Category Archives: Literature

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.

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?

 

A Prime Minister in love with literature?

Is it possible to imagine an Australian prime minister in love with literature? Someone for whom poetry could have just as much appeal as politics? A political leader who is not only a keen and discerning reader but also a highly accomplished writer? Hardly! (I hear you cry) – not in our own time, anyway.

While it’s true that Tony Abbott is credited with four books and was once a journalist, even his most enthusiastic supporters probably wouldn’t claim that he’s a literary luminary. But things were sometimes different in earlier periods.

As a schoolboy I borrowed one of the volumes of Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples from the library, and found it absorbing. I knew, of course, that he’d been Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and a powerful orator. Only later did I learn that he’d written many other books – more than 30, including a novel – and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature while in office as his nation’s leader.

I’d like to read Jonathan Rose’s recent book The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press), reviewed by Peter Clarke here. I gather that Rose traces a range of literary influences on Churchill’s publications and carefully crafted speeches, arguing that much of what the great British leader had read became transmuted so creatively through his own writings that it exerted an enormous influence even beyond his own country. ‘Sometimes’, Rose remarks, ‘the lives of millions depend on what their rulers read.’

Churchill isn’t a lone example. Nearer to our own time there’s Vaclav Havel (1936-2011): not only a distinguished playwright, public intellectual, humanitarian advocate and recipient of many international awards, but also the last President of Czechoslovakia and first President of the Czech Republic. Then there’s the Peruvian writer, journalist, literary critic and politician Mario Vargas Llosa: born in the same year as Havel, Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 (unsuccessfully) and received the Nobel Prize for Literature 20 years later. He is best known for his novels, including The War of the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat.

So what about Australian politicians who were not only highly literate but also actively literary in their interests and pursuits? Well, there are two shining examples, but we have to go back many years to find them. They are the only two PMs who – fittingly – have had universities in this country named after them: John Curtin (1885-1945) and Alfred Deakin (1856-1919).

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John Curtin reading, c1942. (Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/33)

Curtin’s lifelong immersion in poetry was the subject of an illuminating public lecture that I attended recently in Perth, held under the aegis of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library (JCPML). You can read the text of it here. The lecturer was Curtin’s great grandson Dr Toby Davidson, a poet and academic. I’d previously known a bit about Curtin’s literary interests – e.g. that before he entered parliament he was already an energetic journalist, lecturer, editor, book reviewer and orator, and that as the member for Fremantle during most of the period 1928-45 his prowess as a writer and speaker grew steadily. (My novel  That Untravelled World makes brief mention of his rousing radio speeches during the Great Depression.) But I learnt a lot more from Toby Davidson’s lecture.

Davidson demonstrated cogently that Curtin committed to memory a wide range of poetry over many years, and continued to draw inspiration from it throughout his career, even while leading the nation through the anxious years of World War 2. ‘Every man should read poetry – for the good of his soul’, he said in an interview on becoming PM in 1941. It was fascinating to be shown by Davidson how extensively Curtin annotated his well-thumbed copy of a translation of Dante’s Inferno, commenting in the margins on its applicability to politics and everyday morality – or to see how he quoted lines from Swinburne and O’Dowd to frame his most momentous wartime broadcasts to the Australian people.

Alfred Deakin

Alfred Deakin, PM: ‘My heart is always in the highlands of literature’. (Creative Commons)

Alfred Deakin was even more thoroughly literary. Though one of Australia’s most successful politicians, he confessed in a personal letter ‘My heart is always in the highlands of literature.’ Late in life he wrote that ‘the intoxication of public success’ could not compare with ‘the transports I receive from books’ and that he had ‘lived more, & more intensely, in & through books’.

In an article on ‘The Literary Statesman: Alfred Deakin and his Papers’, Graeme Powell emphasises the wide range of Deakin’s reading, which included not only English writers (e.g. Shakespeare, Meredith, Hardy, Shaw, Twain, James, Kipling, Conrad and Bennett) but also French (e.g. Rousseau, Balzac, Sand, Maupassant and Daudet) and many more in translation, such as Cervantes, Goethe, Dostoevsky and various Greek and Latin classics.

Deakin’s diaries show that he read on average about 100 books a year, despite a huge weight of daily political chores. But extensive reading was not his only activity in ‘the highlands of literature.’ He also authored several book-length works, covering diverse subjects including literary criticism, spiritual allegory and political history; he filled manuscript notebooks with creative compositions in several genres from verse drama to poetry; and he contributed many articles, often under a pseudonym, to newspapers and journals. He was also a prolific letter writer, one of his most enduring correspondents being Walter Murdoch, essayist and professor of English.

There’s an odd omission in Powell’s article on this ‘literary statesman’: it makes no reference to Deakin’s lifelong admiration of Wordsworth, the predominant figure in his literary pantheon. (In that regard he wasn’t alone among political leaders; for instance Deakin’s contemporary Woodrow Wilson, the US President, used to read Wordsworth’s poems to his family at the end of a day, and quoted them in print to support his views about the study of literature.) Deakin’s devotion to Wordsworth’s poems was steadfast over the course of many years. He continued to re-read them, transcribing some into a notebook, including others in an anthology he edited,  adopting Wordsworthian blank verse for compositions of his own, consulting many articles on the poet’s work, and writing (with continual revisions) his own very long essay on ‘The Gospel according to Wordsworth.’ I refer to these matters in my book on Wordsworth.

Deakin’s love of literature had tangible benefits for the nation that he led. Most notably, he did much to promote literary activity in Australia, both through generous personal encouragement of individual writers and through his role in establishing the Commonwealth Literary Fund – the first systematic federal government initiative in support of the arts.

