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Assessing Translingual and Transcultural Competence

David Johnson and Yasuko Taoka

    The years since the publication of the Standards for Classical Language Learning in 1997 have seen the proliferation of assessment as a tool to measure the effectiveness of programs. The assessment plans of many Classics programs, however, reflect only a portion of the Standards, focusing primarily on language proficiency (Goal 1) and cultural knowledge (Goal 2). It is the aim of this paper to assert that Goals 3-5 (Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) should also be considered programmatic goals, and included in assessment plans. Goals 3-5 have since come to be termed translingual and transcultural competence: “The idea of translingual and transcultural competence … places value on the ability to operate between languages. Students are … also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture” (MLA; cf. Kramsch). While many programs and courses pursue such goals through ancillary enrichment activities, we argue that translingual and transcultural goals should be among the core values of Classics programs. Emphasizing these connections between ancient and modern provides real benefits to our pedagogy and advocacy efforts: students understand the ancient world more thoroughly when it is juxtaposed with the modern (cf. Pickens), and assessment that connects Classics to the modern world effectively demonstrates the value of Classics to non-Classicists.

Students often tell us that they learned English grammar in Latin class. They thus recognize one form of translingual competence; but too few students say that they understand Latin grammar thanks to their understanding of how it differs from English. Many love ancient culture, but their interest is often antiquarian rather than critical. We know that we cannot understand the ancient world from any perspective other than our own world and our own language; we should therefore make the direct examination of our modern point of view and the linguistic filter of English central to what we do. Attention to translingual and transcultural competence can enable students to incorporate what they learn into the way they view the world, a vital element if learning is to last (Bain). Students should be assessed, and learn to assess themselves, not only for their linguistic ability and cultural knowledge, but for what use they can make of this knowledge. Such students will gain in motivation, recognize that their transcultural and translingual skills are transferable to other areas, and help us articulate the value of the Classics to others.

When our program rewrote our assessment plan last academic year, we added translingual and transcultural competence to our learning goals. In a written exam and oral interview, we ask students to consider the ancient world in terms of the modern. The translingual component is combined with a traditional proficiency exam: students comment on their translation process, discussing cultural and linguistic features that were lost, preserved, or transformed in the course of translation. We also offer a topics course devoted to transcultural competence, and assignments in other courses call upon students to study reworkings of Classical material into texts, art, or film, or to produce such reworkings themselves. We find that our students often do their best work in such assignments, as they understand their relevance, and can make creative use of what they know of the world outside Classics.

We are certain that our colleagues at other institutions are engaging in similar activities; making translingual and transcultural competence a priority requires not so much curricular and pedagogical innovation, as a willingness to attribute real weight (via grades and assessment) to what is frequently considered extra-curricular or extra-credit work. Giving transcultural and translingual competency their due weight can improve students’ learning experience, increase their awareness of the importance of what they are studying, and help us communicate the value of the Classics to others, including potential students and administrators.

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Demystifying Assessment

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