I had an experience tonight that compelled me to write about it. Our field has taken on a trend that has to stop.
I was working with students on an interpreting exercise in class tonight. The text was challenging, possibly more challenging than many things they will have to interpret out the world, but it had a purpose beyond being difficult. I noticed one student who has good skills for where they are in the program, was not giving their maximum effort. To be blunt, the student quit on the exercise. When I sat down to give feedback the student had many reasons for not following through on the practice. The specific complaints were not important, though they were relevant to an extent. The comment that caught me was this, "You guys call us baby interpreters and then you give us stuff like this. It doesn't make any sense."
I was dumbfounded. The student was right to an extent. The term "baby interpreters" or "baby terps" is one that I've heard more and more over the last few years. It's usually used to describe students on internships or recent graduates. I've heard students refer to themselves or their cohorts this way. I've heard students say that they have been called this by instructors, though I've never heard an instructor use it myself. I've never used the term. It's always bothered me, though not enough to feel a need to say anything about it. Then tonight it was used as part of a reason to not try. It was used as justification for giving up. And I couldn't blame the student.
What are we doing?
What are we doing to the minds of new interpreters when we infantilize them and then expect them to have the work ethic and dedication that we require of professional interpreters?
I took a millisecond to compose myself and hoped that the shock hadn't registered on my face. "I have never called you that." I replied. "I have told you from the beginning that you are seniors who are almost ready to graduate and who will be out there interpreting for real people in ten weeks. You are not a baby. You are an adult and I expect you to behave as an emerging professional."
Every cohort is different. Every student is different, but each cohort takes on a personality. Some want to be treated like traditional students where the teacher lectures and they absorb. Some want to be treated as professionals and left mostly on their own. Over the last few years I have noticed that many students feel that we as a field, not just within my department but overall, have very low opinions of them. Whether it's comments from professionals, or websites that tell them they will never be good enough, some of us are in fact treating them like children. Yet we expect them to walk into any situation and do great work. How?
Years ago a student told me, "You know, we have a reputation as being the hardest department on campus." The student said it as a complaint. The class was unhappy with how much work they had. They lamented that their Deaf friends felt like these student didn't have enough time to hang out. I was a little bit proud. We should be among the most challenging majors on campus, our graduates have one of the most demanding jobs. My answer was this, "It's fine that your friends want you to have time to hang out now, but what will they want in May when you show up to work at their job? They will expect you to know everything and to interpret perfectly. In that moment you will both be glad for the work you're doing now."
The point of this anecdote is that we can't expect students or new professionals to do the work we need them to do and call them "babies" at the same time. Babies get a pass. We accept less from babies because we don't expect them to be capable. Yet it's the opposite with novice interpreters. We tell them they're terrible and unworthy and then expect them to work hard at getting better. We haze them.
I say "we" as a representative of the field, I do not subscribe to this approach. Furthermore I think my department does a great job teaching interpreting. I don't know where the idea comes from that our department is sending this message because I don't see it from our faculty. I don't even see that sentiment from our faculty.
New interpreters, you are not babies. We will not treat you like babies because we do not expect you to behave like babies. You are emerging professionals. You are the future of our field. (Keep in mind that being treated like an adult can be a whole other shock but that's a topic for another time.)
So I am asking that if you use the term "baby interpreter," please stop. There are other terms we can use: novice, journeyman, apprentice, to suggest a few. These are adults who we expect to shoulder adult burdens and bear adult responsibility. If we can't show them that we support their journey and respect their path then why are we training interpreters?
Calling them babies doesn't help any of us. It doesn't help the new terps, it doesn't help their future consumers, it doesn't help their team interpreters. It doesn't help. It's inappropriate. Stop it.