The Heart of Academia

Michèle le Roux


Over several years, Michèle le Roux has read Syria’s news and wondered how she might respond. She recalls a youthful trip there almost thirty years ago, whilst living between France, where she was teaching, and the UK, where she was getting her graduate degree in English. She wanted to get to Jerusalem from Paris without taking a plane, train, or boat. The journey became a more extended adventure and developed into two lengthy excursions by car. The first leg went as far as central Turkey, then back to her mother’s home in Banbury, Oxfordshire, where she spent the winter drafting her dissertation. When the spring came, the second leg started where she had left off in central Turkey: “I travelled down to southern Turkey, into Syria, Lebanon, on to Israel, Jordan and then back through southern Greece. I spent two weeks in Syria, which I found absolutely fascinating.” When the call for a volunteer tutor with English for Academic Purposes (EAP) experience circulated in the EAP networks in 2020, she applied successfully and has found it “immensely rewarding”. “I do think there is this opportunity to get to know people better and over a longer period; trust builds up, and it’s wonderful to be given the opportunity to step outside my own limited, western, white woman’s perspective and see the world through the eyes of other people.”

Michèle le Roux’s work explores education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change issues. She has looked at the psychological and spiritual impacts of precarity experienced by the EAP practitioner, buffeted by almost twenty years of austerity, global financial crises, neoliberalist agendas in Higher Education, and the desolation, or perhaps renewal of community after the pandemic. Most recently, she has explored social justice in education. Whether motivated by ideas of trust or spirituality, or the pursuit of excellence in teaching over the years, she seeks collaborative spaces and inclusive conversations for more meaningful work in the world.

She has recently moved to Derry, Northern Ireland, to take up a permanent appointment at Ulster University as Lecturer in EAP. It has been a welcome change because, until relatively recently, employment has been precarious, with contracts taken wherever and whenever presented. She has met good colleagues and students in Derry and enjoys the city. Moving just 20 minutes across the border with the Republic, she says with a mischievous grin, an EU passport would be hers again, a welcome option to see old friends and revisit memories of years spent living in Europe.

Despite the full load at Ulster, Michèle is still an MA TESOL dissertation supervisor at the universities of Bath, Glasgow and Durham, and works online for the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, preparing overseas Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi students for entry to the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities. At the same time, longstanding philosophical work on ideas around integrity and community-building, working with various groups, including the Circles of Trust, is increasing. Recently, she has stepped down from BALEAP’s (Global Forum for EAP professionals) Social Justice SIG, but awaits an imminent publication on the relationship between English language teaching and social justice by practitioners and activists around the world, a book which Michèle has co-edited with fellow EAP scholar, Paul Breen (UCL Institute of Education). She is excited, as the book includes a chapter by her Cara colleagues, Tom Parkinson (Kent University) and Marion Heron (Surrey University), who have designed and run workshops for Cara.

Adding to the contemporary research and dialogue around precarity in academia, Michèle wrote a piece at the start of the pandemic for an EAP conference at Leeds University. She is still bemused about why it was published as it was a “howl of frustration.” Her criticism was directed at the soulless vessel she and others have experienced: a mechanistic higher education system into which people step to grow, only to be treated as functionaries and fee payers, subject to lost income and insecure employment, unmanageable workloads, and bureaucratic managerial interference: “Our souls are parched: cut off from the wellsprings of vitality, creativity and inspiration, the playfulness of experimentation, the desire to make a difference in the lives of young adults – all the energies which originally nourished our vocation to teach.”

It was a rant, Michèle says, because she considers teaching to be a vocation and a craft that still fascinates. Despite technology and online learning, people are still drawn to come together because of the creative energy of the classroom. The HE landscape was very different 40 years ago, when she graduated with a first-class BA Hons in English Language and Literature, among the first class of women admitted to Magdalen College, Oxford, after 521 years of it being all-male. There, she studied and taught in a stimulating but very competitive environment. And now? “I’ve come to pay attention to the whole person of the learner and what they’re experiencing cognitively,” she says. “I’m still interested in how to convey perhaps quite complex concepts in a way that will make them accessible and comprehensible, but I also think about the whole emotional landscape and things like engagement and motivation. It interests me a lot.”

