Friday, 29 June 2012

Re. Time the 'scum' rose to the top

Plashing Vole has once again posted one of those blogs which tends to make me leap up from my chair with rather inelegant enthusiasm.  With typical passion, he decries the attitude of 'The Hegemon' - that Old Etonian and Oxbridge Mafiosi that so dominate our political processes - towards Higher Education for the working classes.  Their definition of this as 'social engineering' he compares to descriptions of "grim young people" and "scum" made by affronted members of the cultural aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, and the answer to this cultural snobbery is to develop a passion and " a sense of belonging to an intellectual community".

As ever, it is difficult to find anything to disagree with here - and much to be passionately enthusiastic about.  However (as I am sure I have mentioned before) I do feel a concern for the way in which higher education for 'the masses' is being marginalised and shoe-horned into an academic cul-de-sac which takes away their voice and their ability to participate constructively in the social process beside merely supporting the established frameworks.

Of course, such views are enormously influenced by Paulo Freire's seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed (a book which remains as relevant as ever in a time when educational policy is being pushed further and further to the centre of the ideological conservatism of this current government.  Conservatism has always been stereotypically concerned with the preservation of privilege, but it remains a constant source of amazement to me that the inherently aristocratic values of this current government can be so deeply rooted in a discredited social history in today's 'enlightened' age.  Indeed, if anything our current political leaders are as aristocratically entrenched now as they have ever been - and although there are complex variations of how 'aristocracy' can be defined today, the medieval one works just as well as any.  Our political leaders are still staggeringly dominated by a bunch of privileged men who all went to the same schools and the same Universities:

Of course, in order for this political bourgoisie to maintain their domination, they need to marginalise the masses that might otherwise threaten them. This threat had become very real after the end of two world wars, which saw the population of the educated rich decimated and a national dependence on the working classes in order to defend itself.  Necessity meant that new doors of social opportunity had to be opened to those previously denied entry.  With the end of the second world war though, a new class struggle emerged as the 'Hegemony' attempted to close those doors again and restore (as far as possible) the social status quo of pre-1914 (Alan Sinfield's book Literature, Culture and Politics in Postwar Britain provides an excellent overview of this).  The working classes had been given a glimpse of education and opportunity for as long as the hegemony needed them, but the moment the conflict had ended a battle ensured to 'put them back in their place'.  The result was frustration, disappointment, and a rage which so characterised the writing of lower-middle and working-class writers like those Plashing Vole mentions: Wain, Braine, Kingsley Amis, Osborne.

John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger is a powerful illustration of this.  It's anti-hero Jimmy is an educated working-class man married to the upper-middle class Alison.  It is a marriage which had perhaps at one time seemed like a new dawn, and a broadening of horizons for both of them.  Things do not quite work out as intended though, and Alison is preparing to leave the marriage and retreat to the snobbish safety of her bourgeois family.  It is a symbolic attempt to return to a social order of the past, marginalising both Jimmy and everything he stands for.  It is the disappointment of this, and the frustration, which so enrages him.

Of course in reality the educational vacuum left by two world wars needed to be filled, and following a White Paper in 1966 there emerged a new player in the Higher Education game: The Polytechnic.  These institutions were designed to build what Antony Crossland described as a "binary system" of education: With Universities on the one hand teaching all their traditional subjects, and Polytechnics and FE Colleges on the other teaching more technical and vocational subjects.  This seemed to solve the problem nicely: It provided a classic two-tier system of education, so that education could be made more available to the 'masses' while preserving the distinctions of an education which had been traditionally reserved for the wealthy.

Polytechnics provided higher education for a much broader social spectrum, but that spectrum were never in any real doubt that a Polytechnic education was qualitatively inferior to a University education.  As one former student testified: "when I was a student in the late 80's - poly's were institutes of further education for people who were not 'clever' enough to pass to get into proper unis".

In 1992 the apparent distinction between Polytechnic and University education appeared to be eradicated by the Further and Higher Education Reform Act.  This act led to the awarding of University status to many of the more established Polytechnics, and the negative response by many told us much about the ways in which the 'binary' divide was as much political as it was educational.

