Issue 6 |

The challenge of complexity: An interview with Crispin Thurlow

by on February 19, 2016

Kevin Martens Wong speaks to Crispin Thurlow, Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Professor Thurlow studies intercultural communication and has published a number of works on intercultural and intergenerational discourse, among other areas. He describes his passion for teaching in terms of the theatrics of pedagogy and the “liberatory classroom”.


Would you call yourself a linguist?

Well, linguistics is a funny term because as you know it has a very specific scholarly meaning and a more popular understanding. We can think of linguistics in a more conventional way as the study of language as a cognitive phenomenon, thinking about generative grammar, phonetics, morphology, and so on. But of course, for most people, linguistics is about anyone like us who is interested in language generally. So in some ways I’m always a bit nervous to call myself a linguist because, in the technical sense, I’m not really a linguist, I’m a discourse analyst or communication scholar. But I think when I talk to people in the broader public, linguistics is a convenient word to use. It’s just an easy code, isn’t it? I joined my current university as a professor of English Linguistics, but the funny thing for me is I’m not really interested in English per se—I’m interested in all language and languages. So I requested that my title be Professor of Language and Communication instead.

And what people often think is “oh, you’re a linguist, what languages do you speak?” But this is not really what I do. It’s not about language like that. It’s about language generally. And I think non-specialists don’t often think about language outside of a specific language. So when you say “language”, they think of French, German, Chinese, Malay. or Swahili, but then you say, “no, I’m actually interested in all languages”. I’m interested in language as one—admittedly important—mode of communication, or one semiotic, meaning-making practice. And of course, like many people nowadays I’m also interested in visual communication, in space—in all these different systems that make meaning and in making meaning, create relationships and identities, and so on.

Why language, then?

 When I went to university, I thought I wanted to study Physics and Psychology, and then about two weeks before term started, I got sent my timetable for my first semester. (This was in South Africa in 1984/1985.)  So, I looked at my timetable and it was pretty much 9 to 5 every day. And I looked at the timetable of a close friend of mine who was doing a social science degree and I remember very clearly that he had a much more “airy” timetable—with no classes at all on Friday! I thought to myself, “What the hell? This is crazy. Why am I doing this degree? This is not how I was expecting to spend my university years.” And so, on the day of registration, I turned up and changed my degree. So I guess I decided I would do social sciences—initially, at least—for some very shallow reasons.

And it gets better. There was this first-year course called “Language and Communication”. Everyone said, “Oh, it’s a really easy course! You should take it, it’s some really easy credits.” So I took this course in 1985 just as a way to fill up my timetable. And I absolutely loved it. It was taught as a mix of linguistics and communication studies—the whole year—and I actually came out top of the class of about 200 students. But then the year was over and I moved on with my “proper” studies. I went on to major in psychology, and then went on to grad school in psychology. And then, in 1990, after two years of post-graduate studies (including a master’s in Educational Psychology), I dropped everything because I wanted to go to drama school in London—I’d always wanted to study acting. Which is what I did, and of course that class in Language and Communication was all but forgotten.

So, I went into my acting training for two years. It was tough and I was working full-time as a tax accountant; but I’m really glad I did the drama because it had been my dream for so long. However, I knew before I finished drama school that I didn’t want to be an actor. The reality of it all was just too challenging and required more determination and passion that I knew I had. So I drifted for a while: went to work in a restaurant, took Arabic and French classes, and I went travelling. And then eventually I thought maybe I should go back into the university and so I got another master’s degree, this time in Communication Studies. And it was while I was doing this master’s in Communication Studies that I finally realised that I had always been centrally interested in language.

Theatre is all about language. It’s about speeches and about people’s dialogues and conversations. And when I was doing psychology, I was always interested in neuropsychology and especially in the location of language in the brain. During my second master’s degree I took a class in “pure” linguistics and realised then how much I really liked that class I had done in my very first year of university in South Africa. Language and Communication. So that’s when I decided to apply to do my PhD in the field. And everything kind of came together. It amuses me that, all these years later—in fact 30 years later—I’m now “Professor of Language and Communication”.

