Spots of Time


Richard Allen, Emeritus Professor of English (Dean of Arts Faculty 1998-1999, 2000-2007)

The first specialist Literature course, A302 The Nineteenth Century Novel and its Legacy, was half way through its first production when I joined the OU (but not the English Department) in 1973. Before then Literature played just a part in the multi-disciplinary courses that had been produced at levels 1 and 2. Working on a full 60 point canvas was plainly a heady experience and the enthusiasm of the course team was matched by that of the first students. I soon became a part-time tutor for the course and shared that enthusiasm — and the demands of the course. It was wide ranging; Mansfield Park AND Wuthering Heights AND Anna Karenina AND Middlemarch AND Germinal AND Huckleberry Finn to name but some of the texts. It introduced students to literariness but also asked them to read with a sense of literature as involved in the ethical, social, and political. Approaches that were explored in a summer school devoted just to this course. The course ran from 1973 to 1978 — courses were only expected to run for four years then — and then came back by popular demand in 1982 and ran then until 1990.

Later, when I eventually joined the English Department in 1987 (it was the Literature Department then), A319 Literature in the Modern World was part way through its production. The course offered a quite different but equally interesting range of texts as previous courses but marked a major shift in engaging students with the theoretical developments in literary studies of the 1970s and 80s. This latter aspect was not universally popular with students. As course director for a week of the summer school associated with the course, I chaired a feedback session and was getting a good deal of flack from a group of students who seemed to represent the majority. I called on a new person who then said, ‘I just want to say that this course has introduced me to a lot of texts I didn’t know and a lot of new ideas and I’m really glad of that.’ Spontaneous applause showed that she was far from alone and perhaps in a majority. And that’s how it felt as we went on through the years of the course.

And finally, there was A210 Approaching Literature. Literature was in the vanguard of persuading the Faculty to change the policy developed in 1971 which limited specialist subject teaching to level 3. Now we were able to teach Literature in a new way. Positively, in that in such teaching of texts, methods and critical ideas could be spread over two levels (equivalent to two years) — a ladder rather than a single step. Students liked that. This fitted well with a further change that came a few years after, and the Faculty and the University introduced named subject degrees. Again, students liked that. But along with that shift, which brought the OU into the mainstream of UK higher education, came perhaps inevitably a more complex shift — to the world of progression and programmes. Positive again, because it provided in theory a planned rise in difficulty and demand for students; less positive in that it emphasised the frame against the separate elements within — ‘frame’ may here refer to a pedagogical framework or a thematic framework.

Later I learnt more about the system used by most US universities which combine a modular approach with a different kind of frame in which the focus is much less on progression and more on meeting certain conditions linked to skills, but also to coverage, multi-disciplinarity — and the possibility of more intense specialisation. But how could this be relevant given that the ‘international’ OU is firmly linked within UK systems? But how did the original OU academics think outside the box in the 1970s?

Maybe these ‘spots of time’ can — as Wordsworth says — provide ‘a renovating virtue’?

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