Thursday, 25 August 2011

How literature should be studied

What I do with books might suggest what English teachers might try to do with their literature classes.

The issue of principle or theory at stake is whether ‘just reading’ is enough and if not, what’s needed beyond what we see people doing with books on the bus or tube.

There are certain obvious things to be said.

(1) Life’s too short and not all books deserve more than a quick reading.

(2) In my experience, the main thing that needs to be done with a huge proportion of kids in secondary schools is simply getting them to read more fluently and get through more books. They don’t read well enough and they don’t choose to read. Leaving school unable to read well is far more serious than missing out on literary appreciation or analysis.

For myself, I've evolved a procedure to meet my own needs as a reader, though I'm very irregular in practising it, most of my procedures aren’t maintained for long and none are completely satisfactory. In addition, what I do these days is probably influenced by needs arising from failing memory -- I simply don’t remember what I've read as I used to.

Here’s the sort of thing I've been doing recently while reading Kafka’s Castle (re-reading, I think, but I'm not sure). Every so often I break off and write notes on ‘what strikes me’ -- that’s as good a formulation as any, and a measure of vagueness is desirable in specifying procedures, especially when a teacher is proposing them to kids, so as not to foreclose interesting variations one may not have thought of.

Note that I'm not studying the novel, as for an exam or to write an article, though I think my notes would be useful, though insufficient, for either purpose. I'm reading for pleasure and find that making notes enables me to get more out of the book.

Here’s the sort of thing I write:

  • Amalia dominating the household of Olga and Barnabas—what’s that about? goes nowhere...
  • Constant physical difficulty in moving: encumbered, deep snow etc—as in bad dreams.
  • The ‘gentlemen’ and Castle officials: temperamental, secretive, dissembling—hiding, pretending to be someone else.
  • What did K. come for? Who is he? Does he have a past? Above all, why does he stay and not simply go back?
  • interminable delays—waiting for a result for years, until old age.
  • The officials are human, have appetites, break rules—and behave like children or animals—‘the continued shouting in the dark stalls’.
  • The Castle isn’t a castle in fact but just an untidy settlement of ‘hovels’.
  • Ambiguity about whether a bureau is actually in the Castle, or a servant is really a Castle servant. Semi-official messengers etc, gradations and subtleties, uncertainties of status. ‘X is not a real messenger,’ etc.
  • People age quickly—a lifetime’s ageing in a couple of years.
  • The servants dictating into the air and the clerks without being asked or even glanced at taking it all down.
  • Extreme disparity between absurd claims for the ‘authorities’’ efficiency, infallibility and sensitivity—as believed for instance by the landlord and landlady—and the accounts of their extreme childishness and selfishness.
  • The stuff of bad dreams or nightmares: being trapped in vulnerable situations; losing time -- morning becomes late afternoon unnoticed; going to sleep in evening and finding it's afternoon on waking up surrounded by people.
  • Claustrophobia: getting into small spaces: the clerks behind the counter at the castle. Sleeping under the bar, constantly being crowded by people.
  • The officials spend a lot of time asleep. So does K. but is still constantly tired.
So what is the sort of thing I note and what use does it seem to be? Not so much impressions as things that are there, in the novel, features or aspects that give it the character it has. I note things, in the sense of notice. Things on the whole other than plot, character and structure; more themes, images, pervasive representations.

Because I lack a musical education I feel deprived of any means of getting a grip on classical music when I listen to it. I couldn’t write notes like those above because I don’t have the language. More seriously -- or, rather, an aspect of the same thing -- I don’t have the concepts; I lack the names and therefore the things -- I don’t know what it is I'm hearing. I can’t identity bits, parts, elements, aspects; I can’t make the necessary distinctions and fix them in memory so as to recognise repetitions and variations; because I don’t identify the elements my ability to memory is impeded. Without a functioning memory I can’t get a grasp of structure.

In noting the features of the novel I render myself able at the end to say what was in the novel, in a way I find harder when I haven’t made notes, and that’s without re-reading the notes. It’s not the writing down that makes the difference; it’s the registering you have to do in order to have the content that can be written down.