Mary Warnock (degree in Philosophy, University of Oxford) bemoaned the potential loss of "the vocational role of the former polytechnics".  In other words, polytechnics were there to teach people she described as a "technical workforce" how to do a job (that job presumably being how to keep her boiler working, and how to install her telly).  Giving these 'oiks' access to things like Philosophy and a University degree status would simply take away the sheen of elitism enjoyed by the few, leaving that endangered species with "nothing left to do except cherish and preserve what pockets of excellence remain, whether in scholarship, in pure science or in the applications of science".

Presumably these 'pockets' she referred to could be found at places like her own St. Swithins or Eton schools - and, of course, the Universities which these private schools fill more than any other: Oxford and Cambridge. In truth, she needn't have worried.  Twenty years on, these new Universitied 'oiks' have done little damage to those pockets of elitism, and fortunately none of them have any real say in government (with the exception of Leeds Poly graduate Eric Pickles).  Of the 23 members of the Cabinet, 65% were educated at Oxford or Cambridge universities. 30% of them actually did the same degree at Oxford:

  • David Cameron,  Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • David Willets, Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford
  • William Hague, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Jeremy Hunt, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Phil Hammond, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Chris Huhne, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Danny Alexander, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford 
  • Nick Clegg, Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge
  • Theresa May, Geography at Oxford
  • George Osborne, Modern History at Oxford
  • Andrew Mitchell, History at Cambridge
  • Owen Paterson, History at Cambridge
  • Ken Clarke, Law at Cambridge
  • Vince Cable, Economics at Cambridge
  • Michael Gove went to Oxford, but nobody really seems to know what he did there. He may have just been on holiday.
It is even more frightening when you realise that many of those not educated at Oxford or Cambridge still attended private schools.

So what has happened?  If the 1992 Act was intended to eradicate the binary divide between widening participation institutions like Polytechnics and Universities, why is our government as elitist as ever?

Part of the reason might be that even today many of those post-1992 Polytechnics are still being referred to as 'new' Universities, and seen as offering a distinct brand of Higher Education which distinguishes it from the elite 'pockets of excellence'.  They are still seen to have a primarily vocational and technical agenda.  As a lecturer delivering Higher Education in an FE College, I can certainly testify to the fact that ours is a context in which we are expected to deliver vocational awards - awards developed in partnership with employers for whom we might therefore provide a stream of qualified "technical workforce".

The government have helped us out in this respect, systematically reducing funding for arts and humanities degrees (like those studied by members of the government) in favour of 'technical' courses.  In 2010 the Guardian expressed fears that this would mean arts and humanities degrees become "the preserve of wealthy students" - and in effect this seems to have been the case.  Last year London Met announced plans to close as many as 240 degree courses, and the majority of those seemed to be arts and humanities subjects.  It is possible to envisage a time when only the wealthy graduates of Universities like Oxford and Cambridge will have the opportunity to study things like Philosophy or History.

And here is the point.  It is these subjects which invite students to question things.  It is these subjects which encourage students to analyse the ideologies which underpin the social fabric which surrounds us.  It is these subjects which encourage students to look at the way in which their lives are politically or socially shaped, and to imagine alternatives.  More technical or vocational subjects, the value of which I am not disputing, cannot really be said to spend much time on questions about ideologies and values. They are the academic cul-de-sac which I fear: The production-line of graduates who are only really educated to perform one commercial  task, with little or no flexibility and even less in terms of empowerment.

As Freire argued, if you want to protect the Hegemony, the best thing to do is to prevent the masses from learning how to question it. My making arts and humanities subjects available only to the wealthy, the wealthy protect themselves from scrutiny, from challenge and from rebellion.  Matthew Arnold argued in 1869 that "[p]lenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses" and the idea that technical or vocational subjects are the only ones 'proper' for widening participation HEIs seems to reflect this cultural elitism.  For all his faults (and his patronising brand of cultural authoritarianism was certainly a fault) Arnold was someone who was "not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man" - what the elite had, he wanted the masses to have too.

This year I have seen graduates walking away from the FE College I work in bearing excellent degrees that they have sweated blood to achieve, against obstacles which my own middle-class background finds it hard to imagine. More than that though, I have seen them walking away not satisfied. I have seen them walking away angry. Angry about cultural marginalisation. Angry about media and political manipulation. I have seen them walk away believing that things (even - indeed perhaps especially - their lecturers) could, and should be better.  I have seen them ready to talk about it, and eloquent in doing so. And I do not think they are remotely less employable for it.

