University literature courses lack excitement?
It’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.