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Text and Dialogue in the English Classroom

Teaching the New English

Series Editor
Ben Knights
Teesside University
Middlesbrough, UK
Teaching the New English is an innovative series primarily concerned
with the teaching of the English degree in the context of the modern
university. The series is simultaneously concerned with addressing excit-
ing new areas that have developed in the curriculum in recent years and
those more traditional areas that have reformed in new contexts. It is
grounded in an intellectual or theoretical concept of the curriculum, yet
is largely concerned with the practicalities of the curriculum’s manifes-
tation in the classroom. Volumes will be invaluable for new and more
experienced teachers alike.

More information about this series at
Ben Knights

Teaching Literature
Text and Dialogue in the English Classroom
Ben Knights
Teesside University
Middlesbrough, UK

Teaching the New English

ISBN 978-1-137-31108-5 ISBN 978-1-137-31110-8  (eBook)
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017937742

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Series Editor’s Preface

One of the many exciting achievements of the early years of the UK

English Subject Centre was the agreement with Palgrave Macmillan to
initiate the series ‘Teaching the New English’. The intention of Philip
Martin, the then Centre Director, was to create a series of short and
accessible books which would focus on curriculum fields (or themes) and
develop the connections between scholarly knowledge and the demands
of teaching.
Since its inception as a university subject, ‘English’ has been com-
mitted to what is now known by the portmanteau phrase ‘learning and
teaching’. The subject grew up in a dialogue between scholars, critics,
and their students inside and outside the university. Yet university teach-
ers of English often struggle to make their own tacit pedagogic knowl-
edge conscious, or to bring it up to a level where it might be shared,
developed, or critiqued. In the experience of the English Subject
Centre, colleagues found it relatively easy to talk about curriculum,
but far harder to talk about the success or failure of seminars, how to
vary modes of assessment, or to make imaginative use of virtual learn-
ing environments or web tools. Too often, this reticence meant falling
back on received assumptions about how students learn, about how to
teach or create assessment tasks. At the same time, we found, colleagues
were generally suspicious of the insights and methods arising from
generic educational research. The challenge for the extended group of
English disciplines has been to articulate ways in which our own subject

vi  Series Editor’s Preface

knowledge and forms of enquiry might themselves refresh debates about

pedagogy. The need becomes all the more pressing in the era of rising
fees, student loans, the National Student Survey, and the characterisation
of the student as a demanding consumer of an educational product. The
implicit invitation of the present series is to take fields of knowledge and
survey them through a pedagogic lens.
‘Teachers’, people used to say, ‘are born, not made’. There may be
some tenuous truth in this. There may perhaps be generosities of spirit
(or, alternatively, drives for didactic control) laid down in early childhood.
But the implication that you cannot train or develop teachers is dubious.
Why should we assume that even ‘born’ teachers should not need to learn
or review the skills of their trade? Amateurishness about teaching has far
more to do with the mystique of university status than with evidence
about how people learn. This series of books is dedicated to the develop-
ment of the craft of teaching within university English Studies.

Ben Knights
Emeritus Professor of English and Cultural Studies
Teesside University
Visiting Fellow
UCL Institute of Education

1 Introduction: Teaching? Literature?   1

Ben Knights

2 Contrasts: Teaching English in British and American

Universities   17
Gretchen H. Gerzina

3 Transition and Discontinuity: Pitfalls and 

Opportunities in the Move to University
English Universities   31
Andrew Green and Gary Snapper

4 The Shame of Teaching (English)   51

Rosie Miles

5 Transition into the Profession: Accuracy, Sincerity

and ‘Disciplinary Consciousness’   67
Robert Eaglestone

6 ‘Getting in Conversation’: Teaching African American

Literature and Training Critical Thinkers   81
Nicole King

viii  Contents

7 Beyond the Essay? Assessment and English Literature   99

Jonathan Gibson

8 Critical or Creative? Teaching Crossover Writing

in English Studies   115
Chris Thurgar-Dawson

9 Teaching ‘Literature+’: Digital Humanities

Hybrid Courses in the Era of MOOCs   133
Alan Liu

10  Teaching Stylistics: Foregrounding in E.E. Cummings   155

Dan McIntyre and Lesley Jeffries

11 Teaching Historically: Some Limits to Historicist

Teaching   173
Simon Dentith

12  Towards an Unprecedented Ecocritical Pedagogy   189

Greg Garrard

13  Opening up the Seminar: Children’s Literature,

a Case Study   209
Pamela Knights

About the Editor

Ben Knights is an Emeritus Professor at Teesside University, UK, and

former director of the HE Academy English Subject Centre. His book
Pedagogic Criticism: Reconfiguring University English Studies is due with
Palgrave in 2017.

