yet, the bird’s flight is purposeful while the feather’s vulnerability to the wind remains always the same.
Groups – be they societies or organizations, need Rock People and Feather People. We need people who are reliable, sturdy, always present. We also need people who flit about: leaving, adapting, coming back, and being blown through by the wind. I have a rather silly hypothesis that social change – of the fundamental, lasting kind – happens when there is an overlap of agreement between the Rock and Feather Peoples of various identity groupings: a temporal merger of drift and tendency.

“Westerners have watches; we have time” (an African saying, thanks Siré!)
No one has yet been able to explain that “overlap of agreement” – it may be the kind of experience that is ineffable: “incapable of being expressed in words.” And, while we may never know how to say what it is when our social interacting culminates in change, we may be able to perceive that such events are immanent: “…within the limits of possible experience or knowledge.”

milieu, definition by Merriam Webster Online
photo by Sarbjeet, Amherst Campus Pond, UMass
Independent Nation of Hawai’i (DUO), Reflexivity
IF CONDORS RULED THE SKY: Yurok Tribe seeks return of majestic bird to Northern California, by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press, in The Monterey County Herald
What does it mean to be a “canary in a coal mine”?
ineffable, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Immanent, definition from Merriam Webster Online
Westerners may have watches, but Africans have time……, Notes from the Field 2007, Public health students from the University of Minnesota write about their summer field experiences.
A matter of time, GrumpyGecko

NOTE: Thoughts on ineffability inspired by Brion. I’m partial to the sentiment expressed by Douglas Adams: “We shall grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

Frog Spawn or Bat Food?

LeRoy d’Espagne, Brussels
1st Meeting of The Beginning
Amherst, MA

Sven thought it appropriate to frame our first meeting with a bio-fact he’d just learned from the local dinosaur museum. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t know the life chances of tadpoles, but I certainly hope the light of our collaboration isn’t so bright that we get eaten by bats!
01 Saw Mill River rapids.jpg

Things happen.
Things happen and we make up their reasons.
We never know if others perceive phenomena in the same way that we do; all we have are references points of presence, perception, and language. Today, gazing upon the Saw Mill River, I wondered if I hadn’t been alone, if someone was with me, would they have been as immersed in the gentle rumble of these quick shallow rapids as I was? And what of previous shared experiences – do we remember them similarly? If we both/all recall the event, are the same or different features highlighted in memory? How did we interpret it at the time, and has that interpretation become more fixed and rigid, or has it softened, becoming more fluid with the expanded lens of hindsight?

“Science has only scratched the surface of how language affects thought.”

02small Saw MIll River approach.jpg
At any junction history stretches back, a biographical momentum that imbues each person with impetus for being in the present moment of shared spacetime. Until the moment of meeting, each person is on an independent course – a course shaped by previous relationships and experiences but as yet unaffected by the now-unfolding encounter. What will come from contact is unpredictable, yet not beyond the ken of knowledge, intuition, and intention. What do we want to result from mutual exposure, from the mixing of our life trajectories?
Upon return to Amherst I stumbled into another beginning – a friend’s dream project, well underway. Could these two beginnings, initiated so close in time albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic, complement each other? 07small onward flow.jpg And if they could, what would be my role? I’ve been thinking (metaphorically, as I do) that I want to be part of a pile supporting bridges over deep water. I’m not “a” bridge, myself, and the support I can offer is insufficient of itself to keep any bridge aloft and protected from scour. But, perhaps, from the relative stability of my own perch . . . this web of inter-relations connecting mentors, colleagues, friends, professional contacts . . .
and meanwhile, as always, the river flows on.

