Reinventing English Language and Literature for the Next Generation

by MacKie

Early in October I attended the talk Reinventing English Language and Literature for the Next Generation, with sharings by Dennis Yeo, Ken Mizusawa, and Suzanne Choo. I noticed that all 3 speakers lecture at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and was curious to hear what they had to say on the subject, as I am a prospective Literature teacher (which means that I will probably be their student in a few years)!

Dennis’ part focused on expanding the scope of Literature texts to include graphic novels, and short films. We mostly associate Literature with the written word, and I suppose many would wonder how to analyse a graphic novel, for instance. When Dennis brought this up I was slightly excited, because I wrote a paper in Junior College on how the Theatre of the Absurd has endured in other media, such as the graphic novel. He also suggested that Literature could be seen as an intercourse of texts. Written work and short films that approach similar thematic concerns, for instance, could be analysed alongside each other. To illustrate, he showed us a short film, “Flats”, written and directed by Ervin Han. The animated short delves into growing up in an HDB flat, through the experiences of 2 siblings. While many of the themes and scenes were admittedly quotidian and familiar, they were presented so beautifully and evoked such tenderness. Dennis suggested that this work could be looked at next to Alfian Sa’at’s Void Deck. I suppose the intercourse of texts is already being done in schools, where we watch a BBC adaptation of a Shakespeare play, for instance, as we’re reading one of his plays.

Ken’s talk centered on teaching literature in today’s era where social media is rampant and so heavily a part of our lives. People are easily distracted by the multitude of user interfaces, and Ken posited that this is perhaps the reason why Literature is unattractive – books are lengthy, and demand quite a bit of our attention in one sitting. I found this to be the case when I taught Literature to IP students, and it is rather saddening. However, Ken’s sharing brings a hopeful outlook to this situation – he believes that the online world is not so different from the world of literature and language.

The online world is dramatic: we suspend disbelief, create different identities and project an image of ourselves that we want others to believe. We have a personal stake in the virtual landscape. Ken coins the term ‘affinity space’ to describe this world in which we desire a sense of community. If we consider the online world from this perspective, we can create this same sense of belonging and active engagement in the classroom. Ken asked us to consider how we teach literature – do we merely dictate meaning and tell students how they should interpret a text? Or do we make an effort to create an open, safe, and inviting environment that affirms rather than undermines?

I especially loved Ken’s emphasis on ‘meaning-making’, which encourages students to be actively involved in the learning process so that they feel a personal connection with the subject. Creative writing or drama as part of the course could really enhance the way we approach a text, and help us to appreciate works written so long before us. In my personal experience, using drama as a tool for learning was a wonderful way to engage with a text. I also love the idea of incorporating different kinds of performance into the teaching of literature, just like how Pooja Nansi did when she came down the other day. I understand that some students may not take to drama or creative writing well, and this may even alienate some students. I think the best thing to take away from Ken’s talk would be to find different ways of engaging students and drawing connections between the texts we read and our own lives. This also reminds me of Erin Woodford’s idea to read 17th century poetry alongside a current Singapore Literature text: putting things in perspective and contextualizing issues really helps students feel a connection with a text.

Finally, we come to Suzanne’s segment – the part of the talk that resonated with me the most, but also left me with so many questions and doubts. Her sharing revolved around the fundamental aim of teaching Literature. According to the current MOE syllabus, students of Literature should be groomed to be critical thinkers. In my years as a literature student, I have seen this on the syllabus countless times that when I read it, nothing strikes me as particularly problematic. Yet Suzanne raised a point: why do we aim to nurture critical thinkers? The most dangerous individuals in human history have been the greatest critical thinkers.

The audience all laughed at this point. Suzanne then went on to elaborate that literature is about humanity and should be grounded in ethics and in engaging the people around us. She had a slide that brought up the aim of pursuing literature according to the MOE syllabus and replaced it with: Engaging and empathizing with multiple and marginalized others.

This is a pretty big shift in focus, because it means a shift from the purview of Literature in English to that of World Literature. It is an inconspicuous fact that most of our texts fall under the category of British and American Literature (of course due largely to the fact that we take the Cambridge paper) but perhaps that is something we can change, by including more texts outside of these categories (more Singapore Literature! for example).

Suzanne also proposed several other changes that would align with this shift in focus: less aesthetic appreciation, more engagement with contemporary local and global issues. Much of literature involves close reading of the text, and while I do enjoy delving into the intricacies of a text, I realise that is precisely what turns people away from the subject, when there is really so much more to literature than that. We could spend more time talking about themes and issues that are dealt with in texts, such as violence, human rights, social problems. In orienting towards this way of teaching literature in the classroom, we need to consider texts outside of the West, in order to understand the perspectives of other groups of people around the world.

I absolutely admire this approach of teaching literature, one that brings attention to humanity and the complexities of life. I think that if we start humanizing the subject, students can identify with these issues and draw connections, and understand and appreciate different perspectives. I see, however, that this is a huge step to take in the teaching of literature. I think this is firstly because we cannot really train teachers in empathy and we need that in order to impart this to students in the classroom. It’s an abstract concept. But I think if we take a step towards changing the syllabus, it’s progress in that direction. It shows that we are trying to change the focus of teaching the subject. Baby steps.

I really enjoyed the session, and I am especially hopeful in light of the fact that these 3 speakers lecture at NIE, and can make serious changes in education policy. I have my doubts regarding the implementation of some of these suggestions, but what is great is that we’re talking about it.

I didn’t mean to write so much, but I felt that there were so many good things that emerged during this session. Shout-out to Prof Holden and Teck for their enthusiasm in this module; I have learned a lot, and there is still much that I do not know. I have also really enjoyed reading the blog posts of my fellow classmates! It’s been great learning alongside everyone.