Thursday, 7 October 2021

Cable Street - whose Cable Street?

 There are some tweets going up talking about the Cable Street commemoration which take the tack that the left has 'appropriated' the Battle of Cable Street and that this 'left' has excluded or 'erased' Jews from the commemoration.

Both these ideas are false history and a false representation of the commemoration.

The demonstration in 1936 came about as a result of many different groups and organisations, as David Rosenberg makes clear in his book, 'Battle for the East End', and as my parents told me. It was an occasion where the organisation of these different groups got to a point that it brought in thousands of people who were not actually in the organised groups. It's what happens when there is good grassroots organising and sufficient levels of outrage 'in the air' at the time. Which organisations were crucial on the day (or before can be argued about but Dave points to the Jewish People's Council as a key one because it was acting in an open, grassroots, non-sectarian way, using the principle of unity in action, no matter what the disagreements were between them. The Communist Party, the local Labour Party, the ILP and trade unions such as the RMT were crucial too. In other words it was a mix of political parties, religious groups, communal organisations, and trade unions. However, it's worth remembering (as we were reminded at the commemoration) that some people were both Jewish and Communist, or both Jewish and in the Labour Party or the ILP or in trade unions! Talking about people as either Jewish OR leftwing is a gross misrepresentation of how people like my parents thought or acted.

As for the left today 'appropriating' Cable Street and 'erasing' Jews is a nonsense. Without the left there would have been no Battle to keep Mosley out. The purely religious leadership did what they could to warn local Jews (like my parents) to stay at home. (see David's article below). Local synagogues didn't all take any notice of this though. So the left is entitled to lead the commemorations. That said, if anyone wants to organise another commemoration, there is nothing that can stop them. It's absurd to complain that people are excluded from an open commemoration or from an event that they could organise if they wanted to!

As for 'erasing Jews', then I must have been there erasing myself along with Rabbi Gluck, Dave Rosenberg, Julia Bard, Ruth Levitas, June Legg, Tony Booth and Mary Davis who made a clear impassioned speech pointing out that Stepney Communist Party was largely Jewish and that Stepney elected a Jewish Communist MP (Phil Piratin) in 1945. Of course, what people who are saying such things as Jews being 'erased' or being 'appropriated' are trying to convey is that left wing and Communist Jews don't count. In other words, they want to take away a piece of left wing Jewish history.

But of course Jews didn't win the 'Battle' on their own. A mix of community, trade union and politicised resistance spread across many people(s) other than Jews, with plenty of people name checking the local 'Irish dockers' amongst them.

Meanwhile there is a common misunderstanding of who fought who on the day. For the record, the demonstration did not by and large fight Mosley's British Union of Fascists. The demonstration was a piece of civil disobedience to prevent the BUF from marching through the East End. The police took it upon themselves to claim that the BUF had the right to do so, and so fought with the demonstrators to forge a route through. The police failed. However, though I've been saying this for years, I was very interested to see a bit of footage on a Channel 5 documentary that I did a bit of commentating for. On film you see quite clearly one of the uniformed BUF men hitting a demonstrator while standing next to a policeman. Then the policeman does the same. They are clearly acting in concert, taking turns. However, the story remains the same: the BUF were held at Mansell Street waiting to be given the all clear from the cops and never got it. They did not pass.

I didn't ever think that people who hate the left and hate left wing Jews would turn this heroic day into a way of bashing the left and bashing left wing Jews. Of course I feel it personally and politically. I heard the story of that day told by my parents over and over again. It's part of my political folklore, my home political education. Writing this, I'm reminded of sitting in a classroom in the 1970s and a school student reciting MLK's 'I had a dream' speech. Political traditions, family traditions, social traditions intermingle and are held dear to us.

Please feel free to post other articles and links on the comments thread below.

Here's Dave Rosenberg's article.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Reply to Simon Jenkins' article about accent, dialect and grammar.

The journalists' rule on 'grammar' is that they feel entitled to say something about it, even though the last time they ever studied it is nearly always when they're at school. This week the clever and thoughtful Simon Jenkins waded into the topic of accent, dialect and grammar. His article is here:

It would be handy if people made clear the difference between accent and dialect. A rough rule of thumb would be to say that 'accent' is a term to talk about how we sound (phonetics, phonology); 'dialect' is about vocabulary (lexis), grammar, morphology (how we construct words (eg happy-happiness)) and syntax - (how we construct sentences). I went to school with people who varied between saying 'I haven't got any' and 'I ain't got none'. They varied their dialects. 

The big issue in Simon's article though is 'grammar'. Apart from a quick list of 'parts of speech' (as we used to call them), it's not really clear what he means. Well, actually, I'll revise that:  it's quite clear what he means -  the grammar of standard written English sentences. It can be found in its simplified form in the primary school curricula and tests in England backed by a glossary that the Dept of Education hands out and in the proliferating books of worksheets that schools and parents buy. 

