Education, English Studies and the teaching of writing

12 Oct

I can’t say I am displeased with the interest shown here in the set of topics above. Look at the past seven days:

1. Julie Bishop’s third-hand knowledge of English teaching 92
2. This is not entirely about saving money. (Also about Bishop and education) 22
3. Comment editing (a spin-off from #1!) 21
4. Currently tracking 56.3 million blogs 14
5. Does the future belong to bloggers? 10
5000 Years Of Middle Eastern History 10

Thanks to all for the comments too. On such matters I refer you to my more professional site: English and ESL Pages.

Postmodernism for Year 12 Extension 1 2002. This is based on a site made for a class I taught that year when we were all struggling with the new HSC. The outcome, judged by results, was good. It was an interesting class too, because it was divided between pomo enthusiasts, who tended also to be studying Fine Arts, and died-in-the-wool classicists who were studying Latin and Ancient Greek. Sparks really flew some days! There are two pages on that site. At the end of the second one I wrote:

In the “Heckler” column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald James King thus describes a “responder” in the new NSW HSC English:

Jugglers can now get academic qualifications. Here’s what they can do in just 40 exam minutes:

–Provide a brief history of the past 400 years of productions and interpretations of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Be sure to include film adaptations and foreign language versions, and a variety of costume, lighting and set designs. Examine Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, modernist, post-modernist, Freudian, post-Freudian, colonialist, post-colonialist, orientalist and anarchist approaches – but mention others if you wish.
–Consider all these in the context of how meaning is shaped by texts.
–Write your answer in the form of postings to an Internet chat room. (Invent two contrasting characters who adopt different tones of voice.)
–When you have finished, go back through your work replacing the words “play”, “playwright” and “audience” with “text”, “composer” and “responder” respectively.
–Don’t quote the play in detail or discuss events and characters – you may run out of time.
–Do not mention Shakespeare – he is dead.

Relax. It’s easier than you think. Just throw in a few names like Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes and use the words “discourse” and “intertextuality” as often as possible. You need not know what any of it means.

There is quite a bit of truth in that. King wittily calls this “dumbing up”: All this is not exactly a dumbing down; it’s a dumbing up. It aspires to stupidity. Not that Derrida was stupid, or even that cereal box designers are. What is stupid is forcing young people to fake expertise in so many areas, instead of teaching them how to read something in depth.

I have called the course “overambitious”, and that is so too. Consideration of alternate ways of reading is OK in itself, but the focus does need to be on the texts, and the alternates considered only when what they yield is interesting. Teachers should not feel obliged to canvass a range of spurious readings merely to demonstrate some ideological fetish. There is a vast difference between genuine critical literacy and the pressure-cooked then half-digested travesty that now goes on.

Far more sensible is the approach of Canadian teacher W. F. Garrett-Petts. Writing about Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2000. Or Mastering Practical Criticism by Lindy Miller, Palgrave 2001. Some of the more abstruse literary theory may belong in a 3 or 4-Unit Course, but nowhere else surely. Let the kids read, albeit a little less naively than they may once have; and let teachers be far better informed about the theoretical issues in literary studies than they have been hitherto. That at least is a worthwhile by-product of the current HSC course, but the course itself and the way it is examined need to be carefully assessed.

The best move would be to make the gnomes in the Board of Studies answer their own questions!

Addendum March 2006

The diary page I just cited was also on Diary-X and has now vanished; however, I was able to retrieve this sequel.

On English teachers, my suggestion that they sit the exams themselves is not entirely facetious. I have seen such things done in the days when staff development was somewhat more generous, and it is a very chastening exercise. I once did this (quite a long time ago now) at Sydney Boys High. I was supervising an in-class assessment task and sat out the front doing it myself. I subsequently handed my answer (no name) in with the others and the Head of English (Alan Whitehurst) marked it. You will be pleased to know I scored 20/20.

A couple of years ago I attempted to answer a new-style task in order to provide a model for an ESL student I was helping. I wrote something halfway decent, but not in the time frame an examinee would have, and drawing on knowledge it would be totally idiotic to expect a student to have mastered in the time available — such as, in my case, an Honours degree in English and years of thinking about the concepts involved. The best most students can do, given their circumstances, is a reasonably coherent parroting of a mishmash of half-understood theories and inadequate “readings” in the light of those theories. There is not time, realistically, to properly absorb, say, King Lear and really explore various “readings” in order to assess what one really thinks of them. There is nothing wrong with the concept of multiple readings, but everything wrong with the truncated treatment they get in an HSC time-frame.

Very few teachers will have exposed themselves by trying to do what they expect students to do. I really do wish they, and the syllabus makers, would do just that.

Four years later I am more positive about the new syllabus, but still have those reservations about the time pressures. What do you think?

Go to the original page for links to some of the titles mentioned there.

Jim Belshaw has a daughter doing the HSC. He reflects on these matters here, and thanks, Jim, for what you said about the last site mentioned above. I have since deleted the distracting background!

Grumpy footnote

All the above, in contrast to the case of Julie Bishop and her claque of advisers, represents first-hand knowledge. You will note too that I have not edited out my shifting attitudes from early experience of the new courses to my more settled views today. I very strongly recommend The English Studies Book by Rob Pope for those wanting an intelligent overview of where English Studies stands today, and why.

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Posted by on October 12, 2006 in Aussie interest, Current affairs, Education, Jim Belshaw, News and Current Affairs, writing


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