Tag Archives: teaching

On the (sometimes dubious) merits of being a university language teacher

There’s been an internet meme in circulation recently, most prominently on Facebook, that – like a great many of its sort – raised a faint smile the first couple of times you saw it but grew increasingly inane and irritating the more (non-)variations on the theme popped up.

It is my (certainly very dubious) pleasure to announce that said meme is the inspiration for today’s post.

The meme looked at different professions and various people’s preconceptions of said professions, varying from the general public to one’s family and friends, and extending to superiors or subordinates in some cases. Among the professional groups I saw represented were journalists, graphic designers and doctors. You get the idea (and probably enough of a taste of the ennui) just by looking at those three examples: various contrasting exotic / risqué / misinformed / ridiculous / overblown images of a given profession are contrasted with “What I really do” – humdrum paperwork or other admin work (in most cases). The best of the rather more cynical takes on it – and one which saves me saying any more on the meme itself, I think – was this one here.

But anyway, the whole episode got me thinking of some of the odd, irritating or misconceived reactions I’ve had from people regarding the work I do, so I thought I’d gather a few of them here.

It starts when people ask for a job title. Speaking in German (which is what I do most of the time outside work), I might describe myself as a “Dozentin für English” (i.e. lecturer in English, as one might say in Britain). On mentioning this in one recent conversation, the response was (and I’ll paraphrase in English for the sake of brevity) an interested “Ah! Literature or linguistics?” My response: “Language, actually”. Their reponse: “Oh. Just language”. You get the picture (and I’ll return to the “just language” issue later).

Within the university hierarchy, the full-time foreign language instructors are often known collectively as Lektoren. Confusingly, though, to most people outside (and even to quite a number within) this sphere, Lektoren are people who work as proofreaders or copy-editors for a publishing house. So it’s not a good idea to use this term unless someone introduces it themselves. In any case, though, in recent years, universities seem to have stopped calling their language staff Lektoren in any case, and we now carry the rather fancy-sounding title Lehrkräfte für besondere Aufgaben. While Lehrkräfte is a fairly dry, neutral and unequivocal term for people who teach, the für besondere Aufgaben bit is potentially rather entertaining, meaning “for special purposes” and opening up a plethora of possibilities I might have put into my “What I wish I did” part of a meme for my profession. Understandably, perhaps, it’s not a term I drop into conversation, though …unless as a joke.

Once I have negotiated my way around the job title bit, we move on to the “What people think I do” part of the conversation. A lot of people will think back to their experience of learning languages at school – which was often quite some time ago – which means that this usually computes to yesteryear-tinted remembrances of learning by rote, vocabulary tests, tortuous, antiquated textbooks and half-remembered useless phrases of the la plume de ma tante variety. If I’m extra lucky, whoever it is I am talking to will switch into their half-remembered English schoolbook phrases at this point in the conversation; others will regale me with tales of the conversation class they and their friend took “just for fun” a few years ago and will express great envy that (as they see it) I can earn money just by chatting to people: “You have a funny job!” they say (actually, they mean “fun”).

And in actual fact, it IS a fun job (and sometimes a funny one, too, in either sense of the word). But it wouldn’t be fun or funny at all if I had to teach conversation classes, stick to a particular textbook or check that everyone had learned their irregular verbs off by heart. However, as with so many things in life, it is fairly inevitable that people will base their interpretation of what I do on their own experience that comes closest.

Friends, who by definition know me much better, tend to develop a much more accurate impression of what I do, though there are persistent surprises here, too… The science-faculty people who just can’t place you because you’re not a professor or a junior professor or a postdoc or a technician – you just don’t fit into their neatly compartmentalized world view. Or the people who, on hearing that you’ve had “a productive day” in the post-semester marking phase, make bright, well-meant enquiries as to whether that means you got through all your exams for all your courses in that one day.

Colleagues from other parts of the department can also occasionally be a law unto themselves. Though I would like to stress that I have had largely very positive experiences over the years, there sometimes arises a feeling that the language section plays a somewhat ancillary role to the big pillars of literature, linguistics and cultural studies. While linguistics is Sprachwissenschaft (literally, the science of language), we are Sprachpraxis (literally, the practice of language), and to some minds we might therefore be nicht wissenschaftlich – a term which could be interpreted as “not scientific” or “not academic”, neither of which has a particularly positive ring to it. In fact someone recently came up to me during a departmental function and asked, somewhat awkwardly, “Don’t you sometimes wish you taught … you know … something with content?” Just where do you start to answer a question like that? (I was evasive, not wanting to get into a philosophical discussion, let alone a rant.)

