A poet teaching literature at large and at

Wandering Professor

December 10, 1999

Have gown, will travel" could well have been the title for this fascinating book. Laurence Lerner, poet and critic, taught English in universities in the Gold Coast, Australia, Belfast and Sussex before he brain-drained in the 1980s to two prestige chairs in turn at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

He took every opportunity to lecture around the world, even occasionally resorting to the strategy of offering a term's teaching to a foreign university and then using its "invitation" to prise a term's leave out of his current employer. Not that these foreign students had any cause for complaint. Lerner is clearly an inspiring teacher, as audiences as far afield as Krakow, Simla, Srinagar, Ottawa, Paris, Vienna, Regensburg and the old East Germany must have found.

But his recollections are not mere travelogue, though even at that level his account is enjoyable. More serious in approach than that of D. J. Enright's "mendicant professor", his story is an extended commentary on fundamental issues of professionalism affecting the teacher of English literature and, above all, how the nature of teaching this subject has altered in response to blasts of changing theory and ideology since Lerner left Cape Town for Cambridge in 1947. The conscientious supervision and examining of a PhD student (though, surprisingly, Lerner made a career that included the United States without doing a PhD himself), the ingredients of a successful graduate seminar or lecture and methods of student appraisal of staff are all thoughtfully discussed and are illustrated from his experiences with radical students (and "grovelling" staff) at the "ideologically charged" Sussex from the late 1960s on, and then in the US.

Perhaps the most valuable parts of the book are his detailed, and properly self-critical, discussions of the way his "traditional" approach to the teaching of literature responded to the often strident demands of structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, gay studies, feminism (to the latter he is now appreciatively sensitive) - and simply to the new mood of student assertiveness, and he uses imaginative dialogue and copious examples of text (including his own verse) to guide the reader sympathetically, often wittily, through the issues.

John Honey is professor of English-language education, Gaborone, University of Botswana.

Wandering Professor

Author - Laurence Lerner
ISBN - 0 9536307 0 6
Publisher - Caliban
Price - £8.95
Pages - 240

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