I am a teacher and one of the few things I’m secure in is my ability to teach, regardless, or maybe because of, my love of research and learning. I’ve been a teacher since I came to Quebec over 25 years ago. I taught ESL to small groups or individual adults. My classes were intimate by nature, as many of the students were shy about speaking a foreign language in front of strangers, of losing their carefully constructed identities as confident, intelligent adults. In order to get those confident, intelligent adults and later often apprehensive, international students and diffident, unemployed youth to speak out loud, I learned that I had to create a safe space where they felt comfortable making the inevitable mistakes of language learners and to continuously craft a secure place in which they could recover from banging their heads against the vagaries of the English language.
These experiences bolstered me as I partially reconstructed my identity from ESL teacher, to university teaching assistant, to university lecturer standing at the front of a lecture hall full of 85 – 100 expectant faces. In both iterations of my teaching identity, I was the first Black instructor many of the students had had. This gave me the space to be more brash and outspoken living up to my version of the stereotype of the ‘Black entertainer’ (McGee & Kazembe, 2016). Even as my identity took on a more professional stance, I was never part of the mainstream, and this gave the some of the students the space to open up in new and thought-provoking ways. As the students accustomed themselves to being served information and to pursuing information for themselves, they found that their own interests, both personal and academic, were actually being written about in scholarly journals that examined social interactions—that they were part of a much larger portrait of the human chain of communication than they had ever considered.
In each reiteration of the scenario, I learned and flourished in synchrony with my students. These days, however, I am not there to teach them how to be competent communicators in English but to teach them with whom, when, where, why, and how we communicate in general—the components of our interactions in society—how we do sociolinguistics.
The topic of the lessons has changed, as have the institutions. But what has not changed is the intimacy of the space. In spite of the class size, which normally calls for lectures, the students are encouraged to discuss, ask questions and challenge the ideas presented; for those students too shy to speak in front of a crowd, they have the on-line version of the class discussion. Introducing the students to the diversity of language and the role of that variation in the co-construction of speakers’ racial, ethnic, or gender identities opens their eyes to numerous similarities and differences. In most cases they may not have observed this, or perhaps they did notice but didn’t have the tools with which to evaluate the significance and merit of this diversity.
Teaching large classes is as terrifying as it is rewarding, it is as tiring as it is entertaining. The best part of the course for both the students and for me comes at the end. The students write research papers on any sociolinguistics-related topic they choose, some of which are given as presentations. The presentations and papers show what the students have absorbed from this class. Every semester I watch them take hold of the philosophies of sociolinguistics and convey them in all directions. I listen as they display their identities as experts in their native languages. I feel pride as they regard their academic or everyday interests through a language lens.
In their discussions of social interactions in various places and between diverse speakers, my students display their newly acquired understanding of the substantial role language plays in our society and in their own lives. Watching the presentations and reading the final papers signify to me that my safe space is still very much intact.
McGee, Ebony O., & Lasana Kazembe (2016): Entertainers or education researchers? The challenges associated with presenting while black. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 19(1), 96-120 DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2015.1069263