Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Romantics again

I posted earlier on ‘English teaching, Romantics and Moderns’ in the light of Ian Reid’s book on the influence of the Romantics on English teaching. Ian immediately responded, but (like most people) was unable to post his comment -- procedure too cumbrous. Our exchange is now quite old since I've been away for a while but with his permission I reproduce it here, lightly edited.

Ian, 4 September:
Anyway, my lost-in-space comment was mainly to say (1) that I don't disagree with your remarks except that I don't see them as "problems" for my line of argument, just strands in the fabric I've tried to exhibit; and (2) that modernism's lack of significant impact on English teaching shouldn't really be surprising, because it has relatively little resonance (compared to Romanticism) with the self-shaping "sentimental education" that for most teachers and students has continued (albeit with variations) to be the major focus of "English".

Me, 4 September
Good of you to respond, Ian -- thanks.  (1) fair enough.  (2) -- this is not a comment on the book or your response -- it seems to me to take some explaining why people with a literary education and a keen interest in literature, who 'kept up' assiduously with developments in writing -- Britton, Rosen, Dixon -- and who would have been well aware of modernism and would have read the key texts -- were so unaffected by that whole revolution that their belief in the 'sentimental education' you rightly refer to should have continued in such an untroubled way?

When I think of it though I don't remember Harold [Rosen]-- my PGCE tutor who I knew well -- even referring to, let alone getting excited by, any modernist text.  The stuff he liked was Dickens and stirring tales of revolutionary struggle -- Arturo Barea on Spain, Sean O'Casey's autobiographies (lots of autobiographies, in fact -- including Gorki).

In his case, it may have been the right-wing politics of Eliot and Pound and Proust's difficulty (for a start) that put him off  -- but why not Joyce and Kafka?  Though I recall he did read a quite 'difficult' (in a modernist way) poem by Charles Causley with us, and was an admirer of Miroslav Holub -- who I suppose you'd say was in the modernist tradition.  And Britton was keen on Wallace Stevens and Malcolm Lowry.

Perhaps they found certain modernist works ok but didn't buy the whole rejection of, for instance, realist narrative -- nor see any implications in it for English teaching -- so had no hesitation in promoting it in kids' writing in school.  Nothing could be more anti-modernist, come to think of it, that Britton's position (quoting Lady Chatterley) that novels were essentially the same thing as gossip....

Rosen certainly bought into Wordsworth's view of the child and was fascinated by and accorded great value to children's experience -- but I'm sure would have been appalled by Wordsworth's manifesto on education in Book IX of The Excursion, as I was when I read it a few days ago, possibly for the first time -- can't trust my memory now.  How did intelligent people in the 20th century not find that stuff simply silly and offensive?  (I didn't feel that way at all about the Prelude, needless to say, when I re-read it recently.)  You're very clear, though, that Dixon, at least in his Bretton Hall period, was a serious Wordsworthian.  Must ask him about it when I see him next.

Is it just my problem that I'm a bit perplexed by those people's position on modernism? As you can tell, I'm just floundering in all this.  Perhaps they were simply right to stick with the essentially Romantic approach to childhood and education -- and after all there was no modernist position on education in the way that the Romantics -- the movement that it arose in opposition to -- had a view on it -- as they had a view on the state.

Ian on 5th September ends with a very strong point:
Yes, but I suppose another way of understanding the conundrum about modernism is to recognise that (despite some well-known oppositional gestures and dismissive rhetoric) it often tended to intensify certain elements in Romanticism. Think e.g. of Virginia Woolf’s emphasis (and Joyce’s) on epiphanic moments, or Kafka’s on the existential anguish of guilt-ridden individuals, etc.

Much of modernism could thus be seen in Harold Bloom’s terms as a combat with its inescapably influential Romantic parent.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Concern at CERN

Seems some particles may have been breaking Einstein’s golden rule and exceeding the speed of light. I read, though, that an Italian physicists reckons may not have been going faster than light after all, on their test track from Switzerland to Italy, but ‘taking a short cut’ through another dimension.

