Interview with Dennis Newson

[The second of two interviews from the CETEFL archives. The interview took place in 2002.]

 The interview I am egocentrically posting to day was actually the first in the series: 'Member of CETEFL interview members of CETEFL'. I've been holding it back for a rainy Thursday and, metaphorically speaking, today is rainy since all other interviews are 'work in progress'. This is what I said to Eric (Baber) in early January.


An interview with Dennis Newson   

EB: Dennis, your signature line in your e-mails states you are "nominally retired". How so? Are you not quite ready yet to put up your feet and enjoy a life of leisure?

DN: When I put "nominally retired" into my signature I'd just returned from a month in Kosovo and was planning to accept an invitation to go to Sarajevo for three weeks - in both cases to do something with EFL, not just on holiday, you understand. Between you and me - and the members of CETEFL-L - it's not so much that I am not a) ready to put up my feet and b) enjoy a life of leisure - it is that I don't really know how to do a) and, pompous as this may sound, I don't equate leisure with doing nothing. Leisure for me is not having piles of papers to correct and regular seminars to prepare.

EB: A few basics - how long have you been teaching English? Which countries have you taught in, and for how long? Which was your favourite country, and why?

DN: I started teaching EFL in October 1961. So I must have taught full-time for about 40 years. First Cause! Is that correct - 40? I taught in England for a couple of years, Ghana for about four years, Sierre Leone and Qatar for two each, Norway for about four and Germany for twenty-five. Recently and briefly ( a matter of weeks) I did a few hours in Kosovo and Bosnia (Sarajevo). I think Ghana was probably my favourite country, because it was my first time abroad, because I made life-long friends there and because the Ghanaians were so relaxed and fun-loving.

EB: Was teaching English your first profession, or did you "slide" into it somewhere along the line?

DN: Well..... The truth must out, I guess. I studied History at Cambridge and then started a postgraduate course in teaching at Exeter. Half-way through the course I decided I didn't want to teach. I resigned, and have been teaching ever since - but I switched to EFL. (Later I went to Leeds and studied for a year for a TEFL qualification).

EB: What prompted you to start the CETEFL list? Was there a steep learning curve in setting everything up? Where do you get the energy to keep it going as wonderfully as it has?  

DN: I'm glad you asked that so that I can make it clear that I'm not the Dennis that started the CETEFL list. (And I haven't got twins, either). Actually Dennis Hickman (D1 or Dennis of Arabia, formerly Dennis of Prague) didn't begin the list either, but he turned CETEFL into what it is today. CETEFL was actually started by someone called Rick Rosenberg as a way of enabling American peace-corps volunteers in the then Czechoslovakia to keep in contact.

EB: What did you give your wife for Christmas this year? What was your favourite present that you received this year?

DN: Well, I ordered her a particular hand-puppet (Kookie) - she's a foreign language teacher and teacher trainer - but it didn't arrive so I bought her tickets for her favourite German folk singer (Hannes Wader) who is singing here in a couple of weeks' time. Since none of my extensive family ( my wife and I are both divorced and brought ready-made children into the relationship) will read this interview and be hurt that I don't choose their present, I can admit that it was the private copy of an as yet unpublished novel written by my daughter's new boss. I love the fact that she knows me well enough to know that I would treasure such a present.

EB: In the same sentence you say that you ordered her a hand-puppet and that she's a language teacher and teacher trainer; I assume you mean that these two are therefore connected? Did you envisage her using the puppet in her teaching? I know you're also a regular on the "Dogme" e-mail list - do I cleverly deduce from these two pieces of information that your approach to teaching is not exactly by-the-book?

DN: !!!! Facts help an interview don't they? We both hope to go to Turkey later this year to a conference on foreign language teaching and my wife wants to use Kookie to demonstrate how a hand-puppet can help learners to talk freely. It's easier to talk in front of other people, especially in a foreign language, if you can pretend you are the puppet and not yourself. I'm not sure if the "your" in your question refers to me or my wife, but I think we have both influenced each other in our teaching practices and I've never been able to stick to a single book, a course book. Naturally, though, I've always learned a great deal from and made use of, directly or indirectly, a large range of books in my teaching.

EB: Given a completely work-free evening, what would be your choice of entertainment?

DN: A great concert.

EB: Any particular syle, or pretty much anything?

DN: Well, I love so-called classical music, but I'm lucky enough to be able also to enjoy rock and jazz and folk music and the blues. I'm pretty sceptical, though, about the thought that I could enjoy an evening of Country and Western.

EB: What is your favourite colour? Why? Do you think your favourite colour says anything about you?

DN: Green. The accounts I've read of the psychology of choice of colour say that green indicates love of home and comfort. That rings very true.

EB: Which three books and three tapes/CDs/records would you take onto a deserted island?

DN: Golly. I like the question. How long have I got to answer? Hmm. Desert island. That means I'd be re-reading, listening over and over again. O.K. Books first. (1) A good collection of poetry. (2) This one is really original: The collected works of Shakespeare - or did you mean to say I couldn't choose them? (3) A collection of essays by the critic George Steiner. Music: Zoltan Kocsis playing as many as possible of Haydn's sonatas. Zoltan Kocsis playing Bach's the Goldberg Variations on a harpsichord. (He hasn't recorded them yet, but perhaps you could have a word with him). Michaela Petri, the virtuoso recorder player, playing Telemann and Bach and Handel sonatas accompanied by Keith Jarrett.

EB: I'd be pleased to have a word with Zoltan when I next see him, but I'm afraid I'm not familiar with his work! Is there anything else you'd like to add?

DN: As well as my involvement with CETEFL and membership of a few other lists to which I contribute from time to time (I'm not a very good silent lurker) I also started a discussion list for former students which has been running now for two and a half years, and I am co- moderator with Hazel Slinn (CETEFL manager for TNG), whom I met in Prishtina, of Kosovo_English - a discussion list for teachers of English. I've also just taken over the moderation of the English teacher lists for: Albania, Croatia, The Czech Republic, Macedonia, Slovakia and Slovenia - though I'm not planning to be very active on these lists, and I may be approached in any case by some international body to answer charges of linguistic neo-colonialism. Before I retired I had planned to do a Ph.D , but I have discovered that I enjoy all of this list activity very much more than solitary study and it almost certainly does me and possibly a few other people far more good than my trying to produce a thesis that hardly anyone would read. And I do need to leave a bit more time to practice for the second CD of Irish/Celtic instrumental music that I'm making with two friends. (See Click on underlined word weiter (continued), click on CDs at the bottom banner. See second CD. ...You, Eric, will recognise the bloke in the middle). Well, it was fun dashing off answers to your questions as if I were a guest on Desert Island Discs. I just hope I'm not going to be too mortified when the results come back to me as a posting to CETEFL.

EB: Thanks Dennis!

DN: And thank you, Eric. (If we were both in London and this was real time we could now go off to Brick Lane for another curry).


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