Written by Lucía Guerrero, Spanish FLTA (2020-2021)
This week during one of my tertulias, one student Zoomed in from a very sunny field on campus, raving over how great the weather had been. The next day, another student told me that it’d snowed. Sitting just above the equator, my home city of Bogotá doesn’t have seasons, but I’ve watched my fair share of Gilmore Girls to know that it really shouldn’t be snowing in April in Connecticut. My conclusion? Time isn’t real! What more proof (besides the whole concept of daylight savings time) could you possibly need? I’ll tell you: try negotiating not only eleven different time zones, but also their corresponding norms of socially acceptable hours to be on a Zoom call. For the last year, this is what Natalia Román Alicea has done to organize meetings for the cohort of 11 Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTAs) of which I am lucky to be a part.
As FLTAs, we facilitate intercultural activities with students at Wesleyan to support them in their language learning processes. Along with Marcos and Marta, who are in Spain, I lead tertulias, weekly 30-minute conversation sessions for students who are learning Spanish. The goal of these spaces is for students to speak in Spanish about topics that are relevant to their everyday lives with a peer, rather than a professor. In fact, our meetings are usually prefaced by the knowing glances of tired, stressed college students drowning in deadlines, yet for me these sessions offer a respite from the pressure of regular classes. Over the past year, we’ve talked about everything ranging from taking down the patriarchy to embarrassing high school stories; we’re all navigating online learning and coming to terms with an emotionally overwhelming year. Indeed, listening to bright, dedicated students talk about their cities, identities, interests, and aspirations while battling with my weak internet has inflected the word “connection” with new meanings.
Although my experience of campus is almost exclusively limited to the glimpses I’ve caught of Fisk Hall and Downey House in my hybrid classes, as well as the images I’ve conjured from descriptions of students of sun-drenched grass and (apparently, sometimes simultaneously) snow-covered rooftops, I’ve felt every bit a part of the Wesleyan community. There’s a unique sense of proximity in seeing somebody you’re in a class with attend the same online event, even if their camera is off. Reading for classes takes on a different quality when you’ve had the opportunity of listening to the authors themselves during online events hosted by the university. Besides my tertulias, the conversations with Marcos, Marta, the FLTAs from all over the world, and the Spanish professors have shed light on the geopolitics of language and refigured my understanding of what being bilingual means in today’s world. And, to draw from Matiza Sacotingo’s presentation in the Power of Language Conference, volunteering as a Standardized Patient in the Medical Spanish classes organized by the SACNAS chapter was a way for me to put into practice what she called “the power of language as an instrument for healing the body.”
Although I am immensely grateful for all of these experiences that I’ve had with online learning, I refuse to express this gratitude with statements along the lines of “the pandemic has had many tragic effects, but at least it has allowed us to…” Instead, I would argue that the pandemic has revealed what we’ve chronically disallowed: the global conversations, the creative approaches to pedagogy, the flexibility, the recognition of how vulnerable we all are to circumstances beyond our control. To some extent, all of this has always been possible, but, more importantly, it has always been necessary: for instance, disabled people have been requesting this type of accommodation for years. This isn’t the end of the story, though: to truly extend access to both virtual and physical spaces of education, discussion, and dialogue moving forward, we need to tackle other, older issues, such as improving access to electronics and the internet—and, while we’re at it, we might think about how to make these tools themselves more equitable.
Last fall, I had the fortune of taking Cultural Studies of Health. Among a world of other critical stances and ideas, in this class professor Hatch urged us to always interrogate the social world by asking who benefits from any intervention, biomedical or otherwise. In our current conjuncture, asking who benefits from the measures taken during a crisis requires us to look beyond ourselves and the experiences we’ve had, whether positive or negative, to look for a more nuanced story. Moreover, asking who might benefit and how allows us to envision a new normal that holds onto a radically transformative weirdness, one that doesn’t stop at time zones and snow in April.