One of the reasons I love to teach is that I get to learn. Be it from my students or the people who come to our class… every semester I acquire new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives thanks to what happens in the classroom.
As often as I can, I model the risks one needs to take to converse in a second language. Outside of class, my students are expected to make contact with Spanish speakers based upon their own interests and linguistic goals. In class, my role is to ask for/suggest topics that we can discuss, and/or invite Spanish speakers who are on campus to talk with the class whenever possible.
These visits are planned, to be sure, but they are never scripted. My responsibility as an educator is to help conversations flourish, and also to avoid using my privilege as “the leader” of the classroom to shut them down. I keep my class and the syllabus open-ended so that everyone has the freedom to take the conversation wherever it needs to go.
Where I teach, we are constantly wrestling with the ideas and the importance of difference: different ideas, different perspectives, different choices. Central to all of these conversations is the notion that while I might not totally understand or agree with someone else’s politics, point of view, or opinion, I can still listen and ask thoughtful, respectful questions without attacking the other person.
I can do that in English fairly well (okay, some days are better than others, I do admit). But in Spanish? Talking about difference, expressing difference, making room for different thoughts and ideas and perspectives in a language that is not your first language is hard. I want to make room for conversations in my classroom for topics like gender, sexuality, race, inclusion, exclusion, and privilege (all topics that have been part of many conversations on campus during the past few weeks). I worry about how to do this without making students feel uncomfortable, and how to do this without making the people or communities we are discussing seem unnecessarily academic or, worse, like “the other,” some weird thing that we have observe from a distance like scientists.
So, when in doubt? Dive in.
This past week, in light of some of the conversations that we have had on campus, and due to my own interest in learning more, I invited two speakers to come to our class.
Our first guest was the LGBTQ community coordinator for the Multicultural Resource Center of our college, Lore Espinoza, who is also Venezuelan. Lore talked with the students about how their work with the Spanish speaking LGBTQ community is limited by what the Spanish language can express effectively. There are words in English that simply do not exist in Spanish (e.g. queer). Yet when you use the English word, or even a literal translation of the word from English into Spanish, you realize that the language is not just limiting, but also imposing an English-centric bias on the conversation. The conversation then turned to the question that many textbooks try (and fail) to address: if a language only has masculine and feminine pronouns, does that mean it is sexist? Is it the language that is sexist, or is it the context in which the language is spoken that imposes sexism upon the meaning of words?
My hope for the conversation was not to make my students even more uncomfortable with speaking Spanish. Rather, it was to point out that even hispanoparlantes find Spanish limiting in their own work, and to give examples about how they work around that in their daily practice.
And speaking of queer….
The very same week, our campus was hosting (as part of the Year of the Queer series) a talk and a visit by Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes from the University of Michigan, author of Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora. Far from being just another boring academic, Prof La Fountain-Stokes also shared with us some of the work he is doing for a new book covering “Puerto Rican and diasporic theater, performance, and activism since the 1960s, and […] the links between cross-dressing, sex/gender modification, and physical displacement in a geographic zone marked by frequent migrations.”[This is the moment where I jettison myself totally outside of my comfort zone, floating somewhere in between these two circles….thank you, ThisisIndexed ]
original image here: http://thisisindexed.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/card27451.jpg
Prof. La Fountain-Stokes took the conversation we had started about the limits of the language and pushed us even further. We talked about the etymology of words that refer to gender and sexual minorities. Words that he felt the students needed to know existed, but they shouldn’t ever use (an interesting concept… usually you learn words in a second language in order to use them…immediately, as in, a quiz!)
At one point the whiteboard was a blur of words (English, Spanish, Latin…). It seemed overwhelming and I could feel my own anxiety growing as I realized that in the wrong context the word ladybug or duck in Spanish could be perceived as an insult. The students were feeling it too.
“El idioma es una cosa viva,” said el Profe, “que se transforma con el tiempo.” Language is a living thing that transforms itself over time…. and I would add, evolves based upon the culture and the context in which it is spoken.
Which is how we got to Cooking with Drag Queens. As part of Prof La Fountain-Stokes’ research, he collaborated on a series of YouTube videos (“Cooking with Drag Queens”) in which his persona, Lola von Miramar, makes Puerto Rican delicacies, talks about Ricky Martin, paints her nails blue, and dresses fabulously. Code switching between Spanish and English as well as gender roles, Lola embodied all of the intersections of language, gender, inclusion, acceptance, serious research, and humor we had been transversing recently all into one faaaabulous persona. And she made us giggle too.
So what did I learn? I learned that modelling and engaging in uncomfortable conversations and unknown terrains is hard, but if you set the right tone, and approach it with a sense of respect, humility, wonder, and even a little bit of humor, it can be done. It would have been different, I think, if I had talked about Lola or the limits of the Spanish language for the LGBTQ community on my own with the class. That, to me, would have felt like “othering.” But to have Lola present herself to the class, giggle with us, and remind us that camp is camp whether in English or in Spanish … that made the topic all the more accessible and the conversations all the more possible.
The more I teach, the more I learn, and the more I realize that the world is not just black and white. And the world would be utterly boring if that were the case. Instead, I am grateful for the many shades of gray that the world has to offer, and I appreciate the challenge of including those shades of gray in my teaching (and in my world) as often as I can.