Their studies may not be responsible for this, but it has encouraged it. These students reflect the opposite spectrum of society to that which is reflected by their government.  The more of them there are, and the more vocal they become, the more they will form an intellectual community of their own capable of offering that challenge and rebellion the Hegemony fear.

My hope is that when I retire, degrees will still be taught at the College I work in - but they will not be taught by people like me. They will be taught by people like those who are graduating now. The curriculum will be theirs, and then who knows: Perhaps one day, so will the government.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Shklovsky, Locke, Fatherhood and the problem of metaphors in the classroom

One of the things I like most about teaching is the fact that so often it seems to rely upon a spontaneous creativity.  Spontaneous creativity is my favourite kind because it is both fun to do / be and yet at the same time you are not likely to be held accountable for it.  A poet or a painter cannot be spontaneously creative because their act of creativity will exist in (if you'll excuse the metaphor) concrete form, and people will be able to examine it and criticise it's internal rhyme or it's use of colour.  Spontenous creativity can be pretty naff with nobody minding - and pretty naff creativity is my speciality.

While there are many ways a teacher can be creative, the most common kind of creativity which I experience in a classroom is that of forming similes and metaphors to explain ideas. The trouble is, the older I get (or is it the younger my students get? I'm sure I was never that young when I was at University) the less effective my similes and metaphors become. The ways in which I explain things is becoming redundant - and I need a solution.

The scenario

Any teacher reading this will doubtless recognise the scenario:

You are attempting to explain something. Let's say, for example, Viktor Shkolvsky's idea that 'art' is all about making things strange (this idea, for those who don't know it, is that life is so full of routine that we end up not even noticing its passing. The purpose of Art is to make things look strange - less routine - and thereby to force us to notice them).  To help explain this idea, you give Shkolvsky's own example of Tolstoy forgetting whether he had dusted a divan, and then look out at a sea of blank faces which express so eloquently the fact that your students have:

  • no idea who Tolstoy was,
  • no idea what a 'divan' is,
  • no idea why anyone would be dusting one,
  • no idea what you are talking about, or why.

Faced with such incredulity you realise that the only way to make ammends, and to help your students understand Shklovsky's point, is to provide them with a new example; something which doesn't depend on an intimate knowledge of early twentieth century Russian furniture.  So you might refer to people who work next door to St. Paul's Cathedral, and become so used to walking past it several times a day that they haven't actually noticed it for years.

Some faces are now registering a mild interest which suggests they have got the point, but still think it's a little stupid.  Others are sporting the wavy-line-smile of someone who gets it, is processing it, and working out if it is something they can 'buy into'.  There are still some though, creasing their foreheads and holding their pens in that rigid stationary position which declares 'the pen only moves when I have any clue what the heck you are on about'.

So, you need to come up with another example. And another. And another. Using whatever imagery you can think of that they might be able to relate to. Encouraging other students to come up with their own examples. Using pictures, props, gestures, stories - anything at all until you hit on the one image which prompts that magic 'oooohhhh!' of dawning understanding.

This is, of course, entirely normal.  When John Locke wanted to explain his ideas about human understanding in 1695 he used the image of the tabula rasa, or 'blank slate'.  Then, just to be sure, he used the alternative example of the 'empty cupboard' - perhaps in the assumption that there would be some readers more familiar with cupboards than with Latin.

Examples like this work well because they take a theoretical idea, and make it relate to real life experiences.  It takes something metaphysical and complex and describes it in terms of things which are domestic and manageable.  However, just like Locke's tabula rasa and Shklovsky's divan, such similes and metaphors carry a shelf life.

For example, I used to describe experimental research as like fitting a loft arial for your television set, and trying to determine whether the poor picture is the result of the arial position or not by moving it around while some distant accomplice yells progress reports from the living room.  I was always rather proud of this image. I thought it explained it rather well, and on the odd occasion it could even be entertainingly illustrated with a portable TV, a long arial wire and a couple of volunteers.

The problem

Trouble is, the last time I tried to use the TV arial idea, I opened with my tried-and-trusted line "so, who here has ever had to fit a loft arial...?"

No one.  Not one.  Cable and Satellite TV have ruined a perfectly good simile.

This is an increasingly common experience.  Things which always used to work so well, have become the educational equivalents of conversation-stoppers.

