Language and Literature: A symbiotic relationship Teaching language throughliterature: Problems and Principles (Part 5) [Archives:2003/648/Education]

July 7 2003

Dr. Damodar Thakur
Professor and Chairman
Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Sana'a

Summary of Part 4

Literature courses can be more productive if they encourage the students' response on the basis of their in-depth study of the text. Accordingly, teaching practices are to cease being transmissive and be geared towards stimulating the healthy habits of wide and intensive study of the texts. The teacher, in his new role, has to stop being a barrier to students' independent understanding and appreciation of literary text, and help them to enhance their linguistic abilities. Any future direction of teaching literature in Yemen and the rest of the third world countries is to take into account ways of resuscitating the learners' competence in the foreign language and revitalizing their finer sensibility.

How shall we get there?
The only method that can achieve the twin goals stated above is the method of reading judiciously selected texts widely and in depth. The job of a teacher of literature is not to teach but to create in the learner a healthy and assimilative passion for reading. His job is not to quench students' thirst but to create and enhance it, to create and develop in his students a desire to read and read and read and read on. The teacher of literature in the third world has to abandon his traditionally established transmissive role and has to adopt the role of an enabler guiding and inspiring the students. As an enabler, his role should be (i) to select, in view of his experience of reading and enjoying literature, the right kind of reading materials for his students, (ii) to suggest the sequence in which those materials can most profitably be read, (iii) to provide to the students the kind of historical and cultural information which will eliminate the chances of their misreading the texts, (iv) to organize students' reading in such a way that the sense of enjoyment that they get out of reading is maximally enhanced and to intervene creatively, if at all, only to ensure that the emotive and imaginative enrichment arising out of their direct contact with the text is maximized, (v) to ensure that the program for the reading of literature is not surreptitiously replaced by the study of literature and that the course is not spoilt by being over-academized, and (iv) to ensure that the students engage in an ongoing relation with works of literature and that their reading does not terminate with the final examination.

How shall we know that we have arrived?
What is taught in a course depends not only on the stated and unstated objectives of the course but also on the typology of the test expected at the end of the course. The tradition in Yemen, as perhaps in most universities in the third world, is to give five or six essay type questions and ask the students to answer any two or three of them. These essay type questions generally test students' knowledge about literature and not their knowledge of literature and can be answered best not on the basis of one's in-depth and in-width study of literary texts but on the students' capacity to exactly recall and reproduce what the teacher said in the class. Giving a multiple-choice objective type test at the end of a course in literature is considered to be an act of sacrilege. In my view, the following guidelines should be kept in mind when designing tests at the end of a course in literature.

(i) The test should focus on the language of the text more than on any other aspect of the text. These language questions should include questions on the rhetorical structure of the text.
(ii) Questions seeking extrinsic information about the text, i.e., questions about the historical and cultural background of the text, should be minimized and, if possible, to be completely eliminated so that the test is a test of students' knowledge of literature and not a test of their knowledge about literature.
(iii) Instead of asking a small number of questions requiring long answers, we should ask a larger number of questions requiring short answers. The questions should be from all over the text and should be so framed as to test reliably whether students have really made an in-depth study of the text(s).
(iv) Objective questions like multiple-choice testing items are a very effective device for testing how intensively and with how much attention to significant details a student has read the text. These low-order questions should be oriented in such a way that they can effectively retrieve factual information about the text but do not spoil the students' enjoyment of the text. But as low-order testing items of an objective type cannot always test accurately the extent to which a student can organize and structure his literary competence arising out of his reading the text with a sense of enjoyment, the test at the end of a course in literature should be a judicious balance of integrative and discrete-point items. The proportion of these two types of questions should depend on the students' level of attainment. The lower the level of their attainment, the larger should be the proportion of discrete point testing items. For weak students in large classes, it may be necessary to have only multiple-choice testing items spread over the entire text.

By way of concluding, I would like to say that it would be wrong to abandon the teaching of English literature on the ground that what we need is the English language and not the literature in that language. As has been pointed earlier, the teaching of literature can effectively reinforce the teaching of grammar. It can supplement the grammarian's effort to teach the language and also his effort to teach about the language. But literature starts where grammar ends in the sense that grammar can teach only correctness, and correctness, though necessary, is not enough. Vitality and energy in the use of language can come only out of a creative and assimilative exposure to the beauty and vigor of literature. What we need to do is not to remove English literature from our curriculum but to re-orient its teaching in such a way that the twin objectives of teaching literature as mentioned above are abundantly achieve. David Diaches (1970) claims that in literature one can achieve “the fullest possible awareness of human relevance.” Relevance indeed is the key-word to be emphasized in this context. Life is a journey from irrelevance to relevance, from meaninglessness to meaning. In this journey of life, the teaching of literature, of English literature in our case, should be so organized as to be maximally relevant to our needs, i.e., our need to be able to express ourselves with elegance and vitality and our need for that emotive and ideational enrichment which is a pre-requisite for a moving and elevating use of language.