Workshop 06 — Year 12 Extension 1: pomo 2002
Links updated 2006
This is really quite an old site now, but it seems that there is still a demand for it. I put it up on Diary-X for a Year 12 English Extension class (2002) at Sydney Boys High. In February 2006 Diary-X crashed and burned:
February 24, 2006
There is no easy way for me to say this. Diary-X has suffered from an unrecoverable drive failure. Due to a combination of issues, the last backup (from December 2004) contained only configuration files and other non-essential files. We do not have any other backups for the site. All journals, user information, forum posts, templates, images, and everything else are all irrecoverably lost…
Thanks to Yahoo Search, I was able to recover cached entries.
The topic of the Extension was “Postmodernism” – quite a challenge.
If you are a student of postmodernism and come to the conclusion that much of what you are told is actually quite insane, you may well be correct, in my considered opinion. See for a sane view Richard Norman, On Humanism (Routledge 2004). Norman, former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent, shows convincingly that much pomo is half-truth at best.
The pomo class of 2002’s results were good, as you can see:
Post HSC Entry:
I am happy; hope you are too.
Good luck to you all for the future.
Neil Whitfield December 2002
I took over the Class of 2002 on the retirement of their former teacher, Su Langker, who had in fact laid an excellent foundation. The class was, however, struggling with the concept of postmodernism — and who can blame them? Here is the first entry:
This is a special site for the 2002 HSC English Extension Class studying Post-Modernism. Today I will be putting in basic links for you. Hey, I found all this: so can you! Keep coming back as notes, questions, all manner of stuff will appear
here–but not pics, though we may link to some if necessary.
Just for fun: The Post Modern Generator. You too can write meaningless but impressive post modern essays.
Post-Modernism and Literary Theory
Cambridge Glossary of Literary Terms–more traditional.
Try Google “Orlando”+”Sally Potter”+ post modern. See what happens… Explore Wikipedia.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Dead White Males
The first text we looked at was the film Orlando, which they had already begun. The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been done already, and they still had yet to read Dead White Males. The Trial HSC was not far off.
A slight glitch has arisen which delays the planned showing of Orlando tomorrow after school (Tuesday July 30, 2002). I will be having emergency dental work. I should be back (with essays) on Wednesday. We will have a showing of Orlando after school next Tuesday, and arrange another before long. Meanwhile I plan for us to have a Postmodern Study Day on a Sunday before the Trial. More details later.
The Other HSC Question
Question 8: Texts and Ways of Thinking
Note: This question is compulsory for Module B, and you must indicate in your answer which Elective you have studied.
‘”Ideas have legs”‘– and successful composers run with them.’ Consider how they do this in their texts. In your discussion, draw attention to the imaginative use of scientific, religious, philosophical and/or economic concepts in at least TWO of the prescribed texts and other related texts.
(Does that instruction strike anyone as being ambiguous?)
Here are some interesting bits I have found.
INTERVIEW WITH SALLY POTTER from The Stately Homo: a Celebration of the Life of Quentin Crisp ed. Paul Bailey, London, Bantam, 2000.
Can you tell me why you chose Quentin Crisp to play Queen Elizabeth I?
Because he is the true queen of England.
Could you elaborate on that?
He is my favourite queen, in any sense. He has true regal qualities. He’s an icon. I’m saying it in the present tense because I still feel that he is so with us. I think that it’s almost as if he is a living pun — putting him in the role of Queen Elizabeth in the story of Orlando meant that it had resonance with what Virginia Woolf was doing, which was making comments about gender and identity, and what it was to be a man; what it was to be a woman. It was also making a comment on a genuine quote from Queen Elizabeth herself, which was that she had the mind of a man in the body of a woman. It’s a sort of mirror of Orlando’s change of sex, and it throws up all kinds of questions in the lightest possible way. And, of course, Quentin was expert in saying very serious things in very light ways. He was the embodiment of irony, wit, Englishness, despite, or perhaps because of, his rebellion against his Englishness, his disavowal of it…[p. 210]
INTERVIEW WITH SALLY POTTER (1993) in Judy Stone, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, Silman-James Press, Los Angeles, 1997.
