The Importance of Cultural Capital for Sign Language Interpreters

April 24, 2018

Kierstin Muroski presented The Importance of Cultural Capital for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. In her presentation, Kierstin introduces the concept of cultural capital as it relates to the work of sign language interpreters.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Kierstin’s StreetLeverage – Live 2017 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Kierstin’s original presentation directly.]

The Importance of Cultural Capital for Sign Language Interpreters

Hello, everyone. It’s an honor to be here at StreetLeverage – Live. Thank you for the opportunity.

I want to tell you a little bit about my own story, but first, I want to ask if any of you have experienced a moment of epiphany? Something that shifted how you thought about something in your life? I am seeing a lot of heads nodding out there.  

I’m going to take a moment to tell you a little bit about my epiphany and how it changed the way that I teach interpreting. I’m going to go back a bit. I graduated from Gallaudet’s MAI program and became an interpreter in Washington, D.C. until a teaching position opened up at the University of Pennsylvania. I applied, got hired for the position, and started teaching interpreting. I thoroughly enjoyed the work I was doing. A cohort would enter the program, I would teach students for four years, they would graduate, get certified and I would get a new cohort for the next four years. They would graduate, get certified and go out to the world. The students were successful, and I felt the students are so good because, you know, I am awesome, of course. Right? That was my thought at the time. Clearly, they’re successful because I’m such a good teacher.

During the years I was teaching, I experienced several pregnancies. My family is my world. As I was teaching, I felt like I was missing out on my children’s lives. Full-time teaching is a lot of work, and I eventually left my teaching position to focus on raising my children. As an interpreter, I’m very fortunate. Interpreting is a great career for a mom – you can raise your children and still work part-time.  As I was raising my children, I realized that they only know what I teach them. I was learning how to deal with people don’t have information to navigate situations.

Experiencing an Epiphany

At the same time, I was interpreting a college course one semester, and that’s when I experienced my epiphany. This class was a morning class, it met twice a week and started at eight or nine in the morning. By about the third or fourth week of class, I would go into class and get set up to interpreting. One morning, the professor came in with a cup of coffee and set it on the table along with some packets of sugar and some creamer and what not. The professor started teaching, and as I was interpreting, I realized that they never touched that coffee. I was a bit puzzled by that. The next time class, again, they brought a cup of coffee, set it down on the table, but never touched it.

The third time that it happened, I approached the instructor after class and mentioned that they had forgotten to drink their coffee again. The professor replied that they didn’t drink coffee. I asked them why they brought coffee to class every session if that was the case. The professor asked if I knew one of the students in the class. I hadn’t noticed that particular student, so the professor explained that this student worked nights and attended classes after. When he started falling asleep during class, the professor said they wanted to provide him some assistance.

I was struck by that conversation, and I went to my car that day, and I cried. I felt so embarrassed because, during my time as an instructor, when I was so awesome, it had never occurred to me to help a student in that way. If a student showed up to class and fell asleep, I would reprimand them, and I would wake them up. If they gave me homework late, there was no flexibility. It was, “Too bad; it’s late.” There was a schedule to follow, and this is a profession. We need to follow those standards and rules. It never, ever occurred to me to help a student through those experiences or to try to understand the situation from their perspective. I felt so embarrassed. I had the same kind of experience as a working interpreter, as well. If my team was late, I was annoyed with them rather than thinking, ”Are they okay? Do they need help?” I was immediately irritated. If a team interpreter was having a bad day or they did a poor job of interpreting, I was ready to report them to RID. Those were my immediate responses. Honestly, that was so clueless. That day, as I sat in my car and cried, I had this epiphany – this total shift. I don’t want to be an angry person. I don’t want to be mad at people.

As it happened, I continued to interpret for a few more years, and then I took a second teaching job at Mount Aloysius. This campus is located in a rural, forested area in Pennsylvania. It’s a very small school, and I was thrilled to go back to teaching. I was very excited to return to teaching, and I brought my box of teaching supplies, blew the dust off, opened it up, and started teaching. When I arrived and started teaching – remember, I was a good teacher, right? But, as it happened, the students failed. I would try to teach them, and the students would fail some more. I felt like something was wrong with them. Obviously, it wasn’t me, right? Something was wrong with those students. They weren’t giving me their homework; everything was a mess, people were late, etc. It wasn’t me, of course. Something was wrong with the students. One example I can share. One day, I asked a student where their homework was. They replied that they were aware they had homework and when I told them the assignment was on the schedule in the syllabus, the student asked me what that was. I explained that I had distributed them on the first day of class. The student responded that they had thrown it out. When they said that, I realized they didn’t know what a syllabus was for.

Time to Bring the Coffee

At that moment, I started thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s time to bring the coffee. It’s time to really understand the students and where they’re coming from.”  So, I did some research on the college and its demographics – who were the kind of people that were accepted into the college, etc. What I found was that if a person applied, they typically were accepted. At first, I thought that was a problem; then I realized that’s not a problem if I can teach them. I also found out that almost all the students who apply are accepted and that those students typically had a family income that was under $35,000 a year, so, this was not a wealthy community. Also, 70% of the students at Mount Aloysius were first-generation college students.  So, their parents hadn’t attended college, and I realized that this was a special group of students. This meant that these students didn’t have the cultural capital…I’ll explain more about that in a minute… but this group of students had what’s called, what research calls, disparate backgrounds. So, these are people who don’t have money/resources, or people with disabilities, or people who are deaf. It could also mean people who are attending classes while they are raising their families, while they’re working full time, etc.

