My name is Stephen Cruikshank. I was born and raised right here in Edmonton. I come from a long history of early Scottish and English immigrants that arrived to Canada hundreds of years ago. Those immigrants spoke in the language of English and would eventually make way for many other generations of people who worked and spoke in English, and died— well in English. So I am perplexed at times when I think of my position today as a University instructor in Spanish and Latin American Studies. At the same time, however, I consider myself to be treading new ground in a family history tied—far too tight in my opinion—to anglicised western-Canadian culture and identity. As I remind my students, learning a new language opens doors to new perspectives. I think, in many ways, that I'm an active and living proof of that in my family history.
What I call my "language journey" began in Mexico, but in a "Mexico" far from Mexico. You see, I started to learn Spanish many years ago in a ditch with a handful of Mexican labourers while working for a water-sewer construction company here in Edmonton. I'm not a fan of stereotypes, but in this case it was impossible to avoid them: three of the Mexican men I worked closely with were named—not joking—José, Jesus, and Juan and they all loved jalapeños, mariachi music, had big moustaches, and taught me how to make burritos. While working with these men under the heat of the summer in a dirt field, I often imagined my summers as a paid work expedition to central Mexico— not a bad way to spend the summer months. Over time, the years of balancing Spanish learning in the classroom, studying abroad in Cuba and Brazil, and speaking Spanish in the construction site during the summers inevitably led into a career path in academia where my pursuit of language and culture could continue and flourish. As I look back, I recognize that I began my language experience in a unique context, one that seems to be stained by much of the public media today— foreign workers, "migrants," and the many other labels given to some of the most amazing people (with names) that I have ever known or had the honour to work beside. Based on my experiences, I have a hard time justifying walls built between people and cultures. I've always framed my personal and pedagogical philosophy around the importance of jumping into the ditch with others, working alongside them, and learning from them. Such actions have defined my life and my academic journey.
What is your favourite thing about teaching?
Laughter. The classroom is one of the few places—other than in a comedy club—where you can get over twenty people all laughing about a similar topic. Besides, learning should be fun.
What's the last book you read and loved?
I'm currently reading a novel in Spanish called La casa de los espiritus [The House of Spirits] by a very famous Chilean author named Isabel Allende. It's one of those long-winded bildungsroman type narratives where you follow the story of a family through various generations. Allende's known for mixing history with imagined or "magical" events in her story, so it's a narrative filled with both explorations of truth and the make-believe.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I think the next place on my bucket list is to visit Peru. I've been lucky enough to see some ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico, but I would love the chance to explore the history of the Inca civilization and visit Machu Picchu. There's something about walking on the land of ancient civilizations that makes travelling so historically and experientially fulfilling.
What three words best describe your experience as a teacher?
Hmm...good question and I need to throw in at least one idiomatic phrase here. Here's my three (explanations included):
1. "Dar um jeito."
This is a Portuguese idiom that basically means "to find a way" or "to figure it out as you go". Think of the old 1980s MacGyver character who consistently figured out random ways to get out of tough situations by using the environment and objects around him. MacGyver did a lot of "dando um jeito". I think teaching is so engaging because you can't prepare for everything. Sometimes you need to be ready to be a pedagogical MacGyver, that is, to "dar um jeito" and use your wits, knowledge, and tools available to guide the classroom discussions and learning in the best possible direction.
So, basically this is a type of Cuban pork-broth stew filled with vegetables, different types of meat, and roots similar to a potato. It's delicious. It's also considered a sort-of national dish in Cuba. Years ago a Cuban ethnographer once used the stew as a metaphor for the Cuban people— a mixed national dish of all types of people groups, cultures, colours, and cultural backgrounds. I love metaphors and I suppose my eclectic experiences between different teaching jobs, classrooms, courses, and students makes me think that my professional life is sort of like an ajiaco—a rich experience filled with so many diverse experiences and amazing colleagues and students from many different places and backgrounds.
This is the title of that famous song by Leonard Cohen who uses the term "hallelujah" with a double-meaning, firstly in the original Hebrew context, which means to exhort God's name when entering into his presence and secondly in the modern sense where it is used as a general exclamation of praise or celebration. The first meaning is a cry of anguish and fear, the other is cry of praise; one is a cry of brokenness, the other is cry of relief and joy. I see both these expressions of "hallelujah" in the University classrooms. On one end I've seen expressions of desperation, anxiety, PTSD, depression, stress and other impacts of mental health. At the other end I have seen expressions of praise and celebration for the accomplishments that have been achieved. The university is a place filled with both "hallelujahs," the hallelujahs of struggle and perseverance and the hallelujahs of joy and success. As an instructor, I hope to be an encouragement to students in both circumstances.
What is your favourite word in Spanish?
My favourite word is the adjective "caótico," which means "chaotic." The pronunciation is fun: it's quick harsh syllables where, unlike many words in Spanish, the hard consonants resound throughout. You sound it out like "Kah-owe-tee-co". Try sounding it out: Kah...owe.. tee...co. Great, now that's progress. There are now only around 150,000 more Spanish words to know. Buena suerte.