Literature in the University Curriculum of the Education Faculties in Yemen (Part 1) [Archives:2003/651/Education]

July 17 2003

By Dr Ayid Sharyan
Department of English,
Faculty of Education, Sana'a University
[email protected]

This is in response to the article The Importance of Teaching English Literature in Schools by Mohammed Aziem Al-Bashir in Yemen Times 10 July, 2003, where he tries to argue that literature is language. This response shows that Yemen Times has been a forum for a wide readership to share ideas on several pertinent issues facing the academic community and the country at large in Yemen.
The Importance of Teaching English Literature in Schools came from not a pen-and-theoretician in his ivory tower. In fact I share Al-Bashir's ideas in toto, and agree with him. As a teacher of literature at the University of Sana'a I present my perceptions about the English literature teaching scenario at the tertiary level.
I will begin by referring to four authentic discussions regarding teaching literature in Yemen at the university level. Last week I was one of a team working on revising the content of the syllabus for the Department of English, at the University of Science and Technology. Some language teachers in the meeting seemed to believe that literature courses should be substantially cut down in view of the perceived needs of students in the future. Some questioned the validity of literature in learning the language. Their logic is that students need to study skill courses (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and this will make students better users of English. In addition to this, students, according to their belief, need to study some courses in linguistics (say phonology, phonetics, contrastive analysis, transformational, generative grammar, human and animal communication, and the list goes on). This view is not limited to this particular situation. In Aden University, the second example, there has been a lot of discussion and workshops regarding the revisions of courses at the Department of English, particularly the literature course. The assumption is that the literature component should be reduced. The third example is from Sana'a University. Some time ago there was some kind reshuffling of the literature courses at the Department of English, Faculty of Education, Sana'a. Suggestions were put forth that modern literary texts should be taught at lower levels for the simplicity of language. Courses that contain archaic language demanding more conceptual and linguistic knowledge are to be taught at advanced level in BA program. Later I made some kind of revisions for the content of these courses and started to implement these ideas in a graded systematic way in the series (English Literature Textbooks Series) referred to by Al-Bashir in his article last week. The fourth example is from the MA Program at the Department of English, Faculty of Education, Sana'a again. There was a proposal to include some literary courses in the program. The idea presented by literature teachers at the department was not so much welcomed by the language teachers, reflecting the same prototypical thinking that literature is not going to help the target students since they belong to Faculty of Education.
For a while I thought that these people who held views against literature are right. I was trying to put myself in their place and see the matter from their point of view. Perhaps because of the industrial and business orientation and in an age of consumerism things are seen from the perspective of supply and demand. The graduates who master English language skills according to the recipe mentioned above would be better speakers of English and will be accepted in the market. To me education is an investment. It is not a luxury. We need to produce high quality products from our departments of English that can be accepted both locally and internationally. I thought whatever serves my students' needs and enables them to have strong command of the target language should be welcome. Therefore if a corpus of literature is not needed, we need to modify the curricula of Humanities Colleges that graduate such teachers.
Before I read The Importance of Teaching English Literature in Schools by some one in the field of teaching, I had thought of the matter for quite some time. “Is literature language?' is a question of great significance. The argument of people against literature implies that literature is not language. What else is language, if not literature? Dr Mahmoud Al-Muktari from Ibb University, Department of English, has a pertinent question in this context 'Is it language or literature?' The simple answer that is universally accepted is that literature is nothing but language that reflects the highest form or multidimensional meanings in that language. Therefore I thought it in order to highlight the issue from a real life experience as a teacher of literature and from the viewpoints of an expert in the field. (Informed responses for this article are, of course, welcome).
Literature plays a vital role in learning English not only at the university but also in schools as Al-Bashir has suggested. The role of literature in the learning process cannot be underestimated. Some language teachers feel hesitant to use literary texts in the language classroom for unjustifiable reasons. Kramsch (1994: 7-8) is of the opinion that “teaching language is constantly viewed as a less sophisticated, hence less difficult, task than teaching literature.” Perhaps literature is a little more demanding but no doubt more rewarding. The ultimate objective of learning language is to be an able speaker/ user of the target language. If that is the aim, teaching literature certainly enhances and fulfills this objective.
Literature does not present words out of contexts, idioms and syntax in artificial language but in real authentic text and context. It is an intellectual exercise on how these words, phrases or sentences are made; it is a real interpersonal interaction between the writer and the reader, between the character and the other character though in a sort of 'mock reality'. The life-counterparts of those imaginary characters would use similar language if placed in such intricate situations. Literature then is the recorded language of those characters and the highest level of thought and imagination of the writers. It is 'a slice of life' or a cross-section of everyday language and behavior of the target language. Any tailored material that would be presented in the language skill courses would be wanting if compared to a narrative poem of Robert Frost or a short story of Hemingway, for instance. In addition to this, any course in phonetics, morphology or syntax is bound to say something about the language under discussion more than teaching the language itself. One can study word formation and memorize dictionary words but he won't be able to communicate effectively or understand the varied shades of meanings of words if not exposed to the literature which embodies the experience, tradition, religion and culture of the target language. However, if the person is only trained in the area of language (theoretical part), he would not be able to respond to the intricacies of real everyday language that is rooted in its culture and literature. How can a learner respond to the figurative language of allusions, ironies, paradoxes, understatements and the sound devices, let alone foregroundings, syntactic inversions, deviations from norms, of the target language if not exposed to the cream of that language (literature)? Literature, it is true, is the language of the elite, but that does not mean it is not related to everyday interaction in so far as literature is a fusion of language and concept at the same time. The conceptual and linguistic levels of the literary text make it more challenging to dismantle its intricacies and complexities of the literary texts in itself so as to yield the desire enjoyment for students.
To be concluded next week