List of Tables

Table 3.1 A comparison of a level and HE english

(Adapted from Green 2007)   40
Table 10.1 Distribution of open class words in poem 63   163
Table 10.2 Distribution of nouns in two semantic fields   164


Introduction: Teaching? Literature?

Ben Knights

Like other Humanities subjects, English in the past 25 or so years has

adapted to circumstances through a major paradigm shift in the direc-
tion of specialised research. Within universities, it has made itself over as
a research-intensive subject deserving funding and recognition, its col-
lective aspirations directed towards the protected status derived from
scholarly prestige and significant grant funding. This has been a matter
of survival—and this book has no intention of disparaging the admira-
ble (predominantly historicist or historically inflected) research that has
been taking place. But this reorientation of the narratives of prestige and
of the professional academic career has impacted in numerous ways on
the teaching of the subject—just at the very moment when declining
resources, the new fees regime in England, and the imperative for stu-
dents to concentrate on careers and competitive CV aggrandisement is
putting its own intense pressure on teaching from the direction of the
student consumer. In the UK, these themes crystallise in the emergence
of the so-called ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.
In this situation, ‘English’ is of course not alone. But the shift from
a student-centred to a research-centred paradigm has particular implica-
tions for a discipline cluster which prides itself on its teaching, and has

B. Knights (*) 
Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 1

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_1
2  B. Knights

always had teaching and the protocols of learning at its heart. This is a
subject whose disciplinary landscape and characteristic forms of enquiry
have been formed in the classroom and in dialogue with students. It talks
across the tertiary/secondary border to the cognate (though strikingly
different) subject called ‘English’ in secondary school. Like Creative
Writing, the subject calls into being novel symbolic structures within
the formal space of learning. The argument which informs this book,
and which is developed in the individual chapters, is that the future of
the subject relies not just upon fostering communities of ‘research
­excellence’, with their constellation of ‘stars’, but on reawakening and
reviving its pedagogic traditions.1

Laboratories of Practice?
This book, like the series to which it belongs, draws on the work car-
ried out by the UK English Subject Centre.2 Over the 10 years of its
existence, the Subject Centre developed a unique working knowledge
of the cultures and day-to-day practices of English programmes. The
informing idea—adapted from Becher and Trowler’s classic study3—
was that ‘subjects’ and disciplines, while producing and resting upon
bodies of knowledge, are communities of pedagogic practice. Those
practices are conventionalised and habitual. They constitute the sedi-
mented folk knowledge of teachers, their protocols buried deep in
the subject unconscious. Yet it has long been evident that such tacit
beliefs and habits can benefit from being raised to consciousness, ques-
tioned, and revivified. This goes further than the banality of ‘sharing
(or disseminating) good practice’. As the sociolinguist and sociologist
of education Basil Bernstein argued, ‘what is absent from pedagogic
discourse is its own voice’.4 In this spirit we sought to help discipline
pedagogy find its voice. Like the Teaching the New English series as
a whole, the chapter authors challenge the too frequent assumption
that the authority of discipline knowledge is diminished by treat-
ing teaching as itself an object of enquiry and of critical writing. The
resourcefulness of teachers is actualised through learned—and there-
fore potentially changeable—pedagogic routines. The Subject Centres
invited colleagues to make their daily activity a ­laboratory for peda-
gogic practice.

