Tomorrow is a big day for UNM graduates. As some of you may have read, I’ll be among those marching in regalia. Part of my mind will be elsewhere, though.
I’ll be the first to admit that my education happened because I was part of a community. And I’m not just thinking of the academic community of professors and graduate students, or the librarians at UNM (who totally rock and don’t get half the recognition they deserve, by the way).
I’m not even thinking of the wonderful community of family and friends that has supported me along the way, though they are just as much a piece of my success as my professors and fellow graduate students.
I’m thinking of a kind of community that I would never have imagined would be a part of my life when I set down this path so many years ago.
When I arrived at UNM, I didn’t know anything about what graduate education in philosophy would look like. I assumed that it would be similar to my experience as an undergraduate – I’d sit in front, speechread the professor, take notes like mad, and read thrice as much as was assigned. That strategy served me well as an undergraduate.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that graduate education in philosophy was conducted through seminars.
Note: this is a big deal if you are deaf and read lips.
It means that first you have to use visual means to identify who is speaking (as in scanning the room to see whose lips are moving since you can't hear what direction sound comes from) and then you have to learn how to speechread that individual’s particular way of shaping words.
It isn’t an easy task.
About two weeks into my M.A. program I was overwhelmed and frustrated (not to mention exhausted from caring for an infant who had been born exactly one week before classes started). So I contacted Disability Services and asked that my classes be captioned. Unfortunately, at that time there was just one company in town that could do this, and our schedules weren’t quite compatible.
So I asked for the next best thing – an oral interpreter. This meant I would still be lipreading, but instead of wasting precious seconds trying to locate the speaker and learning how to speechread him on the spot, I’d focus on one person and glean everything I could from speechreading that one person. Over time, my ability to speechread a person goes up dramatically – practice doesn't make perfect in this case, but it helps enormously.
For a week or so I watched my oral interpreter. He had a habit of fidgeting that was distracting – so much so that I finally asked him about it. That was when he told me he was also a signed language interpreter; his fidgeting was an artifact of that.
It had been about a decade since I had been in the signing Deaf community, but I asked the interpreter if he would fidget less if he signed while he mouthed the words. He told me that it would probably cut way down on the fidgeting.
So a month into graduate school, I bombarded my brain with a language I hadn’t used in a while, as well as new subject matter. I began to dream of philosophy in American Sign Language (ASL) – dreams frequently interrupted by my newborn’s cries of hunger.
Not long after I realized that accessing my education though ASL interpreters would be my lot in life, I began to think hard about the best way to do this. Around this time, I met a sign language interpreter, Dan Parvaz, who was beginning graduate school in ASL Linguistics at UNM. As it happens, he had some formal education in philosophy – more than any other interpreter I had worked with locally.
We became a team.
You see, there are different ways of using signs to convey information. One way is to interpret spoken English into ASL. Since ASL is a natural language with its own grammar and syntax, the interpreter working between these two languages needs to have a solid grasp of both languages AND (in my case) enough understanding of academic philosophy to translate accurately. (Coherentist theories of epistemic justification, anyone?)
Another way is to transliterate – this approach uses signs borrowed from American Sign Language and puts them in English word order, and adds English mouthing. (This is often called Signed English.) Since the academic discipline of philosophy is very dependent on word order, I asked all of my interpreters to use this approach.
I wanted to access the English words in English word order so that I could eliminate one variable that is often present in interpreted settings – that is, the interpreter’s interpretation of the content.
The other piece of this is that for an interpretation to be good, the interpreter must understand the content. There are not many interpreters with sufficient background in philosophy to do this, and by that I mean there are not many interpreters in the country with this background. Dan had that background, and he was the only interpreter I worked with who I gave latitude to move from signed English into ASL in some philosophy settings.
When you spend hours a week working with someone, you get to know their habits and practices. You learn to tolerate each other’s quirks, and if you are attentive, you can tell when something is not right.
This closeness is multiplied when the work you do with that person requires looking at one another’s face for hours each day. Interpreting is an intimate experience for the interpreter and the client. Given this, it is not unusual for those who work together over years to become friends as well as colleagues.
Over the years, Dan and I became friends. We bumped into each other in different parts of the country, sometimes working together as colleagues, and sometimes worked together as interpreter and consumer – always keeping to our professional roles in these settings. Our friendship deepened over the years, as these things do.
Two weeks ago, I learned that Dan’s little sister, Dorothy Parvaz, had been taken into custody in Syria.
Dorothy is an al-Jazeera journalist who had entered Syria on her Iranian passport in hopes of covering the unrest in that country. In all the years I’ve known Dan, his face always lights up when he speaks of his sister. The love he has for her and the pride he has in all of her accomplishments is evident to anyone who knows Dan.
On the eve of my graduation, an accomplishment that likely would not have happened without Dan’s assistance as a friend and an interpreter, I find myself only partly in a celebratory mood.
My mind is on Dan, his family, and especially his sister Dorothy. The latest word is that the Syrians have deported her to Iran, but no one in the family has heard from her since April 29th. And we are all worried.
Dan’s friends in Albuquerque and beyond have asked what we can do. Most of us are part of the New Mexico Deaf community – a collection of deaf people, interpreters, and family members. We celebrate when one of us does well, squabble like siblings over little things, and rally ‘round when someone is in trouble.
This is one community that I never would have imagined being part of when I began my journey through graduate school. And it is a community that has enriched my life in ways I cannot begin to recount – through friendships and struggles for justice and cherished differences and commonalities.
That brings me to this.
I’m not much for presents, and I’ve asked people not to give me gifts for graduation.
But I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got one wish now.
Please help raise public awareness of Dorothy Parvaz’s plight by contacting the White House and the U.S. State Department to ask that they push hard for the release of Dorothy Parvaz.
White House number 202-456-1111
State Department 202-647-6575