Adapted for the big screen

April 20, 2007

Academics from across the globe exchanged ideas about modern fiction in a British Council-organised video conference. Harriet Swain got a close-up

According to the strict timetable, we should have just been introduced to Cairo and now be breaking the ice with Karachi. But there is a problem with Tunis. A bit of anxious bustling about at the British Council, where UK delegates to the video conference on contemporary British fiction and the curriculum are gathered, and Tunis eventually enters proceedings, animating a fourth fuzzy window projected on to a white screen at the front of the room. All four windows fill with jerkily waving hands.

Robert Eaglestone, deputy dean of arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, and organiser of the conference, likens his role to that of a Victorian party hostess. "You want everything to look very smooth and relaxed, but for that to happen you need to plan it in great detail," he says.

Never mind the Victorian party hostess, Eaglestone is more reminiscent of Ulrika Jonsson presenting the Eurovision Song Contest as he gets each country's delegates in turn to present their take on the conference topic.

"Hello, Karachi, can we have your contribution please," he says. And, like the Eurovision Song Contest , cultural and political tensions lurk beneath the points. The difference is that one intention of the conference is to bring these tensions out into the open and to encourage discussion of what they might mean for future teaching.

The emphasis on interactivity rather than "top boffin talks to academics around the world" is what makes the event such a complicated trick to pull off. It is still early days in terms of technology for this kind of four-way video conference, in which delegates from three continents are able not only to listen to a selected speaker but to hold general face-to-face discussions without leaving their countries. It is also unusual to use video-conferencing over a full day rather than for a one-off meeting. But interactivity is what makes the event so stimulating. "We try to involve everyone in the conference room," says Eaglestone. "One of the advantages is that normally only top professors get to fly to conferences around the world. Organised in this way everyone, including graduate students, gets a chance to come in."

The aim is for this democratic principle to apply to the involvement of all participating countries as well. While the event is organised in conjunction with the British Council offices in each country, and the key paper is delivered from London by Phil Tew, professor of English at Brunel, Eaglestone stresses: "This is not the news from London broadcasting to the Empire."

This is in spite of the fact that the subject matter of this conference - modern British fiction - means something different for those actually teaching it in Britain. At times, the temptation seems to be for delegates in other countries to defer to the British academics' view of what they should be including on their curricula simply because of their nationality.

Reasons for resisting this temptation soon emerge. First, as Tew explains, British academics are just as worried about which of the thousands of novels published each year they should include on a course.

Kaye Mitchell, one of the British delegates and a lecturer in English literature at the University of Westminster, says that claiming authority for choosing one work of fiction over another is always problematic before the work has stood the test of time and extensive criticism - something that for modern fiction is by definition impossible.

Then, Tew says, according to a recent survey carried out by the English subject centre, English literature lecturers appear particularly influenced by issues of nationality, globalisation and identity, as well as of aesthetic merit, in choosing books, and these issues clearly mean different things for different countries. As Kamila Shamsie, a writer and one of the delegates in Karachi points out, there is no reason for her country to teach British rather than American, African or Asian fiction. For them, our local is their global.

There are also more practical reasons why booklists have to differ from country to country. The non-UK delegates say what they choose to teach is all too often dictated by what they, and their students, can get hold of.

Faten Morsy, the chief delegate in Cairo, says books by Zadie Smith, who is popular there among postgraduate students, are just too expensive and difficult to find to include on an undergraduate course.

Other authors are difficult for undergraduates to access for reasons of "intellectual appropriateness", says Morsy. Writers such as Hanif Kureishi and Jeanette Winterson, or even Virginia Woolf, tackle issues about sex and gender that are so alien to the culture in which these students have been brought up that they are probably too challenging to tackle at that level.

For some particularly religious students they may also prove unacceptable. One delegate from Karachi says that conversations about sexuality are harder to take into the classroom there and that while Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam, which includes heavy criticism of Islam, is discussed among students it is not yet included in courses of study.

This sparks a careful debate about whether certain subjects are "taboo" in the various countries. Nabil Cherni, the facilitator in Tunis, says it is not a question of content - no subjects are taboo there, he says - but of the way issues are discussed. This is echoed by delegates in Karachi, who say it is often easier to tackle difficult subjects in fiction, and particularly classic fiction, than in contemporary contexts.

These are just the kind of areas that Eaglestone, who specialises in Holocaust studies and ethics, was keen for the British Council conferences to address, and he is excited that they have. "I am struck by the ways in which when we teach contemporary stuff there are things we avoid talking about," he says. "There are things we avoid in Britain just as there are things people avoid elsewhere." His hope is that as trust builds between participants in the video conferences, similar future events will be able to venture further into these tricky areas.

The British Council approached Eaglestone three years ago with the idea of organising an international conference to promote British literature, but he was unwilling to travel because he had small children. Video conferencing, which the council used in other contexts, seemed to offer an obvious solution, and it was only after he had worked out how to use the technology to make it as close to a normal academic conference as possible that he realised this hadn't really been done before.

He has now curated six video conferences with the British Council, each centred on a distinct theme. Previous events looked at teaching Shakespeare, changes in higher education pedagogy, teaching creativity in literary studies and postcolonialism, globalisation and terror, examining what the changing international situation means for postcolonial literary and theoretical approaches. In February, the British Council held a two-way video conference between academics in London and their counterparts from California State University to discuss slavery and cultural trauma.

Alison Reid, assistant programme manager of literature at the British Council, says there are plans for a series of video-conferences on literature and human rights - an idea from Karachi that may well be led from there. This will help avoid the lingering sense of colonialism that clings to the conference on contemporary literature. The British delegates acknowledge that the chief reason why other countries are teaching British fiction is the Raj, although it becomes clear during the conference this is changing fast.

It is also only fair that other nations have a go at organising events.

British participants leave just after 4pm, with plenty of time to organise the kids' tea. Thanks to the five-hour difference, delegates in Karachi will be lucky to make it home for the bedtime story.

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