Rare challenge to Oxford's 1,000-member English faculty

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The slumbering spires of Oxford had their sleep shattered earlier this year by the sound of students questioning the adequacy of their studies. The revolt centered in the English faculty but received little support from the majority of the faculty.

Some Oxford undergraduates argue their tutors are too preoccupied with their own research projects, while faculty members have spoken of students' inability to understand the proper place of memory in literary studies.

Oxford's English faculty now numbers nearly 1,000. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a professor with the popular name of Walter Raleigh who did much to foster English studies. It was his contention that "enjoying literature was not just a matter of historical knowledge and acquaintance with great works, but a knowledge of authors' themes, a wide acquaintance with human life and human passion as they are reflected in a sensitive and independent mind."

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Some students are arguing that this is missing from the Oxford course today.

In an attempt to foster this creative approach to literature a former Cambridge lecturer, John Broadbent, now professor of English literature at one of Britain's newer universities in East Anglia, has developed new techniques to help teach English. He has been discussing the development of these ideas at university-level workshops.

British universities, like their counterparts around the world, lack serious training for faculty members, although there are some honourable exceptions. Consequently the hour-long lecture is still the main vehicle for transmitting information with the face-to- face tutorial having something of the fail-safe device about it, to help monitor students' progress until they are examined, en mass.

Professor Broadbent's theories, put into practice with his own students, are centered on the student as a learning person. What he scornfully calls "the wordless passivity of the waiting room" mentality, with students sitting waiting for the professor to deliver a lecture, has to be replaced by a facilitating environment in which learning can occur and the students take on the role of learner by their own authority.

But Dr. Broadbent finds it is just as difficult for students to accept this role as it is for professors, apparently, to reject the normally accepted teaching role. Students have been schooled into roles as observers, watchers of teachers; "very few of them have experienced real discussion, real participation , or have learned how to listen to other people, how to ask questions, how to lead."

In attempting to portray how he helps students overcome deficiencies there are seeming contradictions in Professor Broadbent's theories (written collaboratively with his colleague Brian Thorne). In terms of helping them getting to know each other to foster that "sense of membership, of belonging, that gives personal commitment to the task" he recommends "working together that heightens sentience, mutual regard, cohesiveness; it is sentience that motivates work."

Yet he sees the class as "essentially an arena for professional play" while defining professional play as the sort of "creative encounter that occurs between a practitioner and his . . . materials when he has a goal in view; activity that is deliberate, selective, committed, productive." In other words, work. Professor Broadbent, by the way, defines "sentience" as "the reciprocal of work or task."

According to Professor Broadbent, the reason many graduates cannot express themselves effectively is because they are trained in a submissive politics of education, which gives them no practice in listening "to the deep sense of what other people are saying." This, and a limited oral vocabulary, can be explained by the fact that students' chief model "will have been the lecturer's uninterrupted talking head."

The following is an, albeit sketchy, summary of the Broadbent method: Instead of being transmitters of knowledge teachers would become facilitators of others' brilliance by so giving of their own authority that other people can find out, and release, theirs.

This personal side would be accomplished by managing the impersonal "boundary" side and this involves selecting seminal components of subjects; designing opportunities and activities for learning; pacing the course and written work.

As well as providing this Professor Broadbent also expects students to practice by turning short stories into drama or plays into narrative. Or, two or three students perform a little role-played sketch, as a miniature drama, which others, as they watch it, transcribe into prose narrative.

In this way, he argues, students are not oppressed by teaching but given space to learn.

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