Monday, August 11, 2014

In my slow but sure metamorphosis into Ed Reardon I have just succumbed to the temptation of the Guardian Comment feed. Nick Lezard (old Wet a year or two before me) had posted an article on Waiting for Godot as the book that changed his life. In the piece he mentions his - my/our - old English teacher who was surely responsible for generations of impressionable sixth formers catching the Beckett bug. I can still remember his reading of - performing would be a better word - the closing pages of Molloy on a Saturday morning class after which, overcome with emotion, he simply walked out the door leaving us to digest the writing. What more need be said - if, of course, you were receptive (as many of us were).

My reason for adding my two penn'orth initially was to share this memory and to point out how little this style of teaching had to do with Learning Outcomes and other quantifying & commodifying tendencies in current education. Instead it was closer to what Robert Duncan has described in the early pages of The H.D. Book: a sharing of a secret, a passing on of the torch, an initiation of sorts. Literature was so much more than a list of prescribed texts - that was made clear from the start. Yes, we had to write essays but these, too, showed no evidence of marking criteria or other dreary grey (seeming) objectivity. Instead there were effusive red Pentel comments scribbled at all angles ("Bull's eye!" was a favourite) plus blots where a glass of wine has left its mark (sometimes these were circled & identified by grape, producer & year).

Would such teaching comply with Ofsted standards today? I doubt it. Would such a teacher even be teaching today - the inspiration & eccentricity drummed out of him long ago in favour of predictable vanilla sameness. It's terribly sad & a thought that haunts me as I prepare for another year at the chalk face (the 19th here in Belgium, the 26th or so going right back to the first tutorials). All the more reason then to try & keep that dissident tradition going. Thirty-four years on & so many of those classes remain crystal clear - the Emily Dickinson 'plank' poem, the chapter-by-chapter analysis of Emma, another classic performance - this time of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' ... plus the walks to the Tate to see the Bacons, the encouragement to listen to late Beethoven Quartets, not to mention the after prep conversations over a glass of Chateauneuf du Pape (surely, these days, enough to be struck off?).

Enormous privilege, of course, & it comes at a cost. My fear, though, is that in the ever wider dissemination of professional standards & 'best practice' something really precious is being lost (like looking at a rainbow & noticing a colour has faded from view). If my own students will have anything approaching such fond memories of our work together I'll be ... well, really chuffed. In many cases it will be despite the prevailing winds ...

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