Brendan Hogan is a Master Teacher in Liberal Studies, based in New York City. This academic year he is teaching first-year Liberal Studies students at NYU London. Below he gives us a glimpse into what that experience is like for him and for his students.

Okay, the title of this post was either the above or Warren Zevon (Google it!), and while this reference evokes a spirit perhaps out of step with contemporary London, well, it’s The Clash, so, QED. Plus, no monsters. (Don’t tell me you have to Google The Clash…) As the NYU Liberal Studies faculty member teaching at NYU London this year, I write with greetings and salutations from this fair city.

Big Ben

Big Ben, lit up at night.

Upon arriving in central London fresh from the airport and an overnight flight this summer, I found myself towing my roll-away into the first coffee shop I saw. Stepping to the counter, and with the confidence of the seasoned traveler I take myself to be, I found myself ordering my coffee in terms quite pronounced in volume and at a very slow pace: “I WOULD LIKE A COFFEE WITH MILK.” To which the barista opened her eyes quite wide and said in equally steady, heightened, and cheerfully mocking tones, ‘OK!’ And suddenly it hit me, that my experience teaching at other NYU global sites had been so fraught with linguistic challenges that my habits had prepared me for something that was no longer necessary. English is spoken here, and this has only highlighted for me the impact of language in travel and study abroad.

There is a flip side to this linguistic access English provides, however, that has become increasingly apparent to me. The access a shared language offers can often provide an illusion of understanding and assumptions of mutual intelligibility that are constantly falsified. Every custom, from tipping for a service to greeting a colleague, varies by culture. In some ways, a shared language lulls one into a false sense of familiarity, and part of what one learns in navigating this new city is how subtle social cues and meanings can be, how different. NYU London students, though several have come from non-native English speaking backgrounds, navigate all of the above from their unique backgrounds, now in a community of learning.

In addition to learning a new city, students are also, in a way, non-native speakers to the great philosophical works of the global tradition. Indeed, these works share with an unfamiliar city their strangeness and unintelligibility, their awe-inspiring visions and foreign demands. Indeed, their difficulty. In Social Foundations 1, LS students find themselves searching the unfamiliar terrain of the British Museum, hunting for specific material and cultural representatives of the time and geography of the book of Job, for instance, posing fundamental questions about human existence. Next semester we will read and then visit the actual Magna Carta. Again, we will attempt to bridge the distance between one of the remarkable origins of human rights ‘in the flesh’, and today’s much different world. In time, though, London itself will emerge as one of the great and inspiring works of human thought and imagination, right outside their door for an entire academic year.

Plato Road street sign

London corner that illustrates Plato never goes out of style.