Today’s politicians may seem utterly different. But Havel died only three years ago and Llosa is still alive. Perhaps it’s possible that a  highly literate and actively literary political leader could yet emerge influentially in our country in our time. Sometimes, as Rose reminds us, the lives of millions can depend on what their rulers read. So if, as a start, you could choose half a dozen literary works to put in the in-tray of a 21st-century Australian PM, what would they be?

Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum

It’s the schooling system, more than anything else, that determines what counts as ‘literature’ and what gets done with it. The educational processes through which we all pass, especially in our teens, give us our working assumptions about literary texts – and these assumptions are no less durable for being seldom articulated. The sediment of my thinking about literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum has been stirred by a public lecture that Emeritus Professor Bill Louden gave last night at the University of Western Australia on the subject of Australia’s National Curriculum.

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The main context for his lecture topic comprises two things. First there’s the work of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), established under the previous Commonwealth Government. A broad summary of ACARA’s role in developing a national curriculum can be found here. Second, there’s a review established by Christopher Pyne, Federal Minister for Education, aiming to evaluate ‘the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum’ with recommendations due by mid-2014. The Government’s general statement about this review can be found here.

In last night’s lecture, Bill Louden discussed strengths and weaknesses of the national curriculum in an international perspective. He did so defensively, having been a member of the ACARA Board, though he also acknowledged problems, e.g. in relation to resources, timing, and overstuffing of the curriculum. Having worked closely with him in 2009-2012 on a comprehensive restructuring of all UWA courses, I’ve formed a high regard for his knowledge and professional judgment, though we’re not always in perfect agreement.

Bill describes himself as a ‘curriculum warrior.’ I suppose the same could be said of me. Over many years I’ve engaged extensively with schoolteachers in various states, at senior secondary level in particular – on numerous curriculum committees, some public examination bodies, and several projects on the study of English and Literature. I’ve edited textbooks for the English classroom, written a few books and dozens of articles on teaching practice, and given many presentations at conferences of English teachers.

In all such activities my purpose has been to encourage a balanced view of learning in this field. But what should ‘balance’ mean? It may not be quite what Minister Pyne’s reviewers want to restore, though I can understand their concern about the mandatory ACARA emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture). It’s far from self-evident that those themes should dominate the educational foreground rather than elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values.

However, balance is not the same as oscillation. Bill Louden’s lecture characterised recurrent curriculum reforms as a series of politically motivated ‘jumps to the left and jumps to the right.’ I’d link to think of curriculum change not as a pendulum moving from left s/wing to right s/wing, to and fro, but rather as a search for equilibrium in all three components of the educational experience: syllabus content (what should be learnt), pedagogy (what form the teaching-learning relationship takes), and assessment (what counts as evidence of relevant knowledge).

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Many years ago I was seconded to the Victorian Curriculum & Assessment Board (VCAB) to help develop ‘study designs’ for English (undertaken by all students) and Literature (more specialised) in the original Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). These designs provided a framework within which schools would devise course details. For Literature a fundamental principle was that ‘the course should include a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge.’ Requirements for the four units, spread over Years 11 and 12, specified among other things a need to include texts of different kinds – prose, poetry, performance scripts – drawn from different periods and cultural contexts. Supporting information stated ‘that 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.’ This is surely an important kind of balance in any literature curriculum. For units 1-2, schools selected (within the constraints of the study design) whichever texts they thought would reflect their students’ interests and needs, and VCAB provided a list of suggested texts to assist with the selection process. For units 3-4 there was a prescribed list of texts, but with plenty of room for choice.

The VCE study design wasn’t faultless, but I still regard that curriculum structure as an appropriate one for literary studies in high school. Balance is the keynote, and it’s not to be achieved by insisting that a few ideologically framed themes should pervade all subjects of study. So I’m sceptical about ACARA’s claim that its arbitrary priorities (elevating the Sustainable, the Asian and the Indigenous above other themes) are being prescribed in the name of ‘a relevant, contemporary and engaging curriculum.’ An article of mine in the journal English in Australia argues that, while relevance to students’ interests is important, their required reading shouldn’t confine them narrowly to the here and now – or to currently topical issues. For the sake of balance, students need to go beyond the familiar. They need to reframe their experience of their own world through imaginative encounters with worlds elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ may include Asian or Aboriginal settings, but why give them pre-eminence? The English curriculum ought to ensure that students acquire the kind of understanding that can move across time and across different places within the mainstream cultural traditions that have shaped modern Australian society. 

More could be said about curriculum content, but the choice of texts for study is only one part of the educational experience. Also vital is the pedagogical relationship between teacher and learner; and linked to that is the means by which learners demonstrate what they learn – the assessment regime. Here’s a simple example, drawn from what we developed years ago for the VCE study design for Literature. While there’s no doubt that the formal critical essay can be a useful way of developing skills in analysis and argumentation, it isn’t the only valuable medium for registering a student’s response to texts. One of its limitations is that it tends to become a ritual device for telling teacher-authorities what they already know about something already prejudged as worthy of appreciation. So in addition to essay-writing, VCE Literature students were required to review books that they themselves had chosen individually and independently from their own reading. The review had first to be presented orally, and then written up in the light of group feedback. The Year 12 extension of the ‘review’ requirement included also a study of book reviews published in different media for different readerships.

Although reviewing a freely chosen book is just one kind of learning activity, it can contribute usefully to the principle of balance in the Literature curriculum. But if students felt compelled to focus their reviewing choice on a text that dealt with sustainability, Indigenous culture or Australia’s engagement with Asia, much of the value of that activity would be lost. Wouldn’t it?