Interview by Cristina Sánchez-Martín
Hi Jorge, thank you for participating in this interview and sharing your experiences with us. To begin with, could you please tell us about your background?
Hi, Cristina. Thanks for getting in touch with me. I graduated in English Studies, and I have a PhD in Postcolonial Studies (Indian diaspora cinema and literature). Nevertheless, teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) as well as English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is a passion I have been developing since an early age. I enjoyed an Erasmus experience (European programme for foreign study) in Dublin (Ireland) in my third year, and I was a Teaching Assistant (hence TA) for courses in Spanish at the same university I was studying at. I really enjoyed the experience and so I decided to repeat the experience as a TA and went to London to teach at a private high school.
Then I started as PhD candidate, and some of the undergraduate courses in general English language required teaching. I had been doing EFL tuition since I was 14 years old to friends and other children/students, but this experience at college enhanced the possibilities as students in college were more enthusiastic. I realised the benefits of changing approaches, motivating students, and fostering a motivating approach to oral skills. I continued teaching these courses after completing my PhD at two other universities in Madrid (Spain). These were ESP courses for students doing degrees in International Relations, Medicine, Engineering and municipality’s officers. I must confess, it was a challenge in the beginning because I had to develop new material and, at a turning point, I became aware of the fact that that I had to change the whole scope and make the students the ones creating their own material. I became a facilitator of specific real contexts and materials (I organised meetings with ambassadors, patients and showrooms) so that students could see the feasibility of real experiences where English and a high degree of motivation was expected. Lack of motivation was in fact the burden I could find in every group (no matter which age or background).
I came back to teach at University of Salamanca two years ago, and I have been teaching English courses (both EFL and ESP) trying to implement those strategies. High number of students in class (for instance, last year groups gathered 220, 127 and 91 students) havebeen the problem I have found in this new experience. Nevertheless, throughout the implementation of collaborative projects in teaching innovation, these classes have been a delight to participate in! Some colleagues wonder how I feel splitting my academic life between postcolonial studies and EFL/ESP teaching, and I must confess that it is a great balance to handle!
You have recently been granted a project on teaching innovation, could you please tell our readers about the project?
Yes, this year I applied for a project for the EFL course I teach for first year undergraduate in the Degree of History. It is called “Promotion and Transversality of English Language in the Degree of History: Interdisciplinary Proposal around the Concepts of Resilience and Precarity” and it departs from the necessities and areas that I thought could be implemented after teaching a similar course the previous year. The course is a B1 standard (Common European Framework), and it gathers a high number of students (this year 91) with different levels in oral, writing, listening, communication and ethical and cultural attitudes.
The project departs from a similar experience that was developed last year in a ESP course for the fourth year Medicine degree students in two groups of, respectively, 227 and 48 students. A group of experts in different sections of medicine collaborated with a set of experts in linguistic to design a real context (International Conference for Young Practicioners of Medicine) so that the whole course was developed and assessed as part of this Conference. Writing of abstracts, presentation and discussion of work in progress, and writing of a scientific paper and academic presentation of this research project were the activities of assessment. The project aimed at strengthening oral skills in real context for these students. The experience introduced new trends of the field, such as Medical Geology and Rheumatology, as an attempt to implement new areas to motivate students. Oncology and Dermatology were the other two areas out which students were expected to pick a topic. Rubric for assessments were designed and produced for every activity by both groups of experts to guarantee that the medical context and competences were integrated in the linguistic requirements of the course.
This year’s project agglutinates a group of experts in History, Cultural Studies, Journalism and ESP to organise the contents of the course around the topics of Resilience and Precarity. The reason to choose these two topics was that they were very contemporary and could be used as critical terms to look at the present/past/future of History.
For that project, you gathered a significant number of non-native English teachers from different disciplines. What led you to that idea? What steps did you take to implement the idea into an actual teaching and research project?
Yes, in the project there are members from Australia, Canada, India, Spain and the UK. The non-native teaching lecturers do teach EFL and ESP courses as well as modules in literature, history, gender and cultural studies. There are also 6 members graduated in History who are teaching at state schools which offer the subjects of history in English. There are also journalists with a high knowledge of English that they have had to use in real situations, such as how to describe a historical event for a catalogue in English, how to interview a historian and the sort of situations. The problems we non-native teachers face are ideally shared with the students, or at least are taken into account to prepare the material of the lessons.
In terms of research, what are the benefits and drawbacks (if any) of working collaboratively with scholars and teachers across languages, disciplines, and institutions?
