Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Navigating our future

MWF logoI didn’t think I’d get to this session, but when my regular Thursday evening commitment was cancelled, I knew exactly what to do …

Navigating our future (Thursday 13 August 6-7pm)

This intriguingly titled session was described as follows:

Australian literature provides a means through which we might better understand ourselves, and our relationships with our region and the world. Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is joined by Professor Ken Gelder from the Faculty of Arts to explore the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools. With an introduction from Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature. (Supported by University of Melbourne, Faculty of Arts)

Alexis Wright introduced it, explaining that it was the Boisbouvier Oration, but here’s the thing, it wasn’t an oration, but a conversation. Hmm … just as well I like conversations. Wright, herself, gave the Boisbouvier Oration in 2018, which was reported by The Sydney Morning Herald:

It was Alexis Wright who threw out the challenge. Australia must create great expectations of building a visionary literature for our times, she said. We should put some money into buying rocket fuel rather than just topping up the gas barbie bottle.

Richard Flanagan gave the inaugural “lecture” as The Monthly reported it in 2016. His and Wright’s focused in some way on the value or power or role of writing, and this is how the 2020 oration-cum-conversation was framed too, though it didn’t quite go where I expected it to. Instead, it focused more on the practice of teaching Australian literature in Australian schools today – in what’s being taught, in the challenges of teaching our literature, and in how things might be improved. It felt like the advertised topic – exploring “the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools” – was a given rather than a topic to be discussed. And, that’s ok.

So, the session … it did work as a conversation, though Ken Gelder was primarily in the interviewer role, and Larissa McLean Davies in the interviewee one.

Role of Australian literature in Australian schools

Gelder commenced by saying that the things covered would include how literature can assist young people to navigate their futures, strategies for teachers, and the urgent need to prioritise the teaching of Australian literature in these challenging times. He noted that our current challenges include bushfires, COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement which, in Australia, has focused on the failure of government to end institutionalised discrimination, including the ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody issue. It is a time of climate and social crisis.

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in AustraliaMcLean Davies exemplifed the importance of literature by saying that the recent Black Lives Matter protests brought attention to the need for indigenous stories to be heard. She said that it resulted in books by indiengous authors, like Anita Heiss’ Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), and books about racism being sold out. Wow, that really says something, doesn’t it, about the value of awareness and consciousness-raising to book sales. People do want to know these stories!

These stories, she argued, help us negotiate the crises we face. The stories become part of our own subjectivity and help us negotiate our own place in the world. This was one of the most powerful things she said in the session.

Status of Australian literature in the schools

The conversation then turned to the current situation regarding the place of Australian literature in schools. McLean Davies explained that the creation of the national curriculum in 2007/8 made the teaching of Australian literature mandatory in the curriculum, requiring teachers to select and teach an Australian text (at least one) at every year level. It’s rare for such compulsion to be in school curriculums internationally, she said, which suggests the fragility of our national literature.

However, we don’t know how these texts are being taught, nor what texts are being taught (except for year 12 which has set texts). We don’t, she said, know how many Australian texts are taken up and how many are written on in the exam. In other words, there is no mechanism for assessing this mandatory teaching of Australian literature. This is the research she is doing. (How fascinating. I hope we get to see the results of her team’s research.)

The selection of texts

There are text setting panels, often setting them for 2 years, though for the obvious practical reasons – teacher familiarity, the development of resources, and the economics of availability – they will usually stay on the list for 3 to 4  years. We don’t know, however, whether these books are treated as marginal or main texts for study. The texts student will write on in exam will get the most attention – of course.

Diversity in Australian literature school texts

Gelder talked about the importance of setting suitable texts at times of crises, and diversity in literary studies. Do works by writers like Alexis Wright, Tony Birch, Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Charmaine Papertalk Green, and Ellen van Neerven have visibility, he asked?

McLean Davies said they did, because, for example, in Victoria, there are set texts for year 12, but in other years, teachers have choice, within guidelines. However, their choice depends on teachers’ personal reading diets, the professional learning they are undertaking, and the time they have to engage in new reading (given the increasing administrative work pressure teachers are under.) So, there’s opportunity but …

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusShe talked about the issue of “engagement” and that in trying to achieve this for diverse classes, teachers will often resort to more standard “white”, often neo-colonial texts. But young people are interested in indigenous issues, climate, etc, she said. Teachers would do well to turn to, for example, Claire G Coleman (Terra nullius) and Alexis Wright to bring these issues into the classroom. We need to think about what engagement means for Australian school students.

