The new A-level: The treatment of contexts

Reactions to the revised specifications were mixed. One English teacher, Pamela Bickley, described QCA’s new version of English Literature as ‘positively encouraging’. Its emphasis on contextuality made it a welcome alternative to ‘the A-Level tendency to study a work of literature as a discrete entity that springs to life fully formed’ and offered ‘far less possibility for indulging in the “This poem makes me feel sad” school of literary criticism’.40 However, many were more cautious. Some teachers objected to the stipulation that all students should study four pre- twentieth-century texts: such requirements were felt to alienate less able students and contradict the inclusive spirit of Curriculum 2000. Others were concerned about the prescriptive nature of the Assessment Objectives, and whether they would lead to a programmatic ‘A-level by numbers’. And teachers also worried about the amount of time they would need to devote to re-reading (and perhaps reinterpreting) set texts, feeling that their existing subject knowledge had been rendered obsolete. In addition to these fears, there have been a number of objections to the critical principles that the new specifications embody. One of these objections concerns the handling of literary contexts, and challenges the new A-level’s claim to radicality by questioning the rigour of its theoretical basis. As stated earlier in this chapter, an understanding of the contexts of production and reception was present in A-level syllabuses before the introduction of Curriculum 2000.

The mark scheme for the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Board’s ‘legacy syllabus’ in English Literature of June 2001, the final sitting of the ‘old’ A-level, stated that a knowledge of ‘social and political norms and mores, religious beliefs, customs and all aspects of cultural background’ would naturally underpin the study of particular texts: ‘Questions which involve character and relationships, social and financial hierarchies, marriage and the position of women, kingship and political manoeuvring, education and so on, are obviously dependent upon such knowledge.’41 What was intended to make the new specifications different was that rather than treating these contexts as a general prerequisite of literary study, they would emphasise specific types of contextual knowledge in certain questions on certain texts. At AS level, for instance, students following AQA Specification A would not need to show any contextual knowledge at all in their responses on the modern novel (Unit 1) or Shakespeare (Unit 2): such knowledge would only be required in Unit 3, which would involve the study of one pre-twentieth-century text and one text written after 1900. At A2, pre-1770 drama would be assessed in its critical context, while Romantic poetry would be studied in the light of its historical, social and cultural contexts.42 It is not surprising that George Keith, co-writer of AQA’s Specification B and one of its chief examiners, commented that ‘The plain fact is that you cannot even pass an A-level examination on just being a good reader’: success would now depend not just on the quality of a student’s response, but on a constant juggling of assessment objectives on the part of both teachers and their classes.43 Many English teachers worried about the precise extent of the contextual knowledge students would require: whether they would need to quote specific critics, or learn set pieces of information. Such concerns were heightened, rather than allayed, by the appearance of a rash of new publications aimed at helping students and teachers to cope with the demands of these objectives.

The ‘Cambridge Contexts in Literature’ series, endorsed by OCR and edited by Adrian Barlow, its Chief Examiner in English Literature, was presented as having been ‘carefully planned to help students evaluate the influence of literary, cultural and historical contexts on both writers and readers’.44 Frank Myszor and Jackie Baker, authors of Living Literature: Exploring Advanced Level English Literature, stated that their book was ‘closely linked to the Assessment Objectives […] The most important word here is context because it crops up explicitly or implicitly in most of the objectives. It is this word that has strongly influenced the organisation of this book.’45 This new method of dealing with contextual knowledge involves a selectiveness that undermines the new specifications’ claim to theo- retical rigour. QCA’s decision to restrict the assessment of contextual knowledge to certain papers implies that such knowledge can sometimes be dispensed with: that texts can be understood without any reference to the circumstances in which they are written and read. This interpre- tation of ‘contexts’ is markedly different from that provided by Rob Pope, who argues in The English Studies Book (a popular undergraduate introduction to critical theory) that contexts constitute both the text and the reader’s understanding of it. Modern literary theory, states Pope, rejects the idea that contexts can ever be dismissed or ignored: that ‘literature is somehow distinct or detachable from the social and historical conditions in which it is produced and received’, and that ‘the primary object of study is “the text in itself”, with the context (including intertextual relations) being treated as merely secondary or even optional’.

