Michael Jenkins grew up in Cardiff. He graduated from the University of Leeds in the late eighties with a Bachelor of Arts in English, working in Italy, Greece, Poland and Edinburgh over the 1990s. He took an MSc in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in 1995. For five years in the late nineties, he coordinated English language courses at the British Institute in Florence, Italy.
In 2000, he returned to Edinburgh, and for six years, worked at Stevenson College of Further Education (now Edinburgh College) managing the delivery of language courses for a diverse community of students. In 2008, he was seconded from Stevenson College and spent three months in Qatar teaching English to teachers of science and mathematics with the British Council.
From 2015-2019, he was the Head of Languages and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at the Centre for Open Learning, University of Edinburgh, eventually standing down to focus on teaching. He is now semi-retired, teaching for Sheffield University online for the last 3 summers. From 2017 until recently he was chair of the EAP Steering Committee for the Cara Syria Programme, which he helped to set up. For Cara, he continues to teach online the same Syrian academic he has taught for four years.
In late 2016, under the auspices of Cara, several representatives of UK university academic English departments met at the University of Reading to discuss how to develop an English language strand for the Cara Syria Programme. “A group of us set it up, and Kate (Robertson) was the driving force behind that. She kept it on track and pushed it forward when it was not going so well, so Kate is responsible for its growth. There was a fair amount of work from everybody at the beginning to get systems set up, and it grew quite quickly.” he says. Its success, he recalls, was due to the sense of urgency that was demanded by the severity of the conflict.
EAP centres from a number of universities, including Edinburgh and over 80 EAP volunteer teachers from universities across the UK and other countries developed a blended programme of language learning, which was rolled out in 2017. The core of the programme is the pairing of Syrian participants with volunteer teachers for weekly online academic English lessons. In addition, intensive residential EAP study events were arranged at approximately two-monthly intervals in Istanbul. During the pandemic, a number of parallel online activities were organised including the Almultaka (meeting point in Arabic). ”The Almultaka was started by Will Hutton from Queen Mary, University of London, and Dr Fuad Alhaj Omar, the Syria Programme academic with whom he had been partnered, providing an opportunity for Syrian colleagues to present on their work to their colleagues and EAP tutors at monthly intervals.”
There were many rewarding aspects to the programme for him personally: “We’ve had some very skilled people, academic English teachers giving up their time – many in full time work and others who are retired. Many of the volunteer teachers are the most experienced in the field.” He believes that many found renewed purpose in working and learning from the Syria programme.
During the workshops in Istanbul, he met people whose strengths, insights and sense of community impressed him. “Those workshops brought together exiled Syrians from across the different parts of Turkey where they had sought safety. And you’re in that bubble with them, with a real feeling of solidarity across the group. That time was very intense and, really, at times exhausting but at the same time very enriching.”
The one-on-one EAP tutoring has also been rewarding. Michael was first partnered with the engineer Dr Abdullah Saghir, helping him with papers on chemical engineering for publication. He was then partnered with an expert in Arabic literature and language: Dr Ahmed Khalil. They have been meeting for weekly online one-to-one EAP sessions for the past four years. Ahmed also visited Michael in Edinburgh when he was in the UK for a Syria Programme research incubation visit to the University of Oxford. “When you’re teaching language, you get to know people well. Your job is to listen and get them to speak to practise language, which inevitably generates a close working relationship. That’s been my experience – the one-to-one nature of it can be quite intense.”
Reflecting on the achievements of the programme, he says: “One of the strengths of the programme has been the ongoing long term commitment to the participants and the relationship building between participants and teachers. This has led to tangible progress in long term study and work solutions for the Syrian academics. It has been a long time, six years now and the momentum is still there.”