As always when confronted with explanations like this I ask, What is the hope of a humanities product like me, who has trouble with maths, ever being able to understand?

I suspect -- incidentally -- that one problem is that term ‘dimension’. To me it means length, breath or height, x, y or z on a 3D graph. If those are dimensions it’s impossible to imagine a fourth that belongs in the same set. Time doesn’t seem to me to be anything like the same sort of thing, and as for the idea of others that don’t even have names that we understand (like ‘time’) in a rough-and-ready, everyday way, I can’t even get to first base. So should they use a different name, or is there perhaps a definition of ‘dimension’ that I might be able to grasp? (And would it help?)

Saturday, 24 September 2011

'Building a library'

Depending on the music under consideration, I enjoying tuning in on Saturday mornings to Building a Library on BBC Radio 3. Strange concept: I've never in my life met anyone who sets out to ‘build’ a library of classical music, on the basis, it appears, of wanting the best recording of every piece of music that exists. On that basis the programme, which deals with three or four pieces in three hours and a quarter, has a while to run before it has covered the lot. Doesn’t nearly everyone buy opportunistically -- ‘I like that -- I think I'll buy it’?

Whoever the intended audience of the programme is -- all ten of them -- they must be incredibly expert. The fascination is the discriminations that the presenter is able to offer between performances I can’t hear the differences between. Today he commented on one performer who, though good, was ‘unfortunately below the note’, which I presume meant ‘flat’ -- could have fooled me and I'm amazed that someone can be a professional who gets on recordings and plays flat.

The problem for me in listening is not that I'm not building a library but that I don’t know how to listen. The chap will make some point about the passage he’s about to play: by the time it’s a few bars in I’ve forgotten what I'm supposed to be listening for, or else I don’t know which bit is supposed to contain the feature he’s drawn attention to.

It’s still a good programme for the likes of me -- or at least the odd twenty-minute sample is. It’s like reading a book and finding a couple of lines of poetry quoted, indented, italicised and set off from the text. That often strikes with particular force. So it is with hearing a burst of music embedded in the prose of professional commentary. I’d love to see a breakdown of the actual audience -- it must be very different from that select community of library builders. So, keep Building a Library and pay no heed to charges of elitism -- though I suppose I'm elite so I would say that.

RE my musical education: some time ago [http://petemedway.blogspot.com/2011/07/ability-to-draw.html] I mentioned I was looking for an art class to join because I wanted to draw. The first class of the course I've ended up in, life drawing, run by Kingston Council Adult Ed, was a model of the sort of thing I need in music. We drew a skeleton, several times, quite fast and once from memory. In between the teacher ‘took us through’ the skeleton, showing us how it could be regarded as made up of three basic forms and suggested the features we regard as primary and those we’d be best ignoring till well on with drawing. She broke it into parts and identified them: the job was done by a mixture of pointing, gesturing and handling with naming or ‘attaching’ a verbal comment, so as to make them retainable in memory and thought.

I need the equivalent of that for music. Perhaps it exists online -- the internet would be the right medium: it could show the score and the player and the viewer could run it back to replay sections.

Friday, 23 September 2011

When does boring not apply?

A train of thought. I’d been at a conference and had been thinking and talking education for a couple of days and it occurred to me that X at one of the schools I’d worked in had probably been a boring English teacher. Then I thought, that department was keen on getting the kids to do most of the talking and of staying much quieter than teachers normally do; in which case ‘boring’ or ‘interesting’ didn’t apply to the teacher; they were relevant only to teachers' ‘lectures’ or extended utterances, of which we intended few to occur.

