All very peculiar

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Developing University English Teaching, Edited by Colin Evans, The Edwin Mellen Press Pounds 39.95

Developing University English Teaching. What a mind-erodingly dull-sounding phrase it is. Yet I had some of my most memorable, exciting, life-changing and hilarious experience at Duet workshops in Norwich and Poland during the Eighties. My experiences there not only had a profound effect on my academic and pedagogical practices (I was teaching teachers at Warwick University at the time) but provided a rich source of material for my own writing, particularly A Very Peculiar Practice, and two of the most memorable characters, Rose Marie, that devious guerrilla of the sex wars, and Greta Grotowska, the spiky Polish art historian, by her own admission "a dog's breakfast in bed" but irresistible for all that.

Duet was the brainchild of Professor John Broadbent, a very distinguished Cambridge scholar and critic who burst his shackles around about the end of the seventies and set about transforming himself and everyone else who came within his reach. The very simple idea at the heart of the project was that "academic events" - lectures, seminars, and so on should be "forms of life worth living for their own sake" (the phrase is John Dewey's) rather than grim and dutiful means to an end. Teachers should be looking for ways of making their classes joyous communal voyages of discovery.

I don't think the word "empowerment" was in vogue till later, but that was what Broadbent was about. Another phrase I remember from my first Duet in 1983 (and how would I forget it?) was "putting our tools directly into the hands of the students". The tools referred to in this case were the critical practices of the structuralists and post-structuralists. Broadbent and his fearless team would expose, clarify, and deconstruct, really, I suppose, the intellectual tool-kits of such as Barthes and Derrida, and then invite us to try our hands with them in little groups. And it worked. We learnt fast, we were no longer in awe, we found we could use these Continental techniques to make our own meanings in our own ways. And we went back to our colleges and schools and started to empower our own students in the same way.

But Duet wasn't just about teaching literature. The "Academic Event" described here was only one of a rich mix of activities that made up a Duet workshop. Broadbent's idea was that the workshop, which in those heady days was a five-day event, should be a form of life in itself, the very antithesis of the usual academic conference. The different activities in the Duet weave would inform and enrich each other, and the groups were carefully selected so that it was impossible for participants not to get to know each other and be known.

What activities? Well, one was a creative writing group, called Literary Practice. The theory, which I agreed and agree with, was that "where reading and criticism are interspersed with practice in literary writing each enriches the other". There was a certain amount of hesitation and nervousness among the academics at first, but most people found it highly enjoyable, and the Literary Practice groups tended to be very tender and supportive; people were gentle with each others' vulnerabilities. People actually seemed to become less pretentious and more childlike.

The "Group Event" is more difficult to describe. You just met this group of six people for an hour and a half every day with no agenda. Just sitting in a circle. My group, that first time, spent most of the first hour and a half in silence. By about Wednesday all hell had broken loose. Uninhibited abuse, confessions, accusations, you name it. Fascinating. In the bar, people couldn't stop talking about the Group Event. Some people thought Broadbent was trying to do their heads in. There was talk of revolution, but it never materialised. One of the many delicious paradoxes about Duet was that Broadbent, for all his Rogerian principles, was a man of immense personal authority, one of the most dominant personalities I've ever encountered. His way with dissenters was speedy and brutal, and he didn't suffer fools at all, let alone gladly.

Most of us got terribly over-excited; most of us were only getting about two or three hours sleep a night. There were a lot of impromptu parties. I used to like getting up at dawn and stumbling round the eerily beautiful lake (the Broad, they call it, but I didn't want to be misunderstood) muttering to myself, weeping a little sometimes, talking to dogs and ducks.And I can't begin to describe what the Polish Duet was like, not here at any rate. Unforgettable, anyway.

It was a very brave endeavour, the eighties being what they were, and it continues in the nineties, which is even braver. This book, written by some of the people who were on the Duet staff, sets out the aims and describes the practices, with varying degrees of vividness and clarity, but it doesn't really evoke what it felt like to be there. Some of the contributors appear to have reverted to "academic publications" mode. Sad, because Duet workshops were never stuffy. And in any case a book like this is a bit anti-Duet. We have to sit there and read it, rather than interact with it in bold and cheeky ways, improvise around it, write countertexts, deconstruct it and reassemble it.

Still. Worth reading. The ideas are simple and excellent and they work, and they could still revolutionise your practice and bring happy smiles to your students' faces. The best thing really is to go to one of the workshops, which continue, in a slightly reduced format, The person to contact would be Jon Cook at the University of East Anglia.

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