Archive for the 'teaching' Category

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

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On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

On examinations, coursework and cheating

March 6, 2017

I was shocked last week to read an article which showed how widespread the practice of buying essays online, in order to boost one’s results, has become: it’s not a cheap route to success, but one that tempts many, and is very hard to detect. The issue is somewhat different from plagiarism, ie using material from other sources in your own work and not admitting it: both are definitely cheating and severely punished when found out. Plagiarism was becoming an issue towards the end of my teaching career, and there are, as far as I’m aware, programs capable of detecting it. Indeed, I detected some in my work in the classroom. And neither of these issues is going to go away, because the internet isn’t…

So how best, how fairest to assess performance in a subject like English Literature?

When I did A levels back in the 1970s, it was all examined, and the exams were all closed book (ie you had no texts with you in the exam room). It was hard work, and there was a lot of memorising of quotations, especially: it was to enable exams in the subject to be less memory-dependent, and to spend more time assessing other skills that alternative forms of assessment were devised and tried out. I remember, for instance, preparing students for open book exams, where a copy of the text, sometimes annotated, sometimes not, was allowed in the exam room. A number of problems immediately arose: some editions of a text had better or more copious textual and critical apparatus for weaker students to waste time looking up, and if annotation was allowed, then students – sometimes encouraged by teachers – stretched this to extremes, filling up every margin and blank page with notes and even essay plans… it couldn’t be policed and wasn’t fair.

When I first started teaching, there was far less unnecessary pressure on schools, teachers and students, and a system of 100% coursework seemed to work quite well, as long as moderating processes were adequate. For a while I was group chair of a local panel of schools where we met to moderate and standardise GSCE coursework grades in English Literature. It seemed a fairer system to me, allowing students to develop and demonstrate a far wider range of analytical and writing skills, and completely removing the memory test element. Research at the time also suggested that coursework enabled girls to do better. It’s easy to see potential problems with this system, and they became more and more serious as the educational ‘reforms’ of the bean-counters in the 1980s took effect. Dishonesty was hard to detect and eliminate: teachers could instruct students on what they should write; parents or older siblings could write the essays; extracts from critics and study guides could be copied into an essay in the hope of better marks. Sometimes this might be detected: a lot of the time it surely wasn’t. The advent of the web made this all far worse, as did increasing pressure by school management and OfSTED to produce results.

For most of my teaching career a combination of coursework and examination obtained: the advantages and disadvantages have already been outlined, but the balance between the two allowed a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills to be developed and assessed.

And now the pendulum seems to have swung back to where it was when I was at school: closed book exams. A number of issues come to the fore: league tables, and competition and comparisons between schools – the ‘market’ as it’s so quaintly called – demands ever higher results (grade inflation) when surely we should be aiming at the best for every student, and co-operation and sharing of resources and expertise between schools. This is compounded by the spread of ‘data collection’ where numbers and grades are perceived to be more important than a real understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses (professional judgement has gone out of the window) – how many ways are there to weigh a pig?

We do currently seem to have an education system that isn’t fit for purpose, partly because no-one’s sure of what the purpose is. We have a cumbersome exam system run by a number of competing commercial companies that pretend to be charities, who often cannot recruit enough properly qualified people to mark papers, while we have just increased the number of exams… I’ve often wondered how the French manage to get their baccalaureate marked and results out before the end of the summer term (which is earlier than ours…). And then there’s that major problem that got me started – the internet. If you can buy an essay, written to order, then you hand an advantage to the rich, and you have to turn the clock back to the exam room of forty years ago in the name of fairness. I did manage to memorise enough quotations from the eight texts I studied to help me get my grade ‘A’, but I’m not sure what good that memory test did me…

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

My A-Z of Reading: R is for Realism

December 9, 2016

The ability to superficially capture an exact and accurate image – a photograph, a film, a recording of any kind – seems to have created the idea that ‘realism’ is a thing, a ‘reality’ as it were, and one that is important, if not paramount, in many aspects of our culture. And yet, the ability to film or to photograph has not eliminated other kinds of representational art: they may have changed and developed in response to the new challenges, but they are still very much there.

And there is the unconscious expectation on the part of most people that literature shall pay tribute to the realist fallacy. (Here I must deliberately exclude science fiction and fantasy, which are, of course, minority interests anyway, in the greater scheme of things.) And we never really go on to ask ourselves what we want or expect from ‘realism’…

True to life? In how much detail? Do people clean their teeth, cut their toenails, wipe the kitchen worktops in novels? We ordinary mortals do such things most days… James Joyce had Leopold Bloom sitting on the toilet, reading and enjoying doing what one does there, in Ulysses, and shocked many people… realistic, though.

