Do you want your ‘text’ boiled, fried, stewed or thoroughly scrambled with that?

A propos of my post yesterday, on English in school, I’d like to present to you the assignment my son brought home yesterday afternoon from school, an assignment which exemplifies everything I’ve been talking about. he was, by the way, in a state of wild revolt about it.
It’s on Cloudstreet, Tim Winton’s extraordinary saga of the Lambs and the Pickles, which Xavier loved. It comprises an assignment sheet plus a positive blizzard of densely boring ‘explanatory’ texts. I’ll have to extract from it all as there’s far too much of it to fit on even ten posts.
Assignment: Readings of Cloudstreet
What message(s) does Cloudstreet convey to you?
What do you see as the important themes or issues within the text?
Does it privilege a certain set of values?
CONTEXT: The circumstances surrounding a text’s production and publication, including its historical and political milieu.
It is important for you to have your own clear understanding of the text’s concerns and the values underpinning it. Your reading is based on your particular context. Other readings of the text will be based on individuals’ contexts and ideologies (!!!). Refer to the notes from mETaphor by Steven Cooper and the sheet Ways of Reading Texts.
Consider the following readings in your groups:

1.The approach from genre
(here follows some points to ‘consider’)
2.A gender based reading (ditto)
3.A socio-political reading(ditto)
4.Text as an examination of social identity(ditto)
5.A post-colonial reading(ditto)
6.A spiritual reading(ditto)
7.A psychoanalytical reading(ditto)

(In all these pseudo-scientific, theoretical readings, there’s not one shred of allowing for the ‘Xavier Masson-Leach reading’ , or the ‘Sophie Masson’ reading, or the ‘enter someone’s individual name here’ reading, let alone poor Tim Winton’s own. Someone said in a comment or post that all this stuff is anti-human, and it’s hard to argue with that, on the evidence of this.)

Now here follow extracts from the ‘explanatory notes’:

From ‘Ways of Reading Texts’:
‘Critical Theory’–profiles Historicism, New Criticism, Archetypal; Psychoanalytical; Psychoanalytical; Feminist; Marxist;; Cultural; New Historicism; Reader-Response; Deconstruction..
Here’s just a couple of ‘gems’, from ‘Reader-Response’ followed by ‘Deconstruction’. While reading, imagine yourself in the position of a class of bright, articulate 17 year old lovers of good books and haters of convoluted sentences and pompous, make-work gobbledygook:
‘Reader-Response criticism insists that all literature is a structure of experience, not just a form of meaning, and therefore focusses on finding meaning in the act of reading itself and examines the ways individual readers or communities of readers experience texts. These critics examine how the reader joins with the author to ‘help the text mean.’ They determine what kind of reader or what community of readers the work implies and helps to create..
(well, well; so everyone reads differently–what a world-shattering insight in so few words!)
‘Deconstruction is a recent school of criticism which ventures beyond the structuralists’ assumption that all aspects of human culture are fundamentally languages–complex systems of signs: signifieds(concepts) and signifiers: verbal or non-verbal–and that therefore a quasi-scientific formalism is available for approaching literature, and food, fashion etc. Deconstructionists oppose the metaphysics of presence, that is the claim of literature or philosophy that we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or propr to language itself. Like formalists, these critics also look at the relation of a text’s ideas to the way ideas are expressed…’
(and so on and wearily on. Long ago, you’ve lost the kids. And when you boil down the message of this, deconstruct it in fact, it is so fundamentally anti-literature, not ‘with rich full meaning’ but thin, narrow, prissy and shabby, that it beggars belief as to why it’s being given out in English literature. Unless all it’s become is an attack on literature, which I’m strongly beginning to feel.)

Extracts from more bumf: this is ‘A reading of Cloudstreet,’ by Steven Cooper, referred to in the assignment sheet. In a dozen closely printed, tedious pages, this screed takes you through all the approved ways of reading Cloudstreet, as enumerated in the assignment sheet, in language which is just as easy to follow as the preceding stuff I extracted. It also has many ‘helpful’ little sidebar issues. Here’s how it starts:
‘This text is an approach to the study of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. It offers a consideration and contemporary literary theory as well as a detailed analysis of the text and so may be of use in studying the text in preparation for examination. (you have been warned, kids, if you don’t conform!!)
What is literary theory and what is itsrelevance to text?
Textuality
Late 20th century literary theory refers to Textuality. This explains literary texts as multiplistic; the single written entity is in fact a series of multiple writings that exist as a contestation rather than a simplistic and smoothly integrated whole. (silly author, thinking that might be what he was doing!) Does this apply to Cloudstreet? Certainly the stylistic form within the text, the shifting character viewpoint, the appearanceof unidentified narrators might be construed as beingevidence of a variety of strands of writing that we are contesting to produce a whole. Composers(!!) of text may also be said to be creating a text for aesthetic reasons or be unaware of the possibilityes of alternate readings of the text. (my, those creative writers are thick hicks, aren’t they!)..
etc..etc..etc..

With all this to wade through, with all these awful ‘ways of reading’ to digest, I think we’re going to have trouble restraining Xavier from doing what one of his friends, who did the HSC last year, ended up doing in his exam: he did the creative part of it, happily, then wrote on his ‘ways of reading text’ paper, that he refused to do it, and walked out. It’d be good if the whole Extension English cohort from every school in NSW did that then maybe the Department, and the Board of Studies, would realise what it’s done. And yet, how can you expect most kids to do it? They are trapped–if you want a decet UAI, you’ve got to do as they say, however much you hate it.
I’m not saying that in the past things were necessarily better. There were orthodoxies and narrow-minded pedadogues then too. But we were still not so corralled into ‘interpretations’ which are mee ideological frameworks, closing down all individual response.

