A Community of Practice spirit in interpreting education

Photo taken from NewTrendsinManagement: http://newtrendsinmanagement.wikispaces.com/Communities+of+Practice

The summer holidays are now officially over. Even though I have worked all summer on PhD research and admissions of interpreting students for the master's interpreting programmes at London Metropolitan University, I have enjoyed the flexibility, balanced meals and the luxury of eight hours sleep of the August period. It is now time to get ready and juggle with the numerous balls in the air...  timetable... language combinations...  resources... conferences... communication with students... Facebook page... staff meetings and so on. I have to confess that I actually love it!

Yesterday I received an invitation to speak at Hogeschool Universiteit Brussel HUB about the  Communities of Practice spirit that enhances a collaborative approach in interpreting courses. When speaking to the course leader asking for further details on what participants would benefit from, I realised how much I take what interpreting students and staff have achieved as 'straightforward' and 'normal'. I feel that social learning and networking are the essential ingredients to every single aspect of interpreting studies at LondonMet. As such, I sometimes tend to forget that they are so special. I even realise that putting words on what I spontaneously do, what happens in class, the way we interact is challenging

I thought I would try to give you three essential approaches I have found useful to create a Community of Practice (CoP) approach in interpreting studies.

1. Before the academic year starts

What a marathon before you join an interpreting post graduate course. First you need to apply and pass the aptitude test. When you think you can celebrate with champagne, you need to come back to reality and organise finance, accommodation, combine work with studies, organise your family and finally transport. Some of our students travel every week from places like Paris, Brussels, Brighton, Coventry etc...  

From the teaching point of view, there are language groups to form; we need to accommodate the timetable to the needs of our students with visiting lecturers who have their own interpreting commitments. 
Quite a headache! But in the midst of organised chaos, the approach already at this stage indicates a lot about the community of practice spirit. 
We can feel that during interviews, candidates are eager to be part of a new group of selected students. This sense of belonging can already be conceptualised as the beginning of a possible Community of Practice. They know their common point is that they have demonstrated their skills to join the course and become professional interpreters. The seed for a CoP is there. The students and staff teaching and learning experience, depending on how it is perceived, can be nurtured into a CoP seed that will grow to facilitate a network of teaching and formal and informal learning partnerships.

As the candidate selection process is competitive, it would be only too natural to keep this competitive mindset throughout the course and race to the final exams with fear and hope that you will make it. All the ingredients are gathered to make the course a stressful place.Actually, in some traditional interpreting courses, this competitive approach will be interpreted as a sign of quality. This feeling of 'unreachable' is what makes many interpreting courses famous.

As far as I am concerned, I think the challenge is different: how do I keep the edge of the competitive mindset but embrace a culture of social learning partnership? And in doing so, will my students reach the level of expertise required by the profession?

2. The first two weeks of teaching

The first two weeks of teaching are the make and break period that will determine how the group performs through the ups and downs of this challenging course. The course is a one year journey that has to lead student interpreters to pass their exams but also to join the interpreting profession and for some of them take EU or UN interpreting accreditation test. Students have invested a lot of money, they have taken a loan or saved to be on the course. Their expectations are running high.

A month before the beginning of the course, students are sent the contact details of all students accepted on the course. They follow our Translation and Interpreting at Londonmet Facebook page. They often accept each other as 'friends' on Facebook, sometimes create their own page and organise practice sessions even before the course starts. This year, I have asked students to create a Twitter profile if they did not have one as we use Twitter for our mock conferences. This experience is special as students are already using communication tools before the course starts. This is vital to enhance sharing within a CoP.

The profile of our students is really rich. As we embrace Life Long Learning, about 30% of our students are above 40 years old, 40% are in their thirties and 20% in their twenties. As such, students have their unique profile that enriches the learning experience. They speak different languages, embrace different cultures, religions and have experienced different education systems. However, this also creates a situation whereby students assess who they are 'in comparison to others'. This can generate anxieties and undermine confidence. It is a challenge that needs to be embraced for the first two weeks of teaching. Identity: who am I as a learner in this group? 

With thanks to MAI and MACI students
As you can see on the photo on the left, students came back from their break to find out they had to stick a piece of paper in somebody else's back. Then they had to go round to every person and write down what they appreciated, liked and enjoyed when working with the colleague.

At the end of the exercise, each student took away their sheet of paper, so happy to know what other peers thought of them, but without knowing exactly who said what. This is a great exercise to create trust, so essential when creating a CoP.

What I find the most useful to create trust and break barriers is to surprise students to take them away from their own memories of learning experience. Here is an example. On the first day, I let people sit down where they wish. When they are 'ready' for me to speak (that's what normally happens right? Students are supposed to listen and teachers speak...), I ask them all to stand up again and say hello to each other, ask a question and remember the answer. This creates surprise, hesitation and then within a few seconds they are up and running, smiling and speaking to everyone else! I also ask them to find out who speaks what. At the end of the 10 mn devoted to this exercise, I then ask them to form language groups based on their findings. This simple exercise breaks all rules but helps within minutes with ice breaking, 'who is who', 'who speaks what', 'everyone is better than me'. And in addition, they already started  memory exercises without realising it. Success all around!

For every session, we get up, move, speak, organise, contribute, practice interpreting and LEARN etc.. and have fun!

I am happy to give you more examples of such exercises if you find them useful.

3. Independent learning

From the first two weeks, students are encouraged to work together outside of contact hours. Here is an example of the CoP spirit being nurtured when alumni are involved. In our case, our interpreting alumni called ambassadors dedicate 12 hours of their time to help new students with interpreting practice. In exchange, ambassadors are offered access to regular advanced conference interpreting practice with tutors, free of charge. Students welcome the opportunity with both hands. They feel more secure to speak and exchange with interpreting alumni who have already been through the process of the course. They know what is on the other side of the road. They have experience of finding work. They know what is useful.

A CoP can only work if there is trust and exchange, a will to give and take. When students arrive on the course, they can see a sort of 'chain of CoP'. Care, attention and professionalism from staff to alumni, then to new students as they are supported during independent studies, and after the course for their continuous professional development.

To conclude, I hope I have provided you with an insight of the CoP spirit within your teaching. In my blog, CoP relate to interpreting studies, but what I have described can be adapted to any course or class. I would be very interested to hear your own experience of CoP 'in the classroom'.

Happy reading!

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own and should not be taken to represent the official positions of universities, networks or associations.


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