Building Bridges: Translating Writing Practices Between Disciplines

By Amy Kahrmann Huseby

Amy Kahrmann Huseby is the Outreach Coordinator for the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where she has been a tutor since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian poetry, new formalism, and the history of science.

Amy Kahrmann Huseby. Photo by Danielle Schulke Kirkwood

Amy Kahrmann Huseby.
Photo by Danielle Schulke Kirkwood

Willkommen! Wie geht es Ihnen? (Translation: Welcome! How are you?) During the past week, our Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted several colleagues from writing centers at German universities. These visitors were in town to learn from our practices and to collaborate with us, and it was delightful to get to know them and to learn about the spread of writing center programs in Germany. At one point, I even braved speaking the only German sentence I know to one of these kind colleagues, who encouraged me to give it a try. I said, sheepishly, “Jetz ich kann Deutsch sprechen, aber nicht gut” (Translation: Now I can speak German, but not well). My German colleague smiled broadly and said, “Nicht nicht?” with a gentle shake of her head. Nope, not at all, I thought.

Yet my feeble attempt at speaking a language I really can only translate with a dictionary got me thinking about translation. Specifically, I wondered whether translation might be a way to conceptualize writing instruction. How do we, for example, translate the writing skills our students learn in one discipline to another discipline? How can we help students and faculty bridge disciplinary cultural expectations to most effectively communicate writing similarities and differences? As it happens, translation means to “carry across,” or to bridge, but it can also mean to tailor in the sense of reworking something for different purposes (Oxford English Dictionary). Tailoring writing instruction is one of the primary investments of the Writing Center’s Outreach team.

Writing Center Outreach Tutor Neil Simpkins at the LGBTQ Campus Center’s Fall Ice Cream Social 2015. Image courtesy of Neil Simpkins.

Writing Center Outreach Tutor Neil Simpkins at the LGBTQ Campus Center’s Fall Ice Cream Social 2015. Image courtesy of Neil Simpkins.

Outreach, if you aren’t familiar with this branch of the UW-Madison Writing Center, has two components. The first involves educating faculty, staff, and students about what the Writing Center does. Outreach tutors attend orientation events, class lectures, and resource fairs to speak about the services that the Writing Center offers members of the UW community. The second element of Outreach is instructional. Faculty, instructors, and administrators contact Outreach and ask our tutors to come into classrooms and workshops all over campus in order to co-teach lessons on writing. These lessons vary depending on the needs of the discipline and event. Each year, the Writing Center’s Outreach tutors co-teach in dozens of classrooms around campus. This term alone, my staff has been called upon to teach with instructors in Kinesiology, Meat Science, Nursing, the School of Pharmacy, Education Policy, Sociology, and Political Science, to name a few. In the first two months of Fall Term 2015, we have already provided presentations at more than 60 events. I’m often asked by students and faculty, “How can you respond to writing when you don’t know anything about our discipline? How can you teach this genre?”

As the Writing Center’s Outreach Coordinator, I’m often in a classroom setting where the spoken vocabulary, cultural norms, and rules for usage are different from those in my home discipline of English. Imagine, if you will, that you are a Writing Center Outreach tutor and you’ve been asked to co-teach a lesson on science writing in an advanced, graduate-level Genetics course. As a tutor coming from the humanities, you may not feel that confident about science writing; you lack the vocabulary, don’t know the rules, and find yourself wondering about format. Even so, you do know quite a lot about teaching writing and have been called upon to teach this skill. What do you do? Certainly, you would be wise to reach out to colleagues who have taught science writing before. However, it might also occur to you that science writing shares some skills in common with other types of writing you’ve done before, such as following a specific format, including a thesis, or citing sources. Even though two disciplines may speak different languages, they may be trying to have similar conversations. In my first year as an Outreach tutor, I experienced many such moments where I was asked to knowledgeably speak about a discipline-specific genre which I knew little about.