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jen
jen
2022 years ago

footbinding for the mind

Tom Davies
Tom Davies
2022 years ago

I once wished that I’d done some arts subjects at uni, rather than just a straight science degree, but the last few posts on Troppo have cured me!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

My goodness. I see what you mean. I’ve been responding to my daughter Rebecca’s bafflement and loss of heart and interest in studying English in Years 11 and 12, after being inspired and engaged with a great teacher in years 9 and 10. I thought maybe they weren’t being given enough (or clear enough) explanatory material on the theoretical basis of the way they’re expected to tackle texts. In fact it seems they’re being given too much of full-blown po mo incoherence. It’s disgraceful, no tragic. I’ll have to carefully review the supporting texts and materials students are given in the NT. If they’re on a par with NSW, then that’s certainly the explanation for Rebecca’s discouragement. There’s no way she could understand this crap; I don’t even understand it; probably because it’s just pretentious meaningless gobbledygook.

But, like Sophie, this isn’t just an idle discussion for me. My daughter is in Year 12 and studying advanced stream English, and she’s bored, discouraged and disengaged where previously she was excited and stimulated. I fear that her results are going to be drastically adversely affected by this, because she’s very much a “confidence” player, and prone to give up and assume she’s just stupid in a situation like this (instead of examining the premise that it’s the curriculum writers who are the stupid ones). But what does she (and we) do about it now? It’s going to affect her life and career choices if (as I fear) her TER score is dragged down significantly by being discouraged by the way English is taught. Is there a viable alternative to studying advanced English? I think we need to go and see the school’s Curriculum Co-ordinator and see whether Rebecca could transfer into (say) Drama instead. But is study of some strand of English compulsory in the NT? I don’t know. Probably I should, but it’s never until now occurred to me to consider tackling the HSC without English, when you’re aiming at a humanities-oriented career choice (as Rebecca is).

The Nelson enquiry is badly needed, but it’s outcomes (whatever they may be) are going to be far too late to benefit Bec.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“Does it privilege a certain set of values?”

Never mind the po mo, since when has privilege been a verb? it’s a bit disturbing that this kind of Grammar 101 error should appear in an assignment set by an English teacher.

Oh, well.

Sophie, out of interest, does your son attend a government school, where as we all know, the academic standards are decrepit, and lefty teachers are rampant, or a private school, where the values are those of Mainstream Australia?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Never mind the po mo, since when has privilege been a verb?”

Since Shakespeare’s time at least – “That you yourself may privilege your time”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Oops I meant UAI. TER is the old acronym for the score students achieve that determines what universities and courses they qualify to enrol in.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Sophie,

The problem you outline is something I have been fighting for years – I was an English teacher and a member of the AATE. Below is something I wrote after attending a conference in 1991. It saddens me to find out how pervasive theory now is.

I’d like to send you a chapter from the thesis that defends reading literature for its own sake. If you want a copy, please email me at:

kevind@netspace.net.au

1991 article written after attending an AATE conference.
The title of the recent national conference of English teachers held in Brisbane was New Voices: New Directions. The Politics of Literacy.

Given such a title one might assume that a variety of voices would have been heard and that there was room for disagreement and debate. This was not the case.

From the very opening of the conference it was obvious that the agenda had been set by those in control and that priority was to be given to extolling the virtues of the new orthodoxy.

In a keynote address teachers were asked what had happened to the radical fervour of the 1960’s and the liberating influence of such socialist writers as Freire.

The answer was that the State had ‘appropriated’ the ideology of revolution and that as English teachers we had to be continually on guard against becoming the unwilling servants of the capitalist class.

Our crime was to teach texts that ‘marginalised’ and ‘disempowered’ particular minority groups in terms of their ‘gender, ethnicity and class’.

A second speaker warned teachers about the dangers of what was termed standard written English. While most might assume that this particular ‘discourse’ has certain strengths and benefits this is not the case.

In fact, rather than being seen as preferable, it is simply a form of communication that is politically conservative and which reinforces the privileged position of a white, male, Anglo-Australian middle-class.

In a second keynote address teachers were warned that reading is not simply a matter of understanding what is actually written in the text. The alternative we were urged to adopt is to allow students to read what is not there or, in other words, what has been excluded.

Students should be given the freedom to celebrate their own reading and to explore ‘gaps, spaces and holes’ in the text and discover how every text is the product of a particular set of cultural assumptions, beliefs and values.

In the jargon of the new orthodoxy the teacher’s role is to give students the power to offer ‘a resistant reading that challenges the ideology of the text’. Once again this is interpreted as uncovering the way in which texts are sexist, racist and culturally biased.

Of course, the intention is not to understand or appreciate what is actually written, but rather to ‘subvert’ and ‘undermine’ the text and to give free play to one’s subjective and idiosyncratic response.

On the second day of the conference the audience was given an opportunity to witness what such a reading might entail. A short piece of writing entitled ‘Interchapter VII’, from Hemingway’s collection In Our Time, was read and a number of responses were given.

In many ways it is not necessary to know the piece of writing as the responses bore little or no relation to what Hemingway had actually written.

It is enough to know that most of the story describes a soldier who, while being shelled in a trench, begs for Christ’s protection. The man survives and after his ordeal visits what we assume to be a prostitute.

Four female students then read their responses to the text. As with much of the conference the opportunity provided the chance for another gratutious attack on our male dominated society; one were women are continually exploited, denigrated and abused.

One student’s response in particular, rather than offering a balanced interpretation of the Hemingway story, signified more about her personal fears, anxieties and prejudices.

This student described the soldier – and by implication men in general – as a brutal killer who was both insensitive and cruel and only concerned with using women for his own immediate sexual gratification. The rape and violence that occurs in war were seen by this student as simply a reflection of the desire felt by all men to dominate and exploit women.

The dangers and weaknesses associated with the new orthodoxy are numerous. The most obvious is that while there might be some therapeutic value in giving free play to one’s personal response there is even greater value in being able to understand and appreciate what is actually written in the text.

