The Permanent Tourist: Guidebooks in Travel and Education
This source preferred by Hywel Dix
Authors: Dix, H.
Journal: Travel, Imagination and Myth: Proceedings of Tourism and Literature Annual Conference ed. Mike Robinson and David Picard. Sheffield: Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change
About a year ago I heard a paper presented by Gary Day at the University of York on the fate of theory in higher education. He looked at the ways in which university departments had been brought within the auspices of a culture of inspection. In a world where higher education commands a fee and is thus becoming more and more commodified, there must be some means of assuring the quality of the product on offer, as there are for other kinds of product on the market ranging from telecommunications to food safety. In particular, he references Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980) and Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory (1995) as landmark moments in a drive to render the skills gleaned from English courses more quantifiable.
If a Higher Education course is a commodity in which students are investing time and money, they need to feel certain that by the end of the course they will have received the skills in which they have invested, otherwise they will select another course from the market. These guidebooks to literary and cultural theory are thus an important means of providing the students with the skills they require. They minimize the students’ personal response to texts, providing instead a checklist of what various authors and critics ‘do.’ It is a scenario in which the reader is rendered entirely passive, as if he or she simply absorbs from the manual a basic sense of how they should approach a text if they want to give it a post-colonial, gay, or Marxist reading.
To do this is to measure English and the human sciences against the material progress of science and technology – criteria by which they will always be judged wanting since the study of English per se does not achieve material results. Instead, the trend is to generate a set of students who will at least read and think in certain routine ways, which in this case means not thinking for themselves at all, merely consuming and absorbing passively the skills which their theoretical manuals provide. The use of guidebooks in higher education in many ways thus forestalls the possibility for really creative individual work and expression, generating instead a gradually homogenised discipline, English Literature.
The production of a passive reader and routine patterns of response informs my idea of guidebooks more generally. It is in the nature of guidebooks to present stable meanings and self-contained units of information. At the same time, the construction of a guidebook means that it is not amenable to interrogation. To depend on a guidebook is not to know what questions we would need to ask in order to disavow the contents of that book. The user of the guide – whether reader or traveller – is thus in many ways a passive figure. In this paper I look both at travel guides and fictional representations of the Guide and suggest that the line dividing them might not be as clear as it seems.