By simply referring to  this as 'grammar', people talking like this sell a pass: that this 'grammar'  is the only grammar. That is, it is the only or best descriptive system available to us to explain or describe how we construct language. Interestingly, so dominant is this view, that hardly anyone ever has to argue the case. This grammar just is 'grammar', 'the' grammar. 

In fact, there is a good deal to dispute about this 'grammar'. Here are some of the arguments against it:

1. This grammar is based on 'ideal' sentences, created specially for the purpose of showing (or proving) that these descriptions are good and right. In fact, vast amounts of our language output do not fit these 'ideal' sentences: a good deal of speech, (conversations); many written genres  other than formal standard prose eg film scripts, ads, packaging language, signs, slogans, a lot of poetry and drama, notices and the vast swathes of online language such as social media, websites and much more. This 'grammar' mostly ignores (or can't cope with)  this huge language output.  

2. Related to this:  this 'grammar' is not interested in (nor can explain) two key features of language: variation and change. It is locked into what I am referring to as 'ideal' sentences. In education, these can be found in the artificial composed sentences in the school tests. 

3. This grammar developed as a means of describing the formal prose of classic Roman writers. Latin is not English. The grammar was devised to describe the written form of language produced by highly educated people. We can see the strain in the descriptive apparatus of this 'grammar' when it tries to map descriptions of Latin on to English. One key example is 'tense'. The idea behind 'tense' is that a given verb form expresses a given time frame. So the verb  that everyone who did Latin remembers is 'amare' (to love) and is 'conjugated' like this: 'amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant'. This is the 'present' tense and so translates as 'I love, you love (addressed to one person), he/she/it loves, we love, you love, they love.' We were told that this is what it always is: the present. (I don't know (or don't remember) if Romans in real life used the present tense as flexibly as we do in English where we can use this form to help express both past events and even future ones.  We often use this form to tell stories that happened in the past. We can also use the 'present continuous' (or 'present progressive')  with the use of a word like 'tomorrow' to talk about the future:  'I'm going out tomorrow'. 

In the fact of this obvious situation with real language (as opposed to rule-bound 'ideal' sentences) honest grammarians and educators would dump the term 'tense' and talk of 'time aspect' which is created with a mix of flexible verb forms and time words like 'tomorrow', 'yesterday'.

4. A more fundamental criticism of this 'grammar' though is that it is deficient as a description of language. It largely ignores why and how we choose to say and write our language-in-use.  That is, we use language in various contexts. Broadly speaking, these are a) whatever is the subject in hand b) whatever 'genre' we are in or using and c) who are the participants in the language moment and what is the relationship between them. Let's apply this to this blog you're reading: a) the subject in hand is language, grammar; b) the genre is a blog that is in a genre of blogs on partly academic subjects including education c) the participants are i) me, with my history and education and class position and ii) readers who I imagine, as based on my experience of having given talks and written articles like this before. 

This method of looking at my language choices will deliver up various explanations why the language of this blog is the way it is. Some of the terminology of 'grammar' may be useful, but it won't explain why this blog is written in the way it is. It won't go much beyond the abstract 'rules'  of the blog's sentences. 

As it happens, the sentences in this blog overlap enough with the 'ideal' sentences for 'grammar' to be able to describe a lot of this blog's sentences. We only have to switch to a phrase like 'No smoking' as we see it posted up in public places and we find that 'grammar' can't do the job. Let's try. I'm going to assume that most people reading this blog know that if they see 'No smoking' in a public place that it is a command to the effect that we must not smoke, more or less synonymous with 'Don't smoke.'  But 'grammar''s rule of a command is precisely that it should include a structure like 'Don't' (known as a 'negative imperative'). So how does 'No smoking' command us so successfully? Because of its context. A mix of the matter of theme, genre and participants has told us over many years that this phrase tells us to not smoke. All that the 'grammar' can tell us is that 'no smoking' is a description as in 'I walked into the room and there was no smoking going on'. It can tell us that 'smoking' is a 'gerund' - that is a 'present participle' being used as a 'noun'. But this description is useless for telling us what is going on with 'no smoking' as a piece of very successful, very common communication. Grammar fail. 

What I've done here can be multiplied a millionfold with the examples I've given of language-use other than that of the sentences of formal prose. 

