June 18th, 2009
I am in Spain. I know, itâ€™s a dirty job, but, honestly, I am singing for my pimientos rellenos. Some time ago, a Spanish scholar with a passion for Canadian and especially Newfoundland writing arranged through her university to invite me to deliver a graduate seminar. I jumped at the chance. Being dean doesnâ€™t allow for much teaching time anymore, and so most of us, if we have any fond memories of being in the classroom, frequently worry about not having enough contact with students. Teaching fuels mind and body, and there is always a concern that without practice in the classroom oneâ€™s mind can turn to beans pretty quickly. Being an administrator has its intellectual challenges and most often I feel my days are productive, but there is nothing quite like the immediacy of teaching, sharing ideas, listening to others interpret a problem or suggest an idea. I welcome the change, and the opportunity to recharge my batteries.
And so here I am, walking the medieval streets of LogroÃ±o in northeast Spain, about two hours drive south of one of the most spectacular museums on the planet, Frank Gehryâ€™s Guggenheim in Bilbao. LogroÃ±o sits on the border of picaresque, politically charged, Basque country. The city is roughly the size of St. Johnâ€™s, with way many more churches, dog pooh, and sidewalk cafÃ©s. It is the capital of the celebrated Rioja region, the centre of Spanish wine-making, fast becoming a necessary stop on the foodie tourist beat. Wineries ring the town and there is no end to the number of bodegas, taverns, and wine stores. You can get a bit heady just by walking around downtown.
But I am here to teach, not so much to join the daily bacchanal that fills the days and especially the nights. The course I have been asked to deliver is designed as Contemporary Canadian Literature and Film. In effect, I am responsible for an entire grad course or 24 credits in 5 days. Itâ€™s a lot like a marathon. I start on Monday and keep going until the end of the week, or else I drop, whichever comes first. There isnâ€™t much time to think or reflect. This is itâ€”the week is upon me and itâ€™s all I can do, along with the students, to maintain the pace and, I hope, their interest.
Designing such a compactly delivered course has been more than a little daunting. All I knew is that the students would be at the doctoral level, speak English fairly well, and know as much about Canada as I knew about LogroÃ±o before coming here. Are all PhD students the same? Will they be more or less sophisticated than Canadian-based students? Would the teaching environment be comfortable? Will I be able to screen some Canadian feature films? What novels best capture what I want them to learn about Canadian life?
Let me tell you about my first day on the job. Four graduate students signed up, all women. I asked if there were any men in the program and learned that, yes, there is one guy, but he is not taking courses this summer. Itâ€™s an odd situation, walking into a foreign country and being considered the oracle for all that is Canadian. Sometimes I think it is the reverse of what our international students must face, parachuting themselves onto our shores to learn something new, encountering all the while the strangeness that comes from difference. Itâ€™s exhausting hearing others speak in a language not your own.Â My Spanish is great for ordering red wine, nonexistent for anything beyond that, and there is, of course, more than one Spanish dialect spoken here. As with Newfoundland, a lot depends on what region you come from, where you were born and taught to talk, and where you were educated. My undeveloped ear cannot really make the distinction; people here speak even more quickly than they do in Trepassey.
As I had been warned, the students admitted they knew only one thing about Canadaâ€”that is it a very cold place. Well, British Columbia more or less excepted, they got that right. Imagine teaching a graduate course on Canadian culture to an audience of graduate students in English who have never heard of Margaret Atwood. I bet even the famous novelist would be shocked to know there was a place on the planet where she was practically invisible. And so, I began, slowly, like a nervous explorer, drawing a rough map of the country, beginning with a famous Canadian question: where is here? It is, indeed, a lot like explorationâ€”for the students and for me. I can hear myself talking about Canada, history, geography, culture, literature, art, film as if I were naming the world for the first time. Itâ€™s all new to them, of course.
By the end of the course, I hope they know more about Canada and its art and culture than they ever wanted to know. The trick is to connect with what they do know, with their own history and culture, so apparently different from ours, and much older, more dramatic, and so much bloodier. Iâ€™ll let you know how it turns out.
Thanks to Arbego for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.