riding on butterfly wings, Reflexivity
What’s in a Word? Language may shape our thoughts, Sharon Begley
Bridge Supports, Andy Johnson

reassertion: dialogue not discourse

Amherst, MA

Re-reading this entry, “no mother tongue” (inspired by yesterday’s thrilling conversation with Rhona and Katya, grin) what re-jumps out at me, post-fieldwork, is “how language makes human interrelations visible.
Yes. That is what my dissertation will strive to show. From the basis of choices that Members of the European Parliament make to use or not use the simultaneous interpreters (or, to minimize and under-utilize the system of simultaneous interpretation instead of embracing and maximizing its culture-creating potentials) one can describe the current structural/power relations. From a clear picture of ‘here-and-now,’ and the judicious use of institutional and cultural theories, I suggest one can also project the continuing or resultant outcomes of these power relations into the future.
But – and here is where I continue to experiment with action research – if I spell out the projection, then I contribute to its manifestation. Instead of giving more power to an already established momentum of what seems pre-determined, I aim to present the logic of language choice with a scattering of openings that invite readers (as interlocutors) to choose among alternatives. Rather than writing in such a way that interlocutors are compelled by the (presumed!) power of my voice to accept/resist or otherwise engage only with a single, central, fixed point of argumentation, a variety of modes and unfoldings of communicative interaction should not only be possible, but actually occur.
Then we enter dialogue, and have a chance to reconfigure discourse.

Once and Future Missions


Forty years ago, my dad embarrassed me by stopping on a winding highway in the Colorado Rockies and waving down other drivers asking if they wanted to watch the moon launch. I was six years old. We were on the annual summer camping trip. Dad had had the foresight to load up our black-and-white portable tv with a powercord to the cigarette lighter, and he had kept an eye on the time. Not too many cars passed by, and none took up his offer. My brother and I understood that he was excited, but the significance of watching that grainy image of a rocket launching into space was beyond us at the time. Ever since, I rarely remember the event without tears – my own bit of vicarious spaceflight, an historic event witnessed by one of the largest global television audiences at that time. I do not recall watching the moon landing (although we probably did), it must have been under more ordinary circumstances and thus did not imprint as deep.
#17Big Picture APOLLO_11.jpg

The photos from The Big Picture’s Remembering Apollo 11 entry capture the glory as well as the sheer hard labor. One of the experiments (photo 29) has functioned ever since, demonstrating that the moon is moving away from the earth at a rate of 2.5 inches/year. (How does this influence, I wonder, the tidal flow of rock that the folks at CERN need to track?) A friend pays tribute to Neil Armstrong’s expression after the moonwalk (#24), a man who kept his cool “in situations that would have most of us soiling our pants — this incredibly brave, stoic man — is photographed by Buzz Aldrin with an incredulous, half-smile, his eyes brimming with tears after having just friggin walked on the surface of the friggin Moon.”
Stephen Hawking writes,

“Sending humans to the moon…changed the future of the human race in ways that we don’t yet understand and may have determined whether we have any future at all.”

I’m partial to the views of Earth. If only they were enough to keep us mindful of the very narrow conditions that sustain our atmosphere. Humanity is like the population of a spacecraft, only not everything is mechanized according to our abilities for control. In #35, Michael Collins describes the three billion human inhabitants of earth, two explorers in the Eagle, and one moon captured by chance. Now, we have still one moon, and there are plenty of explorers – but adventures of this type seem more rare. Meanwhile the population on earth has more than doubled. We have food and fuel issues that require massive infrastructural adjustments. Unlike a NASA spaceship, there’s no dedicated team working collaboratively to secure the future of our hardy planet. Tough as she is, there are vulnerabilities that need to be addressed in order to continue supporting a viable human population. Hawking argues that we need a more aggressive space exploration program to inspire more young people to enter the sciences, and that we need to be thinking in terms of centuries: 200-500 years to find Goldilocks Zones in star systems only thirty light years away.
The Goldilocks Zone refers to the conditions necessary for a planet to have surface water. Gilese 581c was discovered just two years ago, only 20.5 light years away. The thing is, while technology probably can get us there eventually, we’ve somehow got to keep this planet going at least as long as that takes! We now have the group communication tools to make incredible collaborations possible. Watch this ten minute video from Clay Shirky, an expert on internet communication technologies: UsNow: Part 2 of 7.

To the moon: historic TV coverage, global
Science Tourism: CERN, Reflexivity
World Population Clock, U.S. Census Bureau
Again, to the moon – and beyond, Stephen Hawking and Lucy Hawking
Are we not the only Earth out there? howstuffworks

Y2K was the warm-up


Yep, I’m one of those.

