Robert Hanks

Robert Hanks is a 1st year MA student in the Department of Anthropology. He has a BA in Anthropology from the MacEwan University. He joined me for a video call in March 2021 from his home in [a]miskwaciy / Edmonton, Alberta. 

—-Lindsey Paskulin, PhD student in the UBC Department of Anthropology and Graduate Academic Assistant, Communications (spring 2021)

LP:       How’s online learning been for you so far?

RH:      It’s not too bad! I finally set up a standing desk with two monitors, which has made life easier. Also, I’m an introvert, so I feel well-equipped for online learning. [smiling]

LP:       [laughing] I’m glad it’s going okay! So, you started this last September at UBC. What’s your research focus?

RH:      I came to UBC with the intention of doing language revitalisation, specifically focusing on decolonising educational practices. Language programs often treat Indigenous languages as if they’re any other language, like French, Spanish, or German. But those majority language programs are made with the expectation that there will be other places where that language is spoken. If you are in French class, you can always go to France or Quebec. There are books written in French, and Netflix shows you can watch in French. The focus in the classroom is then to learn the language so you can use that knowledge to improve your skills in the real world.

In the context of indigenous languages, that’s where the language is losing space in other places. There aren’t the same resources, so that style of teaching doesn’t work.

…In regard to language revitalization, my focus is how can we rethink language learning programs to make better educational models that truly reflect the needs of each language…

A lot of that comes down to two main questions: How do we encourage people to want to speak the language outside of the classroom, and how do we find or create mediums through which the language can be spoken? I was in my Cree language class in university, and my Cree instructor taught very differently from instructors in my other language classes. While conducting research, I would often compare my university Cree class with my university German class. The university German class was very strict in regard to how the language was taught— everything had to be spelled correctly and grammar had to be accurate. All my Cree language instructor cared about was our effort.

I remember an assignment where we had to write a paragraph in English and translate it to Cree. I got 100% on it, though I guarantee that it was not all correct. Later, after months of improving my language skills, I looked back at this assignment and thought ‘That’s entirely wrong’. But my instructor wasn’t marking our language ability, she was marking our effort and how invested we were in speaking Cree or wanting to speak Cree.

This is what I want to focus on. I want different teaching techniques to be considered valuable so they can be incorporated at the base of academic institutions. During my undergraduate research, I felt like there was a lot of tension between how the institution and the instructor felt that the language should be taught, about what was important for the students to be learning, and I would like to learn how those kinds of tensions might be resolved.

But of course, the Covid pandemic has changed a lot of things. Having my master’s research focused on language revitalisation is looking less and less likely as communities are focusing more on public health. So, I am broadening my scope to look at language classes in general and how we can rethink language teaching practices. I’m rethinking pedagogy so that maybe in the future, I can take what I learn and apply it to a context of language revitalisation.

LP:       When did you become interested in language?

RH:      I don’t know honestly! I have always been interested in languages [laughing] There was never a point in my life when I wasn’t trying to learn a new language. I’m not even a polyglot— all my language abilities are very variable. English and French are my two strongest languages, with English being much stronger than my French. I only have tourist German. I can say ‘Wo sind die Toiletten” or ‘Was kostet das Bier’.

LP:       ‘Bier’ is an important word to know in German [laughing]

RH:      It’s one of the first things we learned! [laughing] I just always, for whatever reason, enjoyed languages. I love the idea of expressing ideas in different ways. I’ve always liked it.

LP:       Why did you decide to study language in anthropology? Do you have experience in linguistics as well?

RH:      I’ve never taken a linguistics class. When it comes to linguistics, I know very little about it besides a broad understanding. The reason for this is that I’m terrible at math, and linguistics involves more math than you would think. Linguists take a very objectifying view of language. That is the big distinction between linguistic anthropology and linguistics, linguistics is all about the language as an object, as a thing that you study.

…Linguistic anthropology is all about how you understand, use, think about, and relate to language. It’s about the ideologies of language… 

It takes the focus off language itself and instead looks at how and why it’s used. To me, that’s much more interesting than understanding syntaxic structure and other features of linguistics. I recognise the importance of linguistics, it’s just not something I have ever been drawn to. As I go further into my research, I hope to draw upon linguistics, but anthropology is the main discipline in which my research sits.

LP:       Making the choice to go into graduate school is difficult anyways, doing it during a pandemic is even harder. What was that process like for you and how’d you end up at UBC?

RH:      I only applied to UBC, actually.

LP:       So, you’re a true fan!

RH:      [laughing] It really boiled down to the fact that language revitalisation is a small field with maybe five specialists in all of Canada. Three of them are at UBC! [laughing] I wanted to go to grad school, but I wanted to go to graduate school to study what I was passionate about. For me, that meant UBC!

LP:       I’m glad it worked out! So, you were already passionate about language revitalization in your undergraduate?

RH:      Yes!

LP:       Is that interest based in your undergraduate honours project?

RH:      Absolutely. My honours thesis was an ethnography of my Cree language class.

LP:       An ethnography of your own class, wow! What was it like to have your peers and your own experiences be the centre of your ethnography?

RH:      It was interesting! It was very much in a context I was highly familiar with. I was enrolled in university, I was enrolled in the Cree language class, and I have been in classrooms my entire life. There was no culture shock. It wasn’t characteristic of the typical ethnography, but I think it was valuable.