The second is that the argument that all texts are inescapably political is both reductionist and simplistic. While some texts are political there are also those that can be valued because of their aesthetic quality.

It must also be remembered that one of the strengths of great literature is that it addresses the type of existential questions and predicaments that humanity has had to face since the dawn of time.

A third criticism is that it is not enough to dismiss standard English as simply one of the tools used by those in control of society to exploit and dominate others.

The reality is that standard English is a superior form of communication; this explains why it is this form of discourse that the advocates of the new orthodoxy use whenever they wish to communicate their views.

The problem is that by denying minority groups a mastery of standard written and spoken English they are in fact being further ‘disempowered’ and ‘marginalised’.

Finally, the point must be made that in transforming English into cultural studies, where the teacher has to become an expert in such diverse fields as anthropology, economics, history, politics, sociology and the new forms of theory, there are a number of fundamental flaws.

Not only is what should be most valued in the subject lost, but this approach confuses the subject of English with education as a whole. The reality is that there are other subjects on the school timetable that have the responsibility of dealing with economic, political and historical matters.

At a time when the teaching and study of English is under scrutiny, both at a state and a national level, it is of great concern that the so-called experts in tertiary institutions are so consumed with promoting their own particular ideology and agenda.

One result is that, in a subject where there should be constructive debate and disagreement, the sad fact is that recent graduates (who are the future teachers of English) are being given a very blinkered and doctrinaire understanding.

This is apart from the danger that, such is the outlandish and bizarre nature of the new orthodoxy, that the general public will continue to look on many English teachers with suspicion, hostility and disbelief.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“therefore focusses on finding meaning in the act of reading itself and examines the ways individual readers or communities of readers experience texts.”

Sophie, to be fair, doesn’t this provide space for the individual student to do their own reading and write about how the book affected them?

The other question we really need answered is if this is the only approach to the book or if it’s later considered/taught in other ways?

The answer may well be no, and I don’t disagree that this particular example is pretty forbidding and seems to have nothing to do with any appreciation of the literary quality of Tim Winton.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Sophie, I sympathise entirely and will comment separately on your original post.

My daughter went through a similar exercise last year (yr 11) with ‘Montana 1948’. They over-analysed the thing to death, to the point where she thoroughly hated the work. This from a girl who’s loved books and reading since pre-school.

In the end my wife got me to read it and tutor her through the various questions. I obstinately refused to get drawn into the theoretical side and encouraged her to answer on the basis of plot, character and context. She was more comfortable with this approach and submitted a good paper, but she never warmed to the work.

It’s a travesty when people learn to hate a work that actually offers something, as this did. A year earlier, she went through a similar exercise with the novella, ‘Of Mice and Men’. That is a captivating story, allowing a lot of inferences but it shouldn’t be flogged to death.

That was the very issue Mr Keating attempted to tackle in the movie “Dead Poets Society”. He tore up the ‘approved methods’ of analysing poetry.

I had a much happier earlier experience when my older daughter did Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I was thrilled that this should resonate with young people two centuries after it was written. My daughter certainly enjoyed it.
The difference, apparently, was that this was done as Literature, and the others were done as English.

I’m not keen on them being separated in this way. But if they going to be, surely we should be abandoning these bullshit issues and focusing more on the use and misuse of language.

Orwell and Don Watson might be useful starting points. Critical examination of newspeak, PR statements (how to deceive without directly lying) and advertising material might be useful. Even The Simpsons would have its value in that context.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’d be surprised and disappointed, Mark, if I thought you were defending this nonsense. As I said over on the other thread, this stuff is dangerous. It kills the text, kills the author, and for good measure kills the reader as well.

What asinine twaddle.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, I’m not.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

To expand, I’m actually rather an educational traditionalist – at tertiary level, I also think the Dawkins revolution has contributed to many disasters (but so has the slashing of funding to Universities by the Howard government).

I would much rather see English taught as the study of literature. Kevin’s point in his article is to the point:

“Finally, the point must be made that in transforming English into cultural studies, where the teacher has to become an expert in such diverse fields as anthropology, economics, history, politics, sociology and the new forms of theory, there are a number of fundamental flaws.”

I also made a point identical to this one by Kevin’s in my initial post on Sawyer:

“The problem is that by denying minority groups a mastery of standard written and spoken English they are in fact being further ‘disempowered’ and ‘marginalised’.”

I think that literature should be taught as such, and understood within its contexts – which include but are not limited to its social and political contexts. However, the above example is not the way to do that! As a number of people have said, all it promotes is a mechanical approach to textual analysis which really refuses to engage with the text as such, its themes and qualities.

I’d raise this question though. How will Nelson’s enquiry change any of this? Presumably young teachers who’ve done English at Uni are thoroughly imbued with this sort of approach. As are teacher educators, I assume, and the people who design curricula.

It would be better to address this issue at the state level where the responsibility lies. I’m opposed in principle to the imposition of a national curriculum.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Apologies for the typos – I’m not awake yet. Coffee beckons!

ctd
ctd
2022 years ago

I think there is some benefit in some of the approach. In particular, the concept that books can be read in different ways and that different ‘ideologies’ (or backgrounds) will produce different readings. I distinctly recall being suprised in year 11 (yes, that late) at the way history (specifially, Post WW2 USA history) could be read very differently depending on whether you were left/right/black/white/immigrant etc. Probably today kids are taught this far earlier, but it was important to me.

I also remember my HS english where there was only one or maybe 2 ‘correct’ readings of the text (except for Shakespeare – for some reason Hmalet was allowed to be read in several ways). So to have 5 different ‘correct’ readings is really only an extension of what I went through. And no matter who you are, as a student, you need to be taught these things – they are not inherently in you. I mean, no one would complain about being taught what Shakespeare meant at the time he wrote, or Jane Austen’s society or communism if you are reading Animal Farm. So why can you expect (for example) a male student to understand what a female might make of the book.