On being nimble in text selection

Gelder noted that quite often texts on school lists look like they’ve been there forever, but syllabi need to be nimble if they are to reflect the now. He’s found that some of his overseas students have read more Australian literature than local students have. We need to “sell our literature” he suggested.

McLean Davies said there is the issue that teachers often rely on their own reading experiences and learning. A multi-pronged approach is needed to support teachers, including looking at undergraduate degrees, and supporting teachers to develop new intertextual understandings of literature. Teachers need to learn how they can use literature to contest their own views. They need to develop new intertextual networks that enable new Australian writing to be accessed in the classroom. She quoted a colleague who said that “you don’t read a text, but a text reads you”. It is fundamental that teachers have the confidence to sell a text. They need packaged resources, and need knowledge about literature that they may not have in their own background.

Cultural cringe?

Gelder made the lovely statement that students need to be swept away by literature but teachers provide the broom, but is there cultural cringe? Australian literature tends to be characterised as white and inward-looking. Are we still resistant to, or defensive about, diversifying our understanding of our literature?

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyMcLean Davies concurred to a degree, but gave a nicely nuanced response, evoking a complex understanding of culture cringe:

  • There is resistance from teachers because Australian literature is seen as too white, as buying into the  Right’s rhetoric about nationalism. Teachers fear buying into the colonial monolith, into notions of nation. There’s some mismatch between what teachers want to do re diversity and the Right’s leaders wanting to focus on “nation”. That homage to Australian colonial origins is still there in the discourse, and this makes teachers anxious.
  • Cultural cringe is evident in text selection. A recent survey, 2017/8, her team did of texts being taught brought responses from 700 teachers. Only one Australian text, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, appeared in the top 10 (at 8). The others included Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, To kill a mockingbird, Animal farm, Hamlet, Outsiders (SE Hinton), 1984, and Othello. This gave us a “cause for pause” she suggested!

A place for colonial writing?

Gelder wondered if there was a place for colonial writing, particularly given it can contain its own critiques. He talked quite a bit about colonial writing, which has been his interest for ten years, but I want to move on … However, he did say, and has a point of course, that quite a lot of indigenous writing “works over” our colonial heritage, refiguring and remapping the colonial period. Is there goodwill towards colonial literature, he asked?

McLean Davies said there’s not a lot of colonial literature on syllabi in more senior years, but agreed there is potential for rethinking colonial ideas through colonial texts. She referenced the wonderful To be Continued database of short stories published in Australian newspapers, which provides access to colonial texts. Publicly available resources like this represent a wonderful potential for engaging students in literary enquiry. Teachers could use geospatial modelling to find stories set in places where students live, providing an opportunity to think about stories about those places and about the implication of those stories for their current lives. She commented that pedagogy – how we teach – is as important as what is taught. In this period of lockdown, teachers need access to digital content, but education hasn’t fully mobilised these tools in literature.

On the value of local, versus global?

Gelder talked about the conflict between the local (particularly obvious in these lockdown times) and the push for a more global/cosmopolitan outlook. (He cited Alexis Wright’s interview with expatriate Australian writer Peter Carey, and his novel Amnesia).

McLean Davies agreed, and suggested now is a good time to think about the place we are occupying and our relationship to it.  She talked about the value of speculative fiction, like Coleman’s Terra nullius and what happens if you don’t take notice of place. She also suggested that the problem is that we are continually reaching for the global, but the role of the local is very important. She mentioned Growing up Asian in Australia and Alice Pung’s wanting to read people who were like her, proving again that the local and the personal are important. It’s not one or the other. Teachers need to thing about the breadth of what they are selecting, need to look at global and local, because students need to read all those stories.

Supporting teachers

The session ended on the important issue of supporting teachers. Their challenge is to find time to develop new understandings of Australian literature. She’s involved in a project – partnership with the Stella Prize – which involves asking teachers to select a text from the longlist and then think about the text and their students, about that text re other books, and re other cultural artefacts. It’s a good opportunity to bring past and present texts together. But, the fundamental issue is that teachers need time and professional learning. They need more professional development that recognises them as intellectually interested and able to develop own new knowledge about text. Yes!

