Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Is expressing opinions unprofessional?

This discussion came out of a conversation about films, and in particular Control, the recent biopic of Ian Curtis. Commenting on this film, someone said: 'biopics never work'. He went on to argue that biopics nowadays tend simply to present more or less factual details of someone's life, in a simple documentary manner, rather than expressing a view about it. The director aims not to be a presence - this would be seen to detract from the truth and objectivity of the film. In this mode critical discussions focus merely on the factual truth of the film, rather than what values it is expressing. This, we all agreed, fitted in with the present ubiquity of minimalist, impersonal, abstract approaches in the creative arts, which, in the same way, typically tend simply to present an image, a film, or a text, without comment or any kind of interpretive framework, for the viewer simply to experience: this tendency does not try to encourage people to think, only to react. The emphasis is on the surface, not what lies underneath: on what things look like, rather than on what they might mean.

My view of this tendency is that as a general approach to art and life, it is a cop-out, an abnegation of responsibility, a tendency to take the easy route, one that presents but does not comment. A political perspective would argue that such art, by doing nothing to express any kind of critical view, supports the status quo.

I wondered whether there was any connection between this conversation and my recent experience of marking written assignments as part of my work as a teacher on PGCE courses. These assignments are sometimes marked at Level 5 (degree level) and sometimes at level 7 (masters level). The commonest comment I have found myself making in feedback at both levels is: 'this is OK, but needs to go beyond the descriptive mode' - that is, these scripts typically present what some academic commentator has written, or describe an event in the student's classroom experience, but don't comment on or discuss these issues in any evaluative way. Sometimes they describe their mode of studying: 'I read the book which was on the reading list and we discussed it in class', rather than critically discussing anything they have read, or responding reflectively to the discussion. This is such a pronounced characteristic of many of these assignments that I wonder why this should be. Is it because students feel some inhibitions or barriers to commenting critically (either positively or negatively) on ideas about their work? Is it because they feel that it is unprofessional to be so personal as to be evaluative, to state their opinions about something to do with their work? Is the minimalist, impersonal mode so prevalent in art now becoming a pronounced feature of the culture in general?

Has having and stating a point of view become 'unfashionable'?

Having stated this question I do remember that after an MA seminar I took part in over 30 years ago, someone said: 'it would be so much better if people didn't express their opinions all the time!' So maybe nothing has changed. But do we want teachers who can't or won't express opinions? If the answer to this is yes, then what are the implications of this for society, politics, democracy, etc in the future?