Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


A question has been jangling in my head recently and keeping me awake at night.

Is the appreciation of literature really being taught?

I know at first glance the question seems self-evidently absurd. Of course the appreciation of literature can be taught. Otherwise why do we have all those English and other language departments and programmes in universities and colleges? And why do high-school teachers force Lord of the Flies,  The God Boy, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Whale Rider, The Old Man and the Sea, Man Alone, The Scarlet Letter into young and unwilling heads?

But think carefully about the question and you’ll see there is a real problem. If the appreciation of literature means responding perceptively to what authors have actually written, then is it really being taught?

Let me illuminate the problem by telling you what I know about a specific writer.

I’m quite knowledgeable about Elizabeth Gaskell and her novels. I know that she was not quite up there with classics like Dickens, George Eliot and Thackeray, but that she was an esteemed Victorian writer who has retained a considerable readership. I know that she is now much lauded by feminist academics because she gave a distinctly female account of early industrialised England. I know she wrote Mary Barton, Cranford, North and South, Wives and Daughters and other novels and short stories of small town, industrial town and domestic life; and I know that some of her work first appeared as serials in periodicals like Household Words and All the Year Round.

If you sat me down in front of a school exam question on Elizabeth Gaskell, or confronted me with an undergraduate essay topic on her, I’d be able to concoct a creditable answer. I could sagely discuss her themes – the circumscribed lives of women; the power of gossip; the  clash of older village ways with industrialisation in England’s “railway age”; the beginnings of wage slavery; class divisions between the squirearchy and the middle classes; the ties that bind small communities together and so forth. I could name her main characters, write accounts of them, and neatly précis her plots. I could even make some apt comments on her style and her tendency to focus on the minutiae of life. All this would be off the top of my head from what I already know. Give me spend and hour or two to look some reference material, and I’d do even better.

But here’s the rub. Although it pains me to admit it, and although I should be performing ritualised penance, I have never read a single word of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, even though three of her books sit on my shelves as I write this.

Having never got around to her, I have simply accumulated knowledge of her from other sources. These include passing references in general histories of literature; what I have heard other people say about her; enthusiastic recommendations from an Elizabeth Gaskell fan whom I knew some years back; and my having seen two BBC TV serial adaptations of her work – North and South and Cranford.

Everything I know about Elizabeth Gaskell is second-hand. My eyes have never travelled across the words she actually wrote and I’ve never experienced or assessed how she wrote.

Which brings me back to my original question – is the appreciation of literature really being taught?

After all, if the study of literature is supposed to be training our responses to the process of reading itself, to a particular writer’s style, and to the impact of the words on the page, then plot summaries, character studies, background sociological or biographical detail, what eminent critics have thought and the neat corralling of themes all have very little to do with it. Those things can be acquired without ever bothering to read whatever is supposedly being studied. They are a form of knowledge, but they are not an appreciation of literature.

I’m not exposing any obscure trade secret in noting this. The world is filled with high school students and perhaps a majority of BA students who have negotiated literature courses not by reading the set texts, but only by reading “study guides” on the model of the old Cole’s Notes or  Monarch Notes, or by accessing whatever Wikipedia and the ‘net have to say. Conning lecturer’s notes always helps, too. (Our Humanities departments are so constituted that it is always wise to flatter your lecturer’s opinions when you formulate your answers.)

Regrettably, these methods will often be the very ones that earn an A+. Real literature for adults is allusive, can be read on many levels, and does not often lend itself to simple interpretations of the sort that one dashes off against the clock in exam or term-paper conditions. The student who has dutifully ploughed through, puzzled over and personally responded to something compendious like Bleak House may well be at a disadvantage in comparison with the student who has memorised by heart ready-made phrases about style, plot, character, themes, historical significance and so forth. I have often enough been on the other side of the fence as a (secondary- and tertiary-level) marker, and I know that a forthright, organised, clearly-expressed, information-packed answer will usually trump a sincere but more tortuous answer. Clarity and a genuine personal response to a text are not mutually-exclusive. Yet the organised, clearly-expressed answer is more likely to be the parroted answer.

I am reminded of a true story Solzhenitsyn once reported. An official Soviet-era manual advised students not to bother reading Tolstoy or Dostoievsky, but just to read the summaries of their novels given in the manual. The books themselves would be too “confusing”. Soviet officials may well have had ideological objections to undiluted Tolstoy and Dostoievsky, with all their religious and non-materialist concerns. But the manual’s advice was a frank admission of the same process that is encouraged by our own pedagogy. I’m further reminded of how often, over the years, I have heard blowhards boasting that they won high grades in school and university courses just by memorising bits of a “study guide”. Usually this has been said to me as if it were a sign of the speaker’s extreme cleverness. In fact it merely references a game whose rules all teachers and academics fully understand.

There are some fairly obvious responses to what I am saying.