  • "It's like that scene in Toy Story..."
  • "Remember when New Labour came to power in '97...?"
  • "As Cpt. Jack Sparrow might say..."
  • "Literary theory is a little like a Woolworth's pick'n'mix..."
  • "Gilray was the 18th-century equivalent of Spitting Image..."
  • "It's a bit like the difference between a C64 and a ZX81, you know...?"

Tumbleweed rolls accross the classroom floor. Which is fine because since none of my students have seen a Western I seem to be the only one who gets the joke. Or who understands the poignant pathos of a teacher suddenly realising they have lost their tenuous connection with the cultural lives of those they teach.

And so...

Of course there are some things which will always be available.  Both parents and non-parents, for example, like a good story about children being cute/naughty/loud/smelly, and so fatherhood has been a great source of new classroom illustrations (although, I hasten to add, this is not the sole reason I became a father).

But that same fatherhood means that most of the films my students are talking about are ones which I will probably not see for another eighteen years. That same fatherhood means that most of the programmes they watch on TV begin after I have already collapsed, exhausted and unconscious, into my bed.  I don't know who Nick Hewer is, what Riley said to Mitzee, or what Sacha Baron Cohen's new film is about.

I don't talk the cultural language of my students any more.  Instead, I wear perpetually the bemused smile my father wore every time I enthused to him about Indiana Jones, The A-Team and the joy of acquiring sticker no. 237 for my Football '85 sticker-book.

It seems there is nothing else for it.  From now on in I need to try and learn how (like a museum guide) to make my archaisms relevant.  I need to lean less heavily on contemporary illustrations and more on generic parables.  I need to reluctantly relinquish (like an old coat) one of my favourite educational tools, and (like an old dog) muddle my way through to learning some new tricks.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

Study Tips: Let your browser make you study better

There are so many books and websites now all clamouring to offer advise on how to study more effectively.  The 'top dog' of study skills guides is Stella Cottrell's The Study Skills Handbook, which is a fantastically comprehensive compendium beautifully laid out and packed with resources, questionnaires and exercises which are genuinely helpful (and not just padding).

Of course one of the problems with any books on study skills is that print is a fairly static genre.  This does not make anything in a print text like Cottrell's irrelevant, but the reality is that most students (in fact, most of us anywhere) do most of their work now online: They read online, they research online, they write online, submit their work online and eventually check out their grades online before organising a post-submission party. Online.

I have already written about the potential value of using smartphones for study, but actually there is a piece of kit which we use far more intensively for study, and that many of us never even think about.  I am talking about the web browser.

I have spent quite a lot of time talking to students about web browsers over the last few years, and am surprised that still the majority of students are not clear about the different between a browser and an operating system - let alone the benefits and disadvantages of one browser over another.  I don't want to go into all the details about what an operating system is here (read my earlier blog if you want to see my explanation of this).  Right now it is enough to know that whatever computer you are using - whether it is a Windows machine, an Apple machine or Linux - that you need a specific program in order to browse the internet.
The vast majority of computers come with the Windows Internet Explorer browser pre-installed, and of the countless students I have spoken to on this issue a significant majority tend to simply use this without even realising there are alternative options.  Indeed, for many of those students the famous 'e' internet explorer logo (above) is simply the button you press for the internet.

As with so many things, the market dominant that Internet Explorer has enjoyed has largely meant that the program has not really needed to make an effort.  A review of browser performances over the last few years have consistently shown that Internet Explorer is the weakest of the leading browser developers: It is the slowest, the most cumbersome and the least flexible.  A Lifehacker report from Feb, 2012 showed that Internet Explorer came a distant third to its three main rivals, Chrome, Firefox and Opera:

  1. Chrome: 69%
  2. Firefox and Opera: 63.2%
  3. Internet Explorer: 48%

Each of these browers will effectively do the same job.  They are a means by which you can access websites, follow internet links, bookmark pages, and so on.  There are differences in terms of the interface which means that each one looks slightly different, but to be honest those differences are purely aesthetic and most people who use the internet regularly should have no problem adapting to a different browser. Internet Explorer is clearly the worst of them, so a decision about which is the best one to use will probably focus on the top three: Chrome, Firefox and Opera.

Now I know what I should really be doing is offering an objective appraisal of these four browsers in terms of what they can offer an enthusiastic student.  However, I'm not.  I am going to be gloriously biased and say what I think is the best, and try to persuade you to agree with me.

There are two reasons why I prefer Firefox.

