Saturday, 18 July 2015

Sound and Fury

I believe I mentioned that I read Minding the Campus. I actually disagree with the editorial slant a lot of the time and basically use it for the sidebar (and also updates on the article that I led me to it in the first place). Basically, to me, the site is like a filter that gives me a manageable portion of the ongoing discussion in an area of some interest to me. As any good filter should do, it sometimes turns up things which are reasonably interesting. Today it found this: PROGRESSIVES SHOOT AT SHAKESPEARE Which led to Teacher: Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core). And then that to Teacher: Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school. This seems the perfect sort of thing for this blog: did I not quote Macbeth the other day?

Now, let's be clear. I am not so interested in the content of those articles. But, let's just make a few comments. Starting with the original article.
Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.”
That's entirely fair and reasonable. You should always have some decent sort of reason to do something. However, I disagree that the only reason why Shakespeare is studied is because that has always been so.
And while I appreciate that many people enjoy re-reading texts that they have read multiple times, I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today.
That right there makes me think this is a rationalisation. Like with my course reviews... a personal opinion exists firstly and then later on there is an attempt to frame that opinion in a more socially appealing way: to market it. The italicised is touched on by the second teacher.
we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important.
Is that the case, though? Does the teacher actually represent and address the arguments of what we might term, although it is ludicrous to do so, the pro-Shakespeare camp? Probably not.
So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behaviour? 
Again, we see this in the other teacher response.
If we only teach students of colour, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world.
Now that, right there, concerns me. We see, throughout the article, references to ethnic diversity. This comment suggests, perhaps, ethnic diversity is, to this teacher, a different form of ethnic homogeneity.
Let’s let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage reading and literature study.

Generally, it's rite-of-passage.

Okay, now the response which I read first. It starts with a summary of the article.
He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery
This is an important line to remember. It captures a lot of the perspective of the author.
But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.
This is the other thing to keep in mind. On one hand this essay is, largely, stick with what we have done and on the other an exercise in paranoia. Now, that's only a little unfair as the author does follow up with, "True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them" which, whilst true, ignores that, fundamentally, a good idea in the hands of a moron often resembles a bad idea, whilst a bad idea in the hands of a genius can seem golden. In other words, how things are wielded matters, a lot. This is deeply ironic given the nature of this conversation (i.e. English as an academic discipline).
  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

A brief summary of those arguments.
One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.
The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.
This is the author's renditions of another's progressive argument for Shakespeare. It is deemed by our author to be weak:
It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasnt a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  
In all honesty, I am unconvinced that this is the author's true perspective and, instead, this is their thoughts within that paranoid framework. Alternatively, it's just being lazy.

Think about it. Do you truly capture the meaning, the oomph, of a reference simply by knowing what it refers to? Is having read the plot summary the same? Of course not. I read Lord of the Flies initially because I wanted to understand something in Animal Farm, the second volume of Fables (i.e. not the actual Animal Farm). There is an emotive or otherwise more nebulous element that is lost with this name and date method/work-around. And we also note that name and date is antithesis to "progressive" education. There is a complexity at play that makes only so much sense. But, perhaps, I do not really agree with the idea as mooted anyway. Instead, perhaps, it makes sense to frame the necessity of Shakespeare in terms of "On the shoulder's of giants?." That there is value in understanding the Early Modern English body, in the way that Chaucer is of Middle English and Beowulf of Old English? As English speakers, there is a shared heritage inherent. Something like that. Knowing how it was is an important part of understanding how things are. We can find the appropriate buzzwords later on.

The first argument is far stronger. What sort of idiot proposes that we examine but one source of knowledge? That we explore one form of knowledge? Not a progressive idiot. Again, it's antithetical to ideas in modern education which is all about variety and many-angles. To what extent, though, is this part of English? As opposed to History? Well, really, it's more like classical studies (which, fair play, seems, as an idea, to confuse the hell out of Americans in the same way I double take at "language arts" I mean, what?)... except Elizabethan/Early Stuart.

