“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?