positive mental attitude

“I was a little girl, run over by a truck. Comatose for three to seven and a half months. One and a half years of hospitalization. And then I ran out of challenges.”

Carol gave me a fist bump over the table of her knitted goods.Carol at ADA_Stavros

I was doing Ambassador Rounds as one of the team of sign language interpreters, going vendor-to-vendor, letting people know we were here and available to interpret if they wanted to converse with any Deaf folk attending the celebration of the rights of people with disabilities to reasonable accommodations and accessibility to the goods and services of our society.

Carol and I are about the same age. She told me she’d been knitting since last year’s event so that she would have enough stock today. Like me, it took her twelve years to complete her college degree. Unlike my path of fits and starts however, her effort required a persistent negotiation of train stations, bus schedules, and much more that she chose not to tell me. In the middle of her story, these details popped out:

I was a little girl, run over by a truck. Comatose for three to seven and a half months. One and a half years of hospitalization. And then I ran out of challenges.

They sent me home and I was left to my own devices.

Most of the wheelchair users I’ve had the chance to get to know have been tenacious and optimistic. Carol called it PMA: Positive Mental Attitude.

I also met Martina Dianne Robinson, author of Set on Freedom, six volumes of poetry on various identities. Martina gave me a copy of the acrostic poem she wrote last year in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All across nation

Members of disability community

Engage in

Remembering the days before a more



Acted to ensure civil rights for disabled and

Non-disabled alike the

Summer I was 13

We had a dance

Inside/under the main summer camp pavilions

That evening. I remember


Delighted the young girl who was me

In that moment

Surely in this new land of

Access, she could

Become anything she wanted,

Impairment or not. So much

Laughter and joy


That evening. How was that

Idealistic teen to know that

Even civil right laws didn’t

Stop bigots from being bigoted?

After all we’ve learned in the 2 decades, we still

Celebrate and commune


Read more by Martina Robinson:

Amherst, MA
Celebrate the Promise
Stavros Independent Living Center

Make NERDAs the linguistic minority (proposal)

the future

Building on the potential for a paradigm shift is matter of recognition, marketing, and design. These processes can proactively influence each other, interacting and changing through the development of a project. All are contained within the conception and application of strategic planning.
Strategy has to involve conceptualizing the outcome in two different yet complementary ways. First, you must imagine what you want in terms of place. In the case of the next national conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID, US-based), the physical location will be some hotel in Atlanta, GA, but the more important issue is how the space of the place will be designed and implemented in order to generate the desired kinds of intercultural interaction. The second dimension that must be considered is time. By time, I do not mean the logistics of scheduling or considerations about the length of the event or even its parts. These are obviously important logistical factors that require detailed attention. However, the most important temporal factor to consider is how the conference contributes to long-term patterning of habits and attitudes for engaging in intercultural social interaction.

Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult: Buffered by Monolingualism
That would be me, and we NERDAs compose the largest percentage of the membership of RID. Most of us do not understand what it means to be Deaf. We want to understand, and we sure try hard, but our reality as native, hearing speakers of English in the United States is one of extreme linguistic privilege. No matter what other oppressions we may experience, we communicate with the same language as nearly everyone one else around us. NERDAs need to understand that we are affected by living in a society that has done more, historically, than any other country to enforce monolingualism. Unless you live or work in a dense urban city, it is quite possible that you never hear another language spoken in day-to-day living. Most Americans are protected from exposure to even tasting what it might be like to not know the language that would enable you to talk with your neighbor, your child’s teacher, shopkeepers and salespeople, peers in your classroom or a club, not to mention the doctor, police officer, realtor, banker, or the waitstaff at a restaurant where you must guarantee that there are no nuts or shellfish in the dish you want because you don’t want to risk anaphylactic shock.
NERDAs certainly cannot conceive of the intrapersonal, deliberate, conscious planning necessary to predict when and where and for how long we’ll need an interpreter, do not know the calculus of deciding why and for what reasons we’ll need an interpreter, and never have to weigh the costs – time, focused mental energy, unpredictable emotional surges – that come along with deciding, “Yes, in this situation I do need an interpreter,” or “No, in this situation I can manage without an interpreter.” Nor do we have to deal with the fallout from misjudging any of these factors: such as discovering an interpreter is necessary when it had not seemed so, or that the need is much longer/shorter than anticipated, or that the whole effort was a complete waste of time.

Atlanta 2011: Experimenting with New Norms
National conferences of professional associations occur for very specific reasons:

  • to further the organization’s business and
  • to provide members with professional development opportunities that are not available at home.

A critique offered by one of the other participants in the small group DEAF-FRIENDLY brainstorming sessions (described in the August 9 entry, “Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009)” was that the conference focuses too much on training. In the immediate moment, I was most aware of the turn-taking dynamic – how her comment did not have any relation to mine – but I soon realized that her observation is significant. Why are we designing the national conference like an extension of an interpreter training program? Granted, many RID members are still in the early phases of their professional careers, but if we design the conference with students in mind, we generate a comfortable and familiar container for learning as usual.

No wonder, then, that many interpreters arrive and proceed to engage in comfortable, familiar, and usual ways! An alternative would be to take MJ Bienvenu’s deconstruction by reversal to the extreme. This would create a professional development experience that would use the capacities of our national organization to the fullest potential. We already have the technology:

  • knowledge of Deaf culture
  • linguistic fluency in ASL and English
  • professionally trained ASL-English interpreters
  • extensive experience with interpreter request systems and accommodation services…

What we need is the will to apply the tools in an altered configuration, and a rationale to convince people to come.