At that point I became unsure. Surely X and any of his colleagues would respond to what the kids said, and the kids would expect them to? in which case might not be their responses be felt to be interesting or boring? However, I wasn’t sure that a response would indeed always or usually be expected or felt to be appropriate. I thought I remembered seeing lessons I considered successful in which the kids went at it hammer and tongs -- including gentler passages (rubber hammer, sugar tongs) -- and the teacher, quite rightly as it seemed, simply saw to traffic control.

Such lessons could undoubtedly be good and important ones, nor was the teacher any the less entitled to credit, for all that he or she wasn’t interesting, for creating the climate in which something became an argument or discussion and the participants took turns and behaved in a civilised way.

Nevertheless teachers know and understand stuff and have responses and relevance frames that kids don’t. If there isn’t a way in which these attributes are made available to the students -- in a manner that would be judged as interesting -- then only half the job’s getting done.

It’s not easy to judge from my own experience. I favoured listening to the students a lot, but couldn’t resist ‘being interesting’ and sharing my take on the issue. And of all my own teachers who I remember as being good all were either interesting talkers or showed me to do something I valued; none ran the sort of post-1960 classroom in which it was almost all down to the kids -- which I'm glad of since most of my class really were boring (for some reason, all the interesting people I knew were in other classes. Perhaps that was to do with my being in the dusty classics while they were on the livelier modern languages or history sides -- or science, though the teaching there could not be called lively.)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Loss of control of unsystematic mismanagement

Then I decided it was time to tackle my computer problem. The fan had been running continuously most of yesterday and was still running, for no obvious reason. I looked it up on the Mac support site. As always, the answer was there-- a sequence of switching off, unplugging, waiting, replugging, waiting, restarting. It worked.

I went to make a note of this for when it recurs. But what was the name of the procedure? it was in the heading of the document but I couldn’t remember it. Was it resetting the

System Management Control, or the
Management System Control, or the
Control System Management, or the
System Control Management...?

And would it matter which?

This is what happens when Apple’s technicians don’t read Shakespeare or were taught about post-colonial gender power relations instead of poetry in their English lessons. They’d be capable of writing ‘a palpable hit’ inadvertently, without realising how brilliant it was.


In a dream someone in some situation I've forgotten said, boringly, ‘A palpable hit!’

Whether still in the dream or just out of it, I thought ‘palpable’ doesn’t sound right for a hit -- the word should be sharp, hard, dental (like ‘hit’). Pulp -- something flabby about it. But this was a sword fight. Surprising Shakespeare didn’t feel that.

Palpable means touchable and it seems the wrong word -- wrong sound for that, too. But there it is, the Latins thought it was ok -- palpare. (Which even has a remote connection with palpitate -- which does at least have hit in it.)

Then, definitely by now out of the dream, I thought, ‘You fool, Medway! he did! Shakespeare did feel it! This was Shakespeare, after all -- our lad!’

Quite why he liked it, can’t say. The sharpness of the hit, contrast with the pappy palpable softness of the flesh?

The thing is, he picked up on the qualities of words. It struck him, as it belatedly struck me, what an interesting pairing of words, if nothing more.

This is the stuff they should be picking up on in teaching poetry in school. Not gender, post-colonialism, power, the Other, gothic-horror-vampires... or only secondarily. Poetry’s not about that stuff. Or not primarily.

In that case, what’s its point, poetry? doesn’t sound serious.

That’s right, it isn’t, because the serious stuff -- real life -- isn’t enough. The day after the revolution we’ll be bored out of our minds. What we want is more -- another realm beyond this one. There isn’t any such thing really -- no afterlife, for instance, no ‘other world’. But there are the human-made, art-made worlds like poetry. Sooner symbolic satisfactions(symbol-derived, semiotic, virtual) that never come with the same intensity.

After those thoughts, the following popped into my head: south day empties...

...and I approved it. Doesn’t mean anything or do anything but you can’t deny it’s good. Say slowly, dwell on each word in turn.

Time to get up. I reset my mobile from Silent and selected ‘General’. ‘Activate’, it replied, and I thought, ‘Oh my darling, oh my darling, activating for a mine.’

