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Monthly Archives: November 2007

The literacy we need but many don’t want…

I wrote a careful essay on the nature of literacy in 1998; you may read an updated version here. At one level literacy involves just learning to read and write, using whatever teaching methods work — and that is always a combination of methods. (The whole-language VERSUS phonics myth is just that, a myth; it is rather whole-language AND phonics.) Conservative critics always focus on one end of this, and berate schools if 100% of students have not mastered basic literacy by, say, the end of primary school — a great aim, but an unrealistic one.

There are ALWAYS, whatever you do, going to be those who do not master reading and writing as well as we would like them to, just as there are those who achieve literacy even before going to school. Of course we all want an outcome that allows all those who can be literate to be literate; no quarrel there, but let’s stop nonsense such as bleating about 25% of students being "below average" and let’s stop imposing standardised tests, or at least let’s stop tying too much to them, or regarding them as anything other than potentially useful diagnostic tools.

A bit less time spent on testing and bean-counting and a bit more time, funding, and effort dedicated to actual teaching and teaching environments might do a lot more good.

But there is a type of literacy conservatives not only do not talk about but positively discourage: critical literacy. My belief is that this is so important that a democracy cannot function without it.

Here is someone who knows why.

Vanessa Andreotti is a Brazilian teacher/trainer who is currently a research fellow and education coordinator at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at Nottingham University.

 

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A new blog to visit

English resources has a lot for NSW students doing the HSC but also includes material for other years. It is a school blog created by an English teacher for her students. Why?

Because there aren’t enough hours in the school day.

Because sometimes it’s hard to get to technology resources in a public school.

Because some students work better at home, by themselves, or from sources other than me.

Because I want my students to be able to say “But I am studying, Mum!” when they are told to get off the computer.

Looks good too. And it recommends this site. 🙂

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2007 in blogs, English studies, HSC, student help, study skills

 

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My English Teachers 5: Bill Maidment (revisited)

See my earlier entry where I mention a problem with the Quadrant site. This is now fixed, and “Men Without Borders” by Neil McDonald is back online.

It was Maidment’s ability to analyse every nuance of an individual passage of literature, elucidating the rhythm, symbolism and allusions, then to place it in the context of the work as a whole—all the while keeping us aware of the period when it was written—that was of special value to us all as film critics and teachers. In addition, there was his deep understanding of imagery, traditional emblems, heraldry and associations with the paintings of the period of the work being examined. Unlike many contemporary critics, Maidment was particularly good at defining a genre, exploring precisely how it related to other literary forms…

I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? And what does it imply? …

Bill Maidment’s influence on my work was, I believe, more extensive. I first encountered him when I enrolled in his Eighteenth-Century Literature option in 1963. It was a small group, and we soon became friends. Even after I began to write Shakespearean criticism, Bill continued as mentor and friend. When my first article on Macbeth was rejected in 1964, he was there with encouragement and advice: “Certainly it has some rough edges, but it deserves to be published.” And it was, by Frank Moorhouse no less.

OFTEN OVERLOOKED by even his warmest admirers was how good a Shakespearean critic Maidment was. Only very recently he pointed out to me how the breaking of even the most trivial of oaths had a religious significance in Elizabethan England—very difficult to convey to a modern mainstream audience. Consequently when Kenneth Branagh adapted Love’s Labour’s Lost to the screen, he needed the wartime setting to create an appropriately serious modern equivalent to explain the lovers’ partings. When I was teaching Shakespeare using the Elizabethan theatre models made by my father, it was Maidment who pointed out that the playhouse itself was part of the play’s imagery. This coupling of imagery and form became vital when I worked on Shakespearean film. It was Bill who alerted me to the way Orson Welles played cinematic variations on Shakespeare’s imagery as well as enhancing the word pictures with visual equivalents…

The intellectual rigour and sceptical tolerance Bill instilled in his students gave us the confidence to see through, refute and ultimately systematically ignore the jargon-infested discourse theorists, open and covert Marxists and dogmatic gender-studies experts—who have come close to destroying film studies in recent years. There was really no debate: their want of elementary film scholarship made them easy game whenever they wrote or spoke to anyone but each other. There would be lots of eye-rolling, heavy sighs and throat clearing, but rarely any argument. Quadrant readers have, in a way, experienced this phenomenon for themselves. I have only to raise a political issue for the letters column to be filled with missives of dissent. I have even taken issue with our editor! And this is as it should be: a journal of ideas like ours is no place for unquestioned opinion. But when I accused the New South Wales Board of Studies of compelling students to misrepresent their set films for ideological reasons in my article “How Not to Teach Film”, and attacked jargon-ridden film criticism in “Screen Studies and Lantana”, the silence was deafening…

