Most students who have in the recent years studied in the social sciences in the University of Lapland know the English language teacher Robert Fitzsimmons. Most social science students come through his classes of English Reading Comprehension and English Oral Skills. Although his assignment is to teach the English language, students are mistaken in just expecting formal language training like word arrangement or learning vocabulary. In Reading Comprehension, the materials and group work are based on materials that lean heavily toward the social sciences. However, students are also encouraged to think critically and to discover alternative viewpoints and to reach their own conclusions about the ideas they are reading about in the material. This is backed up by the course material, but in the context of ready answers and ideas, nothing is given or certain. Some students are confused – even shocked – because of this.

1. Could you tell something about yourself and your history?

In the context of finding a calling in social science, it all started for me in high school classes on subjects like history and geography, which awakened my interest in the surrounding world and also encouraged me to think more critically. I also read newspapers like The New York Times and the socialist oriented Weekly People in the local library, which showed me that there were alternative ways of thinking and perceiving my social reality. It was the first time that I heard the word socialist. In the New York Times, I read articles about Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Soviet Union. As I lived in the USA, through those newspapers I learned that there were different ways of building and upholding a society. I was fascinated by the welfare States of Western Europe because in the USA we had no such thing. Rather, we had a welfare society.

After high school I studied Forestry in northern Montana, but after some time I switched to the social sciences. I was then accepted by New York University (NYU). It was a great time for learning and not just because of lectures and books, but also because of the practical reality of the streets. In New York City, there were possibilities in making observations, attending demonstrations for peace and jobs and other activities through political parties that were mainly situated on the left. And through observation, I saw great injustice in the city: poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and crime. But I also saw great wealth on the streets of NYC. It had a tremendous impact on me and I became more interested in alternative politics.

I began to think that the social sciences should be related to lived reality. I also studies education at NYU and I became a certified social studies teacher for junior high school and high school.  I enjoyed the work very much. I became aware of critical pedagogy much later and from my reading I began to teach from a critical pedagogical perspective. Learning was much more than just listening to lectures. Rather, I came to understand that students needed to have a dialogue about the material they were reading and they need to form opinions and share those opinions with their peers. And use their imagination more in seeing just where such idea sin their texts would lead their society.

2. English Reading comprehension course contains texts about neo-liberalism, capitalism, social democracy, oppressive societal structures, empathy and so on. It can be argued that these articles together with your pedagogical style moves the course outside of expectations of political and educational thinking. In other words, in your classes consensus is shattered and conflict can happen.  Why is that?

– With these materials and how I present them I’m trying to show the students what is going on ”behind the scenes”. I try to wake them up from the ideology they are raised in and living under in Finland. This takes critical awareness. For example, articles about the Washington Consensus show them that many important political decisions concerning us (were ) are made elsewhere, out of our reach – and these decisions can have a tremendous impact in our own lives. I hope my courses take students out of their comfort zone. I just want them to question more and have a dialogue about the ideas that they are reading for class. It is mind puzzling really that people don’t want to face or see the reality that can at times be very oppressive to the human condition. However, students are in groups and are encouraged to have deliberations with their peers about the reading material and come to their own conclusions. I do not interfere with what they are discussing. It is their opportunity to learn from each other.

When speaking specifically about Finland, I see a pedagogy of silence and adaptation. We seem to have to adapt to the neoliberal life world. It permits a handful of private interests to control as much of social life as it is needed in order to maximize their personal profit. Many people are left with social ills that come from this process: poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, marginalization and mental illness etc. We have adapted to such social ills and can begin to think that such injustice is justified. It has becomes normalized because of the economical processes behind it. I believe that the majority of Finnish people aren’t happy with these changes, but instead of challenging the ideology, they are adapting – and staying silent. We seem to live in a society of memorization. We seem to be taught to memorize our lifeworld and not seek to change it, if change is necessary.

However, there are people who are interpreting the world and are critical about it, but they don’t seem take any kind of action. In the context of changing things, I have always believed in social engagement since high school. People must fight for a just cause.

Over all, the reason I choose this kind of material and try to shake up my students a bit is so that they would also become better in their field: social science and education. I want students to question more and keep an open mind and have hope for a better world.

3. As it were partly mentioned, some students are expecting to do menial language practices. They get shocked when they are ”hit” with this kind of material and form of pedagogy. Even after the course, they might not understand the ideas presented. Why do you think that is the case?

