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"British Studies: Intercultural Perspectives", edited by Alan Mountford and Nick Wadham-Smith, published by Longman/The British Council, 2000, 156 pages, ISBN 0-582-42962-5

The last decade has been kind to British Studies. A fledgling discipline in the early 1990s, it was viewed with considerable skepticism in those days. It was, for many of us, ‘amorphous’, ‘marginal’, even, possibly, a thinly-disguised attempt at cultural imperialism. Now, it would seem, it’s flavour of the month. What went right?

Well, one thing is that its very amorphousness turned out not to be a handicap but a positive advantage; "an amphibious quality that enables it to operate jointly in the worlds of policy and practice", as the editors observe in their introduction. Similarly, Joanne Collie refers to "the indeterminacy of British Cultural Studies as an area of interest, study and research" (p 141) and later talks of "the preference for metaphors of flux, conflict and negotiation…a mobile, malleable space in between" (p 143). There was, literally, something for everybody. And there were a lot of people looking for something. Hans Kastendiek (p 70) gives the pessimistic view: "a demoralisingly broad field of inquiry and an equally dauntingly wide range of topic areas", while Manneke Budiman (p 50) shows a rather more upbeat attitude: "unlimited possibilities of discussion of almost anything that has a human touch".

Another plus was that it was on the spot to surf the zeitgeist when the novelty of communicative language teaching started to founder on the rocks of the anodyne nature of its content, what one critic acidly referred to as "the culture of the airport departure lounge"; I’ve spent more time than I would have liked to in airport departure lounges lately (thank you, SAS!) and believe me, they aren’t places you’d want to linger in.

And yet another was that phenomena such as globalisation and regional integration (and their converses -  impoverishment, marginalisation, and the all-too-often violent disintegration of states), coupled with an increased awareness of the political subtexts of ELT, opened people’s eyes to the importance of the hitherto often neglected educational aspects of what we were doing.

But that’s not to say it’s been a smooth ride for British Studies. As a field, it is characterised, the blurb on the back cover tells us, by ‘interdisciplinarity’; while this may at times make for a thrilling adventure into unknown territory, at others it may set the scene for the academic equivalent of a turf war between rival street gangs. This tendency is perhaps seen most clearly in the four papers that comprise the first of the book’s four sections, whose descriptions of attempts at curriculum innovation in tertiary institutions in Poland, Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia show remarkable overlap in the way the same ‘good guys’ (interdisciplinarity, co-operation, and the building of bridges and breaking of barriers) seem always to be pitted against the same ‘baddies’ (bureaucracy, Kafkaesque approaches to communications, narrow specialisation, ossified practices, and the kind of vicious territoriality that would reflect rather better on a guard dog than a university professor). Depressing or exhilarating? Depends where you work, I guess.

The longest section in the book (six papers) deals with ‘British Studies in ELT and Teacher Education’; in three separate papers Alan Pulverness, Melina Porto, and Michael Byram all seem broadly to agree that the fostering of ‘socio/inter-cultural competence’ is crucial, but, while Byram’s statement (p 102) that "the future for language and culture teachers in Europe is exciting" might speak for all of them, they all raise rather more questions than answers.
As does the rest of the book. The two remaining sections, rather shorter at a mere two papers each, deal with ‘British Studies as Comparative Area Studies’ and ‘Issues in British Studies’. Fourteen papers, none of them longer than fifteen pages, some as short as four. All very readable, all very interesting. For me, at any rate.

If you’re looking for practical ideas you can take into the classroom as they stand, you will look here in vain. However, that’s not to say it is purely theoretical. Anything but. Almost every paper raises practical questions, and if you’re interested in the area of British/Cultural Studies, in issues, in thought-provoking questions, lively debate, and exploring areas which are relatively new in ELT, I suggest this book might well be worth examining.

You will likewise be disappointed if you are seeking homogeneity. While there is, already stated, a degree of overlap, in a field as young and huge as this it is unsurprising that this is a collection characterised by great diversity, in geographical origin (Brazil, Indonesia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Germany, Portugal, Bulgaria, the UK), in the kind of institutions and courses dealt with, and in terms of the selection of both content and methodological approach. While this inevitably means that not every paper will be equally relevant to or stimulating for everybody, it also means that there is a truly fascinating range of content. I would recommend it particularly to anybody whose teaching involves a British/Cultural Studies element, whether at secondary or tertiary level.

Let me finish this review by quoting Mao Sihui of Guangdong University in China: "In a time when dollar-chasing has become the most seductive new religion of almost every nation, it may be idealistic to reiterate truisms such as promoting understanding and friendship between different peoples from different cultures, to reaffirm humanistic values such as love, respect and dignity…but…I think our British Studies will prove to be one of the meaningful tree-planting missions which will work towards cultivating a beautiful orchard of mutual understanding and genuine respect" (p 68); as both a keen fan of flowery language and a hopeless idealist myself, I salute you, sir.

This review first apperaed on CETEFL-L on 5 June 2000

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