Dr. Lapp is an Assistant Professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Long a favorite of students studying English at Mt. A, he kindly and generously offered his insights into the connections between university English and high school English. As you will see, at a time when exams were ongoing at Mt. A., Dr. Lapp took each of the questions offered him without complaint or condescension. Teachers and students of English will naturally find his replies of great interest, but his remarks reach into educational issues beyond the English classroom.

The answers were via e-mail

 



1
)  Why study English?

 

Dr. Lapp: 
One way to answer this is to take the question (as it sometimes comes) as an implicit reflection on the *practicality* of studying English (with its silent double "Why not study something more practical like Commerce or Science?").  So I tell my first year students that studying literature is valuable precisely because it does NOT produce clear answers, that literature is the artful articulation of ambiguity-- the ambiguity of life itself.  To be alert, wise human individuals, we need to become acute readers of the ambiguous, the subtle, the nuanced, the complex, the paradoxical, the non-rational, the emotional,--- of those things that in fact lie beyond science and even language but which nevertheless demand articulation.  Poetry, for example, is the articulation of the ineffable -- whether this be a certain shade of emotional experience that brings our life to a standstill until it is put into words, or perhaps something more grandiose like a religious epiphany that carries with it the stern proviso to communicate that epiphany to an inevitably unbelieving world. But studying English literature has its "practical" dimensions as well: the buzz-word is "critical thinking," but as far as buzz-words go, it's not a bad one:  the close reading of "word-craft" teaches us fine discrimination, discernment, teaches us to distinguish between shades of meaning, between salient but subtle connotations.  This is immediately relevant to the practice of Law, for example, but it is indirectly relevant to a host of other careers and occupations, as is confirmed over and again by business leaders who say they'd rather have the flexible, versatile, problem solving, articulate mind of an English Lit graduate than a mind trained like an automaton to memorize a certain set of answers to a certain set of (immediately outdated or superseded) questions. Studying English, moreover, is training for life.  How better to experience vicariously and in advance some of life's most challenging scenarios. I think especially of texts that address situations that only emerge later in life, say, the stories of Alice Munro, which deal with mature issues of middle age, and which sometimes students find less appealing than stories about their own situations.  But what better way to anticipate in advance the predicaments of life.  How better to develop
tolerance, compassion, awareness, sensitivity, and insight into the experience of others, whether they be separated from us by gender, race, age etc?
       Finally, I want my students to be exposed to what I have found moving, fascinating, transformative in writings of the past, but often this requires more and more contexting and development of taste.  Yet the advantage here is historical awareness, a stretching of both the historical imagination and the boundaries of one's often narrowly confined aesthetic tastes.  If I can get one student to appreciate the intricate minuet of the "heroic couplet," or to see the significance of the Romantics' use of enjambment, or to so immerse them in the unique colours of the historical environments surrounding such works that they can feel even a fraction of what original readers might have felt at such art, well, then we've pushed back the boundaries of oblivion at little, and grown larger in our capacity to identify across even the boundaries of time.


2)  In what area or areas are students most lacking in entering English  at Mt Allison?

Dr. Lapp: 
I have the most work in getting students to understand that texts cannot be reduced to one (usually moralizing) "message."  A work of art is more than JUST a lesson in life reproducible in a pat moral---though it certainly can involve the ethical, as I've said above---but it often involves a deliberate and artful doubleness or even multiplicity of voice, or tone.  I think it's because students need to find such reductive answers at their stage of life, and so it's my job to turn them towards less "ME-centred" message-decoding, to more nuanced and "objective" perspectives that allow, for example, for the possibility that it's not the author speaking every word directly to them, but possibly a staged persona with indirection and irony involved.

     B)  Are there areas of strength?

Dr. Lapp: 
Their self-esteem!

     C)  Is it your impression that students get a) adequate b) incompetent or c) insufficient instruction in English from their high schools?

Dr. Lapp: 
This varies greatly.  Some high schools are doing a marvelous job; others are doing students a terrible disservice by giving them A++ for just handing something in, thus leading to disappointment when these marks don't  show up in university.  If your teacher is a tough marker, thank him/her for it--it's the best thing you could get now for what's ahead.

     D)  How important do you rate grammatical understanding of one's writing and do you feel high schools devote adequate time to grammatical instruction?

Dr. Lapp: 
Grammar is crucial-- it's a basic convention for communication in our society, essential for the elimination of ambiguity in those contexts (like expository prose) when precision of articulation is paramount.   And I believe students are vastly unprepared in terms of grammar.  Again this varies from school to school and even from teacher to teacher.  But my advice is: bear down now, and learn your grammar-- you're going to have todo it at some point, so why not start now to understand what makes up a sentence, how to use a comma, when a semi-colon is just the right thing to join two related sentences, and when it is not, etc. etc.

     E)  Do students arrive aware of how to present documented papers in MLA style?

Dr. Lapp: 
The lucky ones do; others are baffled.  Please learn this.  Yes: it's an arbitrary and sometimes frustrating set of conventions.  But one whole aspect of life is learning arbitrary rules in order to smooth the path of social communication.  When I submit my manuscripts for publication, there's absolutely no room for errors in formatting, and MLA is the standard in our discipline.

     F)  Have you noticed any geographical factors to student preparedness for English? For example, do city kids have an advantage? Upper Canadians? Etc.

