Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections on "the last time"


It's 10 days since we spoke in Comillas and, as luck would have it, the whole thing was absolutely memorable. It was simply a fabulous experience on all dimensions: academic life at its best, and we came away feeling privileged to have been there.

Partly, but only partly, this was because we were happy with the way our presentations went. While it was doubtless idiosyncratic, our respective Spanishes seemed to work fine on the day. The audience was largely an audience of people who worked in foreign language learning, so they knew all about inter-languages and intercultural subjectivities and the like. They knew how to make better sense of what sense we were making, and we felt confident that regardless of how we actually said it, what we wanted to say was being communicated. The audience were gracious and welcoming and enthusiastic for their subject area. There was no hint whatsoever of academic competitiveness or one-upmanship. No one was there to score points or make impressions. They were there to celebrate an area of inquiry and to share enthusiasm. There was an exemplary spirit of collaborative endeavour everywhere we looked. Everyone was giving truth to the adage "we are here to learn", and from what we could tell there was plenty of learning done over the two days. And we had great friends with us in our talk, because some of our closest colleagues are deep in research areas concerned with learning other languages. Rebecca and Eva and Steve were there at the heart of what we had to say and, as always, JPG was integral to the frame. We riffed off the intriguing work being done by John Hagel and colleagues on the interplay between the familiar "push" paradigm of resource mobilisation for pursuing goals and an emergent "pull" paradigm, as well as drawing on work by John Seely Brown and colleagues on social learning. These ideas, in conjunction with the concept of social languages, gave us plenty of room for ranging over cases of (mainly) young people acquiring forms of proficiency across languages other than their own in diverse online settings.

More than this, however, we reveled in the company of wonderful people, many of whom knew each other well and brought their friendships as well as collegiality to the scene. The social life during comida and after the end of each day was vibrant and warm. Conversations ranged widely, and there was plenty of humour and sharing of perspectives. The Comillas Foundation were incredibly generous hosts. Every aspect of hospitality and organisation was expansive and considerate. Everything was in place on time; there was nothing that had not been anticipated. From the time we were met to the time we were dropped off we never had to ask for a thing -- every conceivable "need" had been anticipated.

And the small coastal pocket of Cantabria that is the town of Comillas lent its own distinctive magic and bounty to the occasion. We were told that during the summer tourist season the population explodes from the 2500 souls who live there permanently to over 45,000 -- and it is easy to understand why. The food is superb, from the freshest of seafood to the endless array of tapas dishes, and bread that would do the finest French bakeries proud. And the red wine was as kind as the people themselves. Comillas was pretty much a tiny fishing village until a local lad ran off to Cuba at the age of 14 in the early 1830s to seek his fortune. He duly made one -- marrying well helped in this regard as well -- and brought some of it back to Comillas. Lending the King of Spain a small fortune seems to have been associated with being made a marquis, and the first Marquis of Comillas built the impressive Pontificia University complex, part of which has been restored and houses the Comillas Foundation, and the remainder of which remains unused and in search of a new purpose. The first Marquis of Comillas' son in law was an early patron of Gaudi, whose magnificent Capricho is in the heart of Comillas, right alongside the massive residence built by the Marquis, which is now maintained by the Municipal Council of Comillas. We spent the Saturday morning after the conference, before heading to Santander for the remainder of the weekend, visiting these two amazing buildings and getting as good a sense as we could of the history of the town.

Finally, the time in Comillas reflected the generous spirit of our colleague Daniel Cassany, who had put the academic side of the event together. Daniel has a wonderful sense of proportion with respect to life generally and academic life in particular. We drank deeply at his well and look forward to ongoing collaborative work with him, as well as with others we had the good fortune to meet over those days.

As tired as we were by the time we got back to Santander, we were feeling sufficiently optimistic and robust (just) to take a chance on public transport to go visit the historic town of Santillana del Mar on the Sunday. Truth be told, the original agenda had been to visit the site of the Altamira Caves and take tour through the replica cave that is open to tourists. But by the time we had explored the town and had a meal to die for and then walked to the cave site they were closing for the day. As much as we had anticipated learning about the caves we weren't the slightest bit put out at arriving late because the town was nothing short of splendid. We just lost ourselves in the 15th and 16th centuries, between the buildings and the surrounding farmland. Over the 6 days we had scratched enough of the surface to know that this is a part of the world we want to return to, at length and at leisure, in the future. During the bus ride back to Santander Michele began anticipating her next sabbatical. Given that she had just finished a long sabbatical in September, one might think she was jumping out of the blocks just a little early. But I don't think so. Planning to spend some serious time with such people and places can never begin too early.

Our thanks and best wishes go to all who were involved in the seminar and in hosting and accommodating the participants. They provided as experience of academic life that is as good as it gets.

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