So in English, reading literature: I would argue they don’t need theory, not in the first place -- just a way of grasping what’s there, noting and registering it. They should come away with a sense of what the book was, what was going on it it. Explaining what was going on with the help of categories like gender, post-colonialism or psychoanalysis seems to me secondary, something to be brought in later, after they’ve given the text a good going-over with whatever resources they have to hand. Your help in enhancing those resources, allowing different features to become apparent in the text, will be best appreciated when they’ve got as far as they can under their own steam.

What I'm arguing for at a more general level is that English teachers take seriously something that John Dixon was onto in the mid-1970s, in his final, added chapter in the third (1975) edition of Growth through English: that simply, as it were, picking things out and naming them, putting them into language in the first place, was the primary act of abstraction on which all the higher operations like generalising and explaining were dependent, and should be the first concern of English (which meant in the early years, up to about year 9 I imagine, a focus on ‘enacting and narrating’ -- 117). There’s something out there: the basic intellectual move is, in the face of that something, to set up something ‘in here’, in the mind, in language, a symbolic something you can work with (for instance, through reasoning) as opposed to the actuality that you can’t work with, or not in the same ways.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A mundane day

[Written last night -- touched up this morning]

So why don't I try just writing this blog as a diary, simply recording what I've been doing, at least once in a while? Here’s today's bulletin, then, in all its quotidian tedium (though, to be truthful, I've enjoyed my day).

It's ten to nine on Sunday evening and I'm watching a programme on culture, Leavis, Snow, Raymond Williams.  Pretty shallow like so much TV, in sad contrast with radio.  But it was broadcast yesterday and I have a telly setup I really like that lets me record things, without all the hassle of a VCR. So I'm never stuck for something to watch when I feel like flopping.

I came through to watch telly because I’d decided I'd had enough work for the day.  The work was writing an article, based on a talk I gave at a conference in Germany, in the light of comments from the journal editor to whom I'd sent my notes. I'd been messing about with it in a writing program for the Mac called Scrivener but decided yesterday I'd be better reverting to pencil and paper and writing a fresh outline off the top of my head.  That went well and what I wrote seemed usable and worth typing out, so I turned to the dictation package I'd recently bought, Dragon Dictate for Mac.  I've used it a few times and while it’s impressive there seem to be more errors than there should be.  I put this down to the difficulty it's having understanding my speech because my nose is currently blocked by catarrh.  I say currently, but currently seems to have lasted all year; I always tend to get stuffed up but this year has been worse than any I've know -- is it something in the air, different pollen perhaps? (I don’t get hay fever.)

I persisted and in the end looked online for a Dragon forum that might give advice. I've been working through some good stuff that I've found.

That was most of the day.  Never went out although it was fine -- not good, but I don't usually fall into that pattern.  I've been less active recently because of a bad hip. On Friday, though, I was advised by the consultant to try painkillers and so far they seem rather effective -- I can walk more normally again and perhaps will even escape the need for a replacement, which I was expecting to be put down for at my consultation.

What else? some ongoing reading: Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers -- not an easy read and sometimes beyond me because I don't get the references to all that high theory but frequently exciting and illuminating -- the first very theoretical book on literature that I've read for a long time that makes me see more in the works; despite the grand ideas he’ll typically take a paragraph or two and subject them to an insightful reading, à la I.A. Richards, though picking on different sorts of points. Brilliant man.

Alongside, I'm re-reading The Castle by Kafka.  As I'm going back to Germany next month I thought a couple of weeks ago that I’d try to learn a bit of German by following the text in both languages.  Years ago I'd read two novels by Marquez like this and it worked: I retained a useful amount of Spanish.  Not so with German, however -- too much grammar, too many words that look similar, too many confusing prefixes.  Or perhaps it's that Kafka's sentences are too complex.  So I soon gave up on the German text and carried on with the English, finding it more and more absorbing.  Decided to scribble notes because I get so much more out of a book when I do. Often it’s some time after reading a section that I have thoughts about it, in bed perhaps or taking a nap on the sofa; if I then write them down, in the first place they begin to add up to something and also they make it more likely that I'll keep having ideas and retain them. To make the activity more substantial, I'll then dictate the notes, certainly if I can get Dragon to work more reliably.