A one-time experiment of mutual discovery
Instead of following the dominant, inherently oppressive model (accessibility provided for the Deaf), we reverse it (accessibility provided for the Hearing). This would generate an experience like none other. In some respects it would resemble an ASL Immersion retreat, and in some respects it would resemble the environment at residential schools for the Deaf. What it would offer is the intellectual and empathy-building experience of being the one who has to ask.
There would not need to be any commitment or promise to continue: we can see what happens, evaluate it, and then decide. If the storming phase re-emerges – so be it, that will be an honest, deep indicator of the organization’s developmental status. If we do establish a foundation for new norms, well, that will be incredibly exciting and everyone who attends will have bragging rights for the rest of their life:

“I was there when…!”

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Anaphylactic shock (Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009), Reflexivity

back in the valley

Amherst, MA
a.k.a. The Happy Valley

It is cool for summer. In fact, the chill at night feels more like autumn. Otherwise the lush, bright greens (of trees, grass, cultivated crops and wild bush), sky and mountain blues, and varying tones of white in the clouds are as they ever were. I got out on the bike trail yesterday, smelling freshly mown hay and listening to birdsong . . . aaahhhhhhhhh.


Although re-entry is relatively painless, I have noticed slight and subtle differences in the US now compared with when I left nearly a year ago. CNN has a news program, Black in America. Susan told me that standardized test scores for young African-Americans are improving in a crucial way: historically if students were asked to identify their racial demographics at the beginning of a standardized test their scores would be lower than if they were asked to provide this info at the end. Now this gap is decreasing! In other words, flagging racial identity used to work “against” confidence/competence for some black youth; now – after Obama – this internalized self-perception is being transformed.
I was startled, the first day back, when strangers addressed me in English (instead of Flemish or French). Riding in a taxi from the airport to a temporary destination in DC brought me in visual contact with a familiar landscape. I found it comforting to be closed in by tree-covered rolling hills instead of looking out on the centuries-tilled farmland of Belgium – which always somehow conveyed the hint of battle. Not that history is pristine, here. The namesake of this university town in western Massachusetts is infamous for having provided smallpox-infected blankets to the local Indians. Most of the original peoples from the East Coast were decimated in the colonial invasion, although some tribes managed to survive and even establish authenticity in the eyes of federal law (which is deliberately designed to make such claims as difficult as possible while appearing to be fair).
Whiffs of cow manure are occasionally overwhelming.
It’s been windy since I arrived, but Ambarish assures me it is not always like this. I had been quite aware of the wind in Belgium, and it had crossed my mind that this might be a sign of global warming: as the planet’s atmosphere heats up, there might be more likelihood of “weather”. I wondered if, some day in the future, a still day when there is no wind might be a rarity, a phenomenon only remembered by the very old . . .

photo from August 2008 (see more: High Summer)
Lord Amherst and Smallpox
Black in America: The Black Woman and Family
Ombama poster in my apartment

Enjoy Poverty! (please)


“When you look down,
all you see is your own fear.”

It took guts for Renzo Martens to make this film. The images he presents and the strategies he attempts mirror the white west back to itself, largely in unappealing ways. Exposing the exploitation of poverty implicates himself just as much as it critiques casual disregard for suffering.

By chance, earlier today I came across a quote I’d clipped out of Newsweek a few months ago, from a special they did on women leaders.

“People have to allow fear into the process.
It’s part of creativity, whatever your job.”
Kimberly Peirce

It seems to me that we often avoid looking down. The quote from the film refers physically to the black water of a river, potentially populated by dangerous creatures. Metaphorically, it refers to socioeconomic status. What does it mean to look down, to actually see the suffering of others, to face the fact that our relatively pain-free lives are built on an edifice of others’ deprivation? There are limits to sympathy, indeed: we can only feel so much. But we can do more to change the structural conditions that perpetuate hopelessness.

an ethic of learning (teaching goals)

for a grant application

I had to outline my “teaching goals” for a grant application, I’m sure I will have to do this many times in the future. I have also done this before, but I do not have a standard document: while there is consistency over time, the presentation shifts – hopefully becoming clearer while providing situated information on how I might fit with the people, styles, ideals, and goals of each potential opportunity.

  • to model agency
  • to cultivate skills of critical phenomenology
  • to reduce the fear of risk
  • to find creative solutions to conflict
  • to prepare for competition and increasing interaction
  • to bring attention to relationships (processes of relating)

Target = Learning (Teaching Goals)

Teaching is intertwined with learning: communication theory, sociology, and quantum mechanics all inform us that the interaction produces “reality.” “Meaning” is always a co-production: “teaching goals,” for instance, represents a professional ethic while also reinforcing historical power structures. The phrase conjures an institutionalized ideology of authorization and dispensation. Confronting the implications of language use – our very own talk – is the cumulative (and hopefully on-going) accomplishment of my pedagogic inclinations.
The main task I set for myself when I am teaching is to model agency so that students can learn by example. To act as an agent while teaching is double-edged: I try to maintain balance between

a) the authority of my role and the limits of the institution to constrain my freedom in the role, and
b) the power to unsettle students’ assumptions about the usual structures and expectations of a college classroom.

I want students not only to discern the difference between structural power and individual agency, but also to develop awareness about how to work constructively with this distinction given the peculiarities of their own particular life.

