Maria Salenius: “One of the best things about teaching is sharing the things I love the most with the students”

For this week’s interview we sat down with Maria Salenius, University Lecturer in British Literature at the University of Helsinki, to talk about teaching literature at the university level and training future teachers for the school world. In this interview she tells us about how her passion for teaching and her plan to become a schoolteacher led to a career in doing research and teaching at the University, what she finds to be the most rewarding aspects of teaching, what challenges there are, and how the recent funding cuts have affected teaching. She also shares her advice to students for getting to grips with a literary work they find hard to get into.

What topics do you usually teach?

My official job title is university lecturer in British literature, but in addition to British literature I also teach for example text analysis and some philology classes.

I’m a Renaissance scholar, and my main research is on John Donne and other poets and writers from that time period (early modern/late medieval literature), and I do teach those topics when I teach British literature. Every two years or so I also teach the Victorian novel as a proseminar (BA seminar) and sometimes I teach other Victorian or pre-Victorian topics like Jane Austen. I really think that when you’re studying British literature you have to look at the Victorian era, and especially the development of the Victorian novel.

© Maija Huitu

How did you become a university teacher?

I set out to become a schoolteacher. I took teacher training, and that was my plan for a very long time. I did work in schools every now and then, and I still sometimes teach in schools. I think that a very important part of what we do here is train future teachers. So, I like to be involved in the school world in different ways, because I want to learn about the context from which our students are coming and into which we are training them. This is an important part of what we teach here: how languages can be taught in schools, and how literature can be employed in teaching English.

So, I set out to become an English teacher. Then at the university I got more and more into the philological side of literature and into being a very text-based literature scholar, in a way. I had the opportunity to pursue a doctorate, and I started doing research. A natural step then was to become a university teacher, and that’s what made me look for a job here. It’s like the best of both worlds: I get to teach and do things in connection with schools, and then I also get to do research and work with literature even more than I probably would in high schools.

What are the best things about teaching literature at the university?

The language skills of our students are very high, which means that we can deal with difficult topics. We don’t have to choose the easy or the short books. We can read a lot, because the students have the skills to manage the literature as well as the language. Also, teaching in general is just a great thing, and I can share what I do research in; I get to share the things that I love the most with the students and take part in their reactions, thoughts and emotions about the texts.

What challenges are there in teaching literature at the university?

One of the challenges is that although we can deal with the literature on a very deep level, the students need to do much work to fill out the gaps, to find out about the cultural background in order to understand the text we’re dealing with. Teaching a book is not just taking up a book and teaching that one book, but actually setting it into context; cultural, social, literary historical, political context...But I really like that part of it, so actually calling it a challenge is perhaps not correct, but time-wise it is a challenge.

Another challenge is to cover enough literature from different eras so that we can bridge the gap between the past and today. When we read the literature we learn what people were thinking and why they made the choices they made – political, historical, social choices – it’s all there. By getting to know that history we also find out where we come from and learn who we are today. Understanding this makes us understand one another better, and for that kind of understanding literature is important. I think that the main aim of studying languages and literature is to make sure that there will not be a third world war. Literature is not only arts and crafts and entertainment; it’s dead serious! That is probably the greatest challenge in teaching literature, to make it that relevant. It’s not about whether I like a book when I read it, but about actually understanding what it tells me, and what I then do when I go out into the world having read it.

© Maija Huitu

Is there a particular piece of literature you most like to teach? Or a particular writer?

That varies – I have many answers to that question. My first answer in a way should probably be John Donne, and yes, I love to teach John Donne and to discuss a Donne poem, but that’s not the only answer, for different reasons. For example, the Victorian novel is also very interesting to teach because so much happened in that era, and so much happened in literature when the novel was developed – so much stuff that still affects us today, as readers, as writers...

What advice would you give to a student tackling a piece of literature they find somehow heavy or hard to understand?

Give it time, read it slowly enough. Read it again, put it away, and then come back to it. If you have to read the text alone, then that’s what I would say: just give it time.

But, then again, another answer to this question – and we need both these answers – is that this is why you have teachers. The most important thing I do as a teacher is to help a student understand a text.

So, give yourself time to read the text, give the teacher time to explain it, and ask the questions. Take the course, and attend the lectures. That’s what teachers are there for, to help you find your way into a piece of literature.

How have the recent cuts affected teaching?

We do our best so that they would not affect teaching as such. Partly we do it because of the students, because we want to give them what we think they need, and partly we do it for ourselves, because we want to teach these classes. The cuts have increased administrative work a lot because what was mainly cut was administrative staff. It has added to our administrative duties very much, which means that we have less time to give to teaching. This is a great pity.

In terms of teaching (literature), what kind of things do you wish you had more time or resources for?

I would like to have time to develop my courses even more. There are many digital aids that could be used in a positive way. I wouldn’t like to have a completely virtual class where I wouldn’t meet the students at all, but there is even more in the digital world that could be used. I do try out things with different classes, but it would be nice to actually sit down and develop that aspect of my teaching further and make use of all the technical resources we have, without forgetting the book. I still want to have a real, actual book in my hands, both when I teach and when I read.

All photos by Maija Huitu