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30 Aug 2008

Five things I learned last semester – Let me begin by offering my apologies to those of my readers who thought I had been run over by a bus and who, to quote one ambulatory friend, were “tired of staring at (my) nuts.” My parents were visiting us here for the past two weeks (we drove them to the airport this morning), and I had intended to post this before they arrived, but I was so busy trying to get everything done in anticipation of their visit that I never finished writing it. Once they got here, I had little time for things web, and the rest is history.

“I learned things from my students last semester, and I hope that they can say they learned things from me.”

Considering that the new semester begins in two days, this might be coming a bit late, but I thought it might not be a bad idea to take a look back at the things I’ve learned before moving on. As regular readers will know, this was not only my first semester at HUFS, but also my first semester teaching at the university/graduate level. It was probably as much a learning experience for me as it was for my students.

One of my seniors from SNU lectured as an adjunct here, and at the beginning of the semester we met for lunch. As we ate our meal, we talked about teaching. He’s been teaching as a lecturer for a while now, and when I mentioned how much work the semester was turning out to be, he said, “Teachers always work hardest during their first semester.” I knew immediately what he meant. It’s not that teachers become less diligent or hard-working after their first semester, it’s that we work so hard during our first semester because we’re still trying to figure things out as we go.

I didn’t really have a problem with what I was teaching—that is, the subject matter of my classes was no problem—but the how was another story. The paradox of the first semester is that there are certain things that you can only learn on the job, which means that when you first start you’re going to be a little clueless. I worked hard to identify problems and address them as soon as possible, but there were certain things that couldn’t be changed once the wheels were set in motion, and there were not a few times that I found myself wishing I could start the semester over. But that’s what this semester is for.

I won’t bore you with the many little details, but I do want to share five things that I learned. In retrospect, most (if not all) of these are fairly obvious, but I still had to go through the process of learning them for myself, so bear with me.

Don’t give too much homework

This was something that I learned very early on. When I gave out the first homework assignments in my translation classes, my students gasped in horror. I didn’t think that the texts were too long, but I quickly realized that the proverbial sword does indeed cut both ways. Not only did I find it difficult to cover the entire translation in class the next week, but more work for the students ultimately meant more work for me as well in terms of correcting and marking. So when I announced the following week that I was going to be reducing the length of the texts for translation, everyone was happy—myself included.

Another advantage of having less homework is that it allows me to discuss more individual translations in class. In other words, you may not cover as much, but what you do cover you will be able to discuss in more depth and detail. And the more I can discuss in class, the less I have to do in terms of after-class feedback. It’s a win-win situation, really.

Don’t assume that the students will know something

This is a bit of a tricky one to discuss—I don’t want to get into specifics, but suffice it to say that I went into my first semester of classes with certain expectations as to what the students would know and what they would have learned so far. Some of those expectations were met and some weren’t. This doesn’t mean that my colleagues hadn’t done their jobs, of course. What it means is that everyone has a different way of teaching and a different philosophy of translation, and things that I might take for granted might not be taken for granted by someone else (and vice versa). The bottom line is that I learned at the very beginning of the semester that I couldn’t take anything for granted.

Conversely, I also learned that my students are very bright and intelligent individuals, and they quickly caught on to what I was trying to say. It wasn’t too long ago that I was a student myself, and I know that the first goal in a class is figuring out what the professor wants, followed closely by the second goal of giving it to him or her. Still, it was nice to know that my students learned quickly, and that I might have shared with them something a little different from what they were used to.

The classroom is not the real world

It took me a bit longer to learn this lesson than it took to learn the first two. I guess it happened about halfway through the semester, after I had successfully impressed upon my students the importance of accuracy and faithfulness in translation. I was doing a (non-literary) translation of my own, and I realized that I was breaking some of the “rules” that I had set down for my students.

The truth, of course, is that there are no hard and fast “rules” in translation, other than those dealing with the morality and responsibility of the translator (which is too broad a topic to get into now). I talked with my students about this, and clarified my position: the “rules” I had set down were there for the classroom, because it is easier to learn the “rules” and deal with exceptions later than to start with no structure from the beginning and hope to eventually end up with a disciplined approach. Essentially, I said, “The real world doesn’t always work this way, but because we are in the classroom and studying translation, it is in our best interests to do it this way.” Both for me and for the students, this seemed to be a more satisfactory explanation for some of my decisions than the more dogmatic approach I had taken at the beginning of the semester.

Leave time for rest and review

This lesson is related to the first lesson, but it took me a lot longer to learn. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the semester that I looked back and wished I had learned it earlier. Basically, I had the students translate through the semester until the end, when I gave them one week off to prepare for the final exam. What I should have done was give them a breather during mid-terms week as well, but I didn’t.

Having non-translation weeks (that is, weeks where they don’t have a translation assignment) serves two purposes. For one, it gives them a chance to catch their breath and, during the mid-term and final examination periods, prepare for exams in other classes as well. But it also serves a purpose more directly related to my class. I often found myself wishing I had more time to cover certain topics, and having a week for rest and review during the middle of the semester as well as at the end should allow me to focus on problems and issues that crop up repeatedly. The mid-term review week in particular should give me an opportunity to give the students some feedback as a class, hopefully providing some direction to help them improve during the second half of the semester.

I may be being idealistic here, and I suppose it’s possible that the students will simply be excited to not have any homework at the busiest times of the semester, but I’m going with the double rest and review schedule in my two technical translation classes this semester, and I’m hoping that the students will find it more than just a breather.

My students are not me

I can’t say for sure when I learned this lesson—I suppose it was an ongoing process that took the entire semester. Unlike the previous four lessons, though, it may not be readily apparent what this means. At its most fundamental level, it is the realization that, while I may be able to influence my students to some degree, there is a limit to what I can teach them. On another level, it is the realization that my students may not share or disagree with my views, and that’s OK. It is also the realization that some of my students are probably not as obsessive as I can be at times, and they may approach problems and issues from a different angle.

Ultimately, difference is good, because no one would learn anything if the class were simply an echo chamber. I learned things from my students last semester, and I hope that they can say they learned things from me. We learned from each other not simply because we were different, but because we are open to difference. Everyone is different, but only those who are willing to recognize and accept those differences will be able to benefit from them. I believe this lesson will be even more important in the coming semester, since I will be teaching a literary translation class in addition to my technical translation classes, and difference in literary translation is unavoidable.

The coming semester poses its own unique challenges, and I’m sure that I will learn a lot this semester as well. At the very least, though, I feel more confident than I did last semester, and I hope to put into practice everything I learned.

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