Dr. Lapp: 
It's tempting to generalize here, but it would probably be far from accurate.  I sometimes envy the opportunity my nephew in Toronto has, for example, to attend a school with a special programme for advanced or "special" students-- by contrast with my daughter who may have too easy a time in high school in Sackville and not be challenged sufficiently, because the lowest common denominator “seems” to be lower.  Is this true, though?  People can succeed or rise to challenges or be transformatively mentored anywhere---No matter where one is, there are good teachers, and a host of unrecordable experiences and opportunities that together create your preparedness for English Lit.  It's up to the individual…

  One other thing: everywhere you go, also, there are those who use school-yard pressure to shame you for your interest in succeeding or pursuing intellectual or artistic interests.  This is a universal challenge to anyone trying to prepare themselves for higher study in the arts, and I don't know how to solve it.  Is it specific to our culture?  At least it toughens you up (as my protected nephew won't be), and there's nothing like the relief of getting to university and discovering that the keeners are in the majority and there's no stigma to doing really well!


3)  Would you recommend a particular reading-regimen? (so many books per year? canonical reading? eclectic reading?)

Dr. Lapp: 
Eclectic is good.  Just Read!  I symphathize with students who find canonical texts daunting and opaque without contextualing helps, and I'd hate anyone to be turned off English for this reason.  Try all sorts of things; follow your bent; keep looking for books that absolutely capture your attention, so that you constantly expand your experience of words, plots, motifs, character types, and stylistic effects.  Keep a vocabulary list.  These are your tools-- build as big a tool box as you can.


4)  To what extent should students be aware of the various critical approaches to literature?

Dr. Lapp: 
Some awareness might be helpful, but we are always using a critical approach whether we know it or not.  The more detailed reflection on this can wait.  Certainly don't let this put you off.  Critical theory is just like philosophy, and our skill as philosophers is always developing. Critical theory promotes self-awareness and our ability to articulate what exactly we believe and why.  It's good to be challenged in this area so our unconscious values can be strengthened by being brought to consciousness. You've probably already begun this process, and it's something you can look forward to doing more intensively in university as part of what's appropriate to do at university.  It's invigorating!

     B)  Do your courses tend to emphasize any of the following methods of criticism: deconstruction,    formalism,   gender,   race,   new historicism,   post-colonialism,  Marxism, or  other?

Dr. Lapp: 
I've been influenced by all of these, but I'm eclectic in my theoretical approaches.  I tend to think historically, but I'm not bound by New Historicism.  The atmosphere now is a kind of "post-theory-boom" reflection on the ways the different approaches intersect or how they are just contemporary articulations of philosophical positions that have been around since time-immemorial.  They are a set of tools for undertaking certain different kinds of analysis, and each have their value and usefulness.  But none of us here are "died-in-the-wool" X -ists (where X is a certain theoretical approach).  We're wise enough to be at once informed and discriminating; we can all speak knowledgably about all these approaches, and regard theory as an opportunity to expose students to exciting new ways of thinking about literature rather than as creeds that need to be inculcated.

     C)  Do any of the following critics provide special inspiration for your courses: Northrop Frye,   Stanley Fish,  Michel Foucault,   Jacques Derrida,  Robert Penn Warren,  Frederic Jameson,  Edward Said,   Other?

Dr. Lapp: 
I was mentored by Northrop Frye at U of T; I regard Jacques Derrida as one of the most humane and intelligent “philosophers” of this century (he is grossly misrepresented by the press).  I liked Stanley Fish's book on Paradise Lost, but I find his current posturing gives the profession a bad name.  I am intrigued, and perhaps indirectly influenced by Michel Foucault, but I can't say I totally grasp all that he is saying, and there may be a cultural divide-- a tradition of French philosophy that I am not well-enough versed in.  Said's Orientalism has informed my perspectives on Oriental imagery in 18th and 19th century literature.  I was greatly influenced by Catherine Belsey at one point, and students would do well to understand the contribution feminist approaches to literature have made (these are thoughtful contributions, not just man-hating rants, as some students want to reduce them to).  I find I like Terry Eagleton's witty approach to Introducing Critical Theory, and then I can take or leave his Marxism.  David Lodge is a very level-headed thinker on these matters.


5Do you distinguish between "opinions about poems" and "experience of poems"? Does university English emphasize the first over the second?

Dr. Lapp: 
I'm not used to using this set of terms.  Much of what I've said above will be applicable here too:  poems cannot not be reduced to opinions about their messages.  They are an intricate weaving of form and content that invite our attempts to articulate their complexity and to try to put words on how it is exactly, in the combination of style and meaning, that they have created the effects on our minds that they inevitably do.


6)  Some outstanding high school students forgo university because they fear their religious (or political) beliefs will be under attack. Is English a threat to religious belief?

Dr. Lapp: 
No one will attack your religious or political beliefs here! (or certainly not in the classroom!  God forbid!)  The whole point of critical thinking is respect for diversity!  Certainly you are challenged to be open-minded to others, and invited to think critically about your own views and values.  But as I've said above, thinking critically can only strengthen one's ability to be clear about what exactly you do hold to be true and valuable.  Your values must be exercised by contact with difference, must be given shape by ever more subtle and accurate articulation, must be given strength by real-life practice.  If one is afraid that an intellectual environmnet might shake one's values, what does this imply? English lit itself is no threat to religious belief any more than science or commerce is.