Practice How You’ll Play: Lessons from the Era of Neil Armstrong

Dad watched the time as we drove some winding high mountain highway in the Colorado Rockies. He had purchased a black-and-white television that could be powered from the cigarette lighter to bring along just for this trip. As the target time approached, he pulled onto the shoulder, and sent my brother and I to wag down passers-by and invite them to watch the moon walk with us.

Or maybe it was the moon launch. I don’t remember clearly. The picture was grainy, only a few cars drove by and none of the drivers thought it was important to stop. (I can’t recall if there were any passengers; I don’t recall any consultations.) I think we weirded them out. I know that I felt a little embarrassed, what were we doing, this strange behavior out of the norm of everything I’d ever seen?

I was six years old, just trying to grasp what was happening and why it mattered so much.

How did they get the camera there?! That required foresight, pre-planning and imagination: visionary (imagining things in the category of “we don’t know what we don’t know”) and apocalyptic (“things could go bad”). I feel a sense of nostalgia for that kind of epic stage when one of the largest visible masses of people being presented through the media were joined by a common dream – to reach the stars! My tendency is to ignore the other forces that contributed motivation: specifically a military space race based on nationalism. Because Vietnam was happening then (I don’t think my parents were paying attention, or maybe they were studiously avoiding it, I’m not sure. Or they talked about it, but not ever when I was around.)

That kind of scientific endeavor seems like a new form of social organization. Wasn’t it distinguished by  voluntary selection? Meaning, most of the people who worked on the moon project were in fields they had wanted to learn about and contribute to… right? That’s a kind of classic scientific research which seems much less common, these days. When such large-scale works have been done in the past (e.g., the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, US railway and highway system, etc) the organization has been coercive: I’ll pay you what I want and beat you if you protest.

Isabel suggested today that I am able to be an optimist because I actually “touched” the ’60s. I was born and grew up during that phase of historical economy when the system really was working for nearly everybody.

Not many people, these days, get to be a meaningful part of the machine, the economic engine that drives us to work, tuning for efficiency and exerting rigid controls. This is a major reason why I’ve become so interested in the work of emergency management professionals. First Responders are feeling a sense of urgency, on a large system-scale, that suggests the kind of intensity motivating the US’s original space program. They care about their work. This caring was in constant evidence at a recent pilot training that the DC Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism, Serve DC, provided at Gallaudet University. CERT training is required for establishing a Community Emergency Response Team (a CERT). The pilot was earmarked for the Deaf community associated with Gallaudet because, as Dwight Benedict (Dean of Student Affairs and Academic Suppor and a co-chair of Gallaudet’s Crisis Leadership Team) explained during a focus group: “We know if something catastrophic happens in DC the Deaf community is going to come here. They are going to come to Gallaudet just like they went to the Lousiana School for the Deaf when Katrina hit New Orleans. We need to be ready.”

Three focus groups were added to the usual training package in order to explore the ramifications of using simultaneous sign language interpretation within the field of emergency management. The challenges of communicating in two different timestreams were apparent. Frustrations with adapting to the special circumstances of intercultural communication are complicated even more when one of the languages is based in vision and light instead of hearing and sound. These frustrations were more-or-less contained by the focus groups, which allowed each primary stakeholder group (Hearing interlocutors, Deaf interlocutors, and interpreters) the chance to explore their experience and draw comparisons and contrasts internally. Because there was a formal structure for processing the experience, the interpretation itself did not become the main issue of the training – the content of the training material and relationships among Deaf and Hearing interlocutors were able to be the most important dynamics.

One of the instructors, Chief John Sollers, shared with the group how important the experience had been for him, saying that he had learned a lot and that direct interaction with Deaf people using interpreters should be a part of routine training: “We  need to practice how we’ll play.”





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.

tweaking the turns: resilience is systemic

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him

dissertating on thin ice

(23 January 2010)

One Sunday of an unseasonably warm weekend, I hauled out the bicycle and decided to try my luck on the bike trail. Had it been warm enough, for long enough, for all the ice on the densely tree-shrouded path to melt?  No. I approached the first patch with determination, choosing the path of most visible pavement, where the tracks of others had contributed to wearing down the ice. That was a mistake. I did not fall, but the ruts and grooves grabbed the tires, forcing me along channels contrary to my desired direction, threatening to pitch me into the trees.