5. There is another issue. We structure language in passages, sequences, forms of interchange. These last over time and/or space. The key thing grammatically here is that what I am saying or writing at any given moment will be linked in many different subtle ways to other parts of the passage. Words like 'the','a', 'I', 'me', 'my', 'mine', 'you', 'your', 'yours', 'he', 'him', 'his', 'she', 'her', 'hers', 'it', 'its, 'we', 'our', 'ours', 'they', 'them', 'their', 'theirs', 'this', 'that', 'these', 'those' are crucial to linking one part of what we say and write to another part. There are also words like 'later', 'further', 'earlier' that are useful. All these come under the heading of 'cohesion' which 'grammar' as taught in primary schools in England does notice in quite a brief way but are crucial to how we speak and write passages of language. 

What's missing from this though are other ways in which we create passages in speech or writing. Here are some: 

a) we tend to create 'lexical fields' where we use several words which are in a similar 'zone' of meaning. In poetry and fiction, this is often  a deliberate way for writers to keep their writing fresh and surprising: chewing over eg the idea of dappled light but using different words to do this. 

b) we make musical patterns when we speak and write. These are rhythms, assonance, alliteration, lengths of sentences, phrases or clause - all of which are lumped together with the term 'prosody'. Our choice of words may well be partly determined by the wish to make a particular prosody. Some swearing is like this, for example. 

c) we 'echo' in our speech and writing. That is, we say or write something early in the passage and then deliberately echo it. Or in conversation the other person does. 

d) we do the opposite of echoing: we contrast. 

e) conversations have their own 'secret' grammar - how we take turns, how we interrupt, how we hesitate, how we pick up from each other etc etc. These conventions are full of matters to do with status, class and a whole subtle array of considerations to do with relationships past and present. 

f) the language we use is full of what we might call 'frozen' phrases and utterances. Some of these are proverbs, idioms, jokes, quotes and rhetorical devices. Many of these defy conventional grammatical descriptions. Their use is often determined by the 'genre' of the passage or who the participants are.

g) there are some key motors for change in language: migration, war and conquest; technical innovation; new forms of communication; new political forms; social change to do with eg emancipation; the need for a social group to self-define and so on.  At a more 'micro' level language change can happen through eg  'analogy', where we imitate to create new forms or even new words. (When I was a teenager in the 50s/60s sticking 'wise' on the end of words became very voguish. Suddenly we heard a lot of people saying things like  'Food-wise, I'm fussy'.)  

h) the big genres of different kinds of eg drama, fiction, film, non-fiction etc, have structural grammars. The most famous in literary terms are things like 'tragedy' or 'comedy' but there are many more now as with 'sci-fi', 'rom-com' and genres of song like 'rap', 'ballad' and so on. Each of these has an effect on determining what kind of language is used, right down to phrases and words at which particular points in the arc of the story or narrative and what a particular character or narrator is likely to 'say' (ie to be written for them). 

It would be a great relief if one day popular and clever journalists like Simon Jenkins could let go of their Latin exercise books (or their equivalent) and allow themselves a bit of immersion in the glorious variety of the ever-changing behaviour that we call language. Look out for new and interesting ways to describe what we do when we speak and write to each other. Enjoy the fact that formal written prose is what it is but that there are 100s of other ways to speak and write. Think about how we make meaning out of these many different ways and not just  purely from formal, written prose. 


Wednesday, 15 September 2021

The Banks are Taking over our Universities. Why?

What did I learn at my union meeting (UCU) at Goldsmiths University of London today?

That the banks are taking over universities.

How is this happening and why?

We have to go back to the crash of 2008 caused by the banks overlending, selling debt and leveraging their debts by taking out more loans. To keep money flowing, governments borrowed money and then claimed that they needed to cut public services to pay for this debt. In the case of the UK this is much disputed for several reasons:

a) cutting public expenditure at a time of slump is likely to cut the tax-take and cause more slump.

b) the UK issues currency. It is a large economy. The idea that bondholders were knocking on the UK government's door demanding their cash back is a myth. Bondholders hold UK bonds for decades so that they have steady, certain income. A large percentage of them are in fact people like pension funds held for many of us. 

c) over a third of the government's debt isn't really debt at all. It's created by the government by issuing bonds which the Bank of England buys! It's like buying stuff off yourself and telling yourself you owe yourself some money. That's what they told the British public that and got everyone to believe them. Neat.

So how does this impact on Goldsmiths? 

Because the government claimed that they needed to cut funding of education to 'pay' for the government debt. 

Universities are in debt. Goldsmiths too. 

Universities are trying to deal with this by eg selling off assets, cutting courses, sacking staff. 

Who's 'helping' them do this? Banks of course! Through short and long term loans replacing government funding. And these loans come with strings or 'covenants' which demand that universities should cut this, cut that, sell off this, sell off that. 

This is the new normal 

(Remember it was the banks that crashed the world economy in 2008, so it's incredible to think that they have become the repositories of financial wisdom now. No matter. Read on...) 

