HOW MUCH READING?: THE RECURRING QUESTION

One of our Erasmus students at Edinburgh emails us the reading list for one of her subjects, a crash course on ‘Scottish Fiction’ (third year, I guess):

Week 1. Introduction; extracts from Tobias Smollett, Humphrey Clinker (1771) and James Barker, The Wonder of All the Gay World (1749)
Week 2. Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818)
Week 3. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Week 4. Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886); Catriona (1893)
Week 5. Eric Linklater, Magnus Merriman (1935)
Week 6. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Week 7. David Daiches, Two Worlds (1956); Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae (1992)
Week 9. Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993)
Week 10. Iain Banks, Complicity (1993)
Week 11. Ian Rankin, Set in Darkness (2000) and The Falls (2001)

12 volumes, passages from 2 more. Um!! Here is my own reading list for ‘Scottish Literature and Culture’ (2009-10), third/fourth year, with 3 books, 4 short stories, and 1 film, for a 13-week course:

1. Xavier Solano, El mirall escocés (this is a 212-page essay comparing Catalonia and Scotland)
2. Short stories by A.L. Kennedy, Jackie Kay, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith, about 50 pages in total
4. Alasdair Gray, Poor Things (1993), 336 pages
5. Ian Rankin, Let it Bleed (1995), 360 pages
6. Danny Boyle, Trainspotting (1996). Yes, the film. Irvine Welsh’s novel was recommended reading.

Of course, Edinburgh’s course is for native speakers of English, ours are all for second-language speakers. Yet, here’s the mystery: our students take courses like this one in Britain and when they return, worn out but happy, they throw at us these trying words: ‘Oh, my! They do make us read there!!’

As a second-year student I took an annual subject, ‘Introducción a la Literatura Española de los siglos XVIII y XIX’, for which I had to read more than 20 books, including long, long La regenta. The teacher lectured weekly on a different text –brilliantly– and I read non-stop even the Cartas eruditas y curiosas (1742-1760) by Padre Feijóo. Amazing, really. There was no time for close reading and no dialogue at all between her and us, a huge class maybe 150 students. Revising for the exam with no clue as to what would be asked was some chore!! Yet, I remember that course fondly. (As fondly, mind you, as the courses in English Literature in which I was asked to read only 5 books but would read 15 more out of curiosity to complete my personal syllabus.)

Now that I’m using 7 sessions to read Oliver Twist with my second-year students, working under the impression that we’ll only manage to scratch the surface, I wonder whether they’d hate me horribly if I used an Edinburgh-style syllabus. In the elective ‘English Theatre’ I have already used, and will use again, 10 plays with no complaints whatsoever, though, yes, I know, this amounts to roughly 1,200 pages.

I’m still perplexed, no matter how hard I push my brain, by why students sent to Edinburgh accept (and love) reading so much. Unless, that is, I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that students see us, non-native teachers (or even native teachers) working here in Spain, as, well, not quite the ‘real thing’ but a kind of second-hand version of our British colleagues. Once in Britain (or in other ‘serious’ countries like Germany), surrounded by competitive peers and in the hands of teachers who simply do not care whether students are native or not, things must look very different…

If it’s that, or something else (maybe we’re being too prudent?) I’d like to know so that I can finally teach 10 Victorian masterpieces instead of just 4.

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