What to do?

I rode until the next patch of ice and dismounted, walking its expanse, struck by the parallels with writing the dissertation, and especially with the process of negotiating the action research follow-up.  There are so many typical paths of reaction and response, how can I avoid being sucked along a vortex of assumptions that winds up replicating dynamics that have played out before?DSCN0648

It is the dilemma of agency in the face of organization. There are many cross-cutting forces, occurring at nested levels of interaction….is it possible to retain awareness of an alternative chronotope at the crucial moments? Can one dissent from expected norms while maintaining not only personal integrity but also respect for the motivations of others who are doing their jobs as best they understand them? I decided to experiment. What if I ride where others haven’t?

It was tense! I could make headway on the snowy-ice mixture if I focused hard on relaxing. It seemed counter-intuitive, but I trusted what I’ve been learning about physics. The forward momentum had more inertia than the jerks to the front wheel if I could just manage to trust a casual grip on the handlebars, give a bit with each jolt and allow an intuitive sense of balance to keep me upright. As long as I didn’t overreact, or stop paying attention, I could ride over the slippery terrain without resorting to the established routes. But for how long can one avoid pre-grooved channels? It is much easier to manage the calibration when it was just me and the ground! As soon as I encountered other people I chose to dismount; the congestion was too risky – now a fall wouldn’t just hurt me, it could potentially injure others, too.

Call it a chance encounter….

Walking, I meet a physicist and his wife. We chat about bicycle-riding on ice. I’ve been puzzling over the relatively inaccurate diction of social theorists in describing social phenomena.  For instance, “tension.”  I’m guilty of using this word too, don’t we all?!  My suspicion is that the use of this term by engineers (for instance) is much more precise.  Tension involves at least two forces, not just one. What do social theorist mean when they use this term?  Do they have only elongation in mind?  Only compression?  The combination of the two? Have they located the position of either the strain (of elongation) or the stress (of compression)? Is there a particular conceptualization of the relationship, like engineers have with their stress-strain curves? Why are social theorists so sure that the imagery, the meaning, ascribed to labeling something a “tension” is uniformly shared by all readers and writers using it?  The possible variations seem to me quite significant!

“Why do they do that?” the physicist asked me. The only answer I have is that I think there is a general assume of understanding. English speakers, anyway, assume we all mean the same thing, that we are referring to a singular phenomenon with which we are all familiar and agree is unproblematic (in the sense of its labeling).  His wife, however, shared with me the real gem of the day.  Such are the signs by which I decide I’m on a useful investigation! 😉


The original Greek for tension is harmonia, and – get this! – the original definition is not “harmony” (although my quick googling gives this common sense)  but, rather, harmonia refers to the tuning of a lyre to get it to the right pitch. Calibration, baby! I’ll need to learn more about the mathematical application in geometry, particularly this application: “A famous one line argument shows that calibrated p-submanifolds minimize volume within their homology class.”  Part of the argument I’m developing (in my imagination, if not as much on paper, yet!) is that calibrating to timespace influences the use of space and maybe even the shape of place. I am referring directly to Bakhtin’s chronotope, of which I’m unsatisfied with current available explanations on the web but the notes by Taylor Atkins are a decent beginning if you’re unfamiliar with Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.

Redemption lies in us (not Avatar)

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itskoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

4-dimensional timespace

I got excited by the January 20th NYTimes movie blogentry, “You saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass those glasses!” because I scooped Dave Itskoff by two days. Really!  He wrote:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated…

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

I wrote:

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback.

Itzkoff did more homework than me: he provides three categories of protest and lists about a dozen specific critiques offered by particular groups or individuals representing diverse perspectives.  I have one bone to pick regarding the quote he uses from Annalee Newitz in which she seems to back off from the strength of her critique, “When will white people stop making films like ‘Avatar’?