– Many Students most likely expect doing word arrangements, heading exercises and vocabulary for the course. In my courses, they get to see Finland in a different light. It takes them out of their comfort area and enter into a different zone. It may feel uncomfortable to shatter the status quo by using the sociological imagination. Also, some people are rather young to have been engaged deeply with the world. This is the case especially with students coming straight out of high school. High school doesn’t seem to prepare a student for a critical university or for criticalness in a course. However, it does prepare them for the research university or for the entrepreneurial university.

Some students don’t understand that an article concerning political decision making in Washington, London or Brussels do affect Finland. They don’t understand that most decisions about the political and the social are out of the grasp of state-level politics. And many students seem unaware that there was a brief moment of a welfare state in Finland before 1990’s. Nor are many aware of the changes that had occurred in the 1990s. They have grown up under the ”profit before people” -logic and also they have grown up in a constant ‘crisis’ coming from the governments during their lifetime and it has affected their world views. And of course, social media perhaps does not help them have more empathy for humanity. I call the generation born in the 1990s the ‘crisis generation’ and for good reason. We seem to go from crisis to crisis in social politics, political decisions and economic life.

4. People get the impression from the older students that your courses are something different from the rest of the courses that the university offers. You are known as a ”harsh” teacher in the university. What do you think of that?

I think it has something do with my cultural background of having strong opinions and also the style of pedagogy in the universities today, which are centered in the style of lecturing and what kind of learning situations that are taking place in the university. For example, just read a couple of books and take an exam on the books read.

I am not a harsh teacher. I tend to try to understand the problems that students may have in class and what exactly is going on their personal lives. I think the harsh stories are like fishermen stories, the fish caught seems to get bigger with the passing of years. People should talk to me before class if they have issues on participation, so I can make arrangements. For example, if someone suffers from panic attacks from English usage they should come and talk to me and we could work something out. I want my pedagogy to be a pedagogy of humanity. And I attempt to see the human being in a student.

5. Your other English course is about reading comprehension and besides the critical and challenging material, there is also a lot to learn about reading techniques – like how to go through a chapter and how to make notes. Any comments on the presented methods and techniques?

– These techniques are nothing new actually, they are tried and tested in universities in Australia, Canada, USA and Britain. Finnish students were skeptical about them at first, so I had to find sources from those universities to prove that it is actual reading comprehension. Students expected to sit quietly at their seats and do exercises. I cannot do that. If a student wishes to go study abroad, in Britain for example, he or she will perhaps have a hard time to survive the lectures without these techniques I give the students. In courses in many British universities, one must read articles for the course, write essays, participate in workshops to comment on the material they read for class and attend lectures. Much is depended on them to form critical judgements in their essays and comments. There is a lot of work involved. One must have good reading techniques to survive the workload. But most importantly, they will need to write critically and make judgements about what they read and form opinions for class discussion.

I find the reading techniques important in engaging the text, and also in memory enhancement. Memorizing the text should not be the top priority though. These techniques are tools for enhancing critical and active reading when going through a text. It leads to critical awareness, seeing how the presented ideas interact with reality. And as I said earlier, I hope to make students better in their field. They need to have their own truths and simultaneously be open to new information to make adjustments if needed. We must have our own truths or else we’ll follow someone else’s truth.

Students must have the skills of critical literacy. Peter McLaren has stated that students should analyze and challenge the directions that are taking place in their society and students should learn to reflect about what is good for the society or the community. One other form of critical literacy is interrogation. If people would put our elite under interrogation (ruthless critique) about the decisions they are making, we may have a stronger democracy.

I think that this is what we seem to be lacking right now in our society. We aren’t a critical society with good critical literacy at the moment.

6. You have published several scientific articles concerning neo-liberalism and the state of Finnish higher education. What do you think of the state of the Finnish universities and higher education in general? How well can they combat against the neo-liberal ideology?

Speaking of critical literacy and its benefits, universities don’t seem to promote any of that. There is no ground for ruthless critique and real change. The power elite gives no chance for real alternatives and what is left is blind acceptance. You hear about criticality in brands, coffee cups, banners, speeches etc, but there is no action, no social engagement. We are taught to memorize other people’s ideas, not to act upon them or confront them and certainly not to be activists. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any time for reflection. Universities seem to be operating under Fordist business plans. Students are products that are produced and put out into the market to be sold or bought. It seems that the student must get out the university as soon as possible. It has become just an exercise in gathering credits or Ops.

People are perhaps questioning for its own sake, but criticality goes beyond that. Some form of social engagement is needed – a real action and a real alternative needs to be presented. For example, Occupy Wall Street and other social movements presented no real alternative to the political and socio-economic structures they were critical about. We have to demonstrate our critique and also present an alternative. And when talking about university, the university should plant seeds for many new ideas to bloom and through such planting and blooming also by the student, more democracy can be created. We need a genuine critical university where debate, dialogue, and discussion are an integral part of education. We need more professors and educators who are ideological and they present their truths for the students to digest and question. For me, it was wonderful to have professors who were conservative, progressive, Marxist, socialist etc. It brought diversity to the knowledge that I was experiencing.