It’s a bit of a long story, I know, but I like to tell it to students because even though I’m a professor, I made choices about my academic career that were accidental and based on some very shallow decisions: having a good timetable and taking classes because they looked easy or they looked kind of interesting and a little bit better for my timetable. I also like to speak to students who feel a bit lost, because all the random things I did eventually came together somehow and I eventually realised there was some common thread beneath it all. It looked random—especially to my parents but perhaps also to me at the time—but it kind of wasn’t. Language and human communication and interaction were always very much a part of everything, whether it was psychology or theatre or my enjoyment of travelling and different experiences.

You’ve done a lot on intercultural communication within the area of language. Why this particular focus?

Well, I’m very lucky to have moved quite a bit in my life. It’s been challenging but also very interesting and that’s why I have, probably, a particular interest in intercultural communication. I was 12 when my family moved to South Africa and I left England. I was pretty angry with them because they made this change and I wasn’t so happy to start with. I found it very strange in this new place and having to speak Afrikaans was quite challenging. But of course it was ultimately a great experience. Then I moved to London for eight years, where I studied acting and did all those different jobs, and then I went to Wales, where I did my PhD at Cardiff for six years. Then in 2003, my husband and I moved to the USA, where we lived for 11 years. Then, finally, in 2014, we moved with our two kids to Switzerland—which is where I am now!

I suppose you could say that I’ve always been interested in the ways people communicate from very different backgrounds: not just national backgrounds, but different ages, genders, sexualities, identities, and across these different life experiences. I certainly think intercultural communication exists within a country. Difference doesn’t just exist between national or ethnic cultures. It’s from this perspective on intercultural communication that I became interested in intergenerational discourse, and in some ways that’s where my other interests in digital media and computer mediated communication come from. I’ve never been so interested in technology that much, but rather in the way it’s used kind of second-hand to connect or disconnect generations: the way the older generation talks about the younger one, the way they complain about young people’s technology use—the belief that they are messing with language and communication, and so on. My specific interest in computer mediated communication grows out of the way technology is talked about as an intergenerational issue or “problem”. And that for me is a matter of intercultural communication.

Much of your current work also has to do with teaching. Why?

I’ve always been very keen on teaching, since I was very young. I used to teach Sunday School when I was a teenager and then I trained as a teacher of Speech and Drama. Like many professors, it feels like we’re doing two jobs: researcher and teacher. Related, sure, but two quite different skill sets, if you like. And different professors have different relationships with these two jobs. Some people prefer the research more, others the teaching. I happen to enjoy both. I once “confessed” to a senior colleague that I thought I might like teaching more than research, and he told me never to tell anyone this if I wanted a high-profile academic career. I’ve always just like teaching a lot and I think it’s very important that the teaching influences and feeds my research. I often work with students to help me develop ideas for my research: for example, students in a seminar experimenting concepts or working with me as research assistants. And of course, like all academics, my research comes into the classroom: I share my research and I share the research of others. So, the relationship between research and teaching is, in principle, not a battle. At its best, it’s more of a symbiotic relationship.

On a more personal note—again!—the other part of my story is that my parents and grandparents were teachers. Teachers and preachers. My father became a professor later in life and my mother became a priest—she was ordained in the Church of England, or in South Africa, the Episcopalian Church—and my one grandfather was an army chaplain, and my step grandfather was also a priest. And I have uncles who were priests or teachers. So everyone was either a priest or a teacher and I think these are quite similar jobs in some ways. Perhaps it’s all about people who like the sound of their own voice! Perhaps it’s about people wanting to inspire others with ideas—with different ways of thinking, different ways of being?

Why do you say teaching is inherently political?

Like I said, I come from a family where lots of people have always been interested in teaching, so I’m always interested in what it means to be a teacher. I think often people think teachers are interested in passing on knowledge, you know, educating people, making them smarter, cleverer, prepared for jobs, and so on. I think that’s absolutely part of it. But for me, being a university teacher also means that I’m trying to make students think, and to think more complexly about the world around them, looking at perspectives they might not have thought about before. And some of this is obviously just about sharing new knowledge with them, and different knowledge, but some of it is about pushing them and making them think about things beyond their usual experience. I believe that’s one of the most exciting things about teaching—always showing people new things and different perspectives.