1)  Firefox is good for you.  

Firefox is developed by the not-for-profit group Mozilla, and is dedicated to defending the freedom of information on the web.  It's mission is about inclusion and openness.  With the best will in the world, the same cannot be said for the others. Indeed, if one were to hazard a guess at the mission for Google, it might be something like 'we know where you live, and want to control every aspect of your lives'.

If the fact that Chrome slightly outperforms Firefox still bothers you (and you are feeling rather brave), then you can always follow some fairly simple 'tweaks' to make Firefox just as fast - if not faster.

2)  Firefox can be tailored expressly to suit the way you work.

Now we get to the nub.  So much learning today is done through the web browser that for many of us - with the exception of those moments when we are using a word processor to write our essays - almost out entire digital experience might well be channelled through the browser interface.

Firefox offers a huge array of 'add-ons', which are effectively additional functions which you can 'plug' into your browser.  These can be anything from an extension which blocks all the adverts in websites you visit, to a handy button which opens up your task lists or calendar, to an extension which enables you to post things on Facebook or Twitter with a simple tap of the right-hand button on the mouse.  In addition, you can tailor the look and feel of the browser to suit your mood - from the streamlined and minimal, to the bold and the colourful.

Installing addons is a simple business.  Simply go to the 'Tools' menu option at the top of the browser, and select 'Add-ons'.  Go to the 'search' bar and type in what you want the browser to do, and an arrange of possible add-ons will appear.  To install one, simply click the 'install' button!    You may need to re-start your browser afterwards, but otherwise it really is that simple!  If you want to see the whole process, the video below which shows you how to download Firefox and install the Zotero add-on.

Some fantastic add-ons which can help your studies

There are countless different options which you might want to try which could help you work and study better.  I cannot list them all here - and even the ones I am going to list are suggestions only.  The trick with maximising your work online is to try things out for a while, see if they are useful or not.  If not, then try something else!

1)  Integrated Calendar

Organisation is a key aspect of any project or learning process.  You need to keep a careful track of your deadlines and manage your tasks effectively.  If, like me, you make use of a free online email account like GMail, Hotmail or Yahoo, then your mail account will have an inbuilt calendar which you can use.  You may even have a 'task list' built in as well.  This is all very well if you have your mail open all day, but an integrated calendar add-on can mean that your calendar is linked directly to your browser.  I use the Integrated Google Calendar, which means that at the click of a button in my browser a pop-up window will show my calendar, and my tasks.  Reminders about events or tasks will show up as alarms as well.  This has been a very effective way of helping me manage my tasks sensibly and keeping me organised.  Of course there are other specialised options, like Todoist, which offer more specific task management functions - again, the trick is to find the one that works for you.

2)  Zotero

Ok.  Imagine this.  Imagine that when you are trawling through the internet looking for sources.  You find one you like.  At the click of a button you can save all the bibliographic details of that source - if it is an online journal, you can save the full text of the article as well.  Within your browser, you can organise your sources into different categories.  You can add notes for any of them and cross reference them.  When you come to write your essays, you can simply select all the relevant sources and generate a fully-formatted bibliography, using any reference style you choose from a list of hundreds.

Zotero is a quite wonderful reference management tool.  Not only does it help students and researchers organise their materials effectively and easily, it can actually show you how to use sources effectively if you are struggling to embed this vital aspect of study into your work.  To use Zotero you need to set up a free account, and once registered the Zotero Firefox add-on will be able to pick up most things you uncover on the internet with the click of a single button.  Magic.

3)  Delicious

Delicious is a social bookmarking add-on.  Most of you will know what it means to bookmark a website - to save the site somewhere so that you can refer back to it at some point.  Most of you, as well, will know how frustrating it is when you have saved an important website as a bookmark on one computer, and realise while working on another computer that it is not saved there.  Social bookmarking means that your saved websites are stored online, and can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.  The Delicious add-on for Firefox is a link to your Delicious social bookmarking account.  What it effectively means is that you can bookmark a website just as you would normally, but instead of that website being stored on the computer you are using it is automatically uploaded to your online account.

