One of the best parts of a degree in modern languages is the opportunity to live, work, and study abroad during university. It’s a life-changing experience that our alumni remember fondly. Here is a reflection from Heidi Nicholson, an alumna of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, who worked as a Lectrice d’Anglais at the University of Poitiers in 1995-1996.
Job prospects for new graduates in the early ’90s were scarcely better than those of graduates during the recent economic downturn. Training schemes were closed by big companies, lots of people were in precarious temp roles and still others were working for free in the hope of getting their big break. It is an all too familiar picture.
I decided that a more positive step would be to apply to be a lectrice d’anglais as part of the French Department’s exchange programme with the universities of Poitiers, Lyons and Nîmes. I had done some English tutoring during my Erasmus exchange to Pavia in 1994 and then spent the summer qualifying to teach English as a Foreign Language. Even though I was also applying for jobs with private language schools, I thought a lectriceship would be an excellent and unique way of gaining some experience in the classroom.
Given the circumstances of the time, there were more applications than there were positions available. As a result, each of us had to go through an interview with Dr Tony Simons and Prof Peter Noble and the outcome was posted to a noticeboard. Coming top in the interviews, I got first choice of where to go and I chose Poitiers for its academic reputation, its long connections with Reading University and, yes, I also had some friends there.
I chose not to live in the ‘lecteurs’ flats’ in the centre of town, choosing instead a studio in a cottage that clung to the hill close to the River Clain. My neighbours were a young couple of students, Anita and Victor and also a lecturer in the English Department, Brendan Prendiville (who, I think, did his PhD at Reading). It was a bit like something out of ‘A Year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle and some of the tales I have to tell from that dwelling would certainly be reminiscent of that book. Those are perhaps for another day.
I have two stand-out memories of my time as a lectrice at Poitiers. The first is a personal achievement and the other is a circumstance of the time.
Let’s start with the achievement. One of the courses that I was put down to teach was the oral class of the Maîtrise in Langues Etrangères Apliquées. Speaking to the course leader, an American lecturer called George Ottie, it was clear that the format of the oral classes needed refreshing. Previously, the classes had consisted of two students giving a speech on a chosen subject to the rest of the class, which, while testing for those making the speeches, meant that in practice, the rest of the class was not engaged. I put a proposal to him to make this livelier, drawing on my experience as a TEFL teacher. The course that year became about news reports, interviews about what the different students had done during their industrial placements and political panel discussions. The last was based on ‘Question Time’ and I had had my parents video an edition and post it to me. I also encouraged the students to tune into Radio 4 long wave (obtainable in Poitiers even before the days of the internet) and listen to ‘Any Questions’ for this project. Don’t worry, I never asked them to re-imagine ‘The Archers’!
As to circumstances, the end of 1995 was marked by a general strike in France. The trains stopped and so did the post. Fortunately, there were no power cuts in western France, though I understand not all areas were so lucky. There were marches in the streets and the pictures from Paris led concerned friends and relatives to enquire whether I was OK. All was fine, Poitiers wasn’t Paris and nor was 1995 1968.
There was, nevertheless, a student strike and this heavily disrupted the term from November until Christmas. As foreign employees we had no rights to join the strikes, even if we had wanted to, and so all the lecteurs (me, Rebecca Davies (also from Reading and doing her second year as a lectrice), Alex Godbold (Arcadia, Canada), Behnaz Soulati (Iowa, USA) and Ruadhan Cooke (Galway, Ireland) had to turn up to teach our classes. The rule was that we had to count our classes in. If we had more than half of the students for a class, then we taught; if less than half, we had to cancel the lesson. It was hugely disruptive and made the students who disagreed with the strike angry. The truth was about one-third of the students were actively striking; one-third were actively against the strike; and one-third used it as an excuse to go home for an extended break. The term lost all of its momentum and I used a lot of the unexpected free time on my hands to plan my lessons forward into the period after Christmas.
I returned at the end of the year and later moved to London to become a marketing consultant. While I didn’t continue in teaching, and even though I’d completed my undergraduate year abroad, Poitiers had certainly taught me some important lessons in living and working abroad.