Running the Literature on Oats — On the Malnourished A/L Literature System of Sri Lanka

[This was earlier carried by The Nation]

The National Institute of Education – the arm that formulates syllabuses, appoints marking panels, sets marking schemes etc for the GCE A/L – has to seriously knock itself from its deep sleep. With a GCE A/L syllabus change taking place in 2009 (with its first batch going into the exam in 2011), the NIE is yet to address some of the inadequacies and hiatuses they have failed to address over the past three years or so. I recall writing an article to the Lakbima News highlighting what I felt were “reactionary statements” and “anomalies” on the part of this Institute, and its (then) newly formulated syllabus, resource distribution etc.

Leaving the composition of the syllabus aside – for this syllabus, which, overall betrays a lack of imagination at its best and a dearth of reading at its worst, is the topic for a separate debate altogether – let it be stated that the relevant authorities are yet to issue a companionable anthology of poetry and short stories (as has been the general practice in previous syllabuses) for the student, even as its first batch has sat for the exam and already obtained their results. The impotency of these authorities to provide the basic material required for the study programme betrays a lack of character that cannot be pardoned under any pretext. Besides, this has given rise to a whole barrage of “study guides” and “ad hoc anthologies” by quasi-pundits of the subject.

These ad hoc “study guides” have become a major and lucrative business – and business is something I uphold in an education tradition that is on the forward march towards the “hub of knowledge in Asia” if not for the same being a fraud and a condemnable misdirection to the student. These study guides (which includes the poetry and the prose) come from a series of well known bounty hunters in the industry. At the same time, the known eye is quick to spot glaring errors in the very “primary text” as extracted and reproduced in these shameless quasi-anthologies. For instance, one quack anthologist copy pastes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” – a short story in which the writer predominantly relies on the dialogue as a narrative ploy. Hemingway, in these dialogues, often uses the sentence spoken alone – without necessarily denoting to us the speaker. The reader, in that sense, is invited to pick up the speaker from the other once the general pattern is laid out. Now, half way through a dialogue (reproduced by a quack) we find a whole sentence missing from the original. Needless to say, this causes utter chaos – and the meaning of the dialogue is at jeopardy.

The student does not deserve this

This is just a singular example from a more general and consistent observation. In the poetry anthologies, too, we often and recurrently see lines missing, stanzas at haywire and words being erased. One wonders whether this is a cheap ploy to battle out potential copyrights cases – for such frauds have been taken to courts (the famous case of Yasmin Gooneratne taking to task one of the bestselling of these Rastapopulouses) on previous occasions. But, whatever their dirty games are the education top brass has a duty by the thousands of students to issue an “official” document which they may refer to. This is not merely an obligation, but a duty and a fundamental one at that. The A/L is not a Mayfair for the Hewages, Alahakoons, Father Herman Fernandos and other bright boys who are out there to make their enterprise. But, with official negligence and lethargy these aforementioned become “default sources” for the starving studentship.

Speaking of lethargy – the NIE’s “teachers’ guide”, overall, is a disgrace to the collective discourse of English Education in Sri Lanka, given its spelling and grammar errors (I am, of course, referring to the downloadable version of this on the NIE website, which I had a chance to go through a few months ago). Moreover, the rigidity and the streamlined nature advocated by that document left behind a bad taste. The dictatorial and mechanical prescription resonated to me a manual on how one should operate a harvester, than it being a guide to teaching literature.

The image of trees used after removing the previous image that was here (see, comments below)

This is a whole hive of inaptitude and we are not even out of the NIE yet. The clumsiness in syllabus formation, preparation of guides, lethargy in mandatory publications etc only reflect the soulless nature of the entire hierarchy in question. How could one be free to confide one’s future with a machine as ineffective as this? At the 6thSession of the Sri Lanka Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language studies (held a few months ago in Colombo) several issues related to the newly implemented A/L syllabus was observed by Prof. Manique Gunesekera of the University of Kelaniya. On that occasion, Mrs. Kamala Wijeratne spoke in defense of the syllabus-setting machine (and by extension, perhaps, of the NIE arm in this entire programme). If I remember right, a comment was passed regarding the absence of university lecturers at the “supervision level” of English Literature paper marking (this was not a main point addressed, but an observation that came up by the way).