What was set up for the public good, for the enlightenment of all, (in name at least) and for the training of the professional layers of society (ie universities) have now turned into the cash cows for banks. The banks have now worked their way into a position of enormous power over the intellectual factories, the generators of knowledge. All that high-minded stuff about research, knowledge for knowledge sake, etc etc is now totally intertwined with the banking imperative that it must be profitable. Education is now formally a product, bought by students. University staff are indeed the workers producing this product, who go cap in hand to banks for finance, who in turn round and demand profitable production ie cut labour costs (ie university workers' jobs, pay, pensions and conditions of work), cut consumer costs (ie student facilities) and asset strip ie sell off property deemed by the banks (or collaborating university management) to be surplus to need. 

It's a grisly picture. Remember it next time you hear someone whiffling on about academic freedom, the pursuit of knowledge, etc etc. 

Meanwhile we have a huge fight on our hand at Goldsmiths and other universities to try to prevent the loss of 80 jobs, cuts to departments and on-site staff. 

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

How we read: reading processes

 There have been many attempts to describe the many things we do as we read. See for example the 'matrix' p 360-361 in 'Understanding Teenagers' Reading, Reading Processes and the Teaching of Literature' by Jack Thomson. 

I've had several goes at it on this blog.

Here's my own quick summary of these processes, in particular for reference for teachers attending courses that I've been speaking on. I expand on this in the talks:

1. We use our life's experience in order to understand what the language, images, characters, scenes mean. This will always be full of matters to do with our identity, self-image, social position, our sexuality, our sense of self, our sense of what cultures we are part of. 

2. We use our experience of other texts ('intertextuality') to understand the text we are reading - its language, themes, plot lines etc. ('Texts' = anything written but also can include eg songs, films, musicals etc) 

3. We use our empathy, sympathy, antipathy as regards characters, their actions and thoughts ie how our emotions 'flow' towards or against characters and scenes. 

4. We identify with characters', we think about what we would do in those situations. We 'go with' them on their journeys, adventures, with their problems. We might want to 'be' them. Or very much not want to 'be' them. 

5. We make judgements about what's going on - whether things are fair, or unfair, right/wrong, OK/not OK ('evaluation').

6. We figure out 'causation' - why or how things are happening in a particular way. The key word is 'because'.

7. We are affected by the 'music' of the language ('prosody'). 

8. We experience 'emotional flow' - feelings of tension, release, anger towards characters, envy, hopes etc. 

9. We have a sense that the text expresses ideas, messages, 'ideology'. 

10. We have contextual thoughts about eg the period or place of the story from our knowledge from eg history or real life. 

11. We become aware of the text's structure eg that it's like another text   in the way that it unfolds, or the 'genre' of the text eg sci-fi, biography etc. Or a text's 'motifs' eg sibling rivalry, or 'loss'. 

12. We become aware of how the text's language is structured eg what kind of sentences, whether it's figurative or not, whether it uses some or a lot of dialogue, what its grammar is like, how the grammar changes. 

13. We notice how the story is narrated (eg first person/third person?) reliable/unreliable narrator.

14. We become aware of the text's 'time frames' (eg flashbacks, flash forwards?)

15. We become aware of whose 'point of view' we view through. This will change as the text unfolds. 

16. We become aware of how the tension is being created - often through 'reveal-conceal'.

17. We speculate about what might happen next.

18. We make predictions about what might happen next or later.

19. We are surprised if our predictions are wrong or not quite right.

20. We 'harvest' what we have read. This is 'intratextual' reference. 

21. We puzzle. Why is this happening? What does this mean? 

22. We speculate about 'authorship' - why did the writer write this or that? 

23. If we think that we have an 'unconscious' (see psychoanalysis), it will come to play in how we read eg feelings and thoughts we have repressed might be 'given voice' by our reading of the text. Similarly, our wishes, fantasies might be 'realised' by our reading of the text eg yearnings, desires, wishes for domination etc. And the classic Freudian processes of transference, displacement, condensation, cathexis (ie obsessive preoccupation) and projection. 

The thinking here is that the reader can behave when reading as if they are encountering people in real life. To take each of these in turn: 

transference: this involves transferring feelings that one has for eg your father to a character in a book. So we might 'read' eg a male, patriarchal figure as if he is 'my' father.  

Displacement: perhaps a story might confront us with a person or situation which we can't tolerate or makes us feel uncomfortable. We might 'displace' our discomfort on to another scene or character. 

Condensation: we might discover that the reason why we have feelings for a character or a scene is because we pour feelings from other situations into or onto this one. (A good deal of popular music works this way.) 

Cathexis: an obsessive reaction towards a character based (according to Freud) on one's libido. 

Projection: where we project feelings we have on to a character. We might say, for example, 'I know what she wants to do now...' when in fact that's what 'I' would do. Arguably, this is one of the main 'motors' of response through 'identification'. 

