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Sep 2, 2007

Switching gears

It has been a difficult week. The regular beginning of the semester stuff (not enough sections, waiting lists, small classes, etc.) coincided with the new procedures we implemented (checkpoint courses), overlapped with the last-ditch efforts to find and write up data for the NCATE reports. I actually like a good crisis now and then, but this was not a crisis. It felt like I was constantly interrupted by small and big things, forgetting where I was, and I am afraid, not terribly effective at any of my tasks. Also, you cope with time crunches like this by postponing working on other important things that need long-term attention, and thus planting seeds for future time-crunches. This is what happens when you run out of time: you don’t work on the future and by doing that, you make sure it happens again. It’s worked out OK in the end; however, I noticed a subtle difference in my reactions to information that comes my way: in the course of a normal week, I always look through the information in search for opportunities for my School and for myself. Last week, all I asked myself was: “Can I ignore this for now?” In other words, when you are too delete-happy, you may miss on something really important for the future, either a sign of danger or a promise of an opportunity. So, I don’t want things to stay they are; I need time and space for thinking and being creative.

The reasons for this less than splendid week are entirely obvious, and almost all are traceable to my own errors. Want examples? OK, there just a few: should not have taught Summer class so late; could be a week ahead on NCATE now. Should have been more careful scheduling Fall, and avoid last-minute searches for faculty, etc., etc. I am reasonably tolerant to mistakes, mine and those of other people, so no guilt feelings here, trust me. Yet, I need to learn something from this, but what? I am still stubbornly clinging to this lesson-finding expedition, although I could have spent this time catching up. And that’s what I think we all should do: invest time in understanding how we work, and maybe make the process a little better, rather than keep working same way, and running into the same problems again and again.

OK, maybe this: I need to learn to switch gears and work in a different mode when needed. Many years ago, I had a privilege to work with a wonderful interpreter, Andrey Falaleyev. He is a professional, with many years of experience; he interpreted for Yeltsyn and Gorbachev. He told me once: you are doing a good job, but you need to learn to work in different modes. If someone speaks slowly, you translate almost everything. Someone speaks really fast, OK, you do not panic but translate only the basic meaning. Someone speaks poetically, you look for metaphors; someone loses one’s train of thought, you force the sentences to make sense, even if quite generic. It’s like tennis; you need to have a defense for every kind of attack.

We took turns every 30 minutes (you cannot interpret for longer than that; you brain goes mush; it is a highly stressful job), and he was clearly better than me – not because his knowledge of both languages was better, but because his repertoire of modes was richer, and he could move from one to another instantly. I could almost see him switch gears; he never stressed out even in most complicated situations (we sometimes translated highly technical stuff). Not once did our audience notice any loss of meaning in translation. Now, I saw some losses, of course, but that was his point: meaning is lost in any communication, translated or not; you need to make sure the main ideas are getting across.

Here is what I should have done last week, if only I could remember Andrey’s advice: I should have set specific time for e-mail replies, and not try to read them all through the day. I should have shut my door, despite my open-door policy, at least for a few hours every day. Instead of constant multitasking, I should have only done a few things well, rather than many things so-so. Oh, well, there is always another week.

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