7.  What do you think about presenting these constructive alternatives?

– Nowadays it is harder to come up with alternatives. For example, when it comes to neo-liberalism, unregulated capitalism and how everything socially and culturally obeys their logic and laws, we are suffering from the T.I.N.A perspective: There Is No Alternative to this current economic logic and code of laws. We also don’t have a unifying voice when it comes to alternatives. In the past, we had socialism as an alternative and much came from this: the welfare state, for example.

In Finland no political party shows real alternatives. And even if there are real alternatives constructed and presented, they get squashed if they go against the economic goals of EU, WTO, IMF and World Bank. The rise of populism in Europe is caused by frustrated people searching for alternatives to the visions of the EU, which in turn sees that every country is together in creating a strong Market-Europe and therefore sees populism as a threat. However, why populism has become popular seems to be lacking in the conversation. We seem to dance around it.

In Finland, parties in government can’t do or do not want to do the more people-centered policies they promised in opposition. It amazes me just how the game has been played. A good example of this is that in 2009, 80 % of the Finnish people supported the idea of the welfare state and they wouldn’t mind paying more taxes, but the parties continued to push the logic of the market when in government. And we don’ react. It seems that we have become numbed by the political process. True, we can make decisions, but decision making must operate under the neo-liberal logic or we can perhaps get sanctioned by EU.

8. Do you have any ”favorite” thinkers, philosophers, scientists – people who you feel have affected you the most as a teacher and a researcher?

I think this quotation of Karl Marx laid a solid foundation for me when I was 20 – 21 years old:

”The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Lenin’s book ”What is to be done” – that question in the title itself – was also inspirational to me. Marx’s idea about changing the world and Lenin’s idea about what should be done (to change the world) goes well together.

Paulo Freire’s ”Pedagogy of the oppressed” showed the skills necessary to make such a change. It goes to show the premise of ”critical consciousness”: perceiving political, social and economic contradictions around us. I often like to ask if students feel oppressed and they answer no quite often. But Freire’s book would perhaps show them otherwise., especially when it comes to the ‘fear of freedom’.

The Port Huron Statement of 1962, which gave birth to the student movement in the 1960s had an inspirational moment for me. The opening sentence was fantastic:

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit”.

From that sentence I began to look at my world in New York City more closely and I also began to look uncomfortably at the world that I saw.

9. Do you like working in the University of Lapland? Do you like living in Rovaniemi?

I like my work at the university because I teach social science students and also education students. They all come through my classes and I hope they take what they learn to their faculties. In some of the students I see myself when I was younger.

I actually live in both Helsinki and Rovaniemi and my routines in those places differ from each other. My life in Helsinki is more stimulative intellectually. Living in Rovaniemi is more peaceful and work and research oriented. It is easier to do my research work in Rovaniemi when it comes to writing it. But for observation and reflection, Helsinki is my place. Both cities compliment the other. It is unfortunate that Rovaniemi doesn’t have second hand bookshops. Helsinki has many and quite often you can find me there, browsing or taking politics with other customers. People that know that I write articles about Finland and higher education like to ask me questions about the future or about what is now happening in Finnish decision making. We have good conversations. The city offers me such learning experiences.

10. Besides your assignment in teaching, do you have any academic activity going on at the moment?

– I am currently writing about critical pedagogy in the classroom. As material I am using my student evaluations; what students would like to see more in their education. I publish and do research, but still I consider myself more as a teacher than as an academic.

11. Any formally free ending words?

I hope students enjoy my classes and my strong-opinionated culture. They should see it as an experience. Some people confuse criticalness with negativity and take it as a negative that a foreigner presents the social problems in their country for discussion and dialogue. I have lived in Finland for over 30 years and I have seen the best and worst of times here. I miss the Welfare State times of the 80s. I thought I died and went to heaven when I came here in the 80s after coming from a rather aggressive capitalist system in the USA. The Scandinavian Welfare State was the most decommodified system in Europe. It is unfortunate that we have become more commodified now, more dependent on market forces.

My courses come from wanting Finland to be a better society through participation. But it is up to the students to find their own truths about their society and about the world around them. I just hope that I can give them the tools to do so. I think that students in the social sciences and education have a lot of passion about what they are studying and they have passion for people. My job is to tap into it and let passion flow out of them. That’s life.