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A day in the life

John Kirk, professor


I want my students to feel they’ve learned something of value, be able to see things from a different angle, and enjoy the experience. It’s especially pleasing if they’ve come to appreciate another culture.

Lifelong learning

Professor John Kirk isn’t what first comes to mind when you picture a longtime university Spanish prof. The Liverpool accent and lifelong devotion to British football club Everton belie the fact that he has been teaching in Dalhousie’s Spanish & Latin American Studies program for over 30 years and is one of Canada’s top Latin American scholars.

“I did my BA at the University of Sheffield, with a term at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain, and then came to Canada in 1972,” he says. “My MA is from Queen’s University [where he also played on the soccer team], and my PhD is from UBC. I started to teach at Dalhousie in 1978—in a non-renewable, one-year position. It looks like they never caught on to me…”

It was Dr. Kirk’s own teachers that cultivated his interest in learning the language. A particularly inspiring one in junior high school set him on his path. When he was 15, he did an exchange with a student from Spain and spent a month every summer in Madrid putting into practice “the theory of all those weird verbs and adjectives.”

Later research projects took him to Mexico, Nicaragua and, Cuba, where he was able to write about topics that interested him.

“It’s impossible to make Latin America boring,” he says. “It’s fascinating—everything from the food and drink (try eating worms or grasshoppers, or drinking pulque) to the political structure and the history. But it’s the warmth of the people that stands out.

Dr. Kirk has been a frequent guest of Cuba since first visiting in 1976, and is called upon by Canadian officials when they need an expert on the country—including acting as an interpreter between the former premier of Nova Scotia and Fidel Castro.

“My research over the years has focused on a variety of topics in Cuba: popular culture, 19th-century history, religion, foreign relations, the revolutionary process since 1959, and most recently, Cuba’s medical internationalism,” he says. “Every two years I teach two semester-long courses on Cuba, and this research helps keep me on top of my teaching and, hopefully, to make it more relevant.”

Family affair

His devotion to research also extends to Dal’s Spanish department in general. He says he believes in it so much that he encouraged his daughter to study in the program, as did fellow professors Liliana de Antueno, María José Giménez, and the recently retired María Margarita Jiménes, whose children also took Spanish at Dal.

“All of us are really enthusiastic about the work that we do and we have a genuine interest in our students,” he says. “We offer an amazing array of course material apart from language classes—Latin American civilization, Spanish civilization, linguistics, Latin American cinema, commercial Spanish, Catalán, linguistics, and the cultural history of Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, to name but a few. I know of no other department anywhere in the world where there is such variety.”

With so much diversity in the program, Dr. Kirk says it’s impossible to pick one memorable moment from time at Dal. But the enjoyment of seeing his students meet visiting Latin American celebrities stands out.

“We’ve had well-known novelists José Agustín (Mexico) and Leonardo Padura (Cuba), Nobel Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Argentina), agronomist Ramón Castro (brother of Fidel), Mexican political leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, medical doctor Aleida Guevara (daughter of Che), Nicaraguan singer Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, and Mexican environmental activist Homero Aridjis. We almost had a visit from Fidel Castro but it was called off at the last moment. It’s a long story…”