Breaking the link between Language and Culture

Our thanks to the staff and students in the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) who contributed to this post, telling the story of how the University is forcing through changes to this programme that go against the best interests of staff, students, and this university. This decision, made by a small group of senior management with no expertise in language teaching, is not only having a detrimental impact on members of SLC and the Modern Language Teaching Centre (MLTC), but also staff and students in the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), and all 11 of the departments that have dual or single honours programmes with these departments. Central admissions staff were not consulted in making this decision, and the restructure has left professional services colleagues in these departments with uncertainty about the future of their jobs.

The stress that this process has created is unconscionable, but even worse, the damage that this decision will do to languages teaching at Sheffield cannot be overstated. Sheffield UCU is currently balloting to oppose this disastrous and unnecessary process, specifically University Management’s unwillingness to even guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of it. We ask all members to vote YES to Action Short of a Strike and to Strike Action on your ballot, and to return them today.

Breaking the link between Language and Culture

One Monday morning in February, twelve members of staff in the School of Languages and Cultures received an email from the Head of School telling them that they were to be transferred to the Modern Language Teaching Centre. Colleagues who had taught the rich mixture of languages and cultures associated with Catalan, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish – some for decades – learned that from September they would only be permitted to teach language courses.

The next day the rest of the staff in the School were informed, and it emerged that all staff had effectively been classified as somehow either specialists in ‘languages’ or in ‘cultures’, with no recognition of the fundamentally intertwined nature of language and culture that constitutes the heart of this type of degree all over the world. Decades of experience of researching and teaching language and cultures together were to be set aside, as university management sought its own ‘synergies’.

Staff in the Modern Languages Teaching Centre received a similar announcement, and joined with their SLC colleagues in pointing out that the proposed changes showed a total lack of understanding of the different expectations and modes of learning that characterise a cohort of linguists doing a languages degree and those who choose MLTC modules as an elective or a personal development activity. A very broad-brush example: a student taking a dual degree in German and History needs different language skills to be able to read, contextualise and analyse complex texts in German as compared to a Chemistry student taking a German language course in order to be able to work with a German company.

It’s a ‘broad-brush’ sketch, but it underpins the way languages are taught here at Sheffield and across Europe – and this has been wilfully disregarded in this reorganisation. Our colleagues in both departments have been dismayed to see attempts by university management to sow division by suggesting that staff in one department see their own methodologies and pedagogies as somehow ‘better’ than those in the other department. They’re not. They’re just different; and designed to cater to different cohorts of students.

An example is translation: in the MLTC translation is used to develop communicative skills, while in the SLC translation is treated as a specialist skill in itself, and a practical and theoretical base for postgraduate study and careers. Development of translation as a specialist focus has been encouraged by Faculty for several years now, as it fits with the University’s employability agenda, and feeds into the SLC’s Masters programmes in translation. For staff, the restructuring will have the bizarre and costly effect of stopping some highly experienced colleagues teaching translation, and asking others to hurriedly train up in a discipline that does not fit with their longstanding methodological expertise. For students, many of whom take two or even three languages, there is a clear threat of despecialisation.

Students have been demanding clear and detailed information on what all this means for their degree, and have consistently been told that ‘learning outcomes’ will not change. This is true in one sense – after intense lobbying by students and staff last semester, students have been promised that they will be offered instruction covering materials that correspond to the same CEFR levels as presently. But the CEFR scale, devised by the Council of Europe, only measures the “operational appropriation” of a language. Students will perhaps “operationally appropriate” a degree, but whether this will have the same standing and value as the languages and cultures degrees offered by other Russell Group universities has been thrown into doubt by this staggeringly ill-informed restructuring.