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A Cross-Cultural Approach to British Studies

Here is the text of a lecture given by Beth Edginton of Strathclyde University at a workshop organised by the British Council in Poland. The participants were all lecturers in British Studies at Polish teacher training colleges.  In the lecture Beth looks at some basic questions of How and Why to teach British Studies, and examines how it can fit into a wider educational agenda.

Jastrzebia Gora Keynote Paper - September 1996
Beth Edginton, Graduate School of Literature,
Culture and Communication, Department of English Studies,
University of Strathclyde

I'd like to start with an advert which I saw in Warsaw a few months ago :

Z daleka widac niektore szczegoly -
Zobacz Londyn z bliska

 - and for non Polish speakers the text says something like :

From a distance one can only see a few details -
See London close-up

I suppose I first noticed the advert because of the all-too-familiar stereotypical London icons : the beefeater, the policeman's helmet, the red double-decker, the underground sign, and the Union Jack. Perhaps my attention was also drawn by the fact that it was a British Airways advert. I was wanting to buy a plane ticket from Warsaw to London at the time I saw the advert, and was secretly hoping that British Airways might be offering a cheap fair. They weren't - I should have known better - but at least the advert was sufficiently interesting to make me take a second look. There are two main reasons why I find it thought-provoking. The first is that the advert has a very clear focus on London, in spite of being an advert for British  Airways. The only reference to Britain per se is the Union Jack. Otherwise, the advert makes no mention of anywhere else in Britain. This is perhaps rather strange given that British Airways, of course, has a large network of domestic flights, and would make quite a profit if they could persuade people to fly first to London and then beyond. But this absence of references to elsewhere in Britain presumably has something to do with the intended audience of the advert - after all, how many of them would recognise a view of Edinburgh Castle, or the Cotswolds, or the Lake District, or Birmingham? The advertising agency has done its homework, and knows full well that London icons are instantly recognisable. It is probably also aware that in any case, for many of the advert's audience, London is synonymous with England, and England with Britain. There is therefore no need for the advert to justify visiting London rather than Edinburgh, or Glasgow, or Cardiff, or anywhere else. The aim is not, after all, to sell Britain - that is the task of the British Tourist Authority - but rather to sell flights to Britain, and if London is the main attraction for many first time visitors, then so be it. But let's consider for a moment which version of London the advertisers have chosen to exploit. They could have chosen images of Covent Garden and the Barbican, or of Chinese New Year and Nottinghill Carnival - something altogether more contemporary and diverse. Instead, they have gone for the much more traditional image of London with which we are all familiar. It's an image which many people outside Britain, and even some in it, feel comfortable with, and it's one which has sold thousands of products. People know this version of London, it provides a degree of certainty, and very often it's what they come to see. Let's face it, it can be fun too - after all, who among us doesn't occasionally enjoy being a real tourist and doing all the clichéd sights mentioned in the guidebook? Having grabbed our attention, however, with a traditional image, the advert wants to suggest that there's far more to London than that. This is not only communicated by the advert's copy, or text, but also by the medium through which the traditional image is conveyed. Rather than using photographs of a real beefeater or bus, the advert employs tourist souvenirs to suggest the superficiality of the image. If you look closely, that's a plastic beefeater and policeman's helmet, a model bus, the underground sign is a key ring, and the Union Jack is, of course, a mug rather than a photo of the flag. They're all the sort of thing you might take home as presents from a package holiday. The advert, then, does several different things at once. It confirms the assumption that London and Britain are synonymous, it exploits a very traditional tourist image of London, and it simultaneously derides that traditional image by implying its superficiality. It's not enough to be familiar with London from books or films, the advert suggests, you've got to go there yourself - of course by British Airways - and discover the real  London. It is this idea of authenticity which is the second reason I find the advert thought-provoking. Both the tourist souvenirs I've already discussed and the copy imply that seeing somewhere from a distance, having an outsider's view, is inherently negative - 'tylko  niektóre szczególy'  (only  a few details) - whereas seeing something close up, supposedly getting more of an insider's view, is positive, and automatically more real, more authentic. If you go to London for yourself, the advert implies, you will be able to get behind the tourist images to the real thing - just being exposed to the culture will somehow provide the authentic experience.

