Nicholas Roeg’s ethereal 1971 masterpiece Walkabout offers a strangely compelling (and compellingly strange) illustration of the stark contrast between our neurotic modernity and the brutal grandeur at the back of world. 8/10
Archive for May 20th, 2008
Posted by Nick Milne on May 20, 2008
Vernunft at The New Skeptic has posted something of an angry cry-from-the-heart directed at the philosophy department of his alma mater, wherein, he writes, the teaching of formal logic is a thing of the past and the vagaries of identity politics have become enshrined as ends of study rather than as means. The inefficacy of a program such as he describes should be clear, particularly with regard to the insane mandate whereby only one survey course is actually required.
Western’s English department is afflicted with one or two of the same problems, though its relatively large size serves as an effective guarantee against lacking the staff to teach basic and foundational courses. Even in terms of identity politics it is not nearly so bad as it could be. There are certainly professors and students who specialize in such things to an excessive degree, but they have numerous virtues of their own, and are in any event counterbalanced by those with a more traditional academic outlook. The department’s historical status as a leading center for the study of Milton, the Romantics and the history of Canadian Literature has been well-earned, and good work continues there in all of these areas and more.
The English BA being offered takes a number of forms, and the new degree structure requires a certain breadth even of those students with very narrow interests. For example, students must take at least one full credit worth of courses in both social science and science proper to be eligible to graduate. On the one hand this is good, forcing students outside of a comfortable box and at least nominally preserving the interdisciplinarity that is at the heart of the quest for truth (which is, after all, the highest calling of the academy). On the other and more practical hand, however, it is something of a fiasco. A due recognition of the mindset of most modern students has occasioned the creation of courses both useless and simple the better to let students from other faculties earn those extraneous credits with a minimum of fuss and effort. My interest in history saw me earn the social sciences credit several times over, but for science I foolishly turned to a Physics course designed for arts students, wherein the elemental bases of the physical world were explained without recourse to mathematics and, barring effort in the opposite direction, it seemed largely impossible to fail.
The degree to which courses of this kind really serve students well is questionable, though I don’t doubt that the intention is good enough. For a mandated foray into alien material to really be meaningful, it must be more substantial than what is currently required. It should at least recognize the reality that, as noted above, taking one survey course in a certain topic will not really afford the student an accurate view of what’s going on there. As Vernunft notes, doing so places a student in the position of being familiar with philosophy from Thales to Augustine while being ignorant of anything that came after, or being superficially well-versed in Hegel and Kant without any idea of why they matter in light of what came before them.
The solution – requiring two credits each in both the social sciences and the regular sciences rather than one – sounds trite and too simple, but I think it’s something that might be worth considering, at least in Western’s case. Our English BA is good, but there are improvements that might be made. Other ideas include:
- More seminar courses for undergraduates. That is, many more for fourth-years, and design some for third-years as well. The sooner we can get students away from the sit-down/turn-off approach to academics, the better.
- End the practice of having second-, third-, and fourth-years enrolled in the same 200-level course. These students are not on the same academic level at all, and yet the course must necessarily be designed to accomodate the lowest end of the curve – students who have only just ceased to be freshmen.
- A mandatory first-year course on Form, encompassing the different styles of both prose and poetry. I do not recommend this simply out of some stodgy, retrograde fetish for formal literature (though I do have that), but rather because one must understand these things if one is to make any headway at all in the study of English literature. This is not to say that one may not read or write experimental prose or free-verse poetry, however; it is simply that these things can only be accomplished with success if one is first aware of what is not being done. That is, you have to actually know what you’re doing before you can start doing it in a new way. Anyway, get students thinking about different types of literature before they begin studying texts in their own right.
With that in mind, actually, it seems to me that a complete overhaul of the first year of an English BA might be worthwhile (for those who are only doing English, anyway; certain concessions must be made for those doing a double major or a major and a minor). Ideally I would see the whole first year go by without the students trying to study any particular text in depth. They would rather spend the year learning about the foundational elements of literature and the history of same before progressing in the second year to actual books. Courses would include:
- Form in prose and poetry, as noted above.
- The history of storytelling, from the oral epic to the latest fads. This, too, is another sort of formal consideration that demands far more attention than it gets, particularly with regard to what the printing press hath wrought.
- The literature and philosophy of the Bible. I say this not as some sort of proselytizing tactic, but rather in deference to the supreme and central importance of the Bible to the history of western literature. Whatever its status as holy scripture, it is difficult to argue that further studies in English could be anything but improved by a familiarity with this most significant and oft-alluded-to of texts. In a graduate seminar I was in last year, a professor (who will be kept anonymous) declared that the sight before his eyes – that is, a roomful of apparently brilliant grad students of whom only one or two were able to say anything about the prophet Jeremiah – was one that should be unthinkable rather than the standard. And yet, there it was: the point towards which the author of the (entirely modern) text under discussion was striving was simply lost on almost everyone in the room.
The disregard for foundational texts is devastating. I know an otherwise intelligent student who is trying to study James Joyce’s Ulysses without ever having read The Odyssey. I have seen with my own eyes a seminar course devoted to Paradise Lost populated by students who had largely never read Genesis, and who lacked almost to a man any inclination to ever do so. What do think they’re really getting out of it?
Anyway, we have the time and the manpower; we lack only the will to try new things. I certainly won’t be around to see such ideas implemented (if they ever would be), but I should like to be able to to look upon my own future graduate students with a Western BA with confidence rather than concern.
Posted by Nick Milne on May 20, 2008
The move is now more or less complete. I’ll be transferring some of the more substantial material over from the old blog in the form of pages in the coming days, and new posting will begin here as of now. I’ll keep it to two or three posts per day, for the time being, until I get back into the habit of things, but with luck I’ll be able to develop a successful posting doctrine whereby a I can finally get back to writing about as quickly as I can think again. This is not always prudent, naturally, but it’s certainly damned useful.
Anyway, my focus here will be much the same as at the old blog, though I’m trying to bring art, culture and religion into the foreground, with a pleasant smattering of esoterica to add variety. There will be lots of media reviews and commentary; literary discussion will cover all manner of things, from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena to Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson and much that lies between.
I should also add that I value comments, whether in slavish agreement with my ideas or standing thereagainst in furious opposition. Qualitative comments about layout, format and whatnot will also be appreciated at this early juncture, as there will no doubt be a number of kinks to be worked out before this blog is up to the sort of snuff I’d expect of it.
Tell your friends.