Yes, I’m always complaining, I know. I wish I could say that all the first-year students that took the English Literature quiz last Thursday passed it with flying colours. The truth is, mark this, that only 16 out of 59 managed to score at least 50 points (out of 100).
What was the quiz about? Based on our handbook, Introduction to English Literature, it required students to identify the author for each entry in a list of 50 titles and also to assign to him/her to a period or school that had to be chosen from a closed list. It was devised as an excuse for students to read the handbook, produce a basic chronological scheme for all of Modern English Literature and learn to identify as many authors as possible, all of this in preparation for the rest of the Literature subjects in the degree. Instead, I very much fear that many students assumed that the quiz was a simple, terribly old-fashioned memoristic exercise. Perhaps, some just highlighted authors and titles on the page and never read the rest of the handbook?
I know that the quiz was not too easy but the case is that most students did very poorly despite our making the period list available in advance, and despite warnings from the first day of the course that students should revise for it little by little (at least 16 were listening…). 10 students scored less than 20 points and to me this amounts to openly declaring they hadn’t bothered to study at all (or had they studied with the wrongest possible method? What could this be?). Beyond these cases what truly puzzles me is how two poems read and commented on in class a few days before the quiz remained unidentified in most cases. And get this: Shakespeare was identified as the author of Ulysses at least twice, whereas King Lear remained authorless also at least twice. In one case the student did identify Shakespeare as this play’s author but placed good old Will squarely in the early 20th century. Gloriously, a student named Jules Verne as the author of The War of the Worlds not even realising this was an English Literature quiz (or did she think Verne was English?). Another managed to fill in the complete exam but scored only 7 points out of 100, practically a statistical impossibility.
These are students who have chosen to take a degree in English Studies, whether combined with another language or not. My guess is that for many the fact that they need to take Literature subjects comes as a nasty surprise. For some very odd reason, many of our students claim to be interested in the language but appear not to be interested in the culture that generates it. The quiz results show that they lack the capacity to soak up information, which is not just the only way to accumulate cultural capital but also to progress in all professions. Fancy a doctor scoring low in a quiz about the location of bones, muscles and organs in the body! Aaaahhhh, how scary!
My own memory is beginning to fail me and I catch myself making mistakes and forgetting names or titles. I blame Google (or, rather my bad habit of relying on it to check forgotten things) and I try to compensate by keeping lists of what I read and see (I mean films and plays). It’s funny: first I made lists to learn, now I make them to remember. The point is, however, that I have spent my whole academic life since the age of 18 making lists, and I am sure they will stay with me until the day I die. Sometimes I only manage to retain absolute garbage (who cares if Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven or cut her wrists?) but without the sedimentation left by all those lists I don’t think I would be able to teach. Or read, or understand the world I live in. I don’t know any other shortcut to feed my brain. No input, no output.
You might think that knowing that Charles Dickens wrote The Old Curiosity Shop has no use except perhaps winning in a TV quiz show (not many of them are that sophisticated any more…). Yet knowing which 50 authors wrote certain 50 titles means you do know something substantial about English Literature: this is your basic map to guide you in a journey which is exciting and rewarding.
The question for me in the end is whether you really want to be here, at the starting point and with me as your guide. Refusing to learn where we’re going is, for me, like travelling to Egypt ignoring all about the pyramids – it can be done, but what’s the point?