Early days with the Professor of Literature

Dennis Walder, Emeritus Professor of Literature 

When I used to travel to Walton Hall for meetings I was fortunate to have Arnold Kettle, the Head of Department and sole Professor, sometimes invite me stay in the rambling old Kettle house in Aspley Guise.  After an evening discussing the politics of the day, we would listen to Arnold’s favourite opera singers, as he produced disk after disk from his vast collection.  He was hugely knowledgeable about opera (as is his elder son, Guardian columnist Martin Kettle).  At breakfast he would have two newspapers beside him – The Morning Star and The Times.  The first time I noticed this I enquired – Why The Times? ‘You need to know what the opposition is thinking,’ he replied.

Arnold Kettle was a prominent Communist, and knew he would never be appointed to a chair in a conventional university such as Leeds, where he had been Senior Lecturer for many years despite his eminence as a literary critic. His students there included Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it is striking that just prior to the OU he was briefly Chair of the English Department at the University of East Africa, Dar-es-Salaam. A few years ago at the University of Namibia I met one of his former students who recalled how Kettle had brought local African texts into their curriculum for the first time. ‘We are doing the same,’ he said proudly.

Kettle was the OU’s first Professor of Literature – not of English.  He chose the broader title for the Department too, believing literary study should range more widely than the standard English Department fare.  ‘You cannot say you know about the novel if you haven’t read Balzac and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Turgenev, ‘ he would say, ‘in translation if need be, as well as Dickens, the Brontes and James.’ He set up what became our massively popular full credit 19th Century Novel course, with an appropriate range of writers and issues.  And helped me to introduce texts from the former colonial territories into our curriculum, despite opposition.

Another early appointment, Brian Stone, a drama specialist, was a war veteran with an artificial leg, whose politics could not have been further from Arnold’s.  Brian provided the other side of the dialectic, remarked Arnold. There were many disagreements, not just between them. But everyone’s commitment to the idea of the course team, the most original and challenging departure from how conventional universities created and taught their courses, was profound. Nick Furbank, from King’s College Cambridge (E.M Forster’s friend and biographer), and Graham Martin from Bedford College London, were the next appointments, and a formidable group they were.  The emphasis initially was on more senior, experienced academics to translate their teaching into the new format, although soon there was also a young appointee, Cicely Havely, fresh from Oxford.

Course Team Meetings often ended up, as we used to say, with ‘blood on the floor’ – especially when creating the first multi- and interdisciplinary courses. But, as I discovered after my appointment, you soon got used to colleagues from other discipline areas critiquing your work, and the result was plain to see, as we began to come across well-thumbed copies of our course materials in other university libraries, despite the unusual A5 format of the ‘units’, and the initial disdain of other institutions. My own PhD supervisor at Edinburgh University seemed embarrassed to confess he was taking a bunch of our materials with him when he went to the States to teach a semester. ‘So well written,’ he muttered.

Initially drawing external examiners from established chairs elsewhere ensured growing acceptance of our ‘standards’, although there were some surprises on both sides.  At one exam board I was chairing on the 19th Century Novel Course the external reluctantly agreed that a paper was a First, adding, ‘but it’s not a transcendental First!’

In any case, Kettle did not believe that we as teachers of literature should be concerned overmuch with firsts.  As he said to me once, ‘The students who are going to get firsts can look after themselves; what we should be concerned with is teaching the majority, who will not get Firsts.’

Kettle was wise and subtle, and, as a chair, would keep his comments to a minimum.  His expression was often hard to read, which could be intimidating. So too was the fact that he had a phenomenal memory.  He could on occasion be cutting: once when a distinguished BBC colleague who always arrived late and with a hefty bag slung over his shoulder, came into a course team meeting with the usual commotion, Arnold turned to him: ‘Come for the night, Alasdair?’

He had a healthy skepticism about how much you could teach literature through television.  The real work was done through the printed materials, textbooks and the marking of student essays. His own academic background was relatively traditional, through Cambridge and Yale – although his Yale PhD was unusual in those days.  I once asked him about his Yale experience, and he said that while there he met the one person who had left the most lasting impression upon him of anyone he had come across:  the great bass baritone singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson.

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