By Luis Medina, PhD researcher in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, King's College London
A few years ago, right by the middle of my PhD program, I had a conversation with my dad that has remained alive in the back of my head. We spoke over the phone to have our routine weekly chat about how things were in Guayaquil and London, the former, the city where I grew up and where all my family still live, and the latter, the city I have been calling home for the past six years. I remember telling him about how I felt exhausted after working all day. My dad reacted with a tone of surprise:
– ¿Conseguiste un trabajo allá? [Did you get a job in London?] – he asked.
A little annoyed, I explained that what I meant was that I had been working on my research all day, to which he replied that, in that case, I had been studying all day. I often find myself reflecting on the nuances of that clarification. It is not only a matter of comparing the physical effort that goes into the job my dad performs every day (he is a medical doctor) and the different type of effort I put into doing Humanities research. It is also a matter of translation – linguistic and cultural – as much as it is about a deep misunderstanding between what we do, teach and learn and what the workplace needs, i.e. that supposed chasm between education and practice that Modern Language students encounter too frequently.
The global economic challenges that will inevitably follow the Covid-19 crisis pose the risk of making the chasm bigger. In a post-pandemic world focused on increasing consumption, for which some industries are more valued than others, the idea of having a job where you really work (note the italics there) seems more pressing than before. In this context – where the UK's education secretary declares that 'for too long, we've been training people for jobs that don't exist' – the contributions that Modern Language students bring to the table are at risk of being dismissed. Yet they too are needed more than before. After all, what kind of world are we to rebuild without people being aware of how worldmaking works?
Modern Language students train to develop a practical understanding of how we not only think through a language, but in it, and are shaped by it (Language Acts and Worldmaking, 2020). This is an essential type of knowledge to mould the world we want to live in: it is indispensable for comprehending how societies are structured and governed and for empowering culturally aware and self-reflective citizens (ibid). We need more of that in the workplace. But we also need to fully convince others and ourselves that the skills gained in Modern Language degrees are required. The question is how to do it.
A starting point would be to reach beyond the classroom. That is, taking the learning to the communities it serves, bridging the gap between university and the real world. Over the past month I have been collaborating to design and dream into being 'Language Acts and Worldmaking Laboratories', a new service module for Modern Language students at King's College London that aims to do precisely that. It will act as a laboratory where students will experiment with, identify and develop the skills that they have acquired in their degrees, learning how to put these into practice via projects targeted on and executed in scenarios beyond the academy (Boyle & Sampson Vera Tudela, 2020). Those scenarios – destined to be outside university walls – will be the local and global communities that higher education must engage with, to act upon but also to learn from.
I think of my dad and other parents of international students at King's as members of communities that could potentially be targeted by a module such as this. Because no matter how much effort King's puts into advertising itself as a global university and in saying that its vision is 'to make the world a better place', much of what we do here, especially in Modern Language departments, remains alien to most of the people not involved. Beyond reading books and translating, I mean. But that could change if we were to connect with those communities through applied projects that demonstrate the transformative power of language-learning. Saying to others that language is a material force in the world is one thing, showing it to them is another more challenging yet more rewarding. These type of field interventions hold the potential to help to dissipate, from the ground up, the idea that the meanings of studying and working are so far apart.
Boyle, C. & Sampson Vera Tudela, E., 2020. Language Acts and Worldmaking Laboratory. A Service Module, London: s.n.
Language Acts and Worldmaking, 2020. Who We Are. [Online]