Two further things need to be said about the orientation of this book.
The first is that its address to ‘teaching literature’ is not in itself unprob-
lematic. There is a long, if contested, tradition that the default mean-
ing of ‘English’ or ‘English Studies’ in higher education in the UK, the
USA, and elsewhere in the Anglophone world is ‘English Literature’.
Successive revisions of the UK Subject Benchmark between 2000 and
2014 demonstrated the need to acknowledge and work around that HE
default assumption.5 Indeed, the Literature strand of the university sub-
ject itself derived from multiple traditions, and insofar as it became (in
the USA, UK, or Australia) identified with forms of Practical Criticism
and New Criticism, those practices themselves took shape in competition
with other traditions. The suggestion here is that these histories were
pedagogic as much as intellectual, and that the habits of the subject (if
the singular even makes much sense) emerged from a contest between
scholarship and transmission (on the one hand), and varieties of cultural
intervention (on the other).6
Thus, in addressing itself to the teaching of English Literature, this
book has to acknowledge both the unstable and contested nature of its
subject matter, and the permeable borders between ‘Literature’ and a
host of proximate subjects within the evolving curriculum. This dynamic
between centripetal and centrifugal forces is relived in classroom inter-
actions. While there are undoubtedly ‘high’ versions of the subject, this
volume does not assume the essential or superior nature of a ‘pure’ lit-
erature curriculum. It is concerned, rather, with the pedagogic implica-
tions of the transgressive nature of the subject, its position on a number
of borders, disciplinary, institutional, and social. Along those borders,
vigorous hybrids emerge, to be actualised in different ways in different
institutions.7 In many (perhaps most) of these interchanges, ‘English’ is
and has been an active partner. So far from being a parasite upon other
domains, the subject has actively participated in the formation of numer-
ous scholarly and teaching enterprises from Cultural Studies and Film
Studies to Gender Studies, and onwards. The implications of some of
these fluid and productive crossovers are explored in the chapters that
4  B. Knights

The Teacher’s Experience

The second thing to say here concerns the orientation of the book
towards the teacher and the teacher’s experience. Obviously, we should
welcome the argument that academics ought to know more in systematic
ways about the experience and expressive capabilities of their ­students.8
Historically, the shift in learning theory towards ‘the student experience’
mirrors the ‘rise of the reader’ in literary theory. Both are aspects of a
long-term intellectual shift towards the collaborative activity of produc-
tion. Indeed, a good deal of the work of the Subject Centre was con-
cerned with accessing and helping to articulate the ‘student voice’.9 But
the intense binary pressure which derives from the consumer and ser-
vice provider paradigm has brought about a disjunction between the
experience of students and that of professionals—evaluations, versions
of ‘rate my prof’, or in the UK the annual National Student Survey as
the baseline arbiters of what teaching means. The present book refuses
any simple provider and purchaser duality. While teacher experience
undoubtedly needs to be cross-referenced against that of students, it is
not a capitulation to a cosy assumption that we are ‘all in it together’
to suggest that teachers and students carry interconnecting and to some
extent complementary roles. Both groups bear their own share of risks in
kindling meanings and coherence within a fissiparous and unstable con-
text. The co-presence of Creative Writing (another borderland) within an
increasing number of English programmes must remind us that the study
of ‘English Literature’ as a subject is in itself a form of making.
So this book focuses on teachers engaged as intermediaries and
translators in a dialogue between their students and their own schol-
arly concerns. Central to the argument here is the idea that teaching
spaces (virtual or face-to-face) are liminal places, and that the history of
the subject, the constant negotiation of its fluid boundaries, is to some
degree at play in every class, lecture, or virtual learning environment
session. That this is true of both curriculum and process is a recurrent
theme of this collection. The knowledge so generated is inherently pro-
visional. I am not claiming that ‘English’ is an exceptional case. But in
the sense that all students pass through phases of more-or-less managed
bewilderment, the forms of bewilderment experienced by English stu-
dents have their own specific and local habitations.

Methinks I see these things with parted eye,

When everything seems double.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream IV.i)

Analogous processes of awakening from one bewilderment to another

draw both their richness and their puzzlement from the unpredictable
semantic energies generated in the space of the seminar as much as in
the space of writing. The instability of the object of knowledge is com-
mon to all versions of English literary studies. It resides within a ten-
sion between examinable knowledge (which favours accumulation and
authority) and everyday conversation. As English academics are apt to
point out, such a process lends itself obliquely (if at all) to calibration
against the inherently behaviourist scheme of the ‘intended learning
What all this means is that teachers need to be self-aware about how
they model the scholarly and critical protocols of their subject. Their
own enactment of its ‘signature pedagogy’ affects for good or ill the
environment of learning.10 Whether in seminar, lecture, or module
handbook they provide worked examples of recontextualisation, and
reframing, while having recourse to a plural and diverse repertoire of
procedures and interpretative tools. They guide that process of shifting
focus between the particular and the holistic that characterises literary
critical study. They sketch alternative readings, offer analogies, swap one
metaphor or frame of reference for another. But how open and acces-
sible are these lived examples of meaning-making? At what point does
bewilderment shade into mystification? In English Studies, the semantic
and formal incompleteness of the text, its nigh-inexhaustible potential
for multiple interpretations, is mirrored in the open system of the semi-
nar. Each seminar or class (like each reading of a text) is an exercise in
the production of values. Ideally this represents a communal and dem-
ocratic process of sifting, of deciding (in gestalt terms) which semantic
item is figure, and which is ground. Yet, as teachers, we expect students
to expose their own inner worlds and aesthetic preferences, and then
rephrase, manage, or edit what they come up with. No wonder, then,
if many students feel the classroom to be an uncomfortable and unsafe
space (see for example Bruce 2013).
6  B. Knights