I also think we have to be careful in denigrating jargon because its jargon TO US. I am a lawyer, so I speak jargon lots of times, but it makes perfect sense to other lawyers. Doctors are even worse and I am sure psychiatrists are just as bad. If you are being taught english then learning the ‘jargon’ of english is appropriate.

Having said that, there is jargon and there is ‘academicese’ – Sophie gave the great example of a long sentence that meant ‘people interpret texts in different ways’.

I tend to get the feeling that a lot of the criticism is not the concept but the interpretations given. Kevin’s example is one – using a story to give a political statement that is really really stretching the point. Or using books to give a political or sociological reading which most people just can’t see exists. I also think portraying every book as a social comment, without exploring the characters and the story, is wrong. But I disagree with Kevin’s argument that english is not cultural studies. It always has been (eg Jane Austen), but maybe the balance has gone to far – the book is now the start of the cultural study, instead of (in my view) the culture being an influence on the book. In other words, study the book as it reflects culture, dont study the book as part of cultural studies.

I am an avid reader. I read for enjoyment. I tend to read and not think all that much about the book. But I am not studying the book. I am not doing english. I think there is a real difference.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Dave, our sons attend government high schools(two different ones in Armidale, where we live). They are pretty good, generally–and there’s some excellent teachers there. But the curriculum from which I quoted is Extension English I for HSC. It only kicks in from Year 11. Xavier is doing both Extension I and Extension II(which is the creative part).Extension English is the old 3Unit English.
My daughter went to a Catholic high school(she did her HSC five years ago this year). She certainly had none of this crap–but I think that’s because this was not the curriculum then. It came in about the time she left school, lucky girl, I see now.
Ken and Don, as you might imagine, I completely sympathise with you and your children. This situation is an utter tragedy, and I am FURIOUS that this kind of shit is being imposed–IMPOSED–on our children, in this high-handed and unbalanced manner. There may be a place for all this kind of dusty and arcane theory in the academy–as a matter of choice, not imposition. But to impose this on young kids is cruel, stupid and counterproductive.
Mark, your point re the individual responses getting a guernsey in the ‘reader responses’ section is a good one, but the truth is that individual responses which do not fit are not allowed. Xavier has told us of the discussions at school when the kids are challenging the English teacher on all this stuff–including adopting the most extreme poses, just to rebel–and basically it’s made very clear to them that if they don’t do the ‘painting by numbers’ of this stuff, they can kiss goodbye to their marks.
Unfortunately, you can’t NOT do English–God, I hate even writing that, me who loved English so much! And I’m not sure how far this stuff goes in the other forms of English–ie General, or whatever. Perhaps they don’t have it there. But why should a bright reader and lover of literature be put on the rack in this way? Why should they be forced to take ‘vegie’ English, when you get even less ‘texts’ to study and you probably get to concentrate on ads! It’s outrageous.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

” Mark, your point re the individual responses getting a guernsey in the ‘reader responses’ section is a good one, but the truth is that individual responses which do not fit are not allowed. Xavier has told us of the discussions at school when the kids are challenging the English teacher on all this stuff–including adopting the most extreme poses, just to rebel–and basically it’s made very clear to them that if they don’t do the ‘painting by numbers’ of this stuff, they can kiss goodbye to their marks.”

Sophie, maybe part of the problem here is that the HSC in NSW is an external exam. Therefore enormous stakes lie just on one piece of work. Queensland got rid of external exams in the early 70s and therefore there’s less pressure on kids just to come up with the “right answers” in Senior. I suspect that the teacher’s also probably focussing on this – everyone you talk to who did Senior in Queensland says that basically they were taught to pass the exam and nothing else. So possibly whatever’s on the curriculum is taught rigidly – if school education is seen just as maximising a TE Score (or whatever they’re called these days) then the space for more thoughtful teaching and learning narrows. If NSW had a similar system to Qld, then presumably teachers who disagree with this sort of approach to English would have more leeway.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

In the 19th century and into the 20th, it used to be liberal thinking that if you got a good education you could (with the right will and effort) overcome any position of disadvantage. No matter that you were born in a slum or brought up in an orphanage, education was the means to overcome your situation and move onward – and upward.

It seems in some respects that the situation is reversed today: students are actually disadvantaged by having been ‘educated’.

I know a girl (young lady, whatever) in her mid-twenties who recently attended a report-writing course in the public service. (Not as bad as it sounds; the course is delivered by a very comepetent ex-primary school teacher.) . She said later that this was the first time – the FIRST TIME! – she had ever been exposed to the rules of grammar, sentence construction, use of the apostrophe, etc.

This was a very bright, intelligent and articulate person. But she couldn’t write for nuts. She couldn’t put a sentence together that made coherent sense, let alone explain complex concepts in writing. She’s at the stage now where she would be expecting to move into a management position. But every job she goes for will require she can demonstrate advanced skills in ‘written communication’ (in public service-speak, pretty dire in and of itself).

So in fact she has been terminally disadvantaged by the privilege of having been educated, 1990’s style. She is probably never going to fulfil her promise because at school she was denied the tools to enable her to do so.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I also wanted to draw out my point above about social and political contexts in response to ctd. One can observe instances of unequal power relations between men and women in almost every text. That’s because our culture and society generally has these embedded in it. In and of itself, just to read Jane Austen (say) for this alone is pointless. It also decontextualises historical change, and even if the point were to stimulate children to reflect on the reasons for this state of the affairs and how it might be changed, it offers none – and no way forward. That’s the reason why (some) people on the Left think that postmodernism is a political dead end. You also strip the text out of its actual political context – the way that men related to women in the 1820s is massively different from the social patterns in our society and a mechanical approach tells you nothing about that either. And if that’s not the prime concern of the novel (though Austen’s novels clearly deal among other things with courtship, love and its absence and social status and the plots are driven by these factors) – as I imagine it wouldn’t be with Tim Winton (I don’t know – I haven’t read him) then you really are doing violence to the book.