“The future enters into us, in order to prepare itself in us, long before it happens.”
~ Ranier Maria Rilke

It occurs to me, now, that the significance of Y2K wasn’t that so many of us were wrong, but that so many of us learned about emergency preparedness and crisis management. I, for instance, learned about the essential interdependence of individual, civic, and military/governmental systems for responding to crisis. I agree with Tom Barnett: “Systematically examining a worst-case possibility should not be an exercise in fear, but one of discovery and learning.” His assertion is in the context of US military brainstorming concerning worst case crisis scenarios, globally.

The challenge is that deliberately and consciously choosing the stance of discovery in the face of fear requires labor – mental, emotional, cooperative and collective. Charles Cameron says “a Y2K lessons learned might be a very valuable project, and even more that we could benefit from some sort of grand map of global interdependencies.” I’m suggesting there is evidence that as more people become aware of these interdependencies (thank you economic crisis?), they/we are also becoming increasingly sensitive (as in affected by and reactive to) the implications.

A major theme of the past year for me (living temporarily in Belgium) has been sustainability. I was hosted by a self-described “green terrorist” for part of my stay, as a result I increased personal capacity for lowering my own ecological footprint. As an American with over four decades of lived experience consuming energy with nary a thought, just becoming aware of things I’ve taken for granted – such as how much generated power I use, and how heedlessly – has been the first hurdle.

After awareness comes action – which is another entire dimension of learning. I do mean learning, too – because engagement (i.e., doing something, especially anything different than what one usually does) is a change process. Some actions may result in little or no individual effect but aggregate into large social or institutional effects – an example-in-progress is now being debated about twittering and Iran. Staying honest despite the short-term rush of deception is being valorized:

Human beings are well capable of suspension of disbelief, which amounts to trusting one another to create a collaborate narrative that highlights the most authentic aspects of how we see ourselves and one another, to explore, to push the boundaries of what it means to co-create the mixed-media, mixed-reality world in which we live.

a blogpost on online ethics of self-representation, lying,
cultural collaboration, and the evolution of human consciousness

The question is whether we can find ways of telling the story of saving the planet that exemplifies and emboldens us to overcome the inevitable waves of individual and social panic. Here’s Cameron again, building on Don Beck:

“because the idea of “seeing the contours of our social systems” — if you like, glimpsing for a moment the intricate weave whose complex properties we call “the world” — remains … a vivid quest…

Beck works with vMemes, value memes that contribute to models of transformational change. Generating memes about individual efforts to reduce energy consumption is an idea proposed by friends – and I am amazed at the lists some people can recount (over stewed rabbit, no less!) I am also wondering about generating memes to USE YOUR JOB to leverage change in business practices – most acutely at investor, management, and policy levels.

Transform fear into change!
“one of those” = waning of Public Interest in Y2K
“emergency preparedness” = differential impact on minority communities includes a downloadable prep sheet prepared by Nell Myhand after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans
quote about the willing suspension of disbelief = The ethics of changing your Twitter location to Tehran
Tom Barnett, Naval War College, Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project
Charles Cameron on Y2K lessons learned: Y2KO to Y2OK in The End That Does: Art, Science and Millennial Accomplishment (quotes above via personal correspondence)
“evidence” = a new attitude?
vMemes & models of transformational change = systems in people, not types of people
(re: biopsychosocial theory)

a new attitude?


The first question directed to last night’s speaker at Frank’s International Soiree had to do with survival, the second with definition. Suddenly we were immersed in the midst of a dialogic surge with all the characteristics of the storming stage in group development. I immediately began to wonder if we could turn this to a sustained dialogue? Or would it fade into another instance when a bunch of individuals take up characteristic group member roles and enact the usual clash of competitive discourse
Yes, I linked “discourse” to “path dependence” on purpose.

(Are you checking the links? Some links are topically informative: they give background on the concept. Other links are conceptually informative – they are trying to show you how I’m thinking. It seems to me that the relationship between the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ in real, live communication gets lost when we’re trying to find solutions to big problems, because we get caught up in our own reactions, thoughts, and gut instincts that lead us to say the things we say and to hear (interpret) others in the ways that we do when listening to what they say.)