AS A MAN Bill Maidment was gentlemanly and unassuming to a fault. In his prime he was very handsome, but dressed down as if he feared any sartorial display would distract from his teaching. All Bill’s students know of his battle with his stammer, which, in the early 1960s, threatened to destroy his career as a teacher. By the way—who, today, would hire a lecturer with a stammer? Professor Wesley Milgate did, and gave the English department at the University of Sydney one of its greatest scholars and teachers of the last century. So how did Bill survive as a lecturer? He had Milgate’s support, and the students didn’t want to forgo what this unassuming, brilliant man had to offer. I remember vividly how we would simply sit there, willing him to keep going so we could make our notes and read or re-read the text he was discussing, knowing we were getting insights that few other lecturers could provide.

The stammer too was the basis of some of the best Maidment stories. No one dared so much as move during his lectures for fear it would put him off! So when, during a lecture on D.H. Lawrence, Bill mentioned that the writer’s sexual problems were rooted in his relationship with his mother, there was dead silence. The class remained quiet when he added that Lawrence’s sexuality was also rooted in the English Puritan tradition, and continued to be silent as Bill used the same word to describe a whole range of other influences in which D.H. Lawrence was rooted. The joke that went around campus the next day was that Maidment had managed to root Lawrence fifteen times! When I mentioned the story to Bill, he couldn’t remember the incident, but added, “I’m sure there was some deep-seated Freudian significance.”

Interwoven with Bill’s battle with his stammer were the triumphs. These were the occasions when it was heard around campus that Bill Maidment was about to lecture on one of his many specialties, and it would be standing room only. These lectures would be received in hushed silence, followed by a rousing ovation at the conclusion. Ultimately Bill overcame his stammer by deciding that it simply didn’t matter…

Confirming and extending my own memories of this remarkable teacher.

 

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Six suggestions for Imaginative Journeys (NSW 2008 HSC)

1. Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital (Australia May 2007; USA Canada October 2007): for good Advanced students. This is probably the best novel I have read in 2007.
2. The Russian Ark by Russian director Alexander Sokurov.

3. Amélie.

4. The Arabian Nights, an abridged retelling such as Andrew Lang’s will do. The whole idea of Scheherazade and her story-telling ties neatly with aspects both of Coleridge and The Tempest. I think so, anyway.

Some students will find themselves wondering too about ideas like Orientalism…

5. John Keats

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

6. Donnie Darko

Now look for more yourself. 🙂

Update 21 November

Visit these two posts on a blog called Deus Lo Vult. Thomas is a teacher in training and passionate about movies, especially (but not only) Amélie. Not many years ago he too sat for the HSC in 4-Unit English. Amélie and Amélie vs. Garden State.

 

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Recycle 5: from January 20, 2004 — Values in NSW schools

This one is deep in my archives! In its original context it is very political too, being an angry response to Prime Minister John Howard’s unjustified attack on public education. You may see a leading non-government educator’s reply here.

I posted the “Values We Teach” document, since superseded but essentially the same. See Core Values on the NSW Department of Education site — unless they move it again! Terrible, that way, the NSW government. Always fiddling… However, here is the version I posted back in 2004.

Love of learning

NSW public schools aim to create young Australians who value learning and knowledge and who relish the effort and possess the confidence needed to resolve problems, or to master a skill, topic or subject; who can compose clear and precise prose and construct well-founded arguments; who have mastered the art of talking with others as a route to better understanding; who are deeply interested in finding common ground with other people, other ways of life and ways of thinking and believing; and who are interested in imaginative and new ideas, and in seeking out truth.

NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • scholarship, accurate and extensive knowledge, wide reading and understanding of traditional and new fields of study, including information technology
  • rational inquiry and logical, well-founded argument
  • clarity, confidence and coherence in thinking, writing and speaking
  • curiosity and imagination as the basis for pleasure in learning
  • communicating with others as a way of establishing agreement and arriving at truth.

    Aiming for high standards

    NSW public school students are encouraged to achieve their personal best and to aim for excellence in everything they do.