I can easily imagine how you could do an analysis of gender relations in Eliot’s Middlemarch – a text I love – partly because Eliot herself in her life was something of a feminist – and partly because the novel is moved forward by Dorothea’s dreams of a different life, and her eventual acceptance of something she doesn’t want at the outset after her marriage to Casaubon really shows her how naive she was. The premise that Dorethea’s desires for independence and to do something meaningful in the world was unrealistic (at the time) is clearly a major theme in the book, and understanding this within the social structure and culture of Victorian England should enhance its understanding and appreciation.

Therefore I disagree with Kevin insofar as he suggests that there can be a neat separation between “character and plot” and “social/historical context”, if that’s what he’s saying. But the manner of proceeding exemplified in the worksheet and what I’ve seen of the curriculum documents is not what I would see as achieving the aim of critically reading literature both for its value and for what it tells us about the world (surely something Kevin accepts, even as much as I would disagree with his formulation that there are eternal problems of the human condition).

What’s needed is a balance, and also an approach sensitive to the texts themselves.

I also agree – when I did Senior English we were able to pick only a limited number of interpretations of Shakespeare. I suspect that’s just been carried over into the new methods but the approved interpretations are different.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob

“Tools”?? In a toolbox? See, it’s contagious.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“She said later that this was the first time – the FIRST TIME! – she had ever been exposed to the rules of grammar, sentence construction, use of the apostrophe, etc.”

I was taught Greek and Latin roots in grades 6 and 7 and grammar very comprehensively in grades 8 and 9. Whatever people think of my opinions, I can write clearly enough and correctly when I try. But I don’t know that you’ve not made too sweeping an assumption here, Rob. That particular woman may have some form of dyslexia, for instance. I doubt there’s ever been a time when everyone who went through High School could write standard English correctly or well. From what I remember at School, a lot of my fellow students couldn’t spell to save their lives.

If no-one is taught correct English these days, I am unable to explain how most essays I mark from brighter students are written well, and most from students who are not so bright are not. There’s also a significant variation between students from working-class high schools and those who were educated in middle-class areas. There are a lot of other factors that facilitate literacy outside the classroom – a love of reading is one – it pays dividends in writing – and there’s a clear link between having parents who have books in the home and also love reading and literacy. Sadly, there’s a class divide here as well.

There are two different issues here – whether kids are being taught literature in a way with which we would disagree – and I’m reasonably persuaded by the evidence that’s so – and whether standards of literacy are declining. Don put up a post on Troppo last year which demonstrated statistically that the latter is not the case.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Touche, Ken.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago
AJ
AJ
2022 years ago

From what I’ve read here, I think Federalist instincts in education are definitely the way to go.

National inquiries into education are fine. National literacy targets, or indeed any other sort of educational targets, are also fine. But let’s not go down the path of trying to enforce national teaching methodologies, syllabi or other pedagogical practices.

We are more likely to succeed in finding the right path if we have seven different educational authorities looking for the right answer. I’m sure parents across Australia will be the first to notice which system works best. With only one national system, it will be either wrong or right. Too risky in my opinion.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark’s experience with uni students is much happier than mine. I have been working with graduate entrants to the public service – with recruitment programs designed to skim off the cream of the cream – and almost without exception their writing skills were somewhere between pretty disappointing and outright appalling.

OT – sorry.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

AJ

I would normally agree with you, because I’m a federalist too. But children frequently move across state borders and have their education severely disrupted, especially when it happens in senior high school years. Therefore there needs to be a high degree of co-operation and co-ordination of both content and approach. It may not be necessary to go quite to the length of a national curriculum (they’ve tried before and failed to reach agreement), but certainly much better co-ordination than at present is needed.

As you concede, a national enquiry is fine. Hopefully that will uncover the fiasco of English teaching at senior high school level and recommend corrective action (although to what extent it will be successful is questionable given the pervasive influence of po mo-oriented teacher academics and their protegees), and will also push the need for greater curriculum co-ordination.

In a more general sense, although the notion of flexibility in experimenting with different solutions as an advantage of a federalist system is one I find attractive, I think we have to be cautious about using our children as subjects for experimentation. THAT’s too risky in my opinion.

Educational bureaucrats are notorious for adopting the latest educational fad and then changing it almost as often as their clothes. It’s a phenomenon well known to anyone who’s been involved with education for any length of time. Engineering/driving a new methodology or curriculum change seems to be the way education bureaucrats make a name for themselves and climb the greasy pole of career advancement.

Unfortunately it’s far too often at the expense of the students and classroom teachers at the “coalface”, who have to somehow find a way to implement these continual changes while still teaching kids effectively. Most do it by paying lip service to the latest fad and adopting enough of the jargon to avoid censure, but otherwise sticking with tried and true teaching methods. But it’s much more difficult (if not impossible) to do that where (as here) the fad is entrenched in a year 12 curriculum, so that their students are going to have to learn to regurgitate this crap or fail.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I’d much rather have had all my assessment in 11 and 12 contribute to my senior certificate and TE Score – as it did in Queensland – than have to worry about HSC external exams at the end of year 12.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

And imagine if Latho had been PM – in true Whitlamite fashion, we’d have had a national curriculum probably stuffed full of all his loopy ideas given his narcissism.

The valid points you make can be addressed by better co-ordination between the states.

TommyGun
TommyGun
2022 years ago

If your point had been that critical theory was too sophistocated for 17 year olds (and you), that would be reasonable. As it is, your comments smack of ignorance. Critical theory appears difficult (pointless, abstruse, pompous, ridiculous, etc.)…so revile it! It is hard to educate young people when their parents put up walls.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Sorry, who are you addressing that too, TommyGun? If it was me I’d like to respond…..