 Now what relevance does this advert have for British Cultural Studies ? Well I think it's a text which would have very interesting applications in the classroom, and in the workshops this week you'll be exploring a whole variety of practical classroom approaches to British Cultural Studies texts, some of which I've no doubt will be applicable to this text too. But it is three of the more general issues that this advert raises which I want to concentrate on here. The first issue relates to that idea of the stereotypical image of London/Britain. This image is, of course, one with which we're all familiar from ELT textbooks. I'm sure many of you have read the article entitled 'An Ideological Approach in Language Teaching : English Course books Since the 1980s' in the first edition of The New Review, which criticises some recent ELT textbooks for not being typical enough. But there are still plenty of ELT and also British Studies books which stick to the traditional image. The research I've been doing over the last year certainly supports the argument that the traditional image of Britain is still very much alive and kicking in Poland and I want to consider how we might go about negotiating this in the British Cultural Studies classroom. The second issue is connected to that idea of exposure to a culture providing an authentic experience, and here I want to suggest that exposure isn't enough to gain understanding of a culture, that we need in addition to train our students in ways of seeing, ways of analysing culture. The third issue is perhaps more philosophical, and is related to that idea of seeing a culture from a distance being inherently negative. Here I want to consider the respective roles and rights of insiders and outsiders to a culture to discuss and define its identity. Put at its simplest, in our present context, it is a question of whether Britishness is what the British say it is, or whether, like beauty, it is at least partly in the eyes of the beholder. In exploring these three issues, I want to argue for what might be called a cross-cultural  approach to British Cultural Studies, where the emphasis is on exploring Polish views of Britishness in conjunction  with British views of Britishness, rather than simply attempting to replace Polish viewpoints with British ones. This kind of approach, I want to suggest, necessitates reflecting on Polish views of Polishness too, because it seems to me that one culture's views of another are at least partly dependent on its views of itself, and, indeed, on British views of Polishness too. Now if all that sounds complicated and confusing, then it's hardly surprising. One way of defining culture is as 'the whole way of life of a particular group of people', and although we usually simplify and select according to the level of our students, we need to recognise that British Cultural Studies inevitably involves dealing with some complex cultural processes - a point which often seems to go unacknowledged. One such process is what might be called the cross-cultural construction of national identity - in other words, the way that one nation imagines another, and at this point I'd like to refer briefly to the research that I've been doing in Poland on that theme.

Over the past year, I've conducted a series of interviews with a number of people about Polishness and Britishness. Although it's not relevant for me to go into a lot of detail about the research methodology of how and why my interviewees were selected, it is worth mentioning that most of them had higher education, and that they had varying degrees of exposure to Britain. They were also selected so as to provide a wide range of views about Polishness within their educational group. One of the things I found particularly interesting about the interviews was that, however much experience the interviewees had had of Britain, their responses to questions about Britishness tended to be fairly stereotypical - melonik, królowa, angielska rezerwa (bowler hat, Queen, and English reserve). Even for those people who had lived and worked amongst the ethnic diversity of London, a typical Briton was still a white English man in a pinstriped suit and bowler hat. And despite all the recent controversies, the Queen was still seen as a symbol of Britishness, while any experience of English football hooligans had not yet put paid to the idea of a nation of introverts. Of course there were some exceptions to these responses, the most memorable of which was that a powerful symbol of Britishness were Doc. Marten boots - but there weren't that many surprises. Initially I was perplexed by the fact that the replies were so stereotypical. Many of my interviewees knew a lot about Britain, both through their education and experientially, which perhaps only goes to confirm that stereotypes operate on a different level from other kinds of knowledge. But on reflection I think what my interviewees were doing was emphasising what they saw as the main differences between Britishness and Polishness. Perhaps this was inevitable - after all, identity cannot be defined in a vacuum, but must always be defined in opposition to something else, and the fact that they were being interviewed by a British person may well have exaggerated this. A similar phenomenon, however, seemed to occur in Polish media coverage of the Queen's visit in March. I had expected it to produce an extensive discourse about Britishness - or at least Englishness. Instead, it seemed to produce quite a complex account of Polishness, which I thought quite nicely illustrated what some of my interviewees had called the superiority-inferiority complex of the Polish national character. At times, the media reports seemed highly self-critical about Polishness, and at others I felt they almost verged on the self-indulgent. There were constant references to the possibility that Poland might not be ready for a visit from a British monarch - either practically, or in terms of national ability to manage the etiquette. An article in Wiadomosci Kulturalne  on 17th March demanded to know why it was that preparations for the Queen's visit to the national theatre were so last minute, as they saw it, given that Poland had known she was coming for five years, and had had concrete dates since the autumn. An article on the front page of Zycie Warszawy  on 21st March reported a 'Deficyt smokingów' - a distinct shortage of dinner jackets - implying a lack of planning, an unseemly panic. Something altogether more self-indulgent seemed to be going on simultaneously, however. I couldn't help wondering whether the enormous enthusiasm for the Queen's visit didn't partly stem from a kind of reflected glory, even a kind of narcissism. Was it perhaps related to that streak of the Polish national character which has a distinct liking for the aristocratic? The Daily Telegraph  of March 25th certainly seemed to think there was some sort of connection, stating that :

