What can Literature teach us about Teaching and Learning? – 12/10/18

Having recently changed roles from Head of English to Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, Suzy Pett decided to turn to Literature to think about a couple of pedagogical ideas.

“A chapter having been read through twice, the books were closed and the girls examined.  The lesson comprised part of the reign of Charles I, and there were sundry questions about tonnage, and poundage, and ship-money…Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)

From the caricatures of Gradgrind (Hard Times) to Thwakum (Tom Jones), Victorian literature is brimming with parodies of the education system. Here, we can see Brontë’s wry nod to the testing of seemingly meaningless facts at Lowood School.

Whilst education today is mercifully a far cry from that of the 19th century, the learning and testing of facts is still a hot topic. With the power of Google and Wikipedia at their fingertips, do pupils of the 21st century need to memorise information? Surely, without this encumbrance, we can focus on developing skills, interpretation, application and creativity?

Well, actually, long-term knowledge committed to memory is necessary to free up the working brain to process new information. Our brain is made up of about one billion neurons, each forming about 1000 connections to other neurons. With this capacity for deep memory, we can be more agile in our skills of problem solving: the more knowledge we have, the more flexible we can be in our thinking. Our working memory can only hold three to seven pieces of information at once, so relying on our long-term memory is important.

We can all agree with Brontë, that learning facts in isolation is pointless. However, our pupils continually use their deep learnt information to reflect more broadly and creatively about the bigger picture; about how they might apply these facts to be proactive, probing and provocative thinkers for the radically changing world of the 21st century. Thus, we can debunk that dichotomy of facts and skills: they are not separate pedagogical approaches. A rich curriculum does both together.

“ “But you must know that story?”

“No,” she said, screwing up her eyes as if she referred to the files of memory. “Tell me.”

And he told her the story.

The Years, Virginia Woolf (1937)

As humans, we are programmed to love a good story. Additionally, we are inherently wired to construct narratives from what we hear and see. Educational blogger Tom Sherrington recently likened the curriculum to a story and gave the following examples of learning-as-narrative:

  • How climate change flows from excessive carbon emissions
  • How humans came to exist on a planet orbiting a star
  • How poets convey the realities of war through imagery and emotions conveyed in the language and structure of their poems
  • How fossils of sea creatures can be found half way up a mountain
  • How we can derive and use equations that can tell us how objects will move in the future
  • How in 1854 John Snow came to understand that cholera was water-borne

(https://teacherhead.com/2018/09/23/great-teaching-the-power-of-stories/)

Just like stories, curriculum teaching requires careful ordering of ideas. We want to instil in our pupils a sense of direction like an overarching plot narrative; there are subplots, twists and turns making a topic more complicated; we require a narrator (i.e. a teacher) who grips the interests of individuals; and a reader (i.e. a pupil) who is invested, intrigued and wants to metaphorically turn the page.

As teachers, it is our job to bring to life a topic/idea/concept and to decide when and how we build on pupil understanding; how we capture pupils’ innate curiosity for ‘what happens next’; what cliff-hangers we build into learning to ignite pupils’ independent thinking to hypothesise beyond the classroom.

‘Knowledge organisers’ have been called “the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer” (Joe Kirby, educational blogger): they sequence facts, concepts and definitions, creating a clear narrative of learning. They provide that overarching plot as well as the intricate detail. They allow us to ‘foreshadow’ later knowledge (to steal a literary term) so that further down the line pupils are ready to make a cognitive leap or to approach a ‘bigger’ more complex topic.

As teachers, we are crafting and delivering ‘bestsellers’ – with an author’s skill we ignite our pupils’ passion so they keep turning the metaphorical pages.

So, thank you, Brontë and Woolf, for whetting both my literary and pedagogical appetite.

The Wicked Women of Literature – 05/10/18

Lydia, Y12, explores the way the “evil” women in literature have been presented and what links these women across the centuries.

From Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1950), the presentation of women throughout literary history is fascinating, often providing a lens through which modern readers can appreciate the attitudes of the past. It is especially interesting to focus on the presentation of evil and transgressive women in literature, revealing the gender-based fears that have plagued western-society for almost two and a half millennia.

Focusing solely on Medea and East of Eden as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), these evil women span an enormous timeframe yet adhere to strikingly similar tropes, almost invariably defying female-specific social mores. These include a rejection of motherhood and an assertion of dominance over their husbands.

Medea is a jilted bride, seeking revenge on her former husband, Jason, for leaving her for the far richer Princess Glauke. As the ultimate revenge she slaughters her own children with a knife. The childless Lady Macbeth speaks in graphic terms of her readiness to “dash the brains out” of a breastfeeding infant. Shakespeare also emphasises her physical aversion to motherhood as she implores spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”. In East of Eden, Steinbeck’s villainess, Cathy Ames, echoes this motif. Steinbeck describes that “[Cathy’s] breasts didn’t grow … There was no quickening of milk glands, no preparation to feed the infant”. As soon as Cathy’s children are born she rejects them both. The repeated presentation of wicked women as child killers or negligent mothers across thousands of years reveals how deeply entrenched societal associations between child-rearing and womanhood are.

These literary women also had in common their assertions of dominance over their husbands. Steinbeck claims that Cathy had “the most powerful impact upon Adam (her husband)” and Lady Macbeth was much the same, yielding a sinister amount of power over Macbeth. Medea emasculates Jason as she tells him his “complete lack of manliness” is “utterly vile”. This fear of female scorn is repeated in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth asserts “when you durst do it, then you are a man” in the face of her husbands hesitance to assassinate the king.

I find these similarities particularly interesting to consider in relation to women in our society today. Even in 2018, 2449 years after Medea was first performed, women in parts of the world are stripped of the access to legal and safe abortions, forced into the role of motherhood against their will and no country on earth pays women and men an equal wage. Though it may be discouraging to think about these attitudes towards the role of women and how deep those attitudes run, I believe there is a positive angle to be considered. As society moves forward, however incrementally slow the pace may be, consider it a triumph in the face of a thousand years of prejudice.

The Theory of Deconstruction – 21/09/18

Ava (Year 13, Head Girl) explores the Theory of Deconstruction as suggested by Derrida and discusses the confusing nature of both ideas and words.

Deconstruction is a theory principally put forward in around the 1970s by a French philosopher named Derrida, who was a man known for his leftist political views and apparently supremely fashionable coats. His theory essentially concerns the dismantling of our excessive loyalty to any particular idea, allowing us to see the aspects of truth that might be buried in its opposite. Derrida believed that all of our thinking was riddled with an unjustified assumption of always privileging one thing over another; critically, this privileging involves a failure to see the full merits and value of the supposedly lesser part of the equation. His thesis can be applied to many age-old questions: take men and women for example; men have systematically been privileged for centuries over women (for no sensible reason) meaning that society has often undervalued or undermined the full value of women.

Now this might sound like an exceedingly overly simplistic world view, and that Derrida was suggesting a sort of anarchy of language. But Derrida was far subtler than this – he simply wanted to use deconstruction to point out that ideas are always confused and riddled with logical defects and that we must keep their messiness constantly in mind. He wanted to cure humanity of its love of crude simplicity and make us more comfortable with the permanently oscillating nature of wisdom.  This is where my new-favourite word comes in: Aporia – a Greek work meaning puzzlement. Derrida thought we should all be more comfortable with a state of Aporia and suggested that refusing to deal with the confusion at the heart of language and life was to avoid grappling with the fraught and kaleidoscopic nature of reality.

This cleanly leads on to another of Derrida’s favourite words: Differánce, a critical outlook concerned with the relationship between text and meaning. The key idea being that you can never actually define a word, but instead you merely defer to other words which in themselves do not have concrete meanings. It all sounds rather airy-fairy and existentialist at this level, but if you break it down it becomes utterly reasonable. Imagine you have no idea what a tree is. Now if I try and explain a tree to you by saying it has branches and roots, this only works if you understand these other words. Thus, I am not truly defining tree, but merely deferring to other words.