Delicious has become one of the first things I install on any new computer I am using.  It not only houses my everyday websites (email, library, College VLE, etc.), but I have categories of bookmarks in which a can store any useful website I find relating to the modules I teach or the research I am doing.  See below for a rather nice guide on how to get set up with Delicious:

4)  Simple Timer

For a while now I have been a convert to the Pomodoro focus technique.  This is quite a simply technique which involves working solidly for a set period of time (usually around 25 minutes) and then taking a 5 minute break from the computer.  The technique can work very well if followed with discipline, and a simple timer add-on in Firefox can provide just that.  Sitting unobtrusively in your add-on bar, or in your menu bar, a small timer can countdown by whatever amount of time you specify, and then sound an alarm when it is time for you to start or stop.  Very simple, but can be very effective too especially if, like me, you have a tendency to get distracted.

5)  Leechblock

And speaking of distractions... It is all very well having a timer ticking away in the background, but we all know how tempting it can be to surreptitiously switch over to Facebook, or the BBC Sport or some such nonsense.  Sometimes we need a little help to be disciplined, and Leechblock is an excellent add-on designed to provide it.  You can programme Leechblock with the websites which you know you tend to find distracting - even Google if you want.  You can then set Leechblock up to prevent you from accessing those websites in a variety of ways: You can block them for certain times during the day or the week; You can limit the amount of time you spend on those websites in a day or a week; Or you can simply block those websites for a set period of time (a 'lockdown'), which works particularly well in conjunction with a Pomodoro 25 minutes.

6)  Yoono:

Yoono is a social networking tool which enables you to maintain a constant track of social network updates and to post links or images from your browser quickly and easily.  You can add as many different social networks as you want, and can customise a page view to keep you updated with specific searches (i.e. a Twitter search for posts related to 'linguistics' or 'psychology').  Yoono will add a bar on the side of your browser window, which you can click to see status updates, or to update your own status.  There is an option to have pop-ups notify you of status updates or direct messages as well.  Yoono is a great tool to have your social networks running alongside your work, rather than instead of it.

There are so many different options for Firefox, that it really can be made to integrate into the way you want to work, and can help you work as well.  If you have not explored the potential of your browser as an aide to your studies, then it is really worth having a look!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Why I don't want my children to celebrate the Jubilee

So the Jubilee weekend has arrived, and I find myself suffering a little from self doubt.  While this is not remotely unusual even at the best of times, the source of this particular doubt is based on whether I should be allowing my children to be waving Union flags and celebrating the seemingly interminable length of this nations monarchy.  I have some dim and hazy memories of the last Jubilee celebrations.  I remember photos of street parties, and the little plastic Union flag that I had in my bedroom for so many years, and which seemed to me to be a symbol of innocent celebration, of communities coming together, of watery squash and sugary cakes.

What kind of heartless wretch would deny his own children such memories?

Well, let me explain.

As the years have gone by, I have become increasingly opposed to the British monarchy.  This is not because I have have something against any of the members of the monarchy - I have no reason to think that they are anything other than decent ordinary people.  But this is really the problem.  I have no basis on which to think anything about them at all.  They simply exist, and cost a lot of money to exist.  Proponents of the monarchy argue that they stand for something - but then I have something of a problem with this as well.  What, exactly, do they stand for?  Centuries of ruthless colonialism and empire-building?  Systematic oppression of the poor in order to support the egotistical in-fighting of the aristocracy?

Of course, it is possible to make a case that during the World War's in the first half of the twentieth century, the British monarchy became a rallying point for a nation that had it's very freedoms and values threatened, and that from this point the monarchy came to stand for those values.

I can understand (even if I do not necessarily go along with) this point.  The trouble is that the values of that time, which were associated with the idea of 'Britain', and which seemed to be so good and worthy, were born into that specific moment.  They were values essentially defensive in nature, and easy to find essentially 'good' because Hitler was doing such a very good job of being the 'bad' guy.  But surely we cannot simply ignore that for centuries before this moment the British monarchy has stood for values which were nothing like as noble?  And surely we cannot simply ignore the fact that the defensiveness of a WW2 mentality born out of direct physical threats, has been so effectively appropriated by fascist bigotry and right-wing nationalism?

The Jubilee celebrations bother me because they seem to assume an attitude as though we have just won another WW2, and as though we can ignore all of the history that came before and after that one moment.  As though we can all forget for a moment how much more complex the world is than it appeared then.  That we can forget the complicity of Britain in the current crises that plague countries around the world, through both past military colonialism and present economic colonialism.  That we can pretend that everything is ok, and that the 'values' of Britain remain good and noble and worth celebrating.