 Poland is curious and enthusiastic about the visit, which has
 prompted renewed interest in the country's royal past and much
 analysis of Poland's links with British royalty.

Certainly my impression from the research I've conducted is that the traditional opinions of Britain in circulation within Poland are not adhered to simply because of a lack of information - though of course that may be a factor with some sectors of the population. Rather, I think that it is a question of vested cultural interests ; in other words, the images of Britain currently in circulation in Poland exist because it is culturally necessary for them to do so. This argument, of course, is related to some aspects of post-colonial theory  and is applicable not just to Poland's images of Britain, but probably to any one nation's images of another. During the past year, then, I have become increasingly convinced that the way one nation sees another is at least partly dependent on how it thinks about itself. This is not to imply, incidentally, that any particular nation has a homogeneous view - clearly within any group of people there are going to be numerous and contradictory constructions in circulation. But nevertheless I think it is possible to argue that there are some common strands, at least some shared viewpoints, in a particular nation's ideas about another nation. It seems to me that the cross-cultural construction of national identity involves both compensatory and complementary mechanisms. On the one hand we quite possibly see in another nation characteristics we perceive ourselves as lacking, or, conversely, that we don't want and attribute to 'them'. On the other hand, we may see what we take pride in about ourselves - again, the processes involved are likely to be highly complex.

But what implications does any of this have for the British Cultural Studies classroom? In terms of what  we teach, I think it means that we need to undertake an ongoing interrogation of Polish attitudes towards Britishness, and to investigate their relationship to ideas about Polishness. By this I don't mean spending one lesson on stereotypes and then trying to forget they exist. Instead, I am advocating an approach which makes Polish attitudes to Britishness - and Polishness - central to every aspect of the British Cultural Studies syllabus. This inevitably has implications for how   the subject is taught.