Now if those words themselves cannot be truly defined either, and you again have to defer, this uproots (excuse the pun!) the entire belief system at the heart of language. It is in essence a direct attack on Logocentrism, which Derrida understood as an over-hasty, naïve devotion to reason, logic and clear definition, underpinned by a faith in language as the natural and best way to communicate.

Now, Derrida clearly wasn’t unintelligent, and was not of the belief that all hierarchies should be removed, or that we should get rid of language as a whole, but simply that we should be more aware of the irrationality that lies between the lines of language, willingly submit to a more frequent state of “Aporia”, and spend a little more time deconstructing the language and ideas that have made up the world we live in today.

Glamour and Hedonism: Why the American Jazz Age Still Intrigues Us

Laura (Year 11) explores what makes the Jazz Age a significant time in America’s history and how it has been preserved through music and literature.

The American Jazz Age, or the “Roaring Twenties”, brings to mind many images of feathers, flapper dancers and flamboyance. As the 1920s were characterised by rapid stock market expansion, successful Americans spent more, and flaunted their wealth, throwing extravagant parties. Reminders of the era cannot be avoided, as it inspires fashion, films and music of today. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby captured the essence of the time and offers a paradigm of the jazz age. When Baz Luhrmann took on the challenge of adapting it for film, it made $353.6 million at the box office, as audiences were captivated by the romance of the period.

Whilst the 1920s saw people move away from the austere and unpromising life during the Great War, they also brought new changes and difficulties with them. This new America had lost faith in its organisation and structure, having become disillusioned by war and patriotism. The parties and indulgence reflected newfound individualism as traditional values were left behind. Many were critical of the more frivolous lifestyle in cities, as ideas of morality seemed to shift. Prohibition, the 1920 ban on alcohol, seemed to only encourage more drinking in the clandestine speakeasies, and organised crime and bribery were rife. But the era was also characterised by modernisation and greater liberation, especially for women. The 19th Amendment was changed in 1920, giving women the vote, and social changes followed as women in the workplace became more of a norm and gender roles were questioned. Even fashion became more liberating as short skirts and hair became popular.

The jazz music that fuelled the parties of the rich and powerful in 1920s America first came from the African-American communities of New Orleans and had its origins in blues. With a more free, improvisational style, it broke musical norms whilst social conventions were being dismantled in America. With better recording of music during the mid-1920s, this new style spread quickly, and radio broadcasting allowed more rapid popularisation of the genre, as it reached people of all ages and classes. Although the US was still a place of deep-rooted racism and xenophobia, and many conservatives feared the influence of “the devil’s music”, jazz’s popularity was a step towards better inclusion in American society. When Luhrmann made his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the music was a key element of the film. Modern hip hop and traditional jazz were both a part of the soundtrack. It cleverly blended music that evoked the era with new music that allows the modern audience to experience what it was like to listen to something completely new and unheard. Luhrmann said that “the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop”. Check out the Jazz Spotify playlist on the Music Department Spotify here.

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among the authors that have helped to preserve the excitement and intensity of the Jazz Age in their writing and are part of the “Lost Generation” writers, who came of age during the Great War. Main themes in their writing included the opulence and wealth of the 1920s, but also the damaging effects of hedonism and disillusionment. Idealised versions of the past are often seen in writing of the era, reflecting on how the indulgence and enjoyment was overwhelming and even put individuals out of touch with reality. Fitzgerald describes one of Jay Gatsby’s parties:

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”

The giddy description shows an uncomfortable confusion of the senses, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, discovers the exciting city life. However, Fitzgerald also reveals a world damaged by war, as the “valley of ashes” in the novel represents the effects of industrialisation and modernisation on the less wealthy, and the social inequality of the time. Carraway, having served in the First World War, notes that Jordan Baker had an “erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet”, his vision is clouded by experiences of war. The literature of the jazz age endures because it shows not only the glamour and thrill of the period, but also offers sobering reflections on the price of the new lifestyle.

