Gary Day

October 31, 2003

The problem with too much reflection on your practice is that it can make you worse, not better, at what you do

"We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces." That, at least, was the opinion of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest . I suppose her observation is still true. When I asked one of my students what she thought about D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, she said she didn't like Birkin, the central male character. I pressed her to elaborate, thinking that she probably took exception to his analysis of modern society, his view of women or even his melodramatic expression: "I hate you starrily," he says to his friend Gerald as their train rattles past Bedford station. But no. She didn't like Birkin because '"he was not very handsome".

Well, it's nice to be surprised sometimes, isn't it? And, anyway, she's got a point. Art is first of all surface so maybe we shouldn't be too eager to hurry on down to the depths, which, let's face it, can be pretty gloomy. Most literature is about the inevitable misery of existence, not the sort that we encounter every day - such as trying to get through to NTL - but lofty stuff about life not having any meaning. So, as well as being unremittingly pessimistic, literature's also hopelessly unrealistic. I mean, when did you last have time to worry about why you were here? It's far more likely you wake at 4am and think: "Oh God! I haven't filled in that research audit form yet."

Ah yes, audit forms. They show that we live not just in an age of surfaces or even surfing, but of surveillance too. Lady Bracknell hinted at things to come when she was alarmed that missing yet another train might expose her to comment on the platform. Those were the days, when there were trains to miss.

But I digress. The point is that we have to account for our actions. What do we propose to teach? How do we propose to teach it? What do we expect the students to learn? How can we know that they have learnt it? These are reasonable questions, but who says humans are reasonable beings? Although I believe in the values of the Enlightenment, it doesn't stop me thinking that if I can only throw this apple core into the bin first time, then I'll get that Leverhulme.

Anyway, as I was saying, the problem with constantly reflecting on your practice is that it can actually make you worse rather than better. Any artist will tell you that they don't like to think too much about how they do what they do for fear that they'll no longer be able to do it. Academics are not artists, but there's an element of creativity in teaching that is best left well alone.

Thankfully, life is so organised that no amount of planning can ever prevent students from learning something. The culture of transparency in universities is symptomatic of a society that watches over us. For our good, naturally. The purpose of programmes such as Big Brother is to make surveillance acceptable by presenting it as entertainment. It also makes us think that we are doing the watching when in reality it's the other way round. Not that we don't want to be watched. Far from it. We clamour to be on the box-hence the popularity of talk shows such as ITV's Trisha .

In case you haven't seen the programme, it deals with people's problems: "My sister is sleeping with my son"; "I live with my lover and his wife"; "he's so fat we can't make love anymore". I wish my life was that interesting. Still, it's not everyone who gets trained to be a fire evacuation officer for their corridor at work.

Although Trisha does help people by putting them in touch with counsellors and various organisations, it also reinforces stereotypes of the working class as oafish, overweight and morally flawed. But its real significance lies in the way it serves up private lives for public consumption. At the same time, the show resurrects the principle of community since the audience are encouraged to comment on the issues. Their observations, couched in the idiom of the soaps, amount to telling the participants to "get it sorted".

What the audience of Trisha fails to appreciate is that those who appear on the show have had so little control over their own lives that it is hard for them to take charge of them now. The audience may see the trainers, the jewellery and the baseball caps but what they don't see is the poverty, the lack of education and the reduced life chances that go with them. The camera reveals society the better to conceal how it really works.

Just because we can't see something, it doesn't mean it's not there. Why, only recently doctors at Hammersmith Hospital discovered Tony Blair had a heart.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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