At this point, then, I'd like to move on to the second issue that the British Airways advert raised for me - that question of whether exposure to a culture alone is sufficient to produce understanding. Now in terms of the advert, exposure obviously means being in London - spend some time there and you'll get beyond the superficial. But as I've already mentioned, some of my interviewees had spent a considerable amount of time living in Britain, and yet they still tended to have fairly stereotypical impressions. My own experience of living in Poland also makes me wonder whether exposure alone is enough. I spent two years living here in the late eighties, so I had a certain amount of exposure to Polish culture. However, I feel I have gained a lot more understanding living in this culture during the last year, having received some training in cultural analysis. In terms of British Cultural Studies, exposure usually includes what's learnt pedagogically as well as by direct experience. Although  students are increasingly getting direct experience of the culture, for many their main exposure will still be the knowledge/information they get in the classroom. But whether exposure is gained via direct experience or via its substitute, I think the argument still holds that exposure doesn't automatically result in understanding. Moreover, it seems to me that the information-based approach to culture has reached a crisis point, because it now simply cannot possibly cover the plurality of contemporary culture, if ever it could, and nor can it keep up with a culture which is changing ever more rapidly. I'm sure we're all familiar with that sinking feeling that comes over any teacher who is faced with the task of somehow "covering" British culture in a semester - the frustration either of trying to skate over as many things as possible doing justice to none of them, or of sticking to a few major topics, knowing that there are all sorts of important things being left out. There's also the problem of trying to keep our own knowledge up-to-date, and of trying to teach our students something that will be valid for more than a few months or years and won't be out of date before they've had time to experience it. Then there's the crucial problem of methodology - what can we actually do in the classroom? A fact based approach works reasonably well where students are used to teacher-centred English lessons. But where they have become increasingly used to student-centred approaches, students sometimes become bored and frustrated at being expected to assimilate large quantities of factual information. Teachers also become increasingly bored and frustrated with trying to find ways of conveying a body of factual knowledge in an interesting way, and, as anybody who has tried it will know, the whole business of teaching a fact-based approach to Britain can become a pretty thankless task. I suspect these are problems we all have to negotiate, and there are a whole variety of ways of doing so. We are going to hear how three colleagues have dealt with these issues. Malgorzata Zdybiewska-Garbacik will tell us about the approach she's been taking at Radom College, and Andrzej Diniejko will tell us about the approach he's taken at Kielce. Elena Taresheva will explain how she's tackling these problems at the Institute for Foreign Students at the New Bulgarian University. In Bulgaria, the British Council, in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde, have paid particular attention to British Cultural Studies at the teacher training and secondary school levels, so developments there may well be of some interest. It will be extremely interesting to focus on these specific examples and to hear how colleagues have negotiated the issues I've been discussing. Looking at what's going on in British Cultural Studies from a more general perspective, I think it's true to say that there has been a gradual shift from the information based approach to an approach which involves analysing cultural products. This has the advantage of teaching analytical skills which have a much longer shelf life than information, and which are flexible enough to keep up with constant cultural change, at least for the foreseeable future, and can be applied to a wide range of cultural products, thus dealing with that question of plurality. Students do still learn about  British culture, because in order to learn these analytical skills, they must apply them to something. But they also gain tools which can be re-cycled - and so I would argue that they get the best of both worlds. Additionally, they learn in a way which is primarily deductive rather than inductive, student centred rather than teacher centred, and which gives them something to do in the classroom and helps the teacher avoid giving too many lectures.

Now at this point I think it might be quite useful to look at a couple of definitions which appeared in 1993, when the British Council published a booklet called "British studies : designing and developing programmes outside Britain." I'm not sure how widely this was circulated outside the British Council, but you may well already be aware of these definitions :
 

The terms British Studies and British Cultural Studies have been used interchangeably. The choice of terminology can depend on various factors. British Studies tends to be the term employed where there is :

  • an emphasis on history, politics and civics rather than an emphasis on cultural products
  • a tradition of using the term British Studies in an educational system
  • desire to implement a programme in British Studies in a context that already  has programmes in American or Canadian Studies.
  British Cultural Studies tends to be the term employed where there is :
  • an emphasis on studying the cultural products of the British Isles
  • a desire to utilise methodologies deriving from the discipline of Cultural  Studies.

(There, of course, the reference is to the Cultural Studies tradition of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and the Birmingham centre).

