Dr. Norman Whitney has studied in the UK and the USA. His teaching career included the posts of Head of EFL at Ealing College of Higher Education in London; editor of the English Language Teaching Journal (published by Oxford University Press); and Joint Chief Inspector of The British Council’s scheme for accrediting EFL schools in the UK. From 1996-1999 he was a consultant with the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, with special responsibility for the design and content of teacher training programmes. His most recent Oxford University Press publications are Dream Team, a global course for secondary schools; English Champions, for Italian secondary schools; Team up! for Greek frontisteria, and Passport to Work, a conversation course for Japanese speakers.
Born in 1943 to northern working class parents in the West Marsh area of Grimsby, I could have been a poster boy for RAB Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which to some extent I was…
I attended a typical working class infants and primary school – both excellent in their way – and was one of only two boys who in 1954 who passed the ‘scholarship’, as the eleven plus was called where I lived. I am grateful to the teachers there. They worked under difficult circumstances. They did their best to teach the basic skills of reading,, writing, and arithmetic, and tried to instil the values of team spirit, and loyalty. The was despite their knowing that the vast majority of their students faced futures in the fishing ad frozen food industries. In 1954 I was one of only two boys who passed the ‘scholarship’, as the eleven plus was called where I lived.
My University Career
In 1961, I blagged my way into Leeds University. Literally. Earlier in that year, the English Department had turned me down, simply because their courses were full. But desperate to leave my home town (Grimsby, no place, like so many other places, for a gay teenager in the 1950s), I simply got on a train in August 1961 and, encouraged by my working class parents, went to Leeds, unannounced. A kind elderly lecturer in the English Department listened to my sob-story. To his eternal credit, he offered me a place right there and then. Those were the days!
I survived the both the horrors and joys of undergraduate life. The initial horror was my first digs. I vividly recall we five lodgers sitting down to our Sunday lunches in a freezing ‘parlour’: we were each given four quarters of potted meat sandwiches on white bread, followed by half a portion each of a Lyons individual fruit pie, spotted with evaporated milk. (I have often wondered who got the other half of the third pie.) I was eventually rehoused with a dear Mrs Sugarman and her husband: good meals, good company, laundry included: all for £3.10 shillings a week!
I went to Manchester to study for a Dip Ed which combined the normal courses with more specialist courses in Teaching English Overseas.
In the late sixties, Manchester was a building site. I hated both the city and my accommodation, a newish glamorous fourteen storey building for postgraduates, mostly scientists. The food there was terrible, and controlled by a fierce ex-army man with a fixation on pies.
Ohio University 1966-1968
In the summer of 66 I worked in a private language school in Brighton and loved it. So it seemed did my students, which of course was very encouraging. I was saving for the boat fare to the US.
I had always wanted to see America – the land of Elvis! And where my maternal grandmother was born. I chose Ohio University, Athens Ohio (in the far south east of the State) because they offered a specialist MA in Linguistics and TEFL, and because it was apparently a typical mid western University town of 10,00 people, and 25,000 students. So I applied for and was awarded a Graduate Assistantship (GA). This meant a monthly stipend of $2,200 (which seemed an enormous amount to me) and free MA tuition, in exchange for six hours teaching a week teaching Freshman Literature (a sort of Beowulf to Virginia Woolf gallop through the canon) and ‘Freshman Composition.
I had no idea what that was of course. It turned out to be a very well structured course in how to write different kinds of paragraphs and essays (eg for and against, compare and contrast). It was a massive undertaking involving 120 closely monitored GAs ,and 4,000 freshmen – many of whom were practically hill billies. But I was never the type to be snobbish about any form of education, and I admired the way in which those students worked hard to improve themselves, many having graduated from rural high schools. It was their sheer enthusiasm that was so appealing.
The university itself was set in glorious Georgian buildings, elegant and well cared for. The town itself was somewhat ‘hick’ and many of its citizens worked for ‘the college’ The local coal mines were in decline, and the dependence on the university for work only increased. My courses were extremely well taught, my greatest problem being the grading and points system, which I did not understand at first, and nobody explained to me.
A kind host family took me on trips (I could not drive) all around south east Ohio, parts of which are stunningly beautiful. One of my house mates was a genuine hill billy and he took me to his home, a large farm strewn with broken down tractors and cars. There was ho heating upstairs, and I recall one night when there were four electric blankets on each bed. I didn’t know whether I would freeze to death or electrocute myself!
But most of all the years 66-68 were marked by the university’s growing political awareness, courtesy of the terrible Vietnam war. When I first arrived, most students – and staff – seemed timid, conservative, almost afraid to speak out. This changed one eight. There was a rumour that a bus would be leaving the Greyhound Station at midnight to take anyone interested to the first great ant-war demo on New York. Having kept my political opinions to myself, I walked alone to the station. I was not alone. The dark streets for full of people, inbones and twos and small groups were heading for the bus station. In the end, eight bus loads left for New York.
That demonstration was remarkable. Thousands of people from all over the US marched to the UN. People from all the big stores streamed out into the streets, applauding us. Builders dropped bricks on us. The show of protest was huge, as it was on a later march on the Pentagon. On the horizon I saw a light flat cloud, which turned out to bet was one side of the Pentagon. We were like a pimple on an elephant. But eventually, it all worked.
Back to Leeds University again
I returned to the UK with my precious MA, now determined to do a PhD. I won a state studentship, to research a grammatical point in the English novel. But I was bored with Leeds, so I took off for London, where I continued research at the British Museum, talking part time EFL work (at s school in Carnaby Street!) to supplement my income.
St Gallen, Switzerland
My PhD grant lasted only two years, at the end of which I decided to go abroad to earn money while writing up my thesis. I was “Assistant” to a professor, in a rich business school. I was a sort of slave to a full professor whose English was not all that good. He fancied himself an expert of the theory of culture (‘La Theoria de la Cultura’), and I taught rich students a thin veneer of English Literature. I chose to lecture the 120 students about Death of a Salesman, as well as marking hundreds of essays on business related topics. The most ironic choice I could find. I had great friends there (husband English, his wife Franco – Egyptian) but alter I year I decided to return to London, determined to find a permanent job – my PhD nearly finished.
My career as an EFL teacher was about to begin.