Talkback

14th July 2000 at 01:00
The ugly rumour says that English lessons will become part of media studies. Teaching literature can sometimes feel like a dying trade. I am trawling through Gatsby; the class is dormant. An Omnibus video on Fitzgerald should spice things up. I put on the wrong tape; it's the film The Matrix. This elicits big cheers and fierce attention. This is hot, electric stuff - cool as you like with lots of lurex and leather and shades. The class begs to watch it. But we are not here to enjoy ourselves this much, so I turn it off. I cancel cyberspace for cold print. We return to our reluctant interface with the magic of Fitzgerald's prose. I feel disappointed and contemplate a Leavisite rant.

I don't like being such a kill-joy. I seem to be turning into the teacher I fled from at my grim 1950s grammar school. We would bunk off for the louche glamour of Mac's cafe to listen to the Ronettes, the Shangri-las or Duane Eddy. We thought we learned more from a two-minute record than we ever would from school. Or we would go into dim art-house movie theatres to see Godards or gangsters and, with any luck, come out cool and existential. These places were forbidden pleasure domes. Those caught within were expelled or condemned to higher and more proper culture. Really we were doing media studies, but we just never knew it.

Now it's a subject, and a good thing too. But now I am an English teacher, and I too am threatened by this media, this electronic stuff.

More and more of my pupils enter the classroom in trances. They have things on their persons and in teir ears. These go bleep, thump, pip and squeak. They go fizzand chirrup. These pupilsare elsewhere. They have tuned out of the lesson.

Of course I come down on all this with due ferocity, and they eventually divest themselves of purring toys and we hunker down to the rigours of academe, to another dull Sats paper, to cold print. But we need some PlayStation prose and some cool street rhythms.

Pupils come out of A-level media high on the pleasures of The Big Sleep, Body Heat, The Double Life of Veronique or Fight Club - visceral stuff, a blitz of a film which, said one critic with some justification, "screws around with your bio-rhythms" - to the paler virtues of the 19th-century novel. Much of the literature syllabus cannot screw around with your bio-rhythms.

Nor, sadly, does theatre. "People weaned on movies often feel sensually starved at a play," writes the critic Pauline Kael. Our jaunt to the National to see Antony and Cleopatra certainly left us famished. Nothing moved. Not even a tightly swaddled Helen Mirren could screw around with our bio-rhythms. We would all rather have been elsewhere - watching football, Sex in the City or a film.

I must compete with this electric stuff. I must get media hip. I must get darker classrooms. I must deal more in pleasure. I must go electric or go redundant. I must infiltrate. I must invent my own course. "Godard and Film Noir and the Shangri-las and The Matrix". That should get them back. Media will be part of English.

Ian Whitwham teaches at a comprehensive in west London


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