Mukti Sanyal in conversation with Jackie Van Tilburgh

Mukti Sanyal: Thank you Jackie for doing this interview for FORTELL. What is the English Language Fellow Program?  Why did you want to participate in it?

Jackie Van Tilburgh: The EL Fellow Program is a collaboration of the U.S. State Department and Georgetown University. Its goal is to send TESOL educators around the globe to work with students, teachers, and teacher educators to improve English instruction and promote better cross-cultural understanding. 

I joined the program because I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach overseas and visit a new country.  I’ve traveled a lot and have been teaching for over fifteen years, but I’d never taught overseas, and I’d never been to India prior to my placement here.  It’s been a fascinating opportunity, and I think I’ve learned much more than I’ve taught. 

MS: How can other Indian schools and universities get involved with the EL Fellow Program?

JVT: If a particular school or college would like to work with an EL Fellow, a principal or other leader at the institution should submit a formal request, outlining a specific plan for the work that he or she would like the Fellow to achieve, to the RELO office in New Delhi. 

MS: What has been your impression of how we teach English in Indian colleges and universities? What do you make of the divide between language and literature in the teaching of English in Indian academic circles? What has been your experience?

JVT: I think that it is a shame that there can’t be a place for both language and literature.  There is definitely more value placed on the study of literature, while language study is seen as a more remedial endeavor. The discussion and analysis of literature provides a basis for critical thinking, which is an important lifelong skill, no matter what the future occupation. However, with less than25% of the Indian population speaking English and with various degrees of proficiency, I think there is a real need for an increase in language courses.While most will never need to discuss the major themes in Pride and Prejudice, the vast majority could benefit from basic communicative English language practice. Whether we like it or not, English is the language of 21st century commerce, and if Indian students want to compete in the globalized marketplace, they need to be proficient in speaking English. If literature classes were to be more discussion-based, both critical thinking and communicative language needs could be met simultaneously, bridging the language/literature divide.

MS: Why is it that, in spite of our best efforts, we are not able to get our students to speak, as opposed to read and write?

JVT: People, in general, like to do what’s familiar; they don’t like to be out of their comfort zone.  Reading and writing are the skills that are practiced most often in Indian schools, so it is difficult to change this pattern in an eighteen-year-old college student who has grown up in such a system.  

Additionally, reading and writing allow for more time for self-correction.  If verbal errors are made, however, everyone knows it immediately.  Students like reading and writing more because their mistakes are not as public.  While no one likes to make mistakes, I’ve noticed that Indian students are particularly hesitant to take the risks necessary to improve their spoken English communication.  Teachers, unwittingly, can contribute to this lack of confidence by over-emphasising form over meaning.  For example, during a recent conversation that I was having with a student, her professor interrupted her mid-sentence to point out grammar errors.  This interruption made the student more self-conscious and encouraged her to speak less, not more.   As teachers, I believe that we need to focus on building confidence first and foremost.

Another obstacle is that teachers are more comfortable with reading and writing practice. They may not have strong skills themselves, and listening and speaking activities expose their own vulnerabilities. Thus, they emphasize reading and writing tasks and perpetuate this cycle.

MS: Is it to do with the situation in India, of having a common L1 that students can comfortably fall back on, as opposed to the U.S., in a class of 45, there might be 45 different L1s?

JVT: While a common L1 and class size do indeed contribute to the problem, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle is the classroom design:  Rows of difficult-to-move desks, windows open to loud street traffic, and noisy fans. These all contribute to making conversation and discussion extremely difficult.  In my classes here, I’ve had to rearrange desks daily, shout to be heard over fans and street traffic, and constantly ask students to repeat their responses in louder voices. This makes a teacher’s already tiring job exhausting.  But, I’ve also found that once students get into the habit, they will automatically group desks, and, tiring of having to repeat themselves, they will begin speaking louder. It can be done.

MS: How can EL Fellows gain more from their exchange programs?  How could we structure our hosting situations to better the Fellow experience?

JVT: The EL Fellow program schedule (late August to late June) is a poor fit with the Indian academic calendar. Since Fellows are already starting well into the first semester, it would be best to have as much pre-planning done before their arrival. Having a concrete class schedule and definitive list of student participants would be ideal. In addition, it would be extremely advantageous to give some sort of time compensation (fewer classes, etc.) to the host institution’s primary point of contact. This person has a lot to coordinate, so adequate preparation time is needed to ensure that the host institution is fully benefitting from the Fellow’s presence.

