Su Luopei (Robert Spence) o tempora! o mores!

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“Our mission is
to professionally initiate
emerging catalysts for change
to set us apart
from the competition.”

At high school we concentrated on other genres, such as the Haiku, the Petrarchan Sonnet, the Argumentative Essay, etc.; as a result, I never learnt how to write a decent Mission Statement. But some people actually appear to be taking these damn things seriously of late. Recently I corresponded by email with an Australian who for many years had been engaged full-time in evaluating providers of health care, education, etc., to see whether they “fulfilled their own mission statements”(!) Like so much else of the post-Reagan/post-Thatcher madness, this sort of thing is only just beginning to make its appearance on the German cultural scene. But already it’s starting to catch on fast. So … not wanting to be caught napping, but at the same time never being really satisfied with any of my own attempts at a mission statement, I’ve added a link to …

a randomly chosen mission statement generator

But more seriously: I initially set up this website in the late 1990s as a way of making course materials available to my students without constraints of time or place. At that time, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting at Saarland University, where I work, was not in a position to provide the IT facilities necessary for enabling this, so I used the webspace available to me as a member of the computer club Internet Privat e.V. and started frantically trying to learn something about HTML and website design. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Karl-Heinz Freigang and Daniel Zielinski, however, the situation at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting has now changed, and I plan to integrate the work-related parts of this website into the institute’s official website as soon as possible.

My experience of the IT revolution so far has been that it is better not to invest inordinate amounts of time in trying to achieve great and robust things on the basis of technology that is not yet ripe and emerging standards that are not yet universally supported. Consequently, my approach to all things electronic has tended to parallel the approach that was adopted by the engineers of the Apollo project; that is, it has tended to be a somewhat conservative and cautious one, although I have been (equally conservatively and cautiously) observing the development of the newest technology and the latest standards. This is reflected in my approach to website design. As late as August 2006, the pages on this website did not even use style sheets (!), and were written (that is, hand-keyed) according to the now somewhat antiquated W3C standard HTML 4.0 Transitional. In preparation for incorporation of the work-related parts of my website into the institute’s website, I decided in July 2006 to switch to XHTML 1.0, using cascading style sheets and UTF-8 encoding. At the same time, I began using TeX4ht, a programme that automatically converts source documents written in TEX (see below) into various flavours of hypertext markup language. This new approach—in addition to forcing me to engage in the frustrating task of hand-converting HTML syntax into TEX syntax so as to be able to regenerate the original HTML syntax automatically—posed some interesting intellectual challenges, while at the same time opening up the possibility of producing literally all material on the website in two parallel forms, with each hyperlinked webpage also being linked to a more printer-friendly (but equally hyperlinked) PDF version. The amount of time involved in implementing all this will almost certainly exceed the time available before the commencement of winter semester 2008/09, which will probably mean that the work-related parts of these webpages will not be able to migrate to the institute’s website on time but will continue, for the time being at least, to be hosted on a modest little server in a peaceful little billabong far from the turbulent trunk routes of the Tela Totius Terrae (or World Wide Web, as it is more generally known in the vulgar tongue).

Most of the course materials accessible via these pages are in Portable Document Format (PDF), as produced by pdfTeX or by XeTeX. PDF is likely to remain a sensible and useful standard for the electronic transfer of documents for at least the next decade, and there is currently no better non-proprietary way of producing PDF documents—or any kind of properly typeset documents, for that matter—than via Donald Knuth’s (awe-inspiringly conservatively programmed, virtually bug-free, and now just-about-as-stable-as-it’s-possible-to-imagine) typesetting programme TEX. For some years now, however, I have been experimenting with various technologies and standards for creating interactive e-learning materials; these experiments will continue, and will (hopefully) gain momentum in the course of the next few years. There are still many purposes for which a combination of oral pedagogy and old-fashioned “at the chalkface” teaching technology is by far the most practical approach, but the increasing possibilities of using portable computers (with Wireless LAN internet connectivity) in the classroom are starting to come into serious conflict with the inevitable presence of the clouds of chalkdust that settle as a fine, pore-clogging cloak on (wo)man and machine alike when the chalkface is used extensively. What are the alternatives? Overhead transparencies are certainly useful, and can (at least in part) be preserved and transmitted in electronic form and thus reused. I have resisted the temptation to use Powerpoint presentations in teaching, however, for the same reason that philosophers do: this form of technology is not interactive; that is, it is not exactly what one could call conducive to discussion, and does not permit (teacher) mistakes to be corrected on the spot or new (student) ideas to be incorporated instantaneously in the way that is possible when working with a chalkboard or an overhead projector. For conference and workshop presentations, I have often used TEX together with the ifmslide package (more recently, the beamer package) to produce platform-independent Powerpoint-like slideshows in PDF; users of this website can judge for themselves how mediocre the results have been.

Since winter semester 2006/2007 I have been experimenting with the didactic possibilities of chat software, online networking platforms, and YouTube videos.

I began using computers in my work as a teacher of translation early in the year 1990 at the then Karl-Marx-Universität Leipzig, as part of the revolution that eventually led to that university’s name being shortened by the omission of its first two syllables. In those days, my computer had 256 kiloBytes of RAM and no hard disk, and my data was stored on 3-inch floppy disks each of which had a formatted capacity of 173 kiloBytes. In the course of the decade and a half of experimentation that followed, I have managed to make practically every mistake imaginable, not only in terms of IT technology and standards, but also in terms of didactic methodology and, more generally, educational theory; ancora imparo. With regard to my many mistakes in the area of didactic methodology, the most useful critical analyses have been those provided by teachers from the former Eastern bloc countries and by students (… the best teachers of all …) from the developing countries. As for educational theory, now that Bernstein and Bourdieu are no longer with us—or at best look down upon us (benevolently?) from whatever portion of the heavens it is that is reserved for the post-Marxist sociologists of education—the situation is somewhat bleak. The future direction of education in the developed world is uncertain; there is a remarkably heavy ideological and material investment in the technologized intra-organism approach, which would conceive of learning as something that takes place when one piece of microelectronic circuitry that is encapsulated by a cranium interacts (via copper-wired-based or wireless signal transmission) with another piece of microelectronic circuitry that is engraved on a silicon chip; rationalization is rampant, privatization pre-programmed; the chronically underfunded educational sociologists have in many places had to metamorphose into educational programme evaluators in order to save their institutional and individual skins; critical, collective work has largely vanished from the workplace in favour of a working style which is individual and uncritical; small seminars and practice sessions are to be replaced by large lectures (preferably with lots of high-tech, such as multimedia Powerpoint presentations) complemented by individual multimedia e-learning as part of the no longer labour-intensive and therefore economically more rational “virtual university” concept; in terms, however, of just what it is that is being taught and learned (in and outside the classroom on a day-to-day basis) about translating texts and about assessing the quality of the results, little appears to have changed since the Second World War.

Hmm … Do you think the inhabitants of this primitive planet might turn out to be dangerous? Best not to take any unnecessary risks … “Beam me up, Scotty!

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