FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 12: A toddler in the boxing ring


12. A toddler in the boxing ring


Previously, I had “done” a thing called Languages, the way other people had “done” History or Politics, as a sort of stepping-stone. Now I am back in England, they have graduated, and I am turning inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain before leaving. It is a recent novel, set in Oxford, and I think it might be an interesting experience to look at the city through Spanish eyes, as I return, tainted by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish.

The book is narrated by the Spanish “lector” (a glorified, and, this being Oxford, indeed prestigious, visiting native-speaker assistant), a role now taken by my friend and confidante, the witty and fascinating Xon de Ros. In fact, the narrator lives in the very same pyramid-shaped house where she and I share wine and cheese. I say “the very same house”. In this fiction, the author makes real a house that I think I already know. I can no longer visit Xon without having the impression that I am stepping into a novel. (It is a tribute to her fascination that this is not an entirely new feeling).

There is something deliciously subversive about the underdog (the walking dictionary) turning his gaze on the pompous professors- especially if you have been dismissively called “an impertinent boy” by a flesh-and-blood one, when you tried to argue your case with a hint of sarcasm. Other members of this Sub-Faculty are described with great warmth, which only heightens your own affection for the versions of people you thought you knew on your last visit.

On reflection, maybe I had been impertinent. There was a game going on, about our respective roles. I was fresh out of school, in one of my first “grammar classes”, and, quite simply, I shouldn’t have answered back in front of 20 people from different colleges, while under his authority (he was running the class, like it or not), and on his territory (in a college so prestigious any references to books in its library would be followed, as his eyes scanned the room and noted the presence of outsiders, by the phrase “I’ve no idea whether you might have this in any of the other college libraries”). The fact that my remark got a laugh from my fellow students obviously didn’t help.

Some lecturers enjoy variations on the Socratic dialogue. A friend, recently appointed in Oxford, got a shout from the back row “We can’t hear you”, so he tried to bellow for a bit, and then checked in: “Is that better?” The reply: “Well, it’s certainly louder.”

When I am lecturing post-graduate students or professional interpreters now, I embrace any heckles in the same way I would when performing stand-up i.e. if it hits the mark and/ or is funny, the audience member is figuratively elevated onto the stage, or podium, for a moment. They have helped break the routine, which is a very powerful disruptive energy- it is my role to ensure that their contribution adds to the momentum of the class, rather than competing with it. Since we are now abandoning the script for a different genre, the rules of improv apply: I must do a “Yes and…” rather than a “Shut up! So anyway…”

A heckle may hit the mark either with its deeper truth, or expression of what is silently on the audience’s mind, both of which are hugely valuable things for us all, especially me, to hear, and in this case help me avoid the constant insecure badgering “Is that clear? Is that surprising? Are you convinced? Can you all see how that would work, yes?”. But if it neither hits the mark, nor is funny, I will ignore it, and mercilessly shut it down if it persists. In these cases, I am taking the gamble that the majority are thinking “Shut up and let him get on with it”, and so I try to implement their will.

I felt unjustly shut down by an authoritarian, so I did what most people would do in the circumstances: I performed and recorded a rap in his distinctive voice and posture, consisting mainly of the sample Spanish phrases he used to explain the same points of grammar I had covered with Margalida in The Old Trout in Windsor, but with a mixture of the weirdly archaic (“Si yo tuviera dineros, me compraría un caballo”-a reference to buying a horse that sounds a bit like “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, though I am reliably informed the textbook equivalent of this is “mi sastre es inglés” or “My tailor is an Englishman”) and the downright wrong, given as counter-examples, a practice that, even then, struck me as of dubious pedagogical value, given the way curious-sounding phrases tend to linger in our minds (“Como andaba por la calle” as how not to translate “As I was walking down the street”). (When points of language crop up in my classes now, I try to stick to the motto “Don’t tell people how you don’t say something”).

The upshot was that I earned myself an enemy in a high place. When Xon told him that she was attending a college ball at which I was performing, as my guest (“Just good friends”, remember) he strongly discouraged her on the basis that tongues would wag. She apologetically withdrew her acceptance.

What happened in my first grammar class was symptomatic of a wider malaise: I think a generational change was taking place on several fronts. Firstly, the authoritarian approach, whilst still firmly rooted in Spain, was undermined in Oxford by the potential of the tutorial, that fabulously Socratic enquiry that propelled a toddler into the boxing ring. It wasn’t that we weren’t immediately pummelled and flattened- it was the fact that we were allowed to punch back at all that made the difference. After landing a timid blow on the Goliath whose books adorn the shelves behind you, you cannot take a didactic, out-dated, prescriptive pronouncement from on high without at least throwing in a firecracker one-liner to test its intellectual foundations. Secondly, thinking on “grammar” had moved on rapidly since this particular don had trained. In parallel with the postilion prose, we were receiving linguistics lectures from a dynamic new recruit who had just christened her first-born Noam. Thirdly, for all sorts of other political and economic reasons, the teacher-pupil relationship was changing. This was true of the outside world, and within a decade I was noticing it on all the MA courses in the UK on which I was teaching, but perhaps Oxford has remained impervious to the trend. Anyway, two snapshots of it: a course director whose number one priority is pre-empting, and if all else fails, rebutting, student complaints; and a post-grad student in the early 2000s, who just could not hear criticism. When light finally dawned, I was confronted with the remark: “I get what you’re saying, but I’m paying my fees for you to tell me how brilliant I am, not for this shit.”

She probably felt I was impertinent, too.


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