What I’m driving at is that ‘realism’ is in many ways a myth. I used to have fascinating discussions about this with students. Writers are creators and manipulators: they choose situations, characters, events to write about, they choose storylines, they leave out and include stuff as they see fit, because the novel or story is theirs, created by them… and we must take it or leave it. Think of the times you have reached the end of a story and thought, “But they can’t leave it like that!” or “That’s the wrong ending!” or just “No!” Why not? Characters may act in physiologically or psychologically plausible and true-to-life (whatever that means) ways, but so much is not done, not said, not included.

When we move back in time – let’s say, for the purposes of illustration the time of Shakespeare – things become both clearer and less clear. Students were prone to exclaiming that such or such train of events ‘wasn’t realistic!’ in any number of his plays. And they were right. Once it was pointed out to them that ‘realistic’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, that audiences didn’t have the same expectations as us, things made more sense to the students: what Shakespeare was interested in showing his audience was certain characters in certain situations, how they behaved, and the consequences of their actions. And to do that, the situations didn’t need to be narrowly ‘realistic’. Thus, Othello is about sexual jealousy and its corrosive effects, which we know in our minds can lead to violence. That the time-scheme of the play seems to suggest Othello becoming insanely jealous within a day or two of his marriage, and suspecting Desdemona of committing adultery a thousand times in that time-frame, is neither here not here; if we waste our time thinking about such details we miss the point of the play, and the dramatist’s greatness…

Story – novel or play, film or TV show – is largely about manipulation of the reader or audience, for certain effects, and we are aware of and complicit in that manipulation to a greater or lesser extent, or completely unaware of it, because we crave the escape, the emotional stimulation, the excitement or whatever the writer or director is offering us. And thinking about what’s actually going on – as I’ve tried to outline above – can enhance our experience and enjoyment.

My A-Z of Reading: O is for Open Book

December 5, 2016

Should an examination be a test of memory, or of a student’s broader ability to apply knowledge and understanding? When I took exams in literature at school and at university many years ago, you were not allowed texts in the exam room. This meant that, as well as knowing the texts thoroughly, and the issues they raised that examiners might ask you to write about, you also had to memorise quite considerable quantities of quotations from those texts in order to support and justify your analysis. How useful was that ‘memory test’ part of my degree qualification, for instance?

When it came to the examination for my masters, I met the ‘take-away’ exam, courtesy of Lancaster University English Department. You took away the exam paper and came back a fortnight later to hand in your four essays; you’d had the time to re-read any text, any critic, plan, draft, write and re-write your essays, and the examiners knew that and expected and marked accordingly. No memory test there, but a serious test of one’s ability to analyse, theorise and evidence, as well as think originally.

When I first started teaching there was 100% coursework in both English Language and Literature; that worked for a while, but depended on committed and conscientious teachers, and there was too much temptation – pressure perhaps, particularly where parents were paying for results – to game the system. So that went, sadly. Incidentally, since those days, I have no personal evidence that students’ results are globally any better or worse. And once again, students were being graded on their ability to understand, to analyse and to evidence.

In came open-book exams: invigilated, timed sessions, but students could have their set texts with them; no memory test, but a test of understanding, analysis, and ability to evidence. Such a system had its downside: weaker students in particular saw the text as a crutch, a prop, and tended to spend far too much time searching for quotations instead of writing for marks. A copy of a text was no substitute for textual knowledge. And again, teachers were pressured to play the system: annotation was allowed, and how much was too much annotation? Who was going to police this? Students ended up with every available inch of their text crammed with notes and essay plans; weaker ones again spent too much time accessing these and not enough time writing.

So we came to the era of clean texts: schools had to spend money buying and storing sets of books to be kept solely for exam use, and again, quis custodiet? So everything came full circle and we are now back at the era of memory tests once again: learn the quotations your teacher tells you, and, if you are a weak student, try and cram every one in to your essay, whether it fits or not.

One of the greatest flaws of the English education system, I felt, during my time as part of it, was the amount of time spent chopping and changing and re-inventing the wheel: students were never served by this; teachers weren’t either, so who was? Exam boards, publishers, consultants all made a mint. And nobody really answered the question: what, exactly, are we trying to assess in a literature exam, and what is the best way to do this?

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