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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

But is it beautiful?

In the language of pandemic, the HSC Advanced Module B rubric says that students will develop 'detailed analytical and critical knowledge'; the Standard one threatens the development of an 'informed understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of a substantial literary text'.

Both make a good distinction between analysis and criticism. But what, really, is that distinction?

It used to be that literary analysis was the foundation of a broader literary criticism. In analysis , you popped the bonnet, named all the parts of the engine, considered the separate processes they performed, and only once you'd done this did you perform the critical business of deciding whether you were looking at a Porsche or a Nissan Micra - much less whether it suited you or not.

And then there's Rosemary Dobson's poetry

A lot of people don't like the name 'literary criticism'. They prefer 'literary theory' or 'literary analysis', because lit crit smells of the 1950s and that scene in Dead Poets Society where the class looks at J. Evans Pritchard's deadly bi-axis of Perfection and Importance. Robin Williams, being the coked-up, table-hopping English teacher we'd all like to be, tells them to rip it out of the textbook. Although I respect the Williams Teaching Method if not its body count, he might have been better to discuss the difference between analysis and criticism.

J. Evans Pritchard and coke. It's all the legless English teacher needs.

Analysis can - and often is - done by machines. We teach many of these lit-bots who crawl through the text, desperately looking for something they can skewer with a name from Hacks To Rhetorical Techniques. The difference, to lit-bots, between them and someone from James Ruse is purely numerical. James Ruse must have access to the master list of rhetorical techniques and subscriptions to

Analysis looks at a text and answers two questions:

1. What did that text just do?

2. How did it do it?

Criticism, though, is a wee bitty different. It asks those questions that quickly become a nightmare and make you afraid that conservative parents will write letters of complaint adducing the Letters of St Paul for support. These are questions like:

3. Is it a good thing that the text just did that?

4. Did I like it?

In other words, we could say that analysis covers the mechanics and criticism the aesthetics. Obviously, we hope - and the syllabus writers clearly hoped - that students will 'appreciate' the literature, but if they don't, they can at least learn to process it. Like a cow, with four stomachs, each churning away gaseously at some paragraph of Virginia Woolf.

Do we care if kids leave school conscious of their own aesthetic criteria? Do we really want to produce 68,000 Oscar Wildes? (Could Sydney cope with that?) We trade on the idea that you can teach students how something works and not require them to ask whether they liked it - or indeed whether they even know what they like and why?

If students question the value of aesthetics, just show them Timothée Chalamet

But look at last year's HSC exam questions. Really good answers would have drawn on both analysis of the text and a subjective, personal decision about whether the student had liked the text, and what their criteria for liking something was. The question form 'To what extent does this view align with your understanding of the text?' requires you to say what your understanding is. And it's difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to achieve an understanding without including an aesthetic evaluation of it.

With the emphasis on close reading, almost every student in the last forty years has gone to uni a fully fledged New Critic. It's so entrenched that most teachers now don't even see the difference between analysis and criticism. That there should be is a matter for argument - but students should be aware of the difference, and choose accordingly.

If you want to get spark the issue of aesthetics, ways to do it in Module B include:

  1. Look at the different endings to Great Expectations and ask which one they liked better, and why.

  2. Compare two performances of Hal's soliloquy from Henry IV, Part One.

  3. Listen to T.S. Eliot read 'Prufrock' and then listen to Tom Hiddleston do it (both on YouTube) and ask which one they prefer.

  4. Read the proposal scene in Emma - or lack of it. Why is this a better (or worse) way to present the event to which it's all been leading up?

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