Getting ready for a new academic year

Earlier this week, as I was preparing my syllabus for my introductory translation into English class, I thought I should blog a little about the changes I’m making to the course this year, in case this might interest other instructors or professors. So here is an overview of what worked well in this course last year, and what I’m hoping will work better this year.

What worked well last year and is going to be in the course again: Participation questions
Last year, I added a new component to my classes: every week or so, I would ask students an open-ended question based on either the current week’s lecture or a podcast/news article/website with a translation-related theme. I then gave them five or six minutes to write down their answers on a piece of paper, and when they were done, I invited them share their thoughts if they so desired and hand in their answers at the end of class. The discussion questions serve as a way of taking attendance, since students get full marks for answering the question and no marks if they are not in class on the day we discuss it. I liked these questions for three reasons: first, it gave me a way to digress from the main course format (short lecture, then take up homework) while still focusing on translation, second, because it allowed me to take attendance without actually doing so, which helped ensure students regularly attended class, and third, because having students write down their answers gave them time to think about the question and made more of them volunteer their answers during the discussion.

What I hope will work better: New take-home assignments
In past years, I’ve assigned two take-home translations of about 250 words, which students work on individually and submit within two weeks for about 25% of their final grade. Last winter, though, I added a new assignment and had students work in small groups to translate a large text for a not-for-profit organization. Feedback from the students after the assignment was really positive: they enjoyed translating an authentic text and liked the fact that a non-profit organization was benefiting. So this year, I’ll be having students pair up in the fall term to translate about 500 words for another non-profit, and in the winter, they’ll work in groups of 3-5 on 1000-2000-word texts so that they get more experience collaborating with others and working on longer documents. I’ll also be able to see whether students prefer working with Google Documents when they collaborate with one other student or when they work in small groups. I also want to see whether they get more out of Google Docs if they have to use it for two projects in two semesters, rather than just a large group project in March and April, as students did last year.

What’s not going to make it into the course this year: Google Wave
Last year, I mentioned my plans for comparing Google Docs and Google Wave as collaborative tools for student group translations. Early last month, however, Google announced that it would no longer be developing Wave as a stand-alone product and would instead “extend the technology for use in other Google projects.” Although they promise to keep the website live until at least the end of the year–and thus probably for my entire Fall course–I don’t want to spend the time familiarizing students with an application that is being discontinued. It’s a shame, really, as I saw some good potential in Wave as a tool for students to collaborate online on their translations, and I hoped it would make up for some of the shortcomings students mentioned last year when I asked them how they liked working with Google Docs. I’ll have to see whether there are other tools I have students use for the group assignment in the Winter term, but for now, it will likely be Google Docs again, with some more specific instructions to the students, to help mitigate the inconveniences Google Docs caused me when I was marking the assignments.

CATS Conference at Concordia University, Part I

I recently returned from Montreal, where I was attending the 23rd annual conference of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies. Because this year’s theme was methodology, Daniel Gile and Andrew Chesterman were the keynote speakers. In their presentations, they reminded us of the methodological problems that can arise in academic research and offered some solutions for preventing these kinds of problems. I won’t go over everything they said, but I will highlight a few points that were most relevant to me. In a few days, I’ll write another post about a presentation I really enjoyed on incorporating blogs into a terminology class.

Daniel Gile’s presentation focused on how to make research more rigorous. As Gile pointed out, one of the problems with doing research in translation studies is that the field is very interdisciplinary. Translation scholars often need to adopt research methods from other fields (literary studies, history, philosophy, sociology, etc.) but are not necessarily trained in these methods. He argued that translation researchers should therefore either work closely with researchers in other fields or specialize in one or two of these methods themselves. They also need to make sure that they have a basic understanding of other research methods so that they understand the advantages and disadvantages of the methods in which they’ve chosen to specialize.

Andrew Chesterman focused on a more specific aspect of research methodology, namely how to formulate an effective hypothesis. He emphasized that a good descriptive hypothesis needs to be testable (in various ways), have theoretical implications (i.e. it should counter or support other existing hypotheses), be applicable (i.e. relevant to practical or social problems), have surprise value (i.e. it should support criteria that are not generally accepted), and have explanatory power (i.e. it should explain causes, make sense of other data, help develops laws, provide context to specific cases, etc.). His presentation reminded me once again of how important it is to consider—before you actually get started on a research project—whether the results you’re likely to get will be useful. It’s one of the reasons I focus so much on applied research… I’m able to see the practical implications much more easily than I can with theoretical research. That’s not to say that theoretical research can’t be practical… It’s just that I can more easily draw links between practical problems translators face, such as how to decide what kinds of decisions are professionally ethical, and applied research like studying professional codes of ethics to see where gaps exist.

What these and other presentations underscored for me the need to collaborate with researchers from other fields when translation scholars are conducting research. The only catch that I could see was that the research would have to be of enough interest to the statistician or the sociologist for them to invest any time collaborating with the translation studies researcher. After all, if the sociologist is going to help design a survey or help analyze translator behaviour using social network analysis, the results would need to be valuable enough that co-authoring a paper with the translation studies researcher would benefit both parties. My resolution for next year’s conference is to make a point of attending presentations by academics working in other fields on projects that are similar to my own research interests (translation blogs, translator networks, translator motivations, crowdsourcing) so that I can see whether I can find someone else to collaborate with. Usually, when I attend these congresses, I’m so focused on attending the CATS presentations that I don’t have time to check out the other associations, but I’ve really seen the value in making contacts outside my field. After all, I can always swap translation services for some help mapping the networking behaviour of translators who blog. Any takers?