Advice for instructors working with sign language interpreters?
August 6, 2018 11:51 AM   Subscribe

This coming semester, for the first time, I'll have sign language interpreters working alongside me in one of the college classes that I teach. I am looking for specific suggestions about how to work with them -- and the student for whom they'll be interpreting -- so that everything rolls as smoothly as possible.

I've had partially deaf students before, but have always used closed-circuit microphones for those situations. Easy. But this situation will be different.

My main goals in asking this question are:
- to ensure my hard-of-hearing student is at no disadvantage (see note below)*;
- to ensure that no student's learning is in any way compromised by the interpreters (I don't expect them to "interfere" in any way - far from it, but it's my job to make sure my students receive an education);
- to have a clear channel of communication between me, the interpreters (there will be two, working in shifts), and the student they're serving. I don't want anyone feeling left out of the loop or underserved in any way.

I've read my university's official guidelines for working with interpreters, and they are helpful. But I'm looking for specific advice, stories, suggestions, etc., about how to make this unusual (for me) classroom setup work most effectively, efficiently, and openly.

What are the best practices for working with interpreters? What are some things TO do and NOT to do? How do I work with them as "seamlessly" as possible? What questions should I ask them, and/or the student? These are the kinds of real-life questions that my school's guidelines don't necessarily address.

Thank you!

*The curveball here is that the interpreters will be working with me in a film studies class, in which we will, of necessity, discuss, at times, the aural functions of cinema. It's not my place to say whether my student should or should not be in this class - that's up to the university. (And, honestly, I'm all for it, so long as it works for everyone.) But there are some necessary and unavoidable instructional discussions that will refer to films' soundtracks. I am not sure how to navigate this situation. (My grad advisor refused admission to her class to a blind student. It was a course on film and visual aesthetics, so I understand why she did so, but my situation does not seem entirely analogous.)
posted by Dr. Wu to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There is nothing wrong with getting an interpretation of films from those who cannot experience the whole, and their insights can only enhance the understanding of those movies. It will teach the rest of the class not to take their perceptions for granted or think they haven't missed subtle cues because they relied on sound that distracted them from all of the visual cues. In real life, those same films are enjoyed by those who do not have hearing; so the class will reflect that reality more than usual. At least now there will be no confirmation bias as you will have a subset whose very nature can refute many theories students may hold because they do not have that singular perspective that pour cold water on their mistaken beliefs.

I have had sign language interpreters in my art classes that were hands on -- and found it made no difference in output, quality, or overall class routine as I do not believe in structured rote learning.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 12:02 PM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hello, educational sign language interpreter here! I’ve interpreted both at the high school and collegiate levels, and even have done a couple of film studies classes. Here are some tips that hopefully will be helpful:

-Rest assured that your goal of making sure your student has equal access and a good education are exactly the same goals the interpreter has. So as long as you work together toward that goal, you’ll be fine!
-Challenges for interpreters include strong accents, fast talkers, and people who use a lot of puns or idioms that don’t have direct translations. If you can remember, speak slowly, clearly, and avoid super challenging lingo (the exception being vocal related to the course, obviously, which is fine for interpreters), it would be appreciated.
-Writing important vocab words or names/places related to your films (directors, etc) is often helpful for the student and interpreter so they don’t have to catch fingerspelling that might have spelling errors.
-*CAPTIONS AND SUBTITLES*! please, make sure any film/dvd/internet video clip you show has captions - it is SO hard to interpret videos because of many reasons.
-Providing the interpreter with a copy of any materials ahead of time is always helpful, so anything like course syllabus, vocab lists, etc is great because we read them and research signs, think of how to flag important terms, etc.
-Communicate directly to the Deaf student, make eye contact with them and use second person language (eg: “you need to make up this quiz” instead of “tell him he needs to make up this quiz”). apologies if that seems obvious, i don’t mean to insult you, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know this
-if you turn the lights off for a film viewing and then want to make comments as the film plays, make sure there is enough lighting for the Deaf student to see the interpreter. Sometimes window light is enough, but just something to be aware of.
-open, clear communication with both student and interpreter will be key to success, and being open/flexible of the student or interpreter asks for something that will help them. you seem like someone that will do that, as evidenced by even asking this question!

That’s all that I can think of for the moment, but I will pop back in if I think of anything else. Please feel free to memail me with any other questions!
posted by carlypennylane at 12:15 PM on August 6, 2018 [15 favorites]

What specifically is your worry about discussing soundtracks? I want to help, but it would be good for me to have a more specific understanding of your concern. Are you worried that the student will be lost during the discussion?


---Ask questions about the student's experience or needs to the student. Don't direct them to the interpreter. An example of what to avoid: "Can he see you from there?" Instead, try looking at the student and asking something like "can you see the interpreter okay?" Essentially, don't talk about the Deaf/HOH person like they're not there, or ask the interpreter to make decisions for the Deaf/HOH person.