…”Woolf said that an artist is neither male nor female,” Potter noted. “I think her understanding of the human condition is that most of the differences between men and omen are exaggerated and used as an excuse to justify mystification, oppression, division, and a false sense of mystery. I think I would agree with that.”
The idea that sustained Potter above all others was the theme of immortality. “After you’ve dispatched with the gender issue and decided that men and women aren’t so different–merely that they’re human–you have to ask, ‘What is human? Why are we here only for the human life-span? How do we connect with our forefathers and foremothers? How have we emerged out of history into the now? And the big metaphysical question: ‘What is now?’ That’s what physicists are trying to work out. Religions are trying to address the question most of us are too scared to ask: ‘What is the immortal soul?'”
She didn’t arrive at any answers. “What I did find,” Potter said, “was that asking those questions, you have to answer the deepest questions of your own existence. I’ll tell you the conclusion: The endings are beginnings. In order to come into the present, you have to let go of the past and in order to let go of the past, you have to know about it and understand it.”…
…But don’t call Potter a feminist director. “The word has become debased. It’s become a trigger word that stops people from thinking clearly about the issues it raises. Originally, it meant a movement for equality, dignity, and the full potential of women. That can’t be argued with.
“However, I think that the oppression of women has to be seen in context of all the other oppressions: race, anti-Semitism, the abuse of children. We have to see that the whole of society is a web of interlocking oppression and that therefore, none of us are liberated. To pretend that those barriers and limitations don’t exist is to deny everyone’s particular experience. However, to concentrate only on the oppression of your own particular group creates a kind of blindness, a blinkered vision.
“I’d like to communicate about feminism in a way that doesn’t betray anybody; that includes all women and doesn’t create men as the enemy because I don’t think that they are. I wanted to make a film that would enable people to come out of the cinema feeling empowered and with a feeling of hope and joy about being alive.” [pp. 337-340]
Looking through Eye on the World also suggests quite a few film texts that may be considered Postmodern and that deal with gender and identity issues. Two that instantly struck me are Eat Drink Man Woman(1994) and The Wedding Banquet (1993) by Taiwanese director Ang Lee. They are also very funny.
[I gave the students some practice questions to get on with.]
Suppose you have been asked to speak to students who are about to decide which Elective to choose for next year’s HSC English Extension 1 course.
Persuade them to choose the Postmodernism Elective by drawing attention to the adventure of postmodernism as a way into thinking about texts. Write out what you would say to them, making specific reference to at least ONE of the prescribed texts.
In your commentary, draw on what you have learned from your study of this Elective.
1. “Postmodernism can be both very serious and not very serious at all.” Discuss with reference to TWO of the set texts AND a text or texts of your own choosing.
2. “Postmodern texts challenge the certainties of time and space.” Show how this is true in all THREE set texts AND a text or texts of your own choosing.
3. Show how the concept of IDENTITY is an important consideration for the postmodern composer, with reference to The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Dead White Males and a text or texts of your own choosing.
4. How relevant is the concept of the CULTURAL CONSTRUCT in Dead White Males and Orlando? Also refer to a text or texts of your own choosing.
5. Does postmodernism have anything positive to offer the contemporary responder? Refer to TWO of the set texts and a text or texts of your own choosing.
6. “Only postmodernism can hope to embrace a world increasingly found to be random and chaotic. Some might not like it, but it is the only honest option for a contemporary composer. Everything else is illusion and (even worse?) boring.” Do you regard the postmodern composer as a cultural traitor and charlatan, or a faithful reflector of the real nature of things? Refer to at least ONE set text and to at least ONE text of your own choosing.
