By Susan Bruce
It is a great educational paradox that the nature of one of the UK’s key subjects is both ill-defined and poorly understood. What counts as ‘English’ is contested at all levels, from arguments about the literacy hour at primary level, through the relative importance of English Language and English Literature at GCSE level, to the introduction of a new A Level in Creative Writing, and the ‘confirmatory consultations’ recently conducted over the reform of AL and GCSE English syllabi.
What ‘English’ is, then, carries a good deal of political freight, with powerful interests coming down on either side in various debates. Different versions of the subject get pitted against each other in often unhelpful ways: the Russell Group, for instance, includes English Literature but not English Language in its suite of ‘facilitating subjects’, a decision which may have unseen consequences for boys, who more frequently elect to do the former (English Lit, on the other hand, is increasingly a female pursuit, at undergraduate level at least). It would seem unlikely that Creative Writing will be embraced as a facilitating subject: ‘it’s more like performing arts or media’ one Russell Group academic pronounced at a recent conference on the new A Levels, a perception which might also have sociological consequences if the Creative Writing AL finds a more welcoming embrace in the classrooms of Further Education colleges than it does in those of the top public schools.
Underlying all these hierarchies are various other presuppositions: that English Literature is harder or more rigorous than English Language or Creative Writing (a perception not necessarily shared by students of those versions of ‘English’ in HE); or that English Literature alone exposes the student to a Great Tradition of the best that has been thought and said: such Leavisite, Arnoldian assumptions, and the models of authority which accompany them, still inhabit recent consultatory documents issuing from the Department for Education. But this begs the question of what it is that English Literature teachers and students really do in their HE English Literature classes, and whether the nature of that enterprise changes radically according to who we teach and what we teach them. Is a lecturer teaching Paradise Lost at a Russsell Group university really doing something qualitatively different from a lecturer holding a seminar on Usula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea in an inner-city new university? Of course, there may be local differences between individual approaches, even different pedagogies or attitudes to the canon: most people would teach a class of five differently than they would one of thirty-five, and these two hypothetical teachers might hold very different views about what should count as the object of inquiry in an ‘English’ degree. These local differences aside, however, are there fundamental differences in what the students learn to do with these texts in their respective seminars when they study them? And second, if sociological factors such as gender, race and class effect the choices students make at A Level (English Literature at HE level is now a largely white, middle-class discipline, as well as a female one) how do such factors manifest themselves in classrooms where students from different backgrounds encounter the methods and approaches of ‘our’ discipline?
With the help of educationalists, I’ve been pursuing these questions though a novel method, videotaping English Literature seminars in institutions with very different cultures, student bodies, and access to resources, trying to uncover what exactly is taught and learned in UK HE English degrees so as to delve a little deeper into some of the old, often theoretical, questions that beset the discipline of ‘English’. Take canonicity and the canon debates, for instance. Is it true, as some critics would have it, that what we study is of such fundamental importance that it trumps almost everything else, and that the cultural landscapes in which we situate those artefacts generate qualitatively different kinds of knowledge (‘it does not do to compare just anything with anything, no matter when and no matter where’ as Jean-Marie Carré put it in 1951). Or is there no such thing as a ‘legitimate’ comparison? Could a student from a middle-ranking university who juxtaposes a contemporary selection of short stories with the Roger’s Profanisaurus someone gave her for her birthday which she ‘just reads when [she’s] bored’ be pursuing an interpretative strategy as intellectually sound, and as potentially productive of meaning as the student from a prestige institution who compares an Old English text with an early modern portrait hanging in his college picture gallery? What is more important, the artefacts we compare with each other, or the act of comparing them? Or, to take a different example, are the strategies we utilise equally available to students who may hail from very different environments, arriving at HE with different habiti, and very different concepts of what is of value. Close reading, for example, however contested it has been in the past, remains a strategy intrinsic to the pedagogical landscape of English Literature. It’s a strategy that presupposes open-endedness, and values the sense of a proliferation of meaning, countering presumptions of singular and immediate legibility and troubling convictions of an accessible, and finite, bottom line. How comfortably does that strategy, and the values it implies, sit with students inducted into HE via an instrumentalist ethos that valorises instead measurement, quantification, particular kinds of transparency and the apprehension of immediately visible and demonstrable educational and economic outcomes and bottom lines?
My research juxtaposes theoretical questions about English Literature with real, mundane, day to day classroom discussions, and draws the conclusion that the apparently inconsequential minutiae of what happens in the course of the seminar discussion can tell us a good deal about what we do, about how we do it, and, importantly, why it matters.
Susan Bruce is Professor of English and Head of the School of Humanities at Keele University. Her publications include Three Early Modern Utopias (Oxford World’s Classics, 1999), King Lear: A Reader’s Guide (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and, with Valeria Wagner, Fiction and Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). She is the author of the paper ‘Money Talks: Classes, Capital, and the Case of Close Reading in a seminar on The Merchant of Venice’, which examines the way in which University English is ‘produced’ through ordinary seminar discussions occurring across the diverse range of UK Higher Education Institutions. It is published in the journal English.
English is an internationally known journal of literary criticism, published on behalf of The English Association. Each issue contains essays on a wide range of authors and literary texts in English, aimed at readers within universities and colleges and presented in a lively and engaging style.
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Image credit: Teenage students studying in classroom. By monkeybusinessimages, via iStockphoto.