I’ve recently finished marking 40-odd exams, mostly written by people between the ages of 18 and 21. In them our students had to answer questions about aspects of literature, such as free indirect speech or genre. They also had to write an essay of 1,000 words, on the work of Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas, Judith Wright, Jack Davis or Tim Winton.
My students are, for the most part, education students who live in regional Australia. If they get their degree, they are bound for early childhood centres, preschools, primary schools, high schools. These are our new teachers.
If you have little to do with tertiary education you might not have noticed this: that there is a whole new cohort of young people attending university, people who might not have done so 30 or 40 years ago. Our economy has been transforming itself from blue to white collar for decades; an education that relies on the written word is newly necessary.
Added to this, the university’s relatively new status as a business means that it desperately needs students, and will make it as easy as possible for everyone, anyone to enrol. When I began teaching here the Atar for education was officially 60, but many students were entering the university through alternative pathways: Tafe, bridging courses at the university itself, written application. Universities are businesses. Students are customers. The more customers, the better the business does.
And of course, the best way to retain a customer is to keep her happy. I’d suggest that happiness for students might arise from challenge, from hard work fairly rewarded, or from the acquisition of new skills. But there is of course a quicker route: you keep students happy by not failing them. And then – surprise! – when they graduate they are not literate, or numerate, or knowledgeable enough to perform the work they have been studying for.
But just because the horse has bolted doesn’t mean we can’t slam the stable door. And the way we do this in New South Wales is through the implementation of the compulsory Acer Literacy and Numeracy Test for Teacher Education, which students take at the end of their degree. For the past four years I have been teaching a subject to education students that has been designed to actively interrogate their reading and writing abilities, and make them capable of passing their Acer test. Let’s call the subject English One.
I find myself pausing here, to wonder why I am writing this essay. I have two burning concerns: one is to give readers an insight into what it is currently like to teach at an Australian university. To satisfy this concern I want to tell you about semesters and classes shortened to save money on teaching; on passing incapable students simply to keep quotas up; on teaching students for whom attendance at university is no longer a necessary part of gaining a degree. This loops back to the idea of the university as business. Asking universities to stop making it easy for students to gain entrance, and making it easy for them to pass, is like asking Coca-Cola to slow down its sales. The logic of capitalism overrides everything.
The second concern is more abstract. I want to tell you about what it is like to teach literature to habituated non-readers, and why it is worth it.
Possibly the single most important component of English One is compulsory attendance. Again, if you have little to do with tertiary education you may not know this: that most universities no longer make attendance at tutorials and lectures compulsory. At other universities and in other subjects I have had to pass students who have attended no classes at all. Not distance or online students: internal students who live not far from campus. Some non-attendees do not learn enough to pass their subject; their non-attendance bites them on the arse, we fail them, everyone moves on. But many are able to access just enough information about the course to pass. And no one can say a word about the fact that they never came to class.
Why would they bother reading something that was neither for them nor about them?
Spoon-fed, I hear you say? Don’t make me laugh. This is a feast of force-feeding, a Roman orgy of information and assistance, with students helpless and lolling while academics assist them in opening their mouths so the food can be tipped in, and then hold their jaws and help them masticate until it goes down. We keep asking ourselves why this generation are so anxious. They are anxious because nobody lets them do things alone: we intervene before they have had a chance to try, let alone succeed or fail. They never get to feel the limits, or the limitlessness, of their real selves.
But in English One, students are only allowed to miss two classes without a documented explanation. Not only that, but if they don’t pass the subject – they are allowed two attempts at this – they cannot take their literacy test, and they cannot receive their degree. I can’t tell you the difference this makes in a classroom. As a teacher, you feel traction: you feel as though you are doing something worthwhile. These students need you, and they must learn what you have to teach.
The first assignment in English One is called a Reading Reflection. It asks students to write about their reading habits: how often they read, what they read, what they feel they take from their reading.
What have our students been reading before they come to our class? Some – a very few, and almost always women – have read 19th century classics: the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens. Some – a very few, and almost always men – have read 20th century science fiction (Asimov and his ilk), and some of the Beats and their offspring: Kerouac, Bukowski, Burroughs.
The next and much larger group have read The Hunger Games, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, some or all of the Harry Potterseries, and a lot of autobiographies, either by sportsmen (the men) or by women who have been held in dungeons for years by rapists (the women).
The final group, about the same size as the group of Hunger Games readers, read their and their friends’ Facebook pages, their own news feed, and the occasional copy of a women’s or a men’s magazine. None, unless they have been made to by their high school English teacher, has read anything by an Australian author.
The first time I taught Monkey Grip in English One I was struck by two things. First, by how many of my students were offended by it. They found it too sexually explicit, too full of “profanity”, and they deplored Norah’s method of parenting: the shared household, the children exposed to drug taking and other radical behaviours.
