My entry of 6 June 2012, about the poor results of the quiz on the handbook Introduction to English Literature which first year students must take, offended, I know, many students. Two sent furious comments, criticising me for publicising students’ mistakes (even though I did so anonymously, nobody was ‘outed’). A girl was particularly angry. She told me off for not using more class time to train students for the quiz, since this exercise, she wrote, appears to be so very important for me.

Remembering her complaint, I warned my class this semester that a) I don’t care about the exercise, I care about their education; b) I do not use class time for this because studying the handbook is an autonomous activity which, well, they’re supposed to carry out on their own. I did explain in detail what the quiz would consist of, and offered a class tutorial (with practice) that few attended. I even proposed that we suppressed the quiz: all they had to do was promise me that they would study the handbook. No such promise was forthcoming, so, here we go again: they hate me for the massive cramming the quiz demands, and I am as usual hugely disappointed since many have failed to identify very prominent titles and authors of English Literature, and place them in their correct historical context.

Just consider this: even though the first weeks of the course focused on Modernism and included a short story by Virginia Woolf, few students have attributed her masterpiece To the Lighthouse to Woolf and she has been called Victorian by at least one very disoriented student… Let me insist on the obvious: there’s no way around studying if you’re a student, and that includes memorising. If we produce lists for you (we did offer anyway a period and author chart) this will not help you, as memorising is best approached by producing your own lists, as we teachers did as students and still do. Ask the students who scored above 30 points (out of 40) how they managed the feat.

Amazingly, this year’s quiz included some misidentifications also present last year. John, not Jane, Austen has been named again as the author of Sense and Sensibility, whereas JK Rowling’s masterpiece turns out to be again The Lord of the Rings. Wuthering Heights still causes much confusion: it’s the work of Emily Gemmë or Emilie Worten, not Emily Brontë. A student has called it a WWI poem. Mary Shelley (Mery Shelly…) is still alive, once more, though David Stroke happens to be the author of Frankenstein. Shakespeare (Sheakspeare, James not William) has become a Romantic (or Victorian) playwright. Salman Rushdie, mentioned in class a few times and whose review of The Remains of the Day I quoted from (and students were supposed to read) remains massively unknown.

If I sound sarcastic you misread me, I’m not laughing. I’m sad. This is very serious.

I was about to say that the errors are less blatant this year but this is irrelevant as I believe there were more blanks. Last year I wrote that I was worried above all by the students’ “inability to study in a systematic way”. I still am. I will stress, though, once more my main worry, what I called the truly scary factor: “that those approaching us lack the basic cultural capital that a student of English should possess (and indeed acquire in the first year).”
We are very much concerned that a majority of our students are below the required B2 English language entrance level, as placement tests reveal, and work hard to correct this situation. We don’t use, however, placement tests for Literature and Culture and I’m beginning to think that they’re very urgent. This would need careful, systematic planning for all the concerned courses and we simply lack the time and resources to embark on what is indeed a daunting task, but there MUST BE a minimum standard, an equivalent B2 for a general cultural background in English (and the native languages/cultures).

The quiz is very difficult to pass (at least the first part) precisely because students must learn the author’s names, titles and periods from scratch. And this is something we teachers do not understand. Those of us who teach now Literature took a degree in English because we wanted to be able to read in this language what we were alerady reading in translation – massively. Learning a language means learning a culture, and if you are interested in the language, how can you not be interested in the names and works of the individuals who have used it best? This is why we teach Literature – to reach the rich world that lies beyond the boring grammar exercises, to take students into the core of the language’s beauty. And this beauty comes indeed from any of the 20 major authors we ask you, students, to memorise, hoping that one day you will want to read their texts. That’s what I care for, not the quiz itself.

I’m bracing myself for the hate mail but, what can I do?, my job description includes being nasty whenever this is needed. I wish, though, I could stop being nasty for, generally speaking, I would not call myself nasty. And no, the solution for that is not eliminating the quiz, not as long as students do not promise to study hard on their own –which, by the way, we prefer to call ‘educate oneself autonomously’.

That would have me smiling all the time.

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