Recently, I ran my final English Extension seminar of the year. Leading on from the critical theory discussions we’d been having in class about the notion of literary value, I decided to see what the students thought of the business of studying contemporary fiction. Contemporary fiction is part and parcel of the AQA B A2 English Literature course, but how would students respond to the questions about what we ‘do’ with current texts? How would they view their own study of contemporary texts? The title of the session was ‘An academic or a geek? A discussion about contemporary textual practice’. Seven AS English Literature students attended. I asked them to read a short extract from Robert Eaglestone’s ‘Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto’ where the question about academics and geeks was posed, and then we moved on to ask some questions about studying contemporary fiction.
I was really impressed with how they came to identify some of the central issues that arise when thinking about this sort of practice. We started with the academic/geek distinction, an idea that Eaglestone identifies as about “knowledge inside and outside the academy”. How would students distinguish between the “profession” of the English Literature academic and the geek, where the latter “may know as much (or more) or have read as much (or more)” than the former? One student –who proudly called themselves a Game of Thrones nerd – suggested that geeks might have similar subject knowledge to academics “but do something different” with the text. “It’s more personal, they’re emotionally involved with the characters… the aim of what they do with the text is different”. In response, another student gave this perspective on the academic: “the academic has devoted their life to the study of this text. It’s a question of commitment… a geek is only a geek sometimes, they can pick and choose”. A further contribution summed it up with the idea that perhaps “all academics are geeks, but not all geeks are academics”. Students felt academic was clearly a prestige term, but that there were other important considerations here, including the notion of who listens to the outputs from these different kinds of specialists. Certainly students felt that they read more general online publications about texts than academic critique – blogs, social networking sites – and that “academics write for other academics”. This wasn’t seen as an entirely negative statement. Students felt that the advantage the academic has is access to other extremely specialised perspectives. We introduced the idea of peer review as an important way to sustain the quality of discussion, something which might be more varied in online communities outside the academy.
This led us on to the discussion of academic texts and journals. The consensus was that academic texts were “intimidating” and sometimes “dull”. Students felt that their A-lvl discussion – along with literary articles they might read as part of it – was more accessible than academic journal articles. “I’m not sure how to go about reading an academic paper” said one student “it’s not something that we get taught explicitly, and we’re not exposed to it as much at this level, apart from to think about ‘alternative perspectives’”. Others said that if there was a “stripping aware of jargon” they might find academic texts more accessible.
I then asked them to consider what we mean by the word “contemporary” when it comes to studying fiction, and whether there was value in thinking about studying texts written now. Each student gave different definitions of what they felt it should refer to. Some students focused on contemporary as defined by audience – “who is reading it now and what are they saying about it”. Another student focused on the idea of watershed historical events – when asked whether we had gone beyond a ‘post-war’ period, they responded “I think we are kind of still in the ‘post-war’ period. Certainly it was really important but I think it might not have as much of an impact now. There are other big influential events, such as 9/11.” Others students defined the contemporary as being issues led, suggesting fiction dealing with feminism or technological networks would be important for this kind of study. One student response acknowledged some of the inherent problems with studying the contemporary – “it’s such a broad topic, with texts from all over the world and different genres being part of it. To critique the contemporary needs a certain way of thinking.” No-one could really agree on a time-frame for what constituted the contemporary, with some saying that texts not from the recent past might still provide important perspectives on contemporary issues, and so could be considered valid for inclusion in this kind of critical archive.
Tellingly, as we moved on to think about specific themes in these texts, it was said that fiction now was about “trying to look forward… it emphasises a kind of ‘not knowing’ about society”. While we ranged around, the students said that obviously their status as the millennial generation influenced their perspective on what issues were important. On looking at extracts from Jenni Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one student later commented that they showed “a fascination with an apocalyptic vision of the world…[that] the way we lead our lives today is driving us further away from what it means to live a ‘purposeful’ life […] it is possible that in another hundred years or so, our now contemporary texts will be seen as nihilistic.”
It was extremely exciting to hear students thinking critically about these sorts of issues. Certainly it raises ideas about how students think about academic writing and about the worth of studying current texts. I’ve always tried to expose classes to different academic sources, whichever text is in the frame for study, but the session made me think that we need more signposting around academic criticism at A-lvl. Perhaps teachers need to directly address some of the prejudices students have about what it means to write about English Literature in a way which is valid, intelligible and important.
With thanks to the following students from Central Sussex College:
Eaglestone, R. ‘Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto’, Textual Practice, Vol. 27, No. 7, 2013, p. 1089-1101