our words make worlds

‘Have We Been of Help?’

By Catherine Boyle

On Monday 20 July, I took advantage of an allotted hour – booked by getting a ticket on Eventbrite! – to get back into my office for the first time since 6 March. I was anxious about it. Anxious because I’ve been very careful throughout the lockdown (how I prefer the term quarantine) and had not been in central London. Anxious because I didn’t know what I would find and how I would feel. But, walking down Kingsway in the sun, it felt a bit like it should at this time of year. Spacious. Room for people. A little bit of room for thought. My office was in an okay state. No evidence of visiting rodents that I could see, and my habit of making sure that the washing up of mugs, coffee and tea pots is all done before I leave for home meant that there was not a horrible load of mouldy mugs. Only one small cafetiere had escaped, and a bit of a scrub and twice through the dishwasher has sorted that. A cactus that had survived for maybe 10 years had died on the windowsill, and another plant is being nurtured back to life at home. Don’t worry, I’m not going to create a series of pedagogical metaphors out of this. I am prompted by Elisa’s mention of how we imagined our workshops. And it’s true, even after almost two months of online meetings, I had still imagined us meeting in an actual room, with the incidental chatter and comment and interaction that prompt insight and questions and lead us along different paths. And mugs of tea and coffee, and biscuits.

Online workshops need certain types of organisation. As Elisa says, there are immediate distractions, from the domestic to the local and the global. Now, there’s something for a languages student to think about. There’s an etiquette of seeing and being seen, listening and being heard. But when have we not had to navigate that type of etiquette, as literature so readily teaches us? Most of all, there’s a real awareness of the need to make the most of the time we have together. As always, I learn so much from Elisa’s command of different digital methods that she’s sought out to support the process. The Padlets, the virtual whiteboards, the online completion of the module approval forms academics need to complete – all of this is set up beautifully and creates a fantastic framework for our discussions, for what we wanted to get out of our meetings with our students.

What did we want to get out of these workshops? We imagined the module as a response to the College request for service modules. I imagined it as a way of making the work of Language Acts and Worldmaking resonate in the classroom and have an impact in the community. Together we imagine the process of getting ready to teach and the actual teaching of the module as an important engagement with students and with partners, in which each of us contributes from our areas of experience, expertise, and ambition for university education.

In our second workshop one of the students asked, ‘Have we helped you?’. The question took me back a bit, because I was getting so much out of the workshops. The question implies a hierarchy that we were trying to get away from, but it also points to two truths: there is a ‘hierarchy’, which can and should be positive and complicit; we did want the help of students. Like Elisa, I was enjoying the space for students to think as students, as critical commentators on their place in an education system they know to be mediated by many factors, not least the market and education policy. But one of the ways that the workshops helped me was to think through methods and methodologies of teaching. This is where the metalanguage comes in.

As we discussed the different topics, often, as Elisa says, setting our discussions within the extraordinary times we’re living, it was impossible not to think, to ‘theorise’. By that, I mean to relate our apparently anecdotal conversations to the work we do as students, as scholars. This is important: it propels the move between the everyday and our work in the classroom through reading, analysis and critical thinking. The conscious naming of what we are doing, who we are in dialogue with, who we are thinking alongside is how I envisage a metalanguage, one that comes from students’ own words and ideas and that then creates another language that articulates the ideas in a different but related way, often creating wonderful trails of new reading and thinking.

So, a discussion about language takes us easily into questions of status and privilege in communication, which leads to the reality of discrimination on the basis of access to a dominant language. It leads us to think about languages that grow to speak of specific experiences, that codify in order to create access to allies. The question of allies, so important and prevalent in the Black Lives Matter movement, makes us think about understanding, about the complexities of empathy; empathy for those with whom we might more easily empathise and those with whom we might violently disagree. We think about competence, about language biographies, about levels of shame and pride in language ‘fluency’, about identities left behind because language competence and community have gone. Our discussion about close reading takes us into the realms of narrative, of listening, of the reader as author, of the imagined reader. And thinking about translation evokes empathy once again, but also encounter, misencounter, the gathering (recopilación) of stories and experiences, the resistance to being brought into a new cultural world, the double-edgedness of hospitality. Questions of the curriculum, of change in the curriculum, of decolonising, of how students can be agents in this change inform all of our discussions: we are naming our place in history and imagining how, from the confined spaces of lockdown, we can effect the changes we want and build on the changes we’ve already made. In this way, we contest our isolation and wonder how to find an honest, rigorous, worldmaking voice in an abruptly atomised society.

The metalanguages we start to name also have voices; we have many many interlocutors. It is central to scholarly work that we seek out these interlocutors and enter into dialogue with them. Modern Languages scholars, linguists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, scientists … so many trails to follow. But the glory of Modern Languages scholarship is that, from the different languages we enter into, we can follow these various trails and traces. We know that science is not only Western, we know that stories and myths and chronicles have different hearts, different centres, we know that some things may be recognisable but that we have to be wary of assimilating and homogenising and rendering indifferent the experience of others. We know it because, from the small space of our being we go seeking encounters in other languages, and these change us.

In our workshops we encountered many companions. Here are a few: bell hooks, Rosario Castellanos, Angela Davis, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, June Jordan, Gabriela Mistral, Toni Morrison, Doris Sommer, the translators of the James VI Bible, Lawrence Venuti, Paul Ricoeur, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Federico Garcia Lorca, Chris Pountain. Marcus Rashford popped up. And we talked about the call for allies, and the definition of allies, of the voices of Black Lives Matter. And that makes me want to go back and think about convivencia with our students. That’s for another day.

A final thought, well two. Metalanguages take us to ways of articulating our ideas in ways that are legible to others. So does the naming of experiences and practices. So, thought one: Luis Medina told us about the wonderful Cerro de cuentos events in Ecuador, a ‘homage to oral narrators’. And I think we need to translate that here. We can do that within the remit of this module. We should.

Thought two. Once, after doing a workshop in a school in east London, I took the number 15 bus, in the wrong direction. Sitting on the top deck, I realised that I was going the wrong way, partly because we weren’t getting any nearer the Strand, but also because the demographic of the passengers wasn’t changing as I would expect as we got nearer to central London. So, I had the idea of sitting on top of the number 15 bus from Blackwall to Charing Cross station with a microphone, asking people to tell me their story, in English, or in their mother tongue (we’ll work out the logistics of translation later!). And then maybe we can make a ‘mountain of stories’. When we do it, we’ll all be wearing masks, but think how much we’d experience and learn in all of the ways we’ve covered in this blog, and in so many others. In a city like London, and as language scholars, we should always be experiencing the complex duality of hospitality and the complex demands of empathy.

This module is a way of incorporating this disciplinary experience, this competence and these skills more effectively into our curriculum.