WHAT is the future of English studies in a devolved Scotland? Academics and students debated the prospects at a St Andrews University conference organised by Robert Crawford of its school of English and sponsored by SCOPE, Scottish Professors of English last weekend.
The potential tension between English and Scottish studies was an underlying theme amid many imaginative proposals for theory, language, media links, creative writing and children's literature in devolved Scotland.
George Watson, head of Aberdeen University's English department, warned of the dangers of "narrowing the cultural arteries" in the wake of devolution. There was a general consensus that Scottish studies was emerging from years of marginalisation, "but it should beware at all costs becoming official or compulsory," he said.
Professor Watson, an Irishman, is heavily involved in the Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative, a research and exchange scheme between Aberdeen and Strathclyde universities and Trinity College Dublin.
He said there was an unexplored mine of comparative data between the two countries. Scotland and Ireland had more to gain from each other than looking to England, from which they had picked up the habit of seeing their cultures as inferior and fragmentary.
"Scots may be able to learn from our melancholy story about the culs-de-sac of romantic nationalism and about the waste of energy in programmatic anti-Englishness," he said.
Douglas Gifford of Glasgow University, head of Scotland's only department of Scottish literature, said it was proper to have departments that allowed Scottish culture to be looked at in depth, but academics must oppose an ethos that compelled "some kind of racial political correctness".
Professor Crawford has edited a forthcoming book, The Scottish Invention of English Literature, which investigates how the teaching of English literature began in 18th-century Scotland before being exported to the United States and other countries. Pulling on a sweatshirt emblazoned with the book's title, he called on his colleagues to regain their confidence in their subject, and "strut their stuff".
He then promptly removed the sweatshirt, saying: "We also need after we've done that to stop strutting our stuff and sounding like rabid and rather narrow-minded nationalists."
Professor Watson acknowledged that it would be "completely inappropriate" for someone to study English at a Scottish university without encountering any Scottish literature.
But Professor Crawford said it was also essential that students did not study only Scottish literature.
"I hope we will keep playing the Scottish card, but that we will not manifest the signs of inferiority that go with Tippexing out the word English wherever it occurs. That seems to me a sign of cultural cringe. We should be able to accept English is the dominant language of Scotland as it is the dominant language of America."
Cairns Craig of Edinburgh University warned that the Scottish universities had been instrumental in preventing devolution in 1979, and had not now rushed to welcome it.
"I think we ought to be concerned if the institutions we're part of see themselves as essentially outside the framework of a devolved Scotland, and we ought to be working within them to ensure that they are committed to being part of this new civic identity," he said.
"This particularly affects us in English studies, because unless we can be seen not to be replicating English studies in England, then the danger is that we will be seen to be in conflict with the general movement of society around us."