Why I stopped reading the Times Higher some time ago…

Some years ago, I stopped buying the Times Higher Education, then somewhat cryptically called the THES.  I think it was the endless fawning articles on spousal appointments at US universities that convinced me this publication was not for me.

If further evidence were needed that the THE, as it now styles itself, is indeed the bosses’ journal, then this week’s homepage offers it in spades:

Two days on from the start of the most widely-supported higher education strike in recent history and we see not a single headline… unless you scroll down a whole page, where you will find something under “News”:

THES screen capture 250218_2

Nothing more to say I think.

If you teach at a UK university and you have always read the THE and its predecessors I would stop now.  Don’t encourage them.


Why learn what?

The university language-teaching community has devoted  much effort in the past 10 years to promoting language study to its potential students – and more importantly to anyone with an interest in our future capacity as a nation to deal competently with other cultures.  As part of this, I think we have spent too much time talking up the individual economic benefits.

It is time to take another tack.  If we start from the premise that is good for any society if its citizens have as rounded an education as possible, then we should perhaps reflect how knowledge of a foreign language fits in with what we expect from an educated person.

This isn’t a subject that has much traction these days, as the notion that people once learned foreign languages simply because it was expected, even normal to do so, now seems to belong to a world as remote from most people’s experience as public school Latin or the eleven-plus entrance exam to grammar school.

I came across the following definition of what a student _should_ learn by the American philosopher John Searle.*  It was written as part of a review of polemics bemoaning the state of American universities in 1990 and is worth requoting:

The student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. […] However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.

You need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world.

You need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.

You need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

As a linguist, I take heart in Searle’s assertion that learning another language is part of understanding your own.  And that the level to aspire to is one which enables you to do three things – to read the best literature in its original words, to hold a reasonable conversation, but also to dream…  Not just to ensure higher lifetime earnings then?


*John Searle, “The Storm Over the University” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990)

Ein Herz, zwei Seelen … One heart, two souls

Im Rückblick fällt es mir ein, dass ich nun seit 40 Jahren Deutsch lerne. Ich schreibe “lerne” nicht, weil ich irgendwie bescheiden erscheinen möchte. Ich weiss wohl, dass ich Deutsch in Wort und Schrift einigermaßen beherrsche. Sonst wäre es mir während etwa 25 Jahre nicht gelungen, Unterricht in deutscher Sprache zu erteilen.

Ich sage es aber mit Absicht.  Ich lerne noch.  Nach so vielen Jahren.  Wenn mir das richtige Wort nicht rechtzeitig einfällt, macht es mir mittlerweile wenig aus.  Das passiert mir sowieso in der Muttersprache.  Und meine deutschsprachigen KollegInnen haben  im Laufe der Jahre das wiederholte Hin und Her zwischen den beiden Sprachen auch toleriert.*

*Thinking back, I have realised that I am now coming up to my fortieth year of learning German. I put it this way not out of any false modesty. I know perfectly well that my spoken and written German are pretty good. Otherwise I couldn’t have got away with teaching the language for the best part of 25 years.

But I say it quite deliberately. I am still learning the language after all this time.  If the right word doesn’t occur to me at the right moment, I no longer worry. That happens often enough in English anyway.  And my German native-speaker colleagues have been tolerant enough over the years – with my switching back and forth from one language to the other.

Mocking the afflicted… I know you shouldn’t but…

They say you shouldn’t mock the afflicted.  But I say it depends on the affliction. If the condition is self-inflicted and derives from overweening self-importance and the narrow vision of  a monoglot Anglo-American corporate capitalism, I say you are fair game.

So here we have Professor Amanda Broderick, launching the University of Salford‘s “Passport to Foreign Money Global Citizenship”:


It’s on pages 6 and 7.  Do read it, if you have the time.

600 words of the usual grandiose waffle, with bits that don’t even make sense, such as the poorly edited line: “”We need to be accountability for our impact on our environment”.  And the dreadfully phrased:  “and recognise that we live in an interdependent economy and society, and the importance of recognising our responsibilities towards each other”.

But one word is conspicuously absent.  The word “language” – or, God forbid  “foreign language” – does not appear once.

Intercultural skills and knowledge?  Check.  Globally-connected world?  Check.  But the notion that anyone in this glorious vision of hubs, international engagement and sustainability speaks anything but English?  Er… Not a mention.

PS: And is it me, or does the picture of Martin Hall in the Abu Dhabi “hub” look like a man lost in an international departure lounge grateful to the first stranger he can talk to?


