It’s funny how certain stretches of road bring things back. Twenty years ago, I was doing a PhD, part-time, at the University of Nottingham, and every six weeks or so I’d leave school at the end of the day and set off in the opposite direction to home, up the A1 and then along the A52, negotiating roundabouts and lane changes and early evening city traffic. I’d park near the Trent Building with its shiny white Portland-stone surfaces, heave my lever arch folders out of the car, and make my way to my supervisor’s room with its bright posters and scratched wooden table. We’d talk for an hour, and then I’d go home with a head full of ideas, singing along to mixtapes made for me by my friend Dermot, all Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt and REM, back in the day when mixtapes were still a thing. It was a good time.
It seems a bit mad, now, to sign up for a part-time PhD alongside full-time teaching, but back then it made total sense. I’d always intended to do postgraduate work, but didn’t apply straight after graduating, partly because I was scared I wouldn’t get the funding and partly because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I did a PGCE instead, and told myself I’d teach for a couple of years and then go back to university. Then my mum died, very suddenly, at the beginning of my second year of teaching, and my immediate need was not to uproot myself and give up my job but to put a deposit down on a house. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself through part-time postgraduate work as long as I carried on teaching as well, so that’s what I decided to do.
I wanted to look at the history of English Literature as an academic discipline, and was very lucky in being able to find lots of archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when universities in England were establishing their first degree courses in English Literature. I could talk about this for ages, but to simplify massively, there were lots of people in the late nineteenth century who didn’t think that English Literature should be studied at degree level. One group felt that it wasn’t difficult enough to be studied at university: reading imaginative literature and having opinions about it was what you did in your spare time, rather than something that could be examined with any kind of academic rigour. Another group, on the other hand, felt that literature was too special to be the object of academic study. One’s relationship with literature was personal, ineffable, and any attempt to turn it into an academic discipline would inevitably crush it.
If you’re spotting parallels here with current debates about the teaching of English, that’s interesting, because the other main element of my research centred on the discussions that were taking place about Curriculum 2000 and the teaching of English Literature at A level. What I was interested in – and what I would never have known about if I hadn’t spent a couple of years in the classroom – was the fact that the arguments that had circulated about the academic study of English Literature in the late nineteenth century had never really gone away. The early supporters of disciplinary English had to define the body of knowledge that was being taught and the way in which this knowledge would be assessed. Their initial attempts to do this often involved testing remembered facts, such as recalling the details of particular locations in Shakespeare’s history plays, or listing important national events that might have made an impression on Geoffrey Chaucer. Students had to define technical terms and offer plot summaries. My favourite question, set at King’s College London in 1882, was ‘Quote any passage from “Christabel”’.
Over the years, in a piecemeal manner, the universities started to develop ways of teaching English Literature that depended on interpretation and understanding, rather than the simple retrieval of knowledge. But the problem of English never really went away. In the early 2000s, just as I was grappling with my PhD thesis, teachers of English were navigating their way through the first few iterations of Curriculum 2000. A level English Literature now placed a greater emphasis on critical and contextual knowledge: some commentators argued that this was a way of making the subject easier to examine, and others contended that it jeopardised the delicate nature of the relationships that students were building with the study of English. A lot of work went into trying to steer a course through the new specifications, ensuring that the study of English was rigorous and challenging yet also maintaining a space for personal engagement (and protecting students, as much as we could, from the excesses of an exam-heavy curriculum). Knowledge, understanding, personal growth, the development of skills: the elements that we’re still wrestling with now, as we try to work out how best to foster our students’ relationships with this fabulous – and fabulously complex – subject.
There’s more that I could say about the study of English, but that’s for another post, because really this post is about places and times and why some phases of our lives matter so much. My PhD took me to a number of dusty university archives, and also other places, among them Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford, where I read the minutes of English faculty meetings in JRR Tolkien’s spiky handwriting. It led me to speak at conferences and meet lovely people and also write a book, Defining Literary Criticism, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it also took me along the A52, more times than I can remember. In the second year of my doctorate, one of my colleagues started an MA, and we travelled up to Nottingham together and stopped off on the way home at the Little Chef near Holme Pierrepoint, loading up on coffee and carbs – chips and a burger for him, a toasted teacake for me – before facing the rest of the journey. Those hours on the road, thinking and talking and letting ideas percolate, were immensely important. It was a time of my life between one lot of difficult experiences and another, and it stands out as a block of time that was wholly joyful and unproblematic.
We drove along the A52 this morning, on our way back from a wedding in Derby, and it brought all those memories back. The Little Chef isn’t there any more, and there are some additional tricky junctions, which is the way life goes, I guess. But I still remember those journeys, and the feeling of having a head full of ideas, buzzing and eager, and remember it as one of the most important times of my life.