Peak Connectivity and Social Resilience

The “intersection” in this blog entry on social resilience involves computer science and brain science. Combining the social aspect of resilience with the human-computer interface and education has potential to enhance sophisticated problem-solving around the globe. For instance, what if we gamed Twitter?

The “intersection” in this blog entry on social resilience involves computer science and brain science.

What if we gamed Twitter?
What if we gamed Twitter?

While Professor Beverly Woolf and colleagues from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst presented on smart tutoring at the Artificial Intelligence in Education conference, I listened to a webinar from Dr Dennis S. Charney, MD, from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai present data supporting his “resilience prescription” for individuals.

Stimulating processes of social resilience

Two of Charney’s eight resilience principles, however, involve other people: role models and a supportive social network. Combining the social aspect of resilience with the human-computer interface and education has potential to enhance sophisticated problem-solving around the globe.

The developing world has 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions. In Africa, average penetration is a third of the population, and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds. South Africa now has almost 100% penetration. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone ownership is 30%. ~ Dr Beverly P. Woolf

The potentials for knowledge communication through savvy tele-education exceed youth. These technologies can also enable adults who care about intercultural social networking and mass organizing for social justice. Continue reading “Peak Connectivity and Social Resilience”

Europe: Amazing and Disturbing

One of the miracles of Europe is the amazing way communication is made possible among users of different languages in the European Parliament. While I do critique some of the outcomes of the transmission model of interpreting, particularly how the success of simultaneous interpretation generates the illusion of speaking in one shared language (which means erasing the differences of separate and unique languages and the worldviews they inspire), the fact that the system works is testimony to what humans can achieve with intercultural cooperation.

“Disturbing and Amazing”

Marsi’s words describe the effect of exhibits at the Museum of Young Art in Prague. Many of the works depict violence: relentless, remorseless, pervasive, and essentially without purpose. In retrospect, the small shock of David Cerny’s “Guns” became prelude to an increasing turmoil of viscera.

The rainbow ghouls in this painting, "Object III" by Jiri Petrbok, depict the irony of celebrating destruction.
The rainbow ghouls in this painting, "Object III" by Jiri Petrbok, depict the irony of celebrating destruction.

The horror of these exhibits was a rude intrusion into our twenty hours of reunion. Delicious food and delightful conversation affirmed the solid bedrock of unquestioned friendship. Our joy in play was a dreamy reprieve from the backdrop of ruthless reality.

Language Policy? “It’s a trick.”

My return to Belgium is fraught with contradictions. I have friends here who belong distinctly to different classes: the disparity of their experiences is distressing. The evidence of an interaction taboo moves from the theoretical realm of European Union language policy to practical lived experience. Fluency in Nederlands (for instance) is used as a bulwark to prevent immigrants from getting a legitimate job within the European Union’s economy – a job that qualifies for government benefits.  Hiring and paying workers “in black” is talked about as openly and casually as slavery in the antebellum south of the United States. The implications may be muted in genteel company but the structure is hierarchically racist. Notice the linguistic marking: no one names “the white economy” as the given standard. I understand better, now, the range of reactions to my poster, Beyond Homolingualism, which depicts two different systems of simultaneous interpretation.

Some of the participants at the EU’s Committee of Region’s conference on the European Public Sphere (mostly academics), were intrigued and asked many questions about my poster. A few also expressed feeling unease and discomfort, admitting that the implications to language policy and sociocultural life are unsettling. In one case, an argument lead to the accusation that I clearly had no concept of poverty – because, if I did, it would be patently obvious to me why all immigrants must learn the official EU language of their country of residence in order to work. Of course I understand this logic: not only a logic of language hierarchy and power, it stems from a simple human desire to “speak the same language” for purposes of connection and understanding. While both systems of simultaneous interpretation work functionally in their respective settings, there are – in my view – unintended consequences of the European Parliament’s model that warrant consideration.


Talking with those who “speak the same language” is comfortable and nurturing. Whether English, Hindi, American Sign Language, or a technical jargon common to a field of academic study or professional practice, excitement and entertainment are experienced more easily when the symbol system is already shared in common.

Albert Einstein's call for peace through understanding is a popular graffiti in Antwerp..
Albert Einstein's call for peace through understanding is a popular graffiti in Antwerp..

One of the miracles of Europe is the amazing way communication is made possible among users of different languages in the European Parliament. While I do critique some of the outcomes of the transmission model of interpreting, particularly how the success of simultaneous interpretation generates the illusion of speaking in one shared language (which means erasing the differences of separate and unique languages and the worldviews they inspire), the fact that the system works is testimony to what humans can achieve with intercultural cooperation.

Now, if language policy makers in the European Union and elsewhere could take some lessons from professional community interpreting (particularly as modeled with Deaf people), this would allow members of minority language groups to leverage their difference into the political-economic systems, with terrific gains in democracy and life chances. My hypothesis is that the institutionalization of live language interpreting could generate a field of equality by protecting diversity and promoting systemic resilience.

When the learning curve is a wall

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the highlights of the conference (although it is hard to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber). “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Womensphere with Newsweek
Global Summit (Day Two, 25 September 2010)

Manhattan (Goldman Sachs)

Leticia Jáuregui described her experience starting up a business within the rapidly expanding field of social entrepreneurship to Pamela Hartigan, author of The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World.  I cite the whole title of Pamela’s book because I was thrilled to discover such a simple explanation for most of my biography:  I’m unreasonable!  The Global Summit reinvigorated hope that I can leverage this unreasonableness into new market creation which ripples out and contributes to positive changes for the world – especially we people living on earth now  and in the immediate next few generations. I realize this is a species-centric perspective, but there is tremendous potential when such selfishness is coupled within a matrix of relationships. Suddenly your health and well-being is recognizable as deeply intertwined with mine. By extension other living beings and the planet become relevant and valued, too.