So, this is not quite the session I was expecting but, as I’m interested in both education and the teaching of literature, it ended up suiting me perfectly.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is also posting on the Festival, as is Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes).

35 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Navigating our future

  1. Published just this week is Andrew BOE’s The Truth Hurts. Perfect as a set text for senior English – Andrew BOE arrived as a child from Burma nearly/around 50 years ago – to Brisbane. This memoir traces his story via his legal training – solicitor to barrister and a number of key cases of national note in which he became involved – exposing the kind of justice system we have (adversarial – not actually designed to get to the truth – but to allow those with the money able to buy the best legal brains to wriggle their way to freedom via what is seen as legally admissable or which must be withheld from juries and other sleight-of-hand procedures. That’s without looking at the judges for whom the appointment married with the hubris of Peter Principle proportions brings its own injustice to the fore! Andrew BOE presents cases – outlines the facts – and to the reader the guilt is self-explanatory. So why he does he take on the appeals to higher courts. This involves further research into the background – prosecution malfeasance or similar – and a decision overturned – usually on that appeal because we are now privy to much more explanatory detail than seemed necessary or was ignored totally earlier. He looks particularly at the issues related to the scandalous treatment of First Nations peoples, of women (domestic violence sufferers) of others from backgrounds which are from the margins of society. Brilliant book!

  2. I really enjoyed this session (gave great insight into the selection of texts and how books end up in classrooms). It has particular relevance for me as I have four kids in high school – so far I have been impressed with the range of Australian texts they’ve read, and I think their school has achieved a good balance.

  3. Pingback: 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Thursday 13/8/20 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Predictably, I went off on a tangent when I was writing about this. I was about to delete it all when I saw your post pop into my inbox so I have cheekily added it as a link to mine:)
    BTW I do not believe that the situation is as dire as they made out. I used to go to library network meetings which were mainly peopled by secondary teachers because there’s hardly any teacher-librarians any more, and they were always talking about the latest Australian YA novels and sharing ideas for how to teach them. Small sample, yes; anecdotal evidence, yes; but I know how much those infernal surveys are detested when you’re busy, and you just write the first thing that comes into your head to get it done and dusted.

    • Haha, Lisa. I kept checking to see if you’d done it, thinking you probably had. Anecdotal evidence is good. Still 700 teachers is quite a lot. The surveys could have been completed by older heads of departments? My son is finding older teacher overall – and I know this is a generalisation because I know you were an exception – resistant to change. And I can understand that given the pressures teachers are under.

      Nothing cheeky about adding my link to yours!

      • I suspect that the principal would have offloaded it to the teacher in charge of teaching EngLit not English. EngLit is the more academic, more literary subject, and of course it will include Shakespeare and Austen & co. But English is a different beast, and I bet they’re not just doing Jasper Jones as she said if for no other reason that even a feeble feminist will want a bit of gender balance in central protagonists and also authors. Sonya Hartnett would surely be on reading lists…

  5. Phew ! – long post, ST, and I think deeply felt. It caused me to think back on my own schooling, and how there was absolutely zero emphasis upon Australian writing .. but then, of course, it was a year or two back .. AND it was within a convent school, where the main drive was to turn out young ladies, rather than informed young people.
    “students need to be swept away by literature” is a super phrase; and here I can state that my beloved father, for all his failure as an emotional prop, was successful via his study – a room filled with shelves of literature that he encouraged his daughters to mine. But ! – how much of it was Australian ? – I don’t recall any. Dickens was his great love; C.S. Forester, O. Henry, Damon Runyon, H.G. Wells, and lots of non-fiction (which I avoided).
    He himself wrote for “The West Australian” so frequently that we became blasé about seeing his byline.
    But basically, Australian literature simply didn’t feature throughout my youth. I am hoping that it was because the very idea of an Australian’s becoming published was too awesome ..

    • Haha, yes, too long really. I thought I’d just summarise it – and I did (a bit) – but the topic is dear to my heart.

      Interestingly, Australian literature featured quite high in my home from Banjo Paterson and Ion Idriess to Eve Langley and Thea Astley in the 50s and 60s. Of course Mum also had Austen and Dickens!