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Presumably it’s addressed to Sophie as author of the post, Rob, since it doesn’t address any particular comment. I see no reason why you can’t respond if you wish, though.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

If addressed to Sophie, TommyGun’s comment is both offensive and betrays a failure to read the post and comment thread. Sophie conceded (albeit dubiously – a hesitation I share) that it might be OK to study po mo theories at tertiary level, but that it’s unsuitable for HSC students:

“There may be a place for all this kind of dusty and arcane theory in the academy–as a matter of choice, not imposition. But to impose this on young kids is cruel, stupid and counterproductive.”

In other words, she IS making the argument TommyGun regards as acceptable that “critical theory was too sophistocated for 17 year olds”. Personally, I’d replace “sophisticated” with “incoherent” or something similar, but why quibble?

Miranda
Miranda
2022 years ago

When I went to high school in the late eighties there was one correct way to interpret any book/play etc. The idea that there might be more than one way to approach a text seems quite exciting to me! No one wanted to hear my interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice” the idea was to try and work out the CORRECT interpretation which was the one that the teacher taught you and that was found in the crib notes and textbooks.
I wonder if there is not a bit of mis-placed nostalgia here, possibly from those who don’t really remember what it was like to do high school english.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Before you get too excited about the idea of a national curriculum, have a read of this:

The first thing to be said about a national curriculum is that arguments for and against have been going on for over 24 years. The CDC’s Core Curriculum for Australian Schools (1980), Doug White and Bill Hannan’s Manifesto for a Democratic Curriculum (1984) and finally, the Keating Government’s national curriculum statements and frameworks (1991-93), have all contributed to the debate.

Those baby boomer teachers who first started teaching during the mid 1970s will also know, while millions have been spent and thousands of hours expended, that all the attempts have either failed or have been counter productive and, while possibly good in theory, most classroom teachers have been less than impressed.

Why is this so? Firstly, attempts to develop a national curriculum have adopted a top down approach, one where education apparatchiks and consultants theorise and develop curriculum far removed from the realities of the classroom.

Instead of being based an strong academic standards and an impartial, balanced view of education, especially in history, geography and social studies, it is also true that recent curriculum documents have been ideologically driven and politically biased.

As noted by the NSW Vinson Report, the result is that teachers feel overwhelmed and stressed out when forced to implement cumbersome, bureaucratic and overly detailed curriculum frameworks that make their jobs harder and take time away from teaching.

It is also true that many parents feel students are being indoctrinated in areas like multiculturalism, gender studies, history and the environment and, as a result, they send their children to non-government schools where the values are more in tune with those of the home.

Secondly, as outlined in Why Our Schools are Failing, the history of curriculum development in Australia is one based on failed educational fads like whole language and fuzzy maths. The fact that the Keating Government’s national curriculum adopted outcomes based education also led to falling standards.

While partly responsible for developing Australia’s national curriculum statements and profiles, even Bruce Wilson now argues that the attempt was inherently flawed and that the outcome represents an “unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise”

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

To return to Sophie’s excellent post – yes, one does get angry and upset that a child’s (young person’s, whatever) experience of reading is being contaminated by this kind of stuff. Not only is it unpleasant – and clearly ideologically motivated – but it’s also extremely stupid, the classic product of ‘learned fools’.

This, for example –

‘….ventures beyond the structuralists’ assumption that all aspects of human culture are fundamentally languages–complex systems of signs: signifieds (concepts) and signifiers: verbal or non-verbal–and that therefore a quasi-scientific formalism is available for approaching literature, and food, fashion etc…..’

– appears to be a debased and maladroit derivation from the complex discipline of semiotics, couched in appalling language that a sub-standard thinker could contemplate in pleased self-satisfaction, without realising that these ponderous phrases don’t actually mean anything (even if they are more or less grammatically correct). It could have been authored by The Postmodernism Generator. Kids and teachers could search for hours in this thicket without finding the squirrels, because there aren’t any in there; mixing metaphors again, it’s just a patina of words covering an empty space.

But, Ken (and other po-mo sceptics), not all of it is like that. Eco and Barthes are great thinkers who also write very well and lucidly. . Foucault as Mark says is quite a stylist. If you stick to the good stuff you get quite a different impression of postmodernism.

It’s the legions of camp followers loaded down with ideological baggage rescued from the death of Marxism that are the real problem. They’re the ones that write the crap that Sophie quotes from. And it’s horrible to think they have any influence whatsoever on the development of kids’ responses to literature, or any kind of art. The fact that they have a determining power (do it this way or get bad marks) is simply terrifying.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Miranda, you may well be right.

I finished school in 1984, and was turned off Shakespeare in grade 11 by the tedious practice of having students take turns to read parts of the play aloud, and by endless references to the interpretive notes. I think my English prize was solely the result (so far as the Shakespeare bit of the exam was concerned) by lifting stuff from traditionalist books on Shakespeare interpretation from the library which gave the one true sense of the Bard.