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the many highlights of the conference (although it is impossible to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber).  “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Being (perceived as) unreasonable means one necessarily attracts a lot of negative attention: critiques, people telling you you’re foolish, resistance of all sorts. This can wear you down if you’re not able to apply a productive frame.  “You know you’re on the right path when just about everyone says you’re nuts.”  Victoria matter-of-factly told us about the importance of setbacks, teaching us how to interpret them as a way to “appreciate that the universe is moving.” Rather than viewing resistance and the need to alter or modify plans as a setback, view them as “revelations.”  “You can’t be too much of a fighter, not too committed to ‘my way’,” she told us, otherwise you miss important information about the world that you need to be aware of and adapt to in order to succeed.

“Kill all the Negative People”

Pamela proposed this a bumpersticker, and she’s only half-teasing!  Analisa kept reminding us that leadership and invention do not have to be lonely (at least not persistently and characteristically so), and no one would argue against constructive criticism. But there is a difference between criticism that contributes to one’s understanding about issues relevant to success, and complaints from people whose outlook is systematically negative. “Spend time,” Victoria continued, “with people who get it.” Her work in medical research goes against the grain. “Strategically, we do what the world needs,” and “In R&D, things change.” In practical terms, this means “work[ing] with funders who are very hands-off” and, in Pamela’s words, focusing on “the issue as the unit of development.

Drawing from history, Pamela reminds us, “Many people come together from many different areas to make social movements.”  The challenge, of course, is how to work with the complexity and hybridity of all the various ways difference can cut across contemporary social forms of interaction.  Pamela suggested applying The Three P’s: Passion, Patience, and being with Positive people as a way to assess whether one is “in the right place at the right time.” She distinguished between “entrepreneurs” who don’t stick with bureaucracies for very long, and “intrapreneurs” who chip away from the inside, coming at things from within an organization or institution.

Dismissing the label of “social entrepreneur” as a term that has served its time, Pamela argued that we must begin to distinguish between “value appropriation” and “value creation.” We need “visionary pragmatists” who “refuse to take no for an answer” and thus come up with “fascinating solutions to intractable problems.”

“People are poor, not stupid”

Molly Tschang made this point a bit later in the afternoon during the presentation of Case Studies of Impact of Corporate Investments & Innovations on Global and Local Problems. In a significant way, Molly was talking about the power of “no.” Sometimes, no is the answer which has to be respected! Pamela did not mean “no” is always to be disregarded, she meant “no” should not stop us from persisting – with wisdom and awareness of consequences – in search of the goal. Victoria’s openness was quite beautiful in this regard: “I didn’t know how to ask; I was told.” When we’re working with intercultural differences, we have to become sensitive to nuances along a continuum that spans when it is the difference and when it is our reaction to difference that provides the stimulus for powerful learning.

Victoria, Pamela, and Leticia provided us with living examples from the ground-up of Molly’s top-down challenge regarding, “how to engage the full diversity of resources and bring them to bear on solving issues.”   If the goal is “how to make things work in disadvantaged communities,” then you cannot rely only on top-down policies and institutional vision. Molly insisted “you must adapt” and embrace the fact that “people see where they are” and are able to articulate their daily realities in ways that people from a distance are simply unable to perceive.

Future markets, Peer partnering, and the Wrong Question

Molly told us about a TED Fellow who inquired, “What’s the one thing you want to tell the world?” This, she insisted, is the wrong question.  There is no one thing, “its everything!” We are not, as Pamela put it, “generating the next widget.” We are engaged in behavioral change, systems change, and political processes. Molly encouraged us that the only way forward is to “acknowledge the complexity [rather than] be daunted by it.”  In other words, you’ll know you’re in the right place at the right time when you are aware of multiple realities intersecting in complementary ways.

When you sense the future with a vertical slope of 90-degrees, you are facing the moment described by Pamela as the juncture when “complex problems become opportunities.” You will inevitably be engaged with people who are – in some fundamental way – essentially different than you, and you will consider them peers because the knowledge base they bring is equal and necessarily in proportion with your own experience and skill. Leticia captured the phenomenological experience perfectly: “We started as an idea, got funded as an idea. The reality on the ground? The learning curve is still a wall.”

It’s the economy AND the environment (stupid!)

Womensphere with Newsweek
Global Summit

Day 1 at NYU: see photos!

I almost bailed out. My back was out of whack when I woke up the day before the two-day conference. I thought: I need to listen to my body. It isn’t up for this trip. As I lay in bed imagining the five hour bus ride to NYC, the additional hour (or more) to get out to Maria’s in Queens, the intensity of the two-day conference schedule, the return trip on Sunday and subsequent “loss” of the entire weekend in terms of everything else I needed to do, I decided not to go.

The luxury of a long weekend of “extra time” stretched out before me as I settled into a hot bath and began reading a gift from my former roommate – a partner in the (idea of) my start-up. As far as I know, Joan Borysenko did not attend the Global Summit, but she got me there by reminding me that I am on to something…

Resiliency (not only Sustainability)

Leaving aside the question of whether or not human activities have caused global warming, the need for climate recovery is the fundamental context for the current and future societal organization of, by, and for homo sapiens. When Goldman Sachs states that without change the planet will be two degrees warmer by 2030, they signal the seriousness of the matter for every human being on the planet, not just the wealthy. The concept of  sustainability, however, is severely limited:

a) “sustainability” – as used in the media, politics, business, academia and grassroots movements – can refer to anything (what linguists call an empty signifier), hence is prone to being misunderstood among people using it (what interpreters call a communication breakdown), and

b) the premise of “sustainability” is continuity: the avoidance of change. Hello? This is not a newsflash: change is already here.

From a discourse and group dynamics perspective, continuing to use the term sustainability in the current ways is evidence of mass rationalization of reality. During the Community Circle conference review sessions at the end of the first day of the program, Amy, Devon, Cynthia, Judy, Katie, Marika, Jenny, Mary, Teresa, Nancy, and Mr. Manbassador helped me realize there are similar challenges with the term resiliency. As I’ve continued to consider our conversation about Building Green Economies and Enabling Sustainability, what I realized is that we need the interplay of these two terms – conceptually and in practice – if we are really going to recreate institutional systems capable of maintaining and spreading high qualities of human existence.

