“Is knowing about the subject basically an eccentric side effect of a university degree?” A discussion about lectures and presentations this weekend sparked this question, asked slightly humorously by a friend of mine. I’d been remarking that giving two hour lectures gave me great respect for students who could marshal their attention and even take notes during those sessions, and it was suggested by someone else that even if they were failing to bring all their mental faculties to bear on the topic, then the experience would stand them in good stead. After all, working life is full of periods when you have to sit in meetings, presentations and so on, not visibly bored, and rationing your mental forces enough to give some sort of account of what happened when asked later.
The subject of presentations thus having been broached, we talked about how student presentations were one of the assessment methods which most closely resembled what many of our students would have to do in their professional careers. Since they also feature largely in academic research culture, they thus cover both of the major areas which a good arts or humanities degree is supposed to train people in. They are some sort of preparation for general professional life, and they are part of the academic culture which (hopefully) moves our knowledge of the field forward.
Of course a lot of things which students undertake on an arts or humanities degree emphasize one of these areas at the expense of the other, prompting my friend’s question. Put bluntly and simplistically, it presents me with two options when I’m working with undergraduates. Should I treat them as future professionals, whose polite interest in my field over any particular other has encouraged them to make English Literature the medium via which they prove their literacy, project-managing skills, interpersonal ability and capacity for hitting deadlines? Or should I treat them as literature scholars, who may end up taking another career path, but who have joined me for three years to scrutinise the idea of the canon, and the textual evidence of Jacobean staging practice?
Either seems somewhat disingenuous. (Perhaps because I’m putting them in such extreme terms.) To pretend that every student who works with me is fascinated by the state of the subject, and is luxuriating in literary study before they unfortunately have to find some other way of paying the rent, seems to fly in the face of reality. As well as setting everyone involved up with unrealistic expectations. It devalues the world outside the academy, and ignores the lifelong engagement with literature which many will have after the degree. But it seems equally foolish to cast an English degree as essentially a professional finishing school in which students show their accomplishment by carrying out textual tasks which could really be swapped with any tasks of equivalent difficulty, to prove to employers that they know how to function in an institution. (Either a finishing school or a covert operation by literature academics, to plant enough nostalgic fondness for literary works alongside future executives’ memories of having had a good time at university to persuade them to keep donating to the arts during their later and richer years…)
As I say, perhaps the starkness of the phrasing has created a choice which doesn’t exist in real life. And perhaps I’ve just been reading too much Stefan Collini recently. But I’d like to hear from you lot on this topic, as it seems to bear on a lot of the choices which we make on a day to day basis in academe. This is not simply a question of final ends, but of the way we understand what goes on in the lecture hall and the seminar room. Whether you’re current students or looking back on your university years, which of those approaches seems most meaningful to you? How should your lecturers treat you – as a room of professionals developing their careers, or a room of three-year scholars?
I’ve never thought about it this way, but if you ask: “literature scholars”. Literature is the one and only thing that your students absolutely must have in common. Think about it: maybe they will become teachers, writers, editors, maybe they’ll write in magazines or take a sudden turn in their career and become programmers. Because life is funny that way.
The one thing they all have in common and the one thing they all came there for is literature. That’s what they need to know.
Presentations and project management? Sure. Give them a whiff of it, why not? But they aren’t there for that. They can Google it later, when/if they need to do something with it. They can read the wiki article, or buy a book. But they haven’t come to you so you can teach them management.
I’m saying this as a person who hated her MA program because it said ‘British Cultural Studies’ and it decided to be an introduction into everything – including marketing, business communication, leadership. Some of the questions in an exam I had to take started with “You are the CEO of a multinational company” and I couldn’t help but wonder in what universe I’d ever be that. Add to it the course on opera and I think we were all set for an academic teaching disaster because they wanted us to have comprehensive knowledge and ‘be prepared for life’.
It ended up being neither what I wanted, nor what I needed. Mostly a waste of time. Don’t take this route, it can backfire easily.
From Twitter: “Wondering if the answer is to be open with the students, ask what they want. Each group might be different.” (Nicola Clark)
From Twitter: “I took my subject because I loved it, so I enjoyed being treated like a Proper Classics Scholar by my lecturers.” (Gem)
I’d guess for c80(?)% of your students their undergraduate degree is simply finishing school for the real world, which they are trying to get through as enjoyably/easily/interestingly (one or more of the above!) as possible.
My response to this is that we’ve got the system wrong for those students. These people would benefit far more from as US-College style liberal arts programme, giving them a wider substantive base to their (largely procedural) toolkit that undergraduate study develops.
By misselling to the 80%, you’re also likely hampering the 20% who really, really, want to be studying your subject. Your “literature scholars”.
The problem is, I think, that the choice in the (state-funded, UK) marketplace is not there, or, where there is the option, the “wider” degrees lack the prestige needed in the graduate marketplace. The market thinks it better to have acquired the procedural skills in a non-useful subject area at a top-10 university.
The exception that proves the rule? The wide range of options across a sort of liberal-arts base – and the prestigious course – that is PPE at Oxford. And, for better or for worse, those are the people who end up running the country!
English students should be treated as a room of three year scholars, if there is any need to polarise and choose one approach or the other. If English students fresh from a-levels feel that being teeated in this way isn’t going to do them much practical good once they start their working life (beyond the “degree? tick” which companies always look for) then maybe they should have chosen a different course with a more practical bent.
They should also think again. Even for those who truly dislike the course, and will burn their books and notes promptly on graduation, an English degree will hopefully have taught them skills that they may not even realise they have. I worked for a number of years in a project management type role before starting my degree. When I have been back to work each summer I realise that there are things that I am now better at (here professional pride compels me to state that I was quite proficient at these things previously) because I apply what I have learned in seminars and lectures. For any students wanting to learn skills specifically for the workplace there are placements, internships, and long summers to get temp jobs in.
Ultimately, although I’ll probably graduate and get another job in project management or similar, I know I’ll look at my time at university as a time when I went on hiatus in order to do something that I love. When deadlines get close and audit has come around again and i haven’t had a lunch break all week and the programming department aren’t playing ball, thinking about Old English poetry will be my happy place. And if during lectures and seminars I was treated as a PM in training then I wouldn’t be able to do this.