Learning to Teach Students from Disparate Backgrounds

Ultimately, I wanted to learn how to successfully teach these students. In my research, I found that people from disparate backgrounds typically feel anxious, they feel responsible, a little bit guilty, and they feel embarrassed. But at the same time that they feel embarrassed, they are also proud. They are proud that they are trying to better their lives. They’re trying to improve the profession, and they are doing their best without possessing all the tools they need. So there is a sense of pride, and at the same time, they don’t want to ask questions because they don’t want to be embarrassed, they don’t want to reveal their lack of knowledge. They try to cover all that up. What often happens is that those students drop out, or often they are kicked out by instructors – who are awesome – instructors who judge them and dismiss them instead of trying to understand their perspective, instead of finding a way to see the positive, as well.

StreetLeverage - Live Common Attributes of Students with Disparate Backgrounds

Attributes of Students from Disparate Backgrounds

So, these students do felt embarrassed, anxious, and guilty, but at the same time, they are very strong people with very positive attributes as well. They are very resourceful – they’re able to find information when they need to. They may be afraid to ask, but they are very expert at finding information and resources. They’re also very persistent. You may try to get them out of a program, but they are very persistent about staying and working through their difficulties. These students are typically more flexible than other students, as well. They are ready to continue to learn and demonstrate their flexibility. They typically have more hope because they are working to better their lives and they believe they can do it. It is critical that we understand that these students typically are very compassionate, as well. They have that anxiety and nervousness, so they’re looking for other people to connect with, other people who show those fears and those anxieties, as well. One other thing that I learned that was so powerful – these students are some of the most grateful people in the world. If you offer them assistance and respect, they will never forget it.

Forms of Capital

I wanted to provide the best opportunity for the students to become interpreters, so I did some research, and I came across the concept of cultural capital. To give you a clearer understanding, I need to go back a bit and explain the different forms of capital.

Economic Capital

We have economic capital, meaning that people who have wealth can buy a better life. If you have money, you’re able to pay for good schools, to have nice vacations, to have more nice things. People who have economic capital are able to advance their life with money.

Social Capital

There is social capital. If you know the right people, you’re able to network and to improve your life circumstances. You may be able to get a certain kind of job because you know a boss or you’re able to get into school because a friend works there. Social capital means you are able to improve your life through your social connections.

Cultural Capital

There is also cultural capital which is a little bit different. Cultural capital is usually more situation-specific, for example, going to college. So, if you have the right knowledge and you have the right style of clothing, if you possess the right awareness of different aspects of the environment, you are able to achieve more success in that specific environment.

Those students at Mount Aloysius came into college with limited cultural capital, so how do we provide what they need – how do we bring the coffee to that situation? I thought about various ways that I would be able to provide the capital they needed. First, I use repetition. I used repetition often. I stopped making assumptions – I assume that they came into the setting with no cultural capital. I also have to be patient. I set up schedules for the students, and I help them become more organized. I had a conversation with one woman who said that often, interpreters would dine with the deaf students and they displayed poor table manners, so I taught them about place settings and proper behavior during meals. We engage speakers who talk to the students about proper dress, including which outfits are appropriate for specific situations. Some of these things are very simple, but helpful. We also required seven English classes. Often, students enter the program with questionable English proficiency. That is something we can teach. Those things are all part of my job, part of my role. When I felt everything was going so great while teaching at the university, the system was screening out students before they entered. It is much easier to teach when students already possess cultural capital. Now, my job is to provide that cultural capital and scaffold the learning to lead them to success.

Be Explicit While Granting Dignity

It is so important to honor these students. They are not stupid – they are not bad. They’re not focused on the wrong things. They’re not people who don’t care about education. They are people who are working hard. Sometimes, they work overnight and come to class the next day. Sometimes, their lives are extremely difficult, but they are persisting, they’re still coming to class. It’s important to respect that work and to try to see the world from their perspective.

Respect, in this case, means I repeat everything multiple times to provide more opportunities. It’s hard to fail in my program now because I provide the opportunity for students revise their work, sometimes several times. If they are willing to do the work, I’m willing to accept it and to have the patience to do that. It’s certainly more work for me, but to be honest, I’m happier. When I taught at that other university, I often felt angry. Now when I teach, I’m happy every day. When I go out to interpret, and I work with my teams, if something happens, my first response is, “Can I help you? How can I support you right now?” Why not? It’s free. It’s a free gift we can give.

Maya Angelou - People will forget what you said

Closing Thoughts

Right now, I am working on my Ph.D. at Gallaudet, and I’m researching cultural capital. My prediction is that students who start without cultural capital but gain it through their course of study will become better interpreters than students who enter their programs with that capital. The students who have to persevere for four years understand the struggle and have more compassion, and they understand the Deaf perspective a little bit more. They may be better able to identify and understand when a person doesn’t possess needed information in a specific context and can respectfully provide that information. This is different than a student who comes into an interpreting program with all the right stuff. They may have beautiful signing skills, they may be good at interpreting, but they may not have as much insight into the Deaf perspective.

So, as you are mentoring or teaching or teaming with students who seem like they’re not ready or they don’t possess the greatest skills, maybe you can provide them with the cultural capital they need to succeed. Thank you.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)