“The World Flows on Credit”

The economy, leadership, and change were consistent themes of the Summit. We learned about the current state of the economy, including historical factors and future projections. Barbara Byrne was, as she said, “in the front car of a railroad train that went off the tracks.” She had worked for Lehman Brothers for 28 years prior to “that Sunday morning,” September 15, 2008, “the morning I no longer had health insurance or job security or anything else…(and) had lost 60% of my net worth just like that.” Barbara emphasized the psychological elements of group decision-making during and after the “12 Standard Deviation Event” that was the unintended consequence of Lehman Brothers being deemed a moral hazard.

I was particularly intrigued by Barbara’s perspective  because of having watched the Frontline program, Inside the Meltdown, which included an instance of a problematic moment. James Cumming has distinguished group-level problematic moments from difficult interpersonal interactions. During a PM, conflicts in social realities emerge, becoming temporarily evident and available in ways that open possibilities for restructuring hierarchies of relationships within a given sociocultural field. Problematic moments are leverage points for fundamental social change.

Barbara spoke of the select group of male CEOs gathered with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson at the White House making decisions according to the restricted focus that characterizes group communication during a crisis. Decision-making during crisis is especially challenging when the group lacks diversity. Barbara argued that society needs guardrails (government regulations), while insisting:  “Business is important. It’s what makes the wheels turn.”  She emphasized the “need (for) diversity in the room,” listing demographic features and knowledge sets so that people can test and push the boundaries of decision-making processes. Ultimately, she argued, “No matter what you think of TARP, [in this instance] government worked,” because Paulson confronted the credit freeze fallout “one piece at a time to open everything up.”

Time, Timing, History and the Future

Barbara emphasized the “need for long-term thinking.” This could have been interpreted as a poke at Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs, who (earlier) had opened her talk with a joke: “I was just told I have ten minutes to tell you how to fix everything.” Chuckles spread through the room – we’re all looking for the quick fix, the right answer! This is (unfortunately)  not forthcoming.  Abby gave us “the one minute CNBC summary”:

  • There will be no double dip, what we’re experiencing is the continuation of a natural deceleration
  • The slow improvement in the labor force is a big problem that comes from longer-term structural issues – not just the credit crisis or recession (emphasis added)
  • The equity market is priced below value, bonds are priced for perfection

“Something has happened…”

Abby described two historical trends in jobs and education. She spoke at the macrosocial, institutional level in the context of global competition, lamenting, “We have not seen this in generations. It goes to the heart of the American dream.” Barbara too expressed concern that Americans are losing our mojo, acting on the basis of fear instead of remembering and celebrating that the US “is fundamentally the most optimistic place on earth.” Abby’s diagnosis was sharp. The problem is the lack of job creation in the United States.

Abby explained that there has been “an ongoing deceleration of new jobs for a decade preceeding” the credit crisis; a 5% loss in jobs overall, and a 10% loss of blue-collar jobs were evident before the financial crisis erupted into public awareness. “When,” Lynn Tilton asked a short while later, “was there a taint on being blue?” Described by Vanessa Angeles of HSBC as “a private equity rock star,” Lynn minced no words arguing for bottom-up restructuring. Abby described the policy decision about the American economy when we switched to “what you know” from “what you can carry.”  Lynn put numbers on the current fallout: 1 in 5 Americans is unemployed. One in seven American families is below the poverty level.  “Why,” she challenged, “can’t we admit we made a mistake when we decided it is what you know rather than what we make?”

“What do we want for the future?”

Dr Mae Jemison (self-described as “the only person on the Star Trek set who had actually been in space”) put the problem in context by defining globalization in terms of two opposing possibilities.

Jemison: We can design globalization by emphasizing “the ability [of business] to make all markets homogenous,” or we can emphasize “the capacity of business to deliver to people the capacity to do what they want.”

Tilton: Describing how – contrary to the general historical drift – she had become an industrialist: “Nobody really wanted to rebuild the companies, they just wanted to focus on balance sheets.”

Cohen: “Our educational system is not keeping pace” with the rest of the world,” there has been “no improvement” in graduation percentages (especially from college) in more than a decade.

Tilton: “When parents are out of work, children are focused on survival, not education.”

The Blue-Collar Challenge

“We have the most extensive collegiate and university system in the world,” Abby insisted. “This is an important form of foreign aid.” International students who come here to earn degrees need to be allowed to stay.

“We also lose technology,” Lynn reminded everyone, “when we ship manufacturing overseas.”

Barbara was explicit: “We need to open the borders. We need to let the immigrants in.” Rally for Sanity. Pass the Dream Act (this suggestion is an editorial supplement).

Lynn argued for subsidized employment as “a better route than welfare.”  “We are a nation that doesn’t have enough jobs,” she repeated, describing institutionalized unemployment as an illness which needs to be attacked at the root. “We can recreate jobs if we revisit the policy not to manufacture.”

While Lynn emphasized the absolute necessity of bottom-up restructuring, others focused on top-down policy-making that can “align business with social concerns,” as asked by someone in the audience during the lunchtime roundtable on Women & Innovation: Driving Innovation and Creating a Culture of Successful Innovation.

Later, in the session on The Future of the US and Global Economy: Market Dynamics, Growth, Black Holes & Public Policy, Andrea Feingold described the outdated logic of mortgages, in which people planned to live their lives in a single place, so it made sense to buy in one’s thirties and pay-off by one’s sixties in order to enjoy retirement in a home owned free-and-clear. Overall, however, the top-down discussion about solutions is a muddle. During the same panel, talking about tax incentives, Stephanie Breslow warned that “we can’t wean ourselves off foreign oil and just replicate another kind of dependency.” Joyce Chang described the necessity of ensuring “coordination of regulation or we will just transfer risk to another part of the world.”

Actionable Solutions

Although we teased about HVPS, there are known and established facts which can guide the processes of defining problems and creating solutions:

  • investing in women generates greater returns
  • supporting the spread of international law serves to counter injustice
  • defining terms and coordinating language use builds community
  • creating desire promotes motivation to achieve goals
  • considering others’ welfare enhances personal well-being and safety
  • facing fear enables cooperation at new & different levels

In other words, as Angela Leaney emphasized, “When the plane is going down, its not time to be a jerk. Put your oxygen mask on and help others.”

