From November 17th till November 18th the HSN-conference took place at our department. HSN (Het Schoolvak Nederlands) is a two-day meeting for teachers of mother tongue (Dutch) and literature who have the opportunity to exchange good practices. At this conference the essay ‘De Cultuur van het Lezen’ by Ronald Soetaert was presented and one of the strands was organised around this essay. The essay offers several perspectives on the functions of reading and literature. It doesn’t want to take a stance pro or contra reading in general or a certain type of literature in particular but wants to look at the continuum on which the debates about these issues are taking place. The essay and the presentation of this essay during the plenary session were filled with citations of novels and quotes from movies. I tried to do the same.

In his novel ‘De Plaag’ David van Reybroeck describes the frustration of the scientist Darts who doesn’t get any acknowledgement for his scientific research in South-Afrika during colonialism (my apologies for the Dutch quote):

“Ik geloof niet dat Darts’ gebrek aan erkenning een uitzonder¬lijk voorbeeld van wetenschappelijke verblinding betrof. Inte¬gendeel, die episode zegt iets over de scheve verhouding tussen gevestigde geleerden in de metropool en gedreven onderzoekers in de kolonie. Deze laatsten ontbeerden vaak de noodzakelijke geloofsbrieven – iets waar Marais ook mee te kampen had. Wetenschappelijke inzichten veranderen lang niet alleen door ontdekkingen of argumenten, maar minstens zozeer door de sociale netwerken waarin onderzoekers werkzaam zijn. Het zijn die netwerken die bepalen wie geloofwaardig is en wie niet, welke gegevens als betrouwbaar gelden en welke theorieën plausibel zijn. […] De vondst klopte niet, de man klopte niet, de plek klopte niet.”

Van Reybroeck uses the personage of Darts to make clear that the value of science is not only dependent on the research findings and the arguments but is just as much depending on this social network in which the research (so the arguments) are taking place. The value of science is “situated” in the context where it is taking place, depending on “the finding, “the man” and “the place” (translation of the last sentence of the quote).

In my presentation during the strand ‘De Cultuur van het Lezen’ I tried to make a similar point about the science of literature in general and literary criticism in particular, starting from the movie Educating Rita. This film represents very clearly how the (academic) evaluation of literature is based on a few conventions and codes and that being able to talk about literature in an “appropriate” manner comes down to knowing and being able to use these codes.

For instance, Rita (the hair dresser who is taking an Open University course in English literature) is having a discussion with Frank (the cynical professor of literature) about the significance of a “tragedy”. According to Frank Macbeth is tragedy, but a car falling on a tree isn’t.
Rita: “It is for the poor bugger under the tree”.

In one of the next scenes we witness a discussion between Frank and Rita about the value of a critical/ academic paper:

Frank: In those terms it’s worthless. It shouldn’t be, but it is; in its own terms it’s – it’s wonderful.
Rita: (confronting him across the desk) It’s worthless! You said. An’ if it’s worthless you’ve got to tell me because I wanna write essays like those on there. (She points to the essays on the desk.) I wanna know, an’ pass exams like they do.
Frank: But, don’t you see, if you’re going to write this sort of thing – (He indicates the pile of essays.) – to pass examinations, you’re going to have to suppress, perhaps even abandon your uniqueness. I’m going to have to change you.
Rita: But don’t you realize, I want to change! Listen, is this your way of tellin’ me that I can’t do it? That I’m no good?

Rita will not get any acknowledgement with her paper in the world of academic criticism (In those terms its worthless) but Frank tries to show that her text isn’t worth less for that reason (In ot’s own terms it’s wonderful). Rita however wants to learn the academic “ways with words” to talk about literature (I wanna write essays like those on there) to be part of the social network where one takes in this way about literature (But don’t you realize I want to change). She want to be part of the literary club.

As teachers we have to be aware of our code and our club. As we want to immerse students in the discourse of literary criticism, then we have to be aware of the kinds of argumentation that count in a certain setting. So, being aware of ‘our’ and their’ kinds of argumentation has to be central in out teaching. Precisely in fiction we can see examples that can help us to understand reality better.

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