---Consider providing the student and interpreter an outline with material you expect to cover, before class, and the order you expect to cover it in, can be helpful. It can be easier to lose the flow of discussion for students who have to stop "listening" to look at a photo or refer to their notes, and a general structure of the discussion can help.

---Consider providing list of names, titles, etc. with unique or difficult spellings that you expect to be discussing is helpful. Interpreters often finger-spell names and it helps if they don't have to guess (and if the student knows who you are referencing when they see the fingerspelling version). You shouldn't expect an interpreter to spell names etc. perfectly, but it's nice for them to have a reference anyway.

---Providing notes afterwards can be very helpful as well. One of the challenges of working with sign interpreters is that the student can't write and "listen" at the same time. Your university likely already has a notetaking system in place, though.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:15 PM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is likely to (hopefully) not be an issue in a college level course but as a teacher in a high school I wish I had done some kind of intro or explanation of the interpreter being in the room at the first lesson. Other students were very distracted by the interpreter’s presence and it made it difficult (then again I was teaching sex Ed so there were some VERY interesting signs happening).
posted by raccoon409 at 12:20 PM on August 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I would also suggest that, along with all of the above, after a couple class sessions have passed that you reach out to the student to ask them how they're handling things and what could be improved to make their experience better. Each student is going to have their own preferences which we could never guess at.
posted by acidnova at 12:32 PM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

carlypennylane & Rock 'em Sock 'em, that's EXACTLY the kind of stuff I am looking for. Thank you!

And, though I assure you that it will NOT be a problem for me, I will be sure to speak directly, not via third party, to the student, and to ask questions when I need to.

Oh, and, yes: captions/subtitles all the way. Other students will just have to learn to read them, too, or to look past them. I've done that before.

My concern about film soundtracks (by which I mean "all film audio") is that the student will have no direct access to this information. I don't know if a discussion of an actor's vocal tone, e.g., or of the ways in which the sound effects track helps to tell the film's story, would be accessible knowledge to the student - much less "translatable" by an interpreter. I can't NOT speak about film audio in this class, to at least some extent, and I am concerned about this student being excluded, which is exactly what I don't want.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:37 PM on August 6, 2018

I'm a deaf perpetual student. For soundtracks, sure, go ahead & speak about film audio, just because the student is deaf, it doesn't mean the student is unfamiliar with sound and its description. The goal here, as you are so fantastically ensuring to do, is to make sure this particular student is *included.* That's done by treating the student just like everybody else, with a bit of accommodation.
posted by Qex Rodriguez at 1:15 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I can't speak for Deaf/HOH people (although I have gone to school with a number of them for a number of years). I will say that having been in similar classes with Deaf/HOH students there was no expectation that the content would not reference sound. It's fine to just teach the material you'd typically teach.

The only thing I would consider adjusting is your evaluative process. If it does not compromise your pedagogical goals, you might try to ensure that students can show their knowledge, learning, and skills without having to rely too heavily on direct analysis of soundtracks etc. This doesn't mean that you can't test anything that relates to sound. For example of something that would be totally fair to test on, if you give students reading that states that music is "dirge-like," or if you have a classroom discussion of the fact that the music adds to the atmosphere of a given scene, it is totally fair game to expect a Deaf/HOH person to know that fact and remember it (and apply it in an analysis). But an evaluative process that requires an analysis that is only possible if a student heard certain music that was not discussed or described, and which they can't reasonably look up or learn more about, is probably not so great. If there are essays out there discussing the use of music in a scene and they have time to look it up --- again, fair game (or at least I think so).

However, if you are giving an exam, make sure you don't ask students something that they literally cannot answer because it requires that they directly heard music or sound.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:29 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rock 'em Sock 'em, thank you for articulating something I'd been thinking about but hadn't yet really processed. Very good points, there, about grading and assignments - thanks!

If anyone has any further tips on the best way to facilitate learning when working with sign language interpreters, I'd be very pleased to know them. ¡Muchas gracias!
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:46 PM on August 7, 2018

My concern about film soundtracks (by which I mean "all film audio") is that the student will have no direct access to this information. I don't know if a discussion of an actor's vocal tone, e.g., or of the ways in which the sound effects track helps to tell the film's story, would be accessible knowledge to the student - much less "translatable" by an interpreter. I can't NOT speak about film audio in this class, to at least some extent, and I am concerned about this student being excluded, which is exactly what I don't want.

Something to note: As a hard-of-hearing person, the student may have "some" hearing or may have had good hearing for part of their life (and lost it). Neither is unusual, but both would require an interpreter. I just mention this so you don't come across as paternalistic or patronizing to the student - just because they are hard-of-hearing does not mean that they can't understand what you describe, and may have actually had first-hand experience with it in recent past.
posted by Toddles at 7:48 PM on August 7, 2018

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