It’s certainly a privilege. But of course this is also a bit political, because you are telling people what you think, and it’s one of the “terrible” responsibilities of being a university teacher. You can really only start with what you know yourself as a person, so you take that into the classroom and you share your perspective on the world. And if you’re a good teacher you say, “Look, this is not the only perspective, this is not even necessarily the “correct” or “best” perspective, but it is one that I believe in. At the moment. It’s one that I also happen to know (or believe in) from doing first-hand research and from reading extensively. I just want to share with you what I have learned myself.”

There is something quite political, in a way, in teaching people that language is itself political. That there is no neutral or perfect language. Language is quite messy, it’s complicated, and the essential truth about communication is that it’s almost always miscommunication. Although sometimes we get lucky because it goes “right” and people understand what we’re saying. Or at least we think they do and that feels nice! Students don’t always like to hear it, but there’s always power in language. People will fight to make sure their way of speaking is protected and promoted, just as they want their way of thinking to be protected and promoted. There is always a ring of identity politics and social politics to everything we do. Even just teaching students the idea that language shapes the way we think—this is somehow radical. For some people, too, this is quite political—that language constructs gender and race, for example. For some these are really quite challenging approaches. In the USA, some students (and faculty) framed this a “liberal-progressive” agenda that we were pushing. A professor colleague once accused me of looking for power in everything. As if there were places where power didn’t exist! (This said a lot about his status and privilege, I think.) Much of what we do at university—as researchers and as teachers—is showing people that life is complicated. Life is not tidy or easily organised. It’s both predictable and unpredictable, both patterned and completely idiosyncratic.

How does one teach well, in that case?

For me what’s really interesting and what I’ve learned to see over the years, is the theatrics of pedagogy. (You see: the different strands of my life coming together!) In spite of how wonderful online teaching and learning are, I do think that being alive in a classroom or in a room with students, and being passionate about the subject that you teach, is probably one of the most important ingredients for successful teaching. I have, over the years, been very flattered and very excited by the way students will almost sit through just about anything—however dry or theoretical or different or strange—provided I am excited about it. If I look and sound passionate about what I’m talking about. And that’s an energy that seems to come from being in front of people. I think it’s quite hard to produce that passion and energy only online, or just in writing. I think it’s something that you feel in a “lived” space with people. And that’s why I’m a great believer in only ever combining online teaching with a good measure of offline teaching. It has to be a mix. And that’s something I enjoy. I’m not too afraid to stand up in front of people, although I know some of my colleagues over the years have had a difficult time. I mean, I get nervous on the first day of class too, when you look in front of you and there’s 450 students in front of you. It’s very intimidating and you feel quite vulnerable. But I see it as an exciting challenge.

So there’s a lot of performance, and play, and a little bit of theatrics. Nothing too cheesy. I mean, I hope nothing too cheesy or embarrassing. It’s a fine line and a tricky balance. I think it’s certainly okay to be fairly honest about being just a human being in front of the class. I think it’s okay to poke a little fun at oneself, and I think it’s okay to be a bit playful. A bit emotional. (Academia has an awkward relationship with affect.) And that’s what I feel makes my classroom more enjoyable for me, and somewhat more open and honest for my students. They see another human being honest about his mistakes, and about the limitations of his knowledge. We professors are sometimes made to feel like we’re supposed to know everything, and that’s obviously not the case. Sometimes it’s much better to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to this. I’ll find out and you can also go find out, and let’s see what we come up with.” Obviously this does not make the classroom a fully equal space—I’m the professor doing lots of talking and students are the ones listening, I’m doing the grading and they’re being graded—but I certainly hope it’s a more equal space.

How successful have you been at persuading students of the power of this equal space, then—of the power of the “liberatory classroom”?

