Has the reading week had its day?

August 25, 2000

Lack of funding is jeopardising university reading weeks, and even John Fowles's gift of his house might not help. Anne McHardy reports

From John Fowles's house in Lyme Regis, you can look down onto the Cobb, where part of his most famous novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, is set.

It is a view that Fowles wants to share after his death with young writers, which is why he is trying to find a way to bequeath his house to the University of East Anglia, which he has chosen because of its pioneering creative writing course.

"The house is not to be a college but is to hold reading parties where students go on vacations to discover themselves and the world," he said when he announced his proposed legacy.

Sadly, this dream of creating a setting in which the next generation of novels might be inspired is hampered by money.

Money also affects other reading weeks that are scheduled into term time in universities. Continuous assessment - which drives out time for reflective study - has increased the need for reading weeks, in which students have the freedom to explore texts. But as the need grows, so student and university debt mean the available cash diminishes. "Forty per cent of British universities are in the red. It is a dog's dinner," says Christopher Bigsby, professor of American and English Literature at UEA.

John Cook, dean of studies in American and English literature at UEA, says there are two kinds of reading week. At Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 19th century, he says, there was a tradition of students going away in groups during vacations, which continues in a handful of universities at undergraduate level. This style of reading week is most successful where a department is small - maybe less than ten in any year - and all students on a particular course can be accommodated. But university undergraduate class sizes can be as large as 33. "That is the sort of ratio that would have people calling for class-size reductions in schools," says Bigsby.

Students may, as a group of classicists from St Anne's College, Oxford, did in June, go to a chosen retreat to read a text - in the St Anne's case, Dante's Inferno. Matthew Leigh, who has run reading weeks at his last university, Exeter, and at Oxford, took a group of nine to a house near the beach in Cornwall, which can accommodate 22. He believes such weeks can be the most intellectually stimulating part of a college course (see panel).

Weeks such as these are among the experiences for which Fowles's home will provide a setting if the legacy is achieved. UEA, which would share the house with other universities nominated by Fowles, and with the British Council, envisages running creative writing courses for its masters students and seminars for undergraduates.

Fowles's original idea was that the UEA should own the house, but that has proved impractical. To accept the gift the university would need to maintain the house, something almost no university, particularly one just 30 years old, could afford. Because the legacy would arrive at an unspecified time - Fowles's death - finding a grant-giving body prepared to underwrite the cost has proved impossible. Another route would be to give a separate organisation ownership on condition the house was available for specified periods for use by the UEA and the British Council.

Using the house would mean UEA finding the funds for students. Oxbridge colleges tend to have endowment funds to pay at least part of the costs - in the case of the St Anne's trip, the college met accommodation and food costs. Most universities lack that sort of resource, although Cook says that UEA would move heaven and earth to at least part-fund visits. "There is no point in having such a facility that students are then charged out of."

The other form of reading week is a sort of half term devised to create a break in long working periods, particularly where universities have a two-semester year. This type of reading week usually takes place during autumn term to provide students with time to immerse themselves in their set texts, reading without the need for written analysis.

"Students increasingly have little time for the sort of leisured reading that the 19th century would have seen as vital to the proper understanding of literature," Cook says.

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