Thursday, May 7, 2015

Forms of Adaptational Writing and How They Challenge Scholarly Analysis

I've just been attending another conference - the international F. Scott Fitzgerald event held at my home university.  The details are accessible at  It's been a tiring day listening to a variety of papers on a selection of topics, but inevitably the main focus of attention has centered on THE GREAT GATSBY, not just because it's Fitzgerald's best-known work, but because it has been adapted so many times for different media.  Even non-literary specialists can contribute to this type of event, especially if they're into the most recent version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The opening speech offered a close analysis of time in THE GREAT GATSBY, using the image of the broken clock in Nick Carraway's house in Chapter Five of the novel as a starting-point for a complex evaluation encompassing Einstein's theory of relativity as well as modernist concepts of science.  I admired the speaker for his dedicaton as well as the close structure of his piece, each point carefully illustrated with quotations from the text.

As the presentation unfolded, however, and the speaker talked about the interiority of Fitzgerald's prose, I began to wonder whether his form of academic discourse really could demonstrate how and why the novel has exerted such a particular fascination on readers worldwide ever since it first appeared in 1925.  I remember reading it for the first time in 1976, when I had to do a paper for my "O" Level English Literature course on "Flawed Heroes," and made a labored comparison between Fitzgerald's piece and Thomas Hardy's THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE.  Since then the novel has never failed to move me close to tears, through repeated readings and viewings of adaptations across different media - radio, cinema, television.  The theme of Gatsby's basic optimism and trust being gradually exposed in a world of surfaces has always seemed enduringly popular in any world devoted to capitalist values.

While reading the novel or watching an adaptation, I believe that Fitzgerald's prose appeals to us not just on a conscious but on a subliminal level, reminding us of just how difficult it is to adapt to new environments, especially the kind of environments whose inhabitants remain largely indifferent unless you are fabulously wealthy.  It is Gatsby's tr┼čumph, but ultimately his tragedy, that he seems to adapt to the world of Long Island high society, but discovers to his cost that he can never be part of it.  His exploits are ours; whenever we move to a new culture, either by emigrating or simply shifting to a new city (or even suburb), we have to learn how to adapt ourselves, while the worlds we inhabit have to adapt likewise to accommodate us.

Such issues, I think, help to explain why THE GREAT GATSBY is a great work of literature, prompting us to look beyond the words on the page and imaginatively empathize with what Fitzgerald is trying to tell us.  It's a prime example of what might be termed the "beyond-wordism" of great texts, engaging our subjectivities and prompting us to find a lot of ourselves in Gatsby.  We all have our Gatsbyesque stories to tell; they might not be as spectacular as Fitzgerald's, but they are similar in tone and outcome.

Listening to the speaker offering a Leavisite exegesis of Fitzgerald's text, I wondered whether perhaps this form of analysis might miss the novel's subliminal quality: detail might overwhelm the design, so to speak. I certainly admired what the speaker had done, and the amount of time and energy he had spent putting the piece together, but I did feel there was something Casaubonesque about it, reminiscent of that unfortunate character in George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH who spends his entire life imprisoned in an ivory tower and becomes all but impervious to the life unfolding around him.

What I'm saying is that perhaps close textual analysis is counter-productive to the experience of a novel or film or any fictional text.  Maybe we should learn to sit back and let them wash over us; to savor the brilliance of the writing and understand how it has the capacity to change our lives, or at least make us reflect on our existing lives and learn how to adapt to new experiences.  Leave aside scholarly objectivity and let subjectivities roll - or, better still, forget the distinctions between the two and just ENJOY!!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Adaptation Studies and Adaptive Learning

It’s amazing what we can find while trawling the online archives.  I came across a blog recently entitled Adaptive Learning in ELT, a guide to alternative forms of ELT and language learning written by Philip Kerr, a teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer ( The blog describes a kind of approach that apparently will “impact on the lives of language teachers very soon,”; if they do not become more aware of what’s happening, they might be out of a job very soon.  It involves a (re-)consideration of educative methods “in the bright light of particular, local contexts.”

