Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Tilting at Windmills

No we don’t have windmills – at least not in Goa. Pity. Gazing on them is so meditative and relaxing. But I am sure we can recall an experience – an activity to be precise – where we put in all our effort on an imaginary objective and find it all wasted (or wasn’t necessary).

Welcome to the world of Cervantes, the pioneer of the novel. The idiom emerges from the main character of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605) wherein the intrepid Don Quixote charges at a windmill to subdue it thinking it is a giant with flapping arms.

This derision with which this seemingly meaningless action has met with, has been somewhat undercut in recent times by a reappraisal of his humanity. In the sleeve notes on a film by James March titled ‘Don Quixote: Lessons for Leadership’ he writes, ‘Quixote reminds us that if we trust only when trust is warranted, love only when love is returned, learn only where learning is valuable, we abandon an essential feature of our humanness.’*

When an invitation to participate in a conference with the acronym TILT careened into my inbox I was wondering if it entailed a whiff of Spain. The short form however, stood for Techniques and Innovations in Language Teaching. As teachers we are always tilting this way and that in the classroom simply (sometimes desperately) trying to teach the nuances of the English language. So I decided to send in a research paper preceded by an abstract of what I intended to say.

In hindsight, I found the idiom had some resonance with the conference. The perceived duality between English language and English Literature seemed to pose hurdles where there weren’t any. Some bemoaned the dethroning of Shakespeare in favour of more language-oriented courses – ‘In the context of globalization, English Language Teaching [ELT] is moving away from Literature, more focus being given to soft skills, computer applications etc. Hence literature like pure sciences, finds itself pushed to the walls, languishing in the margins.’

Yet there was a spirited defense of Literature as well. One paper quoted José Hernández Riwes Cruz stating, ‘Literature enhances ELT [English Language Teaching] through elements such as authentic material, language in use and aesthetic representation of the spoken language, as well as language and culture enrichment.’

The conference provided a lot of food for thought for our teaching practice. There were 3 parallel sessions – each subdivided into 4 thematic sessions, each featuring about 15 papers – over two days. It was impossible to be in 2 (or 4!) seminar halls at the same time. Perhaps this was the only way to accommodate the 168 papers scheduled for TILT 2014.

It is possible to teach language and literature at the same time. In fact, in the coming semester at the second year Bachelor of Arts programme in college, we have a compulsory paper titled, ‘Language through Literature.’ Currently I am helping a student from Canada with her Grade 12, ENG4U course. We do language and literature-related activities – and it works.
*; published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 30 November, 2014; pix source spanishsaharaset

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