Decolonising the canon

There has been much controversy this week over the diversity of the undergraduate syllabus at Cambridge. Here, some Staffs Uni lecturers dwell on the ways in which we hope to make our teaching relevant to the complex world we all live in:

“I was just reading about this in the Evening Standard, and thinking about my own list of 5 set-text novels for the Adaptation module. James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) rub shoulders with Camus, Doris Lessing & Edith Wharton (the main criteria for their selection was that they be short ‘modern classics’ (ones that I love), and adaptable to cinema.

Interstingly (or ironically), both Baldwin and Achebe fall foul of political correctness in their own right (Baldwin sinning against cross-dressers, Achebe asking us to sympathise with a wife-beater), which in no way detracts from their greatness, any more than Kipling’s colonial perspective detracts from his.

All v interesting. I was discussing the concept of the canon with 3rd years in week 1 and it was generally agreed it should simply be added to – don’t throw baby out with bathwater.” Margaret Leclere.

“I also teach Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and 4 others from that list of 10 (Beloved, Lonely Londoners, TGOSTings, Wide Sargasso Sea – and Jean Rhys was white, by the way!, not BMEthnic as the article claims).

I run a year-long module called Global Voices: Stories of Empire which contains only two white writers – Albert Camus and Jean Rhys, both of whom write prose which mines deep into the complex cultural psychology of the colonised nation.  My module on Magical Realism also features the work of so-called “BAME” writers such as Amy Tan (Chinese-American), Toni Morrison (African-American), Salman Rushdie (Indian) and Luke Sutherland (black British).  On this module we also read work by Laura Esquivel (Mexican) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombian); although these writers might not be thought of as ‘minority-ethnic’ in the UK, Hispanic cultures are aligned as ‘minority-ethnic’ in the USA.

As you can see from my job title – “Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies”- , I even reject the term “English Literature” to describe my subject area: Camus and Marquez we read in translation – how on earth can we consider them to be “English” in any sense, and a lot of the literature which I put on my modules may have been written in English, but it is written in countries a long way from England where the main language may not be English at all.  In my view, the label “English Literature” gives a sense of primacy to the English language, English culture and British (English) imperial practices of the past from which I like to distance myself in my work in order that I can more clearly understand the ‘voices’ and the literary art of people so long considered to be ‘Other’ to all that is English.” Melanie Ebdon.

“My PhD was in African American experimental poetry. I teach contemporary African American poetry (e.g. Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen– I’ve published a chapter on her for an edited collection with Ashgate), Black British and Asian poetry (e.g. Patience Agbabi, Nabila Jameel, Daljit Nagra). Like Mel, when anyone asks me what I teach, I tell them ‘Literature’ not ‘English Literature’ for the same reasons (though I can accept “Literature in English or English translation”). I also teach Pound, Eliot, Baudelaire, Whitman– there is a range of diversity in all the texts we teach.” Lisa Mansell

“American literature has always been open to the experiences of marginalised groups – regardless of the nature of the inequality. I teach the Harlem Renaissance (Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen’s beautiful and poetic Passing) and slave narrative (Frederick Douglas). More recently, Native American writers (such as Sherman Alexie) and African American writers (such as last year’s Man Booker winner, Paul Beatty) have revealed the stupidity of segregation and racism through humour. Toni Morrison’s Civil Rights era novel, Song of Solomon, is a powerful exploration of the tensions in the politics of race, identity and resistance, combined with a lyrical examination of the power and problematical nature of oral cultures.” Mark Brown

Man Booker Winner Announced

The Man Booker prize has been won by an experimental first novel that was 5 years in the writing. Lincoln in the Bardo is written from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln’s dead son and a host of other souls speaking from a limbo between life and death (the Tibetan belief of Bardo).

In interviews today Saunders has spoken about how the structure of the book – with dozens of narrative voices – has been a significant challenge, and how literature has the power to see the world from the perspective of others. Interestingly, President Trump is very proud of how few books he has read! Go figure.

Writing about his own creative practice in the Guardian recently, he said ‘An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” …. Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

Saunders is the 2nd American to win the prize, after Paul Beatty last year.

Freshers’ Trip to London in Welcome Week

We are in Week 4 already, and it’s now quite a while ago since we went to London with the Freshers in Welcome Week, on Thursday 21 September to be precise, to visit two venerable institutions associated with learning and culture in this country: the British Library and the British Museum. However, the memory of our trip still lingers pleasantly like a warm cloud of benevolence over this busy semester…

The Class of 2017/18    

We took the slow train there and back which meant that we had plenty of time to get to know our wonderful new students.