Genres of Pedagogy

Students develop advanced inferencing skills, though (like juries) they

may be understandably perplexed by the distinction between inference
and speculation—and apt to take literally the theoretical formulae which
their teachers have pirated from other disciplines. The materials with
which they work are in many ways fragmentary, and the insights pro-
duced apt to be scattered, piecemeal, and nonlinear. From us, students
may learn the rhetorical and intellectual confidence to prioritise such
insights and array them in linear forms of argument. But this is a fraught
process, and one in which teachers as authority figures (and above all as
the judges and markers of student work) are apt to play an ambiguous
role. Seminars, lectures, tutorials, or workshops each constitute genres
whose rules and tolerances students are generally left to infer. Trying to
demonstrate the subject in action, we take half-formed utterances and
turn them into coherent propositions. Like realist narrators, tutors are
looked upon to provide coherence and closure. In meeting the need for
secure structure, they will—even without realising—impose a hierarchy
of significance, moving some judgements and observations to the centre,
marginalising others with dismissive irony. The gravitational mass of the
dogmatic always tugs at the discussion, and the tutor can all too easily
come to be seen as the repository of a ‘secret knowledge’ to which stu-
dents may aspire. So, the subject’s claim to democratise knowledge and
discussion is, to say the least, ambiguous. While students are routinely
advised to question their teachers, what successful students do is learn to
shift intellectual gear and register, adopting different styles of knowing to
suit their perceptions of different teachers and essay markers.

Despite their sense of the unteachable quality of first class work, the stu-
dents felt that the marks gained for an essay would depend on the expecta-
tions of the tutor, and that it was wise to shape their work accordingly …
[‘Mark’] agreed that when he was writing essays he ‘always had in mind
who was marking it’.

Such temporary adoption of intellectual personae may constitute a learn-

ing process in itself. But the dangers of cynicism or of the creation of
superior and subordinate groups are obvious. A participatory ethic seems
itself to rest on ‘secret knowledge’ and highly differential access to cul-
tural capital. The asymmetry of the pedagogic theatre underlines the

importance of the argument made in his chapter by Jonathan Gibson for

supplementing the dominance of the quasi-authoritative essay genre with
a greater variety in modes of assessment.
If we were to attribute a ‘threshold concept’ to the English literary
discipline it might be the precedence of representation.11 Contrary to
‘common sense’, the reader-learner is not expected to take the shortest
route to semantic summary. The subject community engages in what
Louise Rosenblatt used to call ‘aesthetic’ (as opposed to ‘efferent’)
reading.12 The frequently voiced complaint from students and reading
groups that we are ‘reading too much in’ represents a longing to stop
off on the outside of the threshold. That this is so is not attributable
simply to failure on the part of the text, the writer, or even the teacher
who in many ways stands in for both. The profession is as collectively
unimpressed by communicative efficiency as it is by technical solutions.
Processing is labour intensive, and the patience to wait for meanings
to form and re-form is arguably one of the most profound attributes
acquired by students. It underpins that ‘unprecedented pedagogy’ of
which Greg Garrard speaks (see Chap. 12), and explains why English
graduates have the potential to become such effective intercultural
agents. Literary people may recognise in this condition that is at once
process and state of anticipation a form of ‘negative capability’. If so, it
is one which the teacher has to take the risky course of modelling within
the pedagogic space. For it is these very transactions between affect and
knowledge, conscious and unconscious thought, that provide the subject
with its transformative vigour, its edginess and danger.
In insisting on attention to the penumbra of meaning, the teacher
takes authority for bringing to the surface the way narratives, definitions,
or identities are formed. Like a modernist text, the learning encounter
is a space of estrangement where ‘normal’ speech, and common sense
values are revealed as constructed, and contingent. In student eyes, then,
the critic and the teacher bear a lot of the responsibility for this dis-
comforting situation, for rubbing their noses in the uncanny propensi-
ties of discourse, for destabilising the comfortable processes of reading
and agreement. They may feel that ironic and dismissive judgements are
being made (by the teacher or those who identify with the teacher) not
just on their analytical shortcomings, but, more profoundly, on their lan-
guage, their fantasies, their tastes in reading and viewing.
In short, the histories and predicaments of the discipline are (in how-
ever small a degree) re-enacted and relived within the learning space,
8  B. Knights

