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Douglas Cossar (Leeds, 1960-1989)
“Thirty years of German in Leeds” [or – Ed. – “Trust my eyes, they’ve stood the test: Ancient values are still best.”]

This is a personal view. I have no interest in current fashions or orthodoxies, no career to further or job to protect. I can “reden, wie mir der Schnabel gewachsen ist”.

I look back to the ’60s and ’70s as a kind of Golden Age. The role of the universities in society was unquestioned. Our function was to push back the frontiers of knowledge, to act as guardians and interpreters of our cultural heritage, to analyse critically developments in our society and to promote the maturing of the best minds of the younger generation. The investment in these aims was one that no civilised society would question. And economic benefits, without being their purpose, would flow from them.

Certain conditions were essential for the achievement of these aims. Although funded by the state, the universities must be free from state interference and from the influence of any other financial donors; they must have the freedom to pursue their aims as they thought fit, in order to be able to criticise without fear, academics must have job security, and the universities must have the right to choose their own staff and students. All of these conditions were accepted without question by successive Governments.

The purpose of undergraduate courses was to train the minds of the intellectually able. Of course we were elitist. Only the brightest youngsters could benefit from the rigorous mental discipline. We were highly selective. And in order that no student of the right calibre would be prevented by lack of funds from studying, mandatory grants were available. The intellectual training was our purpose, as an end in itself. Never in my entire career did I teach an undergraduate course with a vocational purpose. Employers looked for graduates with good degrees: what they had studied was comparatively irrelevant. The drop-out rate was minimal. – The fact that so much of all this has changed in the last twenty years does not invalidate it. So much in life is cyclical that I am sure that when fashions change again, the true purposes of the universities will be re-discovered.

The German Department when I first knew it was conservative, paternalistic and happy. It may sound sentimental, but we were like one big family. Staff-student relations were relaxed and friendly and students enjoyed being members of the Department. The happy atmosphere owed much of course to John Wilkie, whom everyone liked and respected and who was the cement which bound us all together. One example of this was the hospitality which he and Sheila gave to the German Choir, which met in their lounge every Thursday evening in the first term for many years to practise carols for the annual Christmas concert. It was a sad day for the Department when the Wilkies departed for Aberdeen [1978], after which the atmosphere in the Department was never the same again.

We were a Department of Language and Literature. Language teaching revolved around the weekly prose composition/translation class, supplemented by essays for the Lektorin and conversation classes held by the Tübingen Exchange Students. All members of staff taught a language class, and that too was unquestioned. Nobody should expect me to applaud the demise of ‘prose composition’. Both as a student and as a teacher I spent hours each week either trying to write as perfect a piece of German as I could, or correcting the efforts of others. One was forced to analyse closely what the passage really meant, and then one tried to find the most exact equivalent in the other language. Guessing was not permitted. Everything one wrote had to be checked in the dictionaries. The intellectual and linguistic benefits of the exercise are obvious, the pleasure derived from it enormous. I have happy memories of hours spent with successive Lektorinnen puzzling over the merits of suggested translations. Moving away from ‘prose composition’ in the direction of more varied linguistic exercises, which happened towards the end of my time, I found boring and unnecessary.

Throughout my time at Leeds one fallacy was universal, that ‘small group teaching’ is somehow more effective than large lectures. This was not my experience, except of course where one was engaged in activities such as the close translation of mediaeval texts. The purpose of the teacher is to inform, to inspire and to entertain, and nothing achieves these aims so effectively as a well-prepared and well-delivered lecture.

During my time at Leeds I taught, I think, every period of literature from Old High German to the present day. Some of it I enjoyed immensely, some of it I hated. It was a particular pleasure to explore authors and periods with whom/which I felt some affinity and who enriched my own aesthetic and moral sensibilities – Baroque poetry (which familiarised me with the principles of rhetoric) and my ‘special subject’ Fontane, and Mörike’s poetry, Grillparzer’s Armer Spielmann, Hermann und Dorothea. But I shudder when I think back to Kafka and Grass. And I did believe that some sort of introduction to the study of literature should be given to first-years, but the modernists disagreed [— then, perhaps, but no longer! — Ed.]

From time to time the question was raised whether ‘content-classes’ should be conducted in German. I am glad that this suggestion was successfully resisted. – ‘Informing, inspiring and entertaining’ can be done, without doubt, more effectively in the mother tongue. Teaching in the target-language can be done in language-teaching classes.

I was never happy about examining. One was given no training in it, and it is curious how one developed notions of what constituted first class work – what was a IIi, or a IIii, and so on. Added to that, the quality of much of what we marked was a matter of subjective judgement. This was strikingly so in oral examining, and I still remember the year that the External gave one of our weakest students very high marks in her oral – we decided it could only have been because she was attractive and wore a very short mini-skirt. [Nowadays a LektorIn shares the Oral exam – Ed.]

A lot of nonsense is talked about the role of research. Of course it is right that every university teacher should have some practical experience of research methods – and getting a Ph.D. under one’s belt is probably as good a way as any of doing this. But there are fundamental differences between research in, say, Medicine or Physics and research in Arts. It is hard to push back the frontiers in well-worked fields, thus, in Arts the number of scholars in any generation who make major contributions is tiny, and there were none in Leeds (Professor Gillies was the nearest we got). Most time devoted to “research” – which for too many of us means pottering away in the vacations on something abstruse and fairly trivial – would have been better spent travelling in Germany or reading Russian or French novels or even hill-walking in the Lake District (which on the whole was what I did!). It is a mark of the lack of contact with reality when the value of a department is assessed in terms of how many pages of research it produces annually.

During my time many intellectual fashions came and went. I paid little attention to them. Once I attended the inaugural lecture of a professor of Linguistics and realised that his purpose in life was to state the obvious about language in “scientific” jargon. – The main point of these fashions is, of course, to provide employment for academics. It seems to me a weakness of the German academic mind that it is susceptible to every fashionable wind that blows. Anglo-Saxon scepticism and empiricism is much preferable.

On the other hand, one excellent aspect of the Golden Age did survive into a period of sliding standards and suspect values — One of the nicest perks of teaching in a Language Department was to be surrounded by attractive young women, and over the years the Tübingen Lektorinnen (they were of course always “-innen”!) and Exchange Students made an incalculable contribution to the happiness of departmental life. Many of them became and have remained firm friends.