I’ve just completed one of the most enjoyable years of teaching in my career, as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo. One of my duties there has been to give an undergraduate survey course on 500 years of Scottish Literature – I got to teach it twice, once per semester. I don’t usually teach literature; usually I teach English language and linguistics, which I also enjoy, but this experience has been a special pleasure in many ways.

There is a perceived cultural shift between teachers of ‘language’ and ‘literature,’ based partly on the differing methodological assumptions of each discipline, and partly on mutual snobbery, but obviously that cultural divide blurs when you teach literature in a foreign language environment. It became evident over the two semesters that the ways of teaching language can be creatively applied to literary studies, and vice versa.

‘Why on earth would people in Brazil want to learn about Scottish Literature?’ This was my mother’s question when I told her what I would be doing this past year, and like most of her questions, it has a point. The students who signed up for my courses were a mixed bunch: they ranged from freshmen to students who had been attending USP for so long that they couldn’t actually remember which year they were in. Some were majoring in English, but a fair proportion was from other disciplines, either curious about Scotland, or just keen to practise their listening skills with a visiting native speaker. Few had much prior experience of the literatures of Scotland. So I had to figure out how to address the issue my mother had raised: what did I hope to achieve by the end of the course?

Well, first I wanted simply to introduce students to some interesting writers, some canonical (a few had already encountered a poem or two by Robert Burns in a poetry survey course, Walter Scott and RL Stevenson are well-studied at USP and I felt the students should know about other figures with an international reputation, like Muriel Spark. But I also wanted to introduce them to characters who might not be so well known here, like Henryson, Dunbar, Lindsay, the court poets of James VI, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Ramsay, Fergusson, John Galt, Margaret Oliphant, and a selection of contemporary figures like Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. I knew there would be huge gaps – the rich Gaelic tradition would only be referred to in passing, and I would not be able to cover figures of international importance historically, like James ‘Ossian’ MacPherson, the subject (I was later to discover) of a local graduate student’s PhD thesis. But  I was keen to look at Hugh MacDiarmid, since one of my illustrious predecessors at USP was Kenneth Buthlay, who later taught me at Glasgow University. He actually wrote his fantastic little introduction to MacDiarmid’s poetry while here, and copies of it are one of the few texts on Scottish Literature available in USP library. And I wanted to look at Edwin Morgan’s connections with and translations of the avant garde Brazilian poets, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. In short, I wanted the students to read stuff – usually poems and short stories, but also two or three novellas like Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’

But I also wanted to tell a story. The survey was organised in a routine chronological fashion, but the title of the course, I discovered on arriving, was in fact ‘Non Hegemonic Literatures in English’, a convenient umbrella title that allowed local and guest lecturers to deliver courses in (usually) African, Caribbean, Indian, or Irish literatures. In conversation, I figured out that these courses fall into a post-colonial template of resistance to British imperialism, nationalist affirmation, and globalized self-questioning. Scotland doesn’t quite fit that template, but on reflection I had a possible narrative: we would begin before the Treaty of Union with a ‘pre-colonial’ phase in the 16th century; we would consider the consequences of the Union in the 18th century; and then we would look at ways in which Scotland accommodated itself to Unionism in the 19th century and then began to question it in the 20th. In a way, part of the course reversed the ‘non-hegemonic’ expectations of the course description, since during the 17th century the ‘hegemons’ were actually Scottish members of the Stuart dynasty, who ruled over countries not their own – including England. Anyway, if the students followed the course attentively, they would at least have a better understanding of the debate leading to the independence referendum that is scheduled for September 2014.

The first semester went well enough – I enjoyed it and the feedback from students was generally positive. Yet over the mid-semester break, I was slightly dissatisfied. From the students’ assessments (a mid-semester close reading and an end-of-semester theoretical reflection) I wasn’t really sure if I had addressed my concerns – I wasn’t really sure that the students were reading as much as I wanted them to (not an uncommon concern!) and I wasn’t happy that the assessment procedure actually challenged the students very much. They wrote good-to-middling academic essays, picking away at a poem or a novel and responding to some of the theoretical issues in usually a fairly superficial way. In particular, it struck me that the written English of the students was not likely to improve if I only asked them to write a longish essay twice per semester.

After some stimulating conversations with a graduate student who had taken a more advanced seminar with me, I decided to do two things: first, I decided to add short, weekly written tasks as part of the assessment process. These would not be your standard academic essay, but they would ask students to respond to the course reading in more creative and unusual ways. And second, I would ask students to contribute to a ‘Digital Companion’ – which we eventually imagined as a website that covers part of the course (1500-1900, i.e. before copyright gets difficult) and which features content based on my lectures, the tasks I set the students before each session, and recordings of the students giving model responses.

