Category Archives: English

Required Reading

Our notions about literature, about what’s worth reading and how to read it, get shaped largely by the books we encounter at school. Texts set for study in English classes, especially in senior secondary years, tend to stay with us and influence our tastes as adult readers.

The authors and titles figuring most prominently in Australian surveys of the country’s favourite reading matter are much the same as those that recur in lists of required reading for thousands of school students. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet comes top of the list of Australian books, or very near the top, in the annual reader polls conducted by Booktopia. It was also the highest-ranking Australian title, close behind Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, in an ABC TV survey of ‘favourite reads.’

Such popularity is no surprise, because for more than 20 years Cloudstreet has been appearing regularly on the syllabus for secondary English and Literature in most states. No doubt this is partly attributable to its general ‘literary merit’, but many other highly meritorious Australian novels don’t achieve comparable recognition, and indeed ‘Cloudstreet is not widely accepted in the academy as a literary masterpiece.’ Its status probably owes a lot to ‘its power to evoke particular emotive responses with a voice, rhythm and location that is recognisably connected to the national mythology.’ Those quoted comments are by Claire Jones, discussing Cloudstreet as a ‘classroom classic’ in her chapter of a newly published book, Required Reading: Literature in Australian Schools Since 1945, edited by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett.

Some chapters in Required Reading look at the ‘teachability’ of other authors with a lasting classroom presence, such as Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and Judith Wright. There are also several broader historical analyses of curriculum change in particular Australian jurisdictions. My own chapter argues that text lists don’t tell the full story, because items selected for study are always ‘framed’ for their readers by ‘circumtextual’ factors – e.g. resource materials designated for use in teaching; official and unofficial rubrics inscribed in classroom practices; assessment methods and exam structures that encourage some choices or interpretations rather than others, and so on.

The book is based on a recently compiled database called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. It makes available for the first time a comprehensive source of syllabus details about English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in the texts prescribed for study over that period.

What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? You can find absorbing answers to those questions and many others in Required Reading.

The English teacher’s task? Yes, but…

What’s the main task of a school English teacher? Is it to ensure that the personal experience and familiar environment of students should be at the centre of their learning? According to a book published half a century ago but still influential, the answer is emphatically yes. While there’s some truth in that principle, the matter – in my view – is not so simple.

The book I’m referring to is John Dixon’s Growth Through English (1967), which has continued to motivate countless teachers since its first appearance. It took shape as a report on a famous trans-Atlantic conference held 50 years ago at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. This Dartmouth symposium brought together leading educators from England and North America to consider a perennially vexed question: What is English?

John Dixon’s book argued that English teaching should focus on ‘culture as the pupil knows it,’ affirming ‘attitudes to experience…[shaped by] family and neighbourhood.’ It’s easy to agree with him – up to a point. Certainly no teacher of English will cut much ice with students unless their classroom welcomes the personal knowledge, tastes and perceptions they bring to it from their own background.

Yes – but… Is that the be-all and end-all of English teaching? I don’t think so. Encouraging students to draw on what they already know and feel and think is part of the task. On the other hand, if their ‘personal growth’ is to be a meaningful goal, it’s just as necessary that a teacher should help them go beyond the familiar, reframing their experience of their own world by introducing them to worlds elsewhere.

Often in the lives of most present-day adolescents there is much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. To recognise this constriction is not, of course, to dismiss their world or the kinds of texts that mirror everyday realities and topical tribulations in which the young students are already immersed – stories that engage directly with their own experience, their own values. No doubt such stories (whether told on the page or on the screen) may contribute to clarifying what they feel, alleviating their worries, freeing their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for a teenager to enter richly imagined worlds elsewhere through the doorway of well-crafted narrative that is not set in their own time and place.

Consider how important this factor was in the early life of Charles Dickens. He grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but literature enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured stories about worlds elsewhere: tales of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he wandered around the house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. His comment about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent: ‘They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.’