So what are the values which 'Britain' stands for today?  Well, we now stand for the values of defending the rights of the oppressed in countries oil-rich enough to make a profit for us afterwards.  We stand for creating wars that decimate nations in order that our leaders might make some political points out of it.  We stand behind the World's school-yard bully, cheering while it pummels the living daylights out of nations that 'looked at it funny'.  We stand for imposing economic penalties on poor countries that try to help their own farmers, while we happily subsidise our own to create a surplus that is then sold back to those poor countries and which keeps them in economic dependence.  We stand for a political structure in which the nations elite make decisions solely in their own interests, while they sips whisky in the rooms of media moguls who effectively anaesthetise the masses against action with page 3 models and the X-Factor.

This history of this nation and of its monarchy, both before and after WW2, is one riddled with injustice, corruption, vanity and suffering, and surely the seemingly unambiguous morality of post WW2 celebrations should never be used to make us think otherwise?  Surely that would be to go against those very same values?

The Queen herself may not be personally complicit in all of this, but she does nothing actively to stop them.  Once a year, at Christmas, she might make an appeal to more noble values but in all other respects she is silent.  A moral vacuum.   And this is what we are all taking time off from work to celebrate?  This is what we are spending so much money on?  This is what we are effectively telling our children is something worth standing up for, even dying for?

Why can't we celebrate, instead, people in history who have stood for values that are actually relevant today?  Why can't we celebrate people who fought with every fibre of their being for something that made the world a better place, and who could inspire others to make the world a better place today?  Why are we making so much fuss about the Queen's Jubilee when in 2007 the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade passed as a mere historical footnote?  Now there's a 'value' worth fighting for, and if we were to spend as much time celebrating that, then perhaps people like Equiano and Wilberforce would inspire a new generation to tackle the problems of slavery in the world today.

Ok, so here's the point.  I have nothing at all against celebration, against communities coming together, or watery squash and sugary cakes.  Yes, there is a degree to which I would agree that the simple fact of bringing communities together can be an inherent good.  But why-oh-why can't we find something more valuable, something more constructive, something more positive to celebrate?  And why must I suffer my own children to hear people talking about 'what makes Britain so great', or 'the values of this great nation' - as though an uncritical blindness to everything else is somehow a good thing, and as though my own children's very lives would be worth giving up to defend it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Problem of Literary Critical Theory

In September I will again be tackling a module on literary theory, and as usual I am beginning to experience the kind of pre-module jitters that only literary theory can produce.  I need to convince myself again that it is worth covering the topic.  There are many reasons why if should be worth covering:
  • It gives students a critical palate for reading texts in new and alternative forms; 

  • it encourages students to re-assess the social structures and values which underpin the idea of 'literature'; 
  • it encourages students to re-assess the very definition of 'literature' in the light of them. 

All these things are very good things, and I certainly have no trouble generating the right amount of enthusiasm for them.

The problem is when it comes to teaching the wretched stuff.  Like many English degrees, the one I teach reserves 15 credits for literary theory.  That means 12 weeks of teaching and 3000 words of assessment.  What can be done within these limits?

A Question of Content

When I first started teaching the subject, my aim was to cover a few key theories that were still largely current and relevant: At the time I decided to focus on Feminism, Post colonialism and Cultural Materialism - three which I thought worked well together because they were essentially derived from the same structuralist paradigm.  The problem with this approach was that without understanding the paradigm of structuralism, students did not find it easy to understand the interrelations between the theories, and so tended to look at them as isolated.  This not only made the individual theories harder work than they needed to be, it led to a very categorical approach to theory in those student's later work (essays be either Feminist or Marxist, because they had not a chance to think about them in terms of synthesis).  So, in later efforts I decided I needed to include Structuralism, to provide a framework for the interrelations between theories.  But how do I introduce Structuralism?  The easiest way I could think of was as a reaction to the New Critical formalisms of the early twentieth century...

You see the problem?  The less content I focused on, the more difficult each individual element became.  The more content I focused on, the more I felt I needed to focus on, and the less scope students had to explore any one theory in detail.

I was in danger of going down the line of the online course which Yale University have made available.  Professor Fry explains a range of theories on this course beautifully, but the focus on the content of the individual theories turns them into abstractions: Each lecture leaves me wondering what, exactly, the students are meant to do with the knowledge except write an essay about it?  Focusing on the issue of content meant that I had almost forgotten to think back to that issue of purpose: On exactly what critical skills I wanted students to have the chance to develop. 