    They are encouraged to participate in sport and creative performances and to learn ways of winning and losing graciously.

    NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • aiming for the best in academic, creative and sporting achievement and in all public performances.

    Care and respect for ourselves and others

    In partnership with parents and carers, NSW public school students are taught how to respect and care for themselves and others, in order to achieve self-discipline and physical and mental well being. They learn respect and care for others through the codes and practice of good manners, the give and take of friendship, the routines of companionship and the management of friendly rivalry. They learn respect for expertise, legitimate authorities, and leadership through acceptance of responsibility. They are taught ways of recognising right from wrong.

    NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • recognising right over wrong
  • honesty and courtesy
  • health, fitness and well being
  • discipline, punctuality, reliability
  • experience, expertise and authority
  • friendship, companionship and friendly rivalry
  • self-discipline, independence and responsibility

    Care and respect for families and communities

    NSW public school students are encouraged to feel and demonstrate empathy and respect for those who are vulnerable and dependent. They learn to demonstrate the values of generosity and compassion and the principles of fairness. In turn they earn the right to expect to be treated by others with respect and fairness. As members of families and communities they learn how to treat others with consideration.

    NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • kindness and helpfulness towards those who are vulnerable, or who are less able than others
  • the rights of individuals and groups to a fair go
  • sharing and equity as principles of personal and social relationships
  • different histories, customs, cultures and outlooks within home and school communities and in the Australian community

    Respect for work

    NSW public school students learn the need to grasp opportunities, the rewards of effort, and the value of work. They learn to see how work is changing and how new forms of work encourage experiment and resilience. They learn with new and evolving technologies and are taught to welcome innovation. Public school students learn to work well together with different kinds of people.

    NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • paid, unpaid and voluntary work
  • opportunity, aspiration and enterprise
  • creativity, experiment and resilience
  • working together and in competition
  • skilled workmanship
  • productive habits and methods.

    Proud Australians and citizens of the world

    As young Australians, NSW public school students learn to understand and appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of their land.

    They learn about Australia’s creative arts, literature, and history, and the insights to be gained for the future good of Australia. They learn to appreciate the significance of Australia’s Indigenous people and of immigration to Australian identity.

    NSW public school students are taught to respect the rule of law and Australia’s democratic institutions and procedures. They are taught their own rights and responsibilities, and those of groups and governments under the code of law and systems of justice.

    NSW public schools teach the value of:

  • Australia’s democratic institutions and procedures
  • the rights and obligations of governments, individuals and groups under the rule of law
  • the contributions of Indigenous people to Australia, and their history and struggles as our country’s first custodians
  • the beauty and uniqueness of Australia’s landscapes and environments
  • the histories and cultures of all Australians
  • the role of migration in building Australia’s place in the world
  • the interdependence of human beings with each other and with the natural world

    Values for Australia’s future

    These values help each NSW public school student to take full advantage of new ideas and knowledge which characterise the social and economic environment emerging in Australia, and in the world community.

    In conjunction with an excellent general and vocational education, this code of values enables young Australians educated in NSW public schools to freely choose and enjoy their paths through adult life, to master the complexity and variety of the contemporary world, and to contribute as citizens to making Australia a better, more prosperous and happier place.

  • Perhaps the PM regards some of these as “excessive political correctness”? There are probably some values there the PM would have a problem with — but that is his problem, and ours in having a neanderthal for a Prime Minister. I can understand someone who hasn’t had an original or really broad-minded thought in the past forty years thinking that way, just as I can find it quite remarkable that a man whose prime value is how to hang onto power, stifle debate, and lie to the Australian people whenever it seems necessary to achieve his goals is suddenly the mouthpiece for “Australian values.” Am I being disrespectful? Bloody oath I am.

  • With a taste there of the original context, you will note. But this present blog is of course a rant-free zone. 😉

     
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    Posted by on November 14, 2007 in curriculum, inspiration, replays, teaching

     

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    Is “majority” singular or plural?

    Once again the problem occurred as I was writing on my personal blog. The entry is about comment spam, and does mention this blog, so you may care to look: The joy of spam. The sentence: The majority lately, as in the other blogs, has been people with Greek names and sites with China endings… I have decided to make that have been.

