OF ENGLISH STUDIES IN ATLANTIC CANADA
Barrie R.C. Barrell
A sign over a door in the Arts and Administration Building at Memorial University of Newfoundland announces the Department of English Language and Literature. There is a tacit understanding about both the nature of courses and the structure of debates that take place within the department. Literature, in any of its many contested forms, provides the backbone for departmental calendar entries; the English language, its structures and nuances, round out the department's academic parameters. Baccalaureate programs are devised based upon this traditional liberal understanding of the discipline. Until very recently in Atlantic Canada, this constructed definition of English is what high school students, parents, school officials, and teachers of English understood to be the boundaries of the discipline.
Starting in the early 1990s, a significant change began to take place in how secondary English language arts curricula were constructed and taught. Classroom teachers began to be guided by theories of language and literacy that were linked to the social sciences and to social learning in particular. University notions of English, that is as a discrete subject, no longer guided the building of Atlantic Canada's secondary school English programs. Efforts to dovetail objectives with tertiary English department requirements and regulations were severed and new links forged with computer technology, genre, and media studies. This silent coup left new and veteran secondary teachers of English scurrying to prepared materials that supported the objectives of the new curriculum.
The teaching of English as a discipline, when compared to history,
mathematics, religion, and some of the sciences, is relatively new.
Applebee (1974) traces the subject's traditions back about 130 years.
In the United States, English (the study of literatures and language) evolved
out if the 1873-74 Harvard University entrance examinations. States
Applebee, students were to write a composition on one of the following
Shakespeare's Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Merchant of Venice; Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield; Scott's Ivanhoe, and Lay of the Last Minstrel. This requirement institutionalized the study of standard authors and set in motion a process which eventually forced English to consolidate its position within the schools (p. 30).
The teaching of English in Britain evolved from different roots. The genesis of English studies began in various colonies as a form of indoctrination and subjugation. Morgan (1990) documents that English in Ontario used language practices at the level of theory to set language and literature cultural policy for the province. Yeoman (1990) reports that the Department of English at the University of Nigeria is being closed because of its links to past colonial oppression. The British literary canon and the teaching of written and spoken English worked its way back to the schools and universities of the British Isles around the middle of the 1800s. The setting of Oxbridge entrance examinations required grammar and public schools to teach a literary canon and appropriate composition skills to allow students to pass examinations and gain entrance to various tertiary institutions.
This traditional understanding of what is at the core of an English program lives on in the universities of Atlantic Canada. Regional electronic university calendars invariably describe English courses as either the study of various European, Irish, or North American literatures, or the study of composition and/or language. An analysis of the English degree requirements in the calendars of the University of New Brunswick, the University of Prince Edward Island, Acadia University, and Memorial University of Newfoundland reveals the preparation future teachers of English acquire as they work toward graduation. In general, students are required to complete between twelve (MUN) and fifteen (UNB) courses chosen from various periods in the history of the western literally canon. All four universities require a course in Shakespeare. UPEI requires a course in Old or Middle English while others require a course chosen from amongst the literature of the 15th, 16th, or 17th centuries. Two universities, UNB and MUN, require a course in English language and rhetoric. Acadia requires students to select two courses from amongst 20th century British, American, or Canadian literature. UPEI requires either an American or a Canadian literature course while UNB and MUN have no requirement in these areas. On average, half of a student's program is made up of electives. Typically, English majors have a diverse collection of courses and might have built a program that shares little with other matriculating students. Striking is the lack of a degree requirement in any Canadian or Atlantic literatures. Thus, the only course that future teachers of English can be said to have in common is a course in Shakespeare. No negative judgment is intended or leveled at this approach to the study of English language and literature. Indeed, a cursory examination of English programs in the universities of western and central Canada (Universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Western Ontario, and Brandon University) indicates the above description to be quite representative of degree requirements. What is consistent within English degrees is the structure of the literary theory and text analysis that students experience. Since the 1970s different literary theories have been added to New criticism. Structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and constructionist theories of text analysis are the tools English majors now use to examine the canon.
University conceptions of English and hence literacy, what Myers (1994) calls decoding/analytic literacy, is typically marked by generic concepts delivered to passive learners through textbooks or anthologies. In turn, students studied the material individually and reproduced it by demonstrating their understanding through pencil and paper tests, analytical papers, or tutorials. The century long dovetailing of university and secondary school conceptions of English studies, and associated notions of literacy, lasted until the 1980s. In this decade teachers of secondary English started to use other theories to examine texts with their students and to accept reader response and other forms for students to demonstrate the depth of their textual engagements.
This new way of teaching and learning led decoding/analytic literacy to give ground to transactional/critical forms of literacy and was spurred on by such scholars as Rosenblatt (1978), Iser (1980), Crossman (1982), and Sholes (1985). Individual learning succumbed to collaborative learning in schools, preconstructed learning outcomes gave way to student constructed meaning, the quest for the ultimate literary criticism gave ground to confirming and deconstructing personal and aesthetic readings of texts. The 1980s also began to see the inclusion and use of a variety of nonprint texts (music, film, television, photojournalism, etc.) in the secondary English classroom. Viewing was added in numerous constituencies to the discipline's traditional secondary school strands of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
The 1990s have seen the inclusion of representing (multimedia presentations, web pages, 3-D constructions, models, etc.) within the parameters of secondary English language arts. Representing has brought the discipline's core strands to six. More recently, a seventh strand has appeared. Information manipulation through computer connections is appearing in various revised English language arts documents (see for example the high school documents of the Western Canadian Protocol-Common Curriculum Framework and the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation).