I make the connection between talk and institutions because this is one of the ways that the relationship between language and social reality becomes visible.
The storming phase of group development is when a group engages the questions of power and control: e.g.,

  • what does the group want to do (if anything)?
  • Will I like its leaders?
  • Is my opinion going to matter?

I was astonished – and delighted! – that such dynamics emerged in this setting. Frank throws this monthly event bringing together diverse people with big dreams to give us a chance to meet and network with each other. This occurs generally through one-to-one conversations in small groups over a kind of rotating dinner: we switch tables throughout the meal in order to meet as many people as possible. I’ve only attended one previous Soiree, so I do not know if last night’s event was atypical. It felt special and, in my experience, relatively rare.

I’m not exactly happy to admit that I didn’t listen well to the scheduled speaker; my mind was somewhere else (I don’t even remember) – my attention was drifting. He was speaking about a sustainability initiative – such a vogue topic about which so little is actually being accomplished. The first question was from the journalist who had covered Palestine, who wanted to know about the pragmatics of funding. Another issue getting so much airtime (in these days of “the financial crisis”) without constructive effect on the economic insfrastructure. Then the philosopher fired off a sharp challenge about whether the concept of sustainability, in the speaker’s usage, was limited to the environment or could include things like language and culture… tension rose in the room – how was the speaker going to respond? Deftly 🙂
Perhaps the fact that he was unruffled (at least he did not display if he was rattled inside) gave the group confidence to take the plunge? Suddenly we were arguing about what could be included in the concept of sustainability (e.g., economics) and what should be excluded (the Irish language was given as an example). The role of consumption and consumers came up including some anger and frustration at never being asked, in the role of consumer, what one might be willing to do. Instead, the fraud investigator whispered to me: “We are just told that if you are a good enough person then you will just pay the extra…”
Meanwhile, someone else was asserting, urgently, that “we’re too nice! We need to cause more panic!”
Ah yes, panic. I thought of colleagues in my graduate program who are interested in social panics. (Interesting that the wikipedia link on this is an orphan.)
My mind flitted about, seeking context. Were we picking up some vibe from protesters of Ahmadinijad’s questionable re-election in Iran? Is fear of the consequences of global warming reaching critical mass – and similar outbursts like this are beginning to happen in groups across the globe? Not only do scientists’ concerns continue to increase as policy makers miss crucial deadlines for changing policies and big business delays implementing serious structural reforms, I had just read a proposal for geoengineering to temporarily lower the earth’s temperature in order to buy us time.
One woman explained that if we continue to use resources at the rate of the United States, we need four earths. Even, she continued, if we adapt to the lower-consumption rates in Europe, we still need two or three. “We only have one.”
And we’re gutting it. The argument made by in the new film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is that we have only ten years in which to act decisively to avoid crossing into climactic conditions for which there is no precedent in nine billion years of life on earth. The last ten minutes of the 90 minute film make the case for hope – there are projects underway and success stories we can build on: but we can delay no longer. Somehow, we have to confront our fears, deal with each other’s defense mechanisms, and challenge our rationalizations. We must work through the storm.


about Frank’s International Soiree:
in French

Speaker: Max von Abendroth of 3plusX

Home: the new film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Worth a second viewing, or if you haven’t seen it yet: An Inconvenient Truth

It’s Time to Cool the Planet

Yes, but can you interpret?

Conference: Aptitude for Interpreting

Imagine my surprise upon entering the lobby at Lessius University and witnessing a conversation in American Sign Language! My brain has been so otherwise-occupied that it never once crossed my mind that

    a) anyone other than European spoken language trainers/researchers would attend or that

    b) I might actually know people!

It was absolutely delightful to re-encounter respected colleagues, meet some of the luminaries whose work is required reading, and make new friends (although one always wonders whether they’ll claim me, and/or for how long!) 😉

We started quite seriously, with the keynoter, Mariachiara, setting the context with a superb history of the tension between innate talent and built skill. Are interpreters born or made? Perhaps it is a both/and kind of question, with challenges of re-molding/re-training those with “the aptitude to perform” and fresh cultivation of those with “the aptitude to learn.”