These decisions revolutionised the second semester. I asked the students to do ten of a possible fourteen weekly tasks; by simply reading the course texts and uploading a short (c. 200-word) response, they could get 30% of the course grade. I asked them to spend no more than an hour per week doing this – though I later learned that some of the more assiduous were spending much longer. Unsurprisingly, I immediately lost a few students who were unwilling to commit to a regular regime of coursework. But those who stayed benefited a lot. And they began to demonstrate a very high degree of imaginative interaction with the materials.

I tried to vary the tasks as much as possible. The students were asked to update two stanzas of Henryson’s ‘Testament of Cresseid’ into modern English and then we compared their versions with those of Seamus Heaney and the Canadian poet, Fred Cogswell. The students imagined how they would stage a scene from ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ and then watched a scene from the recent Edinburgh production online. They were asked to write a sonnet, using the ‘reulis and cautelis’ of James VI, and they devised 4 or 5 characteristics of their own ‘universal language’ in response to Thomas Urquhart’s. Some wrote a short ballad using traditional ballad formulae and some Scots words, culled from the Dictionary of the Scots Language online. They wrote love letters in the style of Burns and Clarinda. They provided pleas for or against clemency to the judge at the end of Walter Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers’.

In one of my favourite tasks, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, they turned Galt’s ‘The Annals of the Parish’ into a series of tweets – and I began to realise the power of hashtags in bringing out the themes underlying an extended piece of fiction. They were forced to confront issues of narrative reliability by attempting to dramatize ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and they psycho-analysed the disturbed narrator of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, ‘The Library Window’. They translated some Scots-rich paragraphs of a kailyard novel into Portuguese, and wrote down a think-aloud protocol of their encounter with one of MacDiarmid’s early lyrics. They turned a scene from ‘They Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ into a film script and then compared it with the Ronald Neame version on YouTube. And to finish off, they devised their own concrete poems, before looking at how Edwin Morgan translated some of the de Campos brothers’ verbo-visual texts. They worked incredibly hard.

A number of things emerged. First, I became confident that the students were reading the set texts with a greater degree of engagement than before. Some, naturally, invested the tasks with a greater degree of enthusiasm and engagement  – and talent – than others. But each week I was surprised by a thoughtful or reflective or just downright witty response from a different student. People responded in different ways to the different tasks. Secondly, for the substantial proportion of students who regularly submitted their weekly assignment, the level of their written English slowly improved. There was still quite a range of written competence by the end of the course, but there was clear improvement. And finally, the understanding displayed in the close reading and theoretical essay was deeper.

Progress on the ‘digital companion’ was slower, but by the end of the semester a small group of keen volunteers was ready to make recordings of some of the course readings, and of model responses to the weekly tasks. We begged and borrowed classrooms and equipment to make some rudimentary video-clips. As of yesterday, we have all the material we need to complete the course companion, but there is a fair amount of editing and uploading to be done before the course goes public on WordPress (at – we are aiming for Burns Night, on 25th January 2014.  A sneak preview of one of the video clips is given at the end of this blog.

When it does appear, I hope that the website will encourage others to deliver similar courses on Scottish Literature elsewhere. But even if it doesn’t, it will serve me as a reminder of one of the happiest teaching experiences I’ve ever had. My grateful thanks go to all who made it so.



‘Fools are fain of flitting.’ This 17th century Scottish proverb, which means ‘only fools enjoy changing their place of residence’, seems particularly appropriate this week. My wife and I have moved into a rented flat in Vila Madalena, in Sao Paulo, and so we’ve been spending most of our time retrieving and unpacking boxes that have been stored away, and we’re still trying to squeeze their contents into the very pleasant but slightly cramped space of our new home. The main problem, of course, are our books, which are spilling out from our few bookshelves to take up occupancy on tables, windowsills and staircase.

Being married to a Brazilian, I am always struck by her rather different assumptions about domestic space. Like other Brazilian women I’ve met, she has an abhorrence of certain things that seem perfectly reasonable to me, like having a washing-machine in the kitchen.

‘It’s where the plumbing is,’ I protest. ‘It’s the obvious place to put it.’