Whose English is it anyway? Or: Thoughts of the man in seat F14

I have been travelling on Cross Country Trains twice a week for the past two years – 150 miles south to the “south west” from “the north” and then 150 miles back north to the north west from the south west.  The inverted commas are there as I am sure some will argue whether Bristol belongs to the West Country (it does, get over it).  And others who will argue that the fringe of the Peak District in Derbyshire is not really “northern” enough (though to judge from the grim-up-north sepia tones of The Village, filmed just up the road from me in Hayfield, it is).

One of the things about this journey, aside from the quirk of the ticketing website that assigns me to seat F14 (quiet coach, aisle seat), is that I hear the language around me change over the space of three hours and feel myself acclimatizing from one form to another. We start in Stockport.  The vowels in the station announcer’s voice are pure Mancunian.  Bury (the place) is definitely “Burry” and not “Berry”.  Shops are open “9 while 5”.  “singing” has an “ing” followed by a “ging”.

We travel through the Midlands.  Huge swathes of land around Wolverhampton and Birmingham laid waste by centuries of industry now vanished.  The sounds shift.  The people change.

Then west out of Birmingham through more canal-crossed post-industrial landscapes and into the countryside towards Cheltenham and Bristol, where the train curls along a high embankment for 10 minutes before threading its way into the city itself.  And the language shifts to Bristolian, with its distinctive and difficult to imitate rhythm.

I have been struck, since starting work at Bristol and leaving Salford behind, by a whole host of things about England.  Especially the England that flows past the windows of seat F14 twice a week.

One thing is how divided it is by its common language.  For example, perceptions of northern or west country speech outside those regions are flat and superficial.  Northern connotes “working class”, even if it is the polished tones of a Cheshire public school boy.  Bristolian connotes “rural yokel”, even though Bristol has a longer history as a city than all of the great northern manufacturing towns.

Often there is an assumption that there is such a thing as a “standard English”.  If my 300 mile trip every week tells me one thing it is this – to assume that phrases like the “Queen’s English” or worse “Oxford English” have any meaning at all is the worst kind of proprietorial arrogance.

Another thing that has struck me is how many of my colleagues are also long-distance commuters, though typically not as long distance as me.  This is also part of the reality of UK HE – it has become increasingly difficult to move to some parts of the UK to others.  And as academics taking up a new job we are not always in a position to be able to move. At some point, however, if housing costs continue to rise, the gradient from north to south will make moving completely unaffordable.  Now my journeys are about to be over and I am about to move, this is also a reality I am all too aware of.

Lastly – thanks to Cross Country trains for only letting me down once in two years (high winds north of Birmingham forced me to turn around one night) and getting me home and to work every week.


Deck chair reshuffling Or: Is Martin Hall the worst VC in UK HE?

titanic sinking

Let us just recap the events at Salford relating to the closure of modern languages.

In April 2013 a leaked internal memo outlined a damage limitation strategy to be pursued following a planned announcement that a number of subject areas were under threat and that recruitment to languages in particular was to stop.

In June 2013, an announcement was duly made in the peculiarly ponderous tone adopted by Salford’s leadership that, as the university would no longer recruit, after 2013, to modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history (except postgraduate security studies programmes), the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences would eventually be disestablished”.   Is it me, or is that parenthetically posed “after 2013” firm evidence of windbaggery, or not?

VC Martin Hall then appeared in THES with a hand-wringing mea culpa that was – of course – nothing of the sort.  He had just sacked his powerful deputy Adrian Graves for gross misconduct.  He had also lost a £150k court case claiming his reputation, his predecessor’s reputation and the said deputy’s reputation, and therefore that of the university, had been besmirched by a feeble internal satirical broadside and a web site read by almost no-one outside the university.  At that point,  Martin was at least embarrassed enough by petitions from the ITI, UCML and 2600 signatures from former students and others to institute a review.

That review (chaired by an external academic) evidently did not report what Martin and his management wanted, so a second review was instituted.

You can read the details of this on a special FAQ.  I won’t quote it in full but there are some points that will tell you all you need to know.  Here are numbers 1 and 2:

1. What did the World Languages Task Group review recommend?
The review endorsed the University’s original decision to withdraw single language undergraduate degree courses. It also recommended the retention of specialist language study within joint degrees (e.g. LLB Law and Spanish) and of a revised form of the postgraduate translation and interpreting degree.

In addition, the review proposed that all undergraduates should have the opportunity to study a foreign language module as part of their degree course to help them compete in the global marketplace.