The sparks of wealth and excitement of the Roaring Twenties were stamped on by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and were extinguished abruptly. As the terrible poverty of the Great Depression began, Fitzgerald wrote “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, recalling the earlier, more prosperous times.

“It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.”

It is no surprise that the Jazz Age has aged so well. The excitement and romance of the period has captivated readers and audiences, and this formative period of American history is not forgotten.

How can I get her to read more?

Charlotte Moon, who teaches English here at WHS, looks to investigate issues around how we can encourage children to continue reading, increasing their independence.

When do we stop reading with our children?

As babies and toddlers, we read to our children to stimulate and satisfy their curiosity, to promote language acquisition, and as a way of bonding. Of course, they can’t even recognise the alphabet at this stage, so the actual reading bit naturally devolves on us. By kindergarten and reception, children begin learning to read for themselves, most likely with the structured support of a reading scheme followed by their school. At this stage, there is an understanding between parent and school that developing your child’s reading ability is a shared responsibility; your child will read with support at school, learning phonics and so forth, and will have books and reading logs sent home with the expectation that parents will initiate and supervise ‘reading homework’ most days of the week.

So what changes as our children progress through primary education?

By the time they’ve moved up to Year 7, what proportion of parents are still actually reading with or to their kids on a regular basis? As an English teacher, the impression I get is that there is a definite shift which correlates with children being able to read independently. Why read to or with your child when they can read to themselves, right? There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for parents to satisfy the demands placed upon us, so no longer having to supervise reading homework may come as a welcome relief.

The problem is, without supervision, encouragement and the bonding that comes through shared reading, children face the danger of entering a reading wasteland at this age (and I don’t mean that their new found reading independence miraculously enables them to read T.S. Eliot). Do we really know how often or how much they are reading? Do we even know what they’re reading? At Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9), students at WHS read a book they have chosen independently for 10 minutes at the beginning of each double lesson, but in some cases the level of challenge in these books varies greatly: in the same class, one student might be reading Pride and Prejudice while another reads Jacqueline Wilson. It is here, too, that the shared responsibility between school and parent can seem less distinct. While schools offer reading lists and take an interest in which books their students bring to lessons, we no longer have the time to sit and read with students individually, or to take remedial groups out of lessons for extra reading support. And when it comes to the co-curricular provision on offer for English, it tends to be the way that the keenest readers and writers are the ones who attend, and the students who shy away from reading keep their distance.

 

 

 

Jacqueline Wilson and Jane Austen: The variation in level of challenge in reading can be very apparent in KS3 lessons.

How do I get her to read?

As students approach the age of having to sit public exams, the common question at parents’ evening is ‘how do I get her to read?’. Parents can seem at a loss as to how to influence or encourage their daughter’s reading once she has entered adolescence. My guess is that very few parents are reading with their daughters by this stage, but are also, understandably, keen for their daughters to be making good progress and keeping up with their cohort in terms of attainment. So why not read with your child? It could improve her confidence, develop her understanding of texts and aid her continuing language acquisition. Not to mention, at any age, reading is still a fantastic way to bond with your child. So, what’s stopping us? Is it still the restraints on our time, or is it the fear of incurring a teenage meltdown that would impress even Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’? Can we build a meaningful relationship based on reading once our children enter their teens? Can we bridge the gap that has been created by years of leaving them to read independently?

Every parent-child dynamic is different. But why not try reading with your teenager? It really will help develop their skills and understanding as readers and writers, and it will enable you to connect, or even reconnect with them, on a level other pastimes cannot necessarily replicate. Model the reading you want to see in your child and you will both reap the benefits.

