I’ve just completed one of the most enjoyable years of teaching in my career, as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo. One of my duties there has been to give an undergraduate survey course on 500 years of Scottish Literature – I got to teach it twice, once per semester. I don’t usually teach literature; usually I teach English language and linguistics, which I also enjoy, but this experience has been a special pleasure in many ways.
There is a perceived cultural shift between teachers of ‘language’ and ‘literature,’ based partly on the differing methodological assumptions of each discipline, and partly on mutual snobbery, but obviously that cultural divide blurs when you teach literature in a foreign language environment. It became evident over the two semesters that the ways of teaching language can be creatively applied to literary studies, and vice versa.
‘Why on earth would people in Brazil want to learn about Scottish Literature?’ This was my mother’s question when I told her what I would be doing this past year, and like most of her questions, it has a point. The students who signed up for my courses were a mixed bunch: they ranged from freshmen to students who had been attending USP for so long that they couldn’t actually remember which year they were in. Some were majoring in English, but a fair proportion was from other disciplines, either curious about Scotland, or just keen to practise their listening skills with a visiting native speaker. Few had much prior experience of the literatures of Scotland. So I had to figure out how to address the issue my mother had raised: what did I hope to achieve by the end of the course?
Well, first I wanted simply to introduce students to some interesting writers, some canonical (a few had already encountered a poem or two by Robert Burns in a poetry survey course, Walter Scott and RL Stevenson are well-studied at USP and I felt the students should know about other figures with an international reputation, like Muriel Spark. But I also wanted to introduce them to characters who might not be so well known here, like Henryson, Dunbar, Lindsay, the court poets of James VI, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Ramsay, Fergusson, John Galt, Margaret Oliphant, and a selection of contemporary figures like Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. I knew there would be huge gaps – the rich Gaelic tradition would only be referred to in passing, and I would not be able to cover figures of international importance historically, like James ‘Ossian’ MacPherson, the subject (I was later to discover) of a local graduate student’s PhD thesis. But I was keen to look at Hugh MacDiarmid, since one of my illustrious predecessors at USP was Kenneth Buthlay, who later taught me at Glasgow University. He actually wrote his fantastic little introduction to MacDiarmid’s poetry while here, and copies of it are one of the few texts on Scottish Literature available in USP library. And I wanted to look at Edwin Morgan’s connections with and translations of the avant garde Brazilian poets, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. In short, I wanted the students to read stuff – usually poems and short stories, but also two or three novellas like Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’
But I also wanted to tell a story. The survey was organised in a routine chronological fashion, but the title of the course, I discovered on arriving, was in fact ‘Non Hegemonic Literatures in English’, a convenient umbrella title that allowed local and guest lecturers to deliver courses in (usually) African, Caribbean, Indian, or Irish literatures. In conversation, I figured out that these courses fall into a post-colonial template of resistance to British imperialism, nationalist affirmation, and globalized self-questioning. Scotland doesn’t quite fit that template, but on reflection I had a possible narrative: we would begin before the Treaty of Union with a ‘pre-colonial’ phase in the 16th century; we would consider the consequences of the Union in the 18th century; and then we would look at ways in which Scotland accommodated itself to Unionism in the 19th century and then began to question it in the 20th. In a way, part of the course reversed the ‘non-hegemonic’ expectations of the course description, since during the 17th century the ‘hegemons’ were actually Scottish members of the Stuart dynasty, who ruled over countries not their own – including England. Anyway, if the students followed the course attentively, they would at least have a better understanding of the debate leading to the independence referendum that is scheduled for September 2014.
The first semester went well enough – I enjoyed it and the feedback from students was generally positive. Yet over the mid-semester break, I was slightly dissatisfied. From the students’ assessments (a mid-semester close reading and an end-of-semester theoretical reflection) I wasn’t really sure if I had addressed my concerns – I wasn’t really sure that the students were reading as much as I wanted them to (not an uncommon concern!) and I wasn’t happy that the assessment procedure actually challenged the students very much. They wrote good-to-middling academic essays, picking away at a poem or a novel and responding to some of the theoretical issues in usually a fairly superficial way. In particular, it struck me that the written English of the students was not likely to improve if I only asked them to write a longish essay twice per semester.