1. Write a parody script of a mainstream TV sitcom OR lifestyle program. Use character/presenter names and an appropriate program title to cue the reader in. Try to focus your parody on the identity/construct assumptions, or the positioning of the responder, on which the original program relies.
2. Choose a character from one of your set texts. Place this character in a different context, even perhaps one of the other set texts. This need not be a serious piece of writing, but should reflect some of the issues postmodernism characteristically addresses.
3. Write a self-reflective prose piece that aims from the outset to force the responder to confront his/her own cultural constructs.
4. Taking your cue from the use of Shakespeare in Dead White Males, write a dialogue OR a narrative in which one of your own favourite composers from the Western Canon (Dickens? Donne? Homer? Socrates? Sophocles?….but not Shakespeare!) encounters a “disciple” of Postmodernism.
5. Write a series of five short letters (minimum 50 words, maximum 200 words each) to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from people of various ages, gender and background who are advocates or opponents of the study of Postmodernism in Year 12. Make reference to at least ONE set text in the course of this series.
[There was an in class practice essay coming up.]
Just a few thoughts about tomorrow’s practice.
Your future does not depend on it but by making as genuine an attempt as you can you will form some idea of what you need to sharpen for the Trial, and what needs to be done between then and the HSC. That time can make a vast difference, as several students found last year; if your performance lifts markedly you can make up quite a lot of ground, even if some bad assessments are weighing you down right now.
First thing: read the question carefully and analyse it so you can be sure of relevancy. It is only too tempting to write down whatever you happen to know, which may be tangential to the question.
Second: choose the issues to highlight carefully. You can’t possibly say everything, especially in a subject such as the postmodern text. In-depth development of a smaller number of issues is better than a scatter-gun listing of every issue under the sun.
Third: in some way, whether literally or in your head, plan your response even before you write. With practice, this inevitably follows analysing the question and need only take a few minutes. If you do plan, you will be able to write—
Fourth: an effective introduction. An introduction should relate to the question, outline the issues to be canvassed, and suggest the menu to come. Blake Briggs has done a pretty fair job in a practice essay on the question Discuss the extent to which the breakdown of the ‘grand narrative’ lies behind nearly all the aspects of postmodernism you have identified, not only in two of the texts set for study, but in at least two other texts chosen by you. I might add that while this is quite a straightforward question, the two+two text part really takes a lot of control, and Blake’s otherwise excellent essay has only talked about three texts! The set text discussion is first rate; Small World does get small (but good) treatment.
While I am about to quote Blake’s introduction as a model example–and it is good–to have mentioned four texts there would have guaranteed four would get discussed…
The breakdown of grand narratives is commonly accepted as an integral part of the postmodern movement. Texts such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and the film Orlando by Sally Potter use techniques such as appropriation, self-reflexivity and fragmentation to achieve their own postmodern intent. This can be seen in the attacks on nineteenth century Darwinism and social conventions in FLU and gender constructions and historical progression in Orlando
That sets the essay up nicely, with a clear menu of issues, which are in fact delivered. To have added Small World and (say) The Name of the Rose would have been a good move. That Blake has not laboured definitions at this point is not a bad thing, as those should emerge in the context of discussing the texts. The tone is right too. One point–if you are going to abbreviate long titles, announce the fact thus: ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman (hereafter FLU).’
Good luck tomorrow. Sorry about the delay this end, but various things, such as the annual NESB census (overdue as the forms arrived late) have kept me rather busy, not to mention trying to read your entire course in a few weeks!
[The class felt they needed some revision of The French Lieutenant’s Woman before the rapidly approaching Trial HSC.]
John Fowles, Wormholes (1998)
[In 1998 John Fowles published a collection of essays and occasional writings (the last meaning writings commissioned for special occasions) 1964-1996. Here are a few relevant extracts.]
1. From Notes on an Unfinished Novel (1969):
The novel I am writing at the moment (provisionally entitled The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is set about a hundred years back. I don’t think of it as a historical novel, a genre in which I have very little interest. It started four or five months ago, as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. …
The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach on the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn’t know which. …
I write memoranda to myself about the book I’m on. On this one: You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it is a pretence.