Am I getting poetic in my old age? is this a compensation for the loss of marbles? Perhaps its the other side of my late-onset dyslexia that has loosened the semantic anchoring and strengthened the sonic anchoring of my words -- but that’s another posting, maybe.

Sweet are the uses of senility.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Or here!

See previous post: same idea, but this time the names belonged to class 3K in 1955-56:
Blackwell Jean
Cooper Pat
Dunn Florence
Durrant Jean
Embleton Vivien
Fleetwood Pat
Gager Vera
Hardey Betty
Hart Pat
Hedger Gwen
Hewett Yvonne
Monkton Doreen
Pawson June
Pearce Rita
Plumb Pat
Punt Jeanette
Sparkes Shirley
Townsend Lilian
Trivass Pamela
Waddell Patricia
Wiggett Susan
Ayerst John
Beaney William
Dinan John
Donnarumma Anthony
King Thomas
Russell Kenneth
Yarranton Robert

We’d like to hear from anyone on that list or anyone who was in that class. If you know anyone’s address or email and you think they wouldn’t mind your passing it on, can you please let us know?

We’re especially interested in the English teacher who took you in from January 1956, Mr Harold Rosen -- please let us know if you remember him, and most especially let us know if you’ve kept any work that you did for him.

We’d also like to know who taught you in years 1 and 2, and 4 and 5 (for those who stayed on).

The best way to get in touch is via an email to walworthresearch@me.com.

Our website is http://remakingenglish.org.

Walworth/Mina Road: see if your name's here!

As regular readers will know, a couple of us are collecting people’s memories of English teaching at Mina Road (Walworth) School as part of a research project. Pete was a teacher at the school from 1964-71; Patrick was a pupil who left in 1969.

We’ve been lucky to get hold of some documents that contain lists of pupils who were released for things like choir practice, music lessons and athletics events. Amongst the names are some that belonged to class 2D in 1956-57 and 3R in 1957-58:
Abbott Sandra
Crump Linda
Curtis Jacqueline
Curtis Gillian
Dower Carol
Fitzgerald Eileen
Hill Brenda
Hollis Garrod
Hollis Michael
Keefe Leonard
Leonard Keith
Lewis Kenneth
Longhurst Diane
Munday Barry
Richards Derek
Vallance David
Wakeman Alice
Walker Ian

We’d like to hear from anyone on that list or anyone who was in that class. If you know anyone’s address or email and you think they wouldn’t mind your passing it on, can you please let us know?

We’re especially interested in the English teacher who took you in those two years, Mr Harold Rosen -- please let us know if you remember him, and most especially let us know if you’ve kept any work that you did for him.

We’d also like to know who taught you in years 1 and 2, and 4 and 5 (for those who stayed on).

The best way to get in touch is via an email to walworthresearch@me.com.

Our website is http://remakingenglish.org.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Hypothesis re babies and language

Am now regularly exposed to two children aged around one. This has just occurred to me -- I must check it out in the field (i.e. on the floor) when next I visit. It may be wrong; it may also be correct and completely familiar to those who know about this stuff.

Language, as I understand it, is known to have a different origin from animal cries. The only animal cries we human have are crying, roars of rage and such and laughing -- something like that -- I forget the formulation. These we hear from babies from the start. Only around now, though, am I beginning to notice vocal behaviour that seems the precursor of language; the nature of the distinction is my hypothesis.

Animal cries in babies are expressive, the manifestation of internal states like amusement or hunger. The sort of noises that seem to anticipate language are referential: they occur in the context of the attention being directed to something outside the self, or accompanying some operation like dropping a block into a slot. I'm not sure if these noises are getting specialised yet -- a particular vocalisation for a particular phenomenon -- in which case they would be on their way to being names.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The discouragement of good habits

I take a quiet pride in being economical - not throwing the marmalade jar away until I've scraped the very last milligram of the Sevilly jelly, eating every last leftover scrap in the fridge, turning appliances off. The incentive to save is only partly financial -- one day soon we may all have to go back to scrimping and saving, so in preparation best get back into wartime ways now. There’s are moral and ecological dimensions too, in principle -- though in practice eating all my greens up won’t save the earth.

