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?

11 thoughts on “English teachers who ‘don’t care about literature’?

  1. Thank you for expressing my sentiments in a much more articulate manner than I ever would be able to do. Funnily enough, I am currently watching The Wire when I take a break from reading. Season one is excellent–gripping and eye-popping with wonderful characters, plot lines, and what I like the best of all: the exploration of the institutions and systems that are controlling everyone’s lives.

    By contrast, the book I am currently reading is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Absolutely breath taking writing. These are two completely different experiences for me. I am engaging with the story in each, but in the latter I am engaging with the language, interpreting every word, and reading between the lines. There is no doubt in my mind that my reading books has made me a more astute “watcher” of the screen, but there is also no doubt that reading demands more of me in so many ways, not least of which is the exercise of my imagination.

    I feel sorry for people who aren’t raised with a love of reading books, especially really good literature. They are missing out on so very much.

  2. Okay, I am still thinking about this. I think that, for me, the interpretation–the search for the meaning–is what makes a big difference for me. I experience this when I listen to an audio book. I rarely do so because I feel one level removed from the text; I am listening to a voice that is interpreting the story and thus affecting my understanding of it. For example, the audio narrator’s tone can convey meaning that I may not have found had I read the same text.

    Watching these shows that are, admittedly, very well written is the same experience but even more so. So much of the meaning inherent in the story is interpreted for me–even by the simple fact of what the character looks like or who is chosen to play the part.

    It’s rare that a film of a book is as good as or better than the book; I wonder if what I’ve expressed above explains why. Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

  3. It’s good to know your thoughts on this topic, Liz. I like particularly the point about the greater scope for interpretation that reading literature requires of us – well said. On the subject of audiobooks, by the way, a friend of mine who makes use of them but would prefer not to (eye problems prevent her from doing as much reading as she’d like) remarks that audiobooks, like screen stories, make it difficult for us to “look up from the page”, as Roland Barthes puts it – we are swept forwards without being able to ponder, re-read a passage etc.
    Best wishes for your Literary Masters program, Liz.

  4. Thank you, Ian. And thanks for your response to my comments. I agree with your friend’s observation about audio books. After I finish listening to a book, I feel as if I have skimmed it. I also have a strange relationship when reading books online; I don’t feel the same engagement as I do when I read a book in print. I can’t really explain it.

    Thanks again for the work you do on your terrific blog!

  5. Appreciative responses such as yours make the effort of posting items on my blog thoroughly worthwhile.

  6. Yes, I think you are mistaken.
    I’m always slightly bothered by the phrase “Language is power”. It invokes images of students as receptacles, ready to be filled up with words that will liberate them.
    But in a way, language is power. Except it’s not just the language they see in books and poems. It’s the language of the street, the language, yes, of programmes like The Wire, the language of song lyrics and texts and tweets. The language they use to make meaning from the literature they read.
    As an English teacher, I love teaching Shakespeare and some of my best moments in the classroom have been when studying his plays. But the resources that students have used to make sense of the plays have ranged from West Side Story to East Enders (a British soap opera) as well as their own world experiences. The text isn’t inert, waiting to provide generations of youth with powerful language. It comes to life with each group of students depending on what they bring to it and it’s different every time. Likewise, programmes like The Wire speak to different groups of students in different ways. They deal with issues that concern youth and are complicated in that the characters are not straightforwardly bad or good and you have to unpick situations that are real and relevant to the lives of many of the students we teach. In doing so, we are doing the same things we do with Shakespeare’s plays and because the themes in these are universal, sometimes the one study informs the other.
    In a lesson recently in Ramallah, Palestine, students had a hard time understanding the written speech of a young Israeli who was actually on their side. They struggled with their experience of Israelis – as soldiers on checkpoints, and the dominant, hostile discourse of Israeli society, which they are all too familiar with. Their positions were nuanced, informed by different experiences, different backgrounds, and different political affiliations. They never came to a common conclusion but that 2-hour debate, passionate and heated, taught them more about language than any literary text could have done.
    We should be celebrating the range of linguistic resources that the present world offers, which includes the written text we all value, for it’s the confidence in their own control over language that will empower our students.

  7. Thank you, Monica, for this thoughtful and challenging response. I don’t believe we’re on opposite sides of an argument. My rumination included an acknowledgement of the compelling quality of the best TV drama, and I share your insistence that students need access to the full “range of linguistic resources” – a phrase we both use. What I resist is the suggestion that this needn’t include literature
    – that powerful screen stories can provide an adequate substitute for literary texts. The use and scope of language is different in different media and genres, that’s my point. I wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t value greatly (and make substantial use of) non-literary material in the English classroom – in fact my publications show that I’ve been arguing emphatically for its inclusion since the early 1980s. But movies don’t offer the same resources as a range of written texts can. The notion that teachers needn’t “care” about the latter because the former will do instead seems to me an irresponsible provocation..

  8. I agree that we are not poles apart but I’m much closer to the John Yandell position than you realise in that I think you seem to privilege a particular category of text (the literary) and a particular medium (the printed book), and appear, in your blog at least, to be saying that the text is fixed. I see it as just one more language resource in the English classroom and I don’t see that reading it and encountering the language in such texts empowers them. I think they already engage with the subtleties of language in ways that we are not always aware of and that having control over your own life involves participating in the world around you, engaging with it and seeking a role in making it the way you want it to be. There are many more obstacles in their way to becoming powerful (race, gender and class to name but 3) than language and I don’t see how reading the English romantic poets equips you any better to deal with the challenges of life than engaging with the complex representation of a whole society that is The Wire.