I am very lucky to have gathered a group of professionals who believe that any research of innovation in teaching project is devoted for students and society, not for the members or the main researcher. Nowadays, I have noticed that some projects are excuses for groups or individuals to cultivate themselves instead of offering and sharing something. Members of the group agreed to come on board when the idea was merely sketched and agreed to help as much as they could with ease and gratitude. I am a huge fan of team-work, so the main benefit of structuring the course according to the advices and recommendations of the members truly adds to the course.
I am particularly keen on the collaboration between non-native and native speakers from different regions because it is particularly enriching for everyone. I wish I could devote more time and attention to this interaction in upcoming years. Also, a lot of knowledge from different perspectives is shared on relevant contemporary issues and lots of interaction take place in meetings, emails and the sort of communication. From a personal perspective, I count on an interdisciplinary group which is able to provide answers about any topic as well as is eager to devote time to outlines, discussions and perspectives. I know that some members of the group have started to think about resilience and precarity since the project was awarded and they are working about the topics with their students (both at high school, undergraduate and post-doctorate level).
The experts have been given suggestions for those topics (they shared their own choices from their own fields), have assessed the adequacy of the choices and the development of students’ work, worked on the production of rubrics, etc. Besides, there have been two activities organised by the project that have aimed at disseminating the English language in real contexts making students talk English outside their classrooms (their comfort zones): a Film seminar showing films in English showing specific moments in history presented by experts of the topic. English is given visibility for the students of History, and these students meet undergraduates of Philologý as they have enrolled the seminar. It is a five-part seminar and 74 students joined. Also, the project has collaborated with the International Conference entitled “Women, Visual Arts, Literature and Human Rights” which was organised by the International Seminar of Contemporary History on Human Rights at University of University of Salamanca to commemorate the International Day of Women (March 8-9th, 2018). Some of its members, as international respected academics do participate in the project and so we organised two parallel activities. The former is a film in the previous seminar and the latter the meeting with an artist that is exhibiting at the painting show that the Conference commissioned. Students will have to create a leaflet, review or podcast script of the exhibition (as training for their final assessment) and they will interview the artist.
The drawbacks of working with such a big international team (25) is that sometimes emailing takes a bit of time, but that is a minor drawback in this year’s team because all of them are very committed and involved in the project. Also, lack of funding is a burden that we inventively try to bridge with creative alternatives, such as online meetings and Skype calls. Nevertheless, some funding to invite a writer to interact with the students or to bring a person from overseas to teach an interactive seminar could enlarge the outcomes of the project. Also, I tried to arrange a collaborative work with a national museum. A real visit was not possible because of lack of money and so a virtual tour was done… but the students missed the opportunity to interact with the people in charge of the educational programmes to which they were outlining activities in English. The same problem in the access to facilities for transportation is involved in the impossibility of students to visit the High Schools (with associated teachers within the project) to present their activities and interact in real life with classes that they might be teaching in a few years’ time.
What are the expectations for the project in terms of research?
Intellectual outputs involve Rubrics that have been designed taking into account the interdisciplinary nature of the project as well as the design of activities for EFL teaching using original material. A proposal to explain the benefits of teaching EFL through films in a conference for teaching innovation has been accepted. Results in relation to the understanding and analysis of reality and history through the concepts of resilience and precarity are expected together with a corpus-based review of the date collected in the writing tasks. I personally hope that the project gets further dissemination in the specific areas of research and work so that people can enjoy the work of students as well as the suggestions of the group!
What projects are you currently involved in related to the teaching of English?
The research project, as previously stated, aimed at organising the contents of the courses according to the topics of resilience and precarity. According to different writers (Susan O’Brien, Tabish Khair, Judith Butler, Marianne Hirsch…) these two terms allow to evaluate the functioning of cultures, politics and socio-economical contemporary issues. The course if a B1 EFL and we have made a selection of moments in history, characters, books, films, paintings, performances… that refer to historical moments. They are used to practice the contents of the specific level and for the final presentation where students need to present one of these topics orally in a formal context besides producing a writing submission in one of the following templates: a leaflet for a museum, a script for a podcast and a review for a newspaper. There are rubrics that have been produced taken into account the feedback received from all experts to ask for real contexts where English language will be demanded.
Finally, what advice would you give to other teachers and scholars interested in carrying out projects with colleagues from different parts of the world and whose disciplinary and institutional backgrounds are not exactly the same as yours?
Just enjoy the group, the course and the management of as well as the specificities of some intellectual outputs! And organise the project for the students because, ultimately, you teach for students, not for your own merits!
Thank you Jorge and congratulations on such an interesting project!
Thank you Cristina for this interview and for being such an active member of the team!