By deliberately embodying agency, I convey an attentiveness to self that elicits heightened self-awareness from students. The personal is thus contextualized as a reflection of the social, bringing the interplay of status and identity into immediate relevancy because the concepts are grounded in our shared social interactions. These maneuvers enable recognition and reflection on the ways features of personal biography interlink with roles granted or imposed by history and circumstance. In other words, I seek to cultivate skills of critical phenomenology, so that students can increase their perception and comprehension of the complex historical forces that bound – and bind – everyone’s supposedly-separate actions with the actions of others.
I justify my ambition along the continuum of time, accepting myself as one among many with the passionate desire to shift humanity away from the vise of violence. Although not a direct curricular component, keeping the complexities of time and timing in mind is a constant practice. Developmental trajectories are unique for each individual: people simply know what they know at any given moment. And, each moment is an opportunity for change. Learning, by definition, is a change in the state of one’s knowledge. The trick of timing is to identify when the potential for change aligns with the contingent conditions that enable realization. Attuning to these subtle juxtapositions is a matter of experimentation. Consequently, I work to reduce the fear of risk. As much as I feel compassion for varying shocks of recognition, I also exercise the conviction that we are capable of finding creative solutions to conflict.
Ultimately, I see my role as a teacher as one of strategic coordination with the learning needs of students projected into the future. College education today must involve much more than topical competence; it must prepare students for intensive competition and increasing interaction with people holding different worldviews and mindsets, premised upon as-yet un-invented technologies and un-diagnosed needs. Depending upon the subject matter, I can be more or less overt concerning the relationship between the content of the course (its specified objectives and subject matter) and the relational process of learning – i.e., working – together. The relationship between content and process, however, is always present, even when undiscussed. Every classroom composes a particular global microcosm. Each lesson conveys messages not only about the subject but also about the normative orientations held concerning the place or position of that subject within large cultural and institutional systems. Success within this participatory paradigm is measured by the extent to which I am able to bring students’ attention to the relationships, rather than conceiving of facts and phenomena in isolation.
Accomplishing such a shift would be a cultural achievement, hence not something I generate on my own. To this end, I recognize the necessity of institutional support and the essential willingness of students to cooperate. The tensions of un-learning inherited habits-of-thought and customary modes-of-interaction in order to enable new ways of relating is an uncertain tightrope from which to launch projects of domestic and transnational social justice and global peace. We need a lot of practice! The small contribution I offer are stimulating courses that sustain dialogue throughout, inclusive of all the dynamics that arise, as a means of instilling respect for the power of discourses that we create together to generate substantial progress on the long road of human life. On the basis of such respect, we can more effectively collaborate to invent and institutionalize economic and political mechanisms that promote the life chances of every person on the planet.

envisioning the scholarly life (the search for funding)

grant application:
dissertation year writing
[US, diversity]