Prof. Paul Fry. Great communicator, but too much content.

Gradually, over time, I have narrowed the range of theories I teach on this module rather like one might tinker with the quantities in a cake recipe: A little more Shklovsky here would balance the flavour of Derrida there, while Barthes is overpowering in the cream filling so I will reduce that and add a little Saussure instead.  The balance of content started to settle down.  This, though, left the question of the purpose.

The Single Text Approach

The easiest way, it seemed, to demonstrate the functions of these different theories was to focus on a single text, and thereby to show how layering different theoretical models over the same text results in often dramatically different interpretations.  Professor Fry does this by using a children's story, and certainly there are countless fairytales which would work similarly well - but what is the point of showing students how to do something with a children's story and then expect them to be able to do the same thing with King Lear?
It was at this point that I was sent a copy of Michael Ryan's  Literary Criticism: A Practical Introduction.  Up to this point, texbooks on literary theory were a bit of an irritation.  Yes, there was always Terry Eagleton's seminal Literary Theory: An Introduction, but while this text contained easily the best explanations of both theory itself, and of some theories in particular, it was neither very practical nor very comprehensive.  Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction was beautifully written and a great starting point, but again not something which really showed students how to do it.  Larger compendiums and readers, like Patricia Waugh's Oxford Guide were comprehensive, but theories were considered in isolation and often addressed in more detailed than was really needed at the introductory stage.

What was so good about Ryan's book was that each chapter had a section in which different theoretical approaches were applied to a range of texts - and there was largely a consistency between them as well.  Most theories were considered in relation to King Lear, The Matrix and the poems of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I loved about this was not only the consistency, but the range of genres used.  It seems to me that one of the skills which students of English could / should be reasonably be expected to take with them into the outside world is an ability to read different layers of meaning and significance in the things around them - and by 'things' I mean more than the conscious constructions of 'literature'.  English students should be able to read between the lines of a newspaper headline, appreciate the symbolism of a film and even understand the narrative constructions of a shopping centre.  Ryan's use of The Matrix added a popular culture aspect which suited my ideas.  It was a book which was structured in just the way I wanted to teach.


I'm sorry Mr. Ryan, but it was not as well written as it could have been.  It's chapter's and practical exercises were convoluted and unclear.  Even though it's publication date was 2007, it was not particularly up-to-date.  There was, as well, a rather eclectic division of theories which was almost counter-intuitive (the separation of Feminism and Gender into two chapters not close to each other).  In addition, it was difficult to relate the chapter contents to the critical texts related to them. I wanted the practical examples to shine a light on the process, but also on the books and essays by Shklovsy and Derrida on which those processes were built.  The structure of Ryan's book was excellent, and certainly in terms of provided students with what I though would help students the most, it was the best I had seen.

But I was still looking.

I think I might have found what I want.  It's by Michael Ryan. is, for my purposes, the perfect core textbook for a literary theory module.  All of the problems with the Practical Introduction have been addressed: The chapters are in an order which makes sense; there are new chapters on scientific theories, film studies and cultural theory; The chapters have been made simpler, with a bullet-point set of 'major ideas' and 'key terms' for each; lists of key essays by the major associated critics is at the top of each chapter, and is referred to consistently throughout the chapters; and the practical examples are drawn from a range of texts, of which the use of films (together with comprehensive pictures) adds a visual clarity to the explanation of ideas which actually made me whistle in admiration.

Ok, so Ryan still can't write as well as Terry Eagleton.  Put the two together though, and I think it is possible to have a framework of core texts which can not only explain literary theory with clarity, but show students how to apply them to a range of different texts and contexts.

So all-in-all, my September jitters seem to be notably calmer this year.  I have found my perfect textbook.  Now all I need to do is to find a way of making my students read it...


Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory : a Cery Short Introduction / Jonathan Culler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Michael Ryan, An Introduction to Criticism : Literature, Film, Culture / Michael Ryan (Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
---, Literary Theory : a Practical Introduction / Michael Ryan, 2nd ed.. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007)
Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory and Criticism : an Oxford Guide / Edited by Patricia Waugh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory : an Introduction / Terry Eagleton, Anniversary ed.. (Malden, Mass; Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2008)

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