24 January 2008


by Cecily
I spent the morning in a VL2 meeting. The setup was: the director standing with his presentation projected onto a screen, and then everyone else sitting at a bunch of tables arranged in a U shape. The interpreters were at the bottom of the U (opposite the director) with the hearing people bunched around them, and the deaf people at the ends of the U.

The room we were meeting in was not designed well for discussion in any modality, which made it interesting. There were stained glass windows and skylights and all kind of distracting lights and shadows going on on peoples' hands and faces. But also the acoustics seemed to be really bad, because none of the hearing people could hear any of the other hearing people talk unless they leaned way in right next to the speaker.

I think we're moving downstairs after this week.

Anyway meetings and presentations and such always make me hyper-self-conscious about whether or not I am doing feedback (backchanneling, to you linguistics types) correctly. Usually I am not. Interpreters are always coming up to me afterwards to find out what they did wrong or if I am mad at them or something. Deaf people do a lot of nodding and smiling and eyebrow raising when they're listening to other people. (Hearing people say "mhm, mhm" to accomplish the same thing, but I know how to do that right, more or less.)

Lindsay and I were talking about this last semester, because we were both taking consortium classes at Georgetown and it was weird. Normally, all of our academic discussions are either in ASL or on paper; I'm strangely unused to discussing linguistics in spoken English. Lindsay agreed with me about being used to talking about something in one langauge versus another, but she also said just the dynamic of what you are supposed to do as a lecture-goer was startling: she noticed after the first few classes that the professor seemed to be making eye contact with Lindsay way more than anyone else. She was nervous about why (do I have something in my teeth?!) until she realized that everyone else in the class was looking at their desk, taking notes and listening, and she was the only one who watched the professor consistently. "So I tried looking at my notes, but it felt really rude!" she said.

Our classes at Gallaudet are always conducted in ASL, and so everyone pays attention to whether or not people are looking at them. There's no point in making awesome and undeniably true arguments if your interlocutor can't see you. And also people are generally very aware of other visual competition; you have to wait for everybody to look at your powerpoint before you start talking, and when everybody rushes to write down the brilliant remark you just made, you have to give them time to look back up before starting again. In group discussions, people take turns.

For my Georgetown class, I had a CART reporter and voiced for myself, so I wasn't looking at the professor any more than anyone else, but there were a couple of other oddities I hadn't really anticipated. I had never used CART in a classroom before; usually (in my experience) a captioner is used for things like big meetings or performances or presentations, where there is little or no chance for audience participation, and for things like classes you get an interpreter. I requested CART because of the subject matter, but it was trickier than I thought it would be to have conversations with people where I would talk to them and then quick look at a computer screen when it was their turn.

It was also hard to remember if I was supposed to be talking or signing. A lot of how my subconscious decides what language/modality to use (and yours, too, I bet) is based on which one other people are using. It's automatic to respond to speech with speech or to sign with sign. Or to writing with writing. I didn't have any automatically easy choice in this setting, though (I didn't have a computer or I probably would have accidentally typed to everybody, imagining that they could somehow see my screen). Every time I wanted to make a comment or ask a question, I'd raise my hand and then panic for a second while figuring out what language to use.

Now I am back to all-ASL-all-the-time, so I only have to panic about whether I am about to say a joke that will earn dirty looks, or applause.

The other situation in which I frequently pick the wrong language is if I have been drinking a lot of beer. But that's for other reasons. The joke thing is always true.

Tangentially-related story: My brother hates regular relay and only likes video relay. This is true not because of speed or intonation or any of the normal reasons, but because with regular relay each person has to wait for the other one to say "go ahead" before talking, and, says my brother, "if you can't interrupt, how do you know who's winning?"

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