Senior Lecturer in Thai Language and Studies
Sanuk!’ exclaims Dr Martin Seeger in response to my question of ‘Which particular Thai word sums up your time at Leeds?’
Translated into English, this means ‘fun’, and for Martin, working within the discipline of Thai language and culture studies at Leeds is more fun than he could have ever imagined.
Having enjoyed both a varied monastic and academic career, Martin was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1997 for three years in Chiang Mai, Thailand before returning to his home country of Germany to complete his MA and PhD in Hamburg. He then embarked on a teaching career at Leeds: ‘I had never even been to an English speaking country before! For the first couple of years I was building up Thai studies virtually on my own, though I of course received valuable help from other East Asian Studies staff, in terms of creating a course structure’.
Fluent in the language by that point, Martin felt that a native speaker was needed to cope with the growing demand for Thai studies and so a Thai teaching fellow was soon appointed.
This left him free to branch out further into sharing his enthusiasm for teaching about Thailand through history and culture modules focusing on his expert field of Buddhism. This further enabled students to truly absorb and reflect on ‘history and ideologies in connection with Thai-ness’, noting the Level 2 module he developed Thailand: The Emergence of a Nation State as a case in point.
Martin himself has acquired a vast body of significant research - with the aid of a grant from The British Academy and other funding bodies - within the field of twentieth century Thai history. In particular, that of the religious practice and veneration of female practitioners in Buddhism, most recently with specific attention on Khunying Yai Damrongthammasan, a female practitioner who arguably was the author of a key Buddhist treatise that was previously accredited to a (male) high-ranking monk. So momentous are his findings that the BBC recently reported on his discoveries (see link below).
Recalling the investigation process, he remembers: 'In Thailand, we even found two people who had met her, who were still alive. They were extremely consistent in their recollections of her, considering we only had oral transmissions from people who were over eighty years old! We cross-checked information with evidence from monks in other biographies, interviewed numerous people and analysed the text itself. By putting all this together we became convinced she is the author of this particular text which is one of the most profound texts of all in Thai Buddhist literature, which is what makes this research so exciting!’
Certainly a huge milestone for a discipline that has only been relatively recently established within the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, and Martin hopes to publish a book on the topic within the next year.
“I helped build up Thai Studies from scratch…
It is so rewarding to work with the students”
‘I am one of the people who advocate having a Year Abroad (YA) in the second not the third year’, he declares matter-of-factly. Does the YA in Chiang Mai bring about any visibly tangible changes in students of Thai?
‘Of course… the students become much more mature, and their log-books reflect their exciting and interesting journeys. They return speaking Thai fluently and with lots of valuable insights into Thai society and culture; they have also had a chance to develop ideas and pursue networks that they want to follow up in the future.’
Why choose Chiang Mai as the YA destination, as opposed to the capital Bangkok? ‘I was a monk in Chiang Mai and was close with humanities professors there. It has everything: cultural diversity, hill tribes, easy access to China and Burma… Furthermore it can take you two hours to escape Bangkok whereas in Chiang Mai, you get on a bus and in 10 minutes you’re in the countryside!’
In the classroom, being a tri-lingual husband-and-wife team along with Thai native Ning undoubtedly ensures a motivating environment within which to study the language. Martin focuses on Buddhism and culture whereas Ning’s language teaching focuses on, amongst other things, interactive role-plays, use of media clips and a ‘language banker’ method whereby a student is responsible for finding fifty new words each week and ‘banking’ them by actively finding examples of them in use outside of class. ‘We use different strategies in order to enthuse students, which is important when you’re studying a different, difficult language for four years!’
In terms of Martin’s future projections for Thailand, he has many high hopes for his Leeds graduates. ‘In the West there is still a very narrow view of Thailand, it’s much more than just beaches and food. There is enormous diversity and so our students get beneath the surface of these clichés and stereotypes. There is a very exciting culture, much to explore and to discover.’
With Martin Seeger guiding the next generation of Leeds Thai speakers and aficionados, you can be sure that they are going to dig much deeper than the average Thai green curry fanatic. Sanuk indeed!
Words: Victoria Leigh/Photos: Martin Seeger
Martin’s interview with the BBC can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21936656
Pages in this document
- Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Sullivan
- Student spotlight: Aleksander Jablonski
- Staff Spotlight: Li Ruru
- Alumni spotlight: Grace Robinson
- Staff Spotlight: Dr Martin Seeger
- Student Spotlight: Billy Harrington-Roberts
- Alumni Profile: George Walker
- Staff Profile: Kazuki Morimoto, Senior Teaching Fellow in Japanese
- Student Spotlight: Laurence Newbery-Payton
- And finally...