“Just the idea of whiteness is a local phenomenon,” she said. “It’s certainly not in parts of the world where white people are not dominant.”

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itzkoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

Avatar as a different kind of opportunity? Really?

“I read your blogpost,” a friend confided recently. “I can see that academics would be pissed.”  Another friend continues to critique what he calls my ‘rescuing’ of the film, explaining that all cultural products provide that same kind of blank screen/projection effect, so this fact hardly makes Avatar special. But so many people are engaged with it, that’s my point!  Bah, he shrugs it off. “That’s just because of the hype.”  (shhhhh…I suspect some academics are pissed because they fell for the hype; we’re supposed to know better. Dammit.) At any rate, Itzkoff’s interview with Gaetano Vallini confirms the hype factor. Vallini writes for the Vatican, and also seems to backpedal a bit from the assertions in his critique of Avatar:

[Vallini’s] assignment to write about “Avatar” was not an attempt to advance a particular agenda, he said, but rather “a compulsory choice” given the anticipation surrounding the film.

The western tendency to valorize “understanding”

I don’t assume that friends in fields other than Communication would be aware of this, but I’m surprised how many of my colleagues seem to be operating under the assumption that we can only talk with each other if we already share a known, recognized basis of understanding. Chang’s Deconstructing Communication makes a compelling case that misunderstanding is also a legitimate starting point for communication. And who could forget Professor Cronen’s story of the couple who consistently misunderstood each other and because of that were able to maintain their relationship?!

My thesis is that the challenge presented by Avatar is not how well or poorly so many groups come to use, misuse, or abuse it, but what we do – specifically how we talk with each other – about the fact of such diversity. If the assumption is that no conversation is possible without a priori or telepathic understanding, well that’s the end of it, eh? But if some curiosity could be cultivated, perhaps some new connections could be forged. Not theoretical linkages (although these may be there, too) but bonds of human relations arising out of the material use of a common reference point – egregious though it may be.

Meanwhile, back in school…

A friend shares:

“I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Speaking of imperialism, capitalism, private property and China, I heard and found it disgusting that in China it would cost 200 RMB, more than US$30, for one to see this movie. That is about a seventh of the monthly pension of my father, who had worked more than 30 years in Socialist China and who thus fares far better than the worst cases.”

And another sends a link to Avatar: The Abridged Script: “Sure it’s easy to poke fun at Avatar.  But it’s so entertaining!” The abridgement does dual oxymoronic labor: transforming “lazy screenwriting” into pop cultural commentary while laying bare a host of scientific contradictions and technological implausibilities. It is fun! But – – a dead end if a few good laughs is all it gives.

Finally, on the first day of classes this semester, in an engineering course on manufacturing processes:

“Don’t pick unobtanium as a material if its only available in North Korea.

We don’t get along very well.”

Limits and Possibilities

What forces blow me back to these shores I cannot say. Nearly five years ago the first conception of what has become my dissertation project was born – right here in the halls of the Aula Magna at Stockholm University! – during an international conference on community interpreting, Critical Link 4. Whoever could have imagined such a return, in which I will practice how to novelize an action research adventure?

  • Leili and I talked of surfing;
  • Michael said, “the technical term is heteroglossia“;
  • and Lisa (all the way from Geneva!) says its just me on helium.

Beatrice, meanwhile, said she could talk freely around me because I’m not an academic! (Maybe she sees something behind me that is beyond the boundaries of my perception?!)
Ragnar clued me in (spontaneously!) to a guy, George Miller, who wrote a paper famous in psychology, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, about the capacity of working memory. Cognitive science was strongly influenced by informatics, Ragnar explained, and came about largely as a reaction to behaviorism. We commiserated together (just a wee bit) on the development of theories of language and mind based on pure calculation – all mystery removed. Johan then informed me that Ragnar is one of those rare guys who walks his talk, publishing a foundational piece of original research in Norwegian (not English): Language, Thought, and Communication.

by the way, I’m really missing my camera! It was
a casualty in the quantum EEE backup
collapse and temporary psychic meltdown.

