Bob Wilkinson’s advice to students and colleagues: “Learn a third language and take an interest in everything”

Bob Wilkinson retired from Maastricht University in late November as a Senior teacher in English for Academic Purposes and English for Specific Purposes  at SBE’s department of Educational Research and Development.  When Maastricht University started introducing English-content programmes in its curriculum in the mid-1980s, he participated in the process of content and language integration. In particular, he worked closely on degree programmes in economics and business studies, in psychology, and in cultural sciences.

Especially for Talkin’Business, Bob accepted to look back on the highlights of his career at Maastricht University and to share some advice with students and colleagues. We wish Bob a happy and fulfilling time ahead and the best of luck in his new career as a writer.

Would you like to name a few “tokens of success” of your career at Maastricht University and at the School of Business and Economics?

Rather than “success”, there are a number of activities that I am pleased to have been a part of. One early key moment was being invited by Geert Hofstede to join the team in setting up the International Management programme, which started in 1987. My role was to provide tailored English-language support and involved working closely with a number of the staff including team-teaching. Geert Hofstede had an inclusive policy in the early days in that quite a large number of staff were involved in the decision-making about programme implementation, including our present rector Luc Soete. Eventually in line with the increasing size of the programme, the team got too large to be effective and the more peripheral members like myself were shed. Regarding the language in particular, it was most ‘learningful’ for me to recognize that almost everything I had prepared for the students before the programme started turned out not to be what the actual students needed: listening and reading proved to be the least of these students’ challenges. The pudding needed to be eaten in order to know whether it was good. The next year I completely recustomized the material.

The success of the International Management programme led to the development of options in International Economic Studies and then a full new programme in International Business. I was pleased to play a small part in the skills support for these.

One of the events that I look back to with great pleasure was a short-lived course for all second-year students simultaneously. We were asked to run a full two-week course for the then 600 plus students. The students would have no other classes. The design was a challenge in two respects: logistically, because we had few teachers, which meant teachers covering two or three groups simultaneously. Thus the course had to be very student-driven. And second, the content: students came from different studies, and there was no point in doing what they had already done. We opted for economics in the first week, based on the World Bank and IMF reports that had been released just a few weeks beforehand. Students had to select a topic in small teams involving comparing information from the two reports and write a paper as if for their chosen Ministry. They also had to present it to another group. The second week involved a business negotiation: two large teams had to negotiate, for example, Black Sea tourism development, where one party was a developer and the other the interested country. Each team member had a role and had to devise a briefing paper for the team. Finally there was the negotiation. It was a tremendously complex operation, involving a lot of student peer-assessment (in other teams) and ending with prizes for the best briefing papers. If ever there was one activity that worked really well, it was this. Unfortunately, it was axed when the Bologna process was implemented.

There have been many other key moments too, notably the three conferences I set up on Integrating Content and Language in Higher Education, the last two both hosted at the SBE. The first turned out to be a truly seminal conference, with sponsorship of the European Commission: the proceedings, which are still selling ten years later, are very frequently cited by researchers concerned with designing and implementing programmes in languages other than the national language. The conferences have led to a significant network across the world, which Maastricht University ought to be proud of. It was a pleasure to have welcomed at these conferences at the SBE one of the world’s foremost linguists, Professor David Crystal, and recently, arguably the foremost language economist, Professor François Grin of the University of Geneva.

What is one wish you would like to see fulfilled by our students?

Apart from fairly obvious wishes that the students continue to demonstrate excellent quality through their results, the jobs they get, and their superb ability to translate their learning in ways that people outside the academy can understand, I hope students can communicate their learning not only in English and in their mother tongue, but also in another language pretty effectively. This would be in line with the avowed policy of the European Commission which set a lofty target of mother tongue plus effective communication in two additional languages a decade ago. These days good competence in spoken and written English is a given, like basic skills in literacy and numeracy. It won’t add to your salary earnings. But without it you don’t get the job. Other languages though can add to your earnings potential and career opportunities.

In the years when I worked with many successful business people, nearly all of them were effective communicators in this respect and many were able to use more additional languages than just two. I fear that in recent decades the added value of knowing several languages has become neglected. Yet you may find you can communicate better through your second or third foreign language which your business partner shares. The target should be not just a tourism language, but at least basic business communication in these additional languages. However, even a smattering of your interlocutor’s language will help open doors.

What would you like to pass on to your colleagues?

Basically take an interest in everything. To my academic writing colleagues, read lots in and about the topics the students and staff are working on in the different faculties. Everything is fascinating – even nothing. I mean the concept of nothing – see the excellent book Nothing, just published by New Scientist. Another highly readable book on the same topic is Robert Kaplan’s The nothing that is: The natural history of zero (Oxford University Press). To other colleagues, keep looking over the borders of your own discipline. Insights can come from unexpected perspectives.

What are your next steps?

I do not intend to leave Maastricht: I like the city and its location. For the past 18 months I have been ‘building networks’ socially with people and organizations outside the academic world. I recognize that once you leave an organization, you will be fairly rapidly forgotten. I do not intend to rely on my university network as a sole source of socializing. So I have increasing contacts and friends in the cultural world. However, I will also pursue the academic networks across Europe and further that I have built up over the years: we have a conference in Brussels in 2015, and possibly Copenhagen in 2017. And maybe there could be the occasional freelance work, perhaps with other universities in the Netherlands.

What is more, a key goal is finally to write the novels that I have planned. The first one was too autobiographical and so was not ‘good enough’. The next ones envisaged are all based on true events from the 20th century, but not ones I was involved with. Unfortunately, the novel in progress (on the theft of art in the First World War) ended up, rather ironically, being stolen: opportunist robbers nicked my back-pack including my laptop at Amsterdam Bijlmer. By mistake my hard-drive back-up was also in the pack! Never mind, just start again on the new career.


Photos by Maurice Bastings

Related article: Bob Wilkinson’s personal blogpost: Last Lecture

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