Students at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus are often mature students who can’t or don’t wish to leave Dumfries and Galloway. As an external examiner, I appreciated the rootedness of their writing, but this year there was also un cierto no se que. Two portfolios suggested non-native speakers, unusual in the Crichton context.
When names were revealed at the board meeting, the course director said, “Yes, we had two Spanish Erasmus students. They thought they were going to Glasgow – city life you know – but neither thought to look at a map. So they found themselves in Dumfries. They took it very well.”
“The scripts were all that bit different,” I said. “Something refreshing happened to everybody. Like adding yeast.”
- Those Berlin boys on the Arran Reading Party: fluent and funny, they bonded through endless Glaswegian repartee. Our students taught them the Billy Connolly joke, “Is this dessert or a meringue?” (“Am Ah wrang?”) which the Germans found hilarious, and kept repeating to complete strangers on the boat back.
I’m drinking tea from the hand-thrown blue mug given me by Ulrike, whose town in Germany was famous for its ceramics. What town? There’s no discernible mark on the mug, and none in my memory. But I remember how doggedly Ulrike insisted on her point in tutorials, like Canute against a spring-tide of native speakers.
Four Italian girls, whose timid knock on my door I quickly learned to recognise, would settle like a flock of nervous doves to unfold their multifarious problems. No way had they passed the English language requirement. They’d appeared, we suspected, not because of what they knew, but who their Papas knew. How to communicate that they must take their forms to the Secretary’s office? “Al Uffizio,” I managed, thinking of Florence, “della Segretaria.”
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perfect for not-yet-fluent readers. It’s short, with minimal plot, simple English, and depths no critic yet has plumbed. My Italians settled their feathers and expressed bafflement. “But what critics must we read? You give us no books to study in the library. What theories must we use?”
“You’re only on page 42. Concentrate on finishing the book. Do you like it?”
They cooed bewilderment. I explained I was asking their opinion.
“Me?” one asked. “You ask me what I think?”
Eight brown eyes opened wide. “No one,” said one, “in all my studying years, has asked me ever what I think before.”
“Perhaps it’s time someone did.”
Poznan University 1990s: I attended a seminar about the British poets of the First World War. The tutor had run the English department as a Samizdat (underground dissident publications evading Soviet censorship) operation until 1989. No longer sub rosa, but now initiating exchanges with other European universities, she was one of the most compelling teachers I’ve encountered. Her analysis, unsurprisingly, was unlike anything I was used to. How much our students would gain from this!
Meringues, mugs, Miss Brodie … random consequences of student encounters through the Erasmus scheme. Other consequences include lifelong friendships, intellectual collaboration, peace in Europe, fair opportunities and mutual understanding.
Those Poznan students, whose teacher once upheld an ideal of cultural exchange at the constant risk of her own life, may now have children who are free to study at any university in Europe.
From today, 2021, our children cannot. Requiem Erasmus.