Trond carried on about Zizek, (The Matrix), and I met a faculty member and bunch of students from a Communication Disorders program somewhere in Arkansas. The most salient detail to remain in memory was their stiletto contest!

Today I’ll re-arrange the slides for tomorrow’s talk…

EU promotions for interpretation

online public relations
youtube videos

Someone tipped me off that the European Parliament has hired someone to make a film on the process of simultaneous interpretation (SI) from an elected Member’s point-of-view. I imagine they were carefully vetted in order to give the perspective that the Parliament wishes people to have regarding the purposes, uses, and effectiveness of interpretation. I agree that more people need to understand the value of SI, although I’m skeptical of the vision promoted by the official public relations and policy organs of the European Union. I think their view is unfortunately limited by an inherited and ingrained one-dimensional conception of what SI can do, as well as what it actually does do.
Nonetheless, all of their previous efforts do a nice job of creating desire to become a professional interpreter working at this highest of the high, most elite level of SI.

Interpreting for Europe – Into English.

Interpreting is “all about listening to ideas…”
“English native speaker interpreters . . .
needed for an exciting career at the very heart of European decision-making.”
(17 Feb 2009)

“…conclusions of the ministerial meeting by Commissioner Leonard Orban.”

(18 Feb 2008)

“A 10-minute history of interpretation at the European Institutions
since 1957 by the interpreters who work at
the biggest interpreting service in the world –
the European Commission’s Directorate General.”
(9 June 2007)

And from a different (still officially sanctioned) angle:

Member of Parliament Henrik Lax on Multilingualism
Speech by Henrik Lax MEP on:
Promoting multilingualism and language learning in the EU
[on behalf of the ALDE Group]
[Language SV original]
7 July 2007)
“Multilingual practical information and online government services
for companies looking for business in another EU country.
Provided jointly by the European Commission and national authorities.

And some critiques:

27 Member States
700 000 000 people
23 official languages

Is EU ready for multilinguism?
(1 Sept 2007)

a youthparliament view
“overcome the problem” and “how it affects the politics”
3 July 2007)

This will blow your mind! :-)

film pitch
Master’s Thesis

Re-defining Deaf
Ryan Commerson

Ever wondered if abstract concepts can be discussed with signed languages?

    Here’s proof.

Ever suspected Deaf people may not be very smart?

    Find out just how wrong that view is!

The video is forty minutes long, so settle in and plan to give it your full attention. (Ryan suggests gourmet snacks to accompany viewing.)

Deaf Children Write Differently

News from The Netherlands
translated by Arlette Van de Casteele

Deaf children who in their daily life ‘speak’ mainly Dutch Sign Language have more difficulties writing in Dutch than deaf and hearing children of the same age who use no sign language. The graduating researcher of Nijmegen (the Netherlands) Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt has studied their writing mistakes. The different types of mistakes seem to be easily explained with the existing theories on learning a second language.

Sign language is not a language you can write. Therefore, deaf people who communicate in Dutch Sign Language (NGT) write in Dutch. NGT doesn’t resemble Dutch at all. It has its own grammar and vocabulary, which is quite different from Dutch. Consequently, deaf children who mainly communicate in NTG have difficulty learning to write in Dutch.
At the Radboud University of Nijmegen, Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt has studied the writing skills of deaf children and adults. She has compared texts written by deaf and non-deaf people. In the texts of the deaf she distinguished between the deaf people who mainly speak NTG and those who mostly use Dutch. She discovered that deaf children who chiefly use NTG make more mistakes in their Dutch texts. In most instances, these mistakes can be explained by the NTG background of the child.

This text is written by a deaf girl of 11:

“Formerly I and my class quarrel with other class. That is not nice. Other child says. Mieke is stupid and always boss. Then says Mieke. That are you self. Then other children help on other child. Then my class help on Mieke.
Later go we inside. Then other children say on they teacher. Teacher of other class says on our teacher. Then must we not quarrel and also other children! Then say we sorry. Now quarrel we not, well bit not much. We can make up.”