Mark Brown about to teleport to the Metropolis 

In town, highlights were the manuscript treasures of the British library (with, for example, the heavily annotated and worked over first page of Hardy’s Tess on display, and many more samples from the literary canon relevant to us, plus the priceless exhibits documenting British culture through the history of books), and an exhibition on print making and modern Western information culture in the British Museum (which had only opened that day!). Some of the group also used the opportunity to look at the infamous Mummies.. A nice lunch in the Library was thrown into the mix for good measure, before we walked through St Pancras Station (Neo-Gothic!), and from there in a 20 minute trail through Bloomsbury to the Museum. As we headed for the train back, we even managed to get a pint in at a hostelry near Euston. In summary, an altogether fruitful day, and time well spent with my students and colleagues.

Martin J

New production from Claybody Theatre

Claybody theatre launched their new site-specific production this week. Dirty Laundry will be performed in the evocative China Hall at the Spode Factory in Stoke from October 11 to 21. The play, according to its creator, Deborah McAndrew (winner of the UK Theatre Award, best new play for An August Bank Holiday Lark), explores the effects of the industrial environment through the inter-generational tensions in a typical 1950s working class home. Rueben Moth is dying, and a secret hovers just beyond the grasp of his daughter, Nora.

The set, designed by Dawn Allsopp, will sit in the cavernous industrial space, and convey a sense of pot-war austerity and gloom.

At the launch, Conrad Nelson (director) introduced the professional cast and explained how the audience will be transported back to the 50s by local amateur actors, before entering the auditorium through the set itself, in a gesture that brings the audience into a much closer relationship with the drama than in a conventional theatre space. Some performances will be followed by panel discussions involving academics, theatre folk, and local people.

Many thanks to everyone at Claybody for an enjoyable evening at the Spode visitors centre. We’re really looking forward to bringing a group of students to a performance.

Click here to visit Claybody’s website and find out more.

John Ashbery, Poet. (1927-2017)

We wake to the sad news that one of our greatest modern poets, John Ashbery, has died aged ninety.

He was a leading figure of the New York School of poetry in the 1960s, a group influenced by modernist and contemporary art (especially abstract expressionism and surrealism). The work that emerged from this movement was wide-ranging; forms of pastiche, non-narrative and anti-narrative text, a simultaneous return to and rejection of form all problematised the discipline of poetry—and in a good way. Complex new poetry for a complex new, postmodern world. An interest in contemporary culture provoked poems about the banal, every day, sometimes the throw-away. Art is life, and sometimes, life is dull. No more grand subjects and narratives, just life.

This is neither an obituary nor essay; it’s a remembering of my first encounter with Ashbery, and not an easy one to recollect since his poetic work has been so prominent in the study of contemporary poetics, but I think I can pin it down to a balmy late September in a seminar room when our tutor gave us crumpled photocopies of “The Skaters” (1964):

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

The direct address, themes concerning sound and music and the rush of rich images made this early encounter with Ashbery’s text a meaningful touchstone for much of my later research concerning poetry, music, sound, and the every day. I return to Ashbery again and again in reading, research and in teaching (some of our students will know well the famous “Popeye” sestina: “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”).

For more information about Ashbery, explore the online collection archived at the Poetry Foundation
To read and listen to, in Ashbery’s own voice, “The Skaters” visit the archive at Penn Sound.

National Student Survey (NSS) Success

The results of the 2016/17 NSS have been published, and English and Creative Writing at Staffs have done particularly well again.

We are particularly pleased to score 100% for our teaching and to score between 90 and 100% for assessment.

Some highlights are listed below. Many thanks to the Class of 2017 for showing their appreciation of the work put in by the English and Creative Writing team to ensure that their time at Staffs has been exciting and productive.

English and Creative Writing degrees

The teaching on my course     100%                                                                                                                   

Staff are good at explaining things                                         100%                                                                                      

Staff have made the subject interesting                                100%                                                                                      

The course is intellectually stimulating                                  100%                                                                                      

My course has challenged me to achieve my best work         100%                                                         

My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth                                                                            100%

My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics                                  100%

                                                                                                                  

Assessment and feedback                                                       95%                                                                                                 

Feedback on my work has been timely                                   100%                                                                                      

I have received helpful comments on my work                      90%                                                           

Academic support                                                                   97%                                                                                                 

I have been able to contact staff when I needed to               100%                                                                  

I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course                                                                                                  100%

Overall satisfaction                                                                 90%

 

Congratulations to the Class of 2017

The Class of 2017 graduated at the picturesque Trentham Gardens this week.

Congratulations to everybody who completed their degrees this year. We were all so proud to share your day on Monday. Congratulations, too, to this year’s prize winners; Sian Davies, Ben Underwood and Susan Ecclestone. Here’s some of the pictures we managed to grab (see the facebook page for more).

