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

Prof McKenzie: Calming the student's passion

Prof McKenzie: Calming the student's passion

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

Gordon Campbell Replies

In replying to Professor McKenzie I don't want to appear as if Pm trying to undercut his points. However this is the last Salient of the year and I'd like to take up the chance for a dialogue that has been sought ever since July.

I agree that our petition did not directly represent the 1300 or 1400 currently enrolled. As I said at the meeting due to pressure of work and the time consumed by other fruitless meetings the petition was poorly circulated, not getting to even a majority of classes and not to all students at any one class. The point is, no one has ever asked that 1400 their opinion, and since this is the last Salient I can't ask the Professor to produce the "extensive evidence" he has been secretly compiling about student opinion. I say "secret" because the only other attempt to canvass English classes was done last year by Lisa Sacksen. Despite a much larger reponse than ours, her petition on presentation has never been seen or heard of again. I did hear that the Professor 'consulted' his Shakespeare class; Just after my first article appeared. He apparently demanded with obvious hostility in his voice to know who wanted to discuss changes and who wanted to do Shakespeare. Since no rash soul dared confront his scholarly wrath I'm sure he feels that the class is 1000% behind him.

Perhaps naively we told you. Professor about our strategy. A department professor has a position that carries so much authority with the majority of students, that open attacks by other students will only alienate those whom we hope to convince. We reasoned though that despite our respective faults we shared with the Professor a love for English literature; so we centred our discussion on the canon of English — what belongs in it, and how it may best be taught. So we worked on presenting, in meetings and in my articles a coherent, practical view on these matters (and the formulation on the petition was only part of this process).

If our arguments were sound It would be up to the department who controll all the available power, to incorporate our ideas in what it offers to students. If unsound, we expected some reply.

Instead we have been evaded, distorted, or ignored and have ended up being portrayed as the hysterical, violent minority that our whole effort aimed at avoiding. Admittedly towards the end the rhetoric on both sides has got pretty heavy. But instead of invoking Ycat's salute to the silent majority perhaps Professor McKenzie could see how much his own refusal to talk directly has contributed to the tone that this encounter has developed.

Ok. To more concrete things. The student group raised four criticisms. 1) The 54 credit load is excessive; 2) Compulsory language credits cannot be justified. 3) The general education and employment prospects of most students is more important than combatting, for the few MA graduates affected, a quite hypothetical threat to the international standing of the degree within the academic community. 4) Selective intensive analysis is equally important as a cursory overview.

You will look in vain through Professor McKenzie's letter for substantial answers to those points. The innovations that he mentions, however welcome do not affect any of these criticisms because their benefits will be available almost completely to non majoring students. He repeats the priority of the international standing of the degree — to us, the "disservice" he speaks of, in the unlikely event that the degree would slip below what academia expects of its recruits is lets important than the disservice being done to the general education and employment of most students. It is precisely the "local community" that he disparages (i.e. us and our environment) that is important.

He again begs the question that his canon and his degree structure provide the best approach. He simply says "we think...certain works are important......a certain range is necessary......I don't see how one can settle for less than 42 credits...we ensure...a certain competence....knowledge...and quality of response." No discussion. Papa Don knows best.

You will however find these errors
a)He attributes to me a distinction between the objective canon and self interest that was actually Dr Jamieson's and which was thoroughly criticised by me in my last article. His picture of our intentions is therefore quite misleading.
b)The credits have not "been pared to 42" but to 54. The error lies in the department's coy refusal to recognise that they own their compulsory language credits.
c)As he has been told twice, by me personally, our 36 credit course would have six, not 12 credits, leaving 30, not 24 credits.
d)He says the language requirement is "a question still to be resolved." I have been informed of the contents of a letter written by Professor McKenzie to the French Department dated 13/9/73. In this, he acknowledges that "it has become extremely difficult to sustain our position." He acknowledges the validity of many of the criticisms raised against the requirement and adds a further one, namely that the shift from a written to an oral emphasis in language studies "legitimately weakens" the Department's claim that the requirement aids the study of literature. He states [unclear: that] however that "the staff are almost unanimous" for retention, but adds the interesting qualification that "unanimity breaks down over questions of the specific relevance." So what is it left to be considered Professor? How your department's personal desires are to be rationalised for public consumption?
e)Counting courses does not alter the fact that majoring students will not be able to partake of this array. From the tables a majoring student will have to take English credits in his first year, 22 credits (!) in his second and the rest of the 54 probably in his third. Choice appears only at Stage III and that only between forms of the same period. So, as I said in my first article, the benefits of the innovations being carried out will be available to majors only if they want to add more English credits to an already top heavy degree. Counting courses also isn't so impressive If one remembers the staffing advantages that English has gay for example over Music.
f)While these are minor matters I did not "threaten disruption", I said that this is often the unpleasant consequence when rational discussion breaks down, John Allum's statement was that if in the years ahead Professor McKenzie shows the same hostility to student opinion he will be put up against a wall by the more militant students emerging from our high schools. The "one great infelicity" I stand accused of is that I did not report Professor McKenzie's inability to read the future. Since I did not realise he entertained pretensions to clairvoyance I thought it a truism and it lies also in the context of the question being asked, a non sequitur. The saddest thing about this was that it was the one time that the Professor dropped his paternal role and spoke with some passion and sincerity. I do not know how to convince him that we do not threaten his concern for the future (and the past) of English.

I find it hard to produce "comparable visions" when I realise that my visions are to be administrated within a university being destroyed by (i) the current staff/student ratios; (ii) inadequate funding; (iii) the degrading (to persons and ideals) scramble for those funds between Departments.

Professor McKenzie will not attract "living poets and painters" to this situation — they are currently dropping out of his undergraduate courses. Any worthwhile vision must recreate the conditions for a genuine two way learning experience i.e. smaller but connected groups that enable the full, equal sharing of ourselves and our special talents. Not only would this free "students" from dependency on "teachers" it would free talented, sincere people like Professor McKenzie from administrative pressures that are warping and twisting him, and liberate him from his dependency for his sense of values on the opinions of the international academic community.

Gordon Campbell.

P.S. Seeking further expert opinion I passed on to Professor Munz the suggestion of Professor McKenzie that poetry was more serious and philosophical than history. Unfortunately he at once fell into an apopleptic rage and I have been unable to get his teeth unclenched by publication time.