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Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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I was at the Simon Fraser University book store downtown this afternoon when the cashier recognized me as the instructor for a class she had taken over a decade ago. That sort of recognition happens less often than you might expect, although I must have taught five or six thousand students overall. But it does happen once or twice a year, and never fails to make me edgy with the start of panic.

Partly, my panic is due to the fact that so much has happened since my instructor days that I hardly feel like the same person I was then. My ambitions, my career, and my whole outlook have changed dramatically since then – and not just once, but two or three times. I’m not much for nostalgia, thinking it a form of self-indulgent depression, so I don’t particularly welcome the unexpected reminders of the past.

For another, my interactions with a former student is necessarily very different from the one we once had. I am informal to a fault, but, in the past, the student-instructor relationship put us in an unequal relation. Now when we meet, the relationship is more equal. Or it should be. But the former inequality still colors what happens unless we are very careful. And the last thing I want to be is condescending, or assuming a superiority I no longer had nor wanted in the first place.

Even more to the point, one or two meetings with former students haven’t always gone particularly well. One former student lives in my neighborhood, and we often exchange a sentence or two when we encounter each other running, but, with other students, the encounters haven’t been so smooth. One student looked me up asking for a recommendation for graduate school at a difficult time in my life, and was put out when I told her – truthfully – that under the then-current English Department chair, my recommendation wouldn’t do her very good. Another met me coming out of the Canada Games Swimming Pool in New Westminster, and only my sense of my own ridiculousness kept me from sucking my gut in while we talked.

But the main reason these meetings make me feel uneasy is that I wonder how I am remember. By my own estimation, I was a committed instructor with scintillating lectures and a good rapport with students – but, by that same measure, who isn’t? The fact that my evaluations and frequent rehiring suggest that my self-estimation is not complete fantasy doesn’t help any, because (for all I know, at times), I could be meeting one of the handful of students who disliked me or complained about a grade.

Told that I once taught someone, my first impulse is to blurt out something like, “Well, I hope you have happy memories of the class.” But that would sound like I am angling for the very approval that I want, making it impossible for me to know if the reply was sincere or given out of pity. At the very least, it would put the ex-student on the spot. So, instead, I make small talk, hoping that I will gradually pick up the impression of what the student thought of me.

And, usually it is positive, as I would know if I used any sense in the matter. After all, why would someone reveal themselves to me if they had any animosity? They’d either ignore me or bop me on the head with the nearest blunt instrument the moment my back was turned. But logic has little to do with my reaction, so I am always disconcerted by these meetings, and probably always will be.

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At the start or end of my morning run, I often meet one of my neighbors running for the bus. He works as an on-call English instructor at various institutions around the city, and often gets the call to teach at the last moment in the morning. He doesn’t seem to mind, except for the irregularity of his pay, but I never meet him on his way to work without being thoroughly thankful that my own days as an itinerant instructor are long-past.

For the last few decades, most people with a graduate degree who hope to have a career in academia spend at least some time as a sessional instructor, scrambling for each semester-long contract, and often scrambling between community colleges during the work week to cobble together something like a regular pay cheque. My own experiences include a semester when I bused out to Fraser Valley College (as it was then) two days a week, and more than one time when I had fourteen hour days in which at least two or three hours were spent travelling. That’s time that I could have dearly used for marking or lesson preparation.

Sessional instructors have the lowest rank in academia, and everything about their working conditions reminds of them of the fact. Often, they don’t get a teaching assignment until a week or less before the semester starts – sometimes the night before. They get paid half what tenured faculty get, and often do twice the work, since they frequently teach lower level classes with more students. Most of the time, they have to share offices – or even study carrels in a crowded room. Officially, they don’t get paid for research, yet, if they don’t publish, they have less chance of being hired. Similarly, they are looked down on because their focus is teaching, but, unlike a tenured professor, they lose their position if their student evaluations are poor. Their rehiring is at the whim of their department, which means that wise sessionals will waste hours at every meeting and function, even though they have no voice. Yet they endure all this in the hopes that one day they’ll rise to the height of being a lecturer – which means they’ll be doing the same work for about the same pay, but not having to scramble for it. Meanwhile, they dream of winning a tenure position and dwelling in the halls of academia forever.

Sessional work is especially hard at the community colleges. For one thing, the classes are larger than at universities, and more assignments are required. For another, community colleges – even now, when they have morphed into degree-granting institutions of a kind – are often the continuation of high school under another name. Faced with the choice of finding a job or going to college, many middle-class kids will immediately register for college, which is cheaper than university and easier to treat lightly. For the sessional instructor, that means that the lesson that works in the more serious atmosphere of university has to be largely remade for use at a college. In fact, when I retreated after a few years into teaching only at university, the first thing I noticed was how much lighter my work load became. And I needed the respite, because, although I was young and healthy, the work was steadily grinding me down, especially since I needed to teach year round in order to keep above the poverty line.

Despite these disadvantages, I loved the work, especially dealing with the students. I was kept going, too, by a vague promise at one university that I would eventually be hired for some kind of full-time position. Dozens of Baby Boomer teachers would be retiring any day now, I was continually told – and when they did, I would be first in line for their jobs, because I had established myself as an effective teacher.

Then, slowly, the die started being weighted against me. My non-dogmatic approach to criticism was out of fashion with the then-dominant Post Colonialists, and, although I muttered jokes about being the token humanist, I was increasingly looked at askance. Then the chair changed, and the new one announced that, instead of reserving sessional positions for those who have proved themselves, the department would use the positions in order to trade favors for its grad students at other universities. Suddenly, my income became precarious. And, right about then, I noticed that, when tenured staff retired, they were either not being replaced or else being replaced by relatively lowly lecturer positions.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I made the jump to technical writing. From there, I was so busy leapfrogging into marketing, consulting, and eventually journalism that I’ve had little time to look back. If my new work was just as unsettled, I appreciated that it paid much better, although ordinarily I have only a minimal interest in money. It also had new challenges, such as taking on responsibility for large projects and developing customer relations.

Still, when I do look back, I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had stayed on the fringes of academia. Then I look at my neighbor and other people who started as sessionals the same time as I did, and I have my answer: In exactly the same place that I was.

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