Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 20. 1972
A Critical Evaluation of English Literature As Studied At Victoria University
A Critical Evaluation of English Literature As Studied At Victoria University
The Same Game
If you are looking for a nice easy subject to take for your degree you should consider the courses offered by the English Department. Paper 101 is a beautiful fillin. It requres no special reading or understanding, and if you showed relative competence at pulling books to pieces and putting the shreds in little pots marked Plot, Character, Theme, Background, and Technique when you were at school nothing more need recommend you. You need not be quite as meticulous and tidy as at school, but the game is much the same. The syllabus is one you will be used to as well selected passages of prose for analysis, a couple of poets, a few quaint plays, four period novels, and a token sample of wornout N.Z. Many of the works you may consider rather too tedious, but dont let that deter you - I have known several people who have got through the course by reading little summaries and analyses, available from your dearest bookstore. Just think - in America you could buy your whole degree!
If you are interested in people's ideas, literature, or writing, do not take the English courses. Take instead philosophy, history of philosophy, history, political science, languages, or give up and do a BCA. English bears the same relation to these interests as a Vietnamese peasant to American aid - the potential is there but the application is lacking. The goodies don't seem to make it through the system.
In no way is this criticism aimed at the lecturers and tutors in the Department - in most instances the standards kept by the teaching staff are excellent, and they often go a considerable way towards making up for the inadequacies in the courses. What I am criticizing is the syllabus itself, which, in attempting to cover multifarious aims, succeeds in defying attempts made to limit and channel it to water any field adequately.
Despite the changes expected with the new exam system the basic English courses are the same as they were eight years ago. The old 'A' course, now ENGL 101 ;201 ;202;203, is for people who do not want to major in English. Assorted texts are studied, usually with no relation to each other; though points of similarity are often stressed to prepare the way for those dreadful 'compare and contrast' questions, the points are usually superficial and forced (i.e. both Conrad and Forster deal in some way with colonial themes). The course as a whole has no direction. All that is required of the student is that he reads and uncritically comments on the text (reproduction of the lecturer's notes will do). The "critical reading of prose, poetry and drama" that the Calendar talks about is an outright lie - "critical" implies the making of some kind of value judgement, something which, in my experience is anathema to the English Department. Never have I heard questions like "Where does the impact of this book lie? Why do you like it?" Answering questions like these is essential to developing the critical faculty, and also to the continuing enjoyment of literature. A modicum of original thinking is required. The answers are also likely to be rather embarassing to the English Department. Perhaps that is why the questions are not asked.
The course covers such a diversity of texts that it is impossible either to make a detailed study of them or to make anything but a superficial connection between them. There is no attempt to make any sort of relevant link with any other course. Students feel that the more lime spent on English the more time consumed out of their worthwhile study. They find the solution is to spend as little time as possible on the course.
Of course, if the whole idea is to develop a critical faculty in the student modern books could be studied just as well, with far more relevance to the student's outlook on life and his attitude to the course. At school there is more excuse for clinging to lame and outdated volumes for study, as considerable capital outlay is required to equip a class with new books. Nevertheless most high schools I know have left the English Department far behind in the study of recent literature. If the course succeeded in developing a facility in critical thinking and expression it would be considered a boon by all disciplines. Indeed for a subject as remote as Legal System the first exercise is a critical assessment of a book to test just this faculty.
The old 'B' course, now ENGL 111;211;etc is for students who feel they have little enough imagination to major in English. It is planned to give a background to the major writers in the English tradition. Professor MacKenzie distributed to the English 111 class this year an elaborate justification for the course, including, among such pompous enticements as "Each poem, play or prose work offers immediate human rewards to those able to enter it with a mind alert to the experience it embodies" a statement of the two main aims of the course: "First, particularity, shown by your skill in reading, and talking or writing about single works; second, generality, shown by your ability to compare and contrast such works, both to heighten your sense of their individuality and at the same time to establish their similarity as expressions of a society different from, but formative of, our own." We have here the confusion of aims that turns this course from one that could possibly have considerable importance to a student of social history to one that frustratingly fails to satisfy study in any direction.
But I must be fair. This course does indeed go a long way towards achieving these two aims. A lecturer with a certain rudimentary knowledge of some of the political and social movements of the period under study is able to give the books some kind of historical perspective, though when I did English 3 the Romantic poets were considered without a thought for the philosophies of Rousseau, Goethe and Schiller that made such an impact on the later stages of the movement, and scarcely a glance at the large political movement led by Godwin with which they were intimately conjoined. People who have studied no history can never understand the tremendous social upheaval that gave Dickens so much material. The class is taught a great deal of the "expressions of a society"; they are not made aware of the society that is being expressed.