By contrast, I got into Shakespeare when I had a much better teacher in Grade 12.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Tommy Gun–I suggest you do read back my posts and comments. It’s exactly as I said in those, and as Ken pointed out–I have no problem with people doing this stuff at uni as a matter of choice–that’s their choice–but to see this imposed on ALL Year 12 Extension English students in NSW is quite another matter. There is NO choice in the matter and no way you can make your voice be heard as an individual student, or ‘interpreter’ of texts, other than the protest my son’s friend did, which will si,ply see him get low marks. I strongly suggest that education is not about indoctrination or shutting down of options; and that reading and understanding literature is not a matter of corralling approved interpretations–one or several, what’s the diff, if they’re the only ones you’re allowed–but of allowing people to express their feelings and opinions on it, to think clearly and logically about what they’re saying, and to be able to defend it. As a writer and a reader as well as a parent, I strongly object to this bullshit destroying the love children may develop for books. I strongly object to so-called experts, who know practically nothing about writing or literature, imposing their pre-digested views on children, just because it’s the fashion. I’d like to see some actual writers and readers–and not just theoreticians–actually have a hand in the curriculum. Kids might find it a little more enjoyable!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Tommy Gun, Sophie’s point that if you haven’t developed a love of literature, what’s the purpose in understanding critical theory about it is a valid question to ask. One suspects that if the point of critical theory at this level is just to analyse social and power relations in literary texts, then there’s a different agenda other than teaching literature going on. But maybe that’s what teaching English is meant to be about these days? I’d like to hear someone come clean and defend the thesis that studying English at high school should primarily be about developing social critique – if that’s indeed true. If not, then I’d like to hear a defence of the pedagogical methods which are approved these days in terms of teaching literature. Happy to hear this from anyone! So far, the defenders of this sort of approach are silent.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, can I change my comment to ‘….the train-wreck of Marxism’, please? It makes me feel better, hehehe.

Manas
2022 years ago

Sophie,
this is really interesting, though I must say, the comments are a bit long for me to get through them all!

I did English Lit here in WA 5/6 years ago now. Cloudstreet was one of my texts, and absolutely one of my favourites. I must have read it in full about 3 or 4 times through the year, but because of all the analysis I could actually remember the page numbers of certain quotes (much to the amusement of much of my class).

I agree with parts of your post but not others, but since I do not have children, or any real literary knowledge (no formal study of it since highschool). I agree that the volume of verbose and convoluted paragraphs that are supposed to suggest certain readings of the text is very offputting and definitely unnecessary (was it Oscar Wilde who once said, ‘never use a long word when a short one will do’?) However, I don’t have a problem with the curriculum encouraging readers to make particular readings of the text, including ones about gender, race, class, etc, which may be quite different to doing analysis of character and plot. This other contextual stuff was of enormous value to me as a student, in interpreting the intentions of Tim Winton as the author (to whatever extent that is actually possible). It has stayed with me (I remember more that I learnt in English Lit than in any other class through highschool) and to a large extent has also shaped my own political idealogy and philosophies. Surely context is invaluable in understanding the literary conventions of plot, character, setting, etc, which are present in the novel? I don’t know – maybe I’m reading too much into your post and completely misinterpreting what you mean.

Truth be known, I’m reading Harry Potter at the moment, and while part way through number three, I realised what interesting class, gender and race interpretations could be done of the book.

Also, Kevin, RE: Hemingway. I must add that when I read For Whom the Bell Tolls last year, one of the things that struck me most about the book was its extraordinary sexism. As a reader, why should I discount such a personal reaction to the story? Why is such a reaction only a reflection of my own prejudices and fears, and cannot also be interpreted as that of the author’s?

Cheers,
Carita.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Carita, I’m not going to pry into your private life I just like to take the piss out of Hemingway sometimes. I’m just curious what would be the fate of Robert Corr if he followed Jordan’s example and asked his loved-one,”Did the earth move for you?”. What sort of earthquake-like response would he receive – for example would he receive a blow to the San Andreas fault-line. I’m sorry I’ll stop this smutty innuendo, before it degenerates any further, I’m enough of a moral degenerate as it is.

Funny if a recall, there was a furore in the 70s when some cartoonist wag sent-up the scene from “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. If I recall it had a picture of Gough asking Margaret Whitlam “if the earth moved?,” which briefly sent the wowser brigade into apoplexies of disgust. Of course, the Whitlams found the cartoon hilarious, which makes me wonder if the cartoon pre-dates Woody Allen gag on Hemingway, which if i recall was in “Sleeper”.

I like some of Hemingway’s work “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea” are my faves, but golly gosh his ego ruined some of his artistic production, particularly “A Farewell to Arms”, which started so promisingly. It did in its defense have a beautifully sketched conclusion. Oh, well back to the Orgasmotron.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Carita, a good comment and although it was addressed to Sophie I hope you (and she) won’t mind if I leap in.

I have absolutely no problems with people responding to Hemingway or anyone else in political terms. I have problems with Hemingway too, although I don’t dispute his reputation as a master story teller.

What I would have problems with is if a class on Hemingway was instructed, according to curriculum pre-judgements, that he was a sexist and that his work had to be understood in those terms. No one here is saying that our personal response to a writer is illegitimate: if you think he or she is morally or politically unacceptable, that’s fine. But the education system should not be telling you this; you should work it out for yourself, and offer it as an opinion in the classroom or wherever.

Over in the ‘Formative Fiction’ thread a couple of people talked admiringly about John Buchan’s books. I had a lot of difficulty with them personally because some are anti-semitic (‘The 39 Steps’), some are homophobic (one of the hannay books, can’t remember which) and some are imperialist and racist (‘Prester John’). God, how PC I sounded there for a moment. But I concede that he too was a great storyteller and one can choose to look past the bad stuff, discount it as the product of its time, and enjoy the many good things in his books.

But then again one can choose not to look past it, as you chose not to in the case of Hemingway. All I’m saying is that I would not want to see Hemingway taught as a sexist. If readers find him to be such, fine.

I think the shorter word quote is traceable to George Orwell, as so many great quotes are :-)

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Interesting comment, Carita. So I should read Winton, yeah?

James Lane
James Lane
2022 years ago

Like many others, I’m absolutely agog at Sophie’s tale. I beleive the goal of English teaching should be to encourage an understanding and love of literature. Like others, I was fortunate to have a great teacher in my HSC who showed us (or me, at any rate) how to understand Shakespeare and other poets. (By that time, prose i could understand pretty well myself).

That there can be different interpretations of literary pieces is hardly in dispute, and even in my day, an HSC question would be something like “Macbeth was an empty vessel into which his wife’s ambition was poured. Discuss” (well, not exactly, but wouldn’t that make the current crowd go nuts!) The point is, there was always room for interpretation, and (we were told) the examiners didn’t mind the interpretation you took, but rather how well you made your argument.

