Not from around here

I occasionally conduct what I refer to as a scratch evaluation in the middle of my courses. I pass out slips of scratch paper and ask students to respond to a question or two and give me some feedback. Sometimes, this is related to a particular idea I’m thinking of trying or have just tried out, but at other times, I simply ask students to tell me both the most interesting or enjoyable thing learned up to that point and one unanswered question or unresolved concern that they’d like to see addressed in the course. Last week, many students had substantive and helpful comments about their respective courses, but I was utterly disarmed by one slip where the unanswered question was simply, “Are you from the United States? Not that it matters. I’m just curious.”

People in Cleveland periodically comment on my accent (more than I recall in Toronto, oddly enough), but it seems to be an especially noticeable feature of my teaching for students in this particular class. Early in the semester, one student somewhat apologetically approached me after class and, after a bit of hemming and hawing, finally asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” After I explained that I had grown up in California and Arizona, before spending several years in Southern Ontario for graduate school, the student went away satisfied, but I have found myself wondering if there are situations where we are more prone to hear accents. Are we psychologically more likely to think we are hearing them when the subject matter (as with that particular class, a British literature survey) is from another region? Or is my accent just that much more foreign to people in this part of the Great Lakes? Maybe so. After all, I definitely have not picked up the Great Lakes nasal a, and I do not intend to.

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