Wednesday, 17 June 2009

'They complained of "high maintenance" students who sought constant advice'

Although I'm surprised that anybody needed to be paid to produce a report bearing such strikingly obvious conclusions, I'm pleased that the disastrous consequences of rote-learning at A-Level have been properly recognised. The point about needy students sticks out, though: the demand for spoonfed information that arises shortly ahead of essay deadlines and exam periods is - if your experiential point of comparison is as recent as the beginning of this decade - really quite shocking. Whenever I prep undergraduates for an exam (usually the unweighted Year 1 test, which is effectively the HE equivalent of a SAT), I tell them how I went about making the step to sophomore. That process entailed sitting in the library for a few hours a day, reading and making notes on books which weren't on the course reading lists, but sounded interesting and relevant. Unsurprisingly, by dint of their not being on the lists, the books were always available, so I saved myself the three or four hours a day the usual panicking undergraduate expends running around the Short Loan room and the recent returns area looking for, I don't know, John Lukacs' Hitler and Stalin or Jane Eyre or Elementary Plant Biology 101. Of course, the approach worked because reading the new books with reference to the soon-to-be-completed course provoked a reactivation of my previous reading, so I could sit with my lecture notes on the desk, constantly reframing them according to my latest theoretical whim (I was discovering Propp, Shklovsky, and Jakobson at the time). I suppose this method is closer to the one applied by students who don't attend universities which use the (Scottish, if you like) modular system, in which case I might be seen to have been going several extra miles, but it more than paid off.

Anyway, I always explain to students how and why this attitude is better, and emphasise that it's completely pointless to sit there combing lecture notes if there is no critical subjectivity motivating what has been copied out over the course of a term. Generally, the response is a muted 'suppose so' mixed with a few people who come out and say more or less honestly that they'd been hoping that I would tell them how to pass the exam. It doesn't take a genius to see which system has been responsible for incubating such infantilism; it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to see that A-Levels have been subjected to the general and overwhelming pressure of Blairite glibocracy. The cultural logic of late, late capitalism - as manifested in, say, The Guardian's culture section or even by a platform as critically well-meaning and superficially corruscating as Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe/ Newswipe series (having finally seen them, I'll tentatively add the first two parts of the Red Riding adaptations in here) - has it that intellectual labour bears no reward, and that the ultimate object of a participation in any strand of cultural thought is a patina of 'artiness' which brings with it a lifelong obligation to attend the opening of (for example) each new film by Richard Linklater or Michael Winterbottom. One studies an arts subject at university because it's a passport to 'alternative', rather than due to any intrinsic interest in what being 'alternative' might possibly mean.

This is where the A-Level approach to EngLit both arises and is instrumentalised. According to a number of the theoreticians of literature's pedagogic value, 16-18 year olds must be taught the subject as a kind of hormonal complement. Anyone who has been, or known, a sixth former, will be aware of the absolutely paramount role of a loosely-defined individualism within their schema of ideas, hence the world of acoustic guitars, lifts to gigs, and self-consciously tasteless humour that they nearly all inhabit. For a text to have an impact, therefore, it needs to mirror the indignation of the teen, which is to perform the act of interpellating the 'rebellious' individual. There is no medium, only a Holden Caulfield-like message, and the message is - give or take a few lightly grazed political 'issues' - 'your individualism is sacrosanct'. The entire Western corpus becomes a drawn-out bildungsroman leading, with apparent inevitability, to the sanctioning of one individual in their easily-maintained, and thus unimaginable, historical moment. If 'high maintenance' and 'neediness' are terms drawn from the lexicon of romantic insecurity, their application to a pedagogic situation in which the student is reliant upon pseudo-plausible and easily digestible responses to the egotistical questions 'how did this text bequeath me' and 'how does this text sustain me' is entirely apt. There is far too little intellectual uncertainty in the experience of the arts undergraduate, and the suggestion that they be asked to cope with a little more is a welcome one.

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