One can easily understand the mistakes that deaf children make in their Dutch texts if one knows more about Dutch Sign Language (NTG). NTG makes no use of articles. Consequently, the research work of Van Beijsterveldt also revealed that deaf children who used mainly NTG left out a lot of articles in their texts. These children also had problems with verb conjugation in the past tense. This is probably due to the fact that in their NTG the past tense is communicated with specific time signs (such as ‘yesterday’) and not with verb conjugation. These mistakes occurred less frequently with deaf children who mainly use the spoken language.
Another way in which the texts of deaf children who use NTG diverge from the texts of hearing children and deaf children who use no NTG is the expression of evaluation, meaning the information that is provided in the text about the emotions, thoughts and motives of the individual. NTG has more ways of expressing these than the spoken Dutch language. So NTG signers can change the direction of their gaze or the orientation of their body, adapt their signs as to speed or movement, or alter their facial expression. Consequently, deaf children who use a lot of NTG more often enrich their texts with evaluative utterances than the other children.
To be adapted
How well the deaf children wrote in Dutch seemed to be strongly related to their age. The older deaf children (15-16) who used NTG made many fewer mistakes than the younger ones (11-12). And the deaf adults no longer make these mistakes. “These results suggest that the influence of one language on the other decreases with maturation,” the researcher says. Why this is so, Van Beijsterveldt can’t explain with certainty. “It may be that being exposed longer to the two languages with different grammatical systems has led to more insight into both systems and rules.”
According to the graduating researcher, these results point to the fact that the education of the deaf has to be adapted considerably. “I think that deaf children have to learn both languages as they do at present, but I think it is important that attention is given to the differences between the languages”, Van Beijsterveldt says. “Teachers could explain to the children how the grammatical systems of both languages work and what the differences are. By doing this, they might help children to move more easily through the stage during which learning two languages at the same time can be confusing.”
Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt will defend her thesis ‘Written language production in deaf children and adults’ on Friday 6th February 2009 at 10:30 in the auditorium of the Radboud University of Nijmegen.

Dove kinderen schrijven anders – Nieuws
Oorakel, informatie and advies, 28 January 2009

Communication dynamics in a political group at the European Parliament


“We are European! We have patience.”

My sense of urgency about coming to grips with transformations within the field of possibilities for professional interpretation is promoted by various factors, some of which I hope are transient while others are reaffirmed on nearly a daily basis.
One of these days a chapter will be published concerning a dominant theme of interpreter discourse four years ago at the European Parliament, “A Discourse of Danger and Loss: Interpreters on Interpreting for the European Parliament.” This year, Members of the European Parliament also refer to “bad English,” but few of the Members seem actually upset by it. The neutral label is “Brussels English.” The growth of a new argot arising from the interaction of various “Englishes” is inevitable; arguing against it is an outlet for frustration that does little to stop the erosive effect on conference interpreting in this exceptional house.
An announcement about interpretation was included in the “buro telegram” distributed within political group meetings last night:

In order not to prolong the chaos surrounding the 23 different official languages (largely underused) at ACP/EU meetings, a compromise has been reached between the General Secretariat and members of the assembly: translation will be carried out in 6 languages – English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese (+ where necessary, the language of the Council presidency). Interpreting into a particular language will only be carried out if at least 3 of the MPs in question confirm their attendance at the latest 2 weeks before the meeting.

