Why study A-level English? An(other) assembly

When the Head of Sixth Form asked me to deliver an assembly to year 11 on why they should study A-level English, my first thought was one giant, panicked, bold and underlined “why?”

Why indeed? I went away and spent a couple of weeks pondering, thought of a few lame lines, and came back to admit defeat. Somewhat unadvisedly, I explained that I “had never really thought about why myself”, having myself “not thought things through and just chosen what felt right – that’s how I work.” Given that this person line manages me, admitting to my haphazard decision-making skills was probably an error.

I’m nothing if not honest. I did English Literature A-level because I had to; I was compelled to read and question; it was the only thing I loved and was any good at. No thinking needed.

Fortunately, I have a great line manager, who expertly guided me towards the light. I shared my clumsy “course outline” and “what looks good on your UCAS form” and he shook his head, saying: “what they really need is inspiration.” He referred me to this ad, suggesting that literature is about life: not the biology or the mechanics, but the human, and the emotional.

The assembly begins with the following on the screen, for students to ponder (or ignore) as they await the start of the session:

so much depends

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

PP Arial Why Study English Literartue

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One thought on “Why study A-level English? An(other) assembly

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Reading all the Books

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