Men writing about women: how male authors have depicted female characters

Lydia (Year 11) investigates the portrayal of women in literature, a field that has largely been controlled by the male voice, and how this has changed throughout the centuries.

The literary world has always been (and remains) dominated by men. As male writers create their female characters, they often fall short of capturing the interesting, vivid complexity of womanhood which we, as women, know to be reality. Since Shakespeare’s heyday, it’s fair to say that the role of women in society has changed significantly; but how has this change affected how male writers portray women in literature, if it has at all?

When Shakespeare’s Macbeth was performed (circa. 1602), women were expected to be submissive to their husbands, punished for being ‘scolds’ or ‘nags’. Fear of women’s speech was prevalent, spread by imperious treatises. The extremely popular treatise, Anatomy of a Woman’s Tongue, claimed

“A woman’s tongue it is the devil’s seat;

and that it is a most pernicious lyar,

a backbiter and a consuming fire”

summing up misogynistic attitudes of the Jacobeans with a catchy rhyme. And, of course, there were the witch burnings, vast numbers of women executed for being transgressive, reclusive or powerful.

This attitude towards women is noticeable in Shakespeare’s work as he links the powerful women in Macbeth to the world of spirits and demons. Through studying Macbeth and watching various productions, such as that performed at the National Theatre, it is easy to be struck by how Shakespeare presents women as a manipulative force, blaming them for the immoral actions of men. The misogynistic attitude behind this becomes obvious when compared to how Shakespeare presents Macbeth himself, murderer of the sleeping king and his own close friend, as a basically good, if slightly unhinged, man.

Another greatly beloved male writer is Charles Dickens. By the time Great Expectations was published in 1860, the Jacobeans and their witches were centuries dead, though reductive attitudes towards women lived on. The continued ownership of women by men and the surprising lack of social progress in the centuries between Macbeth and Great Expectations is revealed by similarities between Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s portrayal of women.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth’s desire for power as unnatural and dangerous as she orders spirits to remove remorse and conscience from her body and replace her breast-milk with acid. Dickens uses uncannily similar imagery of mutilation and hardening in Great Expectations as the proud Estella claims “I have no heart … I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense” and Miss Havisham echoes “I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.” This idea that all women who transgress the role of tender, servile femininity must be unnatural perversions of nature is used by both Shakespeare and Dickens, revealing that, despite the centuries passed, men continued to hold the same views regarding the role of women in society.

Dickens is famed for his portrayal of meek, simpering virgins (often paired with epithets such as ‘dear’ and ‘little’). In Great Expectations this trope manifests itself in Clara Barley. Clara is a paradigm of servility, tending constantly to her abusive father yet still managing to appear “natural and winning” and well as “confiding, loving and innocent”.  Dickens reveals Victorian attitudes that women should be submissive, praising Clara’s “modest manner of yielding herself to Herbert’s embracing arm.” The anti-Estella, Clara is just as two-dimensional, a figment of the imagination of the imperious male.

The 20th Century saw great change in how women were viewed in society, earning the vote in Britain in 1918. The end of the 1920s saw the Equal Franchise Act passed, granting equal voting rights to women. Did this rapid progress, and the surging momentum of the feminist movement, pave the way for a parade of wonderful heroines written by men?

It seems not, if John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, best-seller of the 1930s, is anything to go by, featuring not one named female character, only ‘Curley’s wife’, the self-absorbed, cruel and teasing caricature of female shallowness and naivety. Steinbeck punishes this woman for her crimes of promiscuity and stupidity with a broken neck, echoing the methods of past writers; Shakespeare delivers Lady Macbeth a grizzly suicide and Estella is condemned to a life of abuse at the hands of Drummel. Though Steinbeck sticks fast to the well-trodden tropes of two-dimensional femininity, the literary world has a growing female voice in this decade as Daphne du Morier, Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf begin penning novels of their own, featuring swathes of heroines.