The defence of history, as a discipline, against the 'academic Ponzi scheme' remarks of the world, applies in part, or arguably equally, to the defence of Shakespeare as a thing to examine. Is Lion King not Hamlet? Is that not a joke in Third Rock From the Sun? Is one of the new film stars Tommy? Yes, yes and yes again.

As a literary thing, Shakespeare is everywhere: his works are undeniably part of what it means to understand and communicate in English. Having some idea, in an academic context, of some of the big works (I would argue that Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and a Midsummer Nights Dream are the best known, with Hamlet and Othello not so far behind).

We can also extend the criticism of laziness to the original teacher... as was done by our author here.

Okay, maybe I am more interested than I claimed. On to the third!
I prefer Othello, so I teach that.  But I don’t do it because I feel beholden to any set of expectations or standards–I do it because I want my students to have the experience of reading it…that’s it, and that’s all.
Simple and powerful, devoid of after the fact social rationalisation.

I often tell my students that one of the main reasons to read a Shakespeare play is simply for the privilege of telling others you’ve read a Shakespeare play.

Oh you, intellectualist you. Piss off, get more relevant.
To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”
Hear hear.
If Ms. Dusbiber doesn’t want to teach Shakespeare or doesn’t like Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is too hard for her students, then fine…let that be her reasoning.
We are in the Houses of Parliament. My hand is bleeding from the thumping on the desk. (That is, I strongly agree and have been overly vigorous in showing my approval. I mean, damn, is that not social rationalisation critiqued?)
What she really seems to be saying is that no one should read anything that isn’t just like them, and if that’s her position as an English teacher, then she should maybe consider a different line of work.
I guess that's a fair interpretation. Although, in all honesty, my experience of English (and I dare say that of many others) is overwhelming fair at being wrong in the interpretation. English was, to me, an exercise in stripping away any and all confidence many pupils have. At least, in Year Eleven. In Year Twelve I wondered if I could not trust anything my teacher marked because she liked me too much. This was reinforced by the poor return of my mocks which were marked by someone else.
Also–where does it say that we can’t teach Shakespeare AND oral African tradition?  In fact, why not work to draw links between the two? And should we only read authors that look like us and have experiences like us?  Or for that matter, does a commonality in skin colour mean a commonality in experience? 
Toldja it'd come up again. In some circles we like to discuss how many who theoretically advocate for marginalised groups do so in a manner that removes all individual agency of members of those groups. This is, generally, unintentional and the work of people who don't quite understand the points which they inexpertly wield.
it turns the English classroom into a place where no one should be challenged or asked to step out of their comfort zone, where we should not look beyond ourselves.
Given the tendency of Minding the Campus to jump on trigger warnings, I am surprised it did not take up this angle more strongly.

Which is an important point to note: America is entirely the wrong country to have this conversation in. It's starkly divided, polemic and keen on defending its partisanship. It is proud of its flaws and those flaws get in the way in this sort of conversation. I question, in fact, the existence of progressive educational pedagogy, at least in the terms discussed here and adopted by myself.

Okay, so what am I interested in? Well, I recently mentioned that we did Macbeth in Year Eleven English. In year ten I'd actually done a dualogue from Macebeth for drama (it was towards the end, Macduff vs Macbeth) so I wasn't exactly unfamiliar with it in an academic context either. We'd also looked at A Midsummer Night's Dream a bit in English in year ten and, before that, The Merchant of Venice. Strictly speaking, I'm not sure we ever actually finished our Shakespeare unit in Year Nine. I am convinced that many of my papers for English vanished from my English folder in 2009 so, as a result, they're not in the photo-album that I've archived my my materials in. Thus, I cannot confirm my suspicions re: Venentian merchants. I also know that some of the year thirteen English people looked at Othello... I don't know if that was just one class or what it was for because I dropped English after year twelve. What I want to do, is use this as a launching pad to reflect on English as I experienced it.