In these definitions, the diplomatic language conceals an interesting ideological struggle in the subject's development, because they seem to me, perhaps understandably, to be trying to legislate out of existence an important but unwieldy debate. Far from being used interchangeably, as this suggests, the terms British Studies and British Cultural Studies, at least as far as I remember, were being used as a short hand for quite different theoretical positions. On one side were people who tended to see the subject as identical to the life and institutions, civilisation type courses they were teaching, and on the other were those who wanted something more academic and theoretically rigorous. The information-based, life and institutions group came more into the first part of the definition, while the cultural products, development of skills of cultural analysis group came more into the second. However, I think that things have moved on since this 1993 set of definitions. It seems to me that the terms often are  now used interchangeably, unless a very specific distinction is being drawn, and on the whole it's probably not worth getting too bogged down in the terminology. I also think that people who have this British Cultural Studies kind of approach don't only use Cultural Studies, but rather on the whole tend to use multi- or interdisciplinary strategies. That is something which has been deliberately reflected in this workshop week - though inevitably it can't begin to represent all the contributions of different disciplines. Nevertheless, John Corbett's lecture on Language and National Identity will take a linguistic approach, and will also draw on examples from literature, advertising and politics, while his workshops on images of the Scots (as a nation) and varieties of Scots (as a language) combine linguistics, history, and cultural studies. The lecture that Alan Pulverness will give considers the role of literature in British Studies, and calls for a more dynamic relationship between language, literature and cultural learning while his workshops examine the complex relationship between language learning and cultural learning. In his lecture, David Jarrett tackles the diversity of British Cultural Studies head on, and considers coming to curriculum design from other disciplines, while his workshop texts include everything from painting and sculpture to maps and guidebooks. And I suppose I would locate my own contributions to this week as being a combination of cultural studies and media studies. Hopefully, this workshop week will provide opportunities to experience this cultural analysis approach if you have not done so already. The afternoon workshops in particular will hopefully also enable reflection on the ways in which such an approach might - or indeed might not - work in your own classrooms.

In addition to the advantages that I've already tried to outline, I think this approach also facilitates the analysis of our attitudes as outsiders to a particular culture. This brings me to the third issue I mentioned in relation to the British Airways advert : whether seeing a culture from a distance actually is  inherently negative, as the advert implies, and what the respective roles and rights of insiders and outsiders are in defining and discussing a nation's identity. If I might return again to my own experiences this year, it seems to me that being an outsider certainly has its problems, but that it also provides a perspective which allows one to identify certain beliefs and behaviours as culturally specific, and not, as insiders might claim, as universal or natural. It is the possibility of bringing other sets of beliefs, behaviours and experiences to a situation that enables one to begin to see some of the differences through which identity is constituted. The outsider to a culture, as Julia Kristeva  argues, has a very special perspective. Yet if a culture's identity is at least partly in the eyes of the beholder, if, in our case, Britishness is as least partly constructed via non-Britishness - who has the prerogative to define what it is? You might respond that the ultimate arbiters of Britishness, the people who know the truth about Britishness, must be the British. But if we move the argument from the realm of national identity to that of personal identity for a moment, the flaws in this argument become clear. For example, if a person claims to be kind, intelligent and sensitive, does that mean that they are? Or does their identity depend on how other people perceive them? If others say that person is mean, stupid, and thick-skinned, what is that person's identity? Identity, personal or national, is always created in the space between self and others, so whoever the British define themselves as being - and of course there are a wide variety of definitions - Britishness is at least partly dependent on the multiple interpretations of other national groups. The ways in which different nations perceive and define Britishness inevitably have some things in common, and just to complicate matters, there are times when it is not a question of a simple opposition between British and non-British views,  but when a predominantly non-British view is adopted and played with - as in the example of the British Airways advert. But even if there are shared stereotypes, shared definitions of Britishness, as I've argued I suspect that each nation also has a subtly different perception and definition dependent on its own self-perception, its own self-definition. Now if that is the case, if Britishness cannot be defined by the British alone, but is created in the space between the encoding and decoding  of the nation, then again we have to ask what the implications are for the British Cultural Studies classroom - and having briefly considered the what and the how of a cross-cultural approach to British Cultural Studies, I want finally to think about the who.