At the end of the day, Miriam reflected that we (interpreter researchers) have learned that we’re asking the right questions, but we don’t seem any closer to clear answers! One needs only hark back to the presentations of Her Majesty of No Results and the Princess of No Significance to find evidence supporting Miriam’s perception. Are we guilty of trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse?

“You’re argumentative!” one of my dinnermates proclaimed, as I sought to champion a shadowing task based on the persuasive argumentation of the aforementioned Queen.

Ignore that interpreter in the corner!

I don’t want to be accused of breaking the pinkie pact (especially since I wasn’t at the presenter’s dinner the night before when they apparently made a rule not to ask each other hard questions), but . . . aren’t the hard questions the ones that most need to be asked?!

“You’re against essentialism in all forms!” Miriam bought me a coffee. 🙂
(I think this means we are now bonded for life.) Franz invited me to come after him hard….which I did but it wasn’t easy going. First he thought I was arguing that “everything is cognition,” which he agreed is a way that knowledge in the field can be understood. It took some fancy footwork to get across the idea that what I am critiquing is the way that we (interpreters, interpreter trainers, interpreting researchers) collude in assuming that everything in the field can be broken down into nice, neat, discrete boxes. Miriam rephrased this as the human propensity to put everything in categories.
“It’s interesting, but I don’t agree with half of it!” (Shhhsh that interpreter in the corner!)

“Why does your badge say ‘Belgium’ but you are speaking English?” Heidi was trying to process where I was from and why I was delinquent in signing up for the conference dinner. Really, I’m here under cover . . . just as there are “slides no wants to see” (recall the pinkie promise), there are also “some matters untouched” (Cronbach and Snow 1977:6).
“Is this rubbish?” (Get ready, I’m gonna be asking you, Chris!) Meanwhile, Amalija has two weeks to devise the perfect comprehensive provable aptitude test for her incoming screening. She has the power! As Sarka explained,

“some of these people want to be translating Shakespeare’s sonnets, they don’t want anything to do with other people!”

One of the huge dilemmas in interpreter training is predicting when a potential interpreting student might succeed against the evidence that convinces us they won’t, and how to justify the investment of resources when even those students with all the promising signs turn out unable in the end.

There are no future facts.” (Robert S Brumbaugh, 1966)

What can we learn from the ones who had it made?

It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear. They take center stage in consciousness and decision-making in ways we can’t even fathom.

The East-West debate came up: does one interpret only into one’s mother tongue, or from a mother tongue into another fluent language? Why, I wonder, are people so invested in this directionality? Meanwhile, the non-sign repetition task of nonsense biological motion that Chris reported seems an awful lot like shadowing to me…. and can I just mention how cool it is to attend a conference with five active languages, three of which are signed?! I am not able to articulate the significance of increases in visual memory, but it caught my attention…advanced interpreters can apparently correctly select geometric shapes after a delay more rapidly than beginning interpreters. Perhaps this is related to what I’ve noticed in my own neural net, specifically the new capacity to learn math after twenty years of signing.
Brooke had the two best slides so far, understating the case for the performance of simultaneous interpretation: “we have a lot to do.” (Can I get copies? Beg beg beg!) I’m especially intrigued by the risk/avoidance measures….just a few days ago I came up with the title for my next conference proposal: “Risk, Resignation, and Loss: Interlocutors on Interpretation in the European Parliament.” (Next week I present some of the results at a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Stockholm).
I love the metaphor of the airplane and its engines. Sarka and Heidi get credit for this one together, right? There are the pair (or more) of wing engines that are all about cruising, and then there’s the solo job in the tail, which is all about getting up to altitude. Sherry might win the prize for getting the earliest start, although there is a four year discrepancy concerning the age at which she began interpreting: four? Eight? Then you’ve got peeps like me who didn’t even start learning a second language until 28! Anyway, I am pleased to go along with the decisions that “all of us made” in Sherry’s “we”, particularly the one about merging modalities. The two tests she shared intrigue me: the CNS Vital Signs and the Achievement Motivation Inventory.
I hope no one throws a wobbly because of anything I’ve written here. I was duly warned that someone would have my guts for garters if I transgressed too far. Might I ask, instead, for a soft word on the side and the chance to edit?