University literature courses lack excitement?

sundaysalonIt’s that time of the year again when seventeen year olds up and down the UK are trying to decide how to spend the next three of four years of their lives. Yes, university application season is upon us, causing much angst as the choices are weighed.

It’s considerably  more complex it seems than when I was in the same dilemma more decades ago than I really care to remember with far more information about student staff ratios, student satisfaction ratings, research rankings to digest and evaluate along with the descriptions of the courses themselves.

My niece has roped me in to help as she navigates through these life-changing decisions, which has given me the chance to delve into what’s on offer for someone trying to decide whether to go down the English lit  or the history path. We’ve both (though independently) come to the conclusion that when it comes to courses that excite and intrigue, the literature departments could learn a few things from their colleagues over in history.

University literature courses don’t really seem to have changed much since the seventies. English Literature before 1800, Chaucer and his Contemporaries, Romanticism to Decadence, Shakespeare and the History of Ideas are some of the modules available at my alma mater, University of Exeter. They all sound so sadly familiar.

Now contrast that with some offerings from the history faculty. Ok you have the standards like Religion, Society and Culture in Tudor England or Britain, the Empire and the Wider World but they also offer such intriguing courses as Who the Hell was Jack Tar; Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern English, Strategic Bombing and from Grand Tour to Gladiator. Now don’t they sound a lot more fun??

Admittedly that’s just one university so maybe the comparison is unfair. Except that she’s now had the same experience with four establishments, all of them in the top 10 of British universities. As well respected as they are, none of them are doing anything particularly interesting.  Very heavy on Anglo Saxons and the nineteenth century big names but very little contemporary literature and very little in fact beyond the 1960s.  As for literature from other parts of the world – well it’s practically invisible. Many of them offer American literature but it’s only York so far that we’ve discovered is attempting to break from the pack with a degree program that has a strong international flavour. Where many other colleges seem to think literature begins and ends in the English speaking world, York offers choices in modern Arabic, Old Norse as well as French, German, Italian and Spanish literature.

Of course there are certain subject areas that need to be covered to give students a good grounding in the study of literature. Of course the subject areas shouldn’t be jazzed up simply to make them sound appealing. But isn’t there room for innovation here?  Isn’t the point of education to expose people to fresh ideas, to new possibilities and new areas of information that they had never experienced before. How can that be achieved if the academics don’t challenge themselves to think differently and to refresh what they offer.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 22, 2013, in Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. If I was on the fence and couldn’t decide between lit and history those history course title would land me in the history camp simply because they sound so much more interesting and dynamic and give the impression that the professor would be the same. So sad to say that especially since I did major in English and took classes just like those you list and enjoyed them most of the time.

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  2. Whatever course she opts for it’d be worth nudging her towards the nearest lit fest to the uni too. Whether it’s just going along to talks on stuff not covered by her course or even offering to volunteer and then putting it on a CV, it’ll spark connections and fresh ideas. Can’t speak for other areas but I’m always surprised to see *at most* 3 students at any non-headline event at Ilkley Lit Fest. It’s been running for 40 years, is well publicised and Leeds (30 mins by train, £4 return for a full price ticket) has two big universities. Yet the students never venture out there and they’re really missing out on some amazing debates, speakers and the opportunity to compare what they’re studying with what else is happening in BookLand. 🙂

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    • thats a great idea which I’ll pass on. She was enthusiastic about York after visiting today so Ilkley isn’t that far away. Just wonder whether the academic staff bother with these events – if they don’t maybe its hardly surprising if their students dont.

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  3. It is such an important decision to make – best advice I can offer is go and see those that sound interesting and speak to them. I’ve done this twice now once for History and once for Art and no amount of written information can beat speaking to those who design and teach the course. Good luck to your niece!

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  4. The British system may be quite different from the way we arrange things in North America, but at my own institution we have different departments responsible for literary traditions besides English (e.g. Spanish, French, Russian, German, etc.). So it wouldn’t be expected that the English department have an “international” flavor necessarily, and our doing so would actual ruffle a lot of feathers. That said, we do offer a course in ‘World Literature’ that focuses on writing *in English* from around the world. We also now offer courses in video games & narrative, cartoons and comics, science fiction, “literature, multiculturalism & identity” and a host of other special topics. One enormous challenge facing literature departments now is just how broad the range actually is of things that we could potentially cover. If you are still committed to covering some kind of ‘core,’ in this era of shrinking resources it can be hard to meet everyone’s expectations. We actually lost our only specialist in contemporary British literature years ago and have never been given permission to replace him — when we over 20thC British courses now, it’s other people filling in as best they can! My other observation is that even courses that look quite traditional may have changed a fair amount both in what is specifically read and in how those texts are discussed. That’s innovation too, though it may be harder to discern from a course title.

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  5. I blame the dry approach many schools focus on with reading as one reason some people never get into reading or embrace it, especially for school children. I haven’t studied literature at college yet myself (have taken other courses but not literature (sadly!). I would love to teach it but then again I’d probably have to do Shakespeare and that’s not my thing 🙂

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    • someone told me the other day – I don’t really know whether this is true – that in schools now the pupils are not required to actually read the whole of the set text. they just look at extracts. if true, that hardly seems to set them up for the rigours of future study does it?

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      • Literature is such a sad case worldwide, I think. Here, in India, most of the Lit classes are populated by students who couldn’t get into the science or commerce stream. Only a handful are actually enthused by the prospect of Literature courses.

        I have to say that my college did have an excellent Arts – Literature/History/Fine Arts program that is constantly innovating. It’s just such a shame that students don’t see the value of it.

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  6. I am currently studying literature at Warwick University, and am happy to say that I find that the course has a very exciting mix of modules. Though the classical options are obviously available we are under no obligation to study any of them after first year. This year I am planning on taking modules such as: ‘Feminist Perspectives’ (authors studied include Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter) and ‘Practice of Poetry’ (the tutor is notorious for doing things like making his students write while sitting in a tree and bringing a cat to seminar to get his students to write about it). And you talked about international literature – my course does offer a number of world lit options, including ‘Asia and the Victorians’ and ‘The Global Novel’.

    Of course, this is just my personal experience. It may be very different at other, more traditional, universities (mine is less than 50 years old). But I thought I’d assure you that there is still hope!

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  7. I think there is both room and need for innovation. I took literature courses when there was a strong sense of core classics and that has served me well, but I do find younger bloggers much more open to a variety of genres. What I fear most in the U.S. is the demise of a liberal arts education altogether. The cost of college has made it so those who graduate want skills that will lead them right into a high-paying jobs. Reading literature, studying classics and languages do not lead directly to such jobs, so they are becoming less attractive to students.

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    • we need the core skills and knowledge for sure but the dynamics of literature are changing and it doesn’t seem academia is keeping pace. I know that is a generalisation and there are some examples of innovative approaches. but just not that many of them….

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