A life of skimming is a life half-lived – 05/10/18

Fionnuala Kennedy, Senior Deputy Head, looks at the benefits of slow reading with reference to recent pieces on BBC Radio 4 and in The Guardian.

Two things happened recently which made me stop and think and – believe me – this is not a common occurrence in the month of September when you’re a Deputy Head. The first was a brilliantly written article by Maryanne Wolf in ‘The Guardian’. Wolf is the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and she writes with integrity and from a well-researched foundation of data about the areas of learning we are losing as we become digital and therefore skim, rather than deep, readers. It’s not just our inability to remember sequences of information and details which is in decline, but – and much more troublingly – our ability to ‘understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own’. In other words, we are losing the magical moments in reading described so perfectly by Alan Bennett’s (albeit hugely flawed) character Hector in ‘The History Boys’:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”.

And, if deep – even slow –reading helps to make us more empathetic and feel less alone, then it stands to reason that a society of skim readers is a weaker society.

But we have also to accept that tech is not only here to stay, but will continue to develop at a stratospheric rate. And that’s the way it should be. It’s very easy as educators and parents to tut at Gen Z and their screen time addictions, but that is unhelpful at best and hypocritical at worst.

The second thing which caught my attention this week was the brilliant Radio 4 satire ‘Agendum’, in which they make the point – very much more wittily than I am about to – that we talk about screen time ill-preparing our teens for everyday living, even as we sit at our desks day in, day out, tapping away in front of screens. We are all in this together, not just young people; indeed, when I shared Wolf’s article with the academic management team, one of them confessed that ironically she had skim read it…

So, as Sherry Turkle points out, it is not advancement which is the problem – ever – but rather our inability to either predict or preserve the positive aspects of what we do which said advancement disrupts or even destroys. And so the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. It’s like someone who decides to exercise more giving up the notion of lying down entirely; it’s great to be active but we still need to rest. So Wolf suggests that we need to ‘cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums’. In other words, we need to adapt to our new digital, high-speed culture by practising and thus preserving our ability to read in-depth.

Which ties in perfectly with the talk we hosted last week by Carl Honore, who is the ‘guru’ of what he has coined ‘Slow Living’. In a world where being busy, tired and even stressed seems not only the norm but something of a badge of honour, it’s time to slow down when we need to, to adapt our speed according to the task and to the moment. If you’re reading a weather report to see whether you need to take your umbrella out with you, or a summary of a Netflix show to see if you’d like to watch it, or an Ocado recipe as you do a mental stock take of the ingredients you’ll need to buy, skim reading is fine, appropriate, good, even. If you’re reading ‘Middlemarch’, perhaps a skim isn’t doing it, or you, or society, any justice.

Euripides: a misogynist or a prototype feminist? – 07/09/18

Anna (Year 13) explores the works of Euripides and endeavours to establish whether he was a feminist through analysis of his plays.

Often regarded as a cornerstone of ancient literary education, Euripides was a tragedian of classical Athens. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom a significant number of plays have survived. Aristotle described him as “the most tragic of poets” – he focused on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way that was previously unheard of. This was especially true in the sympathy he demonstrated to all victims of society, which included women. Euripides was undoubtedly the first playwright to place women at the centre of many of his works. However, there is much debate as to whether by doing this, Euripides can be considered to be a ‘prototype feminist’, or whether the portrayal of these women in the plays themselves undermines this completely.

Let us first consider Medea. The play focuses on the eponymous heroine, and centres around her calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, which she achieves by killing his new wife and her own two children, then fleeing to start a new life in Athens. Medea is undoubtedly a strong and powerful figure who refuses to conform to societal expectations, and through her Euripides to an extent sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Because of this, the text has often been read as proto-feminist by modern readers. In contrast with this, Medea’s barbarian identity, and in particular her filicide, would have greatly antagonised a 5th Century Greek audience, and her savage behaviour caused many to see her as a villain.