Desire to Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this third Global Summit by Womensphere. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours was an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

Womensphere with Newsweek Global Summit
Manhattan (NYU Kimmel Center & Goldman Sachs)

“I am honored and inspired and intrigued.”

Nina summed up the third Global Summit from her role as a member of the event team. Sarah described how positive everyone was behind the scenes, which was elaborated upon by Nancy as “so much energy and spirit put into action….[this event] was about doing, not just cheering.” Vanessa emphasized everyone’s generosity and authenticity, summed up by Robin as “passion with a splash of compassion.” Was it Aidan who was so eager for the final round of acknowledgments to end? She also made sure that Claude received special recognition for superb orchestration of the nuts-and-bolts of a flawless large group event for several hundred women who just want to be allowed to row.

“Loving good, boys!”

The Maud Scientist shared her version of “Good boys, good!” with us while introducing the Innovation Roundtable after the first morning’s series of keynotes. Shelly Lazarus had told us about a presentation she had attended about the rowing team at Cambridge, which was studied for five months by cultural researcher Mark de Rond en route to beating historic rival Oxford for the first time in seven years. A mere ten days before the ultimate competition, the team made the unprecedented replacement of the male coxswain with a woman.

In 2008 Cambridge was coxed by Rebecca Dowbiggin (a Ph. D. candidate in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic) who tips the scales at a slight 102 pounds and stands 5’4” tall. Her teammates were all a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier.Rebecca is not capable of making a meaningful contribution to the speed of the boat through the water by pulling on an oar. But then, that’s not what she’s in the boat to do. She has a different purpose. The rowers sit in the boat, oars in their hands, with their backs to the finish line. The cox sits in the stern and faces forward, the only member of the team who can see where the boat is going, who can adjust for wind or current or course. The cox shouts encouragement, and coordinates tempo and teamwork. She can’t win without strong oarsmen, but they can’t win without her either. Without mutual trust and respect the team will surely lose, if not drown.

Shelly told us that Professor de Rond attributed the team’s risky group decision to three factors:

  • the breadth of nuanced calibration of the team,
  • the depth of trust established on the basis of intimacy generated by cultivating the capacity for such finely-tuned calibration, and
  • the distinct difference in leadership style of each cox.

In a phone conversation earlier today, Professor de Rond clarified these lessons, explaining that the palpable difference between the two cox – as felt and experienced by the rowers – was that the male cox made the rowers nervous by exhorting them too much, generating a sense that something was off. Rebecca demonstrated more trust, synchronizing with their experience, and keeping focused on technical calls which allowed them to feel as if everything was proceeding according to plan. She had used the special call, “Good boys, good!” once during practice and – noticing the extremely positive response, did not use it again. Instead, she held that call in reserve, until at one very strategic and challenging moment in the race, she let it out. And the boys responded. No gender claims are being made based on this tiny sample (although basic heterosexual biology probably played some role). Professor de Rond did say, however, that “She used her femininity in a very clever way.” The strategic use of praise, tucked within a superb performance of technical calls that kept the team settled and steady, provides a strong undergirding for the main point made for us gathered at Womensphere. In the words of Shelly Lazarus,

“she just let them row.”[i]

“Leaders come in all sizes.”

Analisa Balares made the comment teasingly as she stepped onto the speakers’ box that had been removed to accommodate Shelly’s height. 😉 Womensphere is Analisa’s brainchild. It is not surprising that she pulled together a team, including an impressive alliance with Newsweek, and designed this Global Summit exemplifying Shelly’s recommendations for effective and powerful leadership: hire strong people, mean the questions that you ask, be generous – know that you cannot say thank you often enough, invite people who work for you into the decision-making process, share the glory, make problems bite-sized, celebrate successes and problems together, be passionate, and act in faith that the better people are then the less they want to be managed.

As I intuit my way through the upcoming series of blog entries attempting to distill the vast reserve of wisdom pooled during this incredible gathering, I keep thinking about the influence of the researcher on the Cambridge rowing team. Shelly told us that team members, in the beginning, kept trading technical competence for social competence. In other words, like all groups, the early stages of development are composed mainly by politeness and gravitation toward similarities. Usually, no one wants to be the first to rock the boat. Many groups never acknowledge, let alone resolve the roots of various tensions, choosing instead to try and leapfrog over them, as if by ignoring differences they will either go away or – at least! – not interfere with the ultimate performance or outcome of the group’s goal. Is it possible that the fact of being studied encouraged the team to become more forthcoming and bond so well that they could disregard conventional wisdom about the timing of crew changes and (possibly) even violate gender norms of male/athletic comraderie?

Passion: Collective Consciousness and Coordinated Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this Summit. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours composed an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

The Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin recognized the centripetal and centrifugal forces of language in use. Centripetally, Analisa gathered us together, attracting and holding us in orbit around a central core in order to share vision and perpetuate faith in our potential to collectively come together and generate solutions to crucial problems in order to preserve the planet for ourselves, our children, and theirs. Now, centrifugally, we scatter to the ends of the globe yet remain connected by the extent to which we claim the identities and relationships forged through the cultural communion of living by a common code. One of the beauties of this code is its inherently inclusive nature. Mustafa exhibited this in droll fashion: “I’m not your typical womensphere woman.” Then he exhorted:

“Keep in touch. Stay with the program.”

[i] FYI, I made an interesting discovery while searching for a cool link or two to embellish Shelly’s story. I spent about twelve hours worrying that Shelly had been hoodwinked!  Or perhaps heard what she wanted to hear? (Only because I’ve been known to be guilty of this, myself: its that desire thing. Ahem.)  I found myself in the uncomfortable position of finding several references to this research – none of which mentioned the female coxswain. Yes, the team chose social intelligence over technical competence, but in generic reports the emphasis was on the replacement of one of the rowers, two weeks in advance of the race. In a brief article in the Cambridge’s journal, Research Horizons (2007, p. 30), a “socially gifted oarsman” was chosen over another who was technically closer to the ideal individual performance because of the team’s “unremitting search for rhythm.” This video of the researcher, Marc de Rond, explains how social intelligence – being able to both cooperate with & compete against each other – is crucial to team performance. No mention of Rebecca.

