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Interview with Paul Hullah

Paul Hullah Dr. Paul Hullah is Associate Professor of British Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University. He has published several EFL textbooks, and has also written several volumes of poetry, short stories and literary criticism. He was co-editor of the authorized collection of the poetry of Dame Iris Murdoch, and co-edited Playback and talk shows: new Edinburgh Crimes, by his friend Ian Rankin, the first book of Inspector Rebus stories to be published in Japan. His most recent publication is Britain Today, which he co-wrote with Masayuki Teranishi, and is published by Cengage.

This interview was conducted by John Lowe on Friday 6th March 2009.

John:
Hello Paul – thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Could you tell us a little about your background prior to coming to Japan?
Paul:
Certainly. I was born in Yorkshire, and went to Ripon Grammar School – a traditional English school – and then on to Edinburgh University where I was fortunate to receive a degree, first class with honours, in English Language and Literature. This enabled me to continue my studies at Edinburgh University, where I did my PhD in ‘The Poetry of Christina Rossetti’. After that, although I was teaching Shakespeare tutorials at the university, I couldn’t get a full-time job in Edinburgh. And then, out of the blue, I was offered a teaching position in Japan – at Okayama National University.
John:
Did the idea of going to Japan attract you?
Paul:
I had always been interested in Japanese poetry, haiku and tanka, but mainly I fancied a fresh challenge in a culture that, at first glance, appeared radically different from that in which I’d been raised. But to be honest, I didn’t know a great deal about Okayama and the job ahead.
John:
So how did it work out?
Paul:
Very well, actually. Although I was initially employed on a two year GaikokujinKyoushi contract, this was extended, and I stayed at the University for a total of 10 years. But, as there was no chance of this becoming a permanent position – every year I was given a one-year contract extension – and I was being pushed to teach more and more basic eikaiwa-style classes, I decided to leave. Around that time, I did become rather despondent, had an early mid-life crisis, and started to wonder if there really was a place for someone like me in Japan – an English teacher who wanted to teach literature or culture realistically, without watering down the subject matter so much that it ended up being unauthentic, dishonest. I had a couple of temporary teaching positions that didn’t really suit me, then in April 2005 I became an Associate Professor of English at Miyazaki National University in Kyushu. I was very happy there, and Kyushu is a beautiful place to live, but it was only a 3-year contract and, again, I felt that my usage of literature in the classroom was tolerated, rather than encouraged. But by that time I had necessarily become more interested and involved in EFL per se and active in JALT. I became President of Miyazaki JALT, published some papers in EFL, but all the time I was arguing for texts that challenged students intellectually. I was now in my forties, my Japanese wife was seriously unwell, and I sorely needed the psychological and financial security that a tenured position could offer. It was a stressful time for me.
John:
What happened next?
Paul:
Well, then I saw the position advertised at Meiji Gakuin University, and I thought it seemed tailor-made for me at that stage in my career. I applied, got the job, and I’ve been there since April 2008. It’s a fantastic position, a dream come true to work there. I deal mainly with 3rd and 4th year students who are all English majors. I teach seminars in Romantic, Victorian and Modern British poetry, as well as giving lectures in traditional and contemporary British culture. I also have a class where I trace the birth of lyric poetry in Britain and show how it links to pop lyrics of the modern day. I show how the Sex Pistols can be connected to medieval poetry, and we study song words by Morrissey, The Sisters of Mercy, Artic Monkeys, and show how written poetry and pop song words are related and do similar things with language. Don’t forget, in their day poets such as Byron, Shelley, and Swinburne were the equivalent of today’s rock stars.
John:
So after 16 years of teaching in Japan, would you call yourself an EFL teacher or an English literature teacher?
Paul:
Perhaps I’m fated to be a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I have a passionate love of language and literature, and also a passion for teaching. And none of these passions contradict each other. I have taught literature in English to English majors and to non-English majors. For the first few years of teaching I’d take Penguin classics into the classroom – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, short stories.
John:
So you taught English through literature?
Paul:
