Friday, February 16, 2007


In a recent attempt to get my phd back on track, I bought an undergraduate book called, Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. I thought it would be interesting to blog the 'Stocktaking' exercise at the end of chapter one.
He asks 4 questions -
1. What first made you decide to study English, what you hoped to gain from doing so, and whether that hope was realised;
2. which books and authors were chosen for study and what they had in common;
3. whch books and authors now seem conspicuously absent;
4. what, in general terms, your previous study taught you (about 'life', say, or conduct or about literature itself).
Barry, Peter, Beginning Theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2002, p.8.
I studied Literature at Queensland University and then did a Bachelor of Letters in Literary Studies at Deakin University. The approach of each university was hugely different. At Queensland, I streamlined my course mainly towards the moderns. It was interesting that we studied very few women writers - the exception being Virginia Woolf. Modern American Literature, taught by a gung ho American, featured NO WOMEN writers AT ALL. An inordinate amount of time in that unit was spent discussing Norman Mailer.
Contemporary authors appeared in two units only - one Contemporary Australian Fiction - only books published in the previous five years could be set - and Post-Colonial Fiction - both were fantastic. In these I studied Barbara Hanrahan - and read everything of hers I could get my hands on - Thea Astley (ditto), David Ireland - and I can't remember the others. (Hey, this goes back more than a handful of years, you know!) In Post-Colonial Fiction we looked at The House of Mr. Biswas among other novels. No poetry that I can remember, although surely we should have looked, at least, at Derek Walcott? I can't remember any women, either - but the field is so rich with them - what happened to Jean Rhys, for example, or Jamaica Kincaid? But it was just a blessing that such units existed, really, because they threw students on to their own close reading - particularly Contemp. Australian Lit. There was no criticism around these books - you had to do it yourself. It wasn't like reading Virginia Woolf, and then reading entire books that pulled her work apart. That was the work you had to.
At Deakin, the approach was different - Literary Studies combined creative writing with a multi-disciplinary approach to literature. We read widely - again, not much contemporary literature, but certainly with a great deal more emphasis on women writers and poetry. You were encouraged to draw on your own reading and discuss a diverse range of writings - partly, I think, because you had to also write.
I see have answered questions 1, 2 and 3 in the same breath. Question 4 is a little trickier. I think that what both my formal studies of literature provided me with was the ability and confidence to read closely and the vocabulary with which to discuss what I had read - or was trying to write. Perhaps as importantly both courses consolidated an intellectual curiousity about literature (and visual art, as my undergraduate degree consisted also of a double major in Fine Art History). I don't mean by this that I was taught the 'on-sight close reading' advocated by I. A Richards and F R Leavis, although I think this may have been at the bedrock of most of my tutorials. This approach of divorcing literature from it's social, political, historical and autobiographical influences would have been in constant conflict with the way my mother read and also the way the bookshop people read. It would have been in further conflict with the way Fine Arts was taught - and I was doing a double major in this while I studied at Queensland.
I can't remember and significant brushes with literary theory- with two important exceptions - feminist theory and postcolonial theory. Both of these had strong elements in common and both helped to shape my ideas of what was possible with language. Later, at Deakin, I learnt about the work of Canadian poets, Betsy Warland and Daphne Marlatt and understood a little more about jouissance. I still feel my grasp of literary theory is muddled and incoherent. (Hence the book, of course!)


M-H said...

Oh man. ModAmLit without Joyce Carol Oates? Unbelieveable! Mind you, in the 1990s I did a 20th century lit course in which the latest work was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1959) and most of the course was Joyce and Eliot. No Americans at all and almost no living authors.

Cattyrox said...

Oh no Mary-Helen, no women. Tut Tut. Messy. Domestic. Whining. Too small a canvas. No style. I seriously think these were the unspoken justifications for not including any women on the reading list. Unbelievable.

Gemma said...

Hi, my name is gemma and i am currently a student in tasmania. we were asked to gather some information on a particular author of our choosing and ask questions such as where do your ideas come from? what are your habits as a writer? i first read airdancer of glass and it captured my imagination and made me want to fly with pink dread-locks. i was wondering if you would like to answer some questions. my email is thank you very much :) take care. gem

GoTA said...

I recently bought my partner a book called 'Doctorates Down Under'. Heard it's useful.

Anonymous said...

Hello Catherine it's Rhiannon,

It's been a long time but I thought that I would drop a line to you and say hey.

I have actually now moved to Bundoora to study at LaTrobe University.

I was accepted into a Bachelor of Archaeology. It is an awsome class and I am looking at doing 3 years.

I had better dash I have to get some homework done.