MS: What has your work been like here?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to work here in Bharati College, as well as in a government university, and for a non-profit organization.  Each experience has been unique. Here at Bharati College,  my focus has been on teaching eight-week intensive courses on academic reading and writing. I’ve gotten to know my students well and see their progress over time.   While Indian students do a lot of writing, the focus tends not to be on the process of writing. My experience has been that students write an assignment the day before it is due, without any thought to an essay’s organization and without time for revision.  When students are forced to spend the time making outlines, revising drafts, and editing their work, they are quite pleased with their final products and see the advantage of spending more time with their writing. It’s exciting to see them put their newly-learned skills into practice and develop more confidence as writers.

In my other university assignment, I conduct writing workshops for larger groups and meet with individual students to discuss their writing.  While the larger numbers and less frequent meetings have not allowed me the opportunity to get to know students on the same level as here at Bharati, I have enjoyed the greater diversity of a co-ed campus with both undergraduate and postgraduate students.  I have seen that students, no matter what the level, really crave one-on-one attention to help them improve their writing skills.  It’s really a shame that large class sizes make this type of interaction difficult here.

Although my time has been spent primarily with academic reading and writing, my NGO work has allowed me to focus on creating communicative activities to help young girls from underprivileged backgrounds gain more confidence in their speaking abilities.  I have enjoyed this less-academic, more fun pursuit, and it has been a delight to meet these very motivated young ladies.

MS: Which group of learners to you find most satisfying? 

JVT: Isn’t that a bit like asking a parent who her favorite child is?  I really love all my students.  However, if you really twist my arm, I would have to say that I particularly enjoyed the two-week language workshop that I just finished with a group of mumukshus/Jain nuns-in-training in Rajasthan. They truly loved to be in the classroom and had a real eagerness to learn; their zeal was infectious. I truly appreciated their inquisitiveness and playfulness…of course, it may be that it’s the most recent experience that I’ve had, so it’s fresher in my mind. It may also have to do with the fact that I had the opportunity to team-teach with another Fellow there. I always find it exciting to work with other innovative teachers. 

MS: The time you spent with the library staff at Bharati has been much appreciated, and your workshop with the non-teaching staff was a big hit. Would you like to talk a little bit about that? I don’t mind confessing that though I have helped organize several workshops for English teachers from other institutions, we have never attempted anything for our own non-teaching staff.

JVT: I love working with classes of non-traditional students.  The non-teaching staff workshop was so much fun!  Those who have been out of the classroom for some time do not take a minute of learning time for granted.  They showed such appreciation during our week together, and their participation was fantastic.  They really took the opportunity seriously, and I think they made a lot of progress in their English skills in just that brief week.  It would be great if it could be made a part of their regular professional development.

MS: All of us at Bharati will miss you, Jackie! It’s wonderful to see how friendly you have been. I’m looking forward to the workshops you will be running for teachers early May. Would you like to speak a little about that?

JVT: In order to have an impact beyond the ten months that I am here, Principal Varma has requested that I train other English teachers in conducting intensive reading and writing courses of their own next year. I’m hoping to have an interactive session where I show teachers what I did this past year, and we brainstorm ways to tailor it to fit their own teaching styles. 

MS: How do your teaching duties here differ than your duties in the U.S.?

JVT: I think that there are more possibilities for collaboration in the U.S.  I work a lot with my colleagues there to design engaging lessons, brainstorm solutions to dealing with difficult students, and create cross-curricular programs. We have the luxury of office space, and use it to our advantage – lots of coffee-fueled discussion!  In addition, my class sizes are smaller in the U.S., so I am able to meet with individual students more often.  During a semester, I may have individual writing conferences with students three or four times during the semester.  Here, I was only able to have two conferences per semester. 

Also, the idea of office hours is much more common in the U.S.  I have set periods of time every day when I am in my office, with the sole purpose of meeting with students to address questions and doubts.  Here, although I set aside time, only a handful of students come to see me. I have to work hard to convince them that they aren’t bothering me; I really do want them to come to me with their questions!

MS: What impact do you hope to have here?

JVT: I’m not naïve enough to think that I can make huge changes in a ten-month time span.  However, I do hope that my students have a bit more confidence in their skills after our time together.  In addition, many of the students that I’ve taught here want to be future teachers.  If I have in any way helped to show them that FUN and LEARNING are not mutually exclusive ideas, and they become teachers who make their own classrooms spaces of creative student engagement, then my time here will have been spent productively. 

**Please note:  The views and information presented are the English Language Fellow’s own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.**

 Mukti Sanyal, Associate Professor, Bharati College, University of Delhi has been active in ELT over three decades as materials producer, teacher trainer and teacher.