She remembers how it felt to be “rather lost”. She had planned to do a PhD at Oxford but seemed to be “floating around”, tutoring undergraduates as they prepared for finals in Mediaeval Literature. After three years, “when the money ran out”, she decided to pursue an opportunity in Japan. Asia beckoned with possibilities for English teaching: here was a chance to travel and learn from others in other parts of the world. For the next 16 years, she moved between Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and Europe, where she ultimately learned how to adapt English to a dizzying range of subject-specific courses, blending and inventing new modules and curricula with disciplines like History of Art, Social Sciences, Accountancy and Finance: “The whole thing of being a teacher of English as a foreign language was I think, as it is still for many people, something quite temporary. And then it just kept going, drifting into this world of EAP. I can’t be an expert on all the different areas these students are researching, but the whole process is interesting.”

EAP is now a discipline – teaching English for a specific purpose that enables home and international students to function and succeed within tertiary education. EAP teachers often teach various study skills on top of language: how to research online and in the library effectively, approach reading, note taking, essay planning and time management. In her early teaching days, “EAP didn’t exist. It’s a new discipline that has invented itself in the last 20 to 30 years,” grown out of egalitarian educational social theories and the need to meet the new demands posed by international students. There is also an important pastoral element sometimes involved in teaching and Michèle has found that many international students struggle in several ways: “In many cases, their regular course tutors are either unaware of this or don’t care. Because, I think, most of the time, when these students bring these issues to my conversations, it’s the first time they’ve actually spoken to anybody about what is really going on for them. Maybe when they get into the dissertation phase of their degrees, they’ll probably see somebody one-on-one for the first time. They struggle and worry a lot; they’re all alone in a new place, and language is sometimes a barrier.”

Throughout her time abroad, Michèle returned intermittently to England to gain necessary certifications and short-term teaching contracts. First, she received the Dip TEFLA from The Bell College, Cambridge, and then a Master’s in TEFL from Reading University. As a result, during her long career, Michèle has carved out a trail of professional expertise, training others,  designing curricula and courses, but most importantly, mentoring countless numbers of students both abroad and  in universities across the UK: Cardiff in Wales, Birmingham,  Durham, London, Northumbria, Reading, and Warwick in England, and Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland and now Northern Ireland, as well as universities in China, Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar and Europe.

Michèle’s mother was Scottish and her father South African. Her father’s family were originally Huguenot Protestants who had fled France to the Netherlands in the late 17th century, and then were sent to the Cape of Good Hope as refugees by the Dutch. “That’s how the le Roux’s ended up in South Africa.” Her mother’s parents moved to South Africa from Scotland in 1926, “economic migrants” from the Depression: there was no work for her engineer grandfather on Clydeside. In the 1950s, Michèle’s parents moved for medical training to Edinburgh, where Michèle was born and raised. When she moved back to the UK in early 2001, it was to Scotland. After having a baby daughter, she worked part-time in publishing and, in an attempt to keep her mind active, turned to the Open University. She began a Psychology degree, but Cognitive Psychology turned out to be “immensely dull” and quantitatively heavy; she took classes in Philosophy instead: Ethics, Aesthetics, and then a challenge, Philosophy of Mind. “But what eventually happened was that the OU developed a new course called Philosophy and Psychological Studies. So, with one more Philosophy module, I could graduate with this named degree rather than a degree in nothing in particular. So, that’s what I eventually did after about 11 years of part-time study.”

Michèle later trained in faith formation with the Craighead Institute, the Archdiocese/ University of Glasgow, and the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow. “I worked as a catechist for a few years, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with my duties, which is to pass on the doctrine of the Catholic Church intact, because I realised that there was a kind of cognitive dissonance… I did not wholeheartedly believe what I was required to teach.” So, she trained as a spiritual director/faith accompanier to help people explore their spiritual life in one-to-one and group settings. She has recently started to co-facilitate a formation course for faith accompaniers at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction.

