Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki

English from three continents
The Department of English at the University of Helsinki is the largest English studies department in Finland and one of the best in Europe. It provides native-language instruction in the major varieties of English; in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of English linguistics and literature – past and present; and information about major cultural, social, and historical events, activities, and processes related to English. In order to achieve these worthy goals, the department depends on its competent staff. Especially noteworthy are the native speakers who have come to Helsinki to lecture and do research.

Russell Snyder

Back to spring issue 2003

1 Around the World with English

Mark Shackleton was born in southwest London. He did his BA at the University of Wales, Swansea, and his Master’s degree at King’s College, University of London, where he started his doctorate. He completed it twenty years later at the University of Helsinki. Shackleton also has a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education = the British teaching certificate) and is a Docent in English Literature at the University of Helsinki.

How did you become interested in teaching?

I suppose it’s in the blood. My mother was a primary school teacher, then a headmistress and finally a senior lecturer at London College of Education. I can remember giving a lesson on “how to play the trumpet” to primary school kids at my mother’s school when I wasn’t much older than they were.

What brought you to Finland?

Chance. I had been teaching English as a foreign language at adult education institutes in London for a year, and applied to teach EFL abroad. A job at the Finnish-British Society, Helsinki came up and I took it.

What is your specialty at the Department of English? Which courses do you teach?

At present, my specialty is what has become known as “post-colonial” literature. In practice that means recent works of literature written in English from around the world. Over the last two years, for example, I have jointly run a lecture course with Professor John Skinner from Turku University that has dealt with works from so-called (ethnic) minority writers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Africa, and the Caribbean.

How do Finnish students behave differently than foreign students?

I don’t have much contact with students who are not Finnish. However, those few students from other countries I do encounter (British, Irish, American, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and so on) do not strike me as wildly different from Finnish students. There are lively and quiet students in every culture, motivated and unmotivated. Overall, I would say Finnish students are hard working, certainly intelligent, and, occasionally, a little too respectful of “authority” – though I think that’s changing.

What is the most satisfying part of lecturing at the University of Helsinki?

I’d distinguish between “lecturing” and “teaching” here. “Lecturing” to a large group is certainly a demanding job – keeping people’s attention, getting to the crux of things, getting the level right, and so on. Never patronizing, but, nevertheless, keeping it on the human level. Lecturing can be truly exhilarating or it can be a cause for despair (especially when you feel you just haven’t got things across). “Teaching” in smaller classes, in fact, raises the same kind of issues and emotions, but the overall atmosphere is more toned down and relaxed. Less chance, therefore, of the highs and lows of elation or despair.

What does the Department of English have to brag about?

People who visit the department often remark on the busyness – there’s always someone going off for a conference here or a meeting there, and indeed I do feel that there is a strong commitment and interest in both research AND in teaching in our Department. The areas of research cover a wide range of interests including historical linguistics, applied linguistics, literature, and translation studies.

What things could be improved?

The most obvious need, quite frankly, is money. We are under a constant feeling of financial restraint, not to mention nervousness. Despite this, teaching does get done, and students and staff do go on field trips, conferences, and the like. But it’s not without some effort from everybody.

Are you a member of any university organizations? Do you attend many university/faculty/departmental events? Do you participate in any student activities?

As well as being from time to time Acting Professor in the Department, I am the Chair of the North American Studies Program Board. That means I attend staff and committee meetings both at the English department and the Renvall Institute.

In the past, I have been more active in student activities than I am now. I ran the English Department English Club for two years in the 1980s, and went on month-long study trips with students to Essex University in the UK every summer for a number of years. I’ve also put on a few small plays with students, too, which were performed at the English Club. This was all before I had a family – now my social life pretty much revolves around my two young sons – their basketball competitions, swimming, snowboarding, skating, skiing – you name it!

What have you learned from living in Finland? What have you learned from your students? How have you changed?

Gosh! Serious stuff! The thing about living abroad is, never quite knowing how much it’s the country that’s changed you and how much it’s you. Would you be the same fascinating or boring person if you’d never left your native soil? I think any expatriate will inevitably experience more soul searching than someone who never left. You’re more on the margins of things and that makes you more of an observer. Quieter if you like. I think students and colleagues keep you on your toes and keep you from getting too big for your boots.

How do you spend your free time?

See “social life” above. Plus TV, reading, snow clearing in winter, gardening in summer, cleaning out the cat box year round, etc.

How do you maintain ties with your own culture?

