The ability to analyse easy texts comes only after rigorous work on difficult ones. Diane Purkiss explains why Oxford students outperform those bred on a diet of pick 'n' mix.
Students, as we all know, are an anxious lot. And we also all know that much of this has extra-curricular causes. But what about the curricular anxieties? Student depression and suicides are often fuelled by fears about failing academically, or by worries that the student in question is somehow not up to scratch. Yet where does academic confidence come from? Virtually all our students are bright, yet many are plagued by fear.
At Exeter, as at the other provincial universities where I have taught, the students were bright. Some were exceptional. And yet I was constantly frustrated by the way that even the best of them often failed to fulfil their potential, often graduating unable to read demanding poetry - or even demanding drama - for pleasure. When confronted with such texts, a lot of class time was usually taken up with an agenda that I came to think of as the narcissist's grumble. Instead of reading Spenser or Eliot or Derrida, the students often spent an inordinate amount of time asking themselves why the author had not written a simpler text. Many were inclined to conclude that it was because the author longed to make them feel bad about themselves. If I pointed out the unlikelihood of the proposition that Spenser had sat in 16th-century London rubbing his hands with glee at the thought that he would perplex undergraduates four centuries later, they remained unconvinced. To them, demanding texts became not a test of the author, but an unfair, rigged test of themselves. This idea got between them and the texts so effectively that the texts remained stubbornly difficult, and a vicious cycle was established.
Why? Was it the syllabus - or the lack thereof? When I first left Oxford for a pick 'n' mix system, I believed with youthful fervour that students had the right to choose what to study. I also believed that Raiders of the Lost Ark could be just as complex a text as The Faerie Queene if read rigorously, rightly, contextually, structurally, deconstructionally.
Surprise! I was wrong. What I learnt was that while this might be true for those who had already read The Faerie Queene , it could never be true for those who had not. That is, unless you have read a certain number of demanding texts, you are not educated to make the right demands of a simple one. Mine was a smug argument made from privilege.
But above all, I learnt that pick 'n' mix systems flounder horribly in student underconfidence. Unlike me, the students know perfectly well that, read normally, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a lot less complex than The Faerie Queene . Raiders offers some rewards to those who cannot deal with complexity; Spenser offers virtually none. And given the choice, they will therefore choose the former almost every time, because that way they can at least feel sure that they are not going to fail. They are not stupid and they are not unambitious. Quite the contrary; they are people who have been told all their lives that they are clever, and they have become too afraid to risk that reputation by feeling even momentarily stupid in front of a difficult or demanding poem, especially a poem that absolutely cannot be read like a novel. They are not just afraid of failing grades. They are afraid of feeling days of uncertainty before a difficult text is mastered.
At Oxford, though, things are rather different. It is true that the film option is booming, though it is fair to add that it does not feature Raiders of the Lost Ark . And at the beginning of this term, I thought at first that the pox of underconfidence had spread here too. I set my second-year students The Faerie Queene over the summer vacation, and by mid-August I got a stream of emails saying, more or less, "it's too hard".
Sigh. OK, I emailed back. We will have a remedial class at the beginning of first week. In they came. What are the problems? I asked. Silence. Then one student spoke. "Well. I don't quite see how I can reconcile the mutability cantos with the explicit politics of Book V."
A different order of problem then. This is a question that can be asked only from a position of some confidence. The student had got as far as the mutability cantos, for one thing. But more important, she was bothered not by her own failure to read, but by an apparent failure on the poem's part. Instead of narcissistically understanding the text as all about her and her successes and failures, she was willing to see it as about the poet's successes or failures.
Why was she confident enough to do this? How had I failed to impart the same confidence to my students at Exeter and elsewhere? I cannot be sure, but I think two factors are key, with a possible third.
First, the entire second year knew they would have to master The Faerie Queene . They knew that I would make them write an essay on it, and rewrite the essay if it was unsatisfactory. They therefore stopped asking themselves if they were really up to the challenge and got on with meeting it as best they could - with a great deal of moaning, but with a grim determination to finish the thing. They knew they could not duck it. They were forced to be free.
Second, and this is important, these students have incomparably more resources than students I have taught anywhere else. They have three libraries at their disposal; even the Keble College library, by no means one of the largest, has as many books on some authors as most provincial and any new university could boast, and students can also draw on the vast English Faculty Library, and on the Bodleian, which, of course, has everything. They also have me for an hour a week with just two of them asking me questions, instead of 25 of them. They are much more likely to identify with my aims for them this way than if they can barely see me at the end of a long table.
Third, their confidence has already received an enormous boost from the fact that they are at Oxford in the first place. Every day they walk past architecture that screams "Important! Public Building!" There are endless rituals to make them feel part of all this history of success and grandeur. When they go home for the holidays, their parents are doubtless telling all their acquaintances that little Susie is at Oxford. By contrast, I cannot tell you how many wonderful students in the provinces have looked at me, hang-dog: "I'm an Oxbridge reject," said with a wry smile. "My school wouldn't even put me up for Oxbridge." And every time I or anyone else says that Oxford has more resources, or that its students do better work, we chisel a little more off the confidence of these children who feel as if they have not been invited to the party.
Diane Purkiss was formerly professor of English at Exeter University and is now fellow and tutor at Keble College, Oxford. Her book, Troublesome Things , has just been published by Penguin, £20.00.