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Teaching scottish literature in Brazil

In 2013, I had the great good fortune to be appointed as a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Sao Paulo. Among my responsibilities was to teach a survey course on Scottish Literature to a mixed group of undergraduates. Actually, that is not strictly true. It would be more accurate to say that I was asked to teach a survey course on Scottish Literature as my contribution to a course whose grand title was ‘Non-hegemonic Literatures in English.’ This course allows permanent and visiting staff to address ‘other’ literatures in English – whether Irish, Caribbean, Australasian or African – and demonstrate their marginalised position and oppositional nature to the oppressive domination of the literatures of England and America. That, at least, was the theory.

I approached my first classes with excitement and no little trepidation. I had decided I wanted to introduce the students to the broad sweep and richness of the Scottish literary tradition. I assumed the students would know about key figures like the poet, Robert Burns, and that they would be familiar with the historical novels of Walter Scott and the supernatural tales of Robert Louis Stevenson. But I wanted to touch on five centuries of literary activity in my home country: I wanted to look at the court poetry and drama of the 16th century in rich, Older Scots, by poets like William Dunbar and the playwright, Sir David Lyndsay. I wanted to introduce students to the deeply eccentric figures who emerged out of the political chaos of the 17th century, like Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who translated Rabelais and invented a Universal Language while languishing in a Cromwellian prison.

I wanted to touch on neglected 19th century figures like John Galt, who wrote the first political novels in English, and the productive novelist and reviewer, Margaret Oliphant, whose Gothic ghost stories reflect an unease about modern life and the changing status of women. I wanted to show that J.M. Barrie had a career as a Scottish novelist before he wrote Peter Pan. And coming up to the present, I wanted to tell students about the Scottish ‘renaissance’ that centred on the Scots controversialist, Hugh MacDiarmid, and his Gaelic fellow-poet, Sorley Maclean; and about their successor, Edwin Morgan, whose avant garde poetry in the 1960s and 1970s was strongly influenced by his relationship with the Brazilian de Campos brothers. I wanted to showcase the wonderfully ironic novels of Muriel Spark, and the dirty realism that colours recent work by Irvine Welsh, James Kelman and Alan Warner. Finally, I wanted to blow away the old stereotypes of Scottish identity by focusing on the new generation of Scottish writers, like Jackie Kay and Suhayl Saadi, whose work addresses gender and race, and complicates what it is to be a ‘national’ writer. And for one semester, that’s what I did. The students were friendly, even enthusiastic about the lectures. They did not stand up and leave in a panic when I asked them to deal with work in thick Scots dialect. They were politely curious about the obscurer figures. When the course was over, we all felt it was fairly successful, but I was slightly dissatisfied. I had asked the students to do traditional essay-format assessment exercises – a close reading of a given text, and a long essay on a more theoretical topic, and while the responses were reasonably good, I felt that I was not giving the students enough writing practice – and that the students were not reading as deeply or broadly as I had hoped.

In the mid-year recess, a postgraduate made a proposal that was to revolutionise the way I taught the second semester. He suggested that we turn the course into an iBook. Over a series of vague but exciting conversations, we talked about reworking the course so that it involved a series of written tasks that the students were to complete every week. These would be shorter and less conventional than the traditional ‘Eng Lit’ essay, and they would have two learning outcomes: (1) they would demand more reflective reading of the primary texts, and (2) they would require a regular burst of writing in a wide range of genres. We would then video the students performing some tasks and use this as the basis of a multi-modal learning resource that would be distributed through Apple and make us millionaires, or at least famous. They were very enjoyable conversations.

And so in the second semester, with a new group of students, we embarked on the weekly assessment regime. Students translated excerpts from a mediaeval Scots poem by Robert Henryson, and compared their efforts with those of Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney. They wrote directors’ notes for staging a mediaeval Scots political drama, A Satire of the Three Estates, in present-day Sao Paulo. They wrote their own sonnets, using some Scots words they found in an online dictionary, before looking at James VI’s advice to his Scottish court poets in class. They devised their own Universal Language in the style of Thomas Urquhart, wrote love letters in the style of Burns, summed up for the judge in a court case based on one of Walter Scott’s stories, dramatized a key scene of Jekyll and Hyde, psychoanalysed the protagonist of one of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost stories, wrote down a ‘think-aloud’ record of how they deciphered a modern Scots poem, compared their own screenplay for a scene from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the film version starring Maggie Smith, and designed their own concrete poems. And they did the conventional close reading and longer theoretical essay. They worked bloody hard. And every week I could take the students’ submissions and work them into my lectures, comparing (for example) the students’ overwrought epistolary style with that of Robert Burns and his collaborator in amorous correspondence, Agnes McElhose.

Meanwhile, the inspirational post-graduate student left Sao Paulo, taking the grand plan of making an iBook with him. I looked into the possibility of doing this with the limited time and resources available to me, but realised quickly that it was not a realistic option. But we could make a website. So over the final six weeks of 2013, I quickly taught myself the rudiments of WordPress, and, with a dedicated group of volunteer students from the first and second semesters, videoed a short series of clips of students reading key texts and performing some of the responses to the written tasks they had submitted in earlier weeks. One student brought her guitar and taught herself to sing a Burns song. We had a basic digital camera and some hot and noisy rooms with poor acoustics – and very little time for rehearsal. But the enthusiasm of the students was fantastic, and we collected enough material for a website that covered the years 1500- 1900 – that is, until copyright becomes an issue!

Looking back at the course, I can say that it was certainly one of the happiest and most fulfilling experiences of teaching in my career. In later conversation with colleagues, they express some scepticism about the experiment: it draws too much upon language teaching methods for a course in literature, it is not ‘proper’ literary study in that it does not focus on social and political concerns, and it neglects ‘academic’ writing in favour of a wider range of text types, including pastiches and parodies. I am not suggesting that this approach would be ideal for all contexts – and a few students did leave the course as soon as they realised the demands it would put on them. But for a survey course on a less familiar topic, the task-based approach encouraged the students to engage more fully with the primary reading, it dramatized rather than described the political issues that ran through the course (is Scottish literature really marginal?), and, for those students who stayed until the end, it was a lot of fun. And their efforts are now freely available for others to learn from. As I write, the website has had more than 5000 visits, and I have had favourable comments from as far away as the USA, Poland, Italy … and even Scotland, where it has been recommended to English teachers at secondary school level. Teaching Scottish literature to Brazilians ended up with Brazilians teaching Scottish literature to the world.

The author
John Corbett ([email protected]) is Professor of English at the University of Macau and in 2013 was Visiting Professor at USP. He has published widely on Scottish literature, Scots language, intercultural language education and corpus linguistics. An Introduction to Scottish Literature 1500-1900 is accessible at
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