CRISIS IN ENGLISH DEPARTMENTS, PERHAPS… (Concerning the state of affairs of the English Classroom in Kerala, late last century)

Any self-reflexive teacher of English language and literature in Kerala is sooner or later bound to confront questions like: how and why does one teach literature? Is the literary categorizable at all? . What is the essential difference between the common man who reads for pleasure and the scholar who “studies” literature as a discipline? What is the relevance of teaching English literature in Kerala at present? These are theoretical questions, with cultural implications. What follows is a generalised attempt towards problematising them. However, for the sake of gaining certain amount of intellectual clarity in my presentation I would choose to regard this under three major heads– ofcourse, they are interlinked– that of the student, the research scholar and the teacher. And because of my own personal involvement in all these capabilities the discourse is not entirely objective either.

Those students who opt for English itself has dwindled down the years: many now stray into the English class for want of anything better. One cannot blame the student alone for this but the system itself creates such a lacuna between what the student learns and what the everyday life demands. Of what use is an English graduate in a postindustrial society that at every point makes practical demands on the individual: the distance between imagination and a sheer bread-and-butter-consumerist culture is fast increasing. The study of literature has undergone tremendous upheavals in the other parts of the world but we appear to upkeep a dead inheritance with admirable nonchalance and unshakeable faith! Small wonder then that the student of English finds nothing worth his/her while in this foreign burden.

The study any literature exerts certain demands on the student, however eager or involved, but to have to study a literature in a foreign language would be doubly demanding. For many a student the language of English literature is itself the major stumbling block : how does one get to see the finer aspects of a language and culture , feel the subtle nuances and innuendoes couched in an artful idiom ,if the denotative aspects of the language themselves are not fully grasped? Which is essentially more valuable– a language in its bare communicative aspect, or a literary sense that is couched in any language ? The average student in the English class struggles with his foreign words and phrases attempting to work out near equivalents in his native language while the more informed gropes in the dark for the subtler aspects of literature. Have our literary critical theories and our teaching been of any use to either of these at any time in any situation whatsoever?

Perhaps, the most important aspect of literary theory that the keen student would realise soon would be the irrelevance of the English language itself; for the imbibing of any language would mean the imbibing of its culture too, and the more alien a culture the more removed the student becomes from his/her indigenous roots. And this becomes a major crisis– of what use is it to waste five or more years of the best part of one’s life if it is only to realise at the end that what one had pursued is of little consequence to one’s life?

The problems facing a research scholar in the English department is not quite different from those faced by the conscientious student, only that here they take on a larger dimension. Now, serious research in English studies began in Kerala only quite recently. Although among the English teachers of the last generations one could easily cite singleminded scholars imbued with deep commitment to their work — excellent teachers who could expound on any topic at great length and profundity, explicate any text , and make the reading of English literature most entertaining and insight-offering– many of them had not thought of pursuing their knowledge in systematic manner , say, for instance, produce a scholarly treatise or dissertation. Perhaps, they did not feel the need for such endeavours or the times did not demand it of them! I do not mean to say that the dissertations that are churned out a-plenty on all kinds of topics in the present day from the departments of English is a sign of intellectuality and superior scholarship to that of the past generations of great teachers! Far from it.

Over the last few years there has been a tremendous rise in the number of M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations in the area of English studies — a large percentage of them worthless primarily because they are “random searches” that are not founded on any thorough scholarship or pursued through systematic methodology. This kind of end-oriented dissertations could not even be called “theses”: they are just extended essays largely culled from somewhere without even acknowledgment– a ritual performed for sheer practical purposes!

Most dissertations during the early seventies were mere explications of single author’s works. Up to about the mid eighties research in English meant simply taking up an author and making a thorough examination of his/her works, categorising them according to their genres, explaining the allusions and references, quoting from a variety of sources , and the thesis ultimately turning out to be a jumble of quotations drawn without any logic from here and there. But by the time literary theory hit our universities, the conscientious researcher found certain concrete methodologies possible in addition to mere re- reading.