When I first arrived in Japan, I thought I was going to teach English literature full stop; but of course, I had to adapt my approach for second language learners. I adapted my content-based courses to include more language-oriented components, and the students really benefited from and enjoyed this approach. So I collaborated with a Japanese colleague to write some EFL textbooks that foregrounded authentic literary content. The aim was to provide appropriate language scaffolding to the students so they could then confidently interpret the literary texts in a creative, meaningful and mature way.
John:
So you didn’t use traditional EFL texts?
Paul:
Not at first, no. Don’t forget, this was 1992, and many national universities used to look down on ‘communicative’ EFL texts; those kinds of texts, the ‘communicative’ ‘task-based’ ‘conversation’ course books, didn’t really start creeping into the university system until the mid-nineties. I strongly believed that such texts were too often unnecessarily ‘dumbing down’ the teaching of language and more suited to school kids than university learners. The design and layout of some textbooks seemed puerile and childish, cartoons and gaudy illustrations, and I was worried that students would stop taking English seriously. Such books and the teaching style they spawned seemed to me to promote entertainment instead of education. And to this day, there are some areas of EFL textbook teaching that concern me – such as oversimplifying the way content is presented to learners at university level. A lot of the material is just not suited to their maturity and to their intellectual potential.
John:
But can Japanese students cope with the language level of texts that you’d like to teach?
Paul:
If they work hard and are taught conscientiously, yes. I present some quite complex English literary texts to English major students at Meiji Gakuin University. We read and discuss, explicate them into more manageable language whilst ideally not compromising or reducing the intellectual depth. It works and they thrive and they tell me they love it. It’s an approach that respects them as mature, thinking, adult learners and challenges them intellectually whilst holistically improving their language skills. But I don’t blithely prescribe this approach, say, to students in a private Business English school, or Agriculture majors or students at a two-year Nursing college. So equally, and this is my point, I strenuously object to those people who preach to me that it is not appropriate to teach literature in the English language classroom here at all. You have to be adaptable and open and sensitive to learner needs and wishes; suit the word to the action, as Shakespeare had Hamlet say. Keep it appropriate.
John:
Can you give a concrete example to illustrate what you’re saying?
Paul:
Yes. Recently I was interviewing some high school students who had applied to Meiji Gakuin University. I asked one applicant, ‘What kind of books do you read in your free time?’ She replied that she read biographies, and the last two she’d read (in Japanese and in English) were of Karl Marx and the Italian poet Dante. So what should we teach her in the university English class? How to buy stamps at the post office, or ask her what vegetables she likes? How brutally ignorant of her maturity level and goals, and cruelly stifling of her obvious intellectual potential would that be? I just think that, for students such as that inquisitive and intelligent young woman, certain EFL texts featured on the English curriculum at many Japanese universities are inappropriate. We have to be wary of lowering the bar. If we raise the bar, keep standards high, students will raise their game accordingly; if we lower the bar, they’ll tend to start treading water and eventually lose interest, give up. This pervasive dumbing down, this tragic misguided infantilisation, is, in my mind, the single most alarming aspect of the direction in which English education is moving not only in Japan but also in other countries. I hope I don’t sound supercilious or arrogant; I am not. I can only base what I say on what I have seen during the last 16 years as a passionate teacher of English literature and language. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, ‘The end of our journey is to reach the place where we started and know it for the first time’, and now that I’m back teaching literature I think that I’m a far better teacher today because of my EFL experience and exposure to sundry styles of EFL instruction: many of them excellent and meaningful, but some not so appropriate to me or my students. Eliot also wrote, ‘We shall not cease from exploration,’ and that’s important too for teachers: never to become complacent, always keep looking for ways to improve the students’ experience and our own experience as educators.
John:
Is there a place for English poetry in the language classroom?
Paul:
Of course there is. I once did a survey of Japanese university students and asked them what adjectives they associated with English poetry. The overwhelming response was “difficult’, “boring”, “irrelevant”, but the interesting fact was that 70% of the respondents had never read a poem in English. So first of all we have to overcome the misconceptions of the Japanese student, the erroneous negative preconceptions they tend to have about literature, especially poetry, in English.