46 Pope goes on to say that for contemporary literary historians, the text is less ‘the expression of some uniquely individual genius’ than ‘an expression of the interplay of contextual conditions and social-historical forces’: it cannot be detached from the circumstances of production and interpretation.47 However, such a detachment is precisely what some of the new specifications have sought to achieve, restricting students to certain kinds of response in a manner that has no apparent literary rationale. AQA Specification A, one of the most popular specifications, discourages students from exploring cultural and historical contexts in its A2 unit on ‘Literary Connections’, even though many of the specified areas of study – which in 2002 included ‘History in Litera- ture’, ‘A Woman’s Struggle’ and ‘Experiences of India’ – seem to demand such an investigation.

The study of Shakespeare at AS level shows particular inconsistencies, as a knowledge of contexts is prohibited by some boards yet actively rewarded by others. Edexcel, for instance, sets AO5 (‘show understanding of the contexts in which literary texts are written and understood’) as a dominant objective, saying that students must comment on how their chosen play ‘was affected by the social or theatrical conditions of the time’.48 Yet AQA Specification A states that tasks on Shakespeare should not ‘encourage critical reading and back- ground reading’: instead, the focus should be on the play itself. AQA does provide a pedagogical rationale for this decision, stating that students cannot necessarily cope with the intellectual demands of contextual study at this stage in the course,49 but this belief is clearly not shared by other boards, who see their students as fully capable of rising to this challenge. (Incidentally, even at GCSE, students are asked to ‘relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts and literary traditions’.)50 This confusing situation is rendered even more bizarre by the fact that many teachers will nevertheless want to introduce elements of contextual knowledge in order to develop students’ understanding of the text, reasoning that it is difficult to teach (for example) The Merchant of Venice without referring to the play’s stage history and critical legacy, even though such topics may not be explicitly required for the final examination. As a result, students are then involved in a strange form of ‘doublethink’, in which the knowledge they acquire in class has to be hidden in the exam – lest it should prevent them from fulfilling the assessment objectives on which they will eventually be tested.

It is worth looking at AQA Specification A in more detail, since this specification’s treatment of contextual knowledge has been particularly ambivalent. The way in which Specification A has implemented AOs 4 and 5 represents not so much an embracing of such knowledge, as a retreat from it: consequently, this retreat can be seen as embodying both a fear of academic literary knowledge and a desire to reinstate in the A-level curriculum a more ‘amateur’ set of values. This emphasis on the heuristic function of literature results, effectively, in a crude reduction of scholarship to a kind of Gradgrindian fact-grubbing. The implication is that to focus on knowledge is to close down the imaginative possibilities of the text – and thereby any opportunity for personal growth. The hesitant approach of AQA to AOs 4 and 5 is perhaps most apparent in Specification A’s treatment of Romantic poetry and pre-1770 drama, both of which are examined through an A2 unit called ‘Texts in Time’. The board’s Specimen Papers for this unit, released to give teachers an impression of what the new system would involve, seemed to ground this paper in a definite body of scholarship. A sample question on Othello, in the ‘Texts in Time’ paper, asked: ‘In the opinion of F. R. Leavis, “Iago’s power is that he represents something that is in Othello.” To W. H. Auden, however, Iago was “a portrait of a practical joker of an appalling kind.” Discuss these and other ways of regarding Iago’s role in the play.’ The marking grid for this question stated that students would need to show ‘a reasonable understanding of the views of Leavis and Auden about Othello’ to achieve as little as seven marks out of a possible twenty, the equivalent of a bare pass: to achieve an A, students would need to show a ‘grasp of the significance of the issues raised by Leavis, Auden and other readers’.