‘It’s unhygienic, she says. ‘I hate cooking where dirty clothes are being washed.’ I don’t understand her concern. I worry about the logic of muddy jeans in a washing machine somehow contaminating vegetables that are being stir-fried in a wok, but there you go. I don’t mind at all having the washing-machine isolated in its own little laundry area, and intercultural relationships are about the art of compromise.

Another domestic habit that used to niggle me was my wife’s habit of leaving doors open in the flat. When I went around religiously closing them, with my grandmother’s admonition ‘Were you born in a field? echoing in my memory, she went around opening them again. I slowly realized we were the products of different social assumptions regarding door opening and closing: I was conditioned to prevent icy Scottish draughts from whistling through poorly-insulated houses; she was conditioned to let cool, fresh air circulate throughout the dwelling.

These differences in assumption are small, even trivial, examples of what Michael Agar calls ‘rich points’ in his stimulating book, Language Shock. When we flit from culture to culture, we come across differences in thought and habit that often strike us immediately (and perhaps illogically) as just wrong. But underlying these differences are often rich strata of sometimes unarticulated beliefs and attitudes that have grown up over generations. If we pause to reflect on them we can begin to quarry the rich seam of cultural attitudes that can help us to understand other people’s seemingly weird ideas – even if we never quite get around to accepting them ourselves.

Meanwhile, we continue to unpack the boxes. Some boxes are more interesting than others: the cutlery, clothes and linen all have particular places to go that do not require much in the way of decision. But ornaments, pictures and posters are another matter. What will we put in the living spaces; what will we put in the more intimate spaces of the bedrooms? What public faces will we show and what will we present as representative of ourselves at this stage in our lives?

An interesting classroom activity that prompts slightly older learners to reflect on their use of domestic spaces simply asks them to describe, in pairs or small groups, what pictures or posters they put on their bedroom walls (a) when they were 14 or 15 years old and (b) now, assuming they are at least four or five years older. And then you can ask how their different choices demonstrate how their personality has either changed or remained constant.

In my experience of doing this, the learners’ responses are remarkably consistent across cultures: women have a tendency towards having posters of animals (often horses) and male pop and television stars on their bedroom walls as mid-teens; there is a wider diversity later. Males tend towards sports teams, racing cars and rock stars. In any class there is usually at least one person with more unpredictable tastes, and the conventionality and unconventionality of the choices can be discussed as a class.

In my own case, I had posters of science fiction films on the bedroom wall as a teenager; this evolved later in life to art posters, particularly of Pieter Breughel’s winter scenes, like The Census at Bethlehem. One might see this change as a maturing of tastes, or possibly a shift towards pretension. I would rather see the later choices as a natural extension of the earlier ones: one of my favourite science fiction films was – and still is – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is where I first came across Breughel’s icy, sociable depictions of outdoor village life. They decorate the Russian spaceship orbiting the sinister planet that turns its inhabitants’ nightmares into reality.  I also first associated his Fall of Icarus with a short science fiction story by Brian Aldiss, long before I discovered the allusion to the same painting in W.H. Auden’s beautiful poem, Musée des Beaux Arts. So my later choices were linked by a widening and deepening network of personal associations and memories. The challenge to our learners is whether they see their own later choices as linked to, or breaking free from the choices of the past.

In my book, Intercultural Language Activities, a section is devoted to exploring our own domestic spaces, trying to make the familiar ‘strange’. The places where we live are often so unremarkable to us that we do not notice their culturally distinctive nature. I remember Mike Byram telling a story in a seminar about taking classes of school pupils from England to France on language trips; afterwards he asked them to compare French houses with their own. The activity initially failed, since the pupils simply had not observed their French accommodation in much detail. So he then asked later groups of pupils to take time out during their visit to draw a French house or flat. The pupils returned with a wealth of detail and observations about differences between French and English domestic spaces. Sometimes, we have to be trained to see.

Agar, M. (1994) Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: HarperCollins

Corbett, J. (2010) Intercultural Language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Going intercultural