It seems to me that what often still tends to happen when a college or school or university has a British teacher or lecturer, is that non-British colleagues feel that that  person should teach the subject, not them. There are all sorts of reasons why this occurs, among them the low status that the subject sometimes has, though I don't think that is a particular problem in Poland, thanks to the University of Warsaw's postgraduate diploma, which has done much to change people's perceptions about the subject's academic status. Another important reason is that non-British teachers often seem to feel that a British colleague will teach the subject better than them. They perhaps feel that they don't know enough about Britain to teach British Cultural Studies, and that the British native speaker will automatically know more. I think there are two main problems with this assumption, both of which link back to the issues I've raised so far. The first is that this assumption is based on the idea that a person who belongs to a culture knows more about it, and the second is that it is still based round this ideas of information about   the culture. Let's consider the first issue. Does a person who belongs to a culture actually know more about it? Of course there are some ways in which they do, but I think it's also true to say that there are times when someone who belongs to a culture can't see the wood for the trees. Imagine for a moment that the tables have been turned, and that you have been asked to teach a course in Polish Cultural Studies to a group of British students. How easy would it actually be to stand outside your own culture and make the kind of accurate generalisations that are often demanded? This is something you'll be asked to do, an activity which will hopefully raise some interesting points about syllabus design. Whilst we all have a wealth of experience of the national culture we grew up in, much of what we know about it is unconscious. Additionally, we inevitably belong to a whole series of subcultures of our national culture - of class, ethnicity, gender, generation - and often we simply don't know much about the experiences of people who belong to different subcultures from us - even if we share with them the same nationality. So it seems to me that it's not necessarily true that someone who belongs to a culture automatically knows more about it, and that there are certain advantages to seeing a culture from the outside. Seeing 'niektóre szczególy' can be a positive advantage, because you possess the necessary distance to see what an insider to the culture would find it very difficult to notice. Now let's consider the second problem I mentioned - the assumption that the British native speaker can teach the subject better being based on the idea of having to hand more information about the culture. If we move away from an information based approach towards an analytical, skills based approach, then it seems to me that the assumption that a British teacher is best becomes redundant. Even if it is true that in  certain  ways the non-British teacher knows less about the culture - and as I've suggested I don't think that's always the case anyway - it doesn't necessarily matter if what's at stake is the analysis  of culture, particularly if both cultures are being considered. Although British teachers no longer have a privileged position with this approach, they nevertheless still have a role to play, because if Polish teachers can provide an outside perspective on British culture, then British teachers can do the same with regard to Polish culture. In suggesting that there are advantages to the perspective lent by cultural distance, I am certainly not supporting the idea that first hand experience of British culture can be dispensed with. What I think is required is a combination of exposure in conjunction with training in cultural analysis. The way I would like to see British Cultural Studies developing, then, is for teachers - both Polish and British - to be trained in the kind of analytical techniques required for the cross cultural approach I have outlined. These skills could then be applied to the joint production of materials and the shared teaching of courses which would develop similar skills in students. In Poland and elsewhere, I would also like to see a move away from a British Cultural Studies which focuses primarily on Britishness to one that incorporates both British culture and the national culture in which it is being taught. However, I am aware that in arguing for this kind of approach, I am inevitably influenced by my own cultural background, and by its educational values. Cultural imperialism is something which occurs as much through an insistence on a particular methodology as it does through an insistence on a particular content. Although Poland obviously needs to be aware of what is going on in the subject outside the country, particularly in the immediate European context, clearly British Cultural Studies must develop in Poland in a way which works for Polish educational establishments, Polish students, and Polish teachers. If I may borrow and adapt from the Queen's speech to the Polish Parliament, if Poland needs British Cultural Studies, then British Cultural Studies also needs Poland.
 

Bibliography
 

  1. Bassnett, S. and Mountford, A., British studies : designing and developing programmes outside Britain,  The British Council, London, 1993.
  2. Hall, S., 'Encoding and decoding in the television discourse', Stencilled Paper,  Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies,  Birmingham, 1973.
  3. Kozuch, D., Muciek, A., and Wawrzyczek, I.,  'An Ideological Agenda in Language Teaching : English Coursebooks since the 1980's' in Harris, E. and Lyons, P. (eds.) The New Review,  Department of English Literature, University of Glasgow and Instytut Anglistyki, University of Warsaw, 1995.
  4. Kristeva, J., (trans. Roudiez, L.) Powers of Horror : An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982.
 
  • (trans. Roudiez, L.) Nations Without Nationalism,  Columbia University Press, New York, 1993.
  • (trans. Roudiez, L.) Strangers to Ourselves,  Columbia University Press/Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, 1991.


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