(There's also a view in psychoanalysis that texts (stories and myths in particular) can 'contain' our feelings, in particular ones that give us suffering or uncontrollable anger etc. Stories give us a safe space in which we can experiment with our feelings in situations which we don't have to live or re-live. We might have some sense of this as we read along the lines of 'this is like me'.) 

24. Awareness of the way the text has symbols, how what we're reading 'represents' something else outside of the text, 'bigger' than the the text, bigger than a particular image, motif etc. 

25. Awareness of how there are patterns, repetitions in the text in terms of language, repeated images, repeated plot lines, motifs, characters' actions. 

26. Academic Fiona Maine suggests adding 'immersion in story-worlds'. As we read, we go into the whole world of a story, which we can inhabit by building on the given details adding in eg sensations that are not there - smells, tastes, sights etc. Another way of talking about this is that every text invites us to 'play the game' in a particular way eg rom-com, or tragedy, fairy tale, or epic. Or again, it might be what Bill Corcoran calls 'picturing'. That is, where the reader can translate what they read into images. Many readers can or will say what a character or scene 'looks like' even if the writer hasn't described that person or place. 

27. So, 26 is in part about genre. We become aware that what we are reading belongs to a genre. We might implicitly or explicitly say to ourselves, 'I am reading a fairy story' or 'I am reading a narrative poem' or 'This is a rap' and so on. We are positioning the text in relation to texts it is 'like' or 'unlike'. M.A.K. Halliday says that language-choice i is in part determined by genre. It flows from this that our reading of language would be similarly affected by a sense of genre. 

28.  Fiona Maine also adds 'dialogic interaction'. There's a way in which as we read, we are in effect having a conversation with the text: asking it questions, trying to answer questions that are often posed by texts as in eg 'I didn't know what to do next...' The reader might (in their mind) start thinking up possible scenarios of what the character could do or should do. 

29. Texts work hard to make us feel we are there. We could call it the writer's 'being-there work'. The texts often run through some or all of the senses when describing scenes, people etc. They tell us what things look, sound, smell, taste or feel like to touch. As we read we might just absorb these. (Part of the reading process itself.) We might also 'notice' these more consciously, and think to ourselves, 'he had curly hair' or some such. 

30. Resistant reading ie refusing to accept what appears to be the bias/message/ideology of the text. This may well be very important when thinking about old texts in relation to modern ideas (eg Shylock, Othello etc) Also resistance in the Freudian sense of resisting empathy or recognition of tropes for reasons of repression. Or indeed to refuse to read the text! (I can remember my 3 year old throwing a book away because it was too scary.) 

31. What about wish-fulfilment? Stories are full of living out what we might want to happen to us. A fantasy in which we are given a part, through reading? Perhaps we read with this kind of hope and/or satisfaction...'this could be me...with this kind of power attract others, beat others, overcome others, achieve this or that...etc.

32. What about the opposite of wish-fulfilment? Fear-fulfilment or shame-fulfilment? We read with a fear for the characters that they will behave as we feel we are, or are ashamed we are? A kind of negative fantasy about ourselves. Or, 'I don't know what I would do in that situation'. 

33. Reading 'motive' and 'intention': as we read, we are sometimes told what people (characters, protagonists) want to do and sometimes we are told why they want to do something. (This can be done with 'tags' - eg 'she thought', 'he wondered' etc or  by versions of 'indirect discourse' eg 'what should she do next?' (without the 'tag').) And other ways. Sometimes, we aren't told and we have to guess, infer, interpret what people's motives are. We do this based on our experience of life (see above) and/or our experience of texts ('intertextual' - see above) and our experience of 'genre' (see 26 and 27). 

34. Dramatic irony: many texts create situations where the reader knows more than the character. (Famous one: 'Romeo and Juliet' eg where Juliet's father says that Juliet will marry Paris but we know that she is already married to Romeo and that she has spent the night with him.) We read this through 'harvesting' (see 20 above), ie 'intratextual' awareness. When people talk about 'heart-in-mouth' moments in fiction or films, these are sometimes caused by dramatic irony. Can also of course be created by 'jeopardy'/'peril' where we share the fear (usually) of the protagonist based on 'what would I do/how would I feel' in that situation of danger. 

