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.


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

7 responses to “On the (sometimes dubious) merits of being a university language teacher

  1. Anne-Julie

    Lots of people seem to forget that it’s you and your colleagues who make sure that there are students with good English in THEIR classes. Students who speak well, have a general sense of the culture, and can then write good papers and therefore make their job much easier. Also, in my opinion, being able to reflect on grammatical structures and word choices isn’t all that different from being able to reflect on linguistic structures or literature and what literature achieves by using a certain type of language. So all those people should just man up and acknowledge that they’re no better than you, and no more academic.

    And I totally agree about the rewards – I felt so great when they two Americans in my tutorial told me that it had been their favorite class this semester, and that they were so amazed at their own language now.

  2. Vielen Dank für diesen schönen Blick hinter die Kulissen. Language-teacher sind auf jeden Fall die mit den schönsten Blogs. Das kann ich so verallgemeinern, da es mir an der Universität Basel auch schon aufgefallen ist 😉

  3. Fid

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this since it popped up in my reader — and when your new article did a few minutes ago, I eventually remembered ;). So here goes:

    Now that I am a teacher (or Referendar, but you get the idea), I’ve really come to value the time I spent in the classes of the likes of you. Teaching English as a subject is less about literature (or applied linguistics, for that matter) than about a general sense of the language, and the ability to use it in everyday contexts — at least in Sekundarstufe I. In Sek II, you should (in theory…) be able to focus on content and form and not so much on basics, but in practice that’s very much wishful thinking. Teaching my year 12 LK I realized that what you do is very much what these kids need (and also what I needed when I went to uni): classes that serve only to polish their language and raise language awareness, as this is something we as school teachers cannot accomplish to a satisfying degree. We have curricula to rush through and not necessarily the time to give dedicated assistance when it comes to the finer points of language use. There are those very few students who’ve spent a year abroad and have developed a certain feeling for these things but most students haven’t, and probably never will, even in an LK. We can try to make them speak as much as possible, but we can only make on-the-fly corrections in class and move on to the next item on the list as we have shit to finish before the next exam (so they can’t blame it on us if they mess up in the Zentralabitur). It probably explains why so few of them have an above-average command of the language when they show up in your lectures, despite having decent grades and being LK veterans.

    Did that make much sense? Anyway, to sum up that last paragraph: Thank you.

    • I meant to reply to this earlier – it gave me a big surge of I-am-worth-somethingness to read it. Thank you – I loved reading it and it made perfect sense.

  4. Renate

    I feel that the language classes and the Landeskunde classes you offered, are the ones that help me most in answering questions of my students today and they are determined to get explanations as well.
    Although I agree with you in the matter that even within the university some people don’t know specifically what you do, I feel like that most students would say the classes you and your colleagues offer are the ones that form the most lasting impression of English unversity life, since it is one of the most personal class settings and the classes accompany you through all the semesters – I for one will never forget the survey on English housing in your GB Landeskunde class and that is just one memory. Thank you for being so enthusiastic in your job and having such a great work-ethic.

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