Language use both reveals and motivates human behavior; utterances invoke the past and foreshadow the future. I dubbed my dissertation research project SI(squared) as soon as I landed on the title: Simultaneous Interpretation and Shared Identity in the European Parliament. I am actually working three-dimensionally (SIcubed) at the juncture of social interaction, shared identity, and simultaneous interpretation. The fourth dimension of time is the lynchpin: we know that the future is predicated on the past, that language bespeaks social constructions of reality, that rhetoric is not merely verbal flourish for the moment but can set in motion massive institutional forces. We also know that words alone are insufficient for addressing the cavernous structural inequalities limiting human happiness around the world.
The heart of the social problems facing humanity today involves the integration of several types of knowledge into institutional structures that will generate a transformation of historical injustices into a new type of society that balances just enough predictable control for large-scale security with systematic mechanisms that preserve diversity through the guarantee of wide-ranging freedoms. My thesis is that simultaneous interpretation composes a cultural communication practice that – understood and utilized as a mode for co-identification – accomplishes this crucial equilibrium between similarity and difference. However, the zeitgeist of our era – with its inherited predisposition for speed – devalues the co-construction of shared understanding through the use of two or more languages. Participants in interpreted interaction, as much as they recognize and value the skill of simultaneous interpreters, tend to view the practice overall as a kind of necessary evil with a host of undesirable characteristics that must be simply tolerated. I suggest that this attitude is monolingual, monological, and monocentric. My dissertation will identify and critique this attitude in the discourse of language choice by Members of the European Parliament regarding the use of simultaneous interpretation.
Through the tools of critical discourse analysis, group relations consultation, and action research, I aim to craft an argument that counters the common sensibility of interpreters being ‘in the way’ of communication. Rather, simultaneous interpreters make more obvious the processes of interpreting each other’s intentions and co-generating meaning that always and continually occur during communication – even when they/we are using the same language! No matter how precisely I choose my diction, you – reading this – are forming an impression of me based on the ways my ideas are expressed. You are putting my representation of meaning through perceptions of comparison and contrast with the needs of your school, your personal and professional interests, what you already know about the theoretical and practical dimensions of adult pedagogy, and the proposals of other applicants.
These generic processes both intersect with deeper intrapersonal motivations that will be unique to each person reading this and reflect – in complex and complicated ways – macrosociological processes that we may or may not be able to apprehend. At best, we can approach the dynamical interactions through considered analysis and experimentation, hopefully generating reliable hypotheses over time and acting upon our educated suppositions in ways that further the social justice goals we seek. As a Master’s student in the University of Massachusett’s Social Justice Education program a decade ago, I became concerned with ways our overt pedagogical attempts to address various oppressor/oppressed dynamics sometimes served – in subtle yet palpable ways – to reify the precise role and status relationships we were intending to undo. Unlike most of my peers at the time, I was more interested in deconstructing my primary agent identities (white, non-disabled, middle-class) rather than my strongest target identity (lesbian).
As a graduate student then in my thirties, I had already worked through individual and group level empowerment processes by coming out culturally and politically in the Midwest in the late 1980s. I co-chaired a resurgence of lesbian and gay pride activities in Kansas City, MO and became a delegate for Jesse Jackson to the Democratic National Convention, where I convinced the Kansas State Democratic Delegation to support a resolution in favor of gay rights. I became involved in a national level political organizing effort of and for lesbians, where the apparent effortlessness of my until-then effective leadership skills was challenged in direct and indirect ways. I began to wonder: how had I managed to be so successful? Why did people follow me so willingly and with few – if any – questions? I began to listen differently, and to understand my own actions in more nuanced ways. This is also when I met members of American Deaf Culture, and began to learn American Sign Language.
Over the next few years, I pursued opportunities to become fluent in ASL, eventually earning the credential of a nationally certified interpreter. My involvement with a revolutionary group of Deaf educators and activists shaped my understanding of being an ally in profound ways. As my experience with interpretation accrued, I came to witness the workings of power through language use and social interaction in minute and intimate detail. Situated at the crossroads between Deaf persons with varying degrees of empowerment and non-deaf people with an equally wide range of (lack of) awareness as to how to deal with a bilingual, intercultural interaction – almost always in contexts where the dynamics of oppression were barely recognized and hardly ever acknowledged, and the professional role explicitly constrains intervention – my own immediate and everyday choices fell under pinpoint scrutiny. I continued to develop self-understanding as both the reflection and embodiment of other’s perceptions of who (and what) I am.
Understanding my own self as a locus of the institutional forces of racism, heterosexism, and audism (in the U.S. context) guided my quest for agency during my Master’s degree program. My teaching philosophy comes largely from experiential models developed from Paulo Freire and Augustus Boal, as well as from my lived experiences at several group relations conferences organized by the A.K. Rice Institute (often referred to as Tavistock, which is the British counterpart). These conferences establish “temporary institutions” with an assigned task but few guidelines for accomplishment. Uncertainty and doubt inspire participants to act out the full catalog of human emotions, including overt and subtle manifestations of all the isms. Learning to navigate the swirl of insecurities and phobias unleashed in these structurally-contained events has matured my ability to act proactively with respect for others as well as enhanced my capacities to interpret other’s actions generously without reacting along pre-formed lines. Or, at least if I do react in a limited/limiting way, I have the wherewithal to recognize and work constructively with the consequences.
This emphasis on un-doing the attitudes of privilege and re-learning how to respect and value differences continues to shape my interest in communication at the level of language and social interaction. I tend to notice irony and paradox – thus I was drawn initially to the Deaf community and ASL: why could we non-deaf not learn the relatively easy rules for using an interpreter? Eventually I was struck by the disparate provision of services: the Deaf now have an institutionalized system of language access (since the Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) but no such system is available for speakers of other minority languages in the U.S. Why not? Is this a sideways manifestation of ableism? Further, I was stunned to realize that the kind of interpreting available for the Deaf as a language minority (typically labeled “community interpreting”) is not extended to other language minorities even in Europe – where multilingualism is vaunted as a continental treasure!
The prevailing logic of the European Union is extraordinarily cosmopolitan. If you move to another country, learn the language. Of course there are – and will always be – people from all classes who will and do learn languages – but the transnational working classes, refugees and asylum-seekers who most need language services are much too immersed in the daily business of survival to devote the time and concentration necessary for language learning, especially if they do not have a natural or cultivated aptitude. The failure to provide professional interpreting for language minorities is an institutional guarantee of exclusion except for the tiny few whose circumstances and talent converge in precisely the right ways to generate a successful climb to secure socioeconomic status. Alternatively, the creation of an interpretation infrastructure would generate a new professional class open to persons from all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
Equalizing the field of language access might guarantee more effective use of voice (as conceptualized by sociolinguist Jan Blommaert) by everyone in a society. As such, it may arguably be the most significant field to equalize in a reconfigured political economy, because more effective assertions of individual rights and needs will lead to more effectiveness in gaining the resources necessary to live the kind of life one desires. Such an infrastructure would certainly not be a dead-end financial investment, as all members of this class – interpreter trainers, educators, and researchers (e.g., language academics) and practitioners (including certifying agencies) would be full participants in the global economy. The ranks would be open to anyone with sufficient fluency in necessary language combinations – thus opening up avenues of upward mobility for immigrant families as well as maintaining a cosmopolitan option for the established upper classes.
With such an ambitious goal, taking the time to ground the dissertation in historical fact, contemporary discourse, and relevant theory is necessary. I have already prepared drafts on the history of the profession of simultaneous interpretation in its two key variants, conference and community interpreting, and am currently conducting fieldwork (thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship) on the contemporary discourse of Members of the European Parliament, where the most elaborate experiment with simultaneous interpretation is conducted daily in twenty-three languages. Much of my graduate level coursework and comprehensive exam were geared to the exploration of relevant theory and the possibilities of application to corporations, governments, and other social movers (such as NGOs, scientific research facilities, and the military). What remains to be completed is supplemental research based on new information, the detailed development of relevant theory (including the necessary elimination of interesting but tangential currents of thought), and the overt linkage of academic concepts with the practical realities encountered in the field and expressed in the discourse of subjects.
My work has attracted some attention already. I have been invited to present this spring on research in progress at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and at Vrije University in Antwerp. The presentations I prepare will pose hypotheses concerning the quality and relevance of findings to date. Deliberately elicited feedback (through design) from participants at these presentations will inform the development of the dissertation. I imagine that input from faculty and students at your institution will serve the same purpose. Rather than envisioning the dissertation as a final word on the subject, I view it as the text of a book with potential to act as an intervention in an ongoing, flowing discourse – a discourse of which we are all complicit to varying degrees.
Regardless of the success of the ultimate textual product in effecting the transnational economy, the process of engaging such a complex discourse (about the value and scope of simultaneous interpretation) is an active learning process that I hope presents and enacts a model of collaborative knowledge generation that can inform processes of socially just policy formation on any dimension of institutional/social need. In this regard, the “how” is as important as the “what,” the end product itself a further enactment of an ethic put into practice. The intentional openness of fieldwork (for instance, using my weblog to report tentative findings to subjects and keep the conversation open and available to a potentially interested public) both challenges and clarifies the boundaries of the study, mirroring some, if not all, of the meaning-making elements under study.
The discourse about simultaneous interpretation is a reflection and a confirmation of the way simultaneous interpretation is currently used. As a mode of cultural communication, there is a ritual element (James Carey) in the roles and habits of participation and a structuring of values in the discourse about participation. The ramifications of these values as a force acting on the future is most apparent when subjects choose not to use simultaneous interpretation, preferring instead a lingua franca of variable fluency. This move to the same language (usually a form of English) is an homogenization, a centering, that seems in the moment merely a matter of convenience but over time constitutes practices that eliminate diversity through the imposition of a singular, common way to express knowledge.
As I endeavor to inject relevant academic theories into an institution (785 elected politicians) with the power to craft legislation influencing billions of people, I am constantly stimulated to revise my assumptions and renew my hypothesis in a deliberately dialogic manner. My knowledge is no more fixed than theirs, arguably less so: I am one individual with an intellectual opinion. The Members of the European Parliament have inherited an accumulated tradition and collectively generated common sense, i.e., ‘this is how we do interpreting here’ (not an actual quotation, but illustrative of the lack of questioning regarding the use and/or outcomes of using simultaneous interpretation).
My hope for next year is to continue to engage my topic in a dynamic way through presentations and conversations with interested others, as well as to continue to test, assess, and challenge findings and conclusions through comparison and contrast with other projects. In particular, what does it mean to do action research, with an openly acknowledged interest in generating change? How does one decide when, and how hard, to advocate for a certain position? Can one hold a strong stance without being co-opted into a role that perpetuates pre-existing institutional/social forces or does the task require identifying how one is used in these ways because such incorporation is inevitable?
Becoming a member of an actively-engaged social justice education community strikes me as ideal for my own purposes, and I do believe I would bring worthy contributions to your program, overall, and any specific projects I am invited to join. My weblogging, for instance, is a deliberate strategy for promoting dialogue within groups. I have used it very effectively in my teaching, combining the advantages of online communication with face-to-face classroom interaction. From the years I’ve spent teaching online only courses, I learned that students (if properly structured and facilitated) will speak much more openly, thoughtfully, and in-depth regarding difficult topics than they usually do in a face-to-face environment. Also, the requirement of participation generates a kind of leveling effect, moderating the tendencies in a regular group for a few people to dominate airspace and the quieter folks to refrain from sharing their perspectives.
My most ambitious attempt was with a junior-level course on Group Dynamics in the spring of 2008: writing directly to the students my observations and reflections of group dynamics as they occurred in our face-to-face classroom interactions enabled a highly engaged group and very powerful learning experiences. The following summer session, in an online-only course on Interpersonal Communication, I created assignments taking us back to the work of students in the Group Dynamics course – providing grounded learning opportunities for current students to apply theories currently being learned. I have also created ways to use student blogs interactively, such that I was able to guide online students through a similar kind of group developmental process as happens in regular face-to-face classrooms. These kinds of linkages and cross-pollinations generate new possibilities for critical and continued learning. Whenever I teach, I convey the required content, however I use the content as a hook for getting students to develop critical thinking skills and practice putting them to use.
The greatest failure of most pedagogy is that it emphasizes the subject matter at hand to the exclusion of the social processes and relationships occurring among the people gathered for the purpose of learning about that subject. The skills I have acquired and continue to hone involve never taking one’s attention from the interrelational elements of the immediate interaction. I practice this when I write blogposts concerning my social life, coursework, political events, general thinking, and especially the current fieldwork. Framing is all. If I were to be invited to join your campus community for a year, I would anticipate blogging about my experiences there, making these blogposts available particularly to people present at the events of which I write, and hoping a dialogue would grow. There is no way to predict, of course, what I might sense, but I know that the mutuality of giving/receiving is crucial to the way I want to write this dissertation.
The result of our (imagined, projected) experiences together will inform the ultimate dissertation: the interaction can only enhance collective wisdom about effective intervention in a global system rife with problematic attitudes toward differences of all types.
Thank you for your consideration.