In the matter of clothes, social manners, historical background, and the rest, writing about 1867 is merely a question of research. But I soon get into trouble over dialogue, because the genuine dialogue of 1867 (insofar as it can be heard in books of the time) is far too close to our own to sound convincingly old…
Memorandum: If you want to be true to life, start lying about the reality of it.
And: One cannot describe reality; only give metaphors that indicate it. All human modes of description (photographic, mathematical, and the rest, as well as literary) are metaphorical. Even the most precise scientific description of an object is a tissue of metaphors…
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s polemical essay ‘Pour un nouveau roman’ (1963) is indispensable reading for the profession, even when what it produces is no more than total disagreement. His key question: Why bother to write in a form whose masters cannot be surpassed?
The fallacy of one of his conclusions – that we must discover a new form to write in if the novel is to survive-is obvious. It reduces the purpose of the novel to the discovery of new forms, whereas its other purposes — to entertain, to satirize, to decribe new sensibilities, to record life, to improve life, and so on — are clearly just as viable and important. But his obssessive pleading for new forms places a kind of stress on every passage one writes today. To what extent am I being a coward by writing inside the old tradition? To what extent am I being panicked into avant-gardism? Writing about 1867 doesn’t lessen the stress; it increases it, since so much of the subject matter must of its historical nature be “traditional”. There are apparent parallels in other arts… [Fowles goes on to note a number of Modernist composers (music) and artists — Stravinsky, Picasso, Francis Bacon. – N] Very early on I tried, in a test chapter, to put modern dialogue into Victorian mouths. But the effect was absurd…
My two previous novels were both based on more or less disguised existentialist premises. I want this one to be no exception; and so I am trying to show an existential awareness before it was chronologically possible. Kierkegaard was, of course, unknown to the … Victorians…
Nor is this the only similarity between the 1960s and 1860s. The great nightmare of the respectable Victorian mind was the only too real one created by the geologist Lyell and the biologist Darwin. Until then man had lived like a child in a small room. They gave him — and never was a present less welcome — infinite space and time, and a hideously mechanistic explanation of human reality into the bargain. Just as we “live with the bomb”, the Victorians lived with the theory of evolution. They were hurled into space. They felt themselves infinitely isolated. By the 1860s the great iron structures of their philosophies, religions, and social stratifications were already beginning to look dangerously corroded to the more perspicacious.
Just such a man, an existentialist before his time, walks down the quay and sees that mysterious back, feminine, silent, also existentialist, facing the sea and turned on him…
[We now very rapidly had to get into Dead White Males, reading it aloud in class.]
This project threatened to become far too long! So I have restricted myself to commenting on the first few scenes of the play, but in that process I saw how well Williamson has set up the issues and conflicts he intends to dramatise. Despite its flirting with postmodern techniques, it is essentially a fairly old fashioned, well-made social satire, tending, as satire does, to stereotype and caricature what it is attacking, but at its core the play is something more than that: a demonstration of the centrality of a humanist (“common sense”, if you like) view of the world.
I felt on a third or fourth reading of the play, and after reaching the end of my commentary on the opening scenes, that I had established a satisfactory reading of the play as a whole–at least in my view! Do you agree with what I say? I hope it gives you a way into the play that you can then flesh out from your own reading.
Scene 1 (p.1) Note Man’s (Swain’s) two justifications for shooting Shakespeare: 1) “He doesn’t know you.” 2) “dangerous and exciting times.”
Scene 2 (pp. 2-3) Swain’s lecture: no “truth”, no inspired writers who reveal “truth”, no fixed “human nature”; all that “liberal humanism” assumes to be true is simply a manifestation of and constructed by a particular IDEOLOGY–one of many, each constructing its own reality. The ideology behind liberal humanism is “the patriarchal corporate state” and its “masterpieces” (itself a sexist term?) are “complicit” in the oppression/marginalisation of “women, people of colour, people of non-normative sexual orientation, and people of the non industrialised world.” Note the fun Williamson seems to be having with his choice of terms here. How exaggerated is it?
