Andy Martin: Academic

Is a lecturer in the French Department in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge.

Was 2009-10 Fellow of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, New York


Teaches occasional classes in local schools.

Sometimes gives visiting lectures. Recently… ‘Scholar’s Lecture’ at Rugby school; ‘Distinguished Scholar’ paper at the University of Kent; Festival of ideas at Cambridge.

In recent years, has been a visiting scholar at Columbia and an associate fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis.

Taught ‘creative non-fiction’ for the Arvon Foundation.

Has written an article on the virtue of failing, another on the teaching of mathematics, but, as regards teaching, this is probably his favourite one. ‘Trading places’…

Trading Places

Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin swaps the lecture hall for the class room In the 1920s, having – according to his own estimation – achieved “the final solution of all problems”, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, left Cambridge University to teach in a village boys’ school in Austria. He wanted to teach youngsters his “philosophical grammar”.
This year, while on sabbatical from the same university, I was invited to teach a few French classes at St Faith’s, an independent prep school in Cambridge. The ordinary, non-philosophical grammar was all that was required. Unlike Wittgenstein, I was not full-time, I was not even part-time, I was strictly an emergency stopgap. But I felt that I was, to some extent, responding to a higher summons. The gist of recent Government pronouncements on the subject of modern languages is that by the time our potential linguists are teenagers, it is already too late. We have to concentrate our fire on the early years. Of course, if this view were taken to an extreme, university teachers would become redundant, because 18-year-olds would be set in intellectual stone, beyond either redemption or improvement. I think it is possible to show, on the contrary, that a degree course still has more than a soupcon of added educational value. But a lot of pathways – neural, grammatical and philosophical – are already laid down by this stage, so it makes sense to intervene sooner, rather than later. But does anyone else out there – pupils, parents or other teachers – want a university lecturer sticking his probably pretentious PhD oar in?

The fact is, there were sceptics. Some dubious parents were concerned that I was going to be giving selected highlights from my lectures on 19th-century French poetry or The Sermons of Bossuet. Fellow teachers at the school (forgetting that I had been hardened by yawning 20-year-olds squeezing in a French class between rowing, politics and partying) looked on with a high degree of Schadenfreude, convinced I was going to be reduced to a trembling psychological wreck by the antics of a particularly lively year seven class. But – fortunately for me – year seven pupils themselves (aged about 12) were unaffected by preconceptions and wide open to everything. I was initially taken aback by the girl who spent a lot of time brushing her hair in class (but she was good on the reflexives se peigner or se brosser les cheveux), the frequency with which boys would fall off their chairs, and the conversations and quarrels that seemed to have precious little to do with French. But I was, above all, struck by the clear sense of a continuum: the St Faith’s pupils were like extremely young undergraduates, but with a greater tendency to eat Smarties in class. From my course on “modern icons”, I found that Tintin and Asterix were the most immediately accessible. The graphic images and strong characterisation are an ideal vehicle for the perfect and pluperfect tenses. Reflexives were also acceptable, providing there was something life-threatening going on (se blesser and, even more so, se suicider were popular). My research on the subject of the 1998 World Cup – Le Mondial – also went down quite well, notably the part to do with insults and getting pursued by the French riot police. More generally, carefully selected sentences from Pascal and Albert Camus were challenging, but not impossible. (In fact, a lot of Asterix is much more difficult.) I’m not quite sure what they learnt, but I learnt that whatever you’re teaching, you have to make it fun. Wittgenstein left his village school in the mountains under something of a cloud, having overdone the corporal punishment and aimed too high. I plead not guilty to the first charge, but there is a certain amount of prima facie evidence on the second. I did try the opening of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu on them, but nobody went home in tears. Borrowing some of Wittgenstein’s metaphors, it seems to me that there are three elements of language teaching that apply across the board, at any level: the toolbox, the game and the city. The toolbox enables the students to stick together their own linguistic DIY. Games give them the opportunity to run through some of these routines and learn to apply the rules. In the city, they are taken on a tour of some of the cultural landmarks and tourist attractions that make this or that language special and distinctive. The higher up the education ladder you go (another of Wittgenstein’s metaphors, although he said you had to throw the ladder away), the bigger the toolbox, the more complex the games, the more exhaustive the tour. But there is no radical difference. Of course, at university, they don’t say “Hello, sir” when they bump into you in the playground. I’ll miss that.

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University.