It ain’t broke – but maybe we’ve fixed it
No, there wasn’t anything wrong with the way the Oxford Conference was running – in the past few years it has gone from strength to strength and covered a wide range of topic areas, from the new geography of literatures in English to Film and Literature. The focus has always been on teaching – and this conference is unique in that focus. It has achieved the status of one of the British Council’s flagship initiatives.
As the British Council has revamped the way Literature and Film are presented, the coordinating panel, rather prettily called LILAC (Literature, Language and Culture), wanted to give the Conference a fresh profile, and in particular wanted to focus on reading, and on the participants as readers. And we felt it was time that the standard old-fashioned input mode was in need of a rethink: shouldn’t there be a bit more dialogue? And when the subject is literature, shouldn’t there be some actual reading going on?
So this year’s Conference had the title Reading Worlds – and covered worlds of canonical and non-canonical writing, culture and politics, brand new writing from New Writing 12, creative writing and creative reading, and on to approaches to assessment and evaluation.
One of the major innovations introduced by Sean Matthews and Claudia Ferradas Moi, this year’s co-chairs, was reading groups. These have proliferated worldwide, and it was high time shared reading experiences became part of the dialogue and interchange the Conference represents.
This tied in with a whole new dialogic approach to the contributions: most of the presentations were given by two speakers, in challenging or convergent mode. And the writers who read their work and talked about it did so in conversation and discussion, rather than as straight input. Recurring themes included the teaching of creative writing, which several of the writers are engaged in: can it be taught, or only guided? The consensus seemed to be that there too, it was a question of dialogue between writers and their potential readers.
This relaxed dialogue mode was a new experience for all concerned – and for none more so than Richard Hoggart, who in more than sixty years of a glorious career had never actually done a reading from his works. His wide-ranging career as a cultural commentator, academic, and UNESCO Deputy Director General took in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, the start-up of BBC2, and ground-breaking books like The Uses of Literacy. In conversation with Sean, he kept us entertained, and indeed moved, with his reflections on literature, culture and society over the past half-century – and managed to resist actually reading from any of his books right to the very end.
For everyone who was present, that Sunday afternoon dialogue will remain an unforgettable experience.
From the first session – a reading of a text by Julio Cortazar in Spanish and English, it was hands-on texts; Ron Carter and John McRae played out the arguments for and against reading the canon and/or recent writing; Rob Pope brought textual intervention to bear on the creativity of teaching and reading; Jane Spiro showed how forms of assessment need to keep pace with developments in reading methodologies; and all the while reading groups read, talked and read – sometimes late into the evening. Blake Morrison chaired a plenary reading group on poetry, but it was largely the participants themselves who led the groups – and covered a huge range from the canonical (Wordsworth, Heart of Darkness) to the very recent (the new novel Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi, published earlier this year), by way of Hanif Kureishi, and several selections from New Writing 12.
All three of the editors of New Writing 12 contributed to the discussions: Diran Adebayo and Jane Rogers also talked about writing – that necessary precursor and accompaniment to reading. Insights into their own ways of working, into author events, and into how and what they read, stimulated interaction both inside and outside the seminar room. Later A. L. Kennedy and Toby Litt gave readings of extracts from their new novels that left the audience wanting more.
Spinning out from the plenary sessions was the other major innovation of this year’s Conference – sessions called Making Tracks, where each of the two chairs, and Alan Pulverness, worked with one of the two presenters in more detail, and in interactive mode with the participants, on the ideas and issues raised in the plenary. This allowed for much more of a seminar feeling, with everyone chipping in, and a lot more interchange than usual.
The highly successful Creative Writing and Reading initiatives from Slovakia and Romania, partly inspired by earlier Oxford Conferences, were among the many local projects which the participants illustrated: it can be done – creativity can be brought into all levels of teaching and learning, and more projects will doubtless emerge as fruit of this Conference.
Sessions presenting Examination Board’s ways of working were revealing and informative, perhaps confirming our fears rather than raising our hopes, and one particularly useful session presented ways of developing projects, and ways of financing them.
So, the Oxford Project is up and running: dialogue more than input, reading groups rather than simply readings, tracks to take the discussion forward. All of which we can refine for the next time.
Corpus Christi College always seems to be in bloom the week of our Conference – hyacinths and tulips, and these ubiquitous canonical daffodils.
That was number 19. Next year’s Conference, the 20th, marks a special anniversary, and we are looking at big names and big reputations – reading reputations, reading at the edge, the cutting edge of modern writing, as well as readings of the canon that are at the cutting edge of critical thinking and methodology.
Good food, good wine, good company, good conversation – and lots of good reading.
What more could you want? More of the same – but even better. That is what the 20th Oxford Conference on the Teaching of Literature will aim to do.
3 – 9 April 2005 – note the dates.
John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies at the University of Nottingham, and co-author of The Routledge Guide to Modern English Writing. He is Project Advisor to the British Council Literature Department.