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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 25. 3rd October 1973

[Letter from D.F. McKenzie]

Department of English The Editor, Salient.


Mr Gordon Campbell's accounts of English studies will have misled some of your readers. May I make the following comments?

Those who have been most anxious to see changes made, and most vocal about the need for them, are Mr Campbell, Mr John Allum and Mr Stephen Hall. Mr Campbell is not a student of English. Mr Allum is taking English but is majoring in History. Mr Hall is majoring in English but as student representative on Faculty he has not once raised any of the criticisms made by Mr Campbell (including those of the foreign-language requirements).

Mr Allum organised a petition which was circulated to all of the larger classes in English. It was given to me last week, some two months after the signatures were collected. There are 173 signatures in support of some or all of four requests:
1)The abolition of all pre- and co-requisites
2)a first-year general introduction to literature with more emphasis on tutorials;
3)free choice from a wide range of courses thereafter; 4) a course in postwar writing. I should perhaps add that there are between 1300 and 1400 students currently enrolled in English. Not all 173 signatories supported all four requests. I have, for my part, extensive evidence by way of replies to questionnaires that the existing courses (and their relationship to one another) are thought by most students to be reasonably satisfactory.

Mr Campbell's articles have not always been ungenerous, for which I thank him. But they have perhaps under-stated some significant changes which had anticipated his own ideas. For example, there will be two tujoriais and two lectures a, week in all first year classes from 1974 on, with half the course determined by in-term assessment. The tutorial programme will be a free-ranging introduction to literary criticism. A move has been made for 1974 to provide a fully 20th-century course at 100-levcl;in 1975 its content will be 'recent writing' and it may then be taken by any student. In 1974 we introduce a new B.A. course in NZ literature. In 1975 many of the existing pre-requisites will be eased, and the number of credits required of an English major will be reduced. Some 20th-century literature will be made an integral, not just an additional, part of the major-subject course. Most of these points have been comunicated to students in tutorials, by notice, or in public meetings.

I have long agreed that the present 48-credit requirements for an English major (60 with the foreign language) places undue constraints on a student. If we are to retain the possibility of a double major, as I believe we must, or a broadly based degree, no subject should command more than half the degree (54 credits), including all pre- and corequisites. We have now pared out English major itself down to 42 credits. The foreign-language requirement is another matter. Personally I favour its retention (Victoria has the least stringent requirements of all the universitites except Waikato — elsewhere the language prerequisites for Honours are twice as tough), but I have also made it clear that this is a question that has still to be resolved.

The one point on which Mr Campbell and I disagree most substantially is the conception of an English major. He is probably right in saying that our disagreement reflects a difference in social attitudes, in what we each expect of a University (as distinct from a community college), and in our view of the claims of a discipline external to all of us as against our immediate, personal and self-chosen interest. He asks for open options beyond first-year, building to a maximum of 36 credits (12 introductory, 24 for any authors a student cares to choose). If History can do it, the argument runs, why not English? (Ever since Aristotle, poetry has been thought more serious and philosophical than history. Perhaps therefore it demands more time?)

If I can be brief without being banal, reading a wide range of literature with sensitivity and understanding requires a tactful balance of personal response ('what's in it for me?'), historical control ('why did he say that then?') and skilled analysis ('I see what he's up to, but it works/fails because'). We're trying to keep that balance in our English major. Happily it's not inconsistent with getting a personally fruitful education. Mr Allum has confessed to me (though a tincture of guilt might have implied disloyalty to some greater cause) that he has enjoyed his work. And even Mr Winter, whose self-confessed sterility is laid to my charge, must admit that if we're bastards, we're at least efficient ones.

The point is that we are responsible for ensuring that anyone who describes his or her degree as "B.A. in English" has a certain competence as defined by knowledge of the subject (literature in English from Chaucer till now) and quality of response to it. Given that aim, I don't honestly see how we can ask for fewer than 42 credits.

But no one is compelled to major in English. We're not our brothers' keepers. If a student is majoring in another subject we accept that certain minimum levels of academic and social acceptability are being met there. In 1975, almost all our courses will be open to such students. The) may take as many or as few as they wish, and indeed, make up their own English "major" along Mr Campbell's lines. They may not have met certain works we think it important for English majors to know, and may not have the range necessary for a student who wishes to do Honours in English, but they'll be able to read much that is of intrinsic interest as well as complementing their chosen subject, be it History, Philosophy, etc. or another literature.

That's not a perfect solution to all demands, but I think it's better than the single-subject undergraduate honours degree in most British universitites or the wide-ranging, open option system of the first B.A. degree in many American universities. The first leads to invidious distinctions between 'Honours' and 'Pass' students and (apart from the foreign language work which all English students are obliged to take) is unhealthily narrow. The second is probably not inappropriate in a community which has several kinds of "university", but I think it true to say that such degrees have little validity outside the local community unless they have been made good by protracted post-graduate work (including foreign languages) — which is precisely the pattern that has developed in North America.

We should be doing a disservice not only to our subject but to our students if we were to create a situation in which they could no longer claim that their B.A. was as good as any other granted by an English-language university. As it is, we can't quite claim that now; but I am convinced that the best of our M.A. graduates, who have taken the major programme for B.A. and devoted one further year to English, have an international standing which is accorded to very few graduates of American universities. I'm anxious to keep it that way for our students.

This commitment, I repeat, doesn't preclude a good measure of choice. There will be some 30 ENGL courses in the B.A. of which only five would not be to some extent optional for an English major (as planned for 1975). There are some 34 courses offered in the M.A. programme. Because we believe the B.A. major provides a good basis, students for M.A. have virtually free choice of any six.

Finally, is English in a cul de sac?

The one great infelicity in Mr Campbell's last report was his account of the concluding stages of the recent meeting. I'd thought we'd agreed that there was a problem, that it wasn't confined to English, and that present misgivings were a reflection of uncertainty about the future role of the university as such. It was very naive of me, I see now, to confess to an honest doubt about the form society will take in 40 years time and the demands it will then make of literature and the University study of literature.

My own guess is that artists and writers will find themselves more and more at home here; but it's now three years sincc I proposed that as a fundamental principle of faculty development. At least we'd made a start in Drama and Music; NZ literature is the thin edge of the wedge, and contemporary writing might drive it further; art history might partner literary history until both yeild living painters and poets; and some day we may have a film school. Mr Campbell has not provided me with any comparable vision.

Drawing of a man with literary stickers on his suitcase

page 9

Or perhaps he has. I m probably oversensitive to imagery (an occupational hazard), but I was sorry to note the hints of hysteria and violence, which, in their minority impotence, Mr Allum and Mr Campbell let drop. I see from "Salient" that there's a "bounty" on our heads in the English Department; Mr Allum has said that if I'm not more responsive to his demands I'll deserve "to be put up against a wall and hanged" (his words); and Mr Campbell now threatens "disruption". Well, the best may not lack all conviction, but the worst do seem to be full of a passionate intensity. Poor Yeats, of course, is dead. I don't suppose anyone reads him these days.

Yours sincerely,

D.F. McKenzie

Chairman, Department of English