This negative reception of Euripides’ female characters was echoed in the Greek audience’s response to Euripides’ initial interpretation of the Hippolytus myth, in which Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, which has horrific consequences. It is believed that Euripides first treated the myth in a play called ‘Hippolytus Veiled’. Although this version is now lost, we know that he portrayed a shamelessly lustful Phaedra who directly propositioned Hippolytus on stage, which was strongly disliked by the Athenian audience. The surviving play, entitled simply ‘Hippolytus’, offers a much more even-handed and psychologically complex treatment of the characters: Phaedra admirably tries to quell her lust at all times. However, it could be argued that any pathos for her is lost when she unjustly condemns Hippolytus by leaving a suicide note stating that he raped her, which she does partly to preserve her own reputation, but also perhaps to take revenge for his earlier insults to her and her sex. It is debatable as to whether Euripides is trying to evoke sympathy for Phaedra and her unfortunate situation, or whether through her revenge she can ultimately be seen as a villain in the play.

However, if you look at Hecuba, Andromache, and the Trojan Women, we see how the evils of war have a grave effect on women, and in his play ‘Ion’, he sympathetically portrays Creusa, who was raped by Apollo and forced to cover up the scandal. Although some believe it is difficult to fully label Euripides as a feminist, he nonetheless understood the complexities of female emotion in a new and revolutionary way, whether the audiences, from both then and now, view his female characters as heroines or as villains.

Links and further reading:



Cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays: Does it solve the problem of gender inequality?

Cecelia (Year 12) investigates the modern and historical practice of cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays.

From Tamsin Grieg’s Malvolia to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, cross gendered casting is becoming increasingly popular in British theatre, never more so than in Shakespeare’s plays. New adaptations wanting to put a spin on the 400-year-old productions now look to casting female actresses in the typically male roles of Lear, Macbeth and Othello. Whilst this allows the play to be seen through a different feminine perspective and offers a completely new interpretation of the character, cross gendered casting gives women the opportunities to embody some of theatre’s most complex and popular roles.

However, this seemingly ‘modern’ twist on Shakespeare’s work is not as revolutionary as we may think. When Shakespeare wrote the majority of his work, women were not allowed to perform on stage and so his female characters were always played by young boys or men. As much as gender blind casting can provide a wider range of roles for female actresses, is it always effective and when should the line be drawn?

It is no wonder that Shakespeare’s work is constantly being revisited and adapted, his original text is so complex and diverse that something new can be gleaned from it with every new actor. Hamlet is the most frequently adapted Shakespearian play and has one of the longest histories of women playing the title role. The character of Hamlet is uncertain, passive and lacks resolve – qualities that are typically seen as feminine. Hamlet’s effeminate side has led to the character often being portrayed by women, with some believing that they can inhabit the role with more ease as they are able to fully connect with the feminine side to his personality.

Some of the most famous Victorian Hamlets were women, Sarah Bernhardt and Alice Marriot’s Hamlets were highly regarded by most critics with the part said to have benefitted from their “injection of femininity” (Catherine Belsey). Despite this, some critics argued that it was impossible for an actress to truly comprehend and identify with the thoughts and emotions of a man – a line of argument that is still present today. With this in mind some productions choose to play the character of Hamlet as a woman as demonstrated in Asta Nielsen’s portrayal of Princess Hamlet in the 1920 silent film. Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman masquerading as a man, possessing all the masculine skills and lacking only the instinct to kill. But regardless of the past success of actresses playing the Dane, there is still a public reluctance to accept this change; a 2014 YouGov poll found that 48% of Britons were not happy with the idea of a female Hamlet.

Many argue that by changing the gender of the actor, the gender of the character is effectively altered as well; as such, must the text itself be adjusted and if so, to what extent?

Whilst Vanessa Redgrave played the male role of Prospero, Helen Mirren’s Prospera was a female rewrite of the original. For most of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, the change to Prospera worked but because her daughter, Miranda, stayed female, the relationship between the magician and the child became complicated. The dynamics between a father and a daughter are vastly different to that of a mother and a daughter, and the Tempest is inherently a complex dissection of the fraught bond between a father and his daughter. The removal of this crucial theme dramatically altered the message of the entire piece and as such did not sit well with many audience members.

Whilst cross gender casting did occur in the 18th and 19th century, it has gained huge popularity in the last 20 years. As gender is beginning to be seen less as a biological definition and more as a social construct, the idea of a woman playing a man or vice versa has become far more acceptable. Our intrinsic understanding of male and female characteristics have changed, along with the ways in which we wish to see them portrayed on stage.

Of course, the opportunity for great female actresses to play great Shakespearian roles is positive. As well as giving women the chance to play classic and multifaceted roles, it allows for directors to create something new out of a play that has been around for hundreds of years.