What to do? Embarrass Shelly? Upset everyone? Rewrite the blog so as not to include any mention of this theme or its impact upon us?  Imagine my relief when I read Professor de Rond’s response to my inquiry this morning, explaining the details and clarifying that Rebecca’s role on the team “came out in my teaching more than the actual book.” I am even more intrigued, now!  It seems to me the struggle of leadership is one of calibrating rhythm, tempo, and unexpected perturbations. We need more men like those Cambridge rowers, able to choose the group’s goals ahead of the individual. And we need more publicity and public discourse about mixed-gender accomplishments!

The whole story is presented in de Rond’s account, The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew. Professor de Rond and I spoke a bit about why Rebecca’s part of the story was less emphasized, and I think there are important points to be learned from this, too.  The two men who were replaced were quite disappointed – as anyone would be who has trained long and hard for one specific purpose. The replacement of the oarsmen was more controversial – and informative, in de Rond’s view – of the importance of social competence even for teams with one hard linear goal: to win The Boat Race. In other words, the omission in the media isn’t only about sexism. There’s care for those who didn’t make the cut, too.

The kindness of interpreters

Region 1 Conference
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Albany NY

Rene Pellerin froze in motion when the interpreter placed her hand on his back. While telling his story, he had been rotating gradually toward his right, giving the camera his profile and making it difficult for those in the audience to his left to read his signing clearly. Rene thanked Regan for saving him from talking to a wall. The laughter from the audience was rich with appreciation.

Rene shared several anecdotes from his personal life and professional career with the State of Vermont. Rene uses normal, everyday events that anyone can relate to in order  to draw us into his experience as a Deaf person gradually becoming blind. His detailed explanations take full advantage of the linguistic capacity of signed languages to put you in your body. For instance, when Rene described his train ride to college, he included walking through the carriages to get a drink from the cafe car. I didn’t just remember my own struggles with those dang doors, trying to balance against the rocking motion, and how many cars they can string together – I re-felt the embodied sensations that generate those memories.

You can perhaps imagine how relieved we were, then, when Regan pulled Rene back from his slow migration toward the front edge of the stage! And how we winced when he described the drastic shifts in visual perception that accompany moving from well-lighted environments to dark ones and vice-versa. And how we cringed when he recounted some of his strategies for getting around without his flashlight or cane. And groaned upon discovering the mistaken use of baking powder instead of starch.

only connect

Maybe I am projecting Rene’s desire to connect with us, the audience, as the reason for his movement in our direction. This is what the skilled use of interpreters enables – relationships across differences that appear insurmountable. Selecting Rene to provide the entertainment program for the conference is in keeping with a decades-long trend increasing the prominence of providing interpretation services for deafblind people. Giving Rene the stage also shows the deep heart of many interpreters, especially those who invest long hours becoming skilled providers of tactile sign language and often develop strong bonds with some of the people for whom they work.

As I watched Rene give humorous accounts of difficult situations, I was struck by the tremendous commitment to the social aspects of being human that is lived out by people associated with this profession.

In the end,
Thomas Merton said to a friend engaged in peacework,
it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.[1]

why pie?

I attended the Closing the Gap workshop offered by Young Professional Interpreters hoping they would show me some cool technology that they’re using to build bridges among experienced and new interpreters and/or with members of the deaf community.  We talked mainly about the informal peer support model that YPI is using to encourage and motivate each other while getting established in the profession. We seemed to agree that the best way for anyone to build a peer group (whether experienced or new – to an area as well as to the field) is to participate in their affiliate chapter. It is crucial for interpreters to feel good enough about our work to be able to go back to the job everyday. But emotional support is only one part of the comprehensive network of support for the high quality provision of service that is required by a practice profession like ours. Other mechanisms are needed to constantly build skill, not only knowledge. Dennis Cokely made the point in his Closing Address that building knowledge at three- or four-hour conference workshops is not the same as subjecting our skills to regular assessment in order to target and focus attention on improving particular and specific areas of performance.

Time for Supervision

Informal support is great. I’m not knocking it; indeed I wouldn’t mind more! It is just that informality, comfortable though it is, is not enough to strengthen ourselves for the immense challenges of the next decade or two. As Dennis Cokely pointed out, more people want mentoring than are able to receive it, and less than a third of the organization’s members are willing to provide it. Peer mentorship and process mediation are useful tools, but they each rely upon personal preferences and a kind of interpersonal chemistry to be effective. These supports are a significant step up from the casual informality promoted by the YPI (and we need all these types of support), but – as far as I am aware – none of them are standardized enough to be implemented in a systemic way. And, like it or not, want it or not, RID needs a system that can be institutionalized. By “institutionalized,” I mean organized procedurally so that it can be delivered across the country in a relatively uniform way to practicing interpreters of any language combination, in any setting, at every level of competence.

If you were inspired by Dennis’ argument that our profession is right now in a state of crisis, bear with me while I try to explain the logic. My argument is teleological and interpersonal.  The roots of our profession tell us that the relationship matters most. But which one? Aren’t there many relationships happening all at the same time? Where we are stuck (imho) is that we keep trying to make the entire profession about only one of the multiple ‘relationships’ present and active in any and every interaction involving simultaneous interpretation. We’re asking the deaf-interpreter relationship to bear the weight of the sum-total, all-encompassing, complete and irreducible whole of interpreted interaction as if all the other relationships are simply irrelevant. This bias made sense in the early days of the field. In fact, our profession could have begun no other way. But acting on the belief that the deaf-interpreter relationship is the only justification of our being a federally-mandated profession disregards the most important lesson we’ve learned from working as professionals providing simultaneous interpretation:  context matters.

Transnationalism is the context

Language policies are being contested around the world. Minority languages continue to fight for survival against the imposition of national languages and the spread of dominant languages.  Immigrants are moving in droves from country-to-country and most will need access to high-quality simultaneous interpretation at one time or another. We know that cultural diversity resides in languages!  Yet, in the embattled way of weary soldiers who can only perceive the outline of the trench they’ve been trapped in for the last … 100 years? … we are still strategizing as if the conditions of the fight are identical to what they were four decades ago.

