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.
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.
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
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.
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
- 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?
- 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.