Nevertheless, it’s disheartening and a disincentive after saving 5p here, 1p there, to break the glass plate in the microwave and then to be charged £27.68 by the bastards at Panasonic for a replacement. Nor much choice but to accept, I conclude: I no doubt need the exact same plate with the grooves in the right place and I doubt if the 99p shop has an own-brand substitute; nor is it likely to be repairable.

Would I have been better off in the USSR with a socialist microwave that didn’t work but with spares that were free to Party members?

At least I wouldn’t feel like a mug for trying not to waste stuff.

Academics in wartime

An item on today’s Today -- BBC Radio 4 -- described a wartime RAF establishment the name of which I didn’t catch. It recruited archaeologists and other academics, as well as gifted amateurs like crossword geniuses, to interpret aerial photographs taken over enemy territory -- thus detecting from an image a millimetre across the presence of a V2 rocket and estimating from its dimensions its possible range, or inferring from the type of goods trucks in a marshalling yard whether foodstuffs or industrial materials were being transported and working out what the answer might indicate about the state of things in the nearby city.

One of the participants, whose name I also missed, was asked if he and his colleagues resented the lack of any public recognition of the work after the war, in contrast with Bletchley. He answered that they didn’t expect recognition: doing the job was the reward in itself because the work was both worthwhile and interesting and the relationships formed during it were enjoyable.

A constant criticism of public policy under every government since Thatcher has been the failure to acknowledge that the worth and interest of the work can be their own reward, and that the motivation to work hard and to the highest standards can be present when there’s no monetary incentive. This particularly applies to work that people chose because it’s interesting and despite the indifferent pay, such as teaching and research. In teaching it can often be a bad idea to reward good work with marks and grades when you want students to come to believe that the exercise of intelligence and extension of knowledge is a good thing in itself. The same applies to teachers, doctors and NHS managers. Might it not even apply to bankers?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Chemistry dream

In my dream last night I was attending, as myself at my present age, an undergraduate chemistry lecture in Canada. The lecturer, who was well-prepared and interesting, talked about some chemical compound that had a twenty-five year delay before it was activated. Then it could be set off by, for instance, the rumble of traffic.  What happened on activation I’ve forgotten or never knew.

I asked a question, something like: ‘It’s quite a long time since I had my last chemistry lesson so could you explain a bit more fully?’ I’d thought of adding that in fact I’d never in my life had a single chemistry lesson, which is true, but didn’t want to outstay my welcome. As it was, my question evoked some laughter.

I don’t know how the lecturer responded except that she was nice about it, but in the audience was a colleague from my own department. I'll call her Eileen because I haven’t known anyone called Eileen since 1984 (Eileen Daffern, admirable communist co-director of the Centre for Resources in European Studies (or similar) -- six empty rooms, some notepaper and a lot of books -- at Sussex University). I was a frequent guest at pseudo-Eileen’s dinner parties, and came to realise I was something of a trophy, possibly because of my British accent and because I came with jokes, in which Canada was not self-sufficient. Her face wreathed in smiles at my question, she turned round to beam at me and then at all her friends in the hall as if to say, ‘Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t this a great find I've bagged?’

Where did the dream come from? I don’t know but I was impressed by what my Canadian humanities students knew about science from their broad high school curriculum and the range of subjects they took in first year university.

My other observation about chemistry is that the chemists I've known -- not a large sample -- have been more interesting, more cultured and more human than the physicists.

Friday, 2 September 2011

English teaching, Romantics and Moderns

I've been carefully re-reading, for our history of English project, Ian Reid’s Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies. It’s of particular interest because there’s an extended discussion of English at Walworth/Mina Road School in the 1950s and 60s, including accounts of some key teachers: Arthur Harvey, Harold Rosen and John Dixon.

