There is far too much chatter these days about the use of
IT in teaching. I am quite prepared to concede that in some
disciplines IT may have revolutionised teaching. But in relation
to English Literature, although it provides an excellent learning
aid, it is only of marginal use for teaching purposes.
University students of engineering or medicine usually know
what they want to do when they graduate. In contrast, very
few students who embark on a three- or four-year course in
English Literature know what they intend to do. Most can only
rationalise their choice of subject to a certain point, and
no further. If asked, they tell you that no other subject
exercises a stronger appeal and they enjoy reading. At least,
they say they dobut very few make a point of reading
each set text before the respective lectures, and far too
many even come to tutorials unprepared.
Sometimes, when up against students who have only skimmed
through the introduction to their text before giving a presentation
that is all smoke and no substance, my patience
snaps and I ask them: How would you feel if, just before the
anaesthetic took hold, the surgeon about to slice you open
leant over and whispered, Confiteor. I couldnt
be bothered to learn anything about the appendixbut
Im going to pretend I know where it is?
We more or less know what skills are expected of a medical
student, a law student, or an economics student. But what
skills does a teacher seek to foster in a literature student?
Literature is a problematic discipline: no two teachers of
literature will ever entirely agree on what ought to be learned
on a literature course, or why. Since this is so, how can
one usefully discuss the use of IT in teaching the subject?
In teaching what?
The study of literature is often thought to have two aspects:
(1) knowledge (i.e. a solid grasp of the major
works and tendencies that make up a literary tradition); and
(2) the skill specific to the discipline (i.e.
an understanding of how to analyse literary language and to
what end). The first assumes that students have an appetite
for extensive reading; the second assumes they are keen to
develop skills in intensive reading.
Sadly, although many of our students readily devour books
that catch their imagination (whether fantasy or contemporary
poetry), all too often they have little or no appetite for
any classic text apart from those that they are required
to read for their various courses. Although on a good day
many of our students can identify irony in any
given passage, they have considerable difficulty in commenting
on the significance of its use.
Understandably, IT is a great help to such students. If they
suddenly realise that they havent left themselves the
time necessary to read a set text, they can access the Web
and quickly learn enough to bluff their way through a tutorial.
Film students no longer need to go to the university campus
just in order to watch a film at an appointed time. They can
follow it on their own computer, at home and at any time that
suits them. They can pause the film whenever they feel like
a break, and can replay key scenes as they see fit.
I have no difficulty understanding how useful IT is for
such purposes. IT empowers students to learn where and when
they choose. It gives them immediate access to enormous amounts
of information from their home. But the benefits come with
some worrying drawbacks. There is a very real danger that
the over-abundance of readily available IT resources will
impede the real learning process for undisciplined students.
There already exist numerous sites where students can go to
download essays written by other students.
But even such abuse pales when compared to the benefits,
for students and teachers alike. In the coming years, the
Web is going to become an ever more important medium for serious
research. A bewildering range of material is daily becoming
more readily available. The websites of libraries, newspapers,
museums, galleries, university research groups and even private
individuals are becoming increasingly sophisticated. It will
not be long before intelligent coordination further expands
the usefulness of such resources.
However, I cannot see that IT necessarily improves the nature
of the teaching process. The truth is that it makes little
difference whether a teacher writes with chalk on a blackboard,
with a felt-tip pen on a whiteboard, uses so-called transparencies
and an OHP or takes advantage of a multimedia computer and
its associated programmes. Indeed, as with all multi-purpose
products, the drawbacks of the latter almost outweigh the
benefits. Unless ones jpeg files are very
large indeed, they do not project well onto a large screen
and the sound quality from the CD-player is less than impressive.
In teaching literature, the aims are not to explain facts,
but to encourage students to question interpretations; not
to indoctrinate, but to persuade students to challenge the
latest ideological fad; not to appeal to authority (whether
that of a critical theorist or that of a literary critic),
but to urge students to think for themselves. To encourage
them to step outside the tramlines laid down by previous scholars,
to make their own connections, and to envisage previously
unexplored implications. To persuade them to formulate, substantiate,
and defend their own thoughts about the relation between a
text and a tradition, or of the significance of a text in
the on-going dialogue between the individual and society.
Such an objective supposes that students should have lively
and challenging minds. They must be willing to read widely,
to read well, and to elaborate possible arguments and think
them through to an interesting conclusion. Not the teachers
conclusion, not even the conclusion of the leading authorities
in the field, but their own.
Although good students may indeed make intelligent use of
all the IT resources available to them, it is very unlikely
that the use of IT in the classroom will ever produce a significant
increase in the number of such students. As it always has,
good teaching will always boil down to the ability of the
teacher to get his or her students to think for themselves.