Re-imagining English teaching

At this year’s AATE conference in Sydney, I was on the look-out for sessions that would help me think about what English teaching has become or is becoming in a changing world. One of the exciting things about being involved in a profession for an extended period of time is when we find a writer or a presenter who shakes up our thinking, shows us new possibilities for the work we do.

It was over 40 years ago, when I first experienced this. A colleague lent me a book called The Secret Places by David Holbrook. Here was a writer bringing the world of the unconscious – the worlds made more visible through the writings of Freud, Jung and Winnicott– into the English classroom. Of course it had always been present: poems and novels have always had a powerful relationship with dreams, intuitions, instincts, nightmares and the imagination. But Holbrook put two apparently unlike fields – psychoanalysis and creative writing –  side by side, and the juxtaposition pointed to the powerful possibilities of allowing disaffected students to write more freely, to draw more confidently from their imaginations, to see their spontaneous imagery as being neither fanciful, distracting nor shallow.

There have, of course, been ground-breakers in English teaching since. But for a while, now, it’s been my impression that as a profession we’ve been more concerned with expansion (into the visual and the digital), classification (in attempting to name the proliferating strands of English teaching content) and consolidation (doing better what we’ve been doing before, often in the face of an unsympathetic neoliberal agenda).  There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and indeed one of the best sessions I attended (Wayne Sawyer’s Effective Teaching in Low SES schools) did all three inspiringly well.

But where, I wondered, was the new thinking about English teaching?

There was a hint of it in the opening address on ‘The rhetoric and poetics of English, Media and Drama’ by Professor Andrew Burn. On the surface this was all about expansion, classification and consolidation. It made sense to Andrew (his presentation was so relaxed and informally inviting that it would seem strange to call him ‘Professor Burn’) to think of the ways that traditional English teaching, media and drama might work together to create a more embodied experience of story and culture. He showed some examples of student work created in this area of overlap between the three subjects. Here, in this opening address, there was the suggestion – as there’d been for me with David Holbrook – of what might freshly be seen if we brought together areas that in the past had been seen as separate.

Associate Professor Jane Mills

But it was in the final conference keynote given by Professors Bill Green and Jane Mills –called Screen Culture, Literacy and English teaching: a matter of affect – that a more radical and stimulating juxtaposition was explored.  In some ways, their intention was to point out the differences between film and page, and to argue that the discourses (and the use of the word ‘literacy’)  brought to film from the world of literature – of analyzing imagery, finding words to describe meaning, locating themes, identifying techniques – was inappropriate. Film, said Jane Mills, is ‘beyond language’. Cinema, she suggested, is about the love of the moving image, it’s about bodily impression; the point is to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. To appreciate cinema, we must learn to simply touch the visual surface with the eye. Loving the screen with the senses, she added, falls outside the rhetoric of explanation. Experiencing film as it should be experienced, she concluded,  ‘goes well beyond our current ways of thinking about English’.

The effect of all of this on me was not, I’m guessing, quite what the speakers intended. They, I think, wanted us to be looking for alternatives to our text-based language – the language of analysis, coherent narrative and explicit meaning – for our appreciation of film. I left the lecture theatre thinking about the importance of body and affect for English teaching more generally, including the way we study written texts.

What would English teaching look like if we were freed from the shackles of our curriculum’s emphasis on analysis and identification of techniques? What would the English classroom be like if, instead of studying Romeo and Juliet in order to help us ‘understand and interpret’, or ‘respect the varieties of English’, or be able to name the ways in which it has ‘the power to evoke’, or to ‘develop an informed appreciation of literature’, we instead studied it in the way that Professor Mills was urging us to experience film: to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, to touch the surface with the senses in a way that falls outside the rhetoric of explanation?

David Holbrook’s insights didn’t come out of nowhere; they came out of his time’s intellectual engagement with the scholarship of psychoanalysis. Similarly, the insights of Green and Mills come out of current scholarly preoccupations to do with the body, affect and the senses.  David Abram wants to remind us about ‘the spell of the sensuous’.  John Armstrong writes about the ‘secret power of beauty’.  Giles Deleuze inspired a school of thought exploring the ways in which our bodies were ‘desiring machines’ affecting and being affected by other bodies. Margaret Somerville asks us to take notice of the ways in which paying attention to affect and bodies leads to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world. These are just a few of the scholars simultaneously drawing on and tapping into a 21st century zeitgeist which requires us to reimagine culture, individualism and the nature of knowing.

Perhaps Bill Green and Jane Mills are a part of this movement, suggesting that there’s a more radical imagining of English teaching that might bring it more in line with what our age requires of us?

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One thought on “Re-imagining English teaching

  1. Pingback: English teaching’s mid-life crisis? « degrees of fiction

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