A spiritual life for her is paramount, and she has found resonance with the Center for Courage & Renewal in the USA, where she has come to feel at home. The Circles of Trust work originates with the praxis of the American educator and activist, Parker Palmer: “I think it is beautiful and important work. Perhaps, unlike other practices like mindfulness and so on, what is integral to the Circles of Trust work is that there is our inner work and our work in the world, so it isn’t just about me. It is not just about cultivating my spirit; it isn’t solipsistic or inward-looking. It is about coming to a place of greater wholeness so that, from that place, we can go out and do good work in the world in whatever sphere we find ourselves.”  Michèle is now in the final apprenticeship phase of her training with the Center for Courage & Renewal to become a fully-fledged Facilitator of Circles of Trust.

The Cara Syria Programme Fellow that Michèle was partnered with is Dr Jamil Hallak, an industrial engineer from northern Syria, who fled to Gaziantep, Turkey, where he has now lived for several years and where he completed his PhD. “When I started working with Jamil, he already had advanced English language skills and had already co-authored some papers that had been published in journals, so quite a lot of my work was to support him with the writing and final editing of papers that he was submitting for publication, as well as working on presentation skills.” The one-on-one sessions have now ended because Jamil now teaches in the Engineering department at a Turkish university, “which is great because I think it gives him more stability and security, but he’s having to teach in Turkish, which I think is quite a challenge, and he’s decided that what he really needs to focus on now is to develop his Turkish language skills rather than his English language skills, which is very understandable.”

As with many of the Cara Tutor/Tutee pairings, Jamil became more of a friend over time. Michèle went to Istanbul to co-facilitate one of the Syria Programme writing workshops and tagged on a brief trip to Gaziantep to spend time with him and his family. Then, when she was working at the University of Bath, and he was benefiting from a Syria Programme-facilitated English pre-sessional at the University of South Wales with full fee waiver, they met up in Cardiff, and enjoyed a trip to Oxford together.

On Jamil’s last weekend, Michèle took him to London “because I thought, you know, you can’t come to the UK and not go to London!” Thinking that if she took him to a play with too much dialogue, it might be challenging, she took him instead to The Lion King, which everyone had told her was wonderful. “I don’t particularly care for musical theatre, but I thought we’d go to a matinee of The Lion King, which I think we both enjoyed, but then Jamil looked sort of subdued at the end. I said something about a happy ending, and he said, well, you know, it depends on how you see it. Given the regime in Syria and the way that power has been passed down from father to son, that message has a different resonance. Moreover, in Arabic, Jamil explained, “Assad” means lion. Everybody thinks this is a happy story, a nice show, then you stand in somebody else’s shoes and see it from their point of view. There is always another perspective.”

Working with Cara, supporting workshops in Istanbul and attending meetings as a member of the EAP Steering Group has made her reflect upon the stories of the academics fighting against all odds to overcome the intense precarity caused by conflict and displacement. “When precarity goes on for a long time, it becomes a kind of trauma. Trauma means wounds. I remember teaching a small group of Cara participants and we were talking about their career hopes for the future. Will they be able to return to Syria, back to their homeland? And I remember one person in this group saying, ‘Thinking about my home country is like a constant wound.’ This really struck me and stayed with me. The participants may now be in a safer place and not in immediate danger, but there is that ache of the constant wound.”

EAP teachers often feel, but may not say, that many students who come to British universities are from privileged and comfortable backgrounds. So, it feels rewarding to contribute in some way to the lives and careers of people who have experienced huge adversity, as so many of the Cara Syria Programme Fellows do when trying to find work in their field, stay afloat, learn new languages, whilst missing home. “I admire the Cara Syria Programme participants I’ve met for their courage and extraordinary resilience. Given that many of them have been through extremely difficult, traumatic experiences, they keep going. The word that comes to mind is ‘dignity’.”

As time moves on, since the invasion of Ukraine and now the destruction of Gaza, the attention of the Western world is easily diverted elsewhere: “Many Syrians feel that very acutely and see the contrast between the Western response to Syria and to Ukraine. And I think something hugely important is that the people of Syria and, in particular, the Cara Syria Programme participants, are not forgotten. I think very often they do feel forgotten by the world – that they’re not news anymore. So that is also very important for me. They’re not forgotten. That our Syrian colleagues and friends are still seen and heard and valued.”