The second thing that struck me was how difficult my students found the 10-page extract. They didn’t know who Helen Garner was, the 1970s were too far away to mean anything to them, and they couldn’t locate themselves in the story. They didn’t know who was speaking, and who she was speaking to. How old was she, where was she, what was happening?
Here is the book’s opening sentence:
In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives.
If you are reading this essay, you’re a reader. You probably know this sentence, and if you don’t, you are comfortable with interpreting it. You can hear a character beginning to form: its romantic, optimistic, nostalgic voice; a voice yearning for simplicity; probably, in its deliberate imitation of a child’s singsong, the voice of a woman, a mother. You know it might take a few pages to learn just who this woman is. You’re skilled in this sort of patience.
But if you have never read anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book, how are you meant to proceed?
Well, there is only one way to go on, as I tell students – and that is to go on. This is the first and greatest difficulty they face. There’s no reason for them to continue reading. There is so much else to read that is shorter, and not just aimed at them, but, in the case of their Facebook feed, tuned to their experience. Marketed to them. Why would they bother reading something that was neither for them nor about them?
Return to that opening sentence of Monkey Grip. Be honest with yourself: it’s easy. The words are almost all monosyllabic, the syntax is uncomplicated, the image is vivid. Now try this, the first sentence of Randolph Stow’s 1965 novel The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea:
The merry-go-round had a centre post of cast iron, reddened a little by the salt air, and of a certain ornateness: not striking enough to attract a casual eye, but still, to an eye concentrated upon it (to the eye, say, of a lover of the merry-go-round, a child) intriguing in its transitions.
You would have to say that this is not an especially enticing sentence. I find most students I teach are pulled up short by it. But who said everything had to be enticing? British academic and critic Mark Fisher says, “Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp – and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension – that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.”
The difficulty is Stow. The difficultyisthe point.
Fisher says that many of his students are in a state that he calls “depressive hedonia … an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure”. I’m not trying to give my students pleasure, or make them enjoy themselves. I’m trying to show them how critical engagement with literature enables critical engagement with living. I’m trying to interrupt what Fisher calls “the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand”. And finally, I’m trying to help them pass that literacy test.
What have my students learned? Perhaps not much. Several of them fail every semester: some resist every line of questioning in tutorials, telling me over and over again that they see nothing in the texts I’m reading with them. I had a fourth wall moment recently, that all teachers will be familiar with; that moment when the barrier between you and the class comes down, when you stand as yourself in front of them. I’d been trying to teach a student – let’s call him Josh – whose response to questions like,“What do you think the author was up to here?” had been a dogged and angry, “No idea.” For the fifth or sixth time I approached him on one of my circuits about the class, and heard myself saying, “What do you think, Josh? No fuckin’ idea?”
Teenagers don’t want to stick it to the man anymore. They are the man
We stared at each other. The class shrieked with laughter. We both blushed, and then we were laughing too, and I was apologising. But this moment broke something between us. Josh did not pass the subject; his written work was still not up to the job. He could not write – although he could speak, if he chose to – coherent sentences. But the work he handed in after this showed that he had tried; that he was sincerely attempting to understand the texts we were reading. I can tell the difference between a sincere assignment and an angry or cynical assignment. I’ve seen so many of both kinds.
But then there are moments like this one, early on in my English teaching, when my class were reading and struggling with Les Murray’s The Cows on Killing Day. I’d always loved this poem. In it the poet imagines the death by knife of an old cow, from the point of view of the herd. Murray uses a first person compound pronoun, all me, to speak in the cows’ collective voice:
All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy.
I had a student who had already responded very positively to Helen Garner’s Against Embarrassment, a simple essay that makes a plea for unselfconscious pleasure in performance. Like many students would after her, she had read Garner’s essay in the light of her university enrolment; it made her determined to enjoy herself, to unselfconsciously engage in learning, to stop being critical of herself. She’d worked several years as a dairymaid after leaving school early, thinking she was “too stupid” for university. As we read The Cows on Killing Day aloud, her voice came ringing from the desks at the back of the class: “But this is exactly what it’s like!”
The Cows on Killing Day elicits a variety of reactions from my students, many of whom have been brought up on farms. I’ve had young people furious with me. They say, “I hate this poem. This shouldn’t be written about,” or, “No one likes it. But it’s a part of life.” I’ve also had city or mountains-bred students – there are a couple of them each year – who’ve never killed an animal in their life, and self-righteously feel that the poem is a paean to vegetarianism.
But this student, the ex-dairymaid, read the poem as it is meant to be read. Murray doesn’t ask for sympathy for the cow: his job is simply to use his art to show what it’s like. After this class, my student went from a pass for her first assignment to a distinction for her second. At the end of the semester she told me she’d decided to switch her teaching specialisation to English.