the larger system reproduced within the smaller one. Where the forms
of knowledge cannot be immediately instrumentalised, where the sub-
ject matter moves in and out of fantasy, the authority of the teacher con-
stantly struggles with the implied or overt accusation of wasting time.
This book provides glimpses of working teachers engaged at intersec-
tions, and seeking to articulate and learn from that experience. All the
chapters here grapple in one way or another with the problems and
potentials of a practice on the borders and with the liminal nature of the
spaces within which the curriculum is realised. All involve the—often
improvised—negotiation of crossing points and intertexts. These bound-
aries, as suggested at the beginning of this chapter, are many and various.
They form and dissolve between subject matters, intellectual traditions,
communities, and institutions. And implicated in all such between-ness
is the perpetual negotiation of the permeable boundary between subject
professionals and their actual or potential students.

Working at the Intersections

Addressing a subject domain perpetually refreshed from its borderlands,
all the chapters in this book concern crossovers and in-between places.
Thus, from dual national perspectives, Gretchen Gerzina addresses the
differences (and challenges faced in common) between the teaching
of Literature in the USA and the UK. Despite occupying contiguous
research cultures, at the level of teaching the two systems are remark-
ably dissimilar, and her account dwells upon the culture shock of sudden
immersion in the highly audited British system, where most students’
prior experience has been formed by an assessment objective and tar-
get-driven school regime. Those same students are the subject of Gary
Snapper and Andrew Green’s chapter, as they explore the discontinuities
and accommodations of transition between high school or sixth form
and university. Their recommendations focus on the need for specific-
ity and transparency in instruction, and for more sympathetic awareness
on the part of academics of the cognitive journeys undertaken by their
From different viewpoints, both Rosie Miles and Bob Eaglestone
address the nature of academic labour, reflecting on the subjective demands
(and fulfilments) of a commitment to the ethical imperatives of teach-
ing. The teacher’s vulnerability arises from both the elusive relationship
of the subject to desire, and the equivocal nature of their own authority.

The exposed interiority (or mutual neediness) of both teacher and student
may easily result in a collusion to avoid dangerously ambiguous latencies
in favour of summary and closure. Probing teacher identity as her text,
Miles invites teachers to acknowledge and learn from their own sense of
shame or inadequacy in order to work through to a ‘more resistant model
of academic becoming’. That becoming is in a related sense the subject
of Eaglestone’s chapter. Charting another form of ‘transition’, he takes
us back to the ethics of the professional, and discerns a radical identity
between the will to teach and the impulse to the reflexive making of cul-
tural and literary knowledge.
How such new knowledge enters the academy and acquires legitimacy
and a set of pedagogic conventions is the subject of two case studies of
the kaleidoscopic curriculum. Nicole King reflects upon her own expe-
rience of teaching Black and Caribbean literatures, themselves so often
embedding ‘allegories of teaching’. Paradoxically, a curriculum domain
emerging from and embedded in emancipatory struggle has had to
contend both with routinisation and with the emergence of specialised
expertise and hierarchy. She sketches ways in which to engage students as
partners in ‘real conversations’, using as springboards those ‘moments of
destabilization’ where identities cease to appear stable and fixed. To our
other case study, Pamela Knights’s extended reflection on teaching chil-
dren’s fiction, we shall return in a moment.
Whatever utopian longings Literary Studies may residually entertain,
assessment is unavoidably woven into the fabric of university education.
Yet we too easily treat as a default forms of assessment that arose within the
‘knowable communities’ of much smaller, tutorial-inflected universities. In
his chapter, Jonathan Gibson unravels ways of supplementing and expanding
the traditional fare of assessment. Where the model of rhetorical literacy is
still in many ways the essay, he sketches subject-sensitive approaches to ena-
bling students to learn from the process itself. It is an argument which has
only become the more compelling since the closure of the Subject Centres.
‘English Literature’ as a subject has traditionally harboured an allergy
towards specification or the formalisation of technique. But techniques, and
the media of teaching and scholarship are in their various ways the focus
of chapters by Chris Thurgar-Dawson, Alan Liu, and by Lesley Jeffries
and Dan McIntyre. All involve the formation of new pedagogies through
genres of active and self-aware making. In the past, the discipline has been
shaped—or shaped itself—through a dialectic between celebration and criti-
cism, heritage and cultural critique. Yet, even though they are often arrayed
10  B. Knights

