An experiment with student-led translation games

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been integrating two Reacting to the Past-themed games into my undergraduate theory of translation class for the past three years. While I’ve found the games a helpful way to have students participate in discussions, delve into complex theoretical texts, and learn about the historical context in which translation decisions are made, I wanted to try something a little different this term. In an effort to have students take a more active role in choosing the topics of our in-class debates, I played only one of the Reacting to the Past-themed games with my class and added an assignment entitled “Invent-a-Game”, where students were invited to develop a game that would:

  • Take about 30-45 minutes to play together in class
  • Focus on one of our weekly topic
  • Engage everyone in the class by finding a way for all students to participate
  • Help the class critically engage with the topic at hand
  • Include references to texts and real-world examples that were not listed on the syllabus

This assignment was experimental: It was the first time I’d asked students to create a game, and because I wasn’t sure how well it would work out, I offered students the option of preparing a 500-word Wikipedia article instead, if they preferred. This way, only students who were enthusiastic about developing a game would opt to do so, and I’d be able to decide whether the Invent-a-Game assignment should be included again next year (with or without modifications), or scrapped altogether. About a third of the class decided to prepare a game, while the other two thirds opted for the Wikipedia assignment instead (and I’ll have more to say about that in my next blog post).

Now that the semester is over, I can safely say that the Invent-a-Game assignment was largely successful: students were very engaged in playing the games, and the groups that did develop a game had very creative ideas for incorporating practical translation exercises, discussions, debates, and examples that were related to the themes we had been exploring in class. Here’s one example of a particularly successful game:

The Censorship Mini-Games
On Week 10, two students presented a game focusing on translation and censorship. They split the class into three teams and then played four mini-games, which the teams chose by spinning a colourful (and very sparkly) arrow to see where it landed: ballin’, a mini-game where one team was tossed a Styrofoam ball decorated with debate questions and then had to prepare either the “for” or “against” side of whichever debate question was face up when they caught the ball, need for speed, a mini-game where all three teams had to compete to see who could come up with the most answers to a question in the allotted time, pick-a-stick, a mini-game in which one team member chose a popsicle stick with a word or phrase and then had to work with their team to prepare an answer to a discussion question related to this word/phrase, and yay or nay, a mini-game where the game inventors read a contentious passage from a translation studies book or article and the teams had to say whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement.

When designing their game, this group prepared not only physical props including the oversize spin wheel, the Styrofoam ball with debate questions and thumbs-up/thumbs-down cards for the yay or nay mini-game, but also digital props like PowerPoint slides with images and examples to contextualize the discussion questions in the pick-a-stick and need for speed mini-games. For instance, when a student chose a popsicle stick with the word “healthcare” on it, the accompanying PowerPoint slide reminded students of the ethical dilemma discussed in Andrew Clifford’s article “Healthcare Interpreting and Informed Consent” (which we had read six weeks ago) and linked the issue with censorship so the team could more effectively prepare their response to the discussion question. Although the mini-games involved competitions between the teams, everyone in the class won an ample supply of the chocolate, candy and bubblegum rewards provided by the students who had developed the game.

Trying out student-led games this year has convinced me that games can be a viable alternative to student presentations in the classroom. I will definitely integrate the Invent-a-Game assignment into my Theory of Translation course again next year: I’ll incorporate more game-design resources into the curriculum, share some examples of the games that were developed this year, and spread the games out over the entire semester so students have a wider selection of topics to choose from.

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging more about games in translation courses, as I’m working out some ideas for integrating game components into my introductory translation course this winter. But in the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone else who has experimented with games and gaming in their translation classes: was one game technique particularly successful? Would you do anything differently next time? How have students reacted?

Role playing in the classoom

A message I received via the H-Canada listserve piqued my interest the other day. It invited anyone attending the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Kitchener/Waterloo later this month to participate in a session demonstrating the Reacting to the Past model of game-based teaching. Having never heard of game-based teaching, I did some searching and came across Bernard College’s Reacting to the Past website, which describes the approach. In addition to including videos demonstrating game-based teaching in the history classroom, the site contains various documents that explain the pedagogical approach in detail, such as this PDF.

Here’s how the website explains the approach:

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.

As the above quote suggests, the goal of the games is to have each student defend a position consistent with the historical person they have been assigned to play. Each student must therefore learn to express his or her ideas persuasively not only in oral presentations to the class, but also in written assignments that are shared with the class (e.g. via discussion boards or hard copy) in an effort to sway the opinions of other students. While the official RTTP program involves teaching with published games books that focus on specific historical people and periods (e.g. Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament, Athens in 403 BCE), the general approach could be adapted for other contexts, including an undergraduate translation studies course. I can think of many translation-related situations that could be taught via the game model. For instance, instructors using books like Introducing Translation Studies or The Translation Studies Reader as part of the curriculum probably spend at least one class discussing translation theories prevalent prior to the twentieth century. A game focusing, for instance, on Martin Luther’s or William Tyndale’s translations of the bible would allow students to explore the source-oriented vs. target-oriented arguments from the point of view of the translators, the religious institutions and the public at a specific point in history. As the game rules stipulate, students would be required to study texts from that period to help them formulate opinions and arguments. During the game, students are permitted to cite only sources published prior to the historical period they are enacting; however, during the “post-mortem” phase after the game is over, students are expected to reflect on the game and its results from their own, more modern perspective.