If I’m honest, there are other teachers who are much better at this than I am, but I still try. It’s important to me that my students learn that knowledge is something that we produce. It is not a product that we just find. And I think it’s really important that students come to university to be a part of knowledge production, not just to expect that it’s waiting for them in the library or in the lecture hall. Even though some scholars talk about “findings”, the truth is that we make knowledge. And I think it’s liberating for students to find that they are not just passive recipients of knowledge that professors hand to them, but that they must also become active producers and creators of knowledge. Obviously, there is a lot of knowledge that exists before them, and that they need to learn lots in order to become more knowledgeable, effective and expert producers of knowledge. There’s definitely some traditional studying that always needs to happen. But I want my students to understand that they are not just passengers there for the ride. They can also help drive the train or fly the plane. In fact, they can choose the destination and they help determine the quality of the journey.

For me, that’s what happens when you design a syllabus or class that allows students to find stuff out in practical ways. It’s not about delivering a lot of information and testing them on the information that at the end. I do some of that, but I’m far more interested in them taking responsibility for their own learning—doing their own reading and asking their own questions, and actually making those questions part of the process of our collaborative learning. I’m very determined that students read primary material and that they engage first-hand with research and other people’s writing. I don’t like textbooks, I’ve never really used textbooks in big classes. I prefer people to read the original sources—even if we can cover less of it—and not someone else’s opinion of it or summing up. I also like them getting involved in research. I like turning classes into laboratories where I have a research project and we work on it together—even just a small part of it. I genuinely learn from what my students find out.

And of course the other liberatory dimension of the classroom is being exposed to as many different ideas as possible. That comes back to politics—shifting people’s ways of thinking a bit, pushing them to think about things in ways that are more complex or just different from what they already know or think they know. I think in that way you help people not to know the answers, but to actually know how to ask good questions. I think it’s this that gives them more control over their own learning. Over their own destinies, if you like. It’s about making sure that there are always other voices being heard so that students hear from or learn about people who often are not at the centre of society and whose voices are often marginalised. By this I mean disabled people, gay and lesbian people, people with different class backgrounds, different ethnic identities, different generations, and so on. I think it’s important that students are always being exposed to perspectives beyond their own—experiences that are perhaps different from the majority or the mainstream. Because in a classroom, there is always someone for whom these other perspectives are very real and personal. Difference is always within. And I want as many people as possible to feel like they are valued in the classroom.

Do you find linguistics and language studies are uniquely geared toward the “liberatory classroom”, or can it be applied to all disciplines?

Oh no, no. On my website, I refer to Bell Hooks, who has written beautifully about these kinds of issues, and I think often this kind of thinking—this way of being a teacher/scholar—appears all the time in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies, for example. These are academic spaces where people deal with much more challenging issues than we do in Linguistics. Often, anyway. I like to borrow these ideas from other fields and apply them to the teaching of Language and Communication, where I think we could or should be addressing similar issues. So no, these ideas don’t come from linguistics, that’s for sure; they come from cooler places! (You know I think linguistics is cool, really.) But in the end, I think people in every discipline ought to be concerned with finding how to ask good questions and how to connect their academic learning with the rest of their lives as well. Education is a tremendous privilege, but it’s also an essential aspect of our societies. It is absolutely essential.

I was talking to my 12-year-old son yesterday. He came home with some quite poor grades this last week, and so we had a pretty serious conversation about why he has to try harder. Why we, his parents, want him to try harder. He doesn’t have to get top grades, but he has to be prepared to work as hard as he can. And I wanted him to understand that it will give him choices in life, but more than that, I wanted him to be someone who isn’t just a passive recipient of life, but who is prepared to engage fully and critically with the world around him. Of course, when you’re 12, you don’t really understand this, but in a way all of us need to do that. Sometimes complexity is so exhausting, it’s nice just to live in a simple world. But of course that’s a tremendous privilege and most people don’t get to live in a simple world. We all have to keep pushing ourselves to engage harder and deeper, and to keep asking difficult questions and recognising the complexity, the mess. There’s always beauty to be found in mess!

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