UWI Celebrates 50-plus Years Of Teaching Fi Wi Literature

Last Wednesday, the Department of Literatures in English at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, hosted the annual Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture. It honours the university’s first West Indian professor of English. The lecture, which can be viewed here, was delivered by Kenneth Ramchand, the university’s first professor of West Indian Literature. The names of the two professorships signify the evolution of literary studies at UWI.

In 1969, a young Trinidadian scholar Kenneth Ramchand joined the Department of English at UWI, Mona. He had completed his PhD in English at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis became the classic, The West Indian Novel and Its Background, which was published in 1970. Ramchand’s book was the foundation of the very first course in West Indian literature at UWI, which he launched.

In his wide-ranging lecture, Professor Ramchand vividly recalled the years of intellectual excitement in Jamaica. There were the rousing conversations with passionate scholar-activists on the verandah of his next-door neighbour, the eminent Jamaican economist George Beckford. It was G Beck who inspired Ramchand to recognise “the profundity of the bonds and the pity of the ruptures that had been socially engineered in the modern age between literature, culture and society.”

‘AN ALIEN GROWTH’

Off campus, Ramchand was able to establish bonds of community: “At long last, I was meeting and living among the ordinary people of the Jamaican books I had encountered in the cold and the white.” But the university was “in many ways an alien growth, still under foreign tutelage.” The English Department’s course of studies was “like the curriculum of a British university in the provinces. It ran from Old English to Middle English up to Modern English, stopping at safely dead writers like T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. The teaching staff included West Indians, but on all three campuses the English departments were run by non-West Indians.”

Ramchand related an encounter with one of his West Indian colleagues that illustrated how alien he himself felt in the English Department: “Early in January 1969, I was standing outside my office admiring the roots of a spreading banyan tree, preparing to go into my office when the circumspect Edward Baugh came down the corridor, passed the office of Professor Elsa Goveia, looked at the sign on my office door and said, half-amused and half-surprised, ‘So, you are inventing your own department now?’”

This is how Ramchand reflected on that provocative question: “I had not put it to myself like that. But he was right. I had taken off the sign that proclaimed me ‘Dr. Kenneth Ramchand, English literature’ and replaced it with ‘Kenneth Ramchand, Literatures in English.’ Within two years, the old University English curriculum was dismantled and we were in fact, if not in name, Literatures in English.”

Baugh’s observation was pure picong, the Trinidadian art of wicked wit. It was also a very sharp Jamaican jook. Oh for the good old days of real-real regional integration at Mona! Ramchand’s description of Baugh as ‘circumspect’ is also picong. That word means ‘cautious, wary.’ Its origin is Latin: ‘circum’ (around) and ‘specere’ (to look). In the context of an exchange about a radical renaming of the colonial Department of English, circumspection seems suspiciously like not looking far enough.

THE QUESTION OF LANGUAGE

Ramchand also focused on the importance of introducing West Indian literature to secondary school students. Since language is the raw material of literature, the value of local languages was highlighted. In the Q&A, Professor Michel DeGraff, a Haitian linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asked, “Please advise what to do to promote our national languages as truly so, especially in our schools.”

Robert Le Page, an enlightened Englishman who lectured in the Department of English at Mona in the 1950s, had offered his own advice in a 1968 report on “Problems to be faced in the use of English as the medium of education in four West Indian territories.” Sadly, like DeGraff’s question, some of Le Page’s findings have still not been addressed half a century later. In Jamaica, there are two distinct languages. But, as Le Page observed, “neither the teachers nor the children are equipped to recognise the differences.”

This remains a fundamental problem in the teaching of English: “Instead of being able to keep the two systems separate, therefore, the children try to make one composite system out of the vernacular they know in their homes and the model language they are supposedly taught in school; the result naturally satisfies nobody – not even the children themselves, for whom it remains an artificial construct. The problem is greatly intensified by the fact that so many of the teachers are untrained, unsure of their own command of the model language, and therefore poor teachers of it.”

The teaching of West Indian literature at UWI could have enabled the healing of the ruptures of language, culture and society. For example, Robert Le Page collaborated with Frederic Cassidy to compile the Dictionary of Jamaican English, which was published in 1967. This rich resource has largely been ignored by English teachers. Hopefully, it will not take another half a century for educators across the region to recognise that verbal creativity and critical thinking are nurtured by a child’s mother language which must become the foundation of liberated learning.

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