Despite the worries kicked up by the prospect of new curricula, the reality is that such changes make relatively little difference; in any case, at bottom most teachers are resourceful and resilient enough – good enough improvisers and tap dancers – to adjust quickly and well to new courses.
What makes things difficult is when exam boards introduce changes, amendments, refinements, or start dispensing “guidance” and “advice” mid-course. Consistency and clarity of exam-board advice is often lacking – AQA, I am looking at you – so knowing how best to act in such weak light as exam-board advice casts is not always a simple matter. The issuing of changes and guidance is low-stakes for the exam boards, but a considerable pain in any place you care to mention for teachers and students. So it is galling, to say the least, when teachers and students are made to feel that pronouncements – which come, always, with the caveat “advice only” – from the exam boards are being made on the fly.
The coursework component for Edexcel’s new A Level in English Literature is billed as an independent project. The advice in their specification on text-suitability is minimal and broad, which I think a good thing. Here is a curricular space – albeit a relatively small one – in which students can branch out, both in their reading and writing. But to my and my colleagues’ – and soon a handful of my students’ (I write this ahead of having to broach this topic with them) – chagrin, Edexcel is offering ad hoc advice on text suitability. A document – released late and not well advertised – outlines some of the more popular texts about which schools have enquired. If you can find it – congratulations in advance; this is no mean feat – take a look. Damned if I can discern any sort of guiding logic behind the evaluation of texts as un-/suitable. Two examples: (1) Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is on the OK list. All to the good; it is a stimulating and rich text. The issue is that it is shorter even than most novellas, and therefore its suitability doesn’t square with the specification – that is, the widely published – advice on novels versus short stories. (2) We are strongly warned against Girl, Interrupted, which my wife studied as part of her MA course. Look in wonder at the generic reasoning against this and other titles on the list, and gradations of suitability into which they fall. (Such things as familiarity from GCSSE, lack of challenge, and so on are cited; but I doubt that Shakespeare falls foul of the “heard it all before” clause.)
Historical and aesthetic bias is no good selection base. Whether or not some of the titles students propose satisfy the undisclosed Capital-L-Literature selection-criteria of the exam boards, I think it highly likely that my students will find more that is productively unsettling, that alters how they experience and navigate their ways through the world – that is, in short, world-altering for them – in texts such as Girl, Interrupted and The Perks of Being a Wallflower than in Romeo and Juliet. The chance of saying anything new about this text would be a fine thing, so rinsed out has it become; it’s been studied dry.
Literary criticism is not a process by which received literary history is merely endorsed, nor one through which we demonstrate mere “comprehension.” It goes far beyond comprehension: literary criticism is a writerly tradition in which we attempt to articulate our sense of connection with texts. It is a creative process in which we try to unearth and shape new ways of thinking and being, and in which we try to amplify the significant echoes we hear when we read as creative agents. This is no trifle; it bears critically on our abilities to think, to speak, to know. But, making things up as they go along, exam boards get in the way of all that is fundamental to studying literature. They also make it a whole lot harder for students and teachers just to get through their strangely designed courses.
I’ve called for the abolition of the exam boards, in their current forms, before, and my recent experience with Edexcel simply reaffirms my belief that, by and large, the boards generally get in the way and make the process of education far worse than it need and should be.