However, men have, on occasion, written brilliant female characters: for example Shakespeare’s Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but these are exceptions to a centuries old pattern in which women are written as either fantastical paragons of innocence or cruel monsters. The recent twitter trend, which inspired this article, asserts that this pattern marches onwards to the present day. So as far as writing funny, interesting, realistic women goes, I guess it’s down to us.

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Twilight vs Jane Eyre: what separates the two?

Claire (Y11) investigates the relationship between Twilight and two classic novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to discover what makes them similar but more importantly what divides them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that books written about vampires are almost exclusively terrible, and in no case is this truer than in that of Twilight. Widely considered to be one of the worst books ever written, it is generally believed to have absolutely no literary merit whatsoever, despite the story itself being age-old and popular under many other circumstances. Among those circumstances is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and to a lesser extent, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. What is interesting is that both of those books are hailed as literary classics and taught on many school curriculums, despite the fact that in terms of storyline, there is very little that actually separates them from Twilight. So why is it that the Brontë sisters’ novels are deemed masterful works of literature, whilst Twilight is relegated to the trash pile?

In many ways, the books are very similar. All three have a brooding, Byronic male protagonist – Edward Cullen, Edward Rochester, and Heathcliff – who falls in love with a female protagonist – Bella Swan, Jane Eyre, and Catherine Earnshaw. There are definitely some differences in the traits of these female protagonists, but at a basic level, they are addicted to their counterparts in a ‘passionate’ love which actually seems more like an abusive relationship. Catherine says, “I am Heathcliff”, a sentiment very similar to Bella’s expression that “(her) life was about (Edward)” and although Jane famously states that she is a “free human being with an independent will”, apparently marking her out as not being as addictively in love as Catherine and Bella, she does eventually fall prey to the same obsession.

All three stories are also set in isolated locations, cut off from society and rendering the romance central to the plot as there is very little outside influence. Bella finds herself in the small American town of Forks, where Edward and his family take centre stage as local curiosities. Jane is relegated to Ferndean Manor, which itself is located deep within the forest, and the other characters have little influence on her relationship with Mr Rochester. And Wuthering Heights, of course, is set in the iconic Yorkshire moors, where the surroundings seem to reflect the dynamic of the relationship – harsh, inhospitable, and inexplicably alluring. This feeling of isolation, this detachment from the outside world is what allows all three romances to blossom into the obsessive and damaging relationships they ultimately become.

There are other similarities, of course. All three female protagonists are ‘othered’ by society, be it by virtue of simply being a teenage girl or by their feminist principles. All three are ceaselessly self-obsessed; Jane dwells on herself endlessly, Bella is conscious of her every flaw, and although Catherine seems far less self-deprecating, that does not mean she is not selfish. And throughout all three novels runs a feeling of the scandalous, the inappropriate and the exciting. Edward is, of course, a vampire, and over 100 years older than Bella is. Mr Rochester is Jane’s employer, and there is a gap in class and age. Heathcliff is Catherine’s adopted brother, and implied to be Romani in origin – certainly, he is not white. These factors tie common threads between the stories, linking their characters.

What is it that renders Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights simply better novels than Twilight?

So if the characters are essentially the same, the setting is essentially the same, and the basic storyline is essentially the same, what is it that renders Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights simply better novels than Twilight? One of the most obvious factors is the context. The Brontës were women writing books at a time when women generally didn’t, and although their novels were published under pseudonyms, it does not detract from the fact that they rebelled against the norm and published works of fiction which went on to become classics. It would have taken extraordinary courage and talent to write and then attempt to publish such literature, and it shows in the novels themselves. By contrast, Meyer was able to sit down and simply write, and then have her book published with relative ease. This means Twilight, although not altogether terrible, is simply very boring. It is not a novel of challenge and struggle, and that too shows in the writing.