His claim is that all these teachers, and teacher-educators at the Institute of Education and King’s, right back to John Dover Wilson and including Percival Gurrey and James Britton, were heavily influenced by Romantic values and ideas that sprang originally from Wordsworth’s poetry. The problems with his story are, first, that these people, for all that they had in common, had many important differences and were influenced, differently, by ideas that came from places quite other than Romanticism, and second that -- as Reid fully acknowledges -- Romantic ideas had been so thoroughly absorbed that they were no longer felt to be ideas or a theory but were simply the common-sense air that everyone breathed. How could a thinking English teacher not have been a Romantic if that was what you were if you didn’t espouse some moribund and atheoretical hangover from Augustan convention and classical rhetoric?

A question that continues to intrigue me -- it falls outside Reid’s remit -- was not how teachers were (still) influenced by Wordsworth but what they made of the liveliest literary movement of their own century, Modernism. If university-educated English teachers were a key group within that part of the society that seriously read literature, how can their work have been, to all appearances, so utterly unaffected by Ulysses, Kafka and Pound? Eliot got in there through certain exam syllabuses, maybe some Yeats too, but, as far as I can see, few others. Gabriel Josipovici (click on his name in the labels at the side) complains that British novelists still continue to write in nineteenth century genres. Well, it seems accordingly that kids in English lessons wrote nineteenth century narratives and Romantic poetry, as if the vast upheaval of Modernism had never taken place.

It’s possible to think of explanations. For instance, it’s not easy to see what teachers could have done with Modernism if they’d wanted seriously to build it in, in setting writing tasks, for instance; it may be that Modernist texts are simply too difficult for younger readers; or the Modernists’ sense of the exhaustion and irrelevance of nineteenth century forms wasn’t and couldn’t be shared by readers who hadn’t read enough of it to have grown weary.

Blue plaque for Miss O'Reilly

Miss Anne O'Reilly was the first real head of Walworth/Mina Road interim comprehensive school, 1947-1955. Her niece, Pat Jones, and my colleague on the Walworth history project, Pat Kingwell, persuaded Southwark Council to award her a blue plaque for her war work (for which she was given and MBE) and her headship of two schools, Peckham Emergency Central School during the war and the new Walworth School after it.

The four-year-old Walworth Academy (principal Devon Hanson) hosted the ceremony, the plaque was unveiled by the mayor on the wall of the only surviving building (from 1905), Simon Hughes MP spoke and we all went inside for refreshments, mingling, and more short speeches, including by two impressive ex-pupils from Peckham, then David Harris from Walworth, Pat Jones herself and Pat Kingwell and me for our project, Social Change and English: A Study of Three English Departments 1945-1965, appealing for more information and stuff. Lots of reunions and, for Pat K and me, a chance at last to meet people with whom we’d had only email or postal contact.

Some decent photos will be up on the Academy site in due course; in the meantime here’s my petty offering.  (Click to enlarge)

1. On Mina Road facing the school and the plaque.  I'm sure there were more people than that when we eventually got inside.

2.  Here I can recognise on the right John Sparrow (English) talking to Simon Clements (late 50s and early 60s, English and Social Studies).  Of those present, John must have been the teacher who taught earliest at the school (1952).  I also see Mary Lou Thornbury who taught World Studies in the 1960s and 70s.

3.  I'm sure there will be a better photo of the plaque forthcoming. You can at least see Miss O'Reilly's dates, 1891-1963.

4.  Finally, the one surviving original building (1905: the Mina Road Higher Grade School) which only now can we get a decent view of, after the demolition and new site layout.  Here the only people I'm sure of are, on the right, Kim James, who I taught in the first and second year and hadn't seen since, and Bill Metson on the left, who we met and interviewed through the project.

I'm looking forward to some decent pictures taken by Tony of the Academy.