Poetry uses language in a creative way – it explodes meaning and uses language in joyful, imaginative, surprising ways. It brings dead phrases and expressions back to life, makes words beautiful and more than just prosaic functional tools. To think of language as only a means of communication is like saying that food is only a fuel, or that sex is only for reproduction. We’re human beings and we take pleasure from food and sex, and that’s what poetry does – it shows us that there’s a pleasure in using language. Poetry can stimulate us and challenge us intellectually, and it asks the questions that through the ages we ask ourselves. Rather than asking, ‘How do I get to the Post Office?’ literature poses profound questions such as, ‘To be or not to be?’ Shakespeare is saying, is it worth staying alive when life seems unbearable? And although the language is simple, the question is profound and timeless. I believe that my role as a teacher is to educate, to draw out the latent potential of those students who have learned facts and have accumulated knowledge at school, but have been denied creativity.
John:
So how does using poetry correct that?
Paul:
Many Japanese students, who come through the Japanese school system, are told that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Poetry challenges that naïve preconception in a healthy way, as poetry allows each reader to take away his or her own meaning from the poem. Poetry lets students personalize the English they’ve been taught elsewhere, make it their own. A poem can often use simple language to convey a complex meaning, which I feel is suited to adults. Learners can therefore find their own identity, form their own interpretation, and get ideas for expressing themselves originally, as poetry means different things to different people. There is not necessarily a correct or incorrect answer. Poetry mirrors life in that important respect.
John:
I saw from your Wikipedia entry that you have written poetry yourself. Could you tell us about that?
Paul:
That really grew from when I was in a rock band – I was a terrible singer, but I loved writing lyrics. But it really took off when I was at Okayama University and I met Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley. They encouraged me to publish my poetry after they’d read a few of my poems. I’ve now had four books of poetry published, and writing poetry is something I love. People say, why do you write poetry? I say, why don’t you write poetry? It just seems like breathing to me, comes as natural as leaves to a tree, as Keats wrote.
John:
What do you think about graded readers? Don’t they simplify language?
Paul:
Yes, by definition they do; but, produced sensitively and intelligently, they don’t have to simplify the themes or implications of the original text. I absolutely approve of extensive reading, and I support and applaud the kind of work teachers such as Rob Waring are doing. The aim is to get students reading as much as they can, and graded readers contribute a great deal to this approach. I particularly like the graded readers that introduce iconic ‘classic’ works of literature, and in the last few years at Meiji Gakuin we have introduced an extensive reading program – and the students love it.

I’d just like to say if it works – use it. Don’t force literature upon students, but let’s use it when it’s effective and makes them motivated and inspired and happy.
John:
Do you have any current projects?
Paul:
I teach British Culture as well as British Literature, and I’ve just had a book published by Cengage, called Britain Today. It’s different from certain other texts on the subject, in that it presents Britain as it really is today – ‘warts and all’. We include topics such as knife crime and the racism of the National Front. This isn’t about the village bobby and Miss Marple. I wrote the book with Masayuki Teranishi, a Professor of English at Hyogo University, whom I knew as a student some years ago at Okayama University. It’s a dynamic, interactive course book that can be catalyst for a productive classroom atmosphere. It’s real. We haven’t dumbed down the issues. We’ve simplified the language of instruction but not the topics – and that makes it challenging, truthful, genuine.
John:
Thanks Paul.
Paul:
You are welcome, and I’m so grateful to have had this chance to state my case. I really do think that there is a place for literature and culture in tertiary-level EFL, and it is unkind and disingenuous to deprive students of the marvelously varied, meaningful, substantial, provocative and challenging content that great works of literature or candid, thoughtful writings about culture can offer. Thank you.



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