The content we cover in our courses spans areas covered by literature (e.g. text structure, style, genre, interpretation), linguistics (e.g. pragmatics, syntax, phonology) AND cultural studies (e.g. translation issues, intercultural communication, culture in Britain / the USA etc.), but I think at the end of the day it may be only us and our students that are entirely aware of this.

Most of our students come to us with the express intention of becoming secondary school teachers of English, so why anyone should see language as being “ancillary” in that connection is beyond my comprehension. Watching students’ own changing perceptions of the role and responsibilities of a language teacher is, however, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Many of them come to us having done well at school on the basis of getting stuff right, but it can come as a surprise to them to discover that just being good at English isn’t going to get them to the top of the tree in their professional life. In our grammar courses, for example, they quickly have to get used to a further step in the thought process: “OK, correct answer, but why is solution x more appropriate than solution y”. They grumble and squirm at first, but gradually they learn to use the tools of the trade to explain and analyse what is going on, so that later on in their course of studies you can have really quite subtle and nuanced discussions about the effect of changing this or that word or tense or syntactic pattern.

Watching students make this progress not just in their own language competence (which can itself be quite dramatic, especially if they spend a year abroad) but also in their analytical, intercultural and didactic skills, has to be the biggest perk of this job, and every case in which we can do anything to help to foster or encourage someone’s interest in the system of language as a vehicle for communication and cultural interchange, as the raw material of literature and linguistics, has to be seen as a worthwhile venture.

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Filed under Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal, Work stuff

Gerbera

Oh dear, I seem to have missed almost a whole week of posting here. I’m not going to gnash my teeth and feel too guilty, though – it’s been a horrendously busy week and I’m just pleased to have reached the end of it still standing.

The semester began and brought a larger than usual flood of last-minute e-mails, phone calls and door knocks from desperate students wanting into this, that or the other class (and not even just my classes, either), and on top of that, I picked up a cold that has not impacted on my work particularly but has left me feeling rather drained.

In somewhat lesser concerns, I was feeling a little sad that the tulip season seemed to be drawing to an end – I’ve managed to have fresh tulips in the flat constantly since the beginning of their availability in the shops in early spring and seem to have gone through the entire palette of colours. However, today there were gerberas, a type of flower whose shape seems to take us so much closer to summer. I now have a yellow bunch on the living room window sill (as pictured) and a vase of gorgeous burnt orange ones in my orange and green hideyhole-cum-work-area upstairs (I must take some pictures of those tomorrow when daylight is back).

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Five more things…

My friend Kavey suggested a new Five Things meme in which you tell someone else what you associate with them, and ask them to elaborate. So, here are the things she came up with for me.

1. (Foreign) Language and Literature

I’ve always loved language in general, and especially the way that the systems of different languages relate to one another. It makes for a complex puzzle of logic, with a degree of illogicality thrown in to keep it interesting. I have done languages not so much to increase my chance of communicating around the world, but more for this systematic / systemic approach and the window it gives you into different thought systems in different cultures.

Doing foreign literature was initially a necessary evil rather than a choice, but I did enjoy aspects of it. Favourite sorts of literature experienced include the Expressionist poetry and drama I did a course on during my BA, and the wonderfully named MA module “Sex, Lies and Manuscripts” in which we looked at medieval antifeminist (and protofeminist) literature from France, Italy and England.

I ended up doing a PhD on medieval German poetry. I’m not too sure how I feel about that at the moment – let’s say that it sometimes has something  albatross-like about it in both conversational and vocational terms – though the title “Dr” comes in handy occasionally.

The best move ever was to do A-level English literature. I cursed it at the time, but it taught me a lot more about my cultural heritage than anything else I have done (with the exception of O-level history).

2. Germany

Germany is where I have lived for the last almost 12 years.

Why? OK, I studied German, but that is only part of the story. There were family connections and school / orchestra exchanges that also influenced me positively when I was growing up, plus we had an excellent German teacher at school, ergo German outlasted French in my education.

