14. 12. 2004
Czech Studies Abroad:
‘How much literature do I have to do?’
As Admissions Tutor for the Russian Department at Bristol University, the most common question I am asked by applicants is: ‘How much literature do I have to do?’ You have to be careful how you answer, because sometimes the applicant is not hoping to avoid studying literature, as I used to assume. Nevertheless, this question usually indicates either fear of literature, which the applicant finds difficult, or hostility towards literature, which the applicant considers boring, useless and irrelevant. I don’t find this attitude particularly surprising; the real question is how educators should respond to it, and whether the response of recent years, in which educators have bent over backwards to give credibility to it, has been correct.
A paper given at the conference at the Czech Embassy, London, 10 December 2004, ‘New Trends in Czech Studies II’
Czech version ZDE
The numbers of students studying modern languages at school and university are falling. In an education system dominated by market principles rather than considerations of personal and national need, subject areas that fail to recruit will not survive. Recent education policy has, by accident and design, consistently marginalised modern languages. The National Curriculum restricted the space for them in the timetable. As a result, provision for languages beyond French, Spanish and perhaps German has become increasingly patchy. The introduction of league tables and other pressures on students and teachers to achieve high grades at all costs has militated against recruitment in subjects perceived as difficult. In the last week I have heard two stories about schools reducing the number of hours in the timetable devoted to G.C.S.E. Russian and English Literature respectively as a punishment to departments for not achieving enough top grades. The situation has been exacerbated most recently by the decision that a foreign language should no longer be compulsory at G.C.S.E., according to ministers because students should not be made to study a subject that they do not consider relevant to them. This argument has been applied uniquely to modern languages, and in practice goes against the efforts to eradicate social elitism that theoretically guides education policy at present.
In this way, applicants to university have received the message that languages are not only difficult, but also not necessarily that important or useful. Bombarded by dire warnings about the competitive jobs market, they opt either for courses that appear practical, like psychology, IT, forensic science or business studies, or relevant by virtue of their contemporary bias, like the social sciences. Statistically, you are more likely to get a job with a modern languages degree than with a degree in any of these. Anxious about recruitment, university modern languages departments have attempted to match applicants’ expectations, based on their previous language studies, by moving away from the study of literature in favour of apparently diverse, eye-catching non-literature-based courses with a strong contemporary emphasis.
My contention in this paper is that this shift is a fatal mistake. Though these types of course are presented in every sense as equivalent to literature courses, they fail in practice to provide students with the general or specific skills and knowledge that increasingly dissatisfied employers expect. Moreover, the reduction of a modern languages degree to a goulash of social sciences plus language will encourage universities in their attempts to remove lucrative language teaching from departments into commercial operations. The departments, having abandoned their roots in the humanities, will then simply wither. In the current climate, with the emphasis on examination results and competing demands on students’ time, to make literature optional is to condemn it to a slow death in the margins. At the same time, however, it is to mislead applicants that they can become genuinely expert in their chosen language without knowledge of its literature. In my experience, politics scholars take conference sessions on Czech literature much more seriously than literature scholars take Czech politics sessions, evidently because politics scholars believe the literature is something they need to know about. University modern languages teachers need to be more prepared to defend challenging, literature-based courses as the core way of training graduates equipped to become specialists in the broadest range of areas, and therefore of protecting the future of modern languages study. To begin the work of persuasion rather than capitulation, however, it might be useful to recall what motivated education reformers to target literature study in the first place, and examine whether what replaced it has really met their aspirations.
For education reformers, the manner in which literature was studied typified the authoritarian ‘teacher-centred’ methodology they sought to eradicate. Extending the 1960s assault on the canon of English Literature, Ronald Carter argues:p>
Teachers and professors who have the power to decide which books make up a literature syllabus reflect in their choices a fundamental structure of beliefs and interests which reflect the particular culture or section of society into which they were born and in which they grew up.
If this is indeed the case, it’s not clear to me why this should not apply to any other materials a teacher chooses to use. With justice, Alan Maley maintains:
We require students to study literature as if they already knew how to. The result all too often is a pseudo-competence in which students learn to manipulate a lego-vocabulary of critical terms without understanding and to repeat for examination purposes the recording of received opinions they have had imprinted upon them.
Ironically, this same criticism is now levelled at cultural studies, which has created its own disciplinary jargon to mask its lack of academic weight.
In an effort to make language learning more ‘real’ and ‘relevant’ to the needs of learners, they sought to move from what they termed the ‘study of literature’ to the ‘use of literature as a resource’. In a conscious extension of Post-Structuralist theories of text, methodologists like Maley favour activities focused on the target language in which students make literary texts their own, breaking them up, extending them, re-writing them, or giving emotional, rather than analytical responses to them. Elements of this approach now dominate the literary studies component in modern languages A-Levels. A theoretical Czech A-Level student, having read Mácha’s Máj, might be asked to write an essay in Czech responding to the question ‘Je Vám líto Viléma?’ This apparently innocent language task is pernicious because it implies that this is not only a legitimate form of literary criticism, but a more legitimate form than dispassionate, informed analysis. The ideas in the text are abandoned in favour of the reader’s emotions. In place of the snobbish imposition of the literary canon comes the equally snobbish suggestion that learners, where they are in their lives, are unable to meet the literary text on its own terms.
By contrast, supporters of cultural studies rejected the absorption of the study of the target culture into language classes. They argued that through cultural studies, students would discover that the target language did not describe an exact equivalent of their own world, but another world, and that by learning to explore that other world they would become better at exploring their own. This seems to me a vital objective of second language study, best achieved by making the learner’s exploration of that ‘other world’ central to the content of language classes at all levels.