One would be to ask whether any of it matters. After all, if high school or tertiary students of literature are gaining credits in NCEA courses, or passing their examinations, then what does it matter how they acquired the relevant knowledge? This approach appeals to principals whose chief concern is making their schools look good in a competitive market (between schools, NCEA is just as competitive as older national examination systems were). It appeals equally to supervisors of tertiary academic programmes, whose funding relies on a successful through-put of as many students as possible. But it implicitly negates the whole reason for studying literature in the first place. It says that a real encounter with an author’s written words is less important than knowledge about those written words. Literature is reduced to useless data, encouraging many students to regard the whole concept with contempt and to avoid ever reading anything challenging again, once they have their degree or certificate.

Another response would be to point out that I am really talking about means of assessment rather the study of literature itself. What about those teachers who ask students to compile reading journals, or to compose personal and subjective responses to what they are set to read? What about those who devise tests and exercises that require recall of a text’s actual wording? What about seminars which challenge students’ understanding and discuss specific given passages of a text?

I concede that assessment of students is one of the main things that concerns me. I acknowledge, too, that the more advanced the level of study, the less easy it becomes to hide behind ready-made packages of other peoples’ summaries. Generally, high-school students and undergraduates can get away with it, but at the postgraduate level it is much harder. (Not that it is impossible, mind. And a little creative re-wording can usually circumvent the electronic guards that most universities now use to prevent outright plagiarism in students’ work.).

But I am still on firm ground when I note the prevalence of pretending to teach literature itself, while actually encouraging students to value facts and opinions about literature. Some years ago, as a conscientious high-school teacher, I used to read the “model” essays that were sent out to us as examples of the best students’ work in the old Bursary and Scholarship English exams. I became rapidly disillusioned as I noted how many of them could have been written without even opening the works that were supposedly being analysed. One such “model” essay, earning top marks, was a collection of well-ordered, clearly-expressed current clichés about the role of women in literature. It had only a peripheral relationship with the Virginia Woolf novel that it was ostensibly discussing. Doubtless the student who wrote it was a very intelligent 17-year-old (or Year 13) student. Doubtless, too, she had carefully memorised everything her teacher had told her. But she was not responding to literature. She was repeating something that had been squeezed out of literature before she got to it.

I could pile up the depressing anecdotes along these lines. I once met a high-school teacher at a training day who proudly circulated materials he gave his senior classes, telling them that “there are two ways to study a novel”. One was to read the novel. The other, which he recommended to his students as less laborious, was to watch a good film or television adaptation of the novel and then read a study guide. So much for encountering the words on the page. Then there was the lecturer who claimed that it was unimportant for him to read the works on which he lectured. All that mattered was that he knew the work’s cultural significance, its place in literary history and the chief critical arguments and controversies it had aroused. In effect, the lecturer gave second-hand opinions to his students who (unless they took the unusual expedient of doing their own reading) would eventually give him back third-hand answers.

And so on and so on.

In our senior national high-school Bursary and Scholarship English exams, there used to be a compulsory “unseen” question, in which students had to interpret a poem or piece of prose they were seeing for the first time. It was the one part of the paper that challenged them to demonstrate their own reading skills and perception, as opposed to regurgitating what they had been told. Of course it was eventually judged to be too hard for too many students, and ceased to be compulsory. So it was back to a paper which encouraged students to write what they had been told about literature, rather than what they had personally experienced of it. I am, however, encouraged that a similar “unseen” interpretation question is now part of NCEA exams.

As a teacher, one of my preferred forms of torture was to photocopy extracts from the novel my class was studying, and then make the students, under test conditions, identify where it came from, what it meant and what the passage displayed that was typical of the author’s style. Perhaps one day I will get around to reading Elizabeth Gaskell. I might then be able to answer such contextual quizzing about her. In the meantime, having not read  single word of hers, I am fully equipped to pass whatever standard test a standard literature course on her could throw at me.

I know at least as much as an A+ student would.


  1. Very true. I think this extends to a lot of subjects, not just literature.

  2. For sure, not limited to the Arts.

    In my final year at (a reputable, or so I'd like to think) University I took two post-grad Science papers - call them "X" and "Y" - both in the same field of Computer Science.

    In paper "X", the course was structured in a way that the impression I was left with was that plagiarism was encouraged. Assignments and exams had not changed year-on-year for a long time. The challenge above all else was to maintain one's own integrity - I did my best. The course seemed to be in "set and forget" mode and was basically run by disinterested MSc and PhD students.

    The other paper ("Y") was the toughest paper I have ever taken by a long shot. And the one I enjoyed and learned the most from during my studies by a long shot also. The teachers were involved and enthusiastic - they set students a robust engineering challenge and were genuinely interested in supporting student and in the results we produced.

    I gained marks of an A and a B- in papers "X" and "Y" respectively...

    Looking back, the situation revealed more than anything the difference that a teacher who is not only interested in their subject, but also in the prosperity of their students, can make.

    To be able to appreciate a piece of work, we have to see it through our own eyes, experience it, and form our own opinion. Only the individual can do this - it's not possible through rote learning of someone else's opinions and experiences. But we can all benefit from leaders who understand this and have the energy and enthusiasm to support their students on that level.

    Cheers Uncle, great blog!