The lecturers prefer a safe course under a lee shore, rather than floundering out of their depth (pardon me). So they revert to the old Eeyore useful pot game that I mentioned before. This is what Professor MacKenzie calls "particularity". Here is where the confusion of aims is felt. No student can devote enough time to a detailed analysis of individual texts in a course which at the same time attempts give adequate coverage of an entire period. No lecturer can spend more than three of four lectures on each individual page 11 work. We are left with the same superficial treatment of works as in the 'A' course, except that here they vaguely related to the continuity of a tradition.
It would be profitable to restructure the entire English syllabus to fit in more with the needs and wants of the people undertaking the course. With the new paper system a tremendous opportunity has been given for some imaginative replanning of courses around definite aims rather than around apologies and justifications as at present. These courses could be moulded to complement and reinforce those of other disciplines in order that the student, if he wishes, can restrict his study to his own particular into interest. For instance, it is ludicrous to have a historical com as is the 'B' course without linking it to those who are majoring in English.
As far as I can see three English courses are required. Each of these is capable of being moulded and adapted, and would encompass most relevant interests.
|1||Study of Style and Technique. This course would replace the present pot exercises. It could centre around a single work, of relevance to nowadays, which would be analysed in the light of traditions, foreign influences, social undercurrents, the author's life, its inner form appeal, stylistic features, and impact of the public - in short what makes it tick. On the other hand the course could consider several works, exploring dominant motifs, unifying factors and divergent trends. Such a course should not be restricted to books but should include drama technique and film analysis (as Philip Mann has introduced already), and could lead to journalism or creative writing.|
|2||Historical Survey. This course could cover similar ground to the present 'B' course except that the emphasis should be on the relation of the books studied to the ideas of the society in which they were written. To do this satisfactorily it would be impossible to devote much time to detailed textual study. It would also to be necessary to consider non-literary works where these have a direct hearing on the works under study. The course should give an understanding of social history through literature.|
|2||Study of Contemporary Ideas. This course should be the most widely reaching' and popular. It would also be capable of the greatest flexibility to suit fads of lecturers and students. At the moment one of the biggest moans about the English syllabus is that no modern books are studied. Professor Mackenzie attempts to counter these criticisms by stating that a serious student would be able bo find the ageless quality of literature and let that sustain him into the present. "The knowledge you gain of the achievements of great writers of the past and the responsibility which they showed to their own times begins to shape itself as a way of meeting comparable problems in our own age." The truth is that English lecturers have a demilitarized zone beyond which they will fling the occasional missile but which they must regard as alien, or even hostile, territory. The demilitarized zone is the area between the 1930 and 1940 parallels, and contains such writers as Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Huxley, cummings etc. They are exceedingly suspicious of these people, but occasionally dare to extend the sweating palm of reconciliation. There are also a few of their airmen downed in enemy territory, whom they have vowed to rescue come thunder or damnation. These include such stalwarts as Bellow, Lowell, Muir, Beckett, and the N.Z. impresarios.|
Jam in the Brain
The approaches to this course creates traffic jams in the brain. It could begin with a study of current philosophical ideas, showing how these are incorporated into literature. It could choose to show the development of particular attitudes to life as expressed in literature (for instance negro writing in the U.S. has pearheaded the civil rights movement). It could devote itself to certain types of expression - scifi; fantasy; society novels; confession and autobiographical literature; best poetry; horror films; magazines; or advertizing - or to particular countries - N.Z.; India; Canada; Africa. With the new paper system there is no need to promote large and cumbersome units of work. Papers could be offered wherever interest lies, and could be credited to any level of a student's work.
The course as I have outlined it would work even better if students participated in its formation but I fear I have said too much already. Being rather timid I will also refrain from enumerating the obstacles, mainly administrative, that will be determinedly plonked in my path - class sizes, staff recruitment problems, library problems, money problems, examination problems, and other elaborate excuses. I feel that restricting class size and interest by promoting an unimag inative, long, and irrelevant course, is not the answer. It is time for the English Department to stop perpetuating its own dandified image by preening in front of a mirror, and realise that wigs and cravats are no longer in fashion. Alternative ending: Sign or be shot.