Until this week I had forgotten what it was like to feel chilly. In this part of the world, with its seemingly interminable winters, that seems like a rather implausible statement. But the summer here in eastern Canada has been one of unremitting, soaring temperatures. By the time of the summer solstice in June, the mercury had already spent long days in the 30s (over 90 degrees Fahrenheit), and it hardly let up, or went down, at all through the two summer months. Now the fall term is looming as the temperature relents a little, and while most of us in the academic world greet September in a “time to gird up our loins” sort of mood, we’re also sighing with relief at being able to enjoy being outside once again.
We’re closer to the autumn equinox than the summer solstice now. The trees have started to turn; the students have started to gather. New cohorts of undergraduates and M.A. students will be arriving in the classes I teach soon—I will never get over having stage fright when I meet those new classes—and over the course of time some of them will stick with the strange world of combined work and pleasure that is professional academia. It’s a peculiar kind of workplace, one that is regulated top-down through a host of corporate-driven and irritatingly bureaucratic mechanisms, but that at its core remains fundamentally, and anachronistically, an apprenticeship model. After their undergraduate degrees, students who pursue an M.A. or Ph.D. degree do so by trying to become, in some way, like the senior scholars under whom they choose to study. I have many reservations about the university system, and even more about my supervision, but the extraordinary thing, a testament to the energy and goodwill of the young, is how often and how well this apprenticeship model works.
I consider that I have been particularly blessed in the kind of graduate students who have decided that they wanted to work with me. So some years ago I started a personal-professional tradition of holding an annual potluck open house to which everybody I was supervising—soon expanded to, “or had ever supervised”—was invited. This event snowballed over the years, along with the list of supervisees and former supervisees. It became clear that the really interesting thing about the potluck party was the unexpected combinations of people that came together and had the chance to converse, despite belonging to different graduate cohorts or programs. It’s a long list, I can’t keep track of how long any more, but every year now I throw the place open to an extraordinary afternoon and evening of the serendipitous mingling of minds (and culinary traditions!). We all digest insights and ingredients happily for hours in a sort of graduate student gumbo.
Usually this has been a pre-summer, solstice-timed event, but this summer it had to be postponed to just before the fall term started. So I am still enjoying the memories of last Sunday’s gathering, where several BILD members were present, along with many non-BILDers who also brought their significant others—parents, partners, children. The mix of languages and cultures in my kitchen, bursting at the seams, was wonderful to behold. At one point there were no fewer than four crawling infants looking for pot lids to bang together. Among them, the infants alone could boast of five languages in which they might hear endearments or reprimands (English, French, Polish, Arabic and Chinese). The adults and at least half a dozen older children included speakers of all those languages as well as Japanese, Spanish, Greek and Kreyòl ayisyen (in which language a recent BILD blog post appeared).
This is Montreal; most of the conversation was in English, French, or a happy mixture of both. The common thread linking the current and former graduate students is of course an interest in language (or languages, or languaging) and a strong motivation to help people diversify their language repertoires. That’s also why BILD exists! It was heartwarming to witness the forming of networks across generations of students, as a new graduate who has just co-authored a hilarious children’s book in French met former French immersion teachers-turned-academics who may be able to help her get the word out—it’s also skillfully designed to facilitate early reading. People now on faculty gave advice to new master’s and doctoral students about navigating the system, and the Montreal winter. We discussed politics, Olympics, and where to go for the best poutine.
I’m not sure if this kind of gathering is what Lave and Wenger had in mind when they first wrote about “communities of practice” in 1991, though I went back and looked. Maybe it’s more like what has been called a “community of interest”: “a gathering of people assembled around a topic of common interest…[i]ts members take part in the community to exchange information, to obtain answers to personal questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, to share common passions or to play” [Henri & Pudelko 2003]. But I do know that we are above all a community. One in which the lines between apprentice and mentor are, thankfully, constantly shifting. We are held together by our love of languaging and of learning. By our trust in and reliance upon each other. We are held together, finally, by our love.
Henri, F., & Pudelko, B. (2003). Understanding and analysing activity and learning in virtual communities. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 19(4), 474-487. DOI: 10.1046/j.0266-4909.2003.00051.x
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.