The Academic Senate of SPSU has recently elected the leadership of the faculty of foreign languages established in 2017. The new university division includes staff of 16 foreign languages departments that are specialized in different disciplines.
We have spoken with English native-speaker associate lecturer Peter Ellis. Nineteen years ago, Peter arrived in Russia from the UK as an engineer. For half of those years he has worked at the University. He told us what impressed him about the University environment, what features in students he values most, and what changes he expects due to the formation of the new academic structure.
- Please tell us how you have moved to Russia and became a lecturer at St Petersburg University?
I graduated in civil engineering with economics from Dundee University in Scotland. For 37 years, I worked in the construction industry on a variety of projects – from a concert hall in Glasgow to a car factory in Turkey. I came to Russia for the first time in 1998 to build a cigarette factory, and have lived here permanently since 2003.
In 2008, I decided that it was time to change my life and leave the construction industry. Teaching was an option that I had thought about, but I did not know how to get into it. I was looking for a Christmas gift for my wife and went to a jewelry shop that had opened on Petrograd side. The owner of the shop had been a student in the journalism faculty of St Petersburg University. She asked me whether I would like to teach English and I said – “Why not?” So, she introduced me to the journalism English department, who invited me to teach in their faculty. At the beginning, my lessons were English conversation, then slowly things became more formal and I started teaching English grammar.
For me, it was an evolution, a total change from civil engineering to teaching. In addition, I could not even imagine that I would become an English teacher for Russian students. I was incredibly lucky to come to this University.
- What do you most like about teaching? About communicating with students and colleagues?
It is being with young people who want to learn. Students in St Petersburg University have worked hard to get here and they all want to move on in life. They are hungry for knowledge. It is good for me to be with people determined to discover life. But, of course, it is a challenge for me.
- How are you coping with difficulties in knowledge of Russian language? How do you feel about Russian people?
I do not speak Russian, but I can understand some of the words and also read Russian. I have, what I call, “survival Russia”.
The secret about Russian people is that they are very friendly and helpful. Whenever I get into a difficult situation Russian people always help me. So, here I do not have any problems at all.
- You had been working in business for a long time. What it the difference between the environment and corporate culture in university and in commercial companies?
To my mind, the biggest difference is that commercial companies have shareholders, and everything an employee does is for the benefit of the shareholders, unfortunately. Money drives business, and money can be a very short-term measuring tool.
I think universities are measured by the quality of their graduates, which is a long-term and subjective parameter. It is a fundamentally different way to gauge success. It is more difficult to assess what characteristics will make graduates marketable to specific employers.
- Which personal features, abilities, or skills are the most valuable for a modern student, in your opinion?
University is about training people to use their brains. In my opinion, being a successful student is not only about knowing facts, it is about developing new ways of thinking, analyzing, investigating, and learning. In addition, it concerns solving challenges. If something has to be done, we must think through different ways of achieving it. I know Russian people are great at problem-solving, and are not afraid of a challenge. This is why Russian engineers will always find a solution when confronted with an impossible situation.
- In 2017, St Petersburg University has opened a new faculty of foreign languages. Is there any changes in your working process? Or, maybe, what would you like to change?
At present, it is too early to see any changes as the faculty has just been formed. Many people are working on it, so we will definitely feel the difference. The main thing is that we used to be part of the faculty of philology, where students are majoring in the study of languages. Now being a faculty of foreign languages, our role is to teach languages to students who are majoring in subjects that are not related to languages.
In each faculty, I hope that teaching English will be developed to suit its major subject. Particularly, we will teach English that is applicable to journalism, public relations, and advertising. The percent of journalists who need to know how to describe a graph in English is probably not very high. So, they do not need to be taught this. However, it is essential for engineers to be able to describe graphs. Journalists need to learn how to write concisely in English so that their texts catch people’s attention.
- Could you remember the most vivid, striking episode of your teaching practice? What it was?
Initially, I was teaching on one-year contracts. In 2014, I applied for a permanent teaching position. Normally when applying for jobs, I had been interviewed by two or more people and had then had to wait for a letter to arrive a week later. For the university interview, I sat next to the other candidate in front of about fifteen of the English teachers in our department. We were both proposed and seconded by some of the teachers, and then all of the teachers voted by raising their hands. I was totally surprised as I had no idea that there could be such a democratic process! Now I take part in such interviews as a teacher. I think this episode shows that university culture comes along with democracy.