    I found this answer:

    “Majority” is one of those words that can be either singular or plural. Common sense works pretty well in deciding which. If you mean the word to describe a collection of individuals, then the word should be treated as plural: “The majority of e-mail users are upset about the increase in spam.” If the word is used to describe a collective group, then consider it singular: “A 90% majority is opposed to scheduling the next meeting at 6:00 A.M.” If you are uncertain which you mean, then choose whatever form sounds best to you; it’s not likely to bother many people.

    That’s from Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English, a really useful site.

     
     

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    My English teachers 5: Bill Maidment

    I am not a great fan of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, particularly in recent years, but there are good things in it — the poetry, for example, and most things written by Neil McDonald, so it is frustrating to find the Quadrant site seems to have been hacked just as I tried to track down what Neil McDonald said about Bill Maidment in the March 2005 issue. All I have is this fragment on eNotes:

    ON APRIL 4, 2005, the former Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney, W.M. Maidment, died shortly after receiving chemotherapy. Bill was a major influence on nearly four generations of students, scholars, teachers, historians, writers and artists of all kinds. His special areas of research and teaching were eighteenth-century literature, seventeenth-century poetry and the early twentieth-century novel. But Maidment never wrote a line of film criticism–so why am I beginning a film column with a tribute to his life and achievements?

    His wide-ranging…

    If I were a student still or a full-time teacher, by the way, I would subscribe to eNotes; it looks very useful.

    So I was sad to read of Bill Maidment’s passing. We have already seen how, according to Michael Wilding, Maidment was “one of the old guard, the unreconstructed” in the eyes of Professor Sam Goldberg back in the early 1960s, and he was indeed in that position during my Honours year in 1964.

    Bill Maidment was an Andersonian:

    Anderson retired from the Challis Chair [of Philosophy] in 1958 having educated some of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. He died in July 1962.

    “Anderson stood for everything to which the Christian Idealists had been opposed. That he was prepared to describe himself as a materialist, a positivist, an empiricist, a realist, was sufficiently startling, for in Australian academic philosophy these had been terms of abuse. But even more disconcerting was the fact that he did not fit into the picture which Australian Idealists had constructed of their opponents – as in the fortress at Singapore, their guns were pointing in the wrong direction.”…

    Studying philosophy under John Anderson inspired many students to become professional philosophers. Although the most famous of these were John Passmore, David Armstrong, John Mackie and Eugene Kamenka there were many who were less well known. These include Perce Partridge, Jim Baker, Ruth Walker, Tom Rose, George Molnar, etc. Apart from these professional philosophers, there were many who took a major degree in philosophy under Anderson and went on to pursue careers in the academic and non academic workplace. These include Frank Fowler, Harry Eddy, Bill Morison, Harry Nicolson, Bill Maidment, Margaret Mackie and many others. A full list of the `Andersonians’ would run to several hundred.

    See also John Anderson remembered by Emeritus Professor David Armstrong (2005):

    He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore, John Mackie, A.J. (‘Jim’) Baker, David Stove and myself. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney.

    Anderson had philosophical views on almost everything. He tried to carry through his realist and empiricist views through metaphysics (the general nature of what there is), logic, epistemology, morality, political philosophy, theory of culture, aesthetics: there hardly seemed any serious intellectual topic on which he did not have a ‘line’.

    The line always involved a great deal of debunking, the critique of illusions was central to it. In this he resembled what have been called the ‘masters of suspicion’: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. One interesting thing about his thought, though, was that, while arguing that these thinkers had important points to make, he argued that they were themselves to be suspected. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was only one thinker that he did not treat with much suspicion: himself. That was a weakness.

    He found it hard to come to terms with what most philosophers learn to live with: that other philosophers do not wholly agree with them. In a subject where decision procedures are so difficult to find and agree upon, living with disagreement seems the only rational course.

    But this critique of illusions, always based on the same realist and empiricist principles, applied over a very wide field, and, it has to said, by an extremely intelligent thinker, was very attractive to intelligent students (compare Socrates’ following among the youth of Athens.) Sydney was a provincial town then (perhaps still is?) and you could learn from him a critique that would carry you through a wide range of topics and give you an education of quite a wide sort. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to philosophy. It gave many, including myself, their intellectual formation…

    In keeping with that, I remember being bemused in 1962, I think it was, when our Distinction group had a session we thought quite odd on “Theory of Criticism” — or that may have been 1964 in my Honours Year! (Senior moment!) What I do know is that no-one had ever asked us before if a literary work was in the same order of reality as a packet of cornflakes! It isn’t such a damned fool question as we first thought either.