“Dare to Know” (Kant)

This post distills a series of thoughts from reading three different texts: The Heroic Model of Science (Chapter 1, Telling the Truth about History by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, 1991); The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen (2000), and an Interview with Ilan Stavans by Richard Birnbaum (@ 2003).
Three threads are primary: language, interaction, and science. “Language” is engaged theoretically and in practice, particularly the practices of interpretation. Although the references in the three selected texts refer mainly to written translations, I extrapolate ‘down’ to in-the-moment generation of understanding in everyday talking with each other, based on cooperation or agreement between people about meaning. I also extrapolate ‘up’ – or at least ‘over’ – to the interlinguistic skills that are most obviously evident in simultaneous interpretation. As to interaction, there are numerous levels from the microsocial to the macrosocial and the temporal to the ephemeral. The history of science is significant because of its influence on how people in western countries learn.
Why these three texts, beyond the coincidence of reading them more-or-less at the same time? Appleby, Hunt & Jacob (hereafter AH&J) investigate “what sorts of political circumstances foster critical inquiry” (p. 9). They write specifically in regard to the discipline of history by “examin[ing] critically the relevance of scientific models to the craft of history” (p. 9). I borrow their analysis as a way to explore the relevance of scientific models to other disciplines, particularly communication and the intersection of communication with political economy (especially governance), management (the organization of business), and culture (identity, ritual, and social relations).
AH&J challenge relativists and skeptics, sometimes lumping them together as postmodernists, arguing that in some ways they can “leav[e] the impression that the linguistic conventions of science have less to do with nature and more to do with the sociology of the scientists…in this way they have confused the social nature of all knowledge construction with the self-interest of the constructors, forgetting that all social beings participate in the search for knowledge and sometimes do so successfully” (emphasis added, p. 8-9). AH&J offer definitions for “skepticism” and “relativism,” showing how these attitudes form the substance of conflict with another historical attitude, that of religious absolutism. Tensions among these attitudes form the roots of the culture wars we see in the U.S. today.

“We view skepticism,” write AH&J, ” as an approach to learning as well as a philosophical stance…skepticism can encourage people to learn more and remain open to the possibility of their own errors” (p. 6-7).