This is what my students have learned: how to read more than 200 words of a text at a time. How to write something about the way they feel. And, finally, how to notice that a text is doing something. Not to simply slump, bored, in front of a block of writing and hope that it goes away. How to notice that it is up to something. Perhaps, in the future, to read a little differently. To feel those ideas about literature, so angrily learned, change the way they see.
They’ve also learned to relax a little about some of the things that upset them. What they call “profanity”. Graphic descriptions of sex and masturbation. And interestingly enough, graphic descriptions of anger. Loaded in particular is a furious book. I love this line, spat out by Ari, Tsiolkas’s young bisexual Greek man: “I read the papers. I see the news. I talk to people; white, black, yellow, pink, they’re all fucked.” When I was 18 I felt the same way. Even now, it feels like a necessary part of growing up. In fact, it feels like a necessary part of being grown-up. You should always be ready to see what’s fucked. But my students don’t like it. Many of them choose Loaded to write about for their final essay because it is colloquial, fast-paced, easy to read; but almost all can’t understand why Ari is so angry.
On a good day, I think they find Ari difficult because they themselves are generous people. They love their families, they are happy in the society they’ve been brought up in, and look forward to doing good when they work with children.
On a bad day, I think they find Ari difficult because the distinction between adults and teenagers has been blurred. We all want the same things now: phones, clothes, and food to photograph. We are all consumers. Teenagers don’t want to stick it to the man anymore. They are the man.
Every couple of weeks I have lunch with two close friends, long-time academics, to compare experiences, to offload some of the stuff we’ve seen. It’s the same all over. Every academic is caught between their principles and the rewards that come from abandoning them, between the demands of capitalism and their old role as guardians of higher learning. Teaching is valued less and less; our new god is management. And all corrupt systems must have their collaborators. The three of us have developed a language to describe these academics-turned-middle-managers. We call them zombies. They stagger across the campus from meeting to meeting, a tickertape of acronyms flickering behind their undead eyes. One of us described a particular administrator-academic as a “glitchy half-person”; the self-guttering like a candle, glitching between real person and corporate stooge.
When we come up with these ways to describe our experience we become more cheerful. One of these friends has recently been through an extremely difficult engagement with upper management. We talked about the next administrative hurdle he had to leap and my friend said, “I’m not getting involved. I’m powering down.” He made a sound like a building whose power has just been shut off, dropping his head and letting his arms go slack. We began to laugh, as we always do when we’re together, and soon we were wiping away rueful tears. For a moment there, we were in charge. Language is power, and when we find the right way to frame our experience, we’re not being crushed by it.
This is what I want for my students. First, I want them to read a book, all the way through. I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway. Then, I want them to notice what a powerful tool literature is, to understand that without it we can’t know ourselves or the society we live in. I want them to discover that if they learn to handle language they’ll no longer be helpless, drowning in sugary gratification. Finally, I want them to see that reading breeds thinking, and thinking breeds resistance, and surely, especially right now, that is a good thing.
Monkey Grip, by Helen Garner
Loaded, by Christos Tsiolkas
Birds, by Judith Wright
The Dreamers, by Jack Davis
The Turning, by Tim Winton
Dog Fox Field, by Les Murray
The Merry-go-round in the Sea, by Randolph Stow
Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher
Reading and research series
Reading difficult material
Reading difficult material can be a matter of concentration
or of simply organizing the challenge into steps:
- Choose a moderate amount of material or a chapter to begin
- Get a grasp of how the material is organized:
Scan the section for titles, headings, sub-headings, and topic sentences to get its general idea; pay attention to graphs, charts, and diagrams
- If there is a summary at the end of a chapter, read it.
- Check the beginning and the end for leading questions and exercises
- Read first for what you do understand, and to determine difficulty.
- Mark what you do not understand to review later
As you read, practice the look-away method:
- Periodically look away from the text
and ask yourself a stimulus question relating to the text
- Phrase the question positively!
- Respond, or restate, in your own words
Make connections and associations,
but don't use this exercise to memorize--but rather understand
- Look up words
Look up words whose meanings are important to your understanding of the material, but you cannot discern from the context.
- Read to the end
Do not get discouraged and stop reading.
Ideas can become clearer the more you read. When you finish reading, review to see what you have learned, and reread those ideas that are not clear.
- Organize your notes by connecting ideas
you choose into an outline or concept map.
Pay attention to relationships between ideas.
Do not confine yourself to words!
Use representations, graphics, pictures, colors, even movement to visualize and connect ideas. Use whatever techniques work to help you understand
At this point, if you do not understand your reading, do not panic!
Set it aside, and read it again the next day.
If necessary, repeat. This allows your brain to process the material, even while you sleep. This is referred to as distributed reading.
- Re-read the section you have chosen with the framework
(outline or concept map) you have constructed in mind
Separate out what you do understand from what you do not.
- If the reading is still a challenge,
consult with either your teacher, academic counselors, or reading specialists.