35. At this point, it's interesting to talk about 'distancing' and/or 'alienation effect'. This raises the question of who does the work, when reading? Author? Reader? Both? Distancing is the idea that writers can use various techniques which ask the reader or viewer to be more dispassionate about what's going on in the story - the opposite of 'identification', 'immersion', 'escapism', 'lost in the story' and the Aristotle idea of catharsis through immersion. Brecht tried to create dramas where the viewer 'came out' of the emotional involvement and considered the why's and wherefores of what the drama had just shown. Methods he (and Brechtians since) used were eg an on-stage narrator, sudden juxtapositions, use of slogans and light boards with information, mixing of media, deliberate use of sets or lighting to make the drama 'non-realist'. Fiction can do similar things eg multiple narration, mixing of fiction with use of headlines, non-realistic artwork , mixing of genres and so on. So some (eg John Stephens) have argued that this requires or creates 'sophisticated' reading but he sees the work being done here is by the text doing the distancing ie distancing the reader. Another view would be that the reader perceives the text as eg being non-realistic through their intertextual awareness. If the alienation methods are accessible (eg a light board with information about how many soldiers were being killed during WW1 in Joan Littlewood's production of 'Oh What a Lovely War') then it's the reader/viewer who does the work of relating the light board info to the dramatic scene unfolding in front of it. Again, in the book 'Dance on my Grave' by Aidan Chambers, there is the distancing effects of multiple narration where the main character both observes and is observed. The reader has to weigh up questions like 'what is real?', 'What is really going on?' 'Who is telling the truth?' If the reader does this work, then they are not immersed in the usual sense of the word. They are immersed in their minds in a debate about what is the truth here. 

36. Reading picture books, comics, graphic novels: this clearly involves other ways of thinking and interpreting not mentioned so far. One thing that happens with this kind of reading is a 'relay' between picture and text. Our minds can synthesise the two in order to perform the processes above. Perhaps talking about 'the text' or 'the story' is wrong with graphic books. Perhaps we should say 'texts'  and 'stories' going on simultaneously, intertwined with each other, commenting on each other. Even the word 'illustration' may be wrong. After all, the pictures don't really 'illustrate' the text. The reader is doing a lot of work to interpret the pictures and make them work with the text that they're reading (or, in the case of a young child, hearing). Does the one refer to the other, tell something different, if so how? The classic scholarly work on this 'two stories' view is Margaret Meek's 'How Texts Teach What Readers Learn'. It's a masterpiece of exploration of how a child interprets 'Rosie's Walk', a fine example of two stories being told that the child will synthesise. I'll draw attention to another. Look at Max's bedroom in 'Where the Wild Things Are'. What 'story' does it tell? Is it busy, friendly, full of loving care from adults? Or is it bare and lonesome? Or what? Does Max find the place 'where someone loved him best of all'? If so, where though? If not, how do we know not? If maybe, why the doubt?

Sunday, 8 August 2021

How and why this bit of 'school grammar' is wrong.

The National Curriculum asks primary school children in England to learn that there are four types of sentence: statement, question, command and exclamation. They are tested on this at the ages of 7 and 11. 

Examples that are given are things like:

I am a good dog.

Are you a good dog?

Be a good dog!

What a good dog you are! 

It doesn't take long for any of us to look at signs, ads, poems, songs, book and film titles, newspaper headlines, film scripts, plays, instructions and of course in the whole 'unpoliced' world of texts, digital media, websites, sub-titles etc, to see that the very word 'sentence' is not as simple as it sounds. Out there, in the real world there are examples of writing beginning with a capital letter and ending with a full stop: single words, phrases without verbs, lists and so on. So in fact there aren't just four types of sentence. There are many types of sentence.  What's more there are many examples of the first kind of sentence that children see in public that won't have a full stop at the end - in particular with signs and ads.

The main reason why the National Curriculum classification of sentences exists is that it's based on how grammarians a long time ago classified Latin sentences. The Latin they looked at was mostly the formal written prose and poetry of the educated elite. If you reduce language to one tiny part of its total output, you can of course make up abstract rules and classifications like this, much more easily than if you look at a language as a whole - 'in use', as we say, including of course how we speak to each other. 

So here we are with these four types of sentence. First thing to say is that the terms themselves - statement, question, command and exclamation are not grammatical terms. They are descriptions based on meaning or what is known as 'semantic' terms. Yet,  the 'defining' characteristic of these terms is grammatical - that's to say, each of them is based on a 'verb form'. That is, a form the verb is in in the sentence. 

With the statement, you can see that the 'verb form' is: 'I am'. In a question, it's 'Are you..' With a command, it's 'Be...' and with the exclamation it's 'What' + 'you are'. 

Each of these verb forms has a technical name. They are the sole reason for dividing up the language into these four different categories, but as I said, the descriptions are 'semantic' not 'grammatical'. There is a contradiction here: anyone reading this can think of statements, questions, commands and exclamations that do not use these same 'verb forms'. Give it a try: 

'Yes'  and 'No' are often statements. We can ask questions when we speak through intonation which when we're writing we can indicate with a question mark. 'She was happy?' This is a totally legitimate and way of writing a piece of dialogue or a bit of internal thought in a story. Notice though, the 'verb form' is that of a statement ('She was...'). Now do commands. Yes, of course we can use that 'verb form' to command: 'Do this, do that!' but of course we can use that 'verb form' to not really command as in 'Stay well' or 'Have a nice time'. And we can command using other structures as with 'You must go out now.' Or 'No smoking'. As for exclamations, it's absurd to restrict our exclaiming to permitted structures - as with 'what a...' We exclaim in many ways through intonation and by marking this in writing with an exclamation mark. Great that we can! 