Another thing that marks the Brontë sisters’ works from Meyer’s is the fact that Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are, objectively, better-written. The prose style of Twilight is simple, bland and unremarkable – the descriptions are extremely mundane and Bella’s simpering first-person style is insipid at best and exasperating at worst. In contrast, both Brontë sisters offer rich and interesting writing, replete with elegant descriptions of landscape and emotion, and when Jane narrates, her first-person voice is, although occasionally irritating, undoubtedly compelling. Wuthering Heights is also a much more complex story, spanning generations of characters without losing track of the development of any, and although it is not the polished masterpiece that Jane Eyre is, it is certainly a triumph. Twilight is, to put it kindly, not.

None of this is to say that Twilight isn’t worth reading. All literature has an inherent anthropological value, in that it teaches us about the culture of the time, and Twilight does a very good job of informing readers that in the mid-2000s, people were obsessed by vampires. The undeniable fact, however, is that it is not a particularly good book, and that for all its similarities to the Brontë sisters’ masterpieces, it does not hold up well in comparison.

@English_WHS 

Decolonising the Canon of English Literature

By Ava Vakil, Year 12.

If the purpose of literature is to represent the culture and tradition of a language or a people, can we really profess ourselves to be true students of literature when seemingly only focusing on a single culture and its peoples?

Such has been the question of a group of students from Cambridge University these past few weeks; there has been a cry from undergraduates to “decolonise” their English Literature syllabus by taking in more black and minority ethnic writers, and bringing more expansive post-colonial thought into the curriculum.

A kindred instance occurred at Yale University in May of last year, where there was widespread criticism of the requirements to graduate as a Yale English major. As it stands, a student is able to fulfil the requirements of the revered course without studying the literature of a single woman or minority writer.

However, as always after a plea for diversity, there comes the inevitable “But…(insert the name of any women/minority)!”.

And whilst this may be true – and the likes of Austen and the Brontës have themselves a fairly fixed place within the Canon of English Literature – it is simply not good enough; not only are women and minorities few and far between, but they tend to offer what I consider ‘one-step diversity’. This being white women, or gay men, or anyone who represents only one shift away from the ‘norm’ of the straight, white cis-gender men. Where are the black female trans writers, and why aren’t they a key part of our education?

There is an urgent need to address the homogeny of the curriculum within many universities and schools, along with the canon itself. The reason for this is not just diversity for diversity’s sake (though this has many benefits in itself), but because we are narrowing and constricting our understanding of literature and context by ignoring writers simply because they don’t have a place in the literary canon.

This does not mean refusing to study Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Frost etc. but simply broadening our conceptualisation of what English Literature is.

As Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College (Cambridge) puts it:

“It is not just about adding texts but about rethinking the whole question of Britishness, Englishness and what they mean in relation to the empire and the post-imperial world… questions of race, gender, sexuality and so on.”

We are hampering and inhibiting our own knowledge under the colonial guise of the canon. Surely it should be impossible to study Othello or Jane Eyre without considering the post-colonial context? Or Twelfth Night without a wider multidisciplinary study of gender and sex?

Though it is against the nature of universities to want to politicise their curriculum, this happens by default when the syllabus simply reflects the age-old and continuing social, literary (and political) repression of anyone classified as “other”. Hence, cries from Twitter trolls about this being a ‘patrolling’ of the curriculum to suit and accord to the views of particular women and minority groups are intrinsically hypocritical.

The canon of literature has forever accorded to the politics of the majority, and appeals to change this are no more political than the sexist, racist and colonialist nature of the canon in the first place.

The need to change this system of subtle repression of writers within education must come from both professors/teachers and students alike. Though there are concrete changes which need to be made in terms of legislation of the actual syllabus, as students we have a large part to play.

Read widely and read critically; consider racial and gender context; rewrite and reclaim what you consider “classic”. Most importantly, investigate the hidden under-belly of the canon of English literature – the texts that are excluded have just as big a part to play in the shaping of our society as the texts which sit smugly on the exclusive list.

“Let’s make our bookshelves reflect the diversity of our streets.” – Phil Earle