Meanwhile, students writing on Wordsworth were invited to consider the extent to which the poetic philosophy expressed in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads was put into practice in Book II of The Prelude. To achieve a pass, it seemed that students would need a substantial knowledge of relevant criticism and the historical, cultural and social backgrounds of their set authors: to reach the highest grades, judgements would need to be underpinned by a kind of knowledge that was ‘specific, detailed’ and ‘mature, sophisticated, confident, even scholarly’.51 This emphasis on the understanding of contexts – rather than on the individual reader’s relationship with the text – can be interpreted in a number of conflicting ways. On one level, it can be viewed as part of the attempt to lessen the gap between A-level and degree level study by drawing on aspects of post-structuralist theory, encouraging students to see texts as generated by specific historical, social and cultural formations rather than as the discrete and de-historicised products of ‘genius’, and to examine their own interpretive stances and assumptions. Conversely, it is also possible to see it as part of a bureaucratic movement that emphasises the use of precise learning objectives as a means of regulating the ‘quality’ of educational provision. Simon Dentith has described this movement in terms of an ‘audit culture’ that is radically opposed to the existence of an ‘autonomous unregulated “professional” sphere’, evidence of a profound mistrust of the notion of academic freedom.52 And Dentith’s argument hints at a further conservatism that lies beneath the new assessment objectives, which can be seen as part of a backlash against the perceived undermining of scholarship represented by the liberal and radical Englishes of the last two or three decades. This backlash can, in turn, be linked to a more abstract kind of anxiety about the value attributed to English in contemporary education. In Curriculum 2000, as in the late nineteenth century, the knowledge represented by the contexts of literature seemed to offer an attempt to address the problem of defining what ‘doing English’ – a notoriously diffuse practice – was to involve. Nevertheless, the reality of AQA Specification A turned out to be rather different from the version of English encoded in the new subjectcriteria.

The early sittings of the exam were marked by an extremely cautious approach to AOs 4 and 5. To some extent, this caution was motivated by an understandable desire to discourage the simple regur- gitation of unassimilated secondary material. In 2001, after the June sitting of the first AS level exams, AQA reminded schools that ‘it should not be forgotten that the text remains the primary focus of every answer; knowledge of context is addressed via knowledge of the text itself’.53 Successful candidates, therefore, ‘kept the text at the forefront of their answer and integrated contextual information when it was appropri- ate’: less successful answers consisted of ‘biographical accounts which paid minimal attention to the [text] itself’.54 However, AQA’s approach also betrayed an ambivalence about the value of contextual knowledge, suggesting that such knowledge could be considered superfluous to the ‘sound knowledge and understanding’ required to reach the highest grades.55 While the ‘Texts in Time’ specimen paper had demanded a detailed knowledge of the work of named critics, the papers that were eventually set involved a much more subjective approach that actually required very little discussion of critical sources. Questions typically invited students to consider two opposing quotations and then articulate a personal viewpoint: ‘One critic describes Portia as “a great lady who brings to the play a dignity, an authority and good breeding.” Another sees her as “insensitive and cruel in both word and deed.”

What evidence is there in the play for both of these views? What kind of character do you think Shakespeare created in Portia?’.56 None of these critical views were dated or attributed, and students were therefore not invited to discuss what kind of contexts might have shaped other critics’ interpretations, or indeed their own – thus meaning that a significant aspect of the philosophy behind A2, the requirement that candidates should evaluate the significance of contextual influences on a text’s reception over time, was not actually subject to any kind of formal examination.57 In fact, in March 2002, AQA’s Principal Examiner for the ‘Texts in Time’ paper informed schools that students would not need to read works of criticism in order to approach this paper:

Good candidates who are not put off by the learned language used by some of the critics may well benefit by reading critical opinion, even critical theory. Most candidates, however, are better served by lively discussions in the classroom where different ways of looking at a play are encouraged. No critics are now named in the questions, and every attempt is made to ensure that their opinions are expressed in language which A level students really ought to understand.58

Subsequent pronouncements stated that the ‘different interpretations’ mentioned in the wording of AO4 could, in fact, be those voiced by other students in the candidate’s own class – meaning that it would be entirely possible for a student to achieve Grade A at A-level without having read any literary criticism at all.

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