Do you happen to share Swain’s view to any extent? If so, do you find Williamson funny at this point, or merely annoying? Or are you just sorry Williamson did not add “composer and responder” to his list? Is Swain being set up? How is the audience being positioned in the way this scene is presented, and in its placement between Scenes 1 and 3?
Scene 3 (pp. 4-5) Funny social observation: Angela’s uncertainty about herself and boys compared to Melissa’s confidence; first sight of Steve.
Scene 4 (pp. 5-7) Dr Swain’s tutorial: Melissa and Steve sceptical: issue about whether there is an essential “human nature” about which Literature can offer “wisdom”. Note Swain really argues in an authoritarian manner, citing a very mixed bag of “authorities”: Foucault (post-modern social historian), Althusser (neo-Marxist) and Eagleton (Marxist critic, and a secondary source compared with the first two); mere name-dropping?
Swain constantly blends and confuses the various “theorists” to buttress his “superiority” over his students. His position: “non
essentialist feminist multiculturalism” is of course parodic on Williamson’s part, but almost makes sense.
Scene 5 (pp. 7-19) Col and Grace’s Living Room: the sheer length of this scene underlines that this plotline is the true core of the play, at least in my view. Sure, Williamson (like Aristophanes in The Clouds, if you will) is “exposing” satirically certain currents of postmodern theory, the problem with which is not merely their ugly jargon and constant name-dropping, but their denial of the importance of humanity, human understanding and love, and relationships.
The world of theory is a sterile one, or one where intellectual pretentiousness masks basic lust and power games. Shakespeare enters the play partly as an embodiment of unspoilt, direct insight into the “human condition” — not perfect either as his work is in some ways time-bound and culture-specific. Theory takes this last point to excessive lengths by denying that the “dead white males” Shakespeare represents have anything to say that is not poisoned by their respective ideological constraints.
I don’t think Williamson is denying the proper place for examining the ideology that emerges in a work as a part of critical reading; he is objecting to the idea that that is ALL there is.
This long scene sets up the current strains in the Judd family, the current level of prejudgment and mutual misunderstanding. Unravelling this and increasing the knowledge of all concerned becomes Angela’s quest. Perhaps it is ironic that it is the odious Swain and his suspect and garbled theory that starts her on this quest, as the insight offered at the end includes the rejection of that theory in favour of a warmer, less dogmatic, more humanistic appreciation of the complex motives and relationships of people.
Swain himself, as we learn at the end of the play, has his own demons and resentments, and his theory breaks down into incoherence as it cannot help him deal with these. (See page 96 especially.) Theory fails the basic test: it cannot teach us how to live; Shakespeare (and by extension classical literature), properly read, can. Or so it would seem in this play.
I hope these thoughts help. I am now active again, and any essays I have sitting in my mailbox–well, actually on my hard drive–will be returned in the next day or two.
Good luck all 🙂 Don’t forget there are some really good ideas and links earlier in this Journal: see the list of past entries below.
[Then the Trial was on us.]
Trial HSC Suggestions
Standards and criteria: Go to the links below and visit the Board of Studies. You should be taken direct to the PDF file which contains the Examiners’ Comments, including all the marking criteria. Your questions will be assessed on very similar criteria.
There are two questions for the Postmodernism extension, each worth 25 marks. One of them is of a more creative nature (though not extreme) and the other a standard discussion/exposition essay. There is no necessary order for these
questions, though in last year’s HSC the creative response was first and the standard essay second. Theoretically, even that division is not certain, but it will apply to the Trial. It should be obvious which question is which.