After some stimulating conversations with a graduate student who had taken a more advanced seminar with me, I decided to do two things: first, I decided to add short, weekly written tasks as part of the assessment process. These would not be your standard academic essay, but they would ask students to respond to the course reading in more creative and unusual ways. And second, I would ask students to contribute to a ‘Digital Companion’ – which we eventually imagined as a website that covers part of the course (1500-1900, i.e. before copyright gets difficult) and which features content based on my lectures, the tasks I set the students before each session, and recordings of the students giving model responses.
These decisions revolutionised the second semester. I asked the students to do ten of a possible fourteen weekly tasks; by simply reading the course texts and uploading a short (c. 200-word) response, they could get 30% of the course grade. I asked them to spend no more than an hour per week doing this – though I later learned that some of the more assiduous were spending much longer. Unsurprisingly, I immediately lost a few students who were unwilling to commit to a regular regime of coursework. But those who stayed benefited a lot. And they began to demonstrate a very high degree of imaginative interaction with the materials.
I tried to vary the tasks as much as possible. The students were asked to update two stanzas of Henryson’s ‘Testament of Cresseid’ into modern English and then we compared their versions with those of Seamus Heaney and the Canadian poet, Fred Cogswell. The students imagined how they would stage a scene from ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ and then watched a scene from the recent Edinburgh production online. They were asked to write a sonnet, using the ‘reulis and cautelis’ of James VI, and they devised 4 or 5 characteristics of their own ‘universal language’ in response to Thomas Urquhart’s. Some wrote a short ballad using traditional ballad formulae and some Scots words, culled from the Dictionary of the Scots Language online. They wrote love letters in the style of Burns and Clarinda. They provided pleas for or against clemency to the judge at the end of Walter Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers’.
In one of my favourite tasks, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, they turned Galt’s ‘The Annals of the Parish’ into a series of tweets – and I began to realise the power of hashtags in bringing out the themes underlying an extended piece of fiction. They were forced to confront issues of narrative reliability by attempting to dramatize ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and they psycho-analysed the disturbed narrator of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, ‘The Library Window’. They translated some Scots-rich paragraphs of a kailyard novel into Portuguese, and wrote down a think-aloud protocol of their encounter with one of MacDiarmid’s early lyrics. They turned a scene from ‘They Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ into a film script and then compared it with the Ronald Neame version on YouTube. And to finish off, they devised their own concrete poems, before looking at how Edwin Morgan translated some of the de Campos brothers’ verbo-visual texts. They worked incredibly hard.
A number of things emerged. First, I became confident that the students were reading the set texts with a greater degree of engagement than before. Some, naturally, invested the tasks with a greater degree of enthusiasm and engagement – and talent – than others. But each week I was surprised by a thoughtful or reflective or just downright witty response from a different student. People responded in different ways to the different tasks. Secondly, for the substantial proportion of students who regularly submitted their weekly assignment, the level of their written English slowly improved. There was still quite a range of written competence by the end of the course, but there was clear improvement. And finally, the understanding displayed in the close reading and theoretical essay was deeper.
Progress on the ‘digital companion’ was slower, but by the end of the semester a small group of keen volunteers was ready to make recordings of some of the course readings, and of model responses to the weekly tasks. We begged and borrowed classrooms and equipment to make some rudimentary video-clips. As of yesterday, we have all the material we need to complete the course companion, but there is a fair amount of editing and uploading to be done before the course goes public on WordPress (at http://scottishliterature.wordpress.com) – we are aiming for Burns Night, on 25th January 2014. A sneak preview of one of the video clips is given at the end of this blog.
When it does appear, I hope that the website will encourage others to deliver similar courses on Scottish Literature elsewhere. But even if it doesn’t, it will serve me as a reminder of one of the happiest teaching experiences I’ve ever had. My grateful thanks go to all who made it so.