When the logic of capitalism means universities are run as businesses, much is lost. Reclaiming literature is crucial to understanding the times we live in
Ive recently finished marking 40-odd exams, mostly written by people between the ages of 18 and 21. In them our students had to answer questions about aspects of literature, such as free indirect speech or genre. They also had to write an essay of 1,000 words, on the work of Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas, Judith Wright, Jack Davis or Tim Winton.
My students are, for the most part, education students who live in regional Australia. If they get their degree, they are bound for early childhood centres, preschools, primary schools, high schools. These are our new teachers.
If you have little to do with tertiary education you might not have noticed this: that there is a whole new cohort of young people attending university, people who might not have done so 30 or 40 years ago. Our economy has been transforming itself from blue to white collar for decades; an education that relies on the written word is newly necessary.
Added to this, the universitys relatively new status as a business means that it desperately needs students, and will make it as easy as possible for everyone, anyone to enrol. When I began teaching here the Atar for education was officially 60, but many students were entering the university through alternative pathways: Tafe, bridging courses at the university itself, written application. Universities are businesses. Students are customers. The more customers, the better the business does.
And of course, the best way to retain a customer is to keep her happy. Id suggest that happiness for students might arise from challenge, from hard work fairly rewarded, or from the acquisition of new skills. But there is of course a quicker route: you keep students happy by not failing them. And then surprise! when they graduate they are not literate, or numerate, or knowledgeable enough to perform the work they have been studying for.
But just because the horse has bolted doesnt mean we cant slam the stable door. And the way we do this in New South Wales is through the implementation of the compulsory Acer Literacy and Numeracy Test for Teacher Education, which students take at the end of their degree. For the past four years I have been teaching a subject to education students that has been designed to actively interrogate their reading and writing abilities, and make them capable of passing their Acer test. Lets call the subject English One.
I find myself pausing here, to wonder why I am writing this essay. I have two burning concerns: one is to give readers an insight into what it is currently like to teach at an Australian university. To satisfy this concern I want to tell you about semesters and classes shortened to save money on teaching; on passing incapable students simply to keep quotas up; on teaching students for whom attendance at university is no longer a necessary part of gaining a degree. This loops back to the idea of the university as business. Asking universities to stop making it easy for students to gain entrance, and making it easy for them to pass, is like asking Coca-Cola to slow down its sales. The logic of capitalism overrides everything.
The second concern is more abstract. I want to tell you about what it is like to teach literature to habituated non-readers, and why it is worth it.
Possibly the single most important component of English One is compulsory attendance. Again, if you have little to do with tertiary education you may not know this: that most universities no longer make attendance at tutorials and lectures compulsory. At other universities and in other subjects I have had to pass students who have attended no classes at all. Not distance or online students: internal students who live not far from campus. Some non-attendees do not learn enough to pass their subject; their non-attendance bites them on the arse, we fail them, everyone moves on. But many are able to access just enough information about the course to pass. And no one can say a word about the fact that they never came to class.
Spoon-fed, I hear you say? Dont make me laugh. This is a feast of force-feeding, a Roman orgy of information and assistance, with students helpless and lolling while academics assist them in opening their mouths so the food can be tipped in, and then hold their jaws and help them masticate until it goes down. We keep asking ourselves why this generation are so anxious. They are anxious because nobody lets them do things alone: we intervene before they have had a chance to try, let alone succeed or fail. They never get to feel the limits, or the limitlessness, of their real selves.
But in English One, students are only allowed to miss two classes without a documented explanation. Not only that, but if they dont pass the subject they are allowed two attempts at this they cannot take their literacy test, and they cannot receive their degree. I cant tell you the difference this makes in a classroom. As a teacher, you feel traction: you feel as though you are doing something worthwhile. These students need you, and they must learn what you have to teach.
The first assignment in English One is called a Reading Reflection. It asks students to write about their reading habits: how often they read, what they read, what they feel they take from their reading.
What have our students been reading before they come to our class? Some a very few, and almost always women have read 19th century classics: the Bront sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens. Some a very few, and almost always men have read 20th century science fiction (Asimov and his ilk), and some of the Beats and their offspring: Kerouac, Bukowski, Burroughs.
The next and much larger group have read The Hunger Games, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, some or all of the Harry Potterseries, and a lot of autobiographies, either by sportsmen (the men) or by women who have been held in dungeons for years by rapists (the women).
The final group, about the same size as the group of Hunger Games readers, read their and their friends Facebook pages, their own news feed, and the occasional copy of a womens or a mens magazine. None, unless they have been made to by their high school English teacher, has read anything by an Australian author.