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This article is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

Can We Do Justice to Literature? Derek Attridge


Our courses in English literature (or modules, as they're more likely to be called) are designed to achieve specified learning outcomes, and these learning outcomes have been tailored to conform to agreed benchmarks in the subject. Students are informed of the assessment objectives and assessment criteria according to which the work they produce will be measured, and when complete it's assigned to one of a number of grades, each of which is defined by means of a grade descriptor. The departments within which these courses are taught are assessed according to performance indicators, and the teachers who teach these courses are assessed according the procedures of performance management. The research they carry out is assessed in a Research Assessment Exercise or a Research Excellence Framework. The journals in which this research appears are assessed according to a published list of rankings.

Where, in all of this, is a space, or a time, for the sudden catch at the heart when a reader registers the emotional force of:

Surprised by joy - impatient as the Wind
     I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom
     But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?


or the sense of ever-receding horizons of meaning produced by the unmasterable ironies of:

Because I could not stop for Death -
     He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves ...


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