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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

New times, new text types

Like most pessimists, I perk up in times of despair. There's endless opportunities to say I told you so, and as standards become forgivingly low you can feel like a star even on your worst days.

But seriously - the whole lockdown lunacy will turn out to be a good thing, with results felt in every area of life including literature and the teaching of it.

'System-breaking' events show us where the social and cultural deadwood lies and how we can do things in new and better ways.

After every pandemic things have fundamentally changed.

After the Black Death of 1348, the Renaissance happened.

After the Great Plague of 1666, the City of London was reborn thanks largely to the Royal Society, which arguably gave us the modern world.

After the Spanish Flu, the Roaring 20s powered into the world.

While they're annoying, depressing, and stressful, 'system-breaking' events show us where the social and cultural deadwood lies and how we can do things in new and better ways. If literature primarily reflects life, then the need to be more flexible, resilient, to focus on content rather than form, and to be creative in 'novel' situations (if you'll pardon the pun) should transfer to literature. Not just the work that students study, but the works that they write.

My personal wishlist for post-pandemic English would include:

  • A separation between literary criticism and literacy use so that kids can engage a bit more authentically with texts that matter to them

  • Students devising their own text-forms for response to a text, and justifying their creation of this form

  • Students reading from a longlist of approved texts rather than a single set text

  • Greater crossover with writing in other subjects so that students can write intelligently about ideas, not just literary techniques, and produce bigger works that draw on learning and expression from multiple subjects

For now, the key to much of this is the discursive mode which students can use in The Craft of Writing module. It's a fantastic chance, but one which daunts a lot of students (and teachers) because discursiveness is a mode, not a type. It's a mood, a complexion, a personality - it's a saunter, it's taking the long way round to the point. It can't be reduced to a list of techniques. The discursive mood needs things that our current curriculum thrashes out of students (who're very willing to let it go, too, with the 'what's the bare minimum I need to say to get through this?' attitude).

Discursiveness needs an opinion to start with; an ability to acknowledge, within the text and using the personal voice, that this matter is relative; it needs a big enough body of knowledge (or opinions) to fill the digressions which often characterise discursiveness, and it needs discipline and self-awareness to inform the writer about when to stop.

I really think that the discursive mode could be the bridge which takes students from the way things are done now to whatever the future has, after the madness of COVID-19 is over. The 'time out' that is being imposed slowly but surely on most areas of life at the moment could provide ample time to think about how to achieve it.

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