Two years as a maître de langue: on my first experience as a university professor

Two years as a maître de langue: on my first experience as a university professor

Now that my contract as maître de langue at Avignon Université is (practically) over, I would like to put down some reflections on these two years of teaching, which were my first experience as a university professor. Actually, I would have wanted (should have?) to write these lines right after the end of the courses, on the fly, but the work on the dissertation has – rightly – taken priority. The advantage is that now the writing of the thesis is almost finished (just the introduction, conclusions, and final revision are missing), the disadvantage is that perhaps some of the considerations I had in mind and did not jot down got lost: never mind.

In summary

Teaching has been an experience in which I have found myself very at ease, which I would like to continue. It has presented me with new challenges, which I have met to the best of my ability and commitment, and it has put me in touch with a generation (17-23 years old) that I did not know and that has been interesting to discover. In spite of my incurable pessimism (which makes me think that, after all, we are doomed on this planet – bringing me, moreover, in this at least a little closer to the feeling of a considerable group of my students), I am convinced that something good and important happened: we worked and built together, we learned, we shared. This was not and is not taken for granted, and for this experience I am grateful, first of all to my students, for their participation and involvement, but also to the University of Avignon that gave me this opportunity and to my colleagues for their help and support.

My job

The role of maître de langue differs from that of lecturer mainly because the former is responsible for evaluations of students who, therefore, have to take exams to pass the course. I do not add notes on how the French university model works because it does not seem useful here and, furthermore, I have no recent terms of comparison (before starting my doctorate in 2020, I had ended my university experience in 2002, still in the Italian ‘old system’). As for my courses, all in Italian language, most of the hours were in the bachelor’s degree LEA (Langues étrangères appliquées) where I worked on oral expression; the other hours were part of the bachelor’s degree and the master’s degree in history (oral and written expression). The advantage of this kind of courses (TD, travaux dirigés) is that the goal is to work with the students and make them work on the language, so they are (or should be) very practical, interactive. The other very positive element for me is that there is no defined syllabus: the professor is free to choose the topics and this also gives the possibility to look for themes and methods that are closer to the students’ sensibility and interest.

I (prof) + you (students) = we (on discipline and responsibility, building relationships and also on grades and power, passing through the teachings of bell hooks)

When I first stood in front of my new classes I was nervous. I know that in the first few minutes, impressions and opinions are formed, attention can be captured, doors and channels of communication can be opened. Or not. These are key moments, from which you then go on and build. I am fortunate to be accustomed to public speaking (and, to some extent, to entertaining audiences) and this has made it easier for me to approach classes, I am also fortunate to have teachers of different grades around me (from elementary to university) who have helped me by sharing their experiences and tips.

However, there are two things that have been clear to me from the beginning and that I have tried to make clear to students: we are a “we” and we are here to work and learn together. Indeed, my mantra has been “we are here to make mistakes”: from Italian mistakes made together during the course everyone can learn, and the classroom is the best place to make mistakes because we can correct them for everyone’s benefit. And again: I believe much more in responsibility (accountability) than in repression even if sometimes, out of discipline and duty, there are hard decisions to be made. I have always been very helpful to students (topics to be covered, flexibility on time and manner in case of personal problems or difficulties) but I do not tolerate either that our work together is taken lightly or, least of all, that people try to fool me – and therefore also others who work hard – by looking for subterfuge or hoping to get away with it.

We are human beings first, even before being a professor and the students, and trying to establish an equal relationship, as far as possible, has always been among my goals. This does not take away from the fact that I am the one who ultimately has to evaluate and put in the grades. Again, I have always tried to explain that the grade represents a snapshot of an specific test and not an absolute evaluation of the person, and that the important thing is to learn something, not so much the grade one gets: I have always explained why the grade is given, also illustrating the main mistakes and the elements to watch out for. I must add then that the role of a professor is still a role of power, and power makes me uncomfortable. That is why I have tried to follow the teachings of bell hooks, the ones recounted in Teaching to transgress, a reading to which I devoted myself before moving “to the other side”, from (former) student to professor.

A kind of debrief, between activities, feedback and “growing together”

In these two years, with the classes I had, we worked well, we did interesting things although obviously not all in the same way and not for everyone. In this, the students’ comments and feedback have been very important to me, although the first few times, when I asked for comments and criticism, I often saw bewildered and uncertain faces, explained later by the students themselves who told me that they were not used to this kind of questioning (good, I say: I like to displace and offer different possibilities, starting with debate).

Nice lively debates on topical issues, moments of play and laughter, literature and insights that often followed the themes that emerged from the class discussions. Just as, also out of my own curiosity, we often talked about their study paths and work experiences, but also about their interests (some lessons and even some exams started from social media and how they use them, trying to share a critical and conscious approach to these issues). I always took the students and their questions seriously, just as they took the learning path I was proposing them seriously. I tried to follow the pace of class work, adapting or completely modifying the activities depending on the response I received from the students. At the same time, however, I tried to “pull upwards,” to propose levels of difficulty that would always involve a little more work and that, thanks to this, would allow progress in learning each time (also taking advantage of the presence of some native Italian speakers in the various classes). I did not always succeed, I think, but that was the intent. Of course: not everyone progressed in their studies and not everyone was happy with the courses (often more for reasons that had to do with their previous course of study or the fact that they had not really chosen to be there).

Some students, from various classes, thanked me for the themes and activities I proposed, some asked me to play more (sometimes I agreed, sometimes less), and others were sad that I would not be allowed to continue in the same position (since the contract cannot be extended beyond two years) because in the two years of shared work “we grew up together”: true (and nice) but that’s okay too, with different teachers, different modes and sensibilities: it can only be an enrichment. I never felt indispensable, but in small observations, in comments or sharing, I understood that something had remained (besides progress in Italian) and this for me is a great satisfaction.

Of course, there were difficulties, especially in the beginning. I remember being interviewed by two students for a paper required by another course, when I explained that often, in order to choose an article to propose to the class, I would read about ten on the topic I had decided on, until I found one that suited them (because of the level of difficulty of the language, the type of debate and questions it might provoke, the style); it would then happen, however, that the class would remain mute – or almost mute – in front of the topic and my questions: well, those moments were frustrating, especially since the questioning was toward myself and my work: what could and should I have done better? I remember their somewhat dismayed faces as I showed these aspects of the work that usually remain hidden. I learned from my mistakes, some of which were pointed out to me by the students – such as putting grammar work in the second half of the semester instead of at the beginning. And I am confident that what I learned will bear fruit when I find myself teaching again.

A future of research and teaching: why not?

Although the history courses I taught had a major lecture component (after all, I am a historian by education and I enjoy teaching it as a subject!), my teaching hours were all very practical, concrete, as I explained earlier, precisely because of the type of courses I was assigned. I will be happy to test myself, in the future, on more theoretical classes, particularly around the themes toward which my research is leading me, which is moving from digital writing to an interdisciplinary theoretical core in which the humanities, computer science, and hard sciences work together on a common attempt to understand our digital societies.

I was saying that I have found myself doing well in teaching, as understood in the way I have tried to recount in these paragraphs. Teaching that is thus, at the same time, the transmission (and sharing) of knowledge and the building of human relationships, the stimulation of critical spirit and the invitation to (mutual) curiosity in discovering new knowledge and possibilities.

The work of these two years has been very intense, not least because the academic years as maître de langue were also the years in which I wrote my doctoral dissertation, which has now come to an end. I am satisfied and there is always room for improvement, but this seems like a very good place to start.

PS If any of you former students happen to drop by, please feel free to comment! 🙂

The original Italian article can be found here.

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