And now, as the Writing Center’s Outreach Coordinator, I am mindful of training my staff about the best practices when they are confronted with a similar pedagogical conundrum. What assumptions are tutors, instructors, and student-writers making on both sides of such encounters? What might the student-writers or faculty need from us that we’re potentially misunderstanding? And what opportunities can emerge by thinking of interdisciplinary writing practices as a form of translation?

A Conversation with Pamela Potter, Professor of German and Music, Director of the Center for German and European Studies at UW-Madison

Professor Pamela Potter. Photo Credit: UW-Madison School of Music, 2014.

Professor Pamela Potter. Photo credit: UW-Madison School of Music 2014.

In order to think more deeply about writing instruction and translation, I reached out to Professor Pamela Potter from the Departments of German and Music. Several years ago while I was a student in a course on translation theory, Professor Potter was a guest speaker in the course. Who better to ask my questions about translation than a professor who teaches in both a German department and a Music department, I thought? She generously agreed to meet with me and think together about what writing instruction shares with translation.

I began by asking her what it’s like to belong to two (seemingly) entirely different scholarly and discursive communities—German and Music? She responded that “each of these disciplines has its own language. And in many ways, teaching students to become good writers in a discipline, a very discipline-specific way is like teaching them a new language, teaching them a vocabulary, and teaching them how to use that vocabulary properly.”

When I raised the question of teaching science writing, instead of a course in the humanities, Professor Potter pointed out that “a lab report has a particular structure, and an essay has its structure: you have to have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, the topic sentence sets up the structure. The one common thing that underlies all of this is that you’re asking them to learn and to subscribe to certain rules, sets of rules, whether that’s in the structure of a paper, the types of analytical skills that you’re using. They have to learn a new set of rules for each of the disciplines, basically.” Translation theory is itself interdisciplinary and involves borrowing from other branches of knowledge, so learning new rules for new branches of knowledge made sense to me as a way of thinking about interdisciplinary writing instruction as translation.

Language learning materials in the German Department with a Writing Center workshop program. Photo credit: Amy Huseby 2015.

Language learning materials in the German Department with a Writing Center workshop program. Photo credit: Amy Huseby 2015.

Moreover, we agreed that the question of disciplinary “translation” of writing assignments is really a formal question. Professor Potter emphasized the importance of formal rules for translating writing assignments from discipline to discipline: “If there’s one skill that’s kind of transferrable from one to the other, it’s that you are teaching certain rules, rules of syntax, rules of grammar, that operate in a language and that operate in a piece of music. So there is a certain order that things go. Each has its own rules and own grammar, and each of those are foreign to the student you are teaching. They speak English, but you are teaching them how to read music or to analyze music, or you’re teaching them how to read German.” My thinking was that each of those practices requires a different set of formal rules, as well.

Ultimately, though, Professor Potter offered this insight about teaching writing from discipline to discipline: “You’re not translating words, you’re translating ideas. You’re translating from one way of thinking into another way of thinking but trying to get across the same meaning.” As writing tutors, she suggested that what we need to do is “provide strategies for the ways of thinking, for the methods, for the ways of conceptualizing from one discipline to another.” Tutors might ask student-writers to “translate” what a phrase means in a fellowship application, assignment, or job materials. In our roles as writing tutors, we also regularly teach students how to read an assignment or instructions. In those moments, I assert we are acting as translators, helping students discern the vocabulary and forms of a language or discipline with which they are unfamiliar.

What Outreach does, I realized, is that we model the ability to draw on different writing tools, to translate ideas, when student-writers work on assignments in different disciplines. For undergraduates especially, that’s a skill that they need to have when they walk away from the university, or if they decide to pursue graduate study. The purpose of a university education is in part to develop a plastic intellect. By that I mean, we want our students to be able to flex their thinking from one course, discipline, or context to the next, to apply skills, rules, forms, and methods that they learn in one area on campus to their work in other areas on campus. In many ways, then, learning how to translate writing assignments, and thereby translate knowledge, for different contexts is a goal of a liberal education. When we help student-writers bridge ways of thinking, we help them construct methods of flexible thought that will serve them in their college career and along the many roads they will travel thereafter.