on a binary opposition between creation and criticism (or academia versus

writers and non-academic audiences), these are not incompatible forms of
energy. Thurgar-Dawson suggests methods for working beyond such sim-
plifying binaries. His chapter is a reminder that (despite the profound ambi-
guities of the skills revolution), technique, skills, and the performance of
the written word are every bit as fundamental to the pedagogic task as are
the symbiotic skills of close reading. Alan Liu traces how the digital revolu-
tion, too, results in the ‘decomposition of received binaries’—the ‘digital
remix’ involving new and unpredictable forms of relatedness between stu-
dent and text, content and process, teacher and student. Both Thurgar-
Dawson and Liu find pedagogic gold in the specifics of local practice,
rather than in the policy abstraction. Another set of skills is the subject of
the chapter by Lesley Jeffries and Dan McIntyre. Where the conventional
methods of literary study can lend themselves to a kind of higher impres-
sionism which leaves some students mystified, stylistic approaches offer stu-
dents a tangible and transferable set of analytical tools, a step on the road to
becoming the ‘crafty reader’ long advocated by Robert Scholes.13
However it may sometimes appear to joint honours students, interdis-
ciplinarity is not a matter of parking two curriculum containers alongside
each other. Productive interdisciplinarity demands spaces for negotiation
rather than a struggle for mastery. Intellectual hybridities are the subject
of chapters by Simon Dentith and Greg Garrard. Dentith explores the
forms in which a historical knowledge which respects the obduracy of
the past might be realised within the close reading of literary texts. He
outlines an approach which seeks to complicate the multiple historical
inflections of the text, while avoiding the complacency which arises from
the condescending enlightenment of the present—or from the colonisa-
tion of one sort of knowledge-making by another. Greg Garrard investi-
gates the creative predicaments of a pedagogic space formed on the cusp
of several disciplines and the estrangement effect of studying literature
within urgent ecological preoccupations. Like both King and Knights he
sees students as co-producers of knowledge. Both Dentith and Garrard
celebrate the at once defamiliarising and energising effects of knowledge
arising from outside the text. In doing so they alert us to the danger of a
programmatic knowingness precluding textual or pedagogic surprise.
As both King’s and Knights’s chapters remind us, dynamics both
centrifugal and centripetal are at work in the changing literature cur-
riculum. The opening up of new subject areas casts new light—enriches
and estranges—the legacy curriculum. While high status still residually

attaches to canonical authors (as also to the curriculum tradition of

organising teaching in ‘periods’), nevertheless a time traveller from the
1960s would be struck by the degree to which the university English
Literature curriculum has changed. In this vein the late D.G. Myers
lamented that the English syllabus had become ‘a miscellany of short-
lived faculty enthusiasms’.14 And yet it is worth pointing out that the
‘traditional’ curriculum was itself contested, and indeed only itself ‘tra-
ditional’ for historically a very short time. Moreover, the porousness of
the classroom textual tradition even at the height of US New Criticism
is the subject of revealing archaeological work by Rachel Buurma and
Laura Heffernan.15 Academics with decades of reading behind them
have to allow, too, for the fact that ‘the canon’—however defined—
represents an assumed and shared tradition to few contemporary stu-
dents—the exotic nature of Pride and Prejudice, The Winter’s Tale, or
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is something with which they as
well as their teachers have to come to terms. The energetically fissipa-
rous nature of the contemporary curriculum makes even more impor-
tant the search for a common ground of shared pedagogic principles
and cross-fertilising practices.
In one way or another, all the chapters in this book explore the shift-
ing borders of English Literature as an educational practice. In each
case, the permeability of subject borders results not only in an expanded
and decentred knowledge base but also generates changes in pedagogy
and assessment. We round off the book with a chapter which explores
in more detail the local effects of curriculum change and innovation.
In that final chapter, Pamela Knights examines the fine grain of an expe-
rience of teaching in a domain where the authority of curriculum and
teacher is dispersed. Children’s Fiction has had to contend with the
charge (levelled by colleagues, and sometimes students or their par-
ents) that English is in danger of capitulating to the infantilised con-
sumer culture which it was evolved to resist. Knights shows how, in
braving the implied indictment for lack of seriousness, the topic in fact
freed up forms of pedagogic energy, and shifted the locus of authority
and research towards student groups. Learning to read in a different way
and learning to teach in a different way are intertwined processes. While
the study of children’s literature reawakens the discipline’s old fears of
dumbing down, it also provides a space in which the complex relation-
ship of student, teacher, and text has to be reimagined. Shifts in the bal-
ance of power and knowledge within the classroom require the teacher
12  B. Knights