In the “creative question” take note that part of the assessment is your appropriate choice of language for the task, so
observe carefully any instructions concerning text type (or genre) and circumstances – occasion, place, audience – and come up with an appropriate voice or voices (including register or language level) for those circumstances. Note any indications on the content of the piece and make sure they are followed. It may be fairly freewheeling or it may be quite specific; in any case be prepared to make clear use of your set texts (at least two) and your supplementary texts (again at least two.)
In the other “standard essay” question, analyse the task carefully to ensure that your answer is relevant. If it involves more than one task – explaining AND discussing, for example, or accounting for AND evaluating, or describing AND reflecting – make sure you give attention to both. Limit yourself to a few key points of ‘theory” and maximise text reference and discussion related to those points; you can’t say absolutely everything in the time you have. Be prepared to sustain an argument of some kind, backed up with appropriate textual reference and not merely asserted.
Take time to think before you write. Have a brief introduction that relates clearly to the question, outlines your position or THESIS and the course the essay is going to take. You may feel you need to define some key terms at this point but should consider whether that belongs better in the body of the essay. It is too easy for an introduction to become unwieldy, especially in a topic like this one.
In the body of the essay, follow the line you have set out in the introduction. (Thinking before you write makes this easier to achieve.) Try to integrate textual reference into your argument or explanation. Make sure, in the end, that the examiner will believe you have covered your work thoroughly, so each text you choose to write about gets adequate treatment. If a particular point is best made with one text rather than another, so be it; but make sure your next point is supported with reference to the text you have so far paid less attention to.
Consider transitional devices of various kinds to make your answer flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next. Again, this is done best when you are clear in your own mind where your answer is headed. For example, if you have been discussing Orlando and wish to switch to Dead White Males, you may say something like this is a new paragraph: If Orlando supports the proposition that for the postmodern composer gender is very much fluid and questionable, then Dead White Males mounts an effective challenge to that position.
Remember to underline the names of longer written texts, plays and films. This is the equivalent of the Italics I have used here (or the reverse of Italics in the example immediately above.) It serves to distinguish Orlando from Orlando, Hamlet from Hamlet, and this could be important. Poems and essays and other short pieces are usually written thus: “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” in his Image, Music, Text. (If that is the book you found it in!)
Response essays, discussions and so on are generally written in present tense, as you are dealing with your present response to the text, and are also making generally true statements. In a standard response, discussion or exposition essay, your focus is on the material being discussed, so your voice is neutral rather than personal.
Another practice example
“Postmodern writing, television, and film emphasize the appropriation of images from previously created images, the fragmentary nature of these images, and their opposition to a single logic or subject.”
With this in mind, how “postmodern” are the texts you have studied or found for yourself? Explain the interest postmodern composers have in these techniques.
In your answer you should refer to at least TWO set texts and at least TWO texts of your own choice.
[Some last-minute summing up as the HSC came closer.]
Pomo on a postage stamp
“…an … elusive concept… The modernist tradition of formal and stylistic experiment, added to our increased knowledge of the history of Western and non-Western arts, has provided a vast range of styles, techniques and technologies for the artist to choose from. This extension of choice has simultaneously created uncertainty about their use. If no one of few styles have any authority, then the artist picks and chooses with little commitment, and so tends towards pastiche, parody, quotation, self-reference and eclecticism. The post-modern style is to have no settled style. But it is always dangerous to try to pin down an artistic movement that is still taking place.” —Pears Cyclopaedia (1997-1998) ed. Chris Cook, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1997.
Further practice and revision questions: mixed “straight” and “bent” 😉
their work spring from a deeper philosophical questioning?
Tips and encouragement
or 20, 19, 18 and 17 out of 20. And so on…
signposting what is to come. Keep to that path through the body of the essay. Make sure your concluding paragraph neatly brings everything back together and back to the question.
[And a bit of last-minute controversy.]
It could be argued that story by Grant Caldwell we read today is a good example of hyperreality. Are you familiar with this term? It is very relevant both to Orlando and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Here is a rather interesting experiment (or is it?) Google, believe it or not, labels it Neil’s Hyperreality! Enjoy. Perhaps it will lead to jouissance–you never know your luck.