Well, why did we study Shakespeare? Or, rather, why Shakespeare at all? I'd argue that we were doing Shakespeare in part because they're plays. That's an important dimension of English that really needs to be considered. But, then, why not something like, say, The Crucible or Two or The History Boys? Stuff written more recently although, again, set in irrelevant contexts... perhaps Niu Sila or Number Two? (I've seen, been in, read and seen a film adaptation of, watched and read, and seen a film adaptation of these plays, they're not random choices.) Well, honestly, none of these plays have had the deep impact on wider English in the way that Shakespeare's plays have. Yet, we cannot possibly study all the constantly referenced ones (didja see Hamlet in that list? Methinks not) so is this line of reasoning in any way valid? Well, yes, actually. In some sense, even just one is needed to a) help explain why these plays are viewed the way they are (almost tapu going by the above) and b) help develop the skills needed to look at all the other ones. Yet, I think it's also important to (and again I'm reflecting the above) to take one of the bodies of work that represents the early form of English as we know it. Readers, if you're not aware that Shakespeare's Early Modern English, Dickens is Modern, Beowulf Old and Chaucer Middle English, piss off and come back when you've checked on Wikipedia (or elsewhere you stubborn dogs, you). But if you take this view, then by implication you have to support having a look at texts from a variety of times. Hang on...

Yeah, I totally agree with that view. In year nine and ten, if we insist on reading only the one book, something that's pretty contemporary is probably ideal. The Pigman (which is what we did) is possibly a bit old (card is contemporary youth slang to its characters) but is still fine in this context. Tomorrow, When the War Began which we did do in year ten? Ideal. This way, in Year Eleven you can look at something written from the first half of the 20th Century, which means Year Twelve is time for something from the 1800s or, perhaps, earlier. In this fashion, by moving backwards through time, the pupil hopefully develops a more temporal understanding of things. Perhaps, even, realising why exactly the original Shakespeare commentator was wrong: the human condition has relevance through time and place. In year thirteen, this chronological selection factor can be ignored: it's time to choose something purely for its sake (after all, not everyone sticks with English all the way through). But, honestly, I'd prefer it if two books were read. I think it's ridiculous that we did one film and one book a year with some fluctuation around that.

There is time in the English room to do these things. It is possible to choose books for thematic purposes and then use those texts as springboards for other types of assessment. Maybe use the ideas in the first book to develop arguments as a lead in to persuasive writing and speaking. There's lots of room to do stuff, so do it. Sure, you'd ideally actually spend less time on each individual text and structure things in such a way that spark notes versions of texts won't cut it: pack things more densely. That would also have the benefit of requiring more free thinking in the English room and less regurgitation of the English teacher's stated interpretations of texts.

I guess, the ideal model would have an integrated text list:

  • First Book, with time consideration.
  • Second Book. Either of these could, technically, be plays.
  • Some poems and short stories for variety.
  • One film.
  • One/Two short films.

The students's assessment, in terms of reading meanings from these, would largely relate to their ability to draw parallels between what they're reading. In this sense, the teacher should not make those parallels explicit and as the student gets older have less apparent connections between the texts or start looking more at the differences between them in features that are the same. Is there a contradiction between the behaviour of the boys in Lord of the Flies and the children in Digimon? Why or why not? The integration isn't necessarily everything's being linked by some theme (e.g. social interaction) on an obvious level. I mean, one could easily look at Brave New World, Watership Down, On the Sidewalk Bleeding (it's a short story), Two Cars, One Night, and A Bug's Life, which are all linked by that theme (obvious, Efrafa vs other types of warren, main character's in a gang -- it makes more sense when you've read it, see my previous post and it;s about an oddball init? the grasshopper thing? lots of material), yet because they are all so wildly different a little bit more thinking is required to see that.

I also suggest that one of the outcomes of the way we've been doing English is that students are afraid to have their own opinions now, which, particularly with boys, causes a retreat into, "I don't care about the meaning, just whether or not I like it". I think the above way of doing things would reduce that because what is really important about the above is drawing the connections. Patterns. But we're not getting rid of the meaning thing. You'd still treat something in isolation for one of the externals (whether film or book or some other text type), still have unfamiliar texts and then have the last standard now be intertextual... with the emphasis on justifying why the similarities are important rather than what they are. Something like that. I'm bored now.

So, it's been a pleasure getting some development of an idea down, it's up to you, dear reader, to decide whether or not it needs a comment. Whether good or bad I invite the critiques. Really, honest, plz? I's dyin' for comments.

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