As a usual practice (perhaps it is true of most other fields of enquiry as well) the English scholar looked to the West for theoretical sophistication : if earlier literature meant only literature from the British Isles , now literary theory meant only those with the fancy labels like “Structuralism” “Semiotics” “Deconstruction” etc. Everything that was Western in origin was looked upon with reverence and awe, and even to mention anything Indian was anathema — one had to be either fundamentalist or jingoist (something short of an ignoramus in “Theory”) to consider anything Indian as worthwhile at all! So we in Kerala wrote dissertations and journal articles on “English” and “American” Literatures. As our syllabus widened to include the “Third World” writing in the newly introduced form of Commonwealth Literature we gladly shifted our focus to that, but with an eye heavily overburdened with “Theory” and a methodology incorporated from the West. In the eighties our departments of English were overflowing with scholarly treatises on the works and worth of Indian and Third World writers, known and unknown, all studied under several sophisticated theoretical heads! We have dissertations on Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tagore, Bhasa, Kalidasa and even Valmiki– deconstructed and dissected , misread and bisected. Many have even gone to the length of unearthing Feminist and subaltern “subtexts” from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. All for the purpose of securing a degree! Under usual circumstances anything new that happens in the west takes several years to reach our departments, and only after many more years of dilly-dallying with the same do we realize its validity or irrelevance to our condition. But in the case of theory, one was compelled to reevaluate one’s own situation before one could practice it seriously. However, that was a realization open only to the chosen few– those that took even theory seriously. For the others theory meant only just another axe to chop and chisel, and they wielded it mercilessly and indiscriminately on any form of writing whether it be in English, “english”, Malayalam or any language! For years now, any scholarly work from our departments of English will be derided as inferior if it doesn’t carry citations from Derrida, Foucault, Lacan or Said and their kind.

True, in more than one sense theory is liberating in its application, but when handled inadvertently by our anglicized Pundits it loses its relevance and significance. In fact this is not the case only confined to our English departments but in our Malayalam departments as well scholars feel the compelling need to draw and disburse wisdom from the fashionable demigods of the West

When Commonwealth literature came to be looked upon as postcolonial and a new theory sprang up around it our departments caught on to it. The research scholar in English was ever on the lookout for new topics and areas to work on. And here it was – a virgin territory, a whole unexplored terrain rampant with themes and techniques ranging from incest to myth, expressionism to magical realism.
What more could we ask for? Hence we churned out dissertations on O.V. Vijayan and Kakkanadan alongside that of Milan Kundera and Rushdie to unheard of names from Canada , Australia, Latin America and South Africa. Comparison became easy and satisfying! Postcolonial theory also liberated literary canons: there was no need to bother about values! Why should one discriminate good writing from bad? Concepts like hegemony, interpellation, condensation, displacement, abrogation and appropriation have come to be household usages for our scholars. One wonders whether anyone pauses to deconstruct their own reading, thinking and writing! But dissertations are meant only for the academia and no one reads them. In fact where in the world does the scholar have time to read if he/she has to write so much? However, the residual problems that surface need to be interrogated. In the place of canonical writers we have installed new ones!

The crisis facing the research scholar in English in Kerala today is a sort of self-exterminating one: one does not require the self-styled postcolonial critic to tell us that our land and literature are unique. Then why write and discuss in a foreign language burdened with the sense of alienation and dispirit, a lengthy dissertation for a Ph.D. if only to formulate a contradictory conclusion? Why write in English at all? Why not study and write in Malayalam?

