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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

End of Year Report

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Now I do not consider myself a vain person - he says, vainly - but indulge me just for a while in this post. After all, personal blogs are inherently narcissistic, so if I cannot talk about myself here, where can I?

The occasion for my smugness was my final day of teaching this year. Rather than running a tutorial on a single topic, I was holding an open office morning just before the exams, for students from any of my modules to drop in and to air their concerns.

I had begun by talking with one student about his view of post-Renaissance literature, and his argument that Robinson Crusoe exemplifies the collapse of metaphysics. I suggested that this was something of an over-simplification, and that a better view would be that during the Enlightenment science and religion coexisted, albeit somewhat uneasily, and in fact that the rise of capitalism, scientific method and mass literature in the seventeenth century perhaps took on a sort of metaphysical character, a belief in the power of rational thought to pull man up the ladder of faith.

Next up, I talked with another student about Puritanism in Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. We chatted about the way in which, in this novel of the 1850s which looks back to the 1650s, Hawthorne tried to expose the historical fact that the old, singular, strident morality of Puritanism on which the New World was originally founded had been shown to be problematic as America become more multicultural. Recalling my MA dissertation, I suggested that he go an read one or two of Hawthorne's other, moralising short stories, such as "Egotism, or, The Bosom Serpent."

My third student was concerned about Literary Theory, and was wondering whether Ian McEwan might be a good author to approach from a feminist angle. We chatted about the Thatcherite figure in The Child in Time, and the emasculated male characters in later works like Saturday or On Chesil Beach. We then puzzled on how gender issues might inform McEwan's next "climate change" novel.

As the student left, and I drew breath, it was at this point that the whiff of my satisfaction hung in the office. In the space of an hour, I had gone from the seventeenth century to a novel (McEwan's next) that has not yet been published; I had discussed the history of science, then the history of feminism; from the putative Great American Novel of Fitzgerald, to the desert islands of Daniel Defoe. Even though, as these students evidenced, I would have been covering a similar range as an undergraduate, suddenly, and for the first time in my educational history, I felt at ease and confident in my subject. Like a well-fitted suit, literature and literary criticism seems to have slipped on me so that here I was, taking my mind for a wander, not noticing all the different areas of learning I was carrying with me.

As I commented on this blog, towards the start of my PhD four years ago I felt highly self-conscious, even nervous, at conferences and seminars, because other academics' questions always seemed much more informed and well-formed than my own. Following a seminar, my supervisor, for instance, who ostensibly works in postmodern theory and contemporary literature, would happily drop in references to Jonathan Swift, or James Boswell, or Plato. I had always wondered where that sort of breadth of knowledge could possibly come from. In my tutorial room, though, I realised that it is teaching that plays no small part in it. As I wrote earlier this year, teaching across multiple modules gives you a range and allows you to perceive interconnections between material that you can rarely perceive when doing a prosaic research project. And students like those I saw for the final time this year, who are engaged and interested and who bring their own ideas, demands and questions, force tutors to be light of their step through literary history. If I opened this post in a self-indulgent manner, I have to close by acknowledging that if I feel myself to have learnt a lot this year, and to have acquired a new confidence in my subject, it is only because my students have forced me to do so by their own abilities and searching questions. My students this year have, oddly, been among my best teachers in the whole of my university career.

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Posted by Alistair at 5:48 pm


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