Relativism, a modern corollary to skepticism, is the belief that truth is relative to the position of the person making the statement” (p. 7). There is an important nuance to this definition: truth is not directly relative to the person, rather, it is relative to “the position of the person.” (Note: “modern” means the idea of relativism wasn’t around when the initial fight took place between the skeptics and the religious. “Relativism” is an outgrowth of that fight.)

Religious absolutism is “the conviction that transcendent and absolute truth can be known” (p. 15).

All of these stances can be overdone, hence AH&J propose a standard for knowledge, i.e., for what we believe to be true:

“Success comes when the
found knowledge can be understood, verified, or
appreciated by people who
in no sense share the same self-interest” (p. 9).

The last phrase, it seems to me, is most crucial. If we are interested in democracy and social justice – meaning a fairness for groups of people of varying types – then we must find ways of producing and valuing broad social, political, and economic structures that are acceptable to everyone, even those whose self-interests differ from our own.
Jonathan Rosen, in a section about the ways Judaism and Christianity have borrowed from and influenced each other through the ages, writes about “open fearlessness, that willingness to assimilate outside cultures into your own without worrying that they will corrupt your beliefs” (p. 83-84). One of the anchors he poses for the Jewish religion is the collective realization, a very, very long time ago “that only words were durable” (p. 79). The Talmud, he argues, “is a sort of cathedral built across the ages and spanning all the earth – or perhaps I should say it’s a Temple, or at least a translation of one, built out of words and laws and stories” (p. 81).
I want to make three points simultaneously: language as a power with literal force; the “extraordinary religiosity” (according to AH&J, p. 50) of early (and at least some contemporary) scientists; and the inescapable fact that scientists today are the inheritors, intellectual descendants, and cultural products of the heroic science born of the Enlightenment. Certainly I am. I want to both rescue and continue the project of “truth with a purpose: the reform of existing institutions” (AH&J, p. 41), while seeking to escape or alter additional repeat performances of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century culture wars.
Power of Interpretation:
Language is key. Rosen’s parallel between the Internet and the Talmud speaks to a proliferation of heterogeneous meanings that suggests an antidote to “the nature of books never to be quite right and of words always to elude our grasp” (p. 54). The refusal of words to mean one thing only, and to mean only that one thing always and forever, is precisely the juncture where understandings are forged or splattered. Words are durable while truth about what the words mean remains elusive. Rosen’s desire “to embrace contradictory traditions” (p. i) seems similar to AH&J’s focus on “the interplay between certainty and doubt” (p. 10). This enables Rosen to keep faith with “the business of life [which] is to learn, not to know” (p. 33). For AH&J that interplay “keeps faith with the expansive quality of democracy” (p. 10). Learning, democracy, science, and faith are inextricably intertwined: language is their confluent expression.
This is why Ilan Stavans can assert with conviction: “I find translators, in many ways, to be the real protagonists of culture . . . Translators are the underpaid heroes of culture.” Translators – and interpreters – are always in between. Rosen explains how the Talmud “devised a culture intended to be a kind of middle term between extremes – between destruction and new creation, between the dead and the living, between God and man, between home and exile, between doubt and faith, between outward behavior and inner inclination” (p. 131).
Interpretation is a form of communication that has to work within and between “the chaotic contemporary forms of communication that,” Rosen explains, “are so often accused of diverting us from what is true. The chaos and the incongruities, it turns out, are part of the truth” (p. 119). On that basis he compares the “interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet” (p. 10) with “a page of the Talmud” (p. 19): “all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed” (p. 10). “Those portions and their accompanying readings,” he continues, “swim in a sea of commentary . . . so large that it seems at times to expand [like the Internet] to include everything” (p. 30).
Language in History:
Before elaborating on Stavan’s thesis, let me summarize the discussion of language and its role in history provided by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, because they present the discipline of linguistics in the creation of heroic science as an equal partner to the discipline of science. “The Enlightenment,” said to begin in 1690, “set the terms of the modern cultural project: the individual’s attempt to understand nature and humankind through scientific as well as linguistic means” (p. 39). Concurrent with the emergence of sciences and history as disciplines, “the European philosophes also developed new approaches toward old languages and texts. Reading old documents, indeed reading any document, is never as simple as it looks. Even picking up the local newspaper you ask, well, why did they run that story? Or, I wonder what party that journalist has joined?” (p. 37)
The discipline of linguistics began with criticism of written texts, called hermeneutics. It didn’t take long before “the language in a text, the words on the page, became too important to be left to clerical interpreters” (AB&J, p. 38). The Christian Bible was, at the time, the standard of absolute knowledge; it came under particular scrutiny. Ironically, clergy had originally invented hermeneutics, using the Bible as the reference point for all kinds of statements of absolute truth concerning the world and time. Now, AB&J continue, “The words had to be enlisted in the enterprise of creating wholly secular and scientific learning, but with consequences for … the present generation” (p. 38).
Stavans says, “Using language as a category is a way to say who we are in front of a mirror.” He goes on to illustrate how words change meanings over time, illustrating how the evolution of meaningfulness is what goes on socially, among and between people. When you, or I, use language – when we talk or write – we are “saying who we are” to ourselves.
When I wrote earlier that I am cut in the vein of heroic science, it is because I recognize how I think and talk in those terms. AH&J present a range of descriptions:

“Diderot described the follower of the Enlightenment as an eclectic, a skeptic and investigator who ‘trampling underfoot prejudice, tradition, venerability, universal assent, authority – in a word, everything that overawes the crowd – dares to think for himself, to ascend to the clearest general principles, to examine them, to discuss them, to admit nothing save on the testimony of his own reason and experience'” (citing Diderot’s article on eclecticsm in the Encyclopedie (1751), p. 39).

