Second nature

September 1, 1995

A conference next week in Glasgow aims to get nation speaking unto nation on the subject of English. John Davies reports. If there is one place British insularity will be firmly resisted next week, it will be the University of Glasgow. For that is the location for the third conference of the European Society for the Study of English, and any locally based English literature scholars are sure to be outnumbered by their Continental counterparts.

"The whole purpose of the enterprise is to keep people in touch in Europe," says former ESSE president Italian professor Piero Boitani. "Every European scholar has connections with the United States or Canada or Australia or wherever, but meeting someone who teaches English literature at the University of Copenhagen, say, or Prague, is extremely important. You may discover they do things differently, or they may do things the same way.

"Each national brand of Anglistik (English studies) has one or two dominant ways of approaching the subject," he continues. "The Germans are very strong in linguistics, whereas in Italy the literary side is stronger." A generalisation not borne out by Helmut Bonheim, Boitani's successor as ESSE president, who reveals that, when chairman of his Anglistik department (at Cologne), "I abolished all the English language courses, because we now had the opportunity (under Erasmus and other programmes) to send so many students abroad to learn the language."

Still, some distinctions can be made. "There's a clear division between higher education systems that believe you have to install a canon, and other traditions where the idea of higher education is research oriented," says the University of East Anglia's Robert Clark, who knows as much about the society as anyone:he helped establish it six years ago, and is still its secretary. "In Spain and Hungary, for instance, there is still a belief that students should master the main writers, whereas in Germany after a two-year foundation phase all assessment is by research papers."

So are the debates on the canon, familiar in Anglo-American English departments, echoed in their Continental counterparts? "Choice is not an issue here. Anything is grist to the mill, from a Marlboro ad to Milton," says Bonheim.

All the same, he admits students "come to us with a very thin covering of literature" and while they like to read modern novels in English and even dramatists such as Pinter and Beckett, they are "afraid of poetry", perhaps because it seems to require a greater sense of the subtleties of English. But in Germany, a debate on the canon "does not exist. We look across the pond with amusement."

In Spain, at the University of Zaragoza, Susana Onega Jaen talks of a "common trunk of subjects that we must make sure about" with her students. A professor in the department of English and German philology, she has sometimes found herself explaining who Shakespeare is, but thinks that her students' level of English is better than that of previous generations, for which she thanks the Spanish middle classes' "zest for sending their sons and daughters to England" on summer language courses.

She makes the complaint, familiar to British ears, that in changing to a credit system her university is forcing broad courses, hitherto "organised historically", into smaller, more fragmentary, units. She may not again be able to run the final-year course that she has taught on 20th-century literature, "and if they don't know Joyce," she asks, "how will they understand Peter Ackroyd?" Italy still has a "more or less recognised canon" of English literature, according to Boitani, who teaches at Rome's La Sapienza University: "If you take the point of view of a non-English-speaking person, the perspective changes. You obviously have to teach people like Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth, Joyce and Eliot, whether you like it or not.

"Questions about the canon anyway are less important now. There was a time in the 1970s when theoretical questions were very hot indeed, at the time of the structuralists and semioticians. Now people are free to discuss things by whatever method they choose."

In Hungary, it's "basically still the traditional English canon", according to Peter Szaffko of the Lajos Kossuth University in Debrecen, near the Romanian border. He and his colleagues, he thinks, "have a more thorough training (than in British universities) because we all have to teach basic courses. So I'm doing for example Anglo-Saxon culture and literature with my first-year students, although this is not my area". Like other European students, Hungarians are beginning to take an interest in post-colonial literatures from India, Africa and the Caribbean as well as Australia and Canada.

"You can do your favourite thing for your thesis - even rock 'n' roll. But you have to go from Chaucer to Graham Greene. Because it is a second language, people who have studied English in Hungary are expected to be experts on everything from American elections to how the British celebrate Christmas. We have had visitors from England who have been amazed at the factual knowledge of our students."

Under Communism, English departments in Hungary were closed down for a while in the early 1950s. But after that, says Szaffko, "we were allowed to teach as we wanted to without political restrictions", although perhaps "people who did things closer to Marxist thought were favoured". More importantly, after the fall of Communism, "we began to look at one another. Not only England and Hungary but also Hungary and Sweden, for example."

As for eastern Europe generally, Graham Caie, conference organiser and Glasgow professor, recalls an ESSE board member from a former communist county talking recently of "the luxury of debate" about theoretical questions and the canon. "I think we have a lot to learn from eastern European colleagues who are trying to find a voice in post-communist situations."

Founded in 1989, ESSE now has over 20 national associations under its wing, with over 7,000 members. "The society's aim is binary - to integrate the teachers of English in European higher education and to make the British aware of the language's role as a function of European culture," says Robert Clark.

"One reason I got involved was because I was thinking what it is we do when we train a graduate in English. English has got to be seen as just one important European language. Students must be educated to see the influence of imports, from Petrarch and Rabelais to Kafka."

As Clark sees it, the undoubted strength of English as a kind of European lingua franca raises particular problems. "Portuguese for example is interesting but not threatening, but English is so dominant. In the Netherlands it is the de facto second language, but other European countries find its hegemony more worrying."

Meanwhile in Rome, Boitani is troubled that some of his students "come because English is fashionable, they have the idea they will pick up English from our courses and then go and work for British Airways".

Nevertheless, a German who has a degree in English might be able to speak his second language with more accuracy and elegance than a native speaker, says Bonheim. Some English academics, he adds, have even been delighted when Germans have complained about visiting British students' verbal sloppiness.

The third ESSE conference runs September 8-12 at the University of Glasgow.

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