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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

Teacher blog: When it's good to say it's bad

I’ve always maintained that, next to Singapore, Australia is probably the most socially-engineered country in the developed world. We love consensus here, even if it’s the Christmas-with-your-in-laws kind of consensus which lies mostly in the shutting-up and bearing it rather than genuine agreement.

So I’d put money on a good 8,360 of the 8,365 kiddies who wrote about T.S. Eliot in last year’s exam all agreeing heartily with the statement. In case it’s faded from your mind, it was this:

Literature cannot be appreciated without empathy and without acknowledging uncomfortable truths.

To what extent does this statement apply to your prescribed text?

It’s incredible! So many kids who actually loathed Eliot all decided that they were just thinking that literature couldn’t be appreciated without empathy and without acknowledge uncomfortable truths. And then the examiners went and asked that very same question. Astonishing or what?

Who else loves it when students say ‘Can you actually disagree with the question?’?

There’s so much wrong with this.

First, you can’t disagree with a question. You can refuse to answer it, or pick holes in the terms, but you can’t actually disagree with it. Just saying ‘can you disagree with the question’ shows a rather simple-minded attitude to questions that have been deliberately phrased to provoke more than a ‘Yes, yes – my God, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought about [insert text name here].’

Secondly, the idea that questions generate either agreement or disagreement is a bit sad. This is why the question is formed as a ‘to what extent’ rather than a ‘yes or no’. But year after year students barrel into the exam, blurt out ‘yes’ like an Egyptian slave escaping a whipping, and then duly produce their three pre-written paragraphs with shaky hands.

Cures for compulsive agreement

One of the problems is that students forget that they’re supposed to be forming a personal response to the texts. And that often begins with separating what you like about a text from what has been successful. For example:

Great Expectations: I like the narrative voice and many of the character descriptions. I like laughing at the comedy (having taught in an evangelical school, Mr Wopsle is very familiar). But the plot isn’t successful – it’s overplotted. It’s overplotted because it can’t decide what it wants to be. It would have been fine not to tie it all up at the end.

T.S. Eliot: I like Prufrock. It’s funny. You’re meant to laugh at it. I like a Modernist who can laugh at Modernism. But ‘The Hollow Men’ is a failed poem to me. It’s just an accretion of pseudo-mystical images which appeal to teenagers because they can make anything out of it. It’s the poetic equivalent of Led Zepplin album covers. Coherence isn’t necessary for some poems; communication is. Likewise ‘Preludes’ - one or two of the images are well-done, but as a whole the poem doesn’t get off the ground – it feels like something he threw together from scraps for his publisher (actually, I think he did).

Can your students distinguish what they like from what they believe has worked well in a piece of literature? And if so, can they explain their reasons - can they give their criteria?

Aside from the inevitable 20 or so boys from Sydney Grammar whose essays likely start with ‘Actually…’ and proceed to correct the examiner’s content knowledge, most Advanced candidates and certainly Extension 1 candidates should be reminded that disagreement, or partial disagreement is very welcome, shows judiciousness, and demonstrates a personal and critical response to the text.

An example

The key is in defining your terms, which is a basic exercise now ignored by most candidates. Look at the 2017 question:

Eliot’s poetry employs unique voices to privilege personal reflection over wider social commentary. That is its strength. That is its weakness.

To what extent does this statement align with your view of Eliot’s poetry?

To be honest, it doesn’t align much with my view of Eliot’s poetry. Reading it, my first reaction is:

  • Yes, it employs unique voices

  • Yes it involves personal reflection

  • No, it doesn’t privilege personal reflection over wider social commentary (whatever ‘privileging’ actually means in line-by-line practice)

  • No, social commentary isn’t really part of poetry’s remit – not Eliot’s poetry, anyway

  • Trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a poet based on their attitude to personal vs social commentary is missing the point of the poetry

So it only aligns with my view of Eliot’s poetry to a limited extent. And that's what I'd write in my essay.

Fomenting social unrest has got me relieved of several jobs, but it’d be nice to hear some intelligent disagreement with the examiners' august statements, and some confidence that mere disagreement won't be penalized.

Unless 10,000 kids in NSW really do feel that strongly about T.S. Eliot...

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