Advocates of cultural studies maintained that literature study neglected the most useful aspect of the literary text for learners, as a source of information about the society. Commenting on traditional literary methodology, Michael Byram writes:
These methods are based on a well-founded assumption that literary texts embody the relationship of all linguistic texts to cultural meanings but do so in a more concentrated, and therefore more accessible and rewarding form. That many learners then go on to turn these methods solely to the study of the uniqueness of each author of established literature rather than considering also the representativeness of authors of the society in which they lived is for our purposes regrettable.
For Byram, the study of a target culture, including the study of literature, would draw in future on the principles not of literary criticism, but of social anthropology.
For pragmatic teachers of literature, Byram’s assertion that literature should consider the ‘representativeness of authors of the society in which they lived’ is not that controversial. At one level, literary theory has devised concepts like the implied reader in order to investigate it; at another, students need not be denied the initial anchor of biographical and general socio-political and cultural context. The problem is the reduction or even subordination of a work of literature to these contexts. One hears, for example, of courses where the novels of Milan Kundera are used as a means of teaching students about the experience of Czechoslovakia during the Thaw and Normalisation. This approach reveals the inherent danger of so-called social anthropology; that it encourages students to see only the surface, without taking on the contradictions and complexity of the depth of the text itself. The literary text becomes no more or less useful than other cultural artefacts like ephemeral sitcoms, TV commercials or media reports. School modern languages syllabi are now dominated by the suggestion that all manifestations of culture are equally worthy of study in terms of what that study demands of and gives to the student. In consequence, literature does not feature until A-Level and is optional. In the Oxford-Cambridge Board French A2 culture paper and coursework, for example, there is no distinction drawn between studying Camus’s La Peste, or the contemporary French media. Perhaps, however, we might all agree which would be the more difficult to do well, and which is more likely to have a more lasting relevance to students’ understanding of France and their own lives.
Significantly, many of those who promote this form of cultural studies in modern languages come themselves from a traditional language, literature and history background. The best elements of their methodology are in fact derived from literary analytical or historiographical approaches, but applied incidentally and piecemeal. More importantly, though, these educators take for granted not merely the depth of cultural knowledge they possess, but their ability to criticise existing hierarchies, to challenge stereotypes, to discern academic value in the most unlikely source materials and draw socio-political and historical conclusions from them. In their desire to spare the next generations of learners the apparently bourgeois, boring and irrelevant experience they had, they may well be denying those generations the same knowledge and skills they put to such widespread use. In other words, one can make sense of the surface by knowing the depths, but the reverse does not apply. By implying that all opinions about an artefact are valid, cultural studies classes end up, like radio phone-ins, reinforcing stereotypes while claiming to do the opposite. By focusing on things like French rap or Mexican soap operas, on the basis that they mirror students’ own leisure interests, cultural studies teachers abdicate their responsibility to educate, to open students up to forms of culture they might not otherwise discover. By giving legitimacy to all forms of culture, they end up denying learners the notion of the underground or forbidden in culture that expresses and sustains rebellion against dominant hierarchies. By encouraging a cult of the contemporary, they encourage the ahistoricism and ignorance of the past so widespread in our politics and journalism.
The real results of these reforms, no doubt unintended, have been the instrumentalisation of language and the decline of literary study, in schools and now in universities. In addition, as Byram points out, for learners, the primary objective is now to become a ‘native-like’ speaker. Students sometimes reproachfully point out that the Czechs they meet have never read half the books I’ve asked them to study. At university, however, we must be clear, above all to our students, that our objective is to create people capable of becoming experts, highly informed about the history and preoccupations of, say, the Czechs, able to empathise, but retaining the critical distance that will make them so valuable in any future career.
University teachers of literature can no longer make any assumptions about their students’ previous experience of literature study, which may be non-existent. Early on, students need persuading through the style and content of classes of the value of what they are doing. Methodologists like those mentioned earlier argue for the teaching of literature with a small ‘l’, the rejection of a single dominant view of what constitutes literature worthy of study and why. Ironically, however, the ‘use of literature as a resource’ they advocate results in the subordination of the literary text to a specific purpose. By contrast, the student of literature can keep returning to the text with different approaches or from different perspectives without ever exhausting it. Moreover, the student of a foreign language literature has no need to feel oppressed by the canon in the same way as a native of the culture.
The study of a literature like Czech possesses particular advantages. For the vast majority of undergraduates, Czech is a blank slate, an opportunity to start again and perhaps right the wrongs of past language study. Moreover, the reputations of Czech works of literature rarely precede them. Students may find it hard to have their own opinion about, say, Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment, weighed down by the existing body of criticism. By contrast, the relative lack of high quality, easily accessible criticism for even major Czech works provides great opportunities to challenge canonical works and reach original interpretations, and allows space for the widest variety of approaches. Relatively little Czech literature is easily available in reliable translation. From the outset, students have to get used to reading in Czech, and usually small-group classes centre on the close reading of text. Texts need to be linguistically accessible; the class format provides immense opportunity for interaction and personal interpretation; the focus on language is intense and allows beginners to see Czech in a more inspiring context than basic grammar constructions.
For undergraduates, the reading and interpretation of a work of literature in a foreign language requires an incomparable investment of time and mental effort, but promises incomparable rewards in terms of deepening linguistic self-confidence, analytical skills and the ability to make sense of the target culture. This incomparability should be recognised in the structure of modern languages programmes. At the same time, other aspects of cultural studies need not be abandoned, but will no doubt benefit from the core literary historical and analytical training students will be having. Perhaps, in future, when students anxiously ask how much literature they have to do, we might answer with the hope that, in their subsequent professional lives, nothing will prove harder than making sense of Czech literature, so it’s better to get the worst over with now.
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