The pre-twentieth-century cases are not the only ones that could be adapted to the games model. One could also, for instance, select a controversy that has been discussed in the news, such as the lawsuit launched over a Galician translator’s “sexist” translation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and create a game that revolves around the historical and cultural context in which that controversy arose. Students would then have to play the roles of the people involved in these events, defending their views based on the first- and second-hand sources the students have consulted. The goal is not to reconstruct the exact chain of events: Reacting to the Past games “may depart from the actual events and outcomes of the past”, as the Pedagogical introduction explains. To win the game, each student is attempting to achieve specific objectives associated with the person they are pretending to be–objectives that are assigned by the instructor at the start of the game and which are known only by the instructor and that specific student. The players must win debates and sway characters whose opinions have not been pre-defined by the instructor but who are instead representing a “typical” person of that historical period. In a case like that of the Galician translator, one way to incorporate a game into the classroom would be to have the translator and the publisher plead their case to a judge. Students would then be able to take on various roles: that of the translator, the publisher, the author, the lawyer(s), the judge, the representatives from professional translator associations, etc. Players would be trying to persuade the judge of their position, and he or she would render a verdict at the end of the game. Consistent with the guidelines for Reacting to the Past games, students would be marked on their oral presentations and their written work, with a focus on the suitability of references that were consulted, whether these texts were interpreted in a way that is consistent with the role the student is playing, and whether the student’s arguments are strong.

The entire course needn’t rest on the game, which could, depending on the number of students involved, require six or seven hours of classroom time, spread over several weeks. One option is for the game to replace traditional student presentations–since a large component of the game involves oral debates–and help make the classes more dynamic. One advantage of the games approach is that students should be able to develop their argumentation skills because their work is shared with their classmates, allowing each student to build their own arguments on the basis of the work their classmates have submitted (either on the course website or in oral debates). I hope to attend the session at Congress to see how the game approach works in practice, but I am considering integrating at least one game into the undergraduate translation theory course I’ll likely be teaching next year. If I do, I’ll prepare another post to discuss how the games worked in a translation studies–instead of a history–course.

Student presentations in the classroom

Whenever I’m getting ready to teach a translation course, at either the graduate or undergraduate level, I run into the same problem as I prepare my course outlines: I spend several hours debating whether to incorporate student presentations into the course requirements. This happens mainly when I’m teaching theoretical courses, but it’s a dilemma that also used to come up as I was planning practical, undergraduate courses, until I abandoned student presentations as a classroom technique about two years ago.

On the one hand, presentations help students develop skills that will serve them well in the future. For undergraduate translation students intent on pursuing a career in the language industry, practicing presentations in the classroom should (ideally) help them after they leave the university and find themselves in situations where they need to speak to small or large groups of people. Someone who has grown comfortable doing a presentation in front of a classroom of students should be able to more confidently offer and justify their opinions in boardroom meetings, talk with potential clients, employers or co-workers at social functions, and be more conscious of how to express their ideas clearly and succinctly. For graduate students, who may also want to pursue a career in academia, in-class presentations are good practice for conferences, thesis defenses, teaching assistantships, etc. On the other hand, many students don’t seem sure how to do a presentation that will engage their audience and succinctly explain their ideas.

After several years of students reading directly from PowerPoint slides, handouts, or computer screens as they tried to show the class a new tool, website, or research technique, I abandoned in-class presentations in practical, undergraduate classes; I felt classroom time could be more effectively spent via group discussions or question-and-answer sessions than by presentations. I hesitated for quite some time this year as I planned my graduate courses, and I eventually reserved some classroom time for student presentations. I still feel, though, that the presentations weren’t as effective as they could have been, and I think that if I take a few steps to guide students through the process, the results could probably be much better next year.

Until now, I’d been assuming that students would take the initiative of attending one of the university’s various workshops on presentation skills if they felt unsure of themselves. But I think a more proactive role on my part is needed if student presentations are to become a valuable classroom tool. Next year, when I teach two theoretical translation courses, I will have students briefly present some of the texts we’re studying. As always, I will explain the goals of the presentation (to summarize the key theoretical ideas from an academic text, and to present these key ideas in a way that will engage their peers). But I will also suggest some specific presentation techniques they should follow. Here are two I’m considering:

The first is called Pecha Kucha. This Wired magazine article (and its accompanying video) provides a brief overview of this type of presentation, which involves speakers presenting 20 slides in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. In Pecha Kucha presentations, PowerPoint slides are automatically set to advance every 20 seconds, so speakers must carefully rehearse to ensure they’re keeping pace with the slides. In addition, each slide is supposed to contain not a summary of the points the speaker will cover, but rather an image that will help listeners focus on the point in question. I see some good potential for this technique in the classroom. Although the suggested 20 sides x 20 seconds format results in a presentation under 7 minutes, there’s no reason why students couldn’t be allowed to work with a few more slides or a few more seconds per slide. A 10-15 minute presentation could therefore adhere to the following format: seven or eight minutes to present the material, and seven or eight minutes of discussion.

The second is a question-and-answer format. The presenter would have to devise 5-6 questions that address key theoretical issues arising from an academic article. The questions would then be posed to the class so the student could discuss the author’s views while giving students a chance to offer their own perspectives. For instance, someone presenting James Holmes’ “The name and nature of Translation Studies” might ask students “Can you think of any categories we could use to describe the kind of research involved in Translation Studies?” The presenter could then compare the categories devised by the class with those proposed by Holmes. In theory, the student should summarize the main arguments in the article in about 15 minutes without having to lecture non-stop to the class.

I’ll be looking for additional presentation techniques so that I can compile a list of them to offer to my students next year. We may also spend some time together in class watching one or two language-related TEDTalks so we can discuss what makes a presentation effective and students can then offer some of their own ideas for the in-class presentations. Part their presentation marks will be based on how well they have applied one or more of these techniques. I’ll follow-up on this post next year, to discuss whether the in-class presentations were a more effective classroom tool than they’ve been in the past.