Sylvia’s distress

In my last blog post I wrote a short story which contrasted the joy a young teacher felt being amongst her peers (fellow-lovers of books and writing) with the depression she felt when swamped by what she experienced as an oppressive hegemonic discourse.

This morning I’ve been looking through the new Australian Curriculum for English, to see to what extent this ‘oppressive hegemonic discourse’ is embedded in our curriculum documents.  Can I find evidence there that Sylvia’s Head of Department, the one who insists that Enrico should fail his essay, is only doing what the Australian English curriculum values and, in a sense, dictates?

One of the gifts bequeathed to us by post-structuralism is the reminder that meanings are not created by an author, embedded in a text, and then seamlessly and skillfully downloaded into the brain of the reader. Readers create meaning, or at least readers collaborate with authors and texts and contexts to create multiple and often contradictory meanings. So it would be a mistake to simply hunt in the English Curriculum documents for an implanted meaning (though no doubt the authors of the documents were hoping to do just that). We need to recognize that readers – Sylvia, her Head of Department, the students who read the outcomes at the front of their assessment pieces, etc – are all creating meanings that may not have been the primary intention of the original authors.

Having said that, though, there’s more than enough in the wording of the English Curriculum to make certain reader responses possible. In particular, there’s more than enough there to support the view that the aim of English teaching has nothing to do with understanding the (external and internal) world better (which is what Sylvia feels in her bones is the raison d’etre of the subject she loves). Instead, there’s ample material in the documents to support a reading that we study English in order to  … understand English better.

A selective reading of the documents (the kind of selective reading that Sylvia’s Head of Department could well have done) supports the view that we study English in order to know more about language, literature and literacy.

For Enrico to reach the appropriate ‘achievement standard’, here is what he would need to be able to demonstrate (and I quote it in full):

Receptive modes(listening, reading and viewing)

By the end of Year 10, students evaluate how text structures be used in innovative ways by different authors. They explain how the choice of language features, images and vocabulary contributes to the development of individual style.

They develop and justify their own interpretations of texts. They evaluate other interpretations, analysing the evidence used to support them. They listen for ways features within texts can be manipulated to achieve particular effects.

Productive modes (speaking, writing and creating)

Students show how the selection of language features can achieve precision and stylistic effect. They explain different viewpoints, attitudes and perspectives through the development of cohesive and logical arguments.

There follow three sentences which Sylvia could pounce on to justify a different emphasis in her classroom.

They develop their own style by experimenting with language features, stylistic devices, text structures and images.

Students create a wide range of texts to articulate complex ideas. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, building on others’ ideas, solving problems, justifying opinions and developing and expanding arguments.

But this is followed by:

They demonstrate understanding of grammar, vary vocabulary choices for impact, and accurately use spelling and punctuation when creating and editing texts.

The point I’m wanting to make here is that the way we think about English teaching, and in particular the way we allow ourselves to forget that we study subjects like English in order to understand the world better, has the potential to suck the life out of teachers like Sylvia and students like Enrico. Such a reading of English, I’m suggesting, contributes to the depression I alluded to in my last blog post. Sylvia loves books and writing because they illuminate and expand her experiences; Enrico is seduced into an engagement with Sylvia’s class when he senses that it will help him understand his family and cope with feelings of loss. Sylvia and Enrico study English with their eyes looking outwards. But some kinds of English teaching, supported by entirely plausible readings of official curriculum documents, focuses the eyes of teachers and students inward. English teaching, we’re allowed to think, is about the study of language, literacy and literature. It’s a seductively sensible sounding aim. It’s just that it’s a reading of our subject that contributes to Sylvia’s distress.



After I’d written this post, I picked up the September 2012 edition of the English Journal (vol 102:1), and in Ken Lindblom’s editorial I read words that Sylvia would have found reassuring:

For many of us, the allure of English began with literature and by connecting with characters who inspired, fascinated, angered, or even frightened us. Reading good literature – of almost any type – is amazing because it provides rich experience without the negative repercussions that lived experience inevitably requires. We want students to read stories to learn more about life than one person – especially in adolescence – can learn from his or her own life. We want students to learn more about themselves by living vicariously through characters they meet in the pages of good books. We also want students to read to develop a sense of shared experience, which can come from reading and discussing some of the same texts. And, we want students to develop empathy regarding the backgrounds, circumstances, and needs of others who are not like themselves. The best learning, the richest experience, the most meaningful and lasting empathy comes from connecting with vibrant characters whose literary lives grip our attention and become part of how we think about the world.  (p.11)

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