…My aim was to have institutions rethink how they teach language. I don’t conceptualise my research as being on the students so much as it’s focused on the institutional system… 

So, my lifelong experience in classrooms and experiencing what it is to learn, is something I drew upon in understanding what I observed.

For example, the textbook assigned for my Cree class was written by a linguist, one who is not Cree but who learned Cree. He’s made a lot of useful books, but they are specifically from his linguistic perspective. In our textbook, the syllabary layout for understanding the writing system is presented in a square graph that teaches which sounds go with which symbols. It immediately made sense to me, because it’s the typical graph I’ve seen millions of times in classrooms. However, my Cree instructor provided a different graph for the same purpose. It was a circle. When she first gave it to me, I couldn’t understand it at all. It was very unfamiliar to me.

I continued to refer to the square graph until I was walked through how to read the circle graph. Even though it was more complicated from my perspective, the circle communicated more knowledge than just the sounds of the writing system. It was a circle because it’s meant to represent a compass with which the language learner situates themselves in the world through the Cree language. My instructors would attach specific teachings to each section of the circle graph, and the symbols being taught’.

…There was cultural knowledge that was being taught alongside how to use this circle graph, knowledge that was completely disconnected from the typical square graph… 

It was interesting in the sense that the instructor was able to incorporate very different means of teaching and learning within a space I was so familiar with. My ethnography focused a lot on points of tension when she was trying to teach in a particular way but was being limited by the institution. She would say ‘I really wish we could be burning sage right now’. We would have circle talks but couldn’t make a circle in the classroom because the desks were plugged into the wall preventing us from moving them. There were a lot of interesting points to the research.

LP:       Going forward for your project at UBC, is your project focused mainly on general ways of learning and teaching language, or on specific languages?

RH:      I don’t have specific language groups in mind, or specific communities in mind. Part of that is because I don’t believe in planning too far ahead [laughing]. I don’t want to limit myself by becoming too fixated on one idea, in case it turns out not to be possible. It would be interesting to think of a general language pedagogy, but I don’t know how viable that would be because every language is different, and every context is different. My hope is to use my masters as an opportunity to rethink language pedagogy and go into how language pedagogy is currently conceptualised. Then I may look for more general routes of research.

I’d like to identify flexible principles that can then be applied to different local contexts. For example, translanguaging is a concept I’ve been really interested in. It’s a concept of language education that looks at language skills that can then be applied across many different languages. It’s a way to rethink how we learn and teach language. Say you’re in an English as a second language class, and the students are fluent in a non-English language. With a translanguaging perspective, you wouldn’t make the classroom an English-only environment.

…You would draw upon the languages the students were strong in — upon the knowledge the students bring to the class— to help them advance their language skills in English. It’s about rethinking curricula in a more creative way…

LP:       In a more inclusive way as well, I’d imagine.

RH:      Very much so.

LP:       Thinking about your own decision to pursue graduate school, what advice do you have for students wanting to go into anthropology or graduate school?

RH:      Hmm… [pause] That’s a tough one. Can I tell a story instead?

LP:       Absolutely

RH:      Alright, I have a friend who a number of years ago, ran in an ultramarathon. When he told us that he was going to run an ultramarathon, I said ‘you’re crazy’. And he said, ‘just wait and see’. And so, he runs the marathon, and he actually does really well! I was blown away. After he finished the ultramarathon, he said ‘Rob, you’re going to run this with me next year’. I hadn’t done any marathons; I wasn’t a big runner. So, I said to him ‘you’re crazy, there’s no way I’ll do that’. But he’s always been one of those friends who can inspire you to do anything. He finally convinced me to sign up for an ultramarathon.

I had no idea how to train; I had no experience at all. I had even taken spring classes, so I was also only able to train a few weeks before the actual event. The days leading up to the marathon, I could feel the apprehension and the tension. I thought ‘This is crazy. In two days, I’m going to have to run 160km and my personal best so far is 5km’. Finally, it’s the day of the marathon. I went to the starting line.

The race started, and the day was amazing! When I was in it, I was in it. All I had to think about was putting one step in front of the other. I just kept going. All the people on the trail were amazing and supportive. You felt such a sense of community. Before I knew it, it was the end of the day and I’d run 67km. Reflecting on the experience, the worst part of any race is before the start. You’re scared of how hard it may be, and scared that you might fail. But once you’re in it, you’re in it. You just have to get past that start line, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving.

I’ve started applying that principle to everything — grad school especially! I applied to grad school because I wanted to. I wanted to further my understanding of anthropology. People who say, ‘Grad school is really hard and crazy’. I decided that I’ll see what happens when I get there. So, I applied, I got in, and I’m in it now. I’m nearly at the end of my first year and I’ve been taking it one step at a time.

…You need to think, ‘What do I need to do today?’. If you think about how many miles you have in front of you, it’ll destroy you. You have to keep your mind focused on each step going forward… 

That’s my advice. Try not to think too ‘big picture’. Think about the reasons why you’re doing this and keep them in mind as you go through each day. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.

In a post-Covid world, Robert looks forward to tackling yet another ultramarathon. In the meantime, he’s taking each day one step at a time.