New College, curiously familiar courses

Writing course materials for Goldsmiths was a young Gabriel Egan’s first scholarly work. Two decades later, they’re part of a ‘superstar’ institution’s offerings

June 7, 2011

A familiar face approached me in the summer of 1993 and offered to make a deal. The fact that we were fellow scholars meeting in the Round Reading Room of the old British Library meant the sort of deal we were discussing was fairly benign, or so I thought.

I had just finished my finals for a bachelor’s degree in English at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a former tutor simply wanted to know if I could help with the authoring of some teaching materials. Goldsmiths had the contract to write materials for the University of London’s distance learning BA in English, which was part of the External Programme.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the University of London has allowed anyone anywhere in the world to register to sit its final examination papers, and if you pass you get a University of London degree. It’s a come-one-come-all initiative, built on the principle that a candidate living in Kuala Lumpur who writes convincingly on the metaphysical poets, and all the rest of English literature, deserves the same degree as someone living in Kentish Town. As long as the final exams are rigorous, who needs entry qualifications?

The only bit that had been missing, apparently, was the teaching. But that was about to change.

As part of the creeping de-federalisation of the University of London – with each of the colleges setting its own syllabus and exams – it had been decided that it was time to revamp the External Programme. Why not offer candidates the newfangled pedagogic innovations that were all the rage now that the excitement about overhead projectors had worn off: course booklets indicating the texts they would be examined on, reading lists of critics they might find illuminating, “consider points” around which to structure their learning, mock exam papers, and even suggested weekly schedules mirroring how a university student would be expected to tackle the work. Writing all this was not a task any permanent tutor would volunteer for, but just the sort of thing a recent graduate looking to supplement his tight MA grant might take up. And I did.

My first attempt, for the course Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson, wasn’t awfully good, and I had to make extensive revisions as I learnt on the job. I must have got the hang of things, though, because by the time I was halfway through my doctorate I had also written or extensively revised the courses on Shakespeare and Renaissance and Restoration, and I was marking the hundreds of scripts that came in each year from hopefuls around the world.

We even had a go at offering summer schools, but some of us commanded substantial fees and expenses by then, and the idea proved uneconomic. It was all excellent preparation for teaching students face-to-face, and my tutors-turned-colleagues in Goldsmiths’ department of English scrupulously probed everything – especially suggested exam questions – for sloppy thinking that might lead candidates astray.

Ten years ago I gave up this work and did not expect to see any of it again. But then last weekend the press announced the opening of the New College of the Humanities in London, with its galaxy of professorial superstars and, among others, a degree in English literature. It was the “literature” bit that caught my eye: who still calls it that?

The college’s website helpfully lists the courses to be taken, and I noticed that something called Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson is a required component. Coincidence? No: the 200-word course description, the prescribed reading, the “topics for special consideration” were all mine. Or rather not mine, as I’d sold them to the University of London (via Goldsmiths) nearly two decades ago.

Students at the New College of the Humanities will take the University of London External BA exams, so for English literature they’ll get the teaching materials written in the 1990s at Goldsmiths. Apparently my fresh-from-a-BA reflections on early modern drama strike the New College professoriate as suitable promotional material for their £18,000-a-year degree. I was just happy to get them past the gatekeepers at Goldsmiths.

The New College of the Humanities degree is said to be about “great literature” (mentioned twice) and to impart “skills” and “competence”. English at Goldsmiths in the 1990s was sceptical about claims for literary greatness and students became skilled and competent without anyone mentioning it: arguing about writing was all.

I suppose I’m flattered that so early in my career I wrote materials that now command the highest prices in the degree marketplace, but surely even I am better at this sort of thing now. Should I ask my employer for a pay rise?

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