Tuesday, 5 February 2013

For Art's Sake!

Critically assess the author's use of metaphor and foreshadowing in Chapter Twelve, ensuring to fulfill all Assessment Objectives. Due date: this time next week.

This, my friends, is the stuff of nightmares.

I'll make no secret of my undying loathing of all things Assessment Objective related in English Literature classes. I'll tolerate them in the Sciences, Economics, Maths, and at a push I might even make room for them in History or Theology.

But English Literature?

Kill me with a stick and set me on a low heat to simmer for the rest of eternity.

Call me a raving Romantic, but I don't believe literature, or poetry, or any form of creative writing should have to fulfill criteria. I can see why they exist - the plight of those overworked exam invivilators and markers of papers is not beyond my comprehension, for all I loathe their profession - and I can also see why, to some extent their invention was inevitable. Humans love to compete, and if any author can laud their work as better than another's because of the inclusion of X, Y and Epsilon, then most likely they will take the chance at some stage.

Nevertheless . . . who, in the name of Chaucer's baggy Y-fronts, thought it was a clever idea to make students spend their lives shoving works of literature through formulaic loopholes that will, most likely, lead to them loathing the text, the lesson, and possibly even the prospect of literature itself?

During my application for Oxford this year - unsuccessfully, just in case any of you were wondering - I spent a lot of time talking to my academic tutor, an Oxford graduate himself, about this problem. He agrees with me; criteriam and assessment objectives aren't bad in themselves, but unless they are balanced out by discussion and enjoyment of the text in its own right, outside of syllabus guidelines, then they're not getting what they should do. 

And what should they get? A chance to make up their own minds over whether or not a text has any value. For themselves.

It's all very well telling someone that James Joyce's Ulysses is one of the greatest works of the 20th Century, but believee it unless they do it themselves.

Words cannot express my sadness over the disgust most of my classmates felt for Shakespeare's Othello last year. They hated it because of how pedantic and belittling the criteria were - unless we used certain words, certain connecting phrases, and every other sentence was a regurgitated reinstatement of the importance of the essay's title, we were getting C grades or worse.

Because of this, we skipped nearly two full Acts of the play, had no understanding of most of its underlying themes and concepts, and some of the class has even lost the plot entirely.

I don't mean this as a critique of the education system at its purest sense. I mean it as a critique of the fact that such a wonderful, evocative, emotional story can be treated in such a way that it loses everything that makes it great. 

A story is worth more than the author's use of complex metaphor and treatment of recurring themes.

However, I do not mean to sound like a militant liberal hippie-beast. All I am saying is that, sometimes, amidst all the desire for top marks, high grades, and all the trappings that go with it, the other, less easily categorised parts of literature can get lost in the mix.

Sometimes, we need to read something for enjoyment. For appreciation of its context, its treatment of themes, its originality. We need to appreciate it for its it-ness.

We need to think of why we think a novel, a poem, or a play is important and interesting to us.

Art, for art's sake.

. . . the English department really should have known better than to let me choose a coursework essay on the reasons for the popularity and survival of Shakespeare's sonnets, shouldn't they?

~ Charley R


  1. *snickers*

    Indeed - wouldn't it be fun if instead of hunting out metephores and trying to find the theme the teacher wanted you to find (with hout said teacher giving any sort of hints) we went back to the elementary school method of book reports, asking people to spell out why or why not they didn't liek the book, and the grade them based upon tehir use of words and the clarity of their structure as weill as their ability to summarize the tale without giving away any spoilers?

    Imagine how many more informative book reviews there might be on Amazon if this was a skill we learned from age 10?

    Ahhhh... I think I need a portal into that world now. :}

    1. I'd jump through it head first and never look back.

      That said, I do think the opinions of critics etc are useful for comparison and ideas, and we need to know what we're looking for, but basing EVERYTHING around being pernickety about languge and cross-comparison . . . drives me mad.

  2. This is such a tragic...and common thing in our world right now. No one appreciates anything for its real value anymore. Makes me sick and sad... I'm glad you have an appreciation for it and can see it too!!!! :D

    1. Huzzah, indeed! And thank YOU for stopping by to put your two cents in!

  3. Bravo! (Brava?)

    Sometimes it's kind of fun to analyze literature, but it's always more fun when it's something you want to do. When YOU notice the metaphors, rather than having to madly hunt through the book so you can write an essay about them.

    I hope that someday when I'm an author, no one will educationally nitpick about my books. O_o

    1. Exactly! Enforced studying around meaningless criteria that might not even match up to the book = BAD. Doing your own studying = GOOD FUNTIMES YAY!

      Likewise. I might write a foreword in all of mine saying "nitpick at your peril - I will know if you start looking at something I didn't do!"

  4. Well said! And I was wondering about your Oxford-ish-ness... :( Trying somewhere else now?

    I have to admit, I appreciate things the most when I choose to find them and learn about them. When I was a tiny tyke I had an infatuation over maps. I learnt how to draw them and name the countries...because I was interested! If it had been for school, yike, let's just say I'd be asking where Mozambique and Luxembourg are.

    1. I've got three other offers, two of which are far too hard to choose between right now. Ah well - it was always a lottery with Oxford, what with their number of applicants et al. *sigh* Never mind.

      Exactly, the proof is there in your proverbial pudding! Doing it yourself, out of your own interest, is far better than being MADE to do it.

  5. Most of my class disliked Hamlet, too -- the character more than the play. Which was bad because I was sitting there going BUT HAMLET IS ME I AM HAMLET and then feeling like they must hate me as well. Sigh...

    I hate criteria. But, not long now and then there are NO MORE CRITERIA EVER.

  6. I so completely agree with you I think we should get married! (Except, we shouldn't. That would be weird on MANY levels. But you get what I'm saying.) Some people claim that we shouldn't do essays or anything on the stuff we read and say that it saps all the enjoyment from it, but I don't agree with that - I find that I sometimes enjoy things more when we've looked into them cause you get more from them. HOWEVER, all these jumping-through-hoops criteria-filling is ridiculous and stupid - teachers say things like, "if you've not followed the TcEAR formula I'll have to mark you down!" (I don't know if you're familiar with this devil paragraph formula - Topic sentence Contextualise Evidence Analysis Refer to the question, they shove it down our throats) and I say "shut up! I've written a good essay, isn't that what matters?!" Fortunately I'm now old enough that they don't mind any more, but when I was 11 and being taught the craft of essay-writing it was very bad indeed.
    To be honest I think the whole thing is linked to critics' desire to read things into texts when they're not there at all. The other day my English teacher said, "Catherine carries a handbag; she controls her own destiny." And I thought, Not really, Miss. I don't think that's what the author meant...

    Sorry for the insanely long comment! :L