Mark Shackleton: “As Far as Studies Go, Don’t Suffer Alone”

This week we interviewed Mark Shackleton, who is a teacher and researcher in the English philology unit at the University of Helsinki. His specialist research field is Native North American writing, particularly the Trickster figure, and he has worked at the university since 1981. In this interview he tells us about his experiences teaching university students, and shares his advice for students who want to make the most out of their time in university.

Is there a particular course or a particular topic that you most like to teach?

There’s no course I dislike teaching, but specifically, I’m really happy with the Teaching Literature in the EFL (English as a foreign language) Classroom course, because I feel it’s a practical course, and future teachers need practical experience. So, there are lots of activities, and also some theory, but the emphasis is primarily hands-on experience. Also, it’s fun to do some stuff that is not at the university level – the exercises are designed for lower levels, so they are very simple, but you can also use simple exercises at advanced levels to make even sophisticated points.

The other course I particularly like teaching is the Native North American writing course, which is really my specialist research field. We have group work and so on but this course is primarily lecture based. It’s a course that I hope leads students to think about different perspectives and different cultures, but also the similarities between different cultures. And the writing itself is excellent – the standard of writing that has come out of Native North America since the 1960s is brilliant, and there’s a full range of styles of writing.

How do you find teaching university students? What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of it?

Well, it’s always a pleasure discussing things with intelligent people. The challenge as a teacher is to clarify your own perspective as much as possible, and at the same time accept and consider different perspectives from the students themselves. It strikes me that the job of a university teacher, or the challenge, if you will, is to provide an environment in which students can develop their own abilities – an environment in which they feel safe to express themselves, and within that environment to stretch their intellectual capabilities to the limit.

What kind of classroom atmosphere do you think is a “good” atmosphere?

For me, the ideal classroom atmosphere is both relaxed and tense, tight and loose – relaxed in the sense that the participants can feel a sense of safety and security that their contribution is accepted, and tight in the sense that conclusions should be reached or there should be some sense of intellectual challenge. An example of this is when the teacher sets up a specific set of questions to be discussed in groups. The group discussion should be relaxed. The tightening process is when the responses come in from the groups. Ordering and sense then needs to be made of a range of heterogeneous ideas.

During your time working at the university, what things do you find have changed the most in terms of teaching?

Since I began teaching in the 1980s, the most obvious change has of course been the computer revolution. One feature of this is instant access to images. In the old days slides and an epidiascope were used. Now with Google Images and so on things are a lot easier, especially when presenting different cultures and different countries, which is something I do a lot of. Images are invaluable; landscapes, geographies, peoples, cultural artefacts, mythic figures... All these things can be quickly found and attractively packaged for presentation. Moodle, too, is of course an excellent teaching aid. It even tells you which students are committed to your course and which aren’t!

Well, about changes in students, there is one school of thought that has argued that students studying languages today are better at speaking a foreign language, but not better at writing. I’ve graded Finnish matriculation essays in English for thirty years now, and I wouldn’t say writing skills have deteriorated at all. Spoken skills have improved, though Finnish reserve about self-expression is still sometimes encountered, but it’s not a major problem.

Also, I think things have improved with gradu (MA thesis) writing. Not too many years ago just one or two professors supervised all gradus. Now students can get help from professors and lecturers who have expertise in specific areas. I would say over all both the quantity and the quality of gradus in our department has improved over the last few decades. And I don’t think that this is because students today are that much smarter than they were, it’s just the academic arrangement has improved.

What advice would you give to students for them to make the most out of their time in university?

Work hard, and play hard …but don’t play too hard (laughs). Organisations like SUB (the organisation for students of English) do a great job. I would say it’s a necessity to have a social life as well as an academic life. In some ways, life is tougher for students today than it was before. Many of course juggle jobs with studies. As far as studies go, don’t suffer alone. Talk with others about things to do with studying, or about your personal life or problems. Consult with teachers. Help each other out.