Skimming the BBC News on the Net everyday, The Sunday Observer, talking with colleagues (British, American, and others), going to England about once a year, etc. It raises the question, of course, of what is “my culture” – it’s a mixture of all sorts of things – but I won’t get into that here.

Do you plan to stay in Finland permanently?


2 A Love of Lexicography

Roderick McConchie is from Melbourne, Australia. He earned his BA degree at Melbourne University and his MA at Flinders University. McConchie did his PhD at Sidney University on medical terminology in the sixteenth century.

What brought you to Finland?

Marriage. I met my wife at a conference in Budapest.

What is your specialty at the Department of English?

My specialty is Lexicography (writing or compiling dictionaries). However, as a lecturer I teach a variety of courses, including: Translation from Finnish to English I, Introduction to English Literature, Academic Writing, Proseminar “The History of English Lexicography”, Advanced Option “Middle and Early Modern English Affixation: The Interface Between Lexis and Morphology.”

How do Finnish students behave differently than Australian students?

Finns are less talkative and perhaps less creative, but they are more diligent, and have very good language skills.

What is the most satisfying part of lecturing at the University of Helsinki?

Actually doing the classes.

What is the most challenging?

Coping with the lack of recognition and research opportunities, and the lack of a career as a lecturer.

What does the Department of English have to brag about?

An international reputation in research.

Are you a member of any university organizations?

I am a member of the Research Unit for Variation and Change in English.

What have you learned from living in Finland?

I’ve picked up some Finnish habits and sometimes have to explain my actions when I go back to Australia.

How do you spend your free time?

Gardening, singing in a choir, and being a father. I also do research during my free time. For example, I have recently done some biographies of sixteenth-century lexicographers and am presently working on the history of the privative prefix dis- in English.

How do you maintain ties with your own culture?

Via relatives and the Internet. I also follow Australian Rules football.

Do you plan to stay in Finland permanently?

I’m not certain, but probably.

What are your plans for the future?

I will continue working until my retirement.

3 Taking a Shine to Shakespeare

Nely Keinänen comes from the state of Illinois where she stuck around to complete her BA, MA and PhD at the University of Illinois. How did she get interested in teaching? Well, as she puts it, “I come from a family of teachers, so I suppose teaching is in my blood...”

What brought you to Finland?

I first traveled here with my parents to visit my father’s Finnish relatives. Later, I came to the Viittakivi International Center to study. It was there I met my future husband, Kimmo. After Viittakivi I worked in Helsinki for a year, as a library assistant and English teacher, then went back to the US to finish my studies. Later, Kimmo came to the States to get his Master’s degree. Then, facing a daunting job market in the US, we moved to Helsinki. In a delightful cosmic twist of fate, the Shakespeare lecturer at the University of Helsinki had just retired. I applied for and got a lectureship there and that’s what keeps me here today.

What is your specialty at the Department of English? Which courses do you teach?

My specialty is Shakespeare, and I teach a wide range of introductory courses. At the basic level, I teach the Introduction to Literary Analysis course, team-teach the Introduction to English Literature course and do two sections of the Tutorial. At the intermediate level, I teach the compulsory Shakespeare course, and an occasional proseminar on Modern British Literature. Occasionally, I teach an advanced course on Shakespeare.

For many years I’ve organized a student trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, a course arranged by the Shakespeare Center. It’s called “Text and Theater,” and it is essentially an excuse to see as many plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company as possible in a week. We arrange lectures about the plays before the performances, then discuss them afterwards. In addition, we visit the main Shakespearean properties in Stratford, and have talks by various RSC personnel.

I’m passionate about performance and also about the language of poetry. I’m basically a formalist, and want to help students understand how a poem, or a drama, or a short story is put together, what techniques writers have used to achieve what effects.

This fall, I also did my first experiment with Internet teaching. An American colleague and I arranged a joint course using WebCT (Web Course Tools) on Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were interested in a poem’s “organic unity,” and we were curious about what happens to the sacrosanct poem when it’s put in an Internet environment, where nothing is closed and you can create more and more links in all directions. 15 Americans and 11 Finns participated in the course, which “met” on a Bulletin board. We posted discussion questions about the assigned poem(s) each week, and students responded to the questions and each other during the week, then we moved on to the next poem. All of us were amazed at the depth and quality of the Internet discussion. For a final project we grouped students into 4-person Finnish/American teams, and each team produced an Internet version of a selected poem. Most of the students had virtually no experience producing web pages before the course, and again, we were amazed at the quality and creativity of the course projects.

