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Sibylle J. Metzger (Leeds, 1998-2000)
“Virtual and Actual Realities in Leeds”

Being the ‘latest’ edition of the Tübingen Lektorinnen my memories are still very fresh, and it may seem easier to put my impressions into words. But even so, they can only be impressions.

These last two years have flown by, and my thoughts still need time to be sorted.
The one-way ticket to Leeds proved to be a perfect choice, and my initial fear at being stranded in a place where I did not know a soul was soon turned into the joy and excitement of a job with so many facets and faces.

Tübingen, as many of us know, is a different sort of place altogether, the ‘university across the city’ is completely different to the campus in Leeds, and yet I found myself getting lost more often on the Leeds campus than in the Altstadt ... Not only the physical appearance of the Universities differ, but also the way people study. England and Germany are two different kettles of fish altogether and for a German finalist the ways to study in England appear at first alien and weird. The role of the Lektorin is not only that of the language teacher but also of representative, maybe even ambassador for their country, particularly in times of political and economic change, or when international football events turn even the laziest person into an eager fan …

Teaching with little previous experience was a daunting task, and many a night I wondered how I could and would do it. Like many of the things in Leeds the reality turned out to be so much less frightening than those sleepless nights. The students seemed just as excited about the prospect of studying as I was of teaching them, and on the whole we managed to take the first steps in the right direction together. In the course of my time here I learnt probably more than in all those years in Tübingen, and I often felt more like a student than a teacher. Both colleagues and students contributed to this, never failing to make me think more about the reality we shared, but also leaving me occasionally wondering if I was dreaming this all up. Like in a long and beautiful dream that one does not want to stop.

On my arrival to Leeds I was introduced to my office equipped with the latest technology and internet access, while books and papers of many a predecessor were waiting on the bookshelves to help me out in times of need for ideas and material. For the first couple of days I would just sit grinning in there, not believing what I saw and not realising what a strange sight I must have been to everyone who was passing by …

The computer age had just started when I began studying – with pride I had typed my first essays on an ancient typewriter in the central library in Tübingen – indeed, for a good while I regarded the new machines as something very odd. Internet and email were unheard of, and the rapid growth and availability caught up before long, and suddenly I was the proud owner of one of those ‘wonder-boxes’. Since then a lot has changed, and yet it still seems an utter wonder to me how technology has changed the face of studying. The opportunities for research and not least for language learning and teaching have broadened to an extent which is hard to grasp and understand, but becomes more and more normal for today’s students. While the use of videos and satellite television is taken for granted, newspapers and books are just as readily available now as are television stations and radio broadcasts – all without moving away from the computer. Students can ‘jump’ from Leeds campus all over the world in no time, and practise their active language skills via the computer links on a daily basis.

The role of the Lektorin as the native speaker is still important for communicational skills, but the students now have more opportunity to access the spoken and written language without help from us. However, I feel that the vastness of the information and the amount on offer tends to lead students to believe that by having German at their fingertips they have it also in their mouth. It does not always work out, even though the advantages are clearly visible. A systematic review of their language knowledge is as important as their cultural and political awareness.

‘Virtual reality’ has become one of the keywords of our time, but occasionally the mere facts of daily life can cause trouble and heartache. The excitement about the new life as a student offers not only fun, but sometimes the realisation that the workload and the new freedom can be very demanding and occasionally overwhelming.

For the students the computer has become a major tool in their studies, and the changing conditions in the economy add to this. On the verge of the new millennium technology has become a major part of the life at University, and the recent fears of the millennium bug (which, thanks to Richard, turned out to be made from chocolate and quite delicious) or the I Love You virus have shown the frailty of the system.

Not everything was about the computer, though. In the classroom, communication with real people and talking about all kinds of subjects became the focal point. As one of the aims of the German course at Leeds is to help students to function like native speakers in Germany it is important to give them an insight into the ways how Germans not only speak but also think. Role-play and group debates helped them assume new identities and ‘pretend’ to be German. By using the language a whole new world opens, and students suddenly can find themselves in a reality that is accessible, because, although it can cause problems, it is much more rewarding than a web-page print-out. Acting as a speaker of another language helps one to assume this new identity, and when we staged a short play in honour of Goethe’s birthday [“Goethe” von E.Friedell u. A.Polgar, mit Prolog von S.J.Metzger], acting became even more important. Not only those who took part in it but also the audience felt the sheer fun and pride in using this new, other reality. The fact that even the Choir joined us and incorporated the audience in their songs made it an unforgettable occasion for everyone involved.

The ‘fun element’ in teaching seems enormously important. Studying is not only hard work, but fun and joy all round. Sometimes students and teachers can forget it, but I found that humour – one of those bones of contention in Anglo-German relations – is probably one of the best teachers. The overcoming of differences and of fear of using another language is witnessed in the laughter in the classes. With such pleasant colleagues and students, laughter was not a stranger to the department but our daily companion which made work enjoyable and extremely rewarding.

At times I encouraged the students to write poems together, mostly for the sake of raising an awareness for the language, rather than for serious content, but the jokes and innuendoes showed that the poets had thought hard to come up with witty pieces.

One poem I find worth quoting on this occasion. A group of first year students wrote it together, trying to get the most important impressions of their first year at the university into it ...

Deutsche Grammatik
Wir lernen an der Uni hier
Deutsche Grammatik (und trinken auch viel Bier).
Verben, Nomen und Perfekt ...
Alles was im Coursebook steckt.
Es ist ganz lang und gar nicht -weilig
Und wenn ich alles richtig lerne,
Werd ich heilig.

Finally, all I can say is that I fail to put my thoughts into appropriate words, but the joy that creeps up from behind every time I think about my time in the German Department is too large to fit into a short piece like this. To my colleagues and students I am eternally grateful for everything I learnt and had the opportunity to store in my memories.