Adaptive learning is apparently driven by technology – an “online learning and teaching software that uses an Intelligent Teaching system to adapt online learning to the student’s level of knowledge.”  Software can deliver individualized study programs; following a simple test of different reasoning skills, it can provide a personalized curriculum that can be measured against that of other online learners.  It might involve a process of gamification – in other words, obtaining points for having completed various tastes – but this might prove of limited interest. 

To work out the parameters of adaptive learning, it is necessary to obtain particular data about learners: identity data (who are you?); user interaction data (finding out one’s online habits so as to improve user experience and retention); inferred content data (working out how a piece of content ‘performs’ across different users); system-wide data (grades, disciplinary records, and attendance information); and inferred student data (what does a learner know and how do they respond?)

Once such platforms have been created, textbook companies will be able to produce and modify content according to context; providing greater contact between companies and individual educators.  This should lead to more individualized learning, with a consequent improvement in particular outcomes and testing methods.  Educators and learners can avail themselves of the software to forge new alliances, taking into account their local needs, and hence adapt themselves continually using the software as a basis.

There are snags: language educators might find it difficult to use this software with mixed ability classes; who will pay for the training needed to implement the schemes using the software; how will educators respond to materials that might threaten their future job security; and how will learners respond to adaptive learning, once it becomes something “different”?  Kerr recommends that problems should be identified and prioritized before adaptive learning is presented as “the solution.”  Commercial interests should not be allowed to assume more significance than the needs of individual learners.

Kerr draws a distinction between “theory” and “practice,” and suggests that any educational ideas such as adaptive learning need to be subject to adaptive processes – for example, perceived significance (the idea must answer a question central to the question); philosophical complexity (adaptive learning must mesh with educator beliefs); occupational realism (it must be possible for the idea to be put into immediate use); and transportability (the idea must be rendered accessible in a form that educators can access).  Kerr believes that “big bucks” might win the educational debate; their emphasis on introducing the software might instigate the “creative disruption” that adaptivity promises.  Turkey provides an ideal venue to experiment with this new software; it has “a large and young population,” with a large government-funded project designed to increase English awareness in schools; it has launched one of the biggest EdTech projects in the world; and it has one of the world’s highest proportion of internet users.

Kerr’s discussion is highly intriguing, focusing on a conflict between individuals and institutions that lie at the heart of every adaptive exchange.  Yet there seems to be inherent complacencies at the heart of his arguments that might prove disconcerting for some.  First, he assumes that computer-assisted learning will be the bread-and-butter of all classroom exchanges in the future.  I am no ostrich, hiding my head in the sand from new technological development; but it is a fact that the majority of language learners in the Turkish context have only limited access to technology.  Second, the model of learning he proposes is inherently top-down, despite its emphasis on learner empowerment.  They have to make use of technology provided for them by the textbook and/or computer companies.  The fact that learners have the power both to subvert and challenge strategies determined in advance by the companies.  Third, Kerr’s arguments make no mention of the relationship between adaptation and communication at the verbal and nonverbal levels.  Anyone conversant with the work of Piaget and Bruner understands that adaptation lies at the heart of the ways in which we come to terms with the world and the people within it.  To assume that adaptivity centers solely round the relationship of individual learners to the software they might use is to omit the fundamental basis on which we learn how to adapt.

Perhaps most significantly, Kerr’s blog makes no mention of how “adaptation” might work in other disciplines, especially adaptation studies with its focus on transmediality, transformation and the viewers’, artists’ and writers’ relationship to the process of (re)shaping texts.  The way in which people come to terms with the texts they watch, write or film is much the same as the way in which they learn English; it’s a lot to do with mental processes, drawing on the imagination as well as the creative instinct – the kind of things that no textbook publishers can ever really regulate.

Although couched in the terms of being a “brave new world” of ELT, adaptivity, with its emphasis on top-strategies, contains occasional echoes of the world created in Huxley’s famous novel of the same name in which learners are given online soma so as to restrict rather than promote their creative (and hence subversive) instincts.  Call me antediluvian if you wish, but I’ve come to learn in recent years that no one can predict the way “adaptation studies” as a psychological as well as a textual process will affect people.