created: Aug.2003

In Praise of Lektors

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45 years Applied Völkerverständigung
The modern university may now be an
unsentimental cyberspace,
but it still has to make room for friendship.

During professional discussions about what should be included in a University German syllabus, there is only one aspect on which general agreement is ever reached: ‘German Language’. Neither Luthers Werke nor even Goethes Werke attract general acceptance (far less my own special interest: the magnificent Middle Ages) – but we concede readily enough that not all HE institutions with German Departments should be obliged to teach German literature or Reformation history: Engineers don’t need it professionally, nor do many people in Business.

On the other hand, whilst there is certainly agreement on ‘German Language’, it stops there. The crucial question: "To what purpose?" or "German for what?", raises impenetrable barriers – ’twas ever thus with existential questions. And, since Philosophy soon merges into Theology, we quickly enter the area of convictions where, erst recht, there can be little hope of general agreement – not even amongst Linguists, that tolerant, patient, broad-minded breed.

As was recently re-acknowledged with national coverage in the Nuffield Report (May 2000), learning any foreign language is a most valuable educative experience. For the individual, it trains the mind as well as enriches the imagination and, when well done, it shapes the will to tolerate and value ‘other peoples’ in their otherness. Latin-learning fulfilled those objectives in Europe for one and a half millennia (and for one thousand of those years Latin was the first school subject). For the nation, the fact that all children have learnt a foreign language to a significant level of competence also helps to guarantee our ability to compete in the market-place. Nowadays, though, whilst concurring with the importance of language-learning in general, we have to assess the market-place and ask the question: Why German in particular?

In the sections that follow (1956-72; 1972-8; 1978-87; 1987-99; and 1999 to the present) an account is given of how German Language teaching policy and practice have developed over the decades in our Department, together with reflections and reminiscences from past and present colleagues. They may not actually answer the question "Why German now and in future?" but they do reflect the range of imaginative and intellectual gains made by the contributors, and so they give an outline of what learning German has provided in the past and can, perhaps, continue to provide into the future.

As for the question of LektorInnen and how to ‘use’ them in a Department of German, there is again little agreement – other than, of course, ‘to teach the language’. We still hear the arguments: "What level of salary should they be paid?" "How long should their contracts be for – 9 months, one year, two years, longer?" "Can you arrange for their own Government to sponsor them?" "Should they also teach ‘content courses’?" – "Ah, but how well qualified are they? And would that raise false career-expectations?" – And so on.

At Leeds we have been lucky enough to enjoy the input of a succession of Lektorinnen who unfussily acknowledge that every ‘language’ class is also (of course) a ‘content’ class, that all such content is dependent upon language for its expression anyway, that what every teacher teaches is in any case primarily her/his own self, that good teachers avoid acting self-importantly, and that a teacher’s real reward is in her/his students’ progress and their often movingly expressed gratitude. – One of our former colleagues writes of the satisfaction she had from teaching a particularly gifted student who has gone on to become a Head of TV News – all of us can offer parallels.

Above all, our LektorInnen hold ‘conversation-classes’ – the biggest teaching challenge for any linguist. Psychologists of language-learning identify as many as seven different competencies which contribute to language-proficiency, but only in seventh place do they put ‘social competency’ (after lexical, syntactic, semantic, phonological, prosodic and cognitive). For our particular foreign language teaching purposes at university-level, however, – i.e. (as now perceived) our graduates’ future employability using their knowledge of German – ‘social competency’ actually comes first. And here we gratefully acknowledge that our native-speakers’ social input has been colossal, especially with regard to their invaluable help ‘socializing’ our students ahead of the Term or Year Abroad adventure in Germany. They bake, they give hospitality, they stage plays, acting at times and, in at least one case, writing scenes with splendid command of Knittelvers, and they support the German Choir. For many of our students, what they first learn about ‘real Germans’ they learn from our LektorInnen. And what they learn of how Germans interact with each other likewise comes from our native-speaker colleagues.

And that’s not all. Views may differ as to whether Teaching or Research has primacy in a university’s mission: Does our Leeds University motto, for example – ET AUGEBITUR SCIENTIA (and Knowledge shall increase) – refer to our students’ knowledge, or to the ‘Frontiers of Knowledge’? – Probably the latter. (Prudently no doubt, our motto-makers stuck with the scientist Roger Bacon rather than the poet Ben Sirach and so ventured nothing about increasing SAPIENTIA.) Certainly, though, when it comes to increasing our students’ knowledge of Germany and the Germans – especially the German sense of humour – the contribution made by our LektorInnen is the equal of anything provided by those of us with permanent contracts. Where we Lecturers more or less deliberately seek to impress a wider, external audience, our Lektor colleagues commit themselves primarily to the Department and to our students. Can we ever thank them enough?


45 Years Applied Völkerverständigung at Leeds University

 Various Departments at Leeds have their own links with Germany – of a formal kind (often under the aegis of the Erasmus and Socrates schemes) or else personal; and there are several native Germans elsewhere on the staff – from the Brotherton Library to Physics to Food Science to the Administration to the International Medieval Institute amongst others. All of these make significant contributions to Völkerverständigung – long may they continue! The fact that those contributions do not figure in the following pages is only because we have limited our horizon here to activities involving the Department of German.

The Leeds-Tübingen link

For every reason, academic, social and personal, we are grateful for the Leeds-Tübingen link. It is our longest-standing one, having been arranged in the 1950s. And the exchange still operates between our two universities, both at student and Lector level. Whilst enthusing on this score, however, we stress that the Department’s academic links with Leipzig (more below), Dortmund, Bayreuth and – started this session – Heidelberg are also a source of much enrichment.