For readers of the blog

  1. Is there anything in writing instruction which might be considered “untranslatable”? And what might be “lost in translation”? How do we teach rules for a discipline that do not carry over from one discipline to another? Can you think of examples?
  2. Each discipline has its own cultural standards and expectations for writing. When the result of a translation does not conform to the norms of a target culture, the product might not considered an adequate, elegant, or competent. I wonder what power structures are established by these disciplinary expectations for writing. Does science writing, for example, assume that humanities rules, forms, and methods have less rigor or value because they do not conform with the cultural standards and expectations for science?

Thanks for reading, and as they say in German, Tschüss! (Translation: Bye!)

Photo credit for featured bridge image: Sara Hunter 2015.

6 thoughts on “Building Bridges: Translating Writing Practices Between Disciplines

  1. Thanks for this post, Amy! As you know, I’ve just been getting back into Outreach efforts this semester, and you’ve helped me (both through this post and in person) reflect anew on both how to do collaborative teaching and also how to talk about it. I felt especially challenged recently when I was talking with graduate students in Meat Science about giving PowerPoint presentations. After I’d given my own presentation in which I’d encouraged them to learn as much about their audiences and genre expectations as possible, one student raised his hand and ask how *I’d* learned about my audience for the presentation. I felt very exposed in the moment, but I’ve since come to be grateful for this question – it forced me to think about doing what you describe here, about how to translate my research and expertise in writing instruction to those who would be writing but not teaching writing.

    This moment also, though, makes me think about Professor Potter’s important distinction. When we translate ideas (e.g. “learn about your audience”) rather than words, how much shifting between discourses or disciplines are we really doing? Are we moving across discrete, distinct disciplines or instead doing something more like finding common ground?

    Leigh Elion
    Instructor and Outreach Team Member
    UW-Madison Writing Center

  2. Thanks, Amy, for walking us through how the concept of “translation” can be productive for thinking about writing center work! And I think your question about what can be “lost in translation” is a good one. I’ve often noticed in translation situations that one needs to know more than the grammar and vocabulary of the group they’re addressing; specifically, one needs to know the values of a culture and how they affect rules and norms of language. Similarly, when writing in various disciplines, one can learn the conventions of a genre, but it’s also important to understand the audience’s values since their values inform how they talk, how they read, and how they organize their ideas. For example, a literary analysis essay and a lab report both benefit from having a clear thesis or hypothesis, but a lab report uses passive voice in many instances (unthinkable in a humanities essay) because the writer shouldn’t indicate causation in the complex processes they’re describing. This move to thinking about audience values is one that I (like Leigh) have found helpful when translating the rules of one discipline to another because it moves the conversation beyond rules, which can sometimes feel arbitrary.

    Zach Marshall
    TA Assistant Director
    UW-Madison Writing Center

  3. Thanks so much for this post, Amy, and for reminding us about the wonderful work that the Outreach team does every semester to bring the Writing Center into more classrooms and to more students.

    What I really like about the metaphor of translation for tutoring work across the disciplines is the way it underscores real differences between rhetorical contexts — in conventions, cultures, even the grammar, so to speak, of ideas and argumentation — while still reinforcing the idea of communication across those differences. And it’s closely related to the concept of transfer, which helps us think about equipping students with skills portable across the curriculum.

