I recently read an interesting article about a conference held at Harvard aimed at shaking up the way we teach. And it became linked in my mind with this blog post (Nymeth being her wonderful self) on the recent spate of online interest in what constitutes a proper review. In both of these cases there’s speculation about the best way to distribute information. What does a proper review look like, what does a proper lecture or proper essay do? For me, the words review, lecture and essay are less interesting than that sneaky little policing term ‘proper’. Proper is a very busy word, it means ‘appropriate’, or ‘suited for a certain purpose’; it means ‘excessively correct in conduct’ or ‘up to a regulated or required standard’. It is used as a way of excluding anything that does not belong, and it is profoundly tied up in belonging as we can see when it turns into ‘property’. So ‘proper’ has all kinds of connotations which add up to the subtext: if you don’t do it one particular way, you’re out of the club.
Now for me, what a piece of writing looks like is a whole lot less important than what it does. A review, for instance, is simply the act of looking backwards over an experience and expressing what one sees. That can be done in three sentences, or in three thousand words. I’ve just spent the afternoon with students discussing what the word ‘essay’ really invites you to do. The essay comes in all sorts of shapes and forms and sizes, and people all have individual ways of tackling the topic concerned. That’s as it should be. But what an essay must do is attempt to tackle a topic analytically, and look at it from a variety of perspectives. The word itself comes from the old French – an essaie – a try, an attempt. To my mind these terms have flexibility built into them out of sheer necessity. They are creative endeavours, both the review and the essay, and to pin them down to particular and ‘proper’ forms is to strangle the life out of them and to undermine their interest. I’m all for people trying their best to bend the so-called rules and see if what comes out the other end can still be called a review or an essay. If they have conveyed information, shown the reader why something is interesting, and how something is interesting, then the writing is doing exactly what it should.
As for education, it becomes messy as soon as we lose sight of what we’re trying to do for students. We’re suffering at present from having had years of excessive concern about young people leaving education looking all the same. It must be something hardwired into human beings, this mania for similarity – after all, isn’t that the supposed problem at the origin of this fuss about reviews on blogs? The fact that they do not all look alike? Equality is not the same thing as similarity. We ought to want to educate students to the best of their individual capacities, but that will not mean they all have to come out of exams with the same results. In fact, far from it. A good education is all about permitting the individual to realise their unique skills and potential, and that may well mean allowing them to understand they are less good at some things than others. In fact, kids know this already, and it’s the well-meaning attempt by adults to dissimulate difference that causes the problem. As for university teaching, it’s all about the best way to convey complex information and keep the students up to speed, not to mention awake. That’s effectively about getting teachers to understand that they do some things better than others, and permitting them to teach in the forms at which they excel. I can only hope that happens.
There is little more ordinarily distressing than the pointing finger that says ‘what you do isn’t proper because it doesn’t look right.’ And there is perhaps little as encouraging as the spectator who says ‘what you do is so different and I love that.’ And both writing and teaching are creative acts, that seek to interest others by being as fresh and original as possible. Whatever task we set out to achieve, we often accomplish it much better by taking an unusual and striking approach. I think it’s so much more sensible to focus on ends rather than police the means.