Richard Hoyes puts the fun back into Eng lit
Mind you it's a great moment when, after 20 years of mere assistant examining, you are tapped on the shoulder by the question-setter himself and offered a consortium of schools in the Midlands.
It's great when a centre rings up with a problem, especially if it's a famous public school. "Would it be possible, just this once, not to disallow one of our best candidates who has inadvertently disobeyed the instructions?" I allow a long pause.
"I think I can see a way round it," I pontificate. I say something like:
"Though you have infringed the detail you have stayed within the spirit of the rubric." They are grateful. "Can you host the next meeting?" I ask quickly, cashing in on their goodwill. They agree to lay on a special tea in School House and put the Chained Library itself at our disposal.
Then off I go in my Mini to pick up their coursework folders. M25. M1. I make it. All I wish now is that C2K had never been invented. C2K. Curriculum 2000 to the uninitiated. Dearing if you're really out of touch. The revisedA-level specifications into AS and A2.
Now I'm the board's representative. They look to me as a guru on the new syllabus. Help!
"What's this about synopticity?" "It means things that have been taught before are tested in a terminal exam, to make sure they aren't forgotten. The QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, requires it."
"How can that happen in a subject like English?" "That's currently under discussion. The QCA will inform us."
"What's this about 1770 and why do we have to do literature published before that date?" "The QCA has decided. It's Wordsworth's birthday." "Happy birthday, William," grumbles the leather jacket. I've noticed him before. He looks a bit of a lefty. I decide he's dangerous. Even more dangerous if he guesses I'm sympathetic.
"The QCA," I lie, "has a panel of literary experts and they have put back the rigor into English literature A-level by drawing up a canon of Great Texts and rescuing the subject from a superficial study of contemporary fiction, fashionable issues and cosy coursework."
"So we're going to study stuff like this?" says the jacket waving his hand round the Chained Library. "Old stuff. Dead white European males and all that."
I smile at him and think of ending the meeting quickly.
"And another thing," he says. "What's this about students reading appropriate background criticism? Literature in its critical context. Does it mean they can't think for themselves?" I give up at this point. I can't pretend any more. I recite a poem I learnt from my old English teacher. In those days A C Bradley was the critic you read if you wanted to sound clever. It's what C2K students will end up doing if we're not careful: studying books about books and not books.
"I dreamt last night that Shakespeare's ghost Sat for a civil service post The question paper of the year Was on the tragedy of King Lear At which the Bard did very badly Because he hadn't read his Bradley."
"So you're on our side?" says the jacket, his eyes lighting up. I end the meeting quickly.
Back at college I'm downright subversive. After a diet of metaphysical poetry, Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare, my A-level group are "doing" the poet Matthew Sweeney for coursework. He's an old friend and we go back a long way, to the early Eighties, the golden days before QCA, when there were grants from the Arts Council. He was our writer-in-residence. We meet at a pub, and devise a scheme of work on the back of a menu. It includes students e-mailing him with their views on his latest collection, A Smell of Fish.
Critical opinions in context? There won't be any. When students write about this book it won't even have been published. The only critical opinion they'll have to face will be that of the author himself.
How's that for subversive? It's the kind of coursework I'd bugger my springs for, any day.
Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org