There is therefore a mismatch between the terms used to classify sentences and the grammatical form that is really being used to do the classifying. What's more, the very act of classifying sentences into only four types is absurd. 

How have we got to a point where this kind of stuff is foisted onto children as if it's good linguistics, or good grammar or makes any kind of sense?

The route is from the attempt by grammarians to classify the sentences they saw when they read Latin. They justified the categories by working backwards from the verb forms as with 'imperative verb form = command'. This had an internal logic to it. Every time they saw the 'imperative' it was a command. All commands in front of them in the Latin texts they saw (or wanted to talk about) were commands. Watertight, self-referential way of working. 

Then grammarians of English simply took these terms and plonked them on to English. In simple examples - as with the ones I gave at the beginning about the dog - it works. This is what we might call 'ideal language' in the way that Boyle invented Boyle's Law talking about 'ideal gases'. Real gases don't behave 100% according to Boyle's Law. Real language doesn't behave 100% according to this 'ideal' classification of sentences.

Then along came Gove. Gove asked Lord Bew to do a report on Assessment and Accountability. Bew produced an interim report. I read it. It was actually a fair analysis of the pros and cons of different ways of assessing pupils and making schools accountable - though all in the context of the appalling league-table and punitive Ofsted set-up. Gove looked at it and said that he wanted a form of assessment that measured how teachers teach. The Bew Report committee - none of whom were linguists or grammarians  - decided that they needed a simple measuring system, one that tested children on 'right and wrong answers'. Someone said, 'Grammar!' Now here's where the problem comes in. If you think of grammar as an honest, thorough and as-scientific-as-possible way of describing 'uses - and users - of language' then there is no way that 'grammar' can give you right and wrong answers. (I once asked a grammarian to give me the grammar for 'It wasn't to be', a phrase that the England football manager had used. He spent half a page trying to and in the end gave up. This was the same grammarian who advised the government on grammar! 

So, in order to achieve their right/wrong formula, Gove asked for a particular kind of grammar - what turned out to be SPaG and later, GPS. In fact, he became so hands-on about this, to my knowledge, he made special demands for at least one item that he thought should be included. Gove is not a linguist. Gove is not a grammarian. 

Turn that on its head: the grammarians they hired were not school teachers, were not teacher educators, were not educationalists. 

That's how and why we arrived at a point at which we tell children there are four types of sentence (wrong) and the four types are: statement, question, command and exclamation, based on 'verb forms' even though there are 100s of examples where statements, questions, commands and exclamations can be made without using those four 'verb forms'.

Education, England, 2021. 

Sunday, 25 July 2021

How can a personal response method lead to knowledge about text?

See 'Understanding Teenagers' Reading', Jack Thomson, 
Ch. 4 'Exploring Response',
Ch. 5 'Practice: Examples of Teachers at Work'.

This is a great book - over 30 years old now - exploring theory and practice in the area of school students exploring books.

In recent years, the emphasis in teaching around literature has shifted more and more towards 'knowledge about text'. It was deemed that making space for children or older school students to find out what a text did for them, was irrelevant and only further advantaged the advantaged. So they upped the amount of knowledge required which also coincidentally made the assignments and exams easier to mark which also coincidentally has made it easier to grade students and assess teachers. As the grading system fails about a third of all students, I don't see where the 'advantage' is getting in - the 'advantage' that they claimed would result from their 'knowledge about texts' approach. 

So, if you're interested in exploring the 'effects' of a text on real live students before having to tell them what the 'effects' are first - thanks to the requirements of the curriculum, then these two chapters are terrific - as is the rest of the book.  

This is the work we do on our 'Children's Literature in Action' module as part of the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London - which of course you are welcome to apply for!

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

The Pandemic - personal, mental, physical, social, philosophical, political. For me, it's all one.

The pandemic has touched us in a wholesale, total way: it's affected our bodies, our minds, the units we live in and with, our places of work, where we 'play', our attitudes, our beliefs, our politics and however we view 'the economy'. In a way, everything big that happens - war, a bit new act of parliament is similar but not quite so total as this one.