Thus alongside traditional liberal university English department conceptions of what it means to be literate, have been added visual, media, electronic and information literacies. Canadian secondary school students are now expected to "read" not only books, but also the world and to evaluate and respond to an ever expanding variety of texts. These texts appear in a cacophony of Englishes that are marked by variances in register, accent, subcultural style, origin, and technical nuances. Kalantzis and Cope (1997) and the New London Group coined the word 'Multiliteracies' to explain the negotiations students engage in as they navigate through interconnected community, entertainment, and working lives. While secondary students are still expected to respond to their readings in traditional ways, new curricula objectives would have them responding to texts in an infinite number of constructed multimodal forms.
The new parameters of English language arts in Atlantic Canada's secondary schools are marked by the four traditional core strands from an earlier time and three additional strands. It is important to understand that for instructional time purposes listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, representing, and technological information manipulation are all treated as equals in the curriculum. While the core strands of the discipline have been increased by 75%, what is to be read has greatly expanded into media and computer accessed information and texts. By including viewing and representing strands, the ways students of English are expected to demonstrate their understanding of texts has experientially increased. In this reconstruction of the discipline, various literatures are having to share space with, and surrender ground to, what the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation (1997) documents call 'communications'. Indeed, the fictive world of literature is no longer central to senior secondary English education. The new vision challenges tacit academic conceptions of the workings of the discipline. It is a conception that has broken sharply away from the university's notions of what it means to study English by including postmodern, commercial, entertainment, technotainment, and networked discourses. This new vision relies greatly on technology to both find and create the texts used in instruction. It is a vision that will force teachers in Atlantic Canada to notice the fracturing of English as a clearly delineated subject.
Clearly, what is emerging is a new conception of English that is much broader, more inclusive of a variety of texts, and radically different from past or university conceptions of the discipline. With its goal of balancing more traditional works with more contemporary ones, including works which bring new or previously neglected voices into the classroom, and its call for alternative ways of knowing and being, a secondary curriculum emerges that is broad in both scope and vision. How university English departments adjust to the English education that secondary students have experienced remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the difficulties of teaching traditional English programs
is becoming apparent at the end of the century. Goodwyn, Adams and
Clarke (1997) use the following quotation from a British teacher with eight
years' experience to demonstrate both the cultural forces at play and the
difficulties of teaching traditional book-based English as media and technologies
impact classroom discourse:
We are moving away from a literary, book-based culture. It's a general move, shift in youth towards television, video, computer games in their own life "out of school you're fighting a society that is moving away from literature towards a leisure-based, easier culture, and the reading and literature themes look too hard" we are between the generations, sort of juggling both reading and writing alongside it. (p. 54)
English methods professors who are aware of changing curricula and the gradual change in secondary constructions of English may understand the work English departments are doing but they do not necessarily vision English the way their colleagues do in the Arts faculty. Dillworth and McCracken's (1997), in a survey of United States English and English education professors, state that many students arrive at college to "quickly discover major differences in outlook among their English and English education professors, differences not only about what is significant in the discipline but also about the fundamental procedures for constructing significance" (p. 14). For Atlantic Canadian students who enter consecutive degree programs it is key for them to be able to spot and understand the divergence of the two discourses and understand how new regional curriculum documents conceptualize English education.
In this decade, English language arts, probably more than any other school subject, is being buffeted by a variety of forces that are questioning received culture and linguistic forms. Some English language arts educators are beginning to ask who will be drawn to major in English and subsequently go on to become its teachers? There is a call from poets and authors to maintain the distinctiveness, the separateness of English from other disciplines; to not lose sight of the textual experiences first found with poems and in books. A widening gaps exist between those who feel English is about a liberating aesthetic engagement with fictive texts, those who feel it is about ideas and patterns of literacy and reading, and those who see it incorporating the digitalized worlds of cyberspace.
Until tertiary and secondary constructions of English come more
into line it is important that English methods professors and their students
understand the gap between the two worlds and explain the different constructions
of those worlds. Dillworth and McCracken (1997) use the following
quotation from an English education student as an exemplar of the various
competing ideologies an English education student faces in trying to develop
a personal philosophy toward English education and bridge the gaps between
At nine o'clock on Monday morning I hear that Shakespeare was the greatest writer of all time; at ten o'clock I laugh along with my professor about the obvious limitations of a canon of dead white men; at noon I revise my essay in accord with Professor Smith's directions; at two o'clock I listen to my methods professor tell us not to appropriate our future students' texts. On Tuesday, I visit the schools where they tell me to pay no attention to what they say at the U, since anyone not in the schools every day has no idea what's going on in the real world (p. 7).
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