Shakespeare, Milton, skin and ventriloquism

January 15, 1999

The English degree is a big favourite with students, but an increasing vocational spin is transforming how the subject is taught. Harriet Swain reports.

William Shakespeare's victory over Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton as Radio 4's personality of the millennium highlighted just how dear English language and literature remain to this country.

Popular on its own or combined with other subjects, each year about 9,200 of the 390,000 applicants for British universities express an interest to read English. But the nature of English courses has changed in recent years. Debates over textual theory that raged during the 1980s have subsided in favour of increasing interest in what lies outside the text.

Derridean postmodernism and structuralism have been replaced by studies of ethics and the historical and cultural context or writings. The rows that rend today's English faculties are more concerned with the over-politicisation of a subject that is ever more interested in the real world than with intricacies of textual theory.

But with the government's increasing emphasis that students acquire vocational skills and with fee-paying students demanding clearer material benefits from universities, English again faces a question that has rumbled around it on and off for years: what is it for?

A study by the Council for College and University English did its best to address this point. Submitted to the Quality Assurance Agency, after calls in the Dearing report for subjects to show demonstrable skills, it argued that English was well able to hold its own in terms of usefulness.

"Its particular skills, both discipline specific and transferable, and its concrete allegiances to other subjects in multi and inter-disciplinary programmes, make it fitting and important for the modern world," the council concluded. The study of English imparted written and oral communication skills, the ability to learn autonomously, to grasp concepts, critical abilities, intellectual flexibility, self-reflection and debating, negotiating and problem-solving skills. And the report warned against making the subject narrower or more vocationally oriented, which could "stifle the imagination, creativity, originality and empathy".

Rick Rylance, CCUE's secretary, says employment statistics for English graduates are similar to those for business studies students: "110 per cent of the profession thinks English should not be concerned by the skills agenda," he said. "But 110 per cent of the profession thinks English already communicates skills." Anyway, English can rarely be judged in isolation. Of the 86 per cent of institutions surveyed by CCUE that offered single honours, only 4 per cent did not also offer combined or joint honours.

One of the most important skills the subject now requires, encouraged by the research assessment exercise, is the ability to work with different disciplines and departments. Particularly popular are anthropological and historical treatments of post-colonial writings, such as the axial project run by academics at Leeds, Swansea and Southampton universities, looking at literary and filmic representations made by writers moving between countries. Also popular are psychological approaches such as that of Helen Small, a tutor and fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, whose Love's Madness focuses on 19th century psychological theories and literature, while gender studies continue to be strong in all periods of English literature.

As communications improve and international conferences proliferate, nationality and ethnicity have also become major interests. English is under examination both as a world language and broken down into dialects.

Paul Hamilton, head of English and drama at Queen Mary and Westfield College, believes English is being studied within a far broader context.

"When this works it is good, but it can be wishy-washy when it fails," he says.

There is also concern that the interest of English academics in the historical, cultural, gender and even environmental context of writings is making the subject too obsessed with politics. In some parts of the United States this has been taken to extremes. Lawrence Rainey, recently arrived from the US to the University of York as chair of modernist literature, says politically correct obsessions in English studies in America have alienated the public and the funding of English departments has been cut as a result. "It is a debate taking place on both sides of the Atlantic," Rylance says. "It is not that politics should not exist but there is a feeling that that is all some people are looking for in texts."

But the issue should not be exaggerated. While there has been much talk about diversifying the canon of writers studied to recognise, for example, the influence of women and authors from different cultures and classes, in practice Shakespeare, Milton, et al continue to be taught in most departments.

In a parallel trend, modernist authors are enjoying a revival in interest as their writings come out of copyright. New work is being carried out on texts by D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats and T. S.

Eliot, aided by advances in technology that allow for more sophisticated textual analysis, turning an aspect of research considered dull in the 1970s and 1980s into a hot new topic.

Technology has also led to different ways of absorbing texts. Literary texts can now be read alongside film scripts, which in turn are related to contemporary poems and novels. Editions of texts are released together in written, recorded and electronic form.

Distinctions between criticism and creative writing also appear to be breaking down, largely due to student demand. In recent years creative writing departments have started up in Manchester, Birmingham and Bangor, among others, and the subject is now recognised in the research assessment exercise.

Rylance is confident the subject will be able to absorb the pressures of vocationalism. He predicts that in five to ten years all English courses will include an explicit skills-related element. But this simply stresses its flexibility, rather than disparaging the subject's practical value.

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