When I was in college at the University of Arizona I was in a ska band called Turban Jones. No, I didn’t sing (which is what The Girl always gets asked when she says she’s in a band); I played the tenor saxophone. Turban Jones pretty much defined my social life from Fall 1998 to Spring 2001. We practiced and composed songs during the week and then gigged on the weekend, sometimes every weekend, sometimes several nights in a row, sometimes during the middle of the week (at one point we had a standing Tuesday night gig at a local New Orleans-themed bar, which is where we were, playing to a skeleton audience, the night Bush won the 2000 election). When I joined I barely knew had no idea what ska was. One of the other band members, a guy name Sonny, who is now one of my best friends of all time, was really up on the cultural and political side of the music we were making. His expertise of the history and social evolution of ska was so legendary that we even spoofed it on one of the hidden tracks on our second CD, where Sonny starts talking in a rather professorial way about the history of Jamaican music, and the rest of the band members one by one get tired and leave him rambling on… Anyway, I did learn a lot about all of this from Sonny and from being in the band. And to my amazement it all came in handy just the other day while I was teaching linguistic theory, here at the University of Oxford.
I tweeted about this happy coincidence, and a few people asked for clarification (How could being in a ska band a decade ago possibly help you out at Oxford, now?). So I thought I’d elaborate, here.
For starters, no, I’m not playing in another ska band… What I am doing is tutorial teaching, the Oxbridge style of instruction that consists of one-to-one or one-to-two instruction, rather than, or in compliment with, lectures (which are never required) and classes (which may not even exist, for some subjects). I meet with each student or pair of students once a week, for an hour each. Most of them write a 2,000 word essay each week, on a separate topic each time, as the primary means of engaging with the new material and ideas of their coursework, and in preparation for a major exam on that topic. But not all students are preparing for exams; some are preparing to write an extended essay, instead. Sort of like a mini-thesis. This term, I have eight students, and one of them is writing an extended essay, broadly under the category of “linguistic theory.” I got paired up with her, as her subject tutor for the essay, because she expressed a general interest in “language, power, and ethnicity,” a theme which my PhD dissertation topic makes me somewhat qualified to tutor.
One of the hardest parts of writing a research paper, in general, is narrowing the topic of the paper to something that’s both manageable and interesting; you want something bite sized but with a bit of kick! Students may be brilliant writers, full of great ideas, but they often need guidance in terms of how to carve out an appropriate, essay-sized topic. Anyway, this carving is what my student and I have been doing in her tutorials for the past few weeks, and it now looks like she’s going to be focusing on the use of English (and varieties of English and English-lexified Creoles) in Jamaica, and among Jamaican/Caribbean communities in London. That’s still not at all a ‘bite-sized’ topic, so she’s thinking of focusing on the music scene. Specifically, to paraphrase (a lot) from this week’s tutorial:
I’m thinking about looking at the connections between the growth of Reggae and punk movements in London, and the use of language, its influence on language change, code switching, and the construction of identity.
My first thought was, ashamedly, Okay, she wants to look at something specific to a particular period in British youth culture that I, as-usual-the-dumb-American, just don’t know anything about, I mean, what’s the connection between reggae and punk…. Oh, hey, wait a second! And then it dawned on me that I totally knew what she was talking about! And the voice of my dear friend, Sonny, guided me through the rest of the tutorial (which, as a lively and engaged discussion of ideas, was a prime example of the joys of teaching, and the positive side of Oxford’s somewhat obscure instructional system).
So, you never know what random information is going to become useful, and how. I’d like to think that this is especially the case when it comes to teaching and researching sociolinguistics, which is ultimately about the everyday use of language, by anyone and everyone, at any time and place in the world, with respect to any aspect of life. Come to think of it, I don’t know why more people aren’t in my little field of academic inquiry, but I’m pretty happy to be a part of it, myself.
P.S. For a listen to the beginning of an old Turban Jones song, just tune in to my father’s podcasts. TJ’s song, “Crazy Ways,” provides both the intro and the outro. If you want the whole CD, get in touch with me personally; I’ve still got a few copies. 🙂