While the marking of GCE A/L subjects are generally supervised by university lecturers (and, preferably senior academics at that), since late, the university element has been removed from the marking of English Literature papers. Perhaps, there are complications surrounding this deselection – and a colleague from the academia suggests me that it very much is the case – but, while all other A/L subjects receive such input at the marker’s desk, it is inexcusable that English Literature should not have the same. The presence of senior academic minds at the GCE A/L desk – I add emphasis – is mandatory. The teaching of English in Sri Lanka is poor; and the general teacher of English is hardly in a position to teach literature with an open mind. Nor is literature the kind of subject that can be confined to a streamlined marking scheme or criteria. Literature is not an appreciation where one cannot have a strict list of A, B, C and D as the “right answer”. It is a debate that often remains open and unlimited. The presence of a senior university hand to monitor the marking, therefore, becomes a crucial concern.

The execution of the innocent and vulnerable

It may even be that many “potentially good” students get unfairly marked at the marker’s desk, for the lack of competency in the marker. This is a claim that needs much validation (and a query on which I am working on), but a cursory inquiry into several “benchmark students” at university English Departments show a queer “missing link” in their run up to campus, after fairly prodigious “school track records”. With a consistent school record and a well commended university career, many of these students look back on a ‘C’ as their A/L grade. Kandy’s (the district to which I belong) best result for English Literature this year is a ‘B’ with many students whom the schools sent to the exams as consistent performers ending up with baffling ‘S’ passes. From what a teacher tells me, there are no more than three ‘B’ passes for the district (and I disclaim responsibility for the accuracy of this number). Generally being a competitive district and a rich resource of university entrants Kandy’s results, to say the least, are curious. This is so, in the context where a top Colombo school has five ‘A’s within the batch itself. With the current set up of abnormality, everything becomes suspect and dubious. Are these marking centers properly benchmarked? Is the marking consistent in their tolerance levels? I am lucky I am not Shakespeare, for these rhetorical questions come too easy to me.

It is my practice when I visualize crisis I imagine the possibility of it ten years on. If the current system of syllabus setting, implementing and – more crucially – of marking is not put into safe hands I see an indisputable breach of trust and faith (on the part of the less powerful stakeholders in this diabolic business) and a lack of confidence growing within the next few years. I seriously hope that credible academics and officials who “know Literature” and can “function in English” takes up the mantle – not because we need a hero; but, more so, that the future of English Literature candidature and the richness of the study is secured. I lack trust in the runners of the system and I do not see most of them being honest in their commitments. English Literature studies needs a farsighted saviour who can work within the “logic” of literary studies. She should be one who can make this “entrance programme” to the world of literature both informative and enjoyable – and whose idea of literature is not a bombardment of Dickens and Jane Austen. Similarly, the Literature exam marker’s desk needs a solid university supervision. The teachers are simply not in a position to supervise at this decisive examination.

8 thoughts on “Running the Literature on Oats — On the Malnourished A/L Literature System of Sri Lanka