In earlier decades the Tübingen link also involved exchanges with colleagues in English, Philosophy and Theology. Twice Douglas Jefferson [former Professor of English] spent sabbatical leave there, teaching his Golden Age specialism. And the Theology Department link is nicely reflected below in the contribution from Haddon and Hilary Willmer.

One of the enduring features of the arrangement with Tübingen is that we have always received a Lektorin. When Professor Gillies originally negotiated the link with Professor Müller-Schwefe of the Tübingen Englisches Seminar, he stipulated that the Lektor coming to Leeds would have to be a Lektorin because a place could not be guaranteed for a man in one of the Leeds men’s Halls of Residence – and impressions of Hall life certainly feature in our Lektorin colleagues’ reminiscences up to the mid-1970s. Privately, though, we understand that Gillies also made this stipulation because – right-minded thinker that he was –: "I’m not going to have a German telling me how to run my Department." – In fact, an altogether more convincing explanation is given by Adelheid Petruschke below, to do with the ‘überlegene sprachliche, aber auch emotionale und kommunikative Intelligenz der Frauen.’

It was a fine gesture by Müller-Schwefe’s later successor as Professor of English, Hans Werner Ludwig (future Rektor of the university), when he travelled to Leeds to award Gillies, shortly after his retirement, Tübingen University’s Gold Medal in recognition of the way he had fostered the link between our two universities.

Our first Tübingen Lektorin joined us in 1956 – Brigitte Hahn (now Reischle – contribution below) – and 46 years on we still receive a Lector from Tübingen, now usually for a two-year period but only on a nine-month contract (ten of the contributions below are from ‘Tübinger’). The provision of a Lector the other way round – from Leeds to Tübingen – has been less consistent. At the start of the 1960s the Lektor was provided on an annual basis generally by our English Department. During the last couple of decades the post has been tenable for two years and the post-holder has been a graduate of German (see the contribution from Linda Speidel).

Besides the Lektor from Tübingen, we also had the good fortune during the 1980s to enjoy the services both of an Austrian Lektorin (see contributions from Brigitte Scott and Johanna Mayr) and of a succession of British Council-sponsored Guest Lecturers from the GDR (three of the six who came – Werner Plehn, Christa Hartwig and Angelika Bergien – have provided an account of their time here). When budget cut-backs obliged the Austrian Kultusministerium to withdraw support for a LektorIn at Leeds at the end of the 1980s and, simultaneously, the GDR reached the end of its separate existence, we were glad to be able to replace them, albeit only partially, with a DAAD-sponsored LektorIn.

The Leeds-Leipzig Treaty of Academic Co-operation.

One of the main impulses that brought about this link originally was the difficulty of getting visas for students in our Russian Department to study in the Soviet Union. During the late 1960s Michael Holman (then a recently appointed Assistant Lecturer and now, 35 years later, recently retired Professor of Russian Studies) suggested a good working alternative, i.e. send our Modern Languages students of German and Russian for a term to Leipzig, where the Karl Marx University had a lively Soviet Russian presence. Once Prof. Gillies had retired ("over my dead body" as it were) it was possible to develop this link into the university-wide Treaty of Co-operation which it became during the mid-1970s. The account below by John Buckler of his collaboration with colleagues in Paediatrics stands for the many areas – Education, Law, Arabic Studies, Theology and Dentistry amongst them – in which fruitful co-operation took place.

In our Department’s case the collaboration / exchange operated principally at undergraduate level. We would send between three and eight students to Leipzig annually for their ‘Term abroad’. The KMU covered the costs locally by providing an appropriate sum of Ostmarks, while a sum equivalent to the cost of spending a term in Leeds was paid by our students into a special Leeds University account. The sums in this account were then made available to finance visits to Leeds by staff from Leipzig.

In the field of German literature our Department received over the years, amongst others, Professors Träger, Pilling, Hartinger and Schumann. Another more frequent visitor with strong linguistic and translation interests was Professor Albrecht Neubert from the KMU Sektion Theoretische und Angewandte Sprachwissenschaften. Despite the Cold War and the possible threat of STASI infiltration (the BBC’s exposure of STASI recruitment activities in their spy series, Sept. 1999, did not come as a complete surprise. And what should we make of Christa Hartwig’s parting shot below?), there is no question that our students’ political awareness was greatly enhanced by experiencing a Socialist Economy at first hand. — One of them, a student of French and German and a thoroughly independent-minded member of the Liverpool Chinese community whose political sympathies lay not with Nationalist China but with the People’s Republic of China, particularly wanted to spend her Term Abroad at Leipzig in order to experience Socialism at first hand. When asked on return what she had made of it, she replied simply: "It is not like that in the People’s Republic."

By the mid-1980s we finally received our first GDR exchange students from Leipzig. The argument was simple: if we send students to the GDR, why shouldn’t GDR students come to England? But the GDR Authorities’ fears were justified: in 1987/8 at least one of those students succeeded in evading the group’s minder on their way back through London and defected – thus, at student-level, we in Leeds experienced the end of the GDR approaching. Something of what the end was like for our GDR teaching colleagues is vividly evoked below in the contribution from Professor Bergien.

Both the Guest Lectureship and the Leeds-Leipzig academic exchange are mentioned briefly in the article by Ian Wallace, ‘The GDR’s Cultural Activities in Britain’, published in German Life and Letters, vol.53:3 (July 2000, pp.394-408).

Richard Byrn, August 2000

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