What transnationalism does is inject global economics into interpersonal relationships. It isn’t only the interpreting profession that has become corporatized. Nearly everything has. The cushy middle-class lifestyle of professional interpreters is under threat, or at least the fear of threat. Some traditional ways of Deaf cultural life are changing, perhaps even vanishing, but these old ways are being replaced by new cultural forms of deafhood, some of which need interpreters less than they ever did before! We grieve the loss of ‘the origins’ so much because that era – the personalities and relationships – is a point of clear focus amidst a maze of multiple losses.

Vision looks ‘ahead’ to the unknown,
memory looks ‘back’ to the familiar

As many people said in various ways throughout the conference, RID needs a coherent vision. The birth was grand and the adolescent years were rough. Now, the sea is turbulent, but we’ve found a pool of calm by re-forging connections in sync with the original raison d’être.  This must remain our touchstone, but we need to enlarge our imagination to take in the ramifications of being players on the international scale. Sign language interpreters in the English-speaking countries are not only experts in sign language interpretation; we are uniquely positioned to become experts for all forms of simultaneous interpretation. Rather than looking to the charitable ethos of spoken language interpreters laboring under the voluntary or underpaid conditions of (the bad part) of ‘the good ol’ days’, we should be figuring out how to bring their working conditions up to par with our own! Strengthening the use of interpreting in all situations, with any languages, is a possibility that will open more doors for Deaf people than anything else we are in position to do.

Why? Because as people learn to interact well during interpreted interaction, they build new skills for communicating when the flow is un-even. The more flexibility in skill, the more capacity for making connections across difference. Increased capacity for connecting leads to more chances for relationships. This is the gift our profession can give the world: a specific practice of intercultural communication that improves equality, promotes justice, and even enables democratic participation in a more fair – and still diverse! – society.

[1] Quoted in The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary. Harper Perennial. 2008, p. 250.

Rights & Responsibilities of Simultaneous Interpreters

Region 1 Conference
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Albany NY

Laughing our way to a healthy profession

I attend conferences in several different fields. No one laughs as often or as loud as sign language interpreters. Robyn Dean’s workshop, “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this….” Case Conferencing and Supervision for Interpreters, was punctuated with humor a dozen times an hour, and occasionally we would hear outbursts from the neighboring workshop group as they took Steps to Feel More Comfortable Interpreting the Twelve Steps. Having a sense of humor is prerequisite for survival in this field, especially being able to make fun of oneself and teasing colleagues in affectionate ways. In the open comment time after Keynote Presenter Lewis Merkin’s small group activity about the passions we bring to the profession, Betty Colonomos commented on the health of growing pains: instead of staying stuck in comparative judgment, we’ve become more cooperative with each other time, allowing the recognition of each other’s humanity. Her reflection reminded me of Robyn’s definition of “responsibility” as the act of continuing in conversation. Instead of being stopped from communicating because of an unanticipated reaction, to be response-able means finding a way to respond again.

Lewis had just taken us on a journey back to RID’s founding and shown a few clips from the organization’s 25th anniversary video (Silver Threads). RID’s 50th anniversary arrives in 2014; it makes sense that thoughts turn to organizational history. It was fascinating to watch MJ Bienvenu describe her reluctant entry into RID in a calm, almost nonchalant, manner. At first, she explained, she didn’t want to be troubled by all the commotion, but was told that things were “getting better” (because by 1985 there were two Deaf interpreters) and eventually decided that she wanted to invest time and energy in this field. Patrick Graybill was prescient, forecasting ahead from the tumultuous ‘80s to indicators of maturity and stability as we close in on half-a-century of growth and development as an organization representing an increasingly significant profession.

Welcome to transnationalism!

There is no way to know what would have developed if dynamics from the 1980s had not been interrupted, but Video Relay Services happened. Mary Lightfoot’s presentation on Video Interpreting: The State of the Practice and Implications for Interpreters reinforced Janet Bailey’s information from RID’s Government Affairs Program. Although VRS was an industry initiative – a technological and entrepreneurial invention – it brought sign language interpretation to the attention of the FCC. Suddenly, interpreters were confronted with law.

The professionally-engaged American Deaf and interpreting communities are mainly of white/European descent, and thus have been cushioned by the global state of political affairs for several generations. The resulting mindset is the unconscious attitude of privilege. So far, the best way I’ve come up with for explaining “privilege” is the experience of flow. Everybody wants flow – the easy experience of thinking, doing, and communicating when comprehension is not a problem. It seems to me that white people in the US experience uninterrupted flow more consistently than nearly everyone else. This is not to say that other people do not experience flow! Everyone does. You are most likely to feel flow when you are with your own kind (however you define the groups you belong to) and are comfortable in your status/position among the members of that group. It is the presence of difference, often combined with some kind of force, that disrupts flow.

Coming from a background or context of privilege simply means that shocks and disruptions to the experience of flow are minimized. This is the essence of whiteness. At a certain very basic level, ethnicity or audition has nothing to do with privilege, because individually you may have been very well protected from difficult or challenging life events (by chance or design, it doesn’t matter). The problem with privilege isn’t that someone has privilege or comes from a privileged background. The problem with privilege is that it creates an incapacity for handling interactions that do not conform to expected or desired flow.

Beauties of bilingualism

Learning another language, and interacting with people who think in another language, requires us to cultivate the capacity for dealing with differences. But fluency doesn’t necessarily mean we manage the differences gracefully! Experience doesn’t make the relational challenges go away when the pushes and pulls of accommodating difference upset the intrapersonal experience of flow. While RID and NAD continue to celebrate the reunion of the Deaf and interpreting communities after the eighties’ uglies, some of the core tensions persist. The evidence from the large group attending the Region 1 Conference has to do with language policy. Do we use ASL all the time, exclusively and only? Or is spoken English allowable, and if so when and under what circumstances?

photoUpon arrival to the conference venue on Thursday afternoon, Hartmut Teuber greeted me at the end of the registration table. Did I understand the meaning of the ASL Committed! button? I had already seen – and misread – the button, thinking it was a club membership (for an ASL Committee). When I realized the slogan was intended as a political statement, I had played through the joke about being “committed” to a mental institution. (I wasn’t the only one, an interpreter from NYC made the same joke while arguing passionately in support of the ASL/signing policy after Lewis’ keynote address.) At any rate, in the way that I do this kind of live/action research, I have been watching the group dynamics about language use carefully.

