My tribute to Jan Blommaert
I first learned of Jan Blommaert’s work in 2007 from my doctoral advisor, Normand Labrie, when I was a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. I had used a critical discourse approach for my M.A. thesis completed two years before but I was not aware of Jan’s research when I was writing the thesis. I was planning to continue using a mainly CDA framework for my doctoral dissertation proposal. In my meetings with Normand discussing my ideas for the dissertation, he suggested I read Jan’s book, Discourse: A critical introduction, which had recently been published. I remember reading this seminal work for the first time and being blown away by his brilliant insights in addressing the uses, analytical frameworks, and methodologies of discourse analysis, and his ideas for future research directions. The book literally changed my academic trajectory. Needless to say, after reading Discourse for the first time, I began reading all his other works, which continued after I had finished my Ph.D. in 2010. His ideas and in-depth explorations of ethnography, linguistic landscapes, superdiversity, and how social media has re-shaped our dialogic interactions have continued to have a huge impact on my work.
A year after I had first read Discourse: A critical introduction, I met Jan for the first time at the 2008 American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in Washington, DC. when he gave the plenary lecture, Language, Asylum, and the National Order. I was not only impressed by his insightful and important talk, but also by his humility and incredible warmth when I introduced myself to him. Having attended several academic conferences for the first time, I was the proverbial star-struck graduate student who would approach so-called ‘superstars’ and enthusiastically praise their scholarship and tell them how much their research influenced my work. A good number of these superstars politely acknowledged my effusive accolades, and then immediately walked away or turned to talk to their colleagues. My guess was because they saw I was ‘only’ a student (from my ID badge displayed on my shirt) and thus not really worth their time other than a quick nod and a handshake (if that). My naiveté about academia quickly vanished from these interactional contexts of realizing that some scholars were so full of themselves which was apparent by their deportment and attitude. Not Jan. When I approached him, I felt a bit anxious because of these past experiences but it was clear that this was going to be a formative experience in my academic career. He not only asked me who my PhD advisor was, but he also asked about my research! Furthermore, he gave me great advice on how to get published. Needless to say, my first encounter with Jan left a lasting impression on me. For a scholar of his stature to be so down-to-earth with a Ph.D. student he had just met...well that says a lot about his character, doesn’t it?
In the ensuing years since first meeting him at that 2008 conference, we kept in touch via email and social media. I sought his professional advice during my tenure-track years (2013-2019) and have greatly appreciated his mentorship. We also met several more times including the 2014 AILA World Conference in Brisbane and the 2015 Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference in Hong Kong. In 2018, he graciously invited me to serve as an external examiner on the PhD dissertation defense of one of his students, Kunming Li, at Tilburg University. It was my first time serving as an external examiner and of course I was nervous but again he made me feel very much at ease. I always had the sense we understood each other because we came from similar working-class backgrounds – his father was a butcher and mine was a bartender for many years. Being in academia with some colleagues coming from very privileged upper middle-class backgrounds with all their attendant cultural and social capital can make someone like me feel like the prototypical ‘impostor’ who doesn’t really belong. But it is people like Jan Blommaert who has shown me in so many ways through his work, his teaching, his demeanor, his personality, and his humanity that indeed we can make academia a better world worth fighting for.