Uncovering the Interpretation Process: Emphasizing Flexible Communicative Practises in Academia

“Let’s turn to talking about Derrida’s ideas about psychoanalytic temporality, and how this affects the construct of the signifier and the signified.”

This kind of sentence comes up on a regular basis in my graduate seminars, and immediately I see my American Sign Language interpreters’ faces contort and go, huh?

Granted, my interpreters are usually good at working through this, good at parsing through rapid-fire auditory information spoken in academese (truly more exotic of a language than ASL!) by a group of humanities scholars who do not need to access our institution, as I do, through real-time transliteration. Even while my professors and peers see me sitting beside them in class each week, as I attempt to be present and participate like they do, my guess is that only a few consider what this can be like. I don’t fault them this omission, not entirely. My experiences of being deaf in academia can be quite different than theirs as hearing people – although I would argue that these experiences are still adjacent, still interwoven with lessons about communication that resonate with us all.

So, Derrida. And something about signifiers. As I watch my interpreters listen to a sentence like this, then pause, then sign, the thought flashes across my mind; here we go again.

I have no choice but to jump in. I try to figure out, with interpreters, what my graduate seminar is currently discussing and how I can engage. We constantly deliberate (both on the fly in class and on a lengthier basis afterwards) how to sign certain words; are our signs nuanced and conceptually accurate? What if ASL has not developed a way to express that idea yet? How does one sign “signifier” and “signified”? We debate, come up with a new sign, try again the next time the word comes up in class. Throughout the process, remember that my interpreters, several of whom have been working as professionals for decades, are listening to our classroom discussion about Derrida without anything near a specialist background in the field. The concepts covered in my theory courses are difficult enough for specialist graduate students to listen to and understand; now imagine listening to and translating them on the fly for someone else, all without much (if any) conceptual exposure to what you are interpreting. Then, on top of that, imagine listening to the typically messy dynamics of human conversation: people speaking quickly, mumbling, sometimes interrupting each other, garbling their words, not considering how clear (or not) all this might sound to someone else. My interpreters flip through my class readings and try to prepare to interpret, but there are times when their ears and their brains can only do so much. There are times when, in the flurry of the moment, they show my hearing colleagues profound reservoirs of patience.

I admit, I sometimes like it when their patience fractures (or when mine does) and we need to stop and ask someone to repeat their words, but more clearly this time. These moments, even if they sometimes feel disruptive, can show how hard we both are working to occupy this space. These misunderstandings, these bits of missed information, can expose the bare bones of the interpreting process. For I am working hard, too: watching, thinking, correcting any mistakes, calculating what that utterance might really have meant, willing my retinal muscles to focus, converting sign language back into English in my head. I do this while sometimes feeling, I admit, envious of my hearing peers who can sit in class and just listen. The process of watching interpreters feels cognitively demanding, on top of the demands of the classroom material. Seeing ASL transliteration all day can consume all of my attention and all of my focus – something I used to shrug off as normal but something I now feel more pressed to acknowledge as unique. I often walk out of a challenging class and feel spent. I want to plop my brain into an ice bath.

The academic setting does not often acknowledge these kinds of hidden labors and hidden challenges for the deaf people in its midst. Even when access is presumably provided through a sign language interpreter, this does not mean the deaf person automatically will access the class, discussion, or conference setting the same way as a hearing person. Even if the deaf person chooses to use an alternative set of accommodations, such as Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) or C-print captioning, many of the barriers I have described may still exist.

At the same time, I accept what I have decided to do in pursuing a PhD. I accept that, while working in academia, I will need to find a core group of skilled interpreters who will put effort into learning the specialist vocabulary for my field. I accept that I am among a generation of signing deaf individuals who now work and study in colleges and universities after living with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and who are now helping develop the ASL lexicon to suit the academic work we do. I accept that watching ASL interpreters exposes me to a different kind of real-time cognitive load than my hearing colleagues may experience on a daily basis. All of these realities reemphasize the importance of developing new ways to pursue the same kind of excellence all my colleagues and mentors do, while acknowledging that my path might be a different one than theirs – as it has been all along. That path involves continuous advocacy and also attention to self-care, but it still can feel exciting. Along with other deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, I am helping push forward a new frontier of language use and professional development. A few decades ago, aspiring deaf academics did not have these opportunities.

What I’d like to do is communicate the barriers that still are there, in situations where accessibility in name does not become full accessibility in practice. A sign language interpreter can become just a warm body in a room without adequate preparation or awareness. Using an interpreter can be an experience of making oneself extremely communication-savvy, of mastering good communication strategies that might not occur to some hearing colleagues but that can still help in expressing ideas more clearly. Among other pieces of savvy, I have learned these:

I recognize that information can be expressed visually and physically, not only auditorily – and that inclusion and comprehension will improve with more of these sensory channels, not fewer. I recognize that anyone can only take in so much information at a time, and that one cannot assume the knowledge base or background of one’s audience, even within a specialist field. I recognize the importance of being flexible, of repeating or rephrasing when needed, of altering my patterns of self-expression to connect with my audience. I have learned that I need to express my needs and recognize my limits in order to participate most fully in a conversation, and that other people do, too. Finally, I know that misunderstandings and needing to ask for clarifications are just part of life – and also good opportunities to deepen my knowledge, besides. Communication strategies that enable good sign-language interpretation are often good communication strategies, period.

It is not new to say that creating a culture of effective communication can benefit everyone, and not only a deaf academic and her interpreters, but it still bears repeating. Striving for a more open communicative culture requires advocacy and participation from everyone, not just anyone who is deaf. I have seen this before in academia: I have been in seminars where professors tactfully modulate the conversation for its rapidity and volume, write unfamiliar terms on the board or request that other students spell them out as they arise, include extensive written handouts to supplement oral discussion, or use a visual outline or live notes on a projected computer screen to help students follow what is being said. I have attended conferences and talks where the speaker regulates his or her own pace, includes a print-out of the presentation both on the spot and in advance, and provides a list of key terms (and their definitions) for interpreters and anyone else. Practices like these recognize that accessibility is not solely an institutional responsibility, in which formal accommodations are made, dispensed, used, end of story. Rather, they recognize that accessibility is also a collective, communal responsibility, in which all individuals can contribute toward a clear and inclusive communication environment.

About the Author

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Rachel Kolb

Academia is not always the best at promoting clarity and accessibility, beyond formal accommodations. Discussions can be rapid-fire, solipsistic, full of jargon and assumptions that everyone receives information the same way. Creating better communication practices, both in the classroom and outside of it, will involve this kind of behavior shift. It will involve expressing individual needs and concerns, and also encouraging collective accountability – with the emphasis that good communicative practices can benefit everyone, not only those who identify as deaf or disabled.

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