Despite this, as we move forward, the dramatic community must place more of an emphasis on the creation of original female roles which share the same complexity and breadth of emotion as that of their male counterparts. Juliet Stevenson summarised the debate neatly with her statement on the red carpet that she “want[s] great parts for women, not women playing great parts for men”.

Twitter: @English_WHS

Taking the register

James Courtenay Clack considers the way we use language in the classroom.

It started with a pupil in my Year 9 class dismissing Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting as ‘flanter’. Whilst inwardly I shared her sniffiness about their saccharine shared sonnet, there seemed to be a clear challenge coming from this pupil. Would I, as a teacher, and an English teacher no less, allow her to use slang to talk about one of the most famous scenes in all of literature? This got me thinking about the way we use language in the classroom.

With morning and afternoon registration and seven lessons, most pupils can expect to answer the register nine times a day. As important as this rite is in keeping track of pupils, far more interesting is the other type of register pupils flit between. If anyone with a half-keen ear were to follow a pupil around the school for a day, they would notice that the way pupils speak and write changes as they move from home to school, from WhatsApp groups to essays. Rare is the pupil, for example, who answers the question of what they want for breakfast in the same formal and detailed manner in which they would a question about the bleak landscapes of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

Register, as coined by Thomas Bertram Reid and developed by Martin Joos, is the sociolinguistic term for the use of language as defined by social situation. Broadly speaking, register is about the level of formality of language and it incorporates elements as disparate as:

  • Vocabulary
  • Tone
  • Dialect
  • Slang
  • Abbreviation
  • Use of full sentences

It is worth thinking about why we use language differently in different contexts. In certain social situations, the answer is obvious. We adopt a more formal register with managers/bosses at work, for example, both as a sign of respect and out of a desire to impress. Similarly, our use of a more informal register with friends belies a level of comfort and intimacy that we do not share with our employers.

For the most part the ability to move between these registers – or at least the knowledge that you speak differently with Mrs Lunnon than you do with your BFFL – is picked up when young. As our social skills develop, our ability to move between registers becomes almost unthinking. When I applied for a job at WHS, for example, I did not have to remind myself not to greet Mrs Lunnon with an ‘alreet pal’ at the start of my interview.

That we use language differently in different social contexts is hardly a ground-breaking observation, but it does have several implications for teachers. Once pupils enter the classroom they are introduced to a new range of registers and in English, there are two main areas of interest, or areas of clash: the way we talk in class discussions and the way we write essays.

Although essays are the main form of assessment, the primary skill being assessed – interpretation of a literary text – is developed in class discussion and debate.

The question of how we speak in class is deeply political. The fact that the ability to use language in certain ways is a form of social currency in this country has moved schools such as Michaela Community School and Harris Academy Upper Norwood to ban the use of certain registers in the classroom.

The desire to equip pupils with the verbal skills required for social mobility is undoubtedly a noble one, but I would argue that such a hard-line approach to register is dangerous. Firstly, the fact that WHS’ A-Level curriculum includes writers as diverse as Chaucer and Tennessee Williams is proof enough that there isn’t one ‘correct’ form of English. Secondly and more importantly, however, is the entire point of class discussions. The reason we discuss and weigh up ideas and not just dictate, Mr Gradgrind style, from the front is that we want to encourage pupils to develop their own voices and their own thoughts.

If pupils are going to develop ideas and formulate opinions through discussion, as they will have to do at university, they will need to feel a sense of ownership over the curriculum. It is for this reason that I encourage my class to voice opinions about texts in their own way and it was for this reason that I whole-heartedly agreed with my Year 9 pupil about Romeo and his ‘holy shrine’. Similarly, if my Year 12 class want to refer to the author of Mrs Dalloway as Ginny Bae, or if my Year 8s want to describe Shylock’s insistence on his pound of flesh as ‘a bit extra’, then why should they not?

It is possible to create an enjoyable learning environment in which pupils feel confident voicing ideas and opinions in their own language whilst at the same time modelling the more rigorous language of academia. So I agreed that yes, Shylock ‘was a bit extra’, but then questioned them as to whether his desire for revenge along with Antonio’s overt anti-Semitism made Shylock a tragic hero in the eyes of a modern audience or whether he was a mere comic foil about whose suffering a contemporary audience would not have cared a jot. That he is both, and more, is testament to the genius of Shakespeare, a man who knew more than most about the power of mixing the language of the court with that of the street YEAH.

Twitter: @English_WHS