  1. Actually there are 147,000 applications for re-scrutiny of results. Candidates did not know what exactly was wrong at that time. They have received Island ranks 400 to over thousand ranks below their counterparts with similar results. Now only students realize that their z scores are inaccurate. Candidates thought that recorrection might rectify their rank that is the reason for such a large number of applications.
    Even after getting two A grades instead of B grades after recorrections of papers, candidates would not be selected to universities as their z scores also need correction.
    Professor of your experience can understand statistics and highlight that 0.2 errors in Z score results can make a difference of 500 ranks in All Island ranks. This is a grave injustice. Those who deserve admission on all Island merit basis do not even enter the universities due to this mistake in methodology. When a candidate with 2.14 Z-score result is given only 1.90, that student would not have any chance of entering to a desired faculty. Generally cut off marks are around 1.91 for engineering and medical faculties. Best students were denied of getting an opportunity to enter universities. This type of scenario is not so good for future of university education. English literature and arts subjects have serious discrepancies as there are large number of subjects and mean values and standard deviations of two examinations and different depending on the combination of subjects unpredictable and irregularly irregular results and Island ranks have been released. These ranks need to be corrected in a proper order. Younger generations have completely lost the confidence on examination system.
    Basic error in statistics in 2011 is that instead of un-pooled same population mean they have entered a polled mean, violating a rule of thumb in calculation of z-scores. There are differences in more than 4 marks in mean values in two examinations, depending on slightly different marks received on three different subjects students receive irregular Z score results.
    Statistically what is given as Z score result is not actually a z-core. Therefore Island ranks do not reflect performance and the merit order. It is very unfortunate situation for the university education of this nation. Can the university education sustain and move forward in this nation without correcting such a grievous error.
    We thank you again for coming forward to rectify these blunders. Your effort is highly appreciated and you are doing a great service to this nation. You may study further and verify some of these observations for your future articles. Please continue to highlight those blunders as you have done in the past. It is a crime to move forward without correcting these errors as it has been highlighted by several academics. Present generation clearly understands and they are aware of the fact that that there is a serious error in calculation of z-score results.
    There are no two methods to calculate z-scores in statistics. There is a single well define universally accepted methodology for calculation of z-score.

  2. Hi Vihanga,

    You make some great points.

    However, please remove the photo of me writing the word “linguistics” phonetically. First off, the context of the photo with your caption is insulting. The caption insinuates that I cannot speak English properly. As a native speaker, that’s of course, insulting. Considering that as a linguist, my area of study was Asian dialects of English, and I held (and still hold) an inclusive and accepting approach to speech, I find a comment about someone’s ability to effectively speak English offensive, regardless of their ability level.

    Considering that my brief tenure in Sri Lanka as an English Language Fellow for the US State Department involved me acting as a guest lecturer on topics of linguistics and instructional techniques–and not literature–makes the second part of your caption further insulting, and wildly inaccurate. How would anyone know whether I could effectively teach literature? That wasn’t my task in Sri Lanka. As it happens, I probably could have done an effective job at it. 😉 I’m no longer in the field of linguistics, nor do I live in Sri Lanka any longer. These days I’m an editor and an author. As I said, you make some good points, but please leave me out of your argument.


    -Kane Gilmour

    • Er… Ok. I just wanted the photo and got it through a random search. Did not intend to hurt or injur you in any way, Kane. I will replace it duly.

  3. kane,
    thanks for putting these people in their place. it’s mad the way this blog is involved in writing load of rubbish. can i also suggest that you dont explain your self to those who think they are “something” ” someone important” in thire “chips missing” brains.

    • Lucy, you’re here too. Your love for Kane is truly appreciated. But, do not call something “rubbish” just because it doesnt make sense to you; nor call the hand “mad” which points it out.

      Since I don’t know you or your concern in the A/L literature issue in SL I cannot say much. But, I feel you’re in any case in this forum by mischance. If, on the contrary, you have something to offer in way of comment or contradiction — the floor is open.

      • Lucy, I wasn’t really trying to put anyone “in their place”, just correcting an error that could damage my reputation. Vihanga is right about at least one thing: if you have comments to make or criticisms to offer on the topic at hand, the best way to do so is without vitriol and name calling. You might not agree with his writings, but you can’t fault him for politely responding (in this thread at least) and offering you a chance to truly speak your mind. Too many message boards quickly devolve into rants and pissing contests. I appreciate the support you are offering for me, but yes, do try to keep it civil.

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