to ‘let go’ in ways that can feel threatening, but which enable the col-
laborative production of knowledge.
Teachers bring into the curriculum and classroom the products of
their own forays into unknowing, and their own frequently embattled
positioning on the margins of domains and identities. The ability to cap-
ture precise meanings from the flow of data and experience and then to
be able to argue persuasively for their significance is not of course unique
to students or scholars of English. Yet in most, perhaps all disciplines, the
protocols and meanings of pedagogy itself are apt to become invisible
to its practitioners. In pursuit of knowledge content, both learners and
their teachers may sometimes yearn towards ‘teaching degree zero’, or
the phantasm of total transparency. Yet English has always worked with
mediations, ambiguities, and paradox. We have insisted that holistic pat-
terns must be grounded in Blake’s ‘minute particulars’. Indeed, the com-
mitment of English Literature academics to the particularity of the task
may well be one reason why they have tended to believe that the space
shared by teacher and students was private and its deliberations unreplica-
ble. While happy to theorise about everything else, they have very widely
objected to attempts to theorise teaching and learning, and mocked any-
one suspected of trying to tell them how they should teach.
So, let me do what teachers do and draw an analogy. Since the 1980s,
post-structuralist English has made much use of the idea of ‘metafic-
tion’—fiction which, playing with its own fictionality, draws attention to
its own status and workings. Let us in parallel suggest a meta-pedagogy:
pedagogy which draws attention to its own procedures, its own choreo-
graphing of the movements of mind, to its own contradictory propen-
sities for didacticism and emancipation, closure and release. Those with
professional responsibility for the teaching space need to be aware of its
simultaneous potential as a medium both of unexpected insight and of
inhibition. Such insights into pedagogic performance may be nourished
from an intellectual strand common both to English and Educational
Studies. From the turbulent years following the 1917 Revolution
emerged the dialogic traditions which from the viewpoint of Literary and
Language Studies we associate with the dialogism of Mikhail Bakhtin,
and from the standpoint of education with the constructivism of L.S.
Vygostsky. In celebrating the heteroglossic nature of the learning space
(virtual or face-to-face), there may still be much to learn from reconnect-
ing the sundered descendants of those linked traditions. Towards such a
reflexive project, this book hopes to make its own small contribution.

1. I should like to acknowledge here the important contribution to HE
English pedagogy of Ellie Chambers and Marshall Gregory (2006),
which in many ways the present book aspires to complement.
2. The Subject Centre website is currently archived at http://www.english. The Teaching the New English series was originally
a joint venture between the Subject Centre and Palgrave Macmillan:
3. Becher, Tony and Paul Trowler, Academic Tribes and Territories:
Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines, revised edition
(Buckingham: Open University Press, revised edition 2001).
4. Bernstein, Basil, The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse (Volume 4 of
Class, Codes, and Control) (London: Routledge, 1990), 165.
5. The revised version of the Quality Assurance Agency English Subject
Benchmark Statement, published in 2015, explicitly acknowledges
English Language and Creative Writing alongside Literature: http://—
‘Subject Benchmark Statements describe the nature of study and the aca-
demic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas, and in
respect of particular qualifications. They provide a picture of what grad-
uates in a particular subject might reasonably be expected to know, do
and understand at the end of their programme of study.’ They are ‘used
as reference points in the design, delivery and review of academic pro-
grammes’ (QAA 2015).
6. An argument sketched in ‘English on its Borders’ in Gildea et al. (2015),
and at greater length in my Pedagogic Criticism: Reconfiguring University
English Studies (London: Palgrave, 2017).
7. A classic exploration is Evans (1993), for example 166–181.
8. See, for example, Randy Bass and Sherry Linkon, ‘On the Evidence of
Theory: Close reading as a disciplinary model for writing about teach-
ing and learning’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7.3 (2008):
9. For example, John Hodgson, The Experience of Studying English in UK
Higher Education (Hodgson 2010: 4) http://www.english.heacademy.; and The Experience
of Joint Honours Students of English in UK Higher Education (2011) http://
10. A summary of the idea of ‘signature pedagogies’ can be found in Lee S.
Shulman, ‘Signature pedagogies in the professions’, Daedalus 134.3
(2005): 52–59.
14  B. Knights