How do Finnish students behave differently than American students?

I don’t think Finnish students behave that differently from the American students I taught before coming here. Some work very hard, and have incredible things to say; others do the minimal amount of work necessary to pass. There’s perhaps a stereotype that Finnish students are quieter than their American counterparts, but in my experience it’s not true. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to get students to respond, but so it is everywhere. If you can figure out good ways to get students to co-operate, they will talk to each other – and to you – in class.

Even after ten years teaching here, I’m still quite amazed by the quality of my students’ English. I have to continually remind myself that they are working in a foreign language. In the WebCT course, the Americans were similarly impressed by the language skills of the Finnish students.

What is the most satisfying part of lecturing at the University of Helsinki?

One of the most satisfying things is to simply have a tenured job. Academia is moving in the direction where very few people have any kind of job security, and even in our department most researchers move tenuously between one short-term appointment and another. It’s lovely that I’m being paid to read and talk about books, and organize trips to Stratford and now, for example, to the Finnish National Theater, where we’ll see a production of Romeo and Juliet. Another satisfying part is teaching the Tutorial, where you get to work with students on their writing skills, and watch them learn to structure their ideas more effectively, and write more convincing arguments and analyses. Of course, what’s “satisfying” to me is probably horrific to them...

What is the most challenging?

Because I’m mainly in a teaching job, I have found it rather difficult to maintain any kind of research profile, especially now I have a family and don’t do work-related things in my free time.

What does the Department of English have to brag about?

The “Variation and Change” research project, studying the history of variation and change in English. Helsinki researchers are among the top philologists in the world today. On the teaching side, we have a small and committed group of lecturers who do our best to provide students with a basic undergraduate education, enabling them to be “language professionals.” Many of our students become teachers or translators (especially technical writers), but many venture farther afield into business or government.

Are you a member of any university organizations?

I am an alternate member of the Faculty Council but I only attended meetings one semester when the main member was on research leave. That was an interesting experience, seeing how decisions are made at the Faculty level, and how the various departments in this Faculty see each other and their respective importance in the overall scheme of things.

I’ve been an alternate member, and will now be a regular member, of the University Equal Opportunities Committee. Before I joined, this committee drafted a detailed plan for achieving equal opportunity within the university, and now organizes events promoting equal opportunity. It is also occasionally asked to comment on specific cases, mainly in filling jobs, where somebody feels that they have been discriminated against.

What have you learned from living in Finland?

I probably listen better now than I did before I came, both on a personal level and on a broader political level. I’m very aware that American leaders are often (rightly) accused of being oblivious to world opinion, and I try to make up for that in my own small way. I’ve also learned to appreciate the subtle signs of early spring – for me, still, April is the cruelest month, when the sun is shining but does not warm the earth. Now I’m learning to face the sun and feel its heat upon my skin, even though the air around me is –3 C, to smell the first signs of the spring thaw, to appreciate the brave early crocuses who push their spring shoots through the melting snow.

What have you learned from your students?

We have a pretty wide range of students here, some just out of high school, some returning to their studies in mid-life, and each has slightly different things to teach. The younger ones are full of wonder and curiosity, and have so much energy! Their opinions about Shakespeare, for example, are fresh and unprejudiced. The older students bring a world of experience to class. I remember some years ago saying in a Shakespeare class that I don’t really care for King Lear and an older student said, “Just wait, Nely, until you’re older – then you’ll understand it better.” Maybe I will.

How do you spend your free time?

I spend most of my free time with my family, puttering around at home or at our summer cottage. We read a lot, and just now we’ve been playing innumerable games of Uno and sewing clothes for Barbie. I also enjoy sports, in the winter mainly swimming, and in the summer biking and running. I might have to put all three together and do a triathlon one of these years...

How do you maintain ties with your own culture?

I read the web versions of the major American newspapers fairly regularly, plus subscribe to International Newsweek, to keep an eye on what the mainstream press is saying about things. Sometimes to comfort myself I’ll log in to The Nation, to see what the progressive press has to say about the same issues. I try to read at least some contemporary American fiction, but these days very little poetry. I’ve also been seeing a lot of Disney children’s movies, recently...

I’m in regular e-mail contact with a lot of Americans, including my mother who in her retirement has learned to use computers.

Do you plan to stay permanently in Finland?

When we moved here, my husband and I made plans for “one year at a time,” but now that we have a family and a mortgage, plus good jobs, it’s getting more difficult to think about moving back to the US.

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