Wednesday, 29 June 2011

In defence of English

One of the side effects of the Arab Spring is a move towards academic freedom (ironically, while the government here is subjugating us to the brutish whims of the market).

In Cairo, the academics have elected their Deans for the very first time, and a woman won the race for Dean of Arts. And then a state-owned newspaper weighed in with a belated complaint about a short story on the English curriculum, one with a lesbian scene - and the twin joys of academic self-rule and democracy are suddenly in doubt.

As an aside, I suggested to our Vice-Chancellor that an academic senate would do a fine job, rather than the politburo of apparatchiks on a minimum of £100,000, given our recent history of redundancies and fines. The suggestion went down like the proverbial bucket of cold sick.

But on the main point, I really shouldn't have to reiterate the values of a humanist education. I really don't know whether the short story with a lesbian scene is any good or not: but I'd rather trust an academic than a politician or a hack.

I've had frequent brushes with censoriousness. Friends of mine have been dragged through the tabloids for taking an academic interest in sexual texts, as though talking about what a society generates, watches or bans is the equivalent of actually attaching the student to the pig's genitals. It gets the complainant a few headlines of synthetic outrage in the less reflective newspapers, but over the long term, simply closes off more avenues of human enquiry. What Egypt needs now is a cohort of students who don't recognise taboos: they've had generations of rulers telling them what not to think about: women's rights, democracy, religion, human rights, freedom, sex. Now it's their turn to examine the pressing issues of the day.

I recently attended a seminar on the notion of 'teaching offence', and was surprised to learn that most other universities avoid teaching anything controversial. Bezhti, the play which annoyed some Sikhs was mentioned: the theatre cancelled the performances and one academic nervously cited it as the kind of thing to be avoided. Sorry - we've done that one already. We have to assume that students are ready to examine their personal limits, safe in the knowledge that we're not gratuitously provoking them. I've taught Beauty to a first year class recently - a book I consider borderline racist. Half the Asian students hated it, the other half thought it authentically echoed their own experiences.

I've also shown the Laurence Olivier Othello: hammy blackface and all. I got complaints and learned from it. I'd show it again too - as a demonstration of the fact that cultural values change. Olivier and crew clearly never considered a black audience was possible, and that white audiences would be perfectly happy with the kind of crude stereotyping presented in that production.

Morel closely linked to the Cairo situation, I've taught an entire class on historical interpretations of Sappho's poetry, covering the construction of Sappho as a lesbian (as Butler et al. demonstrate, it's more complicated than you'd think), the censorship implicit in various translations, and the titillation adopted by others. We did this in an all-female first-year class, with my PGCE mentor taking notes. I expected some complaints based on the material, and on the situation in which a male heterosexuality lecturer talks to female students about female sexuality. The complaints didn't come: instead, the students launched into a confident and sophisticated discussion.

If you feel that Egyptian students should have the right to read, then accept or reject texts for themselves, write to:
Professor Dr. Hossam Kamel, President of Cairo University
El Gamaa Street

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