  6. Thank you,

    I missed the session. Is it available on podcast?

    The discussion concentrated on High School literature, I think maybe the study should start at the Kindergarten level. As a Primary school teacher, you may find we have a large variety of Australian and world texts.

    We would appreciate any resources, some digital, which align with both the Australian curriculum and the state syllabus. Teachers are always willing to change or add to their teaching and learning programs as this year’s events have clearly demonstrated.

    Personally, I have found very little literature, at a Primary level, explaining the Australian climate dilemma concerning the effect of the drought and bushfires. I would appreciate narrative or information texts which help students understand these unique Australian occurrences.

    Kind regards
    Val Tilney

    Sent from my iPad

    • Thanks Val. My son is a primary school teacher in Melbourne. Unfortunately the focus here was secondary. I don’t believe it is available as podcast yet, but I think at least some sessions, don’t know if all, will be made available later. Keep an eye on their site. Do you have a teacher-librarian at your school?

    • Hi Val, there’s The Fire at Ross’s Farm, see here and there’s also a review of Eco Warriors to the Rescue, by Tania McCartney, just type the title into the Search Box to find it.
      On the same site (my old professional blog) there’s also a unit of work called Extreme Holidays which could very easily be adapted to focus in on Australian landscapes under stress from drought and bushfire. Go to the Goodies to Share menu at the top, click on Australian Curriculum Literature & Research units for the Primary Library, then click on Years 5 & 6.

        • I know there are definitely some picture books around, but I don’t remember the titles now, it’s too long since I was in the classroom. But I have no doubt that any good Indie bookshop with capable staff would be able to recommend good titles.

  7. Pingback: Whispering Gum’s Blog about Literary Education Lab’s McLean Davies’ Interview at Melbourne Writers Festival 2020 – Literary Education Lab

  8. “The others included Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, To kill a mockingbird, Animal farm, Hamlet, Outsiders (SE Hinton), 1984, and Othello. This gave us a “cause for pause” she suggested!”
    Yes, at the highschool where I work, which is senior only (grade 10 to 12), these are the books still being taught. And even with the national curriculum now in Queensland, any new books ordered in the last 18 months have not been Australian. It bothers me a lot.

    • And of course senior students should do the great Shakespeare plays and Animal Farm and 1984, I think, Theresa, BUT, for example, where’s Voss!?

      Seriously though, it is a worry. What about David Malouf’s Fly away Peter? And so many by Aussie women. Thea Astley set quite a few in Queensland. It is a worry!!

      • They leave school with no appreciation for, or even a solid grasp of, Australian literature. I feel it just perpetuates a lack of national identity that is mimicked by other media, particularly television, of which is saturated with US programs.

  9. I finished school in 1973. We studied some Australian poets (including Judith Wright and Kenneth Slessor) but I’m struggling to remember Australian novels on the curriculum. Mostly British authors (Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, D.H. Lawrence) and a few American (Faulkner, Fitzgerald). Apart from James McQueen, Ethel Turner, Nan Chauncy and Elyne Mitchell, I can’t remember ‘discovering’ Australian novelists until I was into my 20s.

    • That’s interesting Jennifer. I started high school in Queensland and we did Frank Dalby Davison’s Manshy. I also did Vance Palmer’s The passage there or in an early high school year in Sydney. Later in high school, which I finished in 1970 , we did Voss as I’ve already said. We did some Aussie poetry. So I did have a far early introduction to Aussie lit at school.

      • I forgot ‘Voss’. How could I forget ‘Voss’? It started me on a Patrick White reading adventure. Tasmanian education was in transition in the late 1960s early 1970s. But much of our English literature was British. I find now that I can’t remember all of the different books but I can remember the authors who increased my joy in reading. Except, momentarily, I forgot Patrick White.

        • Started me too, Jennifer.

          Most of our English literature was British too – the names you named, like Lawrence, Hardy, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Eliot. White was quite an anomaly really.

  10. Hi! I have also attended the MWF 2020 and wrote a post about it:

    Having an international background, it is so surprising that Australian literature is not much taught in schools. Such a pity!

    I have just started my reading blog and already found so many great bloggers in Australia! Your blog seems so interesting!

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