We've lost those magic moments

The emphasis on learning outcomes and benchmarks in the context of English literature is little more than a straitjacket that stifles the originality and creativity of both author and student critic, argues Derek Attridge

May 1, 2008

University courses in English literature (or modules, as they're more likely to be called) are designed, like all courses these days, to achieve specified learning outcomes, tailored to conform to agreed benchmarks. Students are informed of the assessment objectives of their work, which is then assigned a grade defined by a grade descriptor. The departments within which these courses are taught are assessed according to performance indicators, and the teachers who teach these courses are assessed according to the procedures of performance management. The research they carry out is assessed in a research assessment exercise or a research excellence framework, and the journals in which this research appears are assessed according to a published list of rankings.

Where, in all of this, is a space, or a time, for the sudden catch at the heart when a reader registers the emotional force of:

Surprised by joy - impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom

But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

or the surge of empathetic passion when an audience hears:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch

Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.

Yes, it's an easy opposition to set up, and I have absolutely no doubt that in classrooms all around the country literary works such as Wordsworth's sonnets and Shakespeare's plays are being read or listened to, discussed or written about, with as much sensitivity to their complex emotional and intellectual power as in the days before any bureaucrat had uttered the words "learning outcomes" or "assessment objectives". Nevertheless, it's hard to see much in our current educational regimes that fosters or rewards responsiveness to the sheer power, or the subtle grace, or the breathtaking unexpectedness of the literary work performed and absorbed in a full attentive reading.

The problem is not, of course, limited to higher education. While the new assessment objectives for A-level English literature issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority hold some promise, since the first one begins, "Articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts" (my emphasis), by the time they've been reinterpreted by the examination boards the element of creativity seems to have disappeared. Thus the OCR board interprets this assessment objective as indicating the achievement of the following qualities for the highest band:

  • Excellent and co nsistently detailed understanding of texts and questions
  • Consistently fluent, precise writing in appropriate register
  • Critical terminology used accurately and consistently
  • Well-structured, coherent and detailed argument consistently developed.

These are obviously important qualities, but listing them like this inevitably acts as a straitjacket for the teacher who wishes to encourage - and the examiner who wishes to reward - originality, risk taking, individuality, and flair (especially when they're related mechanically to numbers of marks to be assigned to a piece of writing). At the recent National Union of Teachers annual conference, the general secretary, the late Steve Sinnott, was reported as saying: "We want a return to a time when there was a potential for magic moments in the classroom." "Magic moments" is not a bad description of the incalculable, unpredictable, unforceable opening out to unexpected horizons that, taking students and teacher by surprise, can happen in the literature classroom.

It is in this context that I want to pose the question: "Can we do justice to literature?" I believe it is a real question, even at the best of times, and it takes on particular force when it becomes, in effect: "Can we do justice to literature as literature when the institutions within which we engage with it - as teachers, students, researchers and critics - exert constant pressure on us to treat it instrumentally, to reduce it to a set of rules, or a source of information, or a deployment of skills?"

Now, the first thing to say is that, of course, much, perhaps most, of what we do and what we teach as specialists in literature is a matter of rules, information and skills: we have to imbibe and impart all those techniques of reading and analysis spelt out so carefully by the A-level examination boards; we have to absorb and convey large amounts of factual information; we have to endure and encourage a great deal of sheer hard work. And we're failing if we don't find and communicate real pleasure in carrying out this work.

Nevertheless, I also think it is essential to acknowledge that literary works - like all works of art - operate in our culture in a way that is not, finally, reducible to these instrumental, objective techniques. There seems to be something in the practice of art in Western culture that exceeds all attempts to subsume it under positivist principles; and my claim is that this excess is not just an empirical fact about the history of art but what makes art art.

It is not possible to offer any kind of blueprint or programme for the response to a literary work that can be said to do justice to it: this is because of what it means to "do justice" - to respond inventively to invention, singularly to singularity, in a way that doesn't simply implement existing protocols or conventions. It follows that there can be no guarantee that anything I say or write will do justice to the work I'm commenting on; this can only be a judgment of other listeners or readers, who do or do not find that my response brings the original work to life in a new and valuable way. Nevertheless, I'll risk a few suggestions about literary criticism today, always remembering that there are no rules and that the next literary study I read may contravene everything I say here and yet be remarkably successful in doing justice to its subject. When I use the word "criticism" I'm including any verbal response that aims to do justice to what is of value and importance in a literary work, or group of works, or oeuvre. And in talking about criticism I am talking, mutatis mutandis, about teaching.

The best criticism, I would argue, is personal, written by a critic willing to acknowledge the particular, unique history that has formed him or her, and the specific situation from which he or she writes. Philosophers may write as if their words were impersonal expressions of truth, sub specie aeternitatis, but the critic doesn't need this illusion: we write as individuals, with individual combinations of knowledge, prejudice, skill and sensitivity. The best criticism is also alert to the demands and needs of the particular time and place, of the conversation it is joining, of the values it is endorsing or challenging; and it has an important relation to the future, implying as it does a promise, a trust, perhaps even a risk. Because of its awareness of its cultural situatedness it is also aware of its provisionality: it is not claiming to reveal truths about the work that all previous, and less able, critics have failed to see, nor is it assuming its judgments will remain valid for all time.

The best criticism is alert to both the originality and the inventiveness of the work. By originality, I mean its newness in the context of its time, opening up new possibilities for literature, for the articulation of feeling and thought in language. By inventiveness I mean its capacity to convey in the present a sense of that opening up (whether or not this reproduces the inventiveness of its moment of production). Such criticism is, by the same token, alert to the work's strangeness, to the demands it makes upon the reader to expand his or her sympathies, imagination, intellectual reach or emotional range.

The best criticism affirms the work it responds to - it is through our responses that we keep artworks alive - but this doesn't mean it eschews negative judgments. If the critical response is an attempt at an honest reflection of the experience of reading, of performing, of living with and living through a literary work, it is likely to include moments of disappointment, of valleys as well as peaks. It's also likely to express doubts and uncertainties, a recognition that both one's understanding and one's ability to express what one perceives are being tested to the limit.

Finally, the best criticism is rigorous in reflecting the critic's actual experience of the work and in resisting the ever-present temptation to exploit the powerful machinery of critical discourse to make merely ingenious points. For the tools we have at our disposal are extremely powerful; thanks to the brilliant examples of William Empson and I.A. Richards, William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Roman Jakobson and Gérard Genette, and many others, we've inherited techniques of analysis that can be widely taught and put to use, even by those who are left unmoved by the works they are analysing. I am not suggesting that we abandon these techniques, just that we make sure they're used to clarify and explain the experience of the work's singularity and inventiveness in an alert and committed reading.

Something of the inventiveness, the openness, the chanciness, that goes into the writing of literature needs to carry over into our teaching, our criticism and our research - if, that is, we research not only as historians, linguists, sociologists or moralists but as scholars whose primary interest is in literature. This may get harder and harder as what David Lurie in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace calls "the great rationalization" gathers strength, but it's surely a battle worth fighting.

This is part of a guest lecture given at the annual general meeting of the Council for College and University English in March.

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