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January 11, 2007

On Teaching: Ethan Pullman

“I always was interested in languages,” said Ethan Pullman, a University Library System reference and instruction librarian. But that simple statement only skims the surface of the places his interest has taken him.

The 40-year-old Palestinian native has spent 26 years in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in French at Youngstown State University before completing a master’s degree in library and information science at Pitt in 1998.

Pullman has worked in a number of positions throughout ULS since 1994, but put his love of language to work by taking on an additional role as a language instructor in his native Arabic.

Currently a PhD student in linguistics, he continues to take time to teach one evening section of Arabic I or II each semester through Pitt’s Center for Less Commonly Taught Languages.

“It’s difficult to do full-time plus teach,” he admitted.

Since he began teaching in 2000, he has seen Pitt’s Arabic classes grow from one class of six students to multiple sections, each with about two dozen students.

Initially, his classes were made up mainly of students from the Middle East who were looking for an easy class, but after 2001 attendance rose, with public policy students and others interested in working in government or learning more about Arabic language and culture signing up.

His ability to relate to foreign students and to empathize with students who are learning a new language has played a role in earning him high ratings by students on the web site, as well as several awards. Most recently, Pitt’s Fraternity & Sorority Life students named Pullman one of the winners of the organization’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. He also has received two awards for his work with the Pitt Engineering Career Access Program’s pre-college diversity initiative.

He’s especially touched by the accolades that come from his students.

“I’m very proud of my students and appreciate the feedback,” he said. “It’s a nice, great feeling. It makes you feel as if you’re someone making an impact.”

As a non-native English speaker, Pullman said he understands his students’ insecurities and fears about speaking a new language. He came to the United States when he was a teenager. Although his accent has diminished, he still sometimes has difficulty conjuring up figures of speech, and recounts how he sometimes mistook similar-sounding words such as “virgin” and “version.” Although he’s well educated, “As an English speller, I wouldn’t pass the spelling bee,” he admitted, noting that the different spellings for “cite,” “site” and “sight” still might trip him up on occasion.

Mistakes are okay, he tells his students. “You’re not going to look bad; you’ll look like you’re learning,” he said.

“I basically encourage my students to speak in class,” he said. “You have to make mistakes.”

Most of his students, typically ages 18-22, forget how they first learned language, Pullman said. “You have to be like a baby,” he said, practicing sounds, making mistakes. “They want to be able to write a book within a week.”

He urges them to practice and even holds regular sessions on Saturdays for those who want to brush up on their speaking and pronunciation.

“I use my Arabic (teaching) experience to influence the way I teach in the library and I use my library experience in what I teach in Arabic,” he said, noting that he uses tests and assignments that require feedback when teaching students how to do research. And he asks his Arabic students to go to the library for Arabic newspapers and advertisements. “I force them to go use some of these skills even though it’s only a language class,” he said.

In the library he teaches reference and information literacy and coordinates the program to orient international students to the library. Depending on the demographics of a particular year’s incoming international students, he may arrange for a librarian fluent in Chinese, or Japanese, if that’s the majority, to instruct the students.

Having been an international student himself, he understands that it’s quicker and less anxiety-producing to allow students to learn what they need to know about the library in their own language.

He also has surprised foreign students by his passing knowledge of a few words in many languages — enough to offer a greeting and make them feel more at home. If he’s able, he will offer library help in a student’s native language, both to put them at ease and to offer them a bit of privacy, he explained.

Pullman knows some Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Serbian, Russian and Cantonese Chinese and hopes soon to add Mandarin Chinese to his linguistic list.

He will be expanding his own international experience this semester as one of two ULS librarians chosen for a librarian exchange program in China. He plans to begin his six-week visit to China in late April. As a visiting scholar at the University of Nanjing Libraries he will present, in English, a variety of lectures on reference services and library instruction.

In his role as a teacher, Pullman tries to be accessible to his students. “Teaching them Arabic is one thing,” he said, but he also hopes to mentor them. He recounts that the meandering path to his current position included stints as a makeup artist and restaurant manager.

“I really explored,” he said, adding that he came from a family of teachers, but didn’t really consider it as a career until he began his library work. “In library instruction, you’re always teaching something,” he said.

He said he’s happy to talk with students about their studies and their career plans. “People draw on me beyond just my teaching experience because of my background,” he said. One student came to him at the crossroads of a decision on his next move: Whether to go to work, join the Peace Corps or sign up for Semester at Sea. Another, a student of international politics, sought practical advice on where in the Middle East he might have a good opportunity for international study.

“I tell them my opinion,” he said, noting that he’s not their academic adviser.

“When they see you as a human, not just as a teacher, they tend to seek you out,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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