History as a text – Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

In her Reith lecture recently, the double Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, said:

“history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”

Hayden White, somebody who we might characterise as a ‘postmodern historian’, similarly claims that all history is text, and is subject to the same subjective interpretative understandings and misunderstandings as any other piece of writing. In addition, the historical record is often in the hands of those wishing to put their side of events, and it is history’s winners whose version gets to become the ‘official’ history. White identifies how events don’t always fit into the comforting structures of narrative, how events don’t always lend themselves to a beginning, a middle and an end. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, he argues that:

‘But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be. …The lateness of the invention of historical discourse in human history and the difficulty of sustaining it in times of cultural breakdown (as in the early Middle Ages) suggest the artificiality of the notion that real events could “speak themselves” or be represented as “telling their own story”…. It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that narrativization is so difficult.’

History then, as Mantel identifies above, is an unreliable witness to the events of the past, and we can never recover them with any objective clarity. As Mantel says, ‘history …. is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ The unreliable nature of history, and who controls the official record, have concerned many great writers of recent years. Toni Morrison has explored the legacy of slavery in black communities, Tim O’Brien has wrestled with the un-tellable story of Vietnam, and E L Doctorow has fictionalised the histories of those marginalised and ignored by the official historical record. From these writers, I teach Song of Solomon (but Beloved is probably Morrison’s finest achievement), In the Lake of the Woods, and The Book of Daniel. From these texts, we learn that history has competing interpretations of the past, and the un-official histories of the unvoiced has an equal claim to be heard.

You can listen to the Reith Lectures on the BBC iPlayer.

Readers and Writers – new Distance Learning MA in English Literature and Creative Writing

On the English and Creative Writing degree at Staffs we are dedicated to demonstrating to our students that the best writers are also well-informed readers. The conventions that shape literature go back to the epics and tragedies of ancient Greece and were first classified by Aristotle, and every student of the creative arts must know what traditions she or he is writing out of or against – whether they are classical drama, the Shakespearean sonnet, or modernist poetry. When we teach the Beat writers of 1950s America, for example, we show our students that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and their fellow travellers were not just iconoclasts, tearing down the walls of literature, they were deeply aware of their literary outlaw forebears who had been the rebels of their day.

 

Colm Tóibín, writing in the Guardian recently, explores similar ground. In exploring evil in the contemporary world, contemplating the Northern Island Troubles and so-called Islamic State, he has reworked the Greek story of Clytemnestra who killed her husband, Agamemnon, to explore the personalities of those capable of great cruelty. One of the characters he struggled with was Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, who goes on to kill his mother in revenge for his father’s death (the daughter is Electra, so you can see what a dysfunctional family we are dealing with). Tóibín, unable to conjure Orestes’ voice, looked to other male figures in literature capable of murder. “As I went through other novels and some plays, and indeed my own experience and memories, trying to find a shape for Orestes,” he writes, “I  looked carefully at the figure of Hyacinth Robinson in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, who is all passivity and ambiguity. I thought also about Adolf Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and even Hamlet, or Iago, or Macbeth in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Duncan.” Like all great writers, Tóibín is deeply aware of the debt he owes to his literary predecessors, and it is to earlier writers that he turns for inspiration. Iago, Macbeth and Hamlet are written into our cultural DNA and provide touchstones of violence or madness in the pursuit of vengeance or power. James’s and Conrad’s figures are less well known (Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s best-known figure of evil unconstrained by social conscience), and are more recent examples of the inquisitive reader finding raw material in the wealth of our literary inheritance.

To encourage writers and analysts to locate their creative and critical practice in relation to recent literature we have, here at Staffordshire University, recently introduced a brand new Distance Learning MA in Modern and Contemporary Writing. This innovative post grad degree will introduce students to key writers, texts, compositional methods, literary movements and critical perspectives of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The modules are arranged around key thematic and narrative concerns, paradigmatic shifts in American writing, global writing, and emergent theoretical and critical perspectives, such as eco-criticism. Uniquely, the assignments allow students to explore critical or creative approaches to the literatures of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. As a result, this MA will help students develop as critics, or creative writers, or both. All students take the dissertation or creative project module at the end of their studies. If you take the creative project, you will be supported by the Writers’ Workshop module to prepare you for the task ahead and to give you the opportunity to produce a very substantial piece of creative work. English dissertation students can use the Contemporary Critical Approaches module to identify and explore the critical or theoretical perspectives they wish to employ in their research project.

Because it is Distance Learning, students can organise their studies around their other commitments.

First year perspectives from Cathryn Hurd

What a Year!

It might sound strange calling a blog post “What a Year” in the middle of June but my academic year has recently drawn to a close. Today I received the results of all my hard work, tears, often shouted “I can’t do this” and head-stuck-in-a-book weekends. I passed. Not only did I pass but I averaged a 1st for my first year at university doing my English degree. I’m completely over the moon, ecstatic and somewhat amazed at myself.

A year ago, I was counting down the weeks until I started uni. Nervous about whether I would: –

  1. Understand what the lectures said or whether they did actually speak in a foreign language that everyone else would understand except me.
  2. Be able to read all the books on the course and understand them!
  3. Fit in. This was a biggie for me. Being a “mature” student, the worry was that I would be in a classroom full of young people who would look at me like an uncool old fart!

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