    He also questioned, with some irony at the time, the idea we rather hugged to our bosoms that students of English were bearers of civilisation. That of course correctly challenged the whole Matthew Arnold tradition, and even more pertinently Leavisism.  Was he himself not a fake, he asked, since he had never read Shakespeare’s King John? And didn’t the fact that there were all those engineering students out there who couldn’t care less about what the English Department was up to make you wonder whether they might have a point? (A touch unfair to some engineers I have met, but we knew what he meant.) He never told us THE answers either… But he did make us think.

    Yes, he had a dry sense of humour too, and many a tale of the Sydney Push.

    In my early years of English he lectured us on the eighteenth century novel, around 500 of us packed into the Wallace Theatre. One of Bill’s difficulties was a dreadful stammer which stress made worse. One lecture he just could not get the next word out, flushing and stressing for all to see. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Thanking us for the vote of confidence he carried on at last, finishing the lecture without another stammer. This was one of the most moving moments I ever had at Sydney University, and I am sure Bill would have remembered it too.

    Back to Goldberg as well as Maidment: there is a review in Australian Humanities Review of Andrew Riemer’s memoir Sandstone Gothic, which I read with interest, by Stephen Knight (1998).

    Andrew Riemer relates how a clever young man from Budapest strolled slowly into the monstrous cave of the Sydney University English Department, to emerge some forty years later with his body bruised by Leavisites, hair singed by the breath of theorists, clothing ripped by urgent feminists.

    The faith that sustained him was learnt on the hard benches of the old quad from donnish men and one prima donna, Thelma Herring. They instructed him in the dates, biographies, sources and rhyme schemes of the major English authors, a litany of fetishised fact which amounted, they thought, and Andrew was persuaded, to civilisation…

    The Leavisite brigades from Melbourne moved in, but were driven off after a few year’s academic trench warfare. Then came more assaults on civilised scholarship, from Australian Literature led by the charming menace of Countess Kramer; other figures move in the gathering gloom of Andrew’s nightmare — theorists with cries far from wordless, feminists imposing rights (and a few lefts), the politically correct with their always incorrect demands, and worst of all those who insist on giving students wide choice, and so weaken the defences of Castle Canonical, that bastion of the best that was ever thought and footnoted.

    It’s a sad story in that Andrew really felt and lived this melodramatic misery. The witty and cultivated man who joined the department six months ahead of me did indeed like others grow psychic scar tissue from the antics of clever, intelligent, but rarely sensible man Sam Goldberg. Sadder yet is that the Sydney department’s only response to the Leavisite assault was to recoil into unargued faith in the old scholarship school of civilisation, a system actually out of date even at Oxford by the mid 1930s, as Brian Doyle (of Cardiff) outlines in his excellent book English and Englishness.

    Not only a curriculum turned to stone. This book is the longest complaint I’ve read since Piers Plowman, and not as well written: Andrew’s usually rather elegant footwork often becomes a shuffle of semi-cliché. The Latinate old dons would have called this a liber querulus; they weren’t always wrong.

    But the book also suffers from what is left out. Andrew’s account of thirty teaching years at Sydney lacks almost all the colour and vigour, indeed the contribution to civilisation, made by that members of that department. Staff and student involvement in the Vietnam debates, the Women’s Course strike, the bustling development of new local voices in poetry and prose. Charismatic — and sometimes eccentric — teachers were at work like Bill Maidment, Bernard Martin, Terry Sturm, Terry Threadgold, Jim Tulip.

    True, some of the department’s electricity was somewhat negative, and lively people could be repelled into other more positive spheres like David Malouf, Nick Enright, David Marr, Dorothy Porter. But publishing, reviewing and a whole range of cultural carry-on was enlivened by campus identities like Michael Wilding, Don Anderson, Rosemary Creswell, Judy Barbour. From Vadims to the Hotel London, English staff helped cultures grow, subsidised Frank Moorhouse’s champagne, foresaw the future over flounder sandwiches at the Forest Lodge…

    Ah, the Forest Lodge! I lived next door to it for a year in 1987! Saw a bit of it too a decade earlier when I was working at Sydney U myself…

    Update

    The problem with the Quadrant site being fixed, I have published more details about Bill Maidment taken from Neil McDonald’s essay.