  9. I wonder if I might be able to clarify what I said in Adelaide. I think that Ian has conflated two separate comments that I made in response to questions.
    In the first, I recalled an occasion when I had shocked my students (on the pre-service teacher education course that I lead) by saying something to the effect that what I cared about was not literature but what school students made of it. The point that I was making, both to my students and to the conference in Adelaide, was that my interest was not in texts in and of themselves but in how readers make meaning. (The argument that Ian made, as long ago as 1984, for literature classrooms to become workshops rather than galleries seems to me to be largely congruent with what I was trying to say here. So perhaps there is common ground between us.)
    What I said about The Wire was that it seemed to me to represent a more significant achievement than any novel written in the past couple of decades. What I was trying to suggest, in necessarily abbreviated form, was that it seemed to me to be a mistake for English teachers (or anyone else, for that matter) to assume a hierarchy of aesthetic value based on the medium or modes in which a text is instantiated.
    There’s also a longer argument to be had about why I chose The Wire: much as I like – and value – many of the other series which Ian mentions, The Wire constitutes, I think, a different kind of achievement, both formally and in what it manages to represent (and the two are not, of course, so easliy separable as what I have just written might indicate). I’d want to suggest that it marks as significant a development in the form (the television drama series) as Middlemarch or War and Peace did in the development of a different form (the novel). And I’d also want to suggest that it is inaccurate to describe The Wire as primarily visual: the form, like that of film, is irreducibly multimodal. Making sense of it (and appreciating it) involves remaining closely attentive to words and images, and to the complex interplay of both.
    There may well be fundamental differences between Ian and me in relation to all sorts of judgements and values, aesthetic and pedagogic, both about the qualities of particular texts and about the status of particular categories of text. These differences are worth talking about. Isn’t that what people tend to do – about novels, plays, news stories, blogs, and indeed texts of all sorts?

  10. No, no! Monica, you’re attributing to me several views that I haven’t expressed and do not hold.
    • There’s nothing in my blog to suggest I regard any text as “fixed” – or “inert”, as you said in your previous comment. On the contrary, for many decades through many publications I’ve consistently emphasised the dynamic interaction of reading and textuality, not just in theoretical terms but also in devising curriculum materials.
    • Nor do I think that an encounter with literature is guaranteed to empower anyone; I used the phrase “liberating potential,” and whether that potential is realised in a particular situation will obviously depend on many factors including the relationship between teacher and student.
    • Nor do I “privilege” literary texts or the print medium above other kinds. Again, I’ve long argued a contrary position. To repeat what I’ve already said plainly: my objection to John Yandell’s remark is that it implies an equivalence between screen texts and written texts, ignoring fundamental differences of genre and medium.

    You say students face more obstacles to becoming powerful than language, and you cite race, gender and class. Your way of formulating this point is very odd. Certainly it’s true that prevailing social constructions such as race, gender and class can create significant barriers for a student. But these are inextricably embedded in language, not separate from it. One reason for valuing the study of well-chosen literary texts (which for many students would not mean “English Romantic poets”, of course!) is that their primary focus is language, often striated with the lines of race, class and gender, among other important things – and so in challenging ways they are indeed “engaging with the complex representation of a whole society.”

  11. Hello John. Thanks for responding. After the lapse of time (8 weeks since the conference, 7 weeks since I posted my reflections) it seems we’ll have to agree to differ about what was actually said in Adelaide, and who did the “conflating”! Your remark about The Wire being a greater achievement than any novel written in recent decades was made, as I recall, in an attempt to explain and justify what you said you’d told pre-service teachers – that you “didn’t care about literature.”

    Anyhow, I welcome the fact that you’ve now sought to clarify what you meant, and I have no difficulty in agreeing with much of what you’ve written here. Who wouldn’t share a keen interest in “how students make meaning”? It’s something that has long engaged my attention, and you mention my 1984 book as evidence of common ground between us on that topic. And I’m also with you, unsurprisingly, in thinking it would be a mistake “to assume a hierarchy of aesthetic value” based on a text’s medium.

    My blog piece about the importance of studying written texts doesn’t imply that they are more valuable than other kinds. What I argued is that they are differently valuable: no matter how compelling TV drama may often be, in English studies it shouldn’t be a substitute for written texts. (Conversely, literature shouldn’t be a substitute for substantial work in the screen medium.) The point is that they are not equivalent. Unless the act of meaning-making is seen as purely subjective, i.e. under the sole control of a reader’s extratextual framing without regard to other framing elements (thus giving it little worth in the eyes of fellow-readers), the distinctive qualities of different media and genres must be recognised as vital parts of the semantic transaction.

    You dispute my assertion that the primary medium of screen drama is the visual image, while the primary medium of literature is language itself. Your criticism is that I don’t acknowledge how “multimodal” a text like The Wire actually is – how we need to recognise the complex interplay of word and image if we’re to make sense of it. Yes of course it’s multimodal, but my point remains valid. Screen drama is always primarily visual. Without moving images it wouldn’t be screen drama, whereas words, music etc are normal but not necessary concomitants. Comparably, literary texts by definition consist primarily of words, though they may sometimes be multimodal too (so making sense of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience involves close attention not only to their language but also to its complex interplay with the accompanying engraved images and with musical allusions, e.g. to Isaac Watts’s hymnody).

    (Interesting that the first respondent to my blog piece said that although she’s an enthusiastic watcher of The Wire she thinks this involves for her a different kind of meaning-making from what the reading of literature requires.)

    So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between us, but apparently there are differences as well, and by posting my thoughts about them I signalled that I think that they are also worth consideration. So I’m glad you and others have considered them.

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