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Monday, August 1, 2011

Expanding Horizons – English Education and Politics in the Nineties Moving to Sri Jayewardenepura

The Island 18/07/2011

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

I joined the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in October 1992, as a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages. English was taught at USJP only as one component of a General Degree, ie students did only one third of their papers in the subject, two a year I believe it was in those days, out of six altogether.

All students in all Faculties were also supposed to do General English, which was looked after by the English Language Teaching Unit. Nominally under the Department of Languages, it functioned under its own head, who was generally one of the senior members of the Unit. These were almost all women, who were constantly bitching against each other though they tended to unite against any outsider.

When I was appointed, with a brief it was indicated to tighten up English teaching by the ELTU too, its then head, Damayanthi Ahangama, promptly resigned. There was a move then to appoint the lady who was in fact the best qualified of the lot, Oranee Jansz, but if there was one thing that could bring the other older ladies together apart from an outsider, it was Oranee. After various kerfuffles, Damayanthi agreed to resume the post. She was in fact quite able, but the lowest common denominator approach of the Unit had led to her not really using her talents.

I found however that, of the various books written by USJP staff for the proposed English course at the Affiliated University Colleges – which had been the main reason I had joined USJP, which was in charge of these – Damayanthi’s was the best. With some revision we brought it out very soon and prescribed it at USJP too, which made her happy though some of the other ladies were not pleased. I think she herself was surprised that she alone was credited for the book, and it made her realize I was not out to do down the ELTU.

Why the others disliked Oranee so much became clear after I had consulted the various Faculties of the University. Almost all the Deans, and several heads of Department who also spoke to me, requested that Oranee be allocated for their students. Such universal appreciation had naturally, for Sri Lanka and for academic communities in general, drawn the dispprobation of her peers.

That appreciation also helped me to put up with Oranee’s initial hostility towards me. A trade unionist of conviction, she felt she had to lead the opposition to me as an outsider trying to usurp the powers of the ELTU. Unlike some of her peers, she was quite direct, but fortunately, having been told of her capabilities and her commitment, I refrained from arguing, and made it clear that I appreciated her work. In time we became very good friends, and collaborated with great pleasure on the General English Language Training (as we renamed it) GELT course for pre-University students islandwide. We also produced several textbooks together, and she became a mainstay of the training programme I tried to put in place when English medum was reintroduced in secondary schools.

By then however I had left USJP, so I was not there when she was finally made head of the ELTU. I do not think however that she was able to institute the reforms she wanted to, given the existing work ethic there. I believe she achieved much more in the earlier period which began the year I joined, for she had been asked to take charge of English for the new Medical Faculty that USJP had set up. The exciting interactive course she devised did much I think to make the rural students who formed the bulk of the USP intake willing and able to use English, and I think it is a tribute to her, as much as to the dynamic staff who began the Faculty, that USJP doctors were soon on a par with those from other universities.

I did what I could to improve the curriculum the ELTU was using, and I think the books they themselves had produced for the AUC course helped. My other effort, to streamline the way classes were run in the Arts Faculty, failed miserably. The timetable was complicated enough, since Arts students could take any combination they wanted, but my schedule of classes for those who would be free at any particular time was not understood at all, given the total inability to concentrate and think that the rag imposed on new students. I realized then that ragging was political in intent, in addition to its release of primal instincts in youngsters to whose head all this power went. By reducing the freshers to blind obedience, their ability to make decisions on their own was crushed.

All this however became clear only several months later, since the beginning of term, which had been scheduled for January, was postponed because of the inevitable strike. I had more time then to get things ready, and in particular to build up a team for the Literature course too. The University obligingly advertised, and I was able to get the person I wanted most, Paru Nagasunderam from what had been the Higher Institute of English Education at the NIE. That had been downgraded and, with succession struggles there, she had fallen prey to the rivalries endemic in such a place. It seemed the work she had done for the training courses I had organized while at the British Council had contributed to the jealousy.

I was horrified to find that, when she was appointed to USLP, one of the dominant figures in the ELTU made free with appalling racist observations. It turned out that Paru was the first Tamil, or so it was claimed, to have been taken onto the academic staff at USJP, and this was deeply resented, with an attempt to claim that she must be a Tiger. With that sort of racism I could understand why Tamils could become bitter, but fortunately most of the ELTU were more decent, and Oranee in particular was magnificient, both in denouncing racism, and in taking Paru under her wing. I should note however that the hope the Vice-Chancellor and the Dean had initially entertained, of making her Head of the ELTU, was thus permanently stymied.

The Vice-Chancellor was Mr Dorakumbura, whom I had known most recently as the Director of the Anuradhapura Affiliated University College. He had been Librarian at USJP, and an SLFP stalwart, which is why I had first come across him. An old supporter of Mrs Bandaranaike, he had been on the Board of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, which had selected me for a post in 1981, only to be stopped by J R Jayewardene’s machinations with the BMICH Act.

I had got on very well with Mr Dorakumbura while he was at Anuradhapura. The previous USJP Vice-Chancellor had made the appointment and then, impressed by Dorakumbura’s commitment to AUCs, had enthusiastically pushed for his appointment as the new VC at USJP when he himself was made Ambassador to France. This had led to some opposition within the university, and Dorakumbura’s appointment had been challenged, which led to some bad blood when finally it went through.

Saddest of all I think was the hostility that developed between him and the new Dean of the Arts Faculty. Prof Palihawadana, who had been the Dean with whom I had worked on the AUCs, told me that Prof Wilson was probably the best person to succeed him, and so it proved. A man of great intelligence, integrity and ability, an unusual combination in our university system, he was open to new ideas and initiatives. We got on extremely well, but before long he had resigned, because of differences of opinion with the Vice-Chancellor, and this led to immense problems for the plans we had had for English.