Archive for May, 2014

Proposal to add Dizzee and Brand to new A-Level English Lit and Lang

Today, the OCR exam board announced some changes to the English Language and Literature A-level qualification, changes which have caused a bit of stir in media-land, including the Telegraph and the Guardian (nb. the articles themselves are relatively balanced, but it’s in the comments that things get feisty). The main change is to include a wider variety of texts in the curriculum; so texts by writers such as Blake, Dickinson, Orwell and Shakspeare will be studied alongside texts by writers and performers like Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal, and Allie Brosh.

Of course, it’s important to say that these are simply proposals at the moment and they haven’t been agreed upon, so there might be further changes down the line. Nonetheless, these proposed changes have ignited a debate about the ‘value’ of Russell Brand’s testimony at a recent Commons home affairs select committee on drug addiction, Dizzee Rascal’s appearance on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, and Allie Brosh’s imaginative rendering of her life escapades in her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Some people ‘on the inside’ (that is, working in the Department for Education) have criticised the proposals, arguing that “This is exactly the kind of dumbing down we are trying to get rid of. They must be having a laugh if they think A-levels in Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand are going to be let through”. Others, however, have praised these changes to the curriculum, pointing out that “The new A-level will introduce new approaches and scope for more creative writing, while offering teachers and students the flexibility to explore an extremely broad variety of styles, methodologies and genres”.

I think that it’s worthwhile exploring in more depth some of these positions, primarily because they represent two ideologically diametric stances, but for the moment, I just want to focus on what I think these changes actually entail.

The first thing to say is that the qualification is a qualification in English Language and Literature. That means that students primarily develop skills in English language and linguistics, and then apply these skills to a range of texts. Now, some of these texts will be the canonical classics like Shakespeare and so on, and students will likely examine English in its historical context, the impact writers like Shakespeare had on English, the Inkhorn Controversy, changes over time in English and so on. They might examine these texts from a literary perspective in terms of characterisation, meaning, thematic analysis etc etc, but that starts to move away from the purview of a linguisticĀ analysis. This is all great and good and I am totally on board with students reading and analysing these texts. Not only are they important points in the development of English but they are wonderful examples of literature and as such should be included in a course like this.

But since the qualification has at its heart English Language studies, it makes perfect sense that students examine contemporary texts as well, not as examples of classic literature, but rather as examples of language in action. As linguists, we don’t make appraisals about how good or bad a particular text is. Instead, we try to bring out the kinds of linguistic strategies and techniques that a writer (or speaker) utilises in the production of said text and to position this description within a broader social context. So looking at the Dizzee Rascal clip above, a linguist might examine not only his phonology and grammar and discuss this in relation to standard and non-standard linguistic markets, but also examine how persuasive his arguments are, what kind rhetorical strategies he uses, what his text tells us about language and race in the UK, how power relationship between Paxman and Rascal are encoded, how interruption and overlap are patterned throughout the interaction, and so on. These are all really important issues to examine and go beyond the ideology that because Dizzee Rascal is a hip-hop artist, we should just ignore any text in which he features.

Ultimately, giving students the skills to be able to analyse any text, regardless of its provenance, is a really important skill, and focusing purely on classic texts ignores the complexity of language that happens in every day situations. The OCR acknowledges this in their press release on the proposals: “The aim is for students to develop the skills to analyse any text, whether spoken or written, literary or non-literary, in the most appropriate way.

Analysing Rascal or Brand or Perry or Brosh or any other contemporary writer doesn’t meant the end of the UK as we know it. It doesn’t signal the death knell of a literary education. It doesn’t even represent a ‘dumbing down’ of students’ abilities or of the course material. If anything, focusing wholly on Orwell or Shakespeare or Blake or Wordsworth at the expense of other kinds of texts would simply hamstring students’ abilities to be able to transfer their skills to a variety of texts, would prevent them being able to understand the historical progression of English over time, and would make them think that the language that they listen to every day isn’t worth analysing. And it would be shameful if that happened.

The Social Linguist