For Dickens, personal experience could be stifling and cheerless; but reading literature could be liberating. So too for many school students today – yet this is something that the author and disciples of Growth Through English don’t always acknowledge sufficiently. Dixon was critical of what he labelled a ‘cultural heritage’ attitude to literature, arguing that it tends to be a dead hand on the young learner’s imagination because it gives priority to the written word rather than to speech. Well, doesn’t that depend on how it’s taught and studied?

An earlier blog post of mine provoked lively debate about some of these issues, and you may find the exchange of comments worth reading. Two respected British educators, John Yandell and Monica Brady, both broadly aligned with Dixon’s position, thought that I was attaching undue significance to the study of literature in English classrooms, and failing to recognise the need to engage with popular texts (e.g. films such as The Wire) closer to the students’s current interests. I contended that, while it’s vital to encourage personal responses to diverse texts in different media (as I’ve argued in many publications over a long period), it’s also vital to ensure that literature doesn’t get pushed aside, because it can use language in distinctively valuable ways.

Thanks partly to John Dixon and to others who have reinforced and refined his arguments, most classrooms these days do place much more emphasis on the individual learner’s experience, language and values than was the case before the late 1960s. This is potentially a change for the better – but it can also be for the worse, if it deters teachers from challenging  students with a rich variety of textual experiences that take them outside the comfort zone of their home territory.

 

English teachers who ‘don’t care about literature’?

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Should it be troubling to hear an experienced and influential English teacher-educator, one who has written thoughtfully about students’ engagement with literary texts in the classroom, say that ultimately he doesn’t much care about the study of literature? That he thinks school students can get sufficient imaginative sustenance from TV dramas like The Wire?

Well, it does trouble me.

Last week I gave a couple of presentations as a keynote speaker at a combined national conference, held in Adelaide, of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE, whose members are mostly secondary teachers) and the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA, mainly primary school teachers). Another keynote speaker was a British guest, John Yandell, who in the course of one of his talks made the remark I’ve quoted.

John is a respected figure in the field of English education. He taught in inner London schools for 20 years before moving to the internationally prestigious Institute of Education at University College London, where he has worked since 2003. John edits the well-regarded journal Changing English (to which I’ve contributed this year) and is the author of The Social Construction of Meaning: reading literature in urban English classrooms – a persuasive ethnographic analysis of ways in which multi-cultural working-class groups of students interpret the writings of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and others. John’s work is always stimulating.

I can’t convey here a properly judicious indication of John’s views, either as distilled in his publications or as expressed orally at this conference. But his startling remark quoted above is well worth pondering, even out of context. It’s a salutary provocation, at least. Could it be true that some of us care too much about literature? Perhaps, having grown up in the days when the printed word was still unchallenged as the dominant storytelling medium, we’ve remained unduly attached to assumptions about its enduring primacy?

Certainly it would be perverse to deny that contemporary TV and cinema often present exceptionally compelling drama. The best of it grips my attention as strongly as anyone else’s. John Yandell mentioned The Wire, and there have been many other unforgettable films and mini-series in recent years – often made overseas (such as The Bridge in Denmark, Broadchurch in the UK and Homeland in the USA), though the ABC telemovie of Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore is an outstanding local example. Is John justified, then, in suggesting that these powerful stories can provide a substitute for literary texts, and in seeming to imply that the latter no longer need figure in the English curriculum?

There’s no doubt that the screen medium gives ample scope for complex characterisation, lively dialogue, suspenseful plotting and memorable visual imagery. So why am I troubled by a proposition that the experience these offer is equivalent to the best work in literary genres – the poem, the novel, the short story, the memoir and the rest? Because the primary medium of screen drama is the visual image, while the primary medium of literature is language itself. Words constitute the foreground, the focus. And more than anything else, it’s with the subtleties of language that school students most need to engage. Language is power. In being encouraged and helped to understand its liberating potential, students will be better equipped to take control of their future lives. Through the reading of literature, they can become attuned to the full range of linguistic resources. Literature embodies language not just in the form of fast-paced dialogue accompanying spectacular screen events and effects, but also in other forms: quietly meditative language, stylistically ingenious language, rhetorically elaborate language, rhythmically forceful language, the language of nuanced narrative exposition, language that is lambent or shadowy, supple or tight-packed, allusive or elusive…

Am I mistaken?