Naturally, these problems lead us to the position of the English teacher in the various colleges in the state. Now that Pre-degree is delinked from the colleges one could consider all the colleges as having to do with graduate and postgraduate studies in English. Here we have two kinds of English teaching: that which is aimed at the English optional student and the other for the student who studies English as Part I. However, the techniques adopted by our teachers by and large is the very same for both! We teach texts, and never anything else. We explicate passages and more often translate into Malayalam, professedly for the benefit of the Malayalam medium students! Many a teacher of English in Kerala teaches much more in Malayalam than in English! Here both the language and the literature content are lost on the students. For the students from the Science optional, the English class rooms have been reduced to mere ritual wastage of precious time which could be more fruitfully spent in their labs! Woe to the teachers of English who have been inculcated with a precious sense of self importance and missionary zeal!

The conscientious teacher is , to say the least, paralyzed by the overflow of all the stuff that he/she reads and the qualitatively irregular situation prevalent in the class room. The students who sit facing him/her seek immediate guidance from him/her and also expect him/her to tidy them over the examination and no more. The text books that are to be taught are often prescribed by a body of people who have several other factors that prod them to do so. The question papers are set by another person who hardly knows what has been taught or even how, and the answer papers are valued by yet another. Considering all these, the situation of the teachers in the English class room is very complicated indeed! Hence, it is not surprising that they often adopt the easiest way out: simple explication- de- text. In fact the majority of students get very upset if any teacher does anything other than this set routine! Several teachers that I am familiar with are quite emphatic about this practice of class room teaching: “what else are we to do,” they ask, “other than explain the texts?”

Any teacher who is adequately well-read in current developments in Theory and who believes in up-keeping scholarship confronts total contradictions in the prevalent class room practice! In an environment where so much discrepancy exists between the committed teacher and a majority that refuses to see the validity of keeping up with the latest, the former is often cramped for breathing space. From my experience, I could classify the English teacher in Kerala and his/her relation to theory in the following manner:

Those who are totally ignorant of theory and continue to be ignorant.
Those who are totally ignorant of theory yet pretend to know it all.
Those who know something of theory and know their limits and so don’t care
Those who know something of theory and would like to know more.
Those who know their theory well yet never think of practical application in the class room.
Those who know theory well enough to ATTEMPT some kind of application.

A majority of my colleagues appear to feel that reading and research are activities meant only for those who are young and have the time at their disposal to squander it on scholarship, while they are by virtue of their seniority blessed by wisdom that does not require them to upkeep any knowledge! Such senior teachers still practise the age old custom of textual explication and take pride in reading from their old notes that their teachers had given to their wards who in turn take it down diligently!( No personal affront meant!)

Once we have seen our situation for what it is, should we still continue with our old texts and older methodologies? Do we really have to recourse to a foreign language to teach our students what their lives mean to them? Granted that on account of certain historical incongruities English has come to stay as one among our native languages , should we insist on teaching literature in English through that language or simply teach the language alone for our practical purposes? If at all we do have to teach the literature it is long past the time to revamp our syllabus and awaken ourselves and our students to much that has happened since the 60-s. Once such a thing happens, ofcourse close on its heels would dog the problems that I have been highlighting! The self-contradictory nature of teaching English literature / literature written in English/ english literature in our class rooms is the crisis that looms large before the English teacher.

I do not wish to close on a pessimistic note. What the self reflexive English teacher thinks today is something that would reach the teachers of other departments quite soon. May be on account of dealing with imagination and its products, the English teacher is blessed with a prophetic insight. Like the hare that senses any minor changes on the earth’s surface the teacher of English senses far in advance. Well,shouldn’t the forewarned be forearmed ? To recall my opening words again, this essay is only a generalised attempt—it erratically displays my as yet unclear apprehensions. My intention was less on finding answers to the problems than on posing them. And if I have not been quite definitive in my arguments it would only show the incomplete nature of my critical awareness of the situation. But nevertheless that such problems are growing day by day in size and gravity no one would deny. Since I consider this to be a shared common problem I would be happy to receive the responses of other like-minded teachers.

*The above essay was published in the local Newspapers and I did receive a great number of responses. I was also asked to submit a rejoinder as closing comments. However, I still think the issues raised therein are currently relevant.