This blog is a space for reflection on intercultural language education, especially as it relates to English language teaching. I first became aware of intercultural language education in the 1990s, when I found myself teaching on a series of summer schools on what was then called ‘British Cultural Studies’. The summer schools brought together an exciting group of international students and a stimulating – and highly diverse – bunch of guest speakers, among them Susan Bassnett, the Translation Studies scholar and Mike Byram, who was then busily developing his views on Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC). In different ways, Susan and Mike were big influences on me – and they still are, but my main concern was with the participants in the summer school courses, who were largely English language teachers, from Europe, Asia and South America. How were they actually to apply the ideas informing intercultural language education in their classes and courses?
What intercultural language education is, and how ICC might be acquired or developed, will be the main topics of this blog. I also hope to offer some practical ideas for the ELT classroom. At the outset, I had only the vaguest notion of what ‘going intercultural’ might involve, but my views have been developing over the years as I’ve taught courses in intercultural language education, attended conferences, and met more and more practitioners. I’ve realised that ‘going intercultural’ means a bewildering variety of things to many language teachers. To some, it is a set of recipes for basic survival in an unfamiliar environment. To others, it is a means of negotiating ethical encounters with The Other. To me, it is both of these things, but it is also the development of a set of skills to observe and understand human behaviour, particularly linguistic behaviour, in the myriad cultural contexts that communities create. These skills can be developed in many ways, but one of the most fundamental is learning to ‘loaf and lurk’.
The expression ‘loafing and lurking’ is borrowed from ethnography, and it refers to the training required to become a ‘participant observer’ in our own or another culture. ‘Loafing and lurking’ requires us to step back from our normal immersion in everyday activity, and to try to see it with fresh eyes – as if with the eyes of an alien, who has just landed on Earth. It requires hanging around places, observing what’s going on, and making systematic observations, sometimes using a ‘schedule’ or list to guide us. We look at patterns of behaviour, and we try to understand the underlying reasons for the patterning. We also need to develop ‘semiotic’ skills to read the visual, verbal and aural information that surrounds us. Increasingly we need to apply these skills to virtual communication and ‘being’ on the web.
Ten years ago, I published my first extensive book on intercultural language education, mainly as a means of trying to understand it myself. I was living in Brazil when I wrote the first draft, and I was trying to synthesise the various encounters and readings that had informed my thinking a the time. Since then I’ve written and co-written two more books on the subject (one a resource book for teachers; one a co-written book on language and medical education), as well as numerous chapters and articles, and I have tentatively agreed to revisit the 2003 volume soon, to rework it for a second edition. Coincidentally, I am back in Brazil, so the omens appear to be good. The world has changed a lot in the last ten years – and I know more – and less! – than I used to. So this blog is a way of revisiting some of my earlier assumptions and addressing some newer issues too.
I still think that ‘loafing and lurking’ is a core skill in intercultural language education, though, and I will finish this first blog with a brief classroom activity that helps develop this skill. More can be found in my resource book Intercultural Language Activities, where a more extended version of this activity can be found.
Often, when we are in an unfamiliar situation, we are not confounded so much by the language that people use, but by the behaviour that is expected of us in that situation. I always feel a heightened sense of anxiety when visiting a barber-shop or hairdressing salon in a foreign country. What am I expected to do? What will happen to me? In Sao Paulo, one of my most startling experiences was when the hairdresser and her assistant started plucking hair from my ears with pincers – they had warned me, but I hadn’t quite understood their warning… So, to explore hairdressing culture, beginning at home, we can ask our learners to ‘loaf and lurk’ when they next visit the salon or barber’s. They might consider the following questions:
* Do men and women use the same salon or barber-shop? Are there facilities for children?
* What kind of routine, exactly, do men and women expect to encounter in the hairdresser’s? Is hair washed before and/or after it is cut? What are the styling options? Can men be shaved, or have their beards trimmed? Is hair removed from ears and/or noses? Can you have your nails manicured? Can you expect a massage?
* How many people attend the customer? A hairdresser alone, or an assistant too? Do both get tipped? How much?
* What kind of ‘small talk’ is expected when you talk to the hairdresser? Do you need to be able to say how you spent your weekend, or where you are planning your next holiday? Is gossip about public celebrities expected?
The learners can share their expectations in class, then go and observe a hairdresser in operation. They can then report their findings and role-play ‘hairdressing encounters’ in which participants make appropriate – or inappropriate – requests.
Getting your hair cut is a small slice of everyday life, but there are many cultural variations on hairdressing behaviour, and our expectations do differ across cultures. We can either learn a massive inventory of possible communicative interactions or – through ‘loafing and lurking’ – we can learn to be cultural explorers, sensitised to possible difference, and primed to act accordingly.

Bassnett, S. (2003). Studying British Cultures. Routledge.
Byram, M., & Morgan, C. (1994). Teaching-and-learning language-and-culture. Multilingual matters.
Corbett, J. (2003). An intercultural approach to English language teaching. Multilingual Matters.
Corbett, J. (2010). Intercultural language activities. Cambridge University Press