    What might get lost in translation? I think this question gets at some of the issues raised earlier this year by Laura Plummer on this blog (see her post of May 4, titled “A Case for Disciplinary Tutoring in the Writing Center”). Generalist tutors can accomplish a lot with writers; I’ve experienced this as both student and tutor! But having a depth of disciplinary knowledge could, in some situations, help narrow those gaps that generalist tutors work so diligently to bridge. But how is this conversation relevant to outreach? In yet another instance of working across contexts, it seems to me that outreach instructors are translating between tutoring models, especially those who come from a more generalist model but educate themselves and pool resources with colleagues about disciplinary knowledge to prepare for different outreaches. That’s so tough and so important! I would love to hear more about how outreach work might impact perspectives on tutoring models, especially since this the latter is under discussion this semester in our ongoing education.

  4. Your thoughtful post, Amy, forces me to confess the great shame of my seven years as a tutor in the Writing Center: I find the work of outreach terrifying, and did everything I could to avoid it.

    Sure, the work of translating ideas goes smoothly enough in a tutorial, where you have the luxury of working collaboratively with your student to translate the core idea that motivates his revision of a senior design proposal. But, as Leigh’s example shows, Outreach asks tutors with nerves of steel to translate ideas on the fly in front of an audience of hundreds.

    I always pictured those audiences hooting at me. Derisively.

    The nimbleness of translation that you and Professor Potter talk about comes hard to some of us. I worry particularly about having potted translations—three or four universal truths of writing that are equally relevant to everyone, and just as equally vague.

    How, then, does your team of outreach tutors prepare themselves to identify and extract meaningful ideas that translate across disciplines? (And stop the crowd from hooting?)

    Mike A. Shapiro
    Lecturer in technical communication
    College of Engineering, Department of Engineering Professional Development

  5. Thank you so much for this thoughtful interview and post, Amy!

    As a former coordinator for the UW-Madison Outreach Program, I’d echo some of the earlier commenters who respond so readily to concept of translated ideas. To my mind, it makes sense to think about presentations about literary analysis papers or the development of a research thesis in terms of the ideas that do, or do not, correlate across disciplinary boundaries.

    I can remember many conversations during the Outreach planning process that included a moment when we realized that we had been inadvertently (or incorrectly) translating all along. The instructor or I referred to an element of, for example, an essay, while the other was momentarily lost in the weeds. Then it was time to determine if the issue was a rhetorical element that went by a different name or if it simply didn’t translate to a new genre or field. The interaction sounds awkward written out, but these were some of the most satisfying, exciting moments on the job, because they made the translation process that Amy speaks of explicit.

    I would be interested in thinking about how the act of translation differs in a more traditional Writing Center conference when the tutor may not have the luxury of preparation. Training, of course, helps us all think on our feet when faced with an unfamiliar discipline, but are there times when thinking about teaching genres or discourse communities as translation offers uniquely beneficial tools?

    Rachel Herzl-Betz
    Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program
    UW-Madison

  6. Wonderful post, Amy! I’m certainly convinced that translation is a viable model for understanding writing instruction across the disciplines.

    Your first question is very interesting, and my initial reaction would be to say that there’s always something “lost in translation” between disciplines, but never something “untranslatable.” Rebecca’s reply above has me thinking in particular of “positive transfer,” which, in approaches to ELL, refers to identifying and making use of similar components across two languages to facilitate language learning — say, between English and German. There’s also “negative transfer,” in which seemingly common elements and structures are actually not comparable and lead to mistakes (e.g., false cognates between English and Spanish). However, I think instances of negative transfer, or even failed transfer, can often be mitigated through a collaboration between instructor and instructee. One of the most valuable aspects about writing instruction is this cross-disciplinary collaboration, through which we learn from our students as much as they learn from us. In that sense, even seemingly disparate disciplines — or languages, like English and Chinese — can work around the material that seems resistant to translation.

    Your second question is really making me think about implicit disciplinary biases. I do think that disciplines establish hierarchies of value, but I also think it’s vital, especially in the context of writing instruction, to simply treat these hierarchies as disciplinary priorities — informed, as you note, “by cultural standards and expectations ” — rather than as absolutes.

    Thank you for sharing this and looking forward to future posts!

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