dissertation year writing
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.