Ethics and Effectiveness

Placing myself with all of those who remember Bob Pollard’s single slide on the liberal-conservative political spectrum of interpreter decision-making (more than the other 75 slides that Robyn Dean has created about the Demand-Control Schema, wink), there are at least two ways to frame the question of language policy for RID. One way is how I’ve introduced it above, as a matter of competition between privilege and disenfranchisement. Another way is as a contest between deontological and teleological ethics. Does RID want to be a rule-based organization (deontological) or an ends-based organization (teleological)? If only the choice was simple! Answers to the latter question (where does the profession base our ethics) are ‘in discussion’ with the former framing of language use in the dynamics of oppression/empowerment.

The way interpreters and the Deaf community talk with each other about privilege and oppression is one discourse. The way interpreters and the Deaf community talk with each other about ethics and effectiveness is another discourse. Each discourse has its own internal patterns, and the two discourses interact with each other in another layer of discursive patterning. Every individual, meanwhile, is situated within each of these discourses in a particular ‘position.’ It is these positions that bounce and bang off of each other or bond tightly with and to each other that result in various kinds of group dynamics.

The way we talk and interact with each other about language policy is another discourse. I would call it a nested discourse, because whether or not to sign or speak is a specific example that can be used in service of either of the ‘larger’ discourses about ethics/effectiveness or oppression/empowerment.

Button up!

I am a teleologist, which partly explains why I am not wearing the button. I have never been good at ‘going along with’ the dominant, main, or ‘in’ thing. I resist going along with ‘the rules’ just because it is the politically correct or otherwise fashionable thing to do. I am not criticizing people who are wearing the button – I support the cause! Signing in the presence of Deaf people is the right thing to do, and it should be the official policy of RID to use ASL whenever Deaf people are involved. Wearing the button is a symbol of intention, but wearing the button is not the actual behavior of signing in the presence of Deaf people. How does one build the common culture that inspires people to sign whether or not they are surrounded by political reminders?

What I’ve noticed during the course of the conference is that it really matters whether the presenter signs ASL or speaks in English. During the Thursday evening updates, Cheryl Moose and Janet Bailey set the tone by signing from the main stage. They generated enough momentum that when the next presenter used voice instead of sign, the group overall maintained the mode of signing (even though the percentage of Deaf to non-deaf attendees is small). It happened that both the workshops I attended on Friday were presented in spoken English. Please understand, I’m not slighting that choice! I have preferred to present in English too – I am more confident expressing myself in my native tongue. (I am also more competent, as the reparative (clarifying) captioning of my talk to the New England Deaf Studies Conference illustrates!)

During Mary’s workshop, we had several breakouts for small group activities, and I wound up in a group using spoken English. This communicative mode was good for me, as the challenge of taking notes while watching ASL is real. Karen, Julie, Elizabeth and Julaine were awesome: they knew I was double-tasking (listening/learning and watching/recording) and kept me in the loop, filling in whatever I missed, clarifying what I partially understood, and correcting misunderstandings. Other groups were using sign, but as the morning’s session drew on, the switch from ASL to English became more marked. At one point, a woman behind me complained (loudly) that she couldn’t hear the presenter because of the noise from everyone’s chatter. The sudden silence that filled the room was thick with guilt. It was as if the hundred of us had all been ‘caught’ and were stunned into suspended animation, waiting for the punitive blow.

The woman who made the intervention commented, “Wow, its quiet now” (or maybe she said, “Wow, that got everyone’s attention”), which broke the ice. Mary then engaged her around whether it was an issue with the mic and – after a few turns back-and-forth – clarified for all of us that there was so much talking occurring throughout the room at such a volume that Mary’s voice was drowned out, despite being broadcast through speakers from a microphone. The depth and starkness of the group-level silence, combined with the confusion about what exactly the problem was, suggested to me that this moment was about language policy.

Only a short time later, the session ended and I ‘caught’ a guy talking in the lunch line. At least, he made me feel as if I had ‘caught’ him. He said something to the woman across from him and then startled, turning to me and apologized, explaining how well they knew each other. It seemed he reacted as if I might report him for violating the signing rule. Perhaps he had just come out of the same workshop, and was still affected? At this point in the conference, there is probably a roughly equal percentage of signing and speaking. The background buzz of audible conversation accompanies the visual field of multiple moving hands and animated faces.

Discomfort: Adjusting to the Loss of Flow

That afternoon, during a break in Robyn’s workshop, one person walked away from talking with me in a rather abrupt fashion. Was it because I was speaking English or did she have something else on her mind? Probably I was oversensitive. Since I am deliberately trying to ‘tune in’ to these dynamics, I may be ‘reading’ them in interactions where they are not actually operating (especially at the interpersonal level, because one never knows what is going on in another person’s mind). Behaviors at the aggregated group level are a more reliable measure. So I was acutely aware of the stony lack of response to Lewis’ announcement of the target date of 2013 for RID to host a national conference with an all-signing policy.

Given all of the celebratory rhetoric about the special, happy relationship between RID & NAD and between interpreters and the Deaf community, the prospect of ASL as the preferred official language of our professional conferences ought to have been greeted with cheers! Instead, a sense of stillness passed through the room: the hint of displeasure, perhaps even a solidification of resistance. What is the right thing to do? How is one supposed to feel? Why do we have to be reminded – in the midst of enjoying each other so comfortably! – that there are still matters of justice and fairness to be addressed?

Scope of Responsibility

Social change usually involves a combination of breaking old rules and enforcing new ones. Each individual will have to come to terms with your own stance in relation to the changing language policies. The teleological question may be useful in figuring this out. What is the desired end result? Because we are talking about language policy for an entire profession, the end result has to be imagined in terms of the function we want sign language interpreting to play in the larger scheme of world affairs. My stance is that as an organization, RID needs to be positioned further toward the liberal end of the ethical decision-making spectrum. As individual practicing professionals, we may still perform mainly toward the conservative end of the spectrum, but as an organization, we have to attempt to direct the influence of our aggregated decisions within the larger society.