I am not an ideal type, but there is certainly a resemblance. How about this: “a new kind of person…hard to govern, suspicious of authority, more interested in personal authenticity and material progress than in the preservation of traditions, a reader of new literature, novels, newspapers, clandestine manuscripts, even pornography, all especially produced for an urban market” (p. 40). This description hardly marks me special, rather it describes today’s average western person. To wit, “a new cultural type who could be a pundit, prophet, fighter against tyranny and oppression, original thinker, elegant writer, sometimes pornographer, reader of science, host of salons, or occasional freemason” (p. 35).
The average western person today, as well as trained scientists and elites, however, is also subject to the culture wars that are the legacy of the original, historical figures of the Enlightenment who “battled with clergy and churches and at moments risked martyrdom” (p. 18). “In the culture wars of the present generation, language, with the many uses and abuses that can be attributed to it, has figured prominently in the arsenal of weapons” (p. 38). Today, continuing the trend of the Enlightenment when secular hermeneutics turned the scientific method on the Bible, all words are related to other words.

about Obama

“To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn’t get it —

that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary.”

~ Barack Obama

The quotes I pulled from this long NY Times magazine article show me some of what I think is Obama’s deep wisdom – he is not playing divides against each other, but trying to find the places where opposite sides can connect. It is this ability to see through to the worth of values, and find ways to honor and respect the differences in values that make up all of American culture, that attracted me to him in the beginning. He understands “diversity” from the inside.

“These [white, male, working-class] voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”

What are the “cultural issues” he’s talking about?

There is a

…need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong . . .Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that.

The article (also published by the International Tribune), is interesting and informative). The reporter harks back to Obama’s emergence on the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. At that time and place, Obama spoke about a broad politics comfortable with “worshiping an awesome God in the blue states” and having “gay friends in the red states.” He elaborated to the NY Times reporter (Matt Bai),

“…that Washington’s us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. ‘If voters are similarly polarized and if they’re seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we’re not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done.'”

Some of the insights I appreciate from the reporter include describing George W. as “more of a uniter [of the American public] than he ever intended” because of the vast disapproval with his policies, and, although not naming Hillary, the evidence of how her protracted fight for the nomination has helped Obama’s organizing in the long run. “In three states — Texas, Indiana and North Carolina — more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on Election Day in 2004.”
Of course the economy is crucial – it always was, even before this crisis – but Obama recognizes and keeps talking about the fact that “cultural issues matter far more in the rural areas than they do in the exurbs, because voters see those issues as a test of whether politicians respect their values or mock them.” (Emphasis added.)
This next is a longer quote, because it might be part of what unnerves some people about him – his lack of need for public adoration. Perhaps what is unsettling about this aspect of Obama’s character (his “organized unconscious” as David Brooks recently described it) is that the absence of a need for acceptance reduces public leverage on his decisions, which subsequently ups the ante of trust. Obama will surround himself with the best and brightest of varying points of view, and then he will decide based on the calculations of his own wisdom. What will do with a President not subject to manipulation? What I hope is that this quality of self-determination applies equally to the elites.

“It is often said in politics that a candidate’s strength is also his weakness. Obama’s greatest asset as a candidate, the trait that has enabled him to overcome both a thin résumé and the resistance of his own party’s establishment, is his placidity. Even more than through his ability to give a rousing speech (plenty of other candidates, from Ted Kennedy to Howard Dean, could do that), Obama has differentiated himself from recent Democrats by conveying a sense of inner security that is highly unusual in a business of people who have chosen to spend every day asking people to love them. He does not seem like a candidate who’s going to switch to earth tones in his middle age or who’s going to start dressing up in camouflage to rediscover his inner Rambo.

Obama is content to meet the world on his terms, and something about that inspires confidence.And yet that same lack of pathetic neediness may in fact be a detriment when it comes to persuading voters who, culturally or ideologically, just aren’t predisposed to like him. I once heard a friend of Obama’s compare him with Bill Clinton this way: if Clinton sees you walking down the other side of the street, he immediately crosses over to shake your hand; if Obama sees you coming, he nods and waits for you to cross. That image returned to me as I watched Obama campaign in Lebanon. Clinton wouldn’t have wanted to leave that gym until every last voter had been converted, even if that meant he had to memorize the scheduled sewer installation for every home in Russell County. Mark Warner, a similarly tenacious glad-hander, went to rural Virginia again and again because, deep down, he needed to change people’s perceptions of who he was. Obama doesn’t connect to the world that way, which is probably why his campaign has always preferred big rallies to hand-to-hand venues. Obama gives the impression that he’s going to show up and make his case, and if you don’t fall in love with him, well, he’ll just have to pick up the pieces and go on.”

Then, there is the matter of race/racism and whether the latent prejudice of whites will adversely affect Obama’s chances. I like the reporter’s critique: “The more important question is not whether race is a factor in people’s votes but whether it is a determinative factor — that is, whether Obama’s being black is the disqualifying fact for white voters that it might have been 20 years ago or whether it has now been reduced to one of those surmountable obstacles that any candidate has to overcome.” This merely calls for scathing honesty: is Obama’s mixed heritage the ONE reason to vote for/against him? Although there is, no doubt, a small subset of the population who would say this matters the most, this is obviously the wrong basis of evaluation. I am in agreement with the reporter’s conclusion: “it may be possible for racial prejudice to exist, as all the polls suggest it does, but for it to be only one significant influence among many, including voters’ views on the economy and on McCain as an alternative.”

Finally, I appreciate Obama’s candor.
“I’m not a familiar type.” He laughed. “Which means it would be easier for me to deliver this message if I was from one of these places, right? I’ve got to deliver that message as a black guy from Hawaii named Barack Obama. So, admittedly, it’s just unfamiliar . . . I’m different in all kinds of ways. I’m different even for black people.” (Emphasis added.)
In the end, I think this is what it comes down to: can you vote for someone unfamiliar? Of course you will feel the riskiness of it, but the only rational explanation for that sense of risk is fear. Not necessarily deep dread or panic, but uneasiness with the inability to predict what will happen. We never can, of course, but the uncertainty of tomorrow (even of later today) seems more manageable when you are working with the familiar. This is change at its essence: from something known to something new. The big changes that Obama might generate will be possible because of the small changes in the hearts and minds of people like us.