We can start to see some shape to all this. For some people who caught the virus, the effects have been devastating, death (obviously) with all the attendant sorrow and regret and sense of loss; grave illness and survival (this is me) and the bewildering effects of that - some mental, some physical or a mix. But the moment I say that we begin to see the fault lines between believers and non-believers. Only today someone has come on to my twitter feed to say that Long Covid is an invention and I (me) wouldn't understand what he's got to say. He says he's using 'data' to inform him of this. The testimony of people eg on 'Panorama' yesterday is, to him, worthless. They're just tired. Apparently. 

Then we've had the politics - or many kinds of politics - to do with with whether it's a good or bad idea to have a public health response to a virus, whether the virus (or the talk about the virus) is a hoax in order to achieve fascist/maoist control over the population. 

It's also clear that there's a politics in the way that the illness has affected people differently. This is not just a matter of people 'over 70' or people with 'underlying health problems'. Clearly, factors like poverty, poverty-linked health problems, and  the way in which people of colour have been disproportionately affected - why? Genetic reasons or because people of colour are disproportionately poor. People will be working on these stats and the causes. Then again, there is the politics of workers excessively exposed to the virus: health workers, transport workers for example. 

Meanwhile, the issue of how the government has handed out contracts for the 'material' of the pandemic (masks, PPE equipment, test and trace etc) has been a huge scandal. It's been a scam. Incompetent buddies of government have made the kind of money that contractors usually only net at times of war. There are cases going through the court on this but we shouldn't hold our breath expecting that any of this will be redressed or recouped. 

Clearly, all this and much more divides people. Some say that it's divided us more than before. Has it? To listen to the shock jocks, it sounds as if it does. People who in the past have been generally on the Right seem more furious with the government than the 'Centre'. They see a conspiracy from the very people who they hoped would be libertarian. It seems as if Johnson has responded throughout with the instinct of a libertarian but forced belatedly and grudgingly into a position of heading a public health response. Even so, the public health response of vaccination gives him cause for self-congratulation. 

Right now we're in a moment when the politics of self versus society is being played out. That libertarian instinct seems to guide this government towards saying, in effect,'If you want to wear masks, wear them. If you don't want to, don't. If you want to social distance, do it. If you don't want to, don't.' The absurdity of this is obvious but the last 18 months of chaos and confusion is reaping reward. We are chaotic and confused. What do we do? The point of wearing a mask is that I protect you, while you protect me. It's a social act. But it's only a social act if we all  do it. The chaos and confusion about this is a stark symbol of why 'individualism' that seemingly non-political state of being, is in fact totally political. As others have pointed out, it's analogous to things like traffic lights, seat belts, windows that don't open wide in tower blocks and so on. We take care of ourselves and each other. 

Clearly, much of this is hateful  to right wing libertarians. For decades they've derided the 'nanny state', 'health and safety gone mad' while the Thatcher era saw a sequence of terrible rail disasters and more recently of course the terror and horror of Grenfell.  Every so often, an event unfolds that shows us that with a tiny number of inspectors and a tiny (in the companies' terms) fines, there is a constant push by corporations charged with supplying us with - for example, water - cut corners and jeopardise our health. One of the water boards has just been brought to court for dumping sewage in the sea. As George Monbiot has said, 'It stinks.' 

I see contrasts: the kind of treatment I received from the NHS at Whittington Hospital, the Rehab Hospital in St Pancras and the follow-ups I've had for ENT, Ophthalmology and the shocking comments from the conspiracy theorists. Teams of people - many on low pay - saved my life for no other reason than that I was dying. They didn't know me. It's their job to save people's lives and care for them. I can hardly put into words the shape, feeling and extent of their care. It's what I've tried to write about in my book, 'Many Different Kinds of Care'. In fact, through  the bewildering set of feelings and attitudes that overcame me, I did try to see  and describe these overlaps and minglings of the mental, physical, philosophical, political going on in my life. I was horrified when one of the shock jock types tweeted at me, 'But you're 74' if being 74 was an illness in itself, an illness that justified thinking that I was in some way deserving of death. Now. 

This - along with close examination of what Boris Johnson and others said, did and did not do in February and March 2020 - led me to think that the worst politics of all in all this was that there has been a large section of people who thought and still think that many people who got ill are expendable, unnecessary, useless and ready for junking. What do we call this? What do we call the death toll and suffering that has resulted from this? Was it avoidable? Was it possible to have been much clearer about 'mitigating' the spread and effects of the virus? Could test, trace and isolate been put in place properly and efficiently? Could those instructions - mask, wash and social distance - have been more carefully and efficiently put in place? Was the political will really there or were they secretly trying to enact the nonsense of 'her immunity without vaccination'? If so, that was a crime. 

I'm still trying to sort all these things out, spreading my thoughts out from myself and the effects of the virus on me, my family, work, leisure, the NHS, philosophy of the 'individual/society' and the politics of so-called 'libertarianism' - which in reality is an extreme form of the 'market' used as a means to demolish our sense of how we depend on each other and care for each other.