Life of a Lecturer: Bienvenida Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami

The Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading is growing! In 2015-16, we’ll begin offering degrees in Spanish in addition to our current offerings in French, German, Italian, and European Studies. Leading the creation and implementation of this new programme is Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami, who has joined the department this year from the University of Manchester. We’ve asked Dr Kumaraswami to let us know how she’s finding the University of Reading. Here’s what she has to say:

Parvathi KumaraswamiIf July and August were full of despedidas – goodbyes – (from Manchester, my home town, home of my beloved football club [the ones in blue, by the way] and location of my previous job), September has been a month of bienvenidos – warm welcomes, new names…. and labyrinthine buildings. If you see a trail of breadcrumbs on the 2nd floor of the HumSS building, you’ll know who left them.

I’m here to set up the new BA programme in Spanish, and to build a teaching and research community around Spanish and Latin American Studies at Reading. Some of my time will be taken up, no doubt, by paperwork – module descriptions, programme specifications (stay with me on this), but a lot of time will also be devoted to imagining how Spanish should look at Reading and making as much of that vision come to life as I can. And it’s an exciting prospect! It’ll mean travelling near and far – some trips abroad to set up exchange agreements with universities in Spain and Latin America, but also to some less exotic destinations (down the M4 corridor and up to the Midlands) to visit schools and to do A-Level masterclasses and taster sessions in Spanish and Latin American Studies. It’ll mean meeting a whole bunch of people – colleagues in my department and beyond, administrative staff, community groups and members of the public who have an interest in Spain and Latin America – and seeing how we can work together to organise academic and public events.

The verdict so far? 10/10. Well, maybe 9 – the commute is not always behaving as it should. After a recent  4.5 hour delay on my train to Reading, my request for a fare refund was met by a letter from Crosscountry Trains which arrived yesterday and which said – well, I liked it so much that it’s here in all its glory.

Par's Train Letter

The verdict, actually, is a resounding 10/10. Friendly faces, cooperative colleagues, what’s not to like? It’s what’s known as the ‘ honeymoon period’, I hear you say. So  I’ll let you know in a few months. And if you see me, stop and introduce yourself. I’m the one with the big bag of breadcrumbs….

Student Life: Ab initio language learning

In response to an article in the Sunday Times of 27 July 2014, ‘GCSE enough to take degree in languages,’ Professor Catherine Leglu wrote a post for this blog explaining many of the great benefits of ab initio language study – i.e. learning a language from scratch while at university.

We thought we’d ask some Reading students who are currently pursuing degrees in language after having begun a new language ab initio to reflect on their own experiences.

Sabrina Beevor, a final-year student of Italian and English Language, said the following:

SabrinaI chose to study a language at university because I really enjoy the process of learning a language and I like a new challenge. I chose to study Italian specifically because after visiting Tuscany on a family holiday at the age of fifteen, I came back to England wanting to learn more about Italian language and culture. After finishing my French GCSE a year early, and since Italian GCSE was not an option at my school, I decided to teach myself Italian and later, during my A levels, decided to attend an out-of-school adult night course which led to achieving my GCSE.

Personally, choosing to study a language ab initio has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding decisions I have made – not to say that it comes without its challenges! It is not easy and there is a lot of hard work involved (as there is with any degree) but if you are committed and enough effort is made it is an extremely rewarding experience. I have been very lucky in that the department in which I study is very supportive and provides all of the necessary tools that are needed to learn a language from Sabrina 2scratch. I have also been extremely lucky in that I was able to spend an ERASMUS year abroad studying at the University of Florence. After having spent this time living in and experiencing Italy, I can safely say I have achieved real competence in Italian.

To anyone who is considering whether to pursue an ab initio language degree, I would say if you are passionate about a particular language and culture and you are prepared to put in the time and effort, what is there to stop you? It has been a lot of work and commitment to get to the level of language I am at today but it has all been worth it since I am well on the way to achieving the goal that I set for myself at the beginning of my uni adventure: to learn Italian. 

If you’d like to hear more from Sabrina, you can read her account of her experiences as an ERASMUS student in Florence on the blog that she maintains.

If you would like to learn more about studying languages at the University of Reading, including studying a language you may not have studied in school, we invite you to visit our website. For up-to-date information about the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we also encourage you to follow our blog. And watch this space for reflections from more of our students, past and present, who have pursued ab initio degrees.

Reading Researchers: Figures of Transgression

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. Here’s an update from Dr. Ute Wölfel, a Lecturer in German Studies, whose research interests include the German war film, GDR feature and documentary film, GDR literature and representations of everyday life in print media.

I’m often being asked what academics do in the summer when the students are gone. People normally suspect that we have three months of holidays. Well, just as football players don’t only work on Sundays when the League matches are on, academics don’t only work during term time. Rather, the summer is my ‘training camp’ when I catch up with research and prepare next year’s classes.

Part of my summer this year was devoted to research workshops, days when I met with other academics who share my interests. One of the topics that brought me together with colleagues in Reading was Figures of Giving_a_sick_man_a_drink_as_US_POWs_of_Japanese,_Philippine_Islands,_Cabanatuan_prison_campTransgression in Films on War and Violent Conflict. After a series of film screenings throughout the academic year, we had the summer luxury of listening to each other’s work on those intriguing characters who cross the line between friend and enemy. Why are they part of so many war films? Are those who have contact with the ‘other side’ vile traitors because they seriously harm their own group of belonging? Or are they important as future negotiators?

The workshop allowed us to shuffle and test ideas for a new project, out next ‘match’.


Meet a Reading Graduate: An Exchange as a Lectrice d’Anglais in the 1990s

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.

Lecteurs 1995-6Job 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’!

At the window of my flat in Poiters May 1996As 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.