English in Schools isn’t what it used to be

It’s often said – nostalgically by some; in a tone of satisfaction by others – that English in schools isn’t what it used to be. Two recent publications and a new publishing project remind me how much the teaching of English (including literature) has indeed changed during my lifetime.

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One of these is the latest issue of English in Australia (vol. 49 no. 2), the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s a retrospective edition, celebrating half a century of AATE activity. For this special number, each previous editor selected and introduced an article from the period of his or her editorship, placing the chosen piece in a context of changing patterns in the English teaching profession. The result is a lively miscellany that begins with a reflection by Judith Wright on the teaching of poetry and includes items by a range of influential educators such as John Dixon, Garth Boomer, Bill Green and Claire Woods.

It also reprints an article of mine from 1982, ‘The Crisis in English Studies’ – which, to quote from Margaret Gill’s prefatory comments, ‘challenged current academic practice and argued for a radical revision of what counted as English Literature and how it might be taught.’ Referring not only to this article but also to my 1984 book The Making of Literature and my work as a curriculum developer, Margaret remarks that I’ve had a fair bit of influence on integrating the critical and the creative in classroom practice. Although she probably overstates the case in saying that ‘Ian Reid initiated a revolution in the teaching of literature’, I’m pleased anyway that this commemorative issue of EinA puts me in eminent company, and sees ideas I’ve espoused as ‘still at the heart of the best of English teaching today.’

But ‘English teaching today’ in schools and universities is not quite what it was in 1964, when the AATE began, or in 1984, when I wrote The Making of Literature. Students tend to read different things now, and are encouraged to read them in different ways. Some of the differences may be healthy, but others are less so. Here’s a dispiriting example of an unhealthy trend: the national curriculum prescribed by ACARA puts a mandatory emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture) for English and all other areas of study. Why should those ideologically framed themes dominate student learning at the expense of elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values?

Earlier in the year I posted some thoughts on Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum, arguing that the original Literature study design for VCE English got it right 25 years ago by requiring ‘a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge’ so that (e.g.) ‘students should have experience of those texts which have become a part of various established traditions in literature as well as those which have been more recently produced.’

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Another perspective comes from English Teachers in a Postwar Democracy: Emerging Choice in London Schools, 1945-65, by Peter Medway et al. A detailed study of English teaching practices and classroom reforms as they developed in three London schools, it uses oral history as well as analysis of teachers’ workbooks and students’ writing. With its focus on the everyday realities of trying to engage students in forms of communication that make sense to them, this book is a salutary reminder that pedagogy, the relationship between teacher and learner, is pivotal for understanding what has changed in English classrooms and what hasn’t.

Something that makes this book relevant to an Australian context is the fact that two of the teachers who figure prominently in it had a powerful international influence: John Dixon and Harold Rosen. (I’ve also written about both of them in my book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, which is cited by Medway and his co-authors.) As mentioned above, an article by Dixon is among the pieces chosen for the retrospective issue of English in Australia.

My third perspective on this topic comes from a book that’s still in preparation, called Conditions of Assent: Literature, Literary Studies, and Subject English. Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Trish Dowsett are editing it. I know about their project because I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter. The book is based on a database they’ve compiled, called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. In Conditions of Assent an assortment of scholars will interpret the data to which they’ve been given access.

As the editors are well aware, a mere list of set texts doesn’t constitute a curriculum for English in itself. But the ALIAS database, a comprehensive macro-list, can certainly provide a useful starting point for considering aspects of English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in what has been prescribed for study over that period. What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? Well, I won’t pre-empt any specific findings here, but some of them may turn out to be surprising.

Of course, no database of texts can yield much insight into English teaching and learning unless it’s supplemented by other information. My chapter will consider how the curriculum for literary studies has been ‘framed’ in senior secondary Australian classrooms by various factors that may constrain approaches to the listed texts. For example, does the syllabus include reference material and recommended resources? Do assessment tasks ensure an alignment between what’s officially set, what’s actually taught and what students eventually learn?