The Kafka, of course, relates to Jameson's book on modernism, which in turn I got because I've long been confused about what modernism was and why it happened and why it seems now to be consigned to the past.  And it’s relevant to why teachers taught English the way they did in the period we’re investigating in our research project, 1945-65. The parts of Jameson I've read so far, though, have been about Mann, Proust and Ulysses -- terrific on the latter -- one of the great works that I not only respect but enjoy.

The telly programme has moved on via Richard Hoggart, Kenneth Clark and John Berger to Edward Said. It's actually very good as it turns out, allowing for what it tries to pack into an hour.  There was actually some film of Leavis lecturing -- never seen that before.

When I get to bed it will be with The Hugo Young Papers, confidential notes by a Guardian journalist of interviews with politicians from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair.  Sounds dry but actually fascinating -- not least for Young’s ability to recall it all (he took no notes and had no recorder). Also his confidential assessment of the interviewees’ characters. Chris Patten comes out well, and John Major; Portillo and most of the Labour lot badly (at least so far: Blair hasn’t won the election yet).

Not much email today -- August and a Sunday.  Talked by phone to my daughter and got an update on their building work (house improvements) and the kids' activities:  Lucy (4) went to a drama workshop and loved it so I hope she can get lots more of that: it's a terrific thing for kids to do on all sorts of grounds, and I wish I'd done more of it when I was an English teacher in the remote past.

Monday morning
I should have mentioned: re having ideas while relaxing and somnolent. I had three good ones in the afternoon while napping on the sofa and afterwards scribbled them down: I'll certainly dictate them today. One was about our next research proposal, one was relevant to our present research and was about the similarities between kids’ learning from teachers and teachers' learning from each other; the third, relevant to the article I'm working on, was a point about speech and writing. If I was in a full-time academic job, in an office in the university with the phone ringing and students pestering and emails harrassing and constant bloody meetings, how would I ever have the space to have an idea?

And earlier in the day, now I remember it, I’d had another thought I hadn’t had before -- and immediately emailed someone about it: it was about how the working-class side of my dad’s family (his parents, two of his siblings and their families) regarded the middle-class side (us and my other uncle’s family). I realised I’d never asked about that, or really been curious about it. Too late now, I fear.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

English teachers: listen to this

Here’s a poetry workshop that I wish I’d heard when I was a teacher. Six days left to catch it.

Ruth Padel runs this session, the first of four, and she’s great (though I don’t understand her poetry). It takes place in Exeter, which is ok, but the other workshops will be in different places and I hope they’re in to cities, the north and other less well-heeled places. She starts with a terrific poem by Alice Oswald, perhaps my favourite English poet at the moment -- you can see it at that link, along with the poems by the workshop members.

I don’t think I ever taught poetry well until years after I was running PGCE sessions, and they were, to say the least, patchy. Not that I could have run a workshop like Padel’s with many of the kids I taught, but as preparation for teaching a poem a workshop like this would have been fantastic. And it represents a type of English teaching that I think has largely been lost.

Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation

Delayed but here at last: photos from by visit to Marseilles in June.  (Click on it: the ones below are just a sample.)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Walworth / Mina Road Central School

All schools used to keep a log book that recorded staff appointments, staff absences, school events, inspections and the like.

Before the war there were two schools in Mina Road, sharing the two buildings: Walworth Central School (Boys) and Walworth Central School (Girls). The two amalgamated during the war and in 1946 were replaced by the ‘interim comprehensive school’ called Walworth County Secondary School. The log book of the boys’ school has survived, having been kept in a store by the comprehensive school, and contains a lot of valuable information.

But what happened to the log book of the girls’s school? does anyone know? Like the boys’ book, it would be an invaluable source for our research (see the label Walworth down the side of the screen). It isn’t in the London Metropolitan Archives where all the LCC records went.