Some days are just quiet.
I decided to play tourist and went looking for a museum and a recommended bookshop. I found a church! (Make of it what you will!) Street names here change every few blocks, requiring navigational vigilance.
St. Paulus.jpg
Some time thereafter, I stumbled upon a square, Mechelse Plain, in full preparations for an art opening, featuring the photography of a Belgian artist who died last year, Patrick De Spiegelaere.
Dansen, Tanzania 2003.jpg
A coalition of NGOs hosted the event, Wereldbeelden (World Images). There were some speeches, improv, and then live music. Perhaps folks got to dancing, eventually? It seemed everyone was enjoying mingling. The improv artists promised me a word in English – I suppose I did not wave vigorously enough from the audience but it was a bit tough (!) to gauge timing given my three phrase Dutch vocabulary (“ja,” “nee,” and “dank u”). The audience did provide a few words I could recognize: macaroni, John Lennon, and eyeliner are the ones I recall. 🙂
Belgian NGOs are “debating development” this year, in concert with initiatives agreed upon by the World Social Forum.

Meanwhile, in local development (!), I learned that the school of interpretation and translation here in Antwerp has added Gebarentaal (Flemish Sign Language) to its curriculum. 🙂

mad dash to water.jpg

Cairn at the Crossroads

Om Mani Padmi Om.jpg
Some thirty stalwart spirits braved the edge of Hurricane Hannah to begin building “Belchertown’s own pyramid.” Sailing knots secured the tarp which – propped up by two ladders – withstood the night, protecting us from the downpour and thrilling us with sounds of rain and wind as we christened the cairn near midnight with Wrongo Dongo. Howls mixed with cheers in a cacophony of exuberance as we embraced the spirit of ritual, blending our voices with nature’s infinite chanting. I was asked for a convocation (see “Other Use“); all I could muster was Thank You. I felt calm and peaceful in our candlelit circle, humbled by and proud of my friends.

“Happiness is an elusive thing. It has
something to do with having beautiful shoes, but it is
about so much else . . . About having
friends like this.”

Blue Shoes and Happiness
Alexander McCall Smith
p. 217 (2006)
[past tense changed to present]

eyes of compassion.jpg
In all important respects, we gathered as we always do – indulging delicious food, drinking comfortably, talking, dancing, teasing, touching, teaching and calling each other into being. I learned so much, as I always do. 🙂 Everyone oriented to the ceremonial element in their own way. Some recalled significant moments of shared interpersonal interaction, acknowledged difficult aspects of private histories and/or future challenges, and speculated on the symbolism of our individually swirling energies encapsulated by nature’s capacity for storm. Others lost themselves in dance, told tall tales, lampooned themselves and others, played tricks and carefully watched for the precise moment to deliver a perfect pun. Most of us did some of everything. We take our fun seriously, without letting fun completely overtake the serious.
balance & cat.jpg
There was power in our utterances last night and this morning. Dorothee educated me on linguistic minorities in France and the Belgian Flemish/French controversy (more on these later!), and Nick proposed jazz as a uniquely unreproducible medium. The confluence of these topics with my upcoming research woke me right up (or was it the Turkish coffee?!)
“Oh yea, that was in quotes,” Don said, walking by a few minutes later as Nick explained, “I don’t want my life to be an open book, I want people to question me.” We were talking about how online social networking could remove mystery from our lives by producing a vast field of ambient awareness (another longer-term side effect of ambient awareness could be the evolutionary loss of certain cognitive skills associated with fact-based memory). An iPhone provided entertainment for awhile, its accelerometer on display with Newton’s Cradle . This put me in mind of the results of a recent “mind map” of local and global trends affecting a particular organization’s anti-racism and social justice activities, in which nearly all trends were described in terms of increase (more more more and faster) instead of decrease.
How did we get from the accelerometer to air-conditioning? I cannot recall, but the comment reminded me of Christopher Dickey’s claim:

as air conditioning conquered the lethargy-inducing climate and Northerners by the millions abandoned the rust belt for the sun belt, the past wasn’t forgotten or forgiven so much as put aside while people got on with their lives and their business.

from Southern Discomfort, a Newsweek article
by (fyi) the son of the author of Deliverance)
about the U.S. presidential campaign and contemporary race relations

Somehow nostalgia for the “old days” of answering machines (when you received your telephone messages only when you got home at the end of the day) got intertwined with the luxuries of heating and cooling . . . The Chosen One mused, “we’ve had heat for a long time, it’s harder to make cold.” Indeed, air-conditioning as we know it today is a phenomenon of only the last century: for millenia humans have known how to keep ourselves warm, but only “yesterday” have we figured out how to make ourselves cool. (Uh oh. Global warming is here, now.)
When Brandon left is when it hit me. Some of these people I really may not see again. Dhara reminisced about meeting me at bowling her first year here. She and Henk had been the ones to unveil the group present. (Rumor Mill: going viral. First batch original orders for t-shirts and bumperstickers should be placed here.)
Yes and Raz snaps photos.jpg
The Nepalese mantra gracing the cairn is, as best I understand it to date, a kind of paean to precious knowledge and pure beauty. We have created physical evidence of passing this way; and less tangibly we have left our marks upon each other – bits of spirit inspiring compelling turning and calling us on, always with the invitation to return. “It’s good,” Franz said today, “to be a little bit bothered by each other.” Yes – such is the evidence of communal connections: they persist!
the book.jpg

I pledge my best to go as the water flows.