Cakewalk or challenge?


A take on how M.A. English students fare

Upgrading one’s qualification has become easy these days. It does not matter if a student does not have the time and resources to pursue higher education in a formal way, for we live in the age of “distance education.”

Statistics reveal that graduates prefer to pursue their postgraduation in the arts stream for they feel they need no guidance to study subjects such as history or sociology.

However, of late, students who have been schooled in English medium prefer to top their degrees with a master’s degree in English literature for they find that the job market is teeming with opportunities for people whose English skills are topped with relevant degrees.

A couple of weeks ago I was confronted with the onerous task of guiding a few students from various streams who were having a “dekko” at English literature because they had to clear their postgraduate course in the subject to step up their job profile. Interestingly enough, these students are working for call centres and BPOs and their proficiency in the English language is very high.

They had left behind prose, poetry and English grammar at the threshold of school, and were rather “cool” about the language paper through their undergraduate course.

As all of them had been educated in English medium schools, all of them did very well in English in comparison with other subjects.

Their ability in spoken English with the required accent won acknowledgement and approval in the world market; hence they assumed that it would be rather easy for them to acquire a master’s degree. Soon enough they enrolled themselves as external candidates for the course, collected the syllabus copy and some course material and forgot all about it, hoping to cross bridges as they came.

Not simple

It is only when exams are around the corner does realisation dawn on them that the syllabus is not as simple as they supposed it would be. Poetry is generally their toughest area and generally sounds positively Latin to them. The multitudes of sonnets, the sonnet cycles, the ballads and vague modern poetry fazes them. Drama seems to daunt them while novels bore them. The Indian literature of translated works in English does not fascinate them either with the exception of a few who were familiar with merely the names of the books if it happens to be from their native languages.

Apart from this they have to skim through miles of critical prose pieces, dissertations, linguistics, stylistics and phonetics of the language. Little had they realised that they would have to wash down such a tall order when they had assumed the whole affair to be a cakewalk for them.

A casual talk with lecturers who help out the various universities with contact classes or bridge courses as they are variously called revealed that it was very difficult to find even one or two in a batch who attend all the 10-odd classes prescribed for them. Most students do not even bother to attend these classes as they have more pressing work to do and apparently they are not left with much time to study.

Yet all the genres of literature make sense to them at a very general level even when they neglect to connect the biblical, historical, social, political, autobiographical and biographical allusions blended latently in them. The suggested bibliography appears to be an irrelevant addendum.

Though the internet, libraries and markets are filled with reference materials, relevant summaries and the like, most think that it would be easier if somebody could encapsulate the syllabus for them and take up crash courses in the form of private tuitions. By hook or crook the odyssey of taking a trip down the annals of English literature and its nuances is begun by the students.

Many stoically wade through the reading list and settle down to read up whatever sounds most familiar, hoping that whatever is not covered by them could be left unanswered in the examination.

Many of them do manage to clear their papers with fairly decent marks too and emerge as postgraduates to qualify for the next increment or promotion as the case may be. This system certainly works in favour of the students with diverse goals but are not the authorities concerned inadvertently allowing them to make a scapegoat of the study of literature which should activate the sensitivities and sensibilities of the person who reads?

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