This means perceiving our individual actions from the outside, and projecting the accumulating impetus of our combined individual choices over time and in relation with other people’s choices. We cooperate to generate the social conditions of our work and our world. Whether we cooperate with awareness and consciousness of consequences, or by accident – come what may – is a measure of how seriously we embrace the responsibilities of providing simultaneous interpretation.

two talks at Heriot Watt

for the
Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies in Scotland, Heriot Watt University & the
Translation Studies Graduate Programme, University of Edinburgh
Fishing for Culture and Missing Language:
Interpretation and Organizational Creativity

Culture(s) and discourse(s) are among the most unmanageable elements of international business. “You can’t model panic.” Patterns of cultural interaction and, especially, the range of interpretations of these patterns, have profound effects on the design and implementation of business plans. For instance, are differences of language a problem or a benefit? Do the homogenizing effects of using English as the language of international management outweigh the constant adaptation required by working multilingually? Discourses about simultaneous interpretation (SI) at the European Parliament (with its 23 working languages) pit danger and loss against loss and resignation. “Loss” of fluency and clarity worries professional interpreters at the European Parliament (EP) and “loss” of direct contact between interlocutors (users of interpreting services, in this case Members of the EP) seem – counterintuitively – to express anxieties about multilingualism and the possibilities for control. Understood as a practice of intercultural communication, the tensions made evident when simultaneous interpretation is used are a vital source of creativity typically overlooked because of conditioned (monolingual) preferences for using a shared language.

for EdSign33
The Department for Educational Studies, University of Edinburgh;
the Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies at Heriot Watt University; and
Speech and Hearing Sciences at Queen Margaret’s University.

Social Interaction, Simultaneous Interpretation, and Shared Identity

Contemporary social theory can help us understand participation in dialogue interpreting as a cultural form of communication. In addition to transferring information between people who do not share the same language, using an interpreter is a type of communication practice with implications for identity. The roles and norms for participating in simultaneous interpretation constitute social rituals that contribute to the maintenance of linguistic and cultural difference. To the extent that participants are aware of the significance of participation, the stronger a contribution can be made to creating more just and equitable global societies.

transdisciplinary micro-macrology

The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one!Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,

Globalization is not only a macroproduct,
it reaches down to the level of bonds

– among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.


I cannot disclose the location, nor can I say under what auspices I came to be here (with a small group having lunch with the CEO of an important multinational corporation). I can say the meal was delectable all the way through, from aperitif to braised scallops to the main dish and dessert.
main dish.jpg
The conversation was lively, from a comparison of the Belgian and U.S. educational systems to the creation of market practices in financial services to the role of citizens and businesses in social justice. For instance, which has the better curriculum for today’s world, the U.S. that allows such range of choice, forcing one to decide an academic path (and potential career) at every turn, or the intensive specialization in Belgium, that drives one deeply along a prescribed path until the achievement of a certain level of expertise? And, what of the drive to establish sweeping standardization such that translation between various software platforms becomes moot? And, not to be left out, how far should businesses go in contributing to righting the world’s wrongs?
I refrained from asking as many questions as I wanted; my mind will muddle along here by metaphorical comparison. Drawing a comparison between computer ‘languages’ (I know I oversimplify) and spoken languages is easy enough. There are times when generating common meaning (i.e., “understanding”) is tricky enough between speakers of the same language, let alone between speakers of different languages. There are also the gems of phrasing and imagination that one language captures that another is ill-or un-equipped to handle. Hence, interpreters always consider context and precedent – but do the people who use interpreters know that this is part of what is going on? Do they value the intelligence and creativity of this attempted mind-reading or perceive only concerns with control and error?
The drive to standardize reduces the chances of a miscommunication by limiting the parameters of operation and fixing (i.e., making permanent, solid, inflexible) the code for representing these parameters. This is valuable, a good, when the information being standardized is itself fixed, inflexible, not subject to interpretation. My U.S. dollar has its value; the Euro has its own. There may be a relative comparison and some complicated system of equations that determine the actual ratio of value from one to the other, but these mathematical formulations adhere to unvarying principles: the structure that determines what qualifies as wealth may change, but the math used to count it probably will not.
Standardization in and of itself is . . . a very mixed bag. Inevitably, the creation of a standard implies its imposition. By definition, a standard establishes the non-standard and makes it “other” = less desirable, penalized… a whole series of consequences – intended and unintended – issue forth, like water seeping through a dam: inexorable, unavoidable, serious.
But we need standardization, this much is obvious. The questions of interest to me are, where do we need it, how extensively do we need it, when do we need it, and how can we ensure we can change it if/when such becomes desirable or even imperative?
The assumption guiding my research at the European Parliament is that language is NOT the place where standardization is desirable. Yes yes, it is one thing to be painstakingly articulate with precise diction for legal documents that institute the sociopolitical and economic structure, but it is another to assume communication occurs best when people speak the same language, and only then. My assumption may be wrong, of course. Or it may be wrong under certain conditions, with particular people seeking specific aims. If so, what are these conditions, who are these people, and what are these aims? Because if we define these parameters, then we can begin to design language policies that are not based in forms of elite cosmopolitanism.
This is what I think, now, before embarking on the research project per se. I am open to being proved wrong. I am open to being shown that it is always better for persons to use a lingua franca (if they have one) no matter what disparities in fluency, unfamiliarity with the social system and/or jargon of the specific situation, similar or different desired aims of interlocutors, or variations in knowledge of the particular content area under discussion. My action research hypothesis is that, in arguing these stances, an articulation of the vital criteria indicating the need to provide simultaneous interpretation will emerge. Likewise, guidelines for the kinds of situations and circumstances which enable interlocutors to be effective via a lingua franca will also be made more clear.
Such knowledge will, I propose, enable more efficient, efficacious, and effective use of simultaneously interpreted language as a creative resource, rather than as a perceived barrier to intercultural, inter-institutional, and interdisciplinary understanding.