And here is a rare privilege–something from my other site–the real one; opinion only, remember:
In the “Heckler” column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald James King thus describes a “responder” in the new NSW HSC English:
Jugglers can now get academic qualifications. Here’s what they can do in just 40 exam minutes:
–Provide a brief history of the past 400 years of productions and interpretations of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Be sure to include film adaptations and foreign language versions, and a variety of costume, lighting and set designs. Examine Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, modernist, post-modernist, Freudian, post-Freudian, colonialist, post-colonialist, orientalist and anarchist approaches – but mention others if you wish.
–Consider all these in the context of how meaning is shaped by texts.
–Write your answer in the form of postings to an Internet chat room. (Invent two contrasting characters who adopt different tones of voice.)
–When you have finished, go back through your work replacing the words “play”, “playwright” and “audience” with “text”, “composer” and “responder” respectively.
–Don’t quote the play in detail or discuss events and characters – you may run out of time.
–Do not mention Shakespeare – he is dead.
Relax. It’s easier than you think. Just throw in a few names like Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes and use the words “discourse” and “intertextuality” as often as possible. You need not know what any of it means.
There is some truth in that. King wittily calls this “dumbing up”: All this is not exactly a dumbing down; it’s a dumbing up. It aspires to stupidity. Not that Derrida was stupid, or even that cereal box designers are. What is stupid is forcing young people to fake expertise in so many areas, instead of teaching them how to read something in depth.
I have called the course “overambitious”, and that is so too. Consideration of alternate ways of reading is OK in itself, but the
focus does need to be on the texts, and the alternates considered only when what they yield is interesting. Teachers should not feel obliged to canvass a range of spurious readings merely to demonstrate some ideological fetish. There is a vast difference between genuine critical literacy and the pressure-cooked then half-digested travesty that now goes on
Far more sensible is the approach of Canadian teacher W. F. Garrett-Petts. Writing about Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2000. Or Mastering Practical Criticism by Lindy Miller, Palgrave 2001.
Some of the more abstruse literary theory may belong in a 3 or 4-Unit Course, but nowhere else surely. Let the kids read, albeit a little less naively than they may once have; and let teachers be far better informed about the theoretical issues in literary studies than they have been hitherto. That at least is a worthwhile by-product of the current HSC course, but the course itself and the way it is examined need to be carefully assessed.
The best move would be to make the gnomes in the Board of Studies answer their own questions
Addendum March 2006
The diary page I just cited was also on Diary-X and has now vanished; however, I was able to retrieve this sequel.
On English teachers, my suggestion that they sit the exams themselves is not entirely facetious. I have seen such things done in the days when staff development was somewhat more generous, and it is a very chastening exercise. I once did this (quite a long time ago now) at Sydney Boys High. I was supervising an in-class assessment task and sat out the front doing it myself. I subsequently handed my answer (no name) in with the others and the Head of English (Alan Whitehurst) marked it. You will be pleased to know I scored 20/20.
A couple of years ago I attempted to answer a new-style task in order to provide a model for an ESL student I was helping. I wrote something halfway decent, but not in the time frame an examinee would have, and drawing on knowledge it would be totally idiotic to expect a student to have mastered in the time available — such as, in my case, an Honours degree in English and years of thinking about the concepts involved. The best most students can do, given their circumstances, is a reasonably coherent parroting of a mishmash of half-understood theories and inadequate “readings” in the light of those theories. There is not time, realistically, to properly absorb, say, King Lear and really explore various “readings” in order to assess what one really thinks of them. There is nothing wrong with the concept of multiple readings, but everything wrong with the truncated treatment they get in an HSC time-frame.
Very few teachers will have exposed themselves by trying to do what they expect students to do. I really do wish they, and the syllabus makers, would do just that.
Four years later I am more positive about the new syllabus, but still have those reservations about the time pressures.
What do you think?