2. Why was a second review undertaken?
To investigate in more detail specific proposals for joint foreign language degrees based on analysis of forecast student numbers and financial projections. The review’s conclusion was that, while there is a market in the UK higher education sector for joint degrees, such courses would not be viable for the University of Salford in the medium term.

In other words, the first external review reported that there was a future for language degrees at Salford – and that despite the enormous damage done by negative PR and disastrous HR interventions.  The second internal review said the opposite.  If you struggled to get that point, then I would argue this is deliberate and typical of the obfuscation and obscurity so beloved of Salford’s management.

The second review also sounds entirely reasonable until we read point 4:

4. Can I see the reports?
We do not plan to make the reports available. (i.e. No  – i.f.) The decision made is final.  Our focus is now on ensuring that our students successfully complete their studies, throughout the teach out

If the evidence is so compelling, why are those who will lose their jobs over it not allowed to read it?

I won’t rise to a Zola-esque j’accuse over this, but it seems to me Martin Hall is a leader who is a) more interested in his public image as a decent and reasonable man (see endless blog entries…) than anything else and b) has presided over a disastrous blood-letting of senior staff in a three year period, much of which he has kept at a convenient arm’s length.

He has also done me a service by proving my observation on 6 September last year correct.  He writes in a recent email to staff:

 As a University with a powerful global reach, we remain resolute in our commitment to the value of global citizenship and internationalisation outlined in our Strategic Plan. As a result, from September 2014, as part of our distinctive Passport to Global Citizenship strategy, all students will be able to study an optional Modern Foreign Languages module.


From vibrant and widely respected modern languages degrees to “optional Modern Foreign Languages module” in less than five years?  I would say that permits me to pose the question in my subtitle above.  Or not?


PS.  Baroness Coussins specifically mentions Salford in her speech in the House of Lords on 9 April:

In the case of Salford, the announcement is not only  a body blow for languages, for prospective students and for those who would have been teaching them; it is also disastrous for international bodies such as the EU and theUnited Nations, which have in the past seen Salford as one of their principal recruiting grounds for specialist linguists.

She goes on to say pretty much what I have said above:

As for universities, I hope that more of them will acknowledge that to survive in the 21st century means more than just using fine words in the mission statement about being an international institution and producing global graduates but that in practice this means fostering languages, not abandoning them.


She is of course far too polite to name names.

What is marking for?

Or more precisely – why do we mark students’ language work?  Why do we spend so much time on a task that is often mechanical?   That a spell-checker function used at the right moment might do as well?

All language teachers spend time annotating language learners’ written output.  Many of us devise elaborate sets of initials and codes to tell our charges precisely what is amiss with their efforts.  In a sense, this is something we all accept. We believe implicitly that marking like this will help our students improve.

Arriving at university from school, students too expect that their work will be marked. For the last two years at Bristol I have asked a random, anonymised sample of our 250+ modern languages freshers a series of questions to invite them to think about how they learn.

One question I ask is “Do you like a teacher to write a correction of every mistake in your writing?”

This is what their responses look like:

answers to question

Detailed correction is what they want.   So to a large extent, that is what they get.  And in an age where the student has been invited to think of her/himself as a consumer, giving students what they want seems a sensible strategy.

Or maybe not?

There is a school of thought – going back to Steven Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1981) – that all this explicit instruction does little good.  True, marking student scripts is not quite what Krashen had in mind when he distinguished between “acquisition” and “learning”, but there have been arguments back and forth on this and similar points for more than 30 years — including absurd angels-on-pin-head notions of a difference between a “mistake” and an “error”, that we can somehow always separate errors that come about through lack of knowledge from “natural” mistakes.

So if the pedagogical function of marking (in my understanding of the term here as “annotating student’s written work”) is disputed, then what is marking for?

  • Just to reassure the language teacher that she is doing a good job?  I’ve known plenty of colleagues mark in such exhaustive detail that I feared for their sleep or their sanity — or both…
  • Or is it to reassure the student that she/he is learning something? When repeated mistakes might indicate otherwise…?
  • To reassure the student that the teacher “knows” what is right and what is not?  And that transmitting this confidence is “learning”?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  But I know that in practice I mark at a sustainable level of detail and that I am frustrated enough by the lack of improvement that follows from such efforts that I will ring the changes, vary the forms of feedback, use rubrics, audio-visual recordings — anything to shift the fixed dynamics of what inevitably follows from my labours.