Like any profession, it can be very hard getting back into work mode after the Christmas vacation in academia. The first lecture back after a four-week vacation period, largely spent trying to mark essays and translations into English, was rather hard-going. Most of us on the teaching side of academia tend to be lucky enough to have some brilliant, enthusiastic and lively students and I’m not really sure I could have got through the first week back at work without them. Like many colleagues and friends, I had ambitious plans for 2015, some of which hopefully will come to fruition, although finding the time to write three journal articles and think about a book proposal is rather hard with the level of teaching and administration that come with a full-time Teaching Fellowship.
The first week of term was, though, the occasion for a new experience for me, and not simply because it was especially difficult to readjust to the rhythms of work and commuting, but also because it coincided with a time of massive upheaval for the French people with the attacks on the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. I always try to demonstrate the relevance of my teaching to students, and as the module leader for an introductory module on ‘Modern and Contemporary France’ I felt it was vital to discuss the events following the initial attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Teaching such events is naturally problematic: the hunt for the two suspects in the attack were ongoing and there seemed to be a whole swathe of different interpretations for the reasons behind the attack. In the seminar discussion, I drew heavily on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in order to critique some of these interpretations and to provide students with a stimulus for discussion. The programme talked about every aspect of the events, from the importance of secularism in France to the perceived ‘failure’ of the North African immigrant community to integrate into French society. I also found that it was helpful for students to simply discuss what had happened in a relaxed academic environment; their maturity and thoughtfulness in considering the events really has to be commended. This was a new experience for me as a teacher and I found that it drew on every aspect of my role as an academic: incorporating my own research interests into censorship and propaganda in the Occupation of France, drawing on my listening and interpersonal skills as a personal tutor and my communication and leadership skills as a teacher.
So in a sense, the New Year also yielded a new teaching experience from which I have been able to develop as a teacher and as an academic. It’s not quite the start to 2015 I was expecting, and nor indeed were the people of France, and it remains to be seen what impact the events will have on the political and social situation in France. If anything, though, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on the Jewish supermarket in Eastern Paris have highlighted the ongoing importance of academics and the academic community to help to make sense of horrific and unacceptable events. As a teacher of and advocate of languages and the importance of language learning, the events also demonstrated the importance of languages to help to comprehend contemporary events; not only do languages enable communication, but linguists also tend to be good at empathy and good team players, all of which will be necessary to help France to readjust to life after these attacks.