Actually moving to Germany was not an entirely conscious choice. In 1997 my PhD scholarship was running out, and my supervisor suggested I go for a teaching job at one of our partner universities, Tübingen. Got the job, breathed a sigh of relief in financial terms, swallowed hard in emotional terms and told myself it was only for two years and that it might look good on my CV…

I’m not going to go into a “what I like / don’t like about Germany” excursus at this point. If anyone wants to know anything specific, you can ask me :)

3. Photography

I had very, very little interest in photography until May 2006. I was recovering from an icky bout of depression at the time and looking for new impetus creatively and socially, plus my then partner was into photography. I tagged along (I choose that expression deliberately) to one of the get-togethers organized by Kavey in London, armed with a point-and-shoot that my Dad had given me, to try to disguise the fact that I was a hanger-on. It was a daunting experience in the sense that I was still somewhat nervous around strangers and the technical talk went over my head at a million miles an hour, but everyone was so lovely and I suddenly found myself on an exciting treasure hunt, looking around for things to take pictures of and takng time to compose my shots. To cut a long story short, I was soon hooked. Here is one of the shots I took that day.

I pursue colour, detail and form in my photography, very much aesthetic goals rather than photojournalistic or purely technical ones. I like my pictures to look like the kind of paintings I like – abstract, expressionist, colourful. Occasionally purists will rail at me for boosting the colours beyond what looks natural. But hey, they are my pictures and they portray what I want to see / be seen.

4. Wales

I guess I’m one of those people who feels a greater attachment to where they are from if they are further away from it. I never felt particularly Welsh when I was living in Wales, but these days I sometimes feel very Welsh, depending on what is going on (be it a rugby match, exposure to some annoying Little Englanders, hearing a particular piece of music or whatever). Don’t ask me to define how this feels – it is neither static nor entirely definable.

It can be tough being a Welsh person in Germany. You find yourself sounding like a broken record when you tell someone for the nth time that no, Wales is not in England. Likely outcomes of this is that they think you are some nutty insular equivalent of a Bavarian separatist, you are a pedant, or you are indelibly marked down in their memory as That Exotic Welsh Person who is wheeled out on social occasions to provide quaint Celtic charm and required to give the Welsh angle on everything under the sun.

I wish I could speak Welsh better, as I said in a recent post here. For the first few years at school, we were subjected to a trendy, apparently antiauthoritarian approach to language teaching that omitted the grammar bit. Disastrous for me, as it meant I couldn’t extrapolate anything and didn’t have my beloved linguistic system to lean upon. The upshot of this was that I was far more resistent to speaking Welsh than to other languages.

5. Teaching

This is going to sound boastful, but I am proud to be a part of the fourth generation of teachers on both sides of my family, and the second generation of university teachers.

Having said that, until I was 26 the one thing I could say with any certainty that I most definitely did NOT want to do for a living was… guess what! The thought of having to be authoritative, knowledgeable and command people’s respect and attention was something I thought I simply didn’t have in me.

And then I ended up in a full-time teaching job in Tübingen, as mentioned above, and to my great surprise loved it from day one. It was a combination of things: the students were around my age so there was a peer-group atmosphere that we all enjoyed rather than a scary hierarchical relationship. They seemed dedicated on the whole, and to my great surprise they seemed largely to appreciate what I did for them, even expressing enjoyment at times. I, meanwhile, was on a very steep learning curve in terms of both subject matter and teaching methods, but I loved the challenge and the feeling that I was imparting knowledge and skills in a subject area that really mattered.

Nowadays, of course, the students are younger (!) and the atmosphere in class perhaps not quite so matey, but I value the fact that students tend to comment on the positive, motivating atmosphere in my classes, and they seem to continue to enjoy what I do (within reason – there are boring bits that I still need to work on). It’s a hugely rewarding job for me.

What about you?

If you’d like to leave a comment on this post, I’ll be happy to nominate five things that I associate with you, which you can then expound upon in your own blog (or we can find some other solution, if you don’t have a blog :)). Also, if there are other things you associate with me more strongly than these things, I’d be intrigued to know and would be happy to comment on those.

Do please provide a link to your blog if you do your own version of these five things.

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Filed under Books & reading, Intercultural & interlinguistic, Photography, Up close and personal, Work stuff