One thing I simply can’t stand about this po-mo approach to English is the counterproductive use of terms like “text”. If it’s a novel, why not call it a novel? If it’s a poem, why not a poem? If it’s a TV show…etc.

Is this reductive equivalence meant to suggest that an episode of “Wildside” is equivalent (or as legitimate) as “Hamlet”. Or what?

So we end up with the ludicrous situation where Hemmingway is a “composer”. Where does that leave Mozart? It would make anyone that loves language weep. The beauty of the English language is its precision, yet those in charge of our children seek to throw it all away?

I’d be interested to hear from anyone with any experience of how this stuff collides with humour in literature. It boggles the mind to think what they might have to say about Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”!

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Belatedly, I’m inclined to offer some resistance to the trend of this post. The main issue, I think, is that the course looks difficult, and so I would question it being a compulsory part of English. Looks very advanced to me. While I can imagine the very brightest kids getting into it, my mind boggles at trying to imagine teaching it to 17 year-old hyperactive dumb clucks by force.

But the course itself doesn’t at all strike me as rubbish. Boilerplate theory is difficult to read on the web. So let me register my opposition by just taking the gender reading aspect. All my life, I think, the difference between how women and men read books, and most interestingly, the differences in how they read the same books, has been of endless interest. I could’t count how many discussions I’ve had about this over, for instance, bloody Wuthering Heights. The last woman who defended this foundational piece of chick lit to me, as I recall, actually invoked it as early po-mo … cutting across into another of the courses categories!!

And so on. Yes, I’m a sucker for writing in all its wonderousness … but having said that, I love comparing reactions with fellow readers and tryiong to understand the differences, and I can’t see why students couldn’t get lasting value out of talking about and studying the different ways different people and different critical schools read and understand books, and analyse these a little … and learn a little bit about how to reason across difference?

Yes, look at that sentence. *swoon* Yes, how about that character. *swoon* Wow, could you believe it when that happenned. *swoon* And having said that, let’s get on with it. Was Heathcliff gay?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Not to mention the great Cathy/Heathcliff inspired music by Kate Bush. Oops wrong thread, song too old anyway.

Chris is right though (and so is Carita in her earlier comment – I could never read old Ernie because he’s far too macho) – my best friend, with whom I’ve had many discussions on books reads them very differently than I because she’s a woman. And we both did a subject in feminist lit crit (which I thoroughly enjoyed – despite my submission that one crusty old Marxist lecturer marked me down because I was a boy and in the ALP) with no apparent consequences for our love of reading.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Mark, with all duerespect–are you sure your friend’s different reading reaction to you is because she’s a woman and not because she’s well, a different person to you? I think it’s rather reductionist to apply just that to her–or indeed just anything else. The reasons for different reading reactions are very complex but are principally to do with the fact that there are as many ways of seeing things as there are people. Even people who like the same book may not do so for the same reasons. I see that all the time in my work–when I get good reviews, if I look at the range of them, all of them have different reasons for liking that book; ditto for bad ones.
My feeling is the function of English at school is to expose you to as wide a range of things–novels, poetry, plays, screenplays, creative non-fiction, and film and TV, if possible; forcing kids’ reactions into moulds is just not on.
And yes unfortunately Rob, too often there IS a tag put on writers–one my son had real problems with last year was the tagging of Browning as a ‘misogynist’ and the complexity of his stuff absolutely ignored. It was abominable, reductionist, stupid and totally ignored the poetics and what’s more the particular point of that poem(which was quite ironic and intended to alert you to the fact the narrator was completely unreliable.)

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Sorry Sophie, I have to disagree with your comments below:

“The reasons for different reading reactions are very complex but are principally to do with the fact that there are as many ways of seeing things as there are people. Even people who like the same book may not do so for the same reasons.”

Your point that there are as many readings as there are people is wrong. I can say that because I believe that some interpretations are right and some are wrong; or some more closely approximate the truth. Theories like reader/response etc eventually drown in their own relativity and subjectivity. There is an author and there is a text; maybe readers should take note of both. If you are referring to ‘My last duchess’ a great shame as the poem is an attack of those men who define women as simply something to possess and own.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Kevin, I do take your point, and you’re quite right that some interpretations are simply wrong–say as the one described in your thesis, when students interpret Swift’s A Modest Proposal as being serious, rather than satire, or my own favourite I’ve heard, about a student who thought Animal Farm was just a boring children’s story about farmyard animals..That’s because those kids not only have tin ears but because they’ve been given no historical context–which is why I think approaching literature chronologically, as i suggest in my recent post, is a much better idea.
Also, you do have to tell them that Swift was a satirist, for instance–because there are some things that read like satire but are in actual fact deadly serious(I’m sure we can all think of examples–indeed I thought the critical theory reading sheets for students read just like that!). Kids need to be given the basic background; their life experience isn’t as wide, or their reading as large, as an adult’s, esp one who has focussed on literature all their lives. What I meant is that they must be allowed to respond emotionally to the text.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Sophie, obviously, I agree that irony and satire are good examples that help prove that the author intended a certain response (and the literary work supports that response). Also helps to prove that some responses are wrong. Loved teaching ‘My last duchess’ to year 11 boys – they all thought the wife was guilty of betrayal and she deserved her fate; took a while for the penny to drop.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“my own favourite I’ve heard, about a student who thought Animal Farm was just a boring children’s story about farmyard animals..”

It’s a long time since I read it, but the response doesn’t surprise me. Kid’s today commonly find cold war tracts utterly mystifying. I’d be interested to know how you can otherwise study the work, without giving it a:

“3.A socio-political reading(ditto)”

And I might feel compelled to warn that:

“Other readings of the text will be based on individuals’ contexts and ideologies (!!!).”