My attention is drawn to two features of the language used in making this announcement: negative framing and conflation. “The chaos surrounding . . . largely underused [languages]” continues the negative framing of simultaneous interpretation services in the Parliament (and, by extension, within the European Union as a whole). The conflation caused by using the generic term “translation” to refer specifically to the provision of simultaneous interpreters is a lapse in diction at best, a foreshadowing of the extension of this limited regime to the actual provision of translated documents at worst.
Meanwhile many of the Members that I’ve spoken with describe constraints on the provision of interpretation services to working groups and delegations, and most are unaware of an experimental initiative piloted last year aimed at providing “personalized interpretation” to rapporteurs. I wonder how many Members may have asked their respective rapporteurs to use this service in order to develop understandings, negotiations, and compromises on matters relevant to their Committee work? I am also curious where the interpreters are in promoting assignments to these smaller-scale venues? The absence of interpreters in the “compromise” statement above may not indicate their literal absence from those negotiations (via appropriate representation), but it certainly reflects the low regard given institutionally to their professional expertise: if they did participate in the decision-making process, this is not transparent.
Please note that I specify institutional regard in the preceding statement! Members are generally satisfied with the high quality of service that is provided by interpreters at the European Parliament and appreciate the incredible task of coordination organized by the Interpreting Directorate. As far as being a tool, the system of simultaneous interpretation in its formal deployment seems to function as well as anyone expects it to. My questions and concerns have more to do with the dynamics surrounding talk about interpretation, and how these dynamics reflect societal trends concerning languages and multilingualism in general.
For instance, I was struck by two behaviors of language use that I observed in the political group meeting that I was allowed to attend. Overall, three languages were primary – French, English, and Italian. I would estimate that each language was used for roughly the same amount of time. Turn-taking was orderly; every now and then interjections were made into a Member’s speech, and on a few occasions there was a low-level background murmur as Members dis-attended the designated speaker to conduct private conversations with colleagues. The language of interjections did not always match the language of the designated speaker, nor was there any obvious pattern in the ways languages changed between speaker turns: sometimes Members used a language different than the speaker just before them and sometimes they used the same language as the speaker they followed. With more observation and attention to these details there may be patterns with significant implications. For now I will just mention the possibility of a relation between the two particular aspects that leapt into awareness as I listened.
First was the use of English to assert control. The meeting was called to order in English, and once most Members were paying attention the chairperson then switched to speaking in French. Later, when there was a spurt of quick interjections and repartee, the chair shifted back to English and continued in English, as did Members speaking from the floor, until the burst of energy was contained. English was used a third time in the group to overcome a rising tide of murmurs that swelled into the background during a Member’s somewhat lengthy turn (compared with the average time spent speaking up until that point, again estimated rather than timed).
This last occurrence caught my attention, because it was the first time I heard this particular speaker use English instead of Italian. The vice-chairperson had already spoken several times. I had at first assumed she was speaking French (and perhaps some of her turns at the very beginning while calling the meeting to order were in French), but as I watched the working interpreters (behind glass in their booths overlooking the room) I realized she was speaking Italian. It was a bit of a departure then, when she took up her turn following the colleague’s long statement and used a combination of the choice of English and a slight increase in volume to quiet the group and draw everyone back to the central, shared task.
Prior to the collective re-focusing of the group, I had noticed that the murmuring – which became louder and more pervasive than any which had preceded it – occurred while the language being spoken was English. As the side conversations increased I wondered – is there more permission and/or ability to be distracted during colleague’s use of English than during the use of other languages that may require Members to use the interpretation services? I noticed that very few of those present had their headphones on during this particular turn, and of those that were wearing them it is difficult to confirm whether they were actually listening to the interpretation or not, as the headphones were worn half-cocked (one ear on, one ear off) and/or their attention was directed to a laptop.
I will need to observe more frequently to confirm the following intuition, as there are competing possibilities for the significant drift of concentrated focus, such as disinterest in the particular topic being spoken about or a disaffection for the particular Member speaking, to name the two most obvious possibilities. Perhaps my assumption that the side conversations were deviations from the official topic is completely mistaken and the murmuring constituted serious consultation with colleagues concerning the nuances of the issue as Members thought through their own stances in relation to it?
I think the matter is worth much closer examination, because if the Members were talking about other issues than the one officially on the floor, and the reasons were not explicitly due to the nature of the topic or the speaker, then something peculiar may come into view concerning English as a language of control:

  • English is used authoritatively to command attention and
  • English is most readily escaped as the locus of attention.

I speculate: is it possible that the widespread familiarity with English – which allows one to avoid the headphones (and therefore any/all interpretation) – also enables the drifting of focused attention? If so, then one of the reasons for choosing interpretation over un-interpreted listening is to enhance individual commitment to the group task.