Why choose Richie Cunningham over the Fonz?
Sunday 16 April 2017
Or, to clarify the analogy which I am now going to stretch well beyond breaking point, why study Literature rather than Language and Literature?
This is the choice we present to our students each year and the question they will ask themselves. Many English teachers I have spoken to in the last year, from schools around the world, report a drop in the number of students choosing Literature, as more and more students opt for Language and Literature for their English A course.
In part, it seems that this is because Language and Literature is seen as the more fashionable, appealing option. Which brings me back to Richie Cunningham and the Fonz.
For those of you unfamiliar with Happy Days, the American sitcom which, in my memory at least, was always on TV in the early evening during the 1970s and 80s, providing bland, disappointing entertainment to millions of families around the world, here is part of Wikipedia's summary with the most pertinent parts in bold:
Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the series revolves around teenager Richie Cunningham and his family...and high school dropout, biker and suave ladies' man Arthur "Fonzie"/"The Fonz" Fonzarelli, who would eventually become Richie's best friend and the Cunninghams' upstairs tenant. The earlier episodes revolve around Richie and his friends,...with Fonzie as a secondary character. However, as the series progressed, Fonzie proved to be a favorite with viewers and soon more story lines were written to reflect his growing popularity, and Winkler was eventually credited with top billing in the opening credits alongside Howard as a result. Fonzie befriended Richie and the Cunningham family, and when Richie left the series for military service, Fonzie became the central figure of the show, with Winkler receiving sole top billing in the opening credits.
Sound familiar? Perhaps not, but there are parallels in terms of the "growing popularity" of Language and Literature that many English teachers find troubling. In some schools now only Language and Literature is offered, a situation that, when told to an English teacher, usually prompts an immediate and uncanny impression of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Why is this? Well, most of us have ended up where we are, teaching English, because we love literature. For us, the study of English is synonymous with the study of literature and this is what we specialised in at school and at University. We believe there is great value in studying a wide range of literary texts from around the world and, while we might also teach and see the value in the Language and Literature course (or at least pretend we do), in our hearts we believe that the pure study of literature is the only true path to enlightenment.
I exaggerate (perhaps). I think most of us are happy for Language and Literature to share "top billing" with Literature even if, as with the Fonz, we know that appearances are not always to be trusted. The Fonz was really a man well into his thirties, dressed up in a leather jacket and a ridiculous quiff, making preposterous noises and hand gestures while pretending to have an office in the bathroom of a diner frequented by teenage boys. He was played by Henry Winkler who went on to be famous for being the man who once played the Fonz. Richie Cunningham, on the other hand, an awkward, uncool, sex-obsessed teenager, was played by someone more or less the right age wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt. The actor, Ron Howard, has gone on to become famous as a hugely successful film director with films such as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Rush to his name. Now, I'm not saying there are direct parallels to be had with the two English A courses here but it serves as a useful reminder that our perceptions are not always accurate, especially when we are young, impressionable teenagers.
What we don't want is for English A to go the way of Happy Days, with Richie Cunningham eased out and for the Fonz to become the one and only star of the show. As authors of this site, of course we believe students should have the choice to take a pure Literature course for their IBDP and that it is still the best choice for many students. One of us works in a school where, unusually, Literature remains the only option; the other (me) works in a school where we have managed to maintain healthy numbers in Literature, with more students usually choosing it at Higher Level than Language and Literature. Therefore, a running theme on this blog will be how to promote and keep Literature alive as a subject in your school.
To start with, here are ten tips for promoting Literature based on my own experience, some of which will be elaborated on in future posts:
10 Tips for promoting Literature as a choice for English A
- Be active and strategic. Ideally, this needs to be lead by the Head of Department but all teachers can and should play a role here. Don't resign yourself to the belief that a decline in numbers is inevitable and that you are powerless to stop it. Use the following tips to create a strategy and be active and thoughtful in the way you present the option to students in their pre-IBDP year.
- Start early - look at how Literature is taught before the IBDP and consider how this is encouraging and/or discouraging students from pursuing it further once they reach the diploma. If you don't already, survey students about this and how/why they make their choice for the IBDP. Use this feedback to adapt and refine the Literature curriculum, teaching and learning lower down the school.
- Connected to this, create a culture of reading in your school, where students' independent reading is at the centre of the English curriculum – this is HUGE factor and something that will definitely be covered in a future post.
- Discuss the choice in an open and transparent way while trying to tip the balance towards Literature. This may sound contradictory (and slightly Machiavellian, which it is) but actually being truthful usually involves trying to tip the balance towards Literature as many students believe certain myths and perceptions about the two courses, often in favour of Language and Literature (see point 4 below). Of course, we know more than they do about these courses and we need to tell them what we know. Just as we now know the Fonz is really a middle-aged man who is not as cool as he seems, we need to share with students what we know based on our experience of teaching these two courses.
- Challenge the myths that exist about the subjects. For example, that Literature involves more reading or that Literature is the harder course. If you have been successful with point 3 above, the questions about the amount of reading become far less of an issue but, even so, the point needs to be made that students on both courses should be reading a lot if they are to be successful. It is just the nature of that reading that will differ. If students have been taught to enjoy reading and exploring Literaure (see point 2 above) then they will be guided by what they are genuinely interested in rather than what they consider to be 'easier.'
- If possible, show students evidence to support the above. This will depend on your school, but in our school the grade averages for the courses are either the same or the Literature grades are slightly higher, something we show students and that definitely has an impact. 'Evidence' we can all show students is the number and nature of assessments on the courses which, when placed side by side, make Language and Literature seem the more onerous choice, especially at Higher Level (4 written tasks, comparative Paper 1). This will change when the new courses come in but for the time being Language and Literature is the more challenging course in terms of the quanitity of assessed work the students have to produce.
- Emphasise the simplicity of the course. You do one thing for two years: read and analyse Literature. For weaker students this can be an advantage as, compared to the more nebulous Language and Literature course, Literature is more straightforward and gives students a more coherent path and more time to build the necessary skills, knowledge and understandings.
- Emphasise the specialist nature and depth of the course. This overlaps with the above point but is perhaps the way to phrase it to the more able students: you have the chance to become an expert in the subject that will put you at least on a par with most first year University students. Language and Literature does not offer such depth or expertise, its strength being the breadth of its scope.
- Appeal to the intellectual snob within the teenage psyche. At a workshop earlier this year, one teacher shared how her Head of Department, concerned over the drop in numbers of students taking Literature, had told teachers they should try to “sex up” the Literature course. The mind boggles at how you might do this and I think this is exactly the wrong sort of approach. Any attempt to “sex up” the subject, to try and make it “cool” to a group of teenagers is doomed to failure. The Fonz will always be cooler than Richie Cunningham. Therefore, each subject needs to play to its strengths in terms of appealing to teenagers and Literature's strength here lies in appealing to the pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery we know lurks in us all, especially when we are teenagers. I wouldn't go as far as one of my Literature students who described Language and Literature as "Lit with pictures" but the quote gives you an idea of the arrogance and elitism we should be able to tap into.
- Finally, with all of the above get students to be advocates of the subject. We have students from each course talk to the incoming Grade about their experiences of taking Literature or Language and Literature. Of course they both enthuse about the course they take; we just make sure the student talking about Literature is as far down the Fonz end of the spectrum as possible, while the student talking about Language and Literaure is selected based on their likeness to Richie Cunningham.