11. Since 2002, Jan Meyer and Ray Land have explored the idea of ‘thresh-
old concepts’ in a series of papers. See also Meyer and Land with Jan
Smith (eds), Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines (Rotterdam: Sense
Publishers, 2008).
12. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary
Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).
13. The Crafty Reader (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).
14. h ttp://,
8 January 2014.
15. ‘The Common Reader and the archival classroom’, New Literary History
43.1 (2012): 113–135.

Further Reading
Arts and Humanities in Higher Education (Sage) is an indispensable forum for
articles and debates traversing the borders of subject knowledge and peda-
gogy. An online selection of articles in the English Studies field is available at
Bass, Randy, and Sherry Linkon. 2008. On the Evidence of Theory: Close
Reading as a Disciplinary Model for Writing About Teaching and Learning.
Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7 (3): 245–261.
Becher, Tony, and Paul Trowler. 2001. Academic Tribes and Territories:
Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines, rev. ed. Buckingham:
Open University Press.
Bernstein, Basil. 1990. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse (Volume 4 of Class,
Codes, and Control), 165. London: Routledge.
Bruce, Susan. 2013. Using your Profanisaurus: Comparisons, Analogies, and
Cultural Capital in two English Literature Seminars. Arts and Humanities in
Higher Education 12 (1): 53–69.
Bruce, Susan, Ken Jones, and Monica McLean. 2007. Some Notes on a Project:
Democracy and Authority in the Production of a Discipline. Pedagogy:
Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and
Culture 7 (3): 481–500.
Chambers, Ellie, and Marshall Gregory. 2006. Teaching and Learning English
Literature. London: Sage.
Evans, Colin. 1993. English People: The Experience of Teaching and Learning
English in British Universities. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Gibson, Jonathan. 2010. Small Group Teaching in English Literature: A Good
Practice Guide. English Subject Centre Report Series No. 23.
Gibson, Jonathan and Ben Knights. 2011. Pick Your Own: Ideas for English
Seminars. English Subject Centre Seed Guide.

Gildea, Niall, Helena Goodwyn, Megan Kitching, and Helen Tyson (eds.). 2015.
English Studies: The State of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future. Palgrave:
Hodgson, John. 2010. The Experience of Studying English in UK Higher
Education. English Subject Centre Report Series No. 20.
Hodgson, John. 2011. The Experience of English Joint Honours Students in UK
Higher Education. English Subject Centre Report Series No. 26.
Meyer, Jan, Ray Land, and Jan Smith (eds.). 2008. Threshold Concepts Within the
Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Pope, Rob. 1998. The English Studies Book. London: Routledge.
Quality Assurance Agency, English Subject Benchmark Statement. 2015. http://
Showalter, Elaine. 2003. Teaching Literature. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shulman, Lee S. 2005. Signature Pedagogies in the Professions. Daedalus 134
(3): 52–59.
Snapper, Gary. 2009. Beyond English Literature a Level: The Silence of the
Seminar? A Study of an Undergraduate Literary Theory Seminar. English in
Education 43 (3): 192–210.
Teaching the New English series. 2004. Basingstoke: Palgrave. http://www.pal-
Wilder, Laura. 2012. Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary
Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press.

Author Biography
Ben Knights is an Emeritus Professor at Teesside University, UK, and f­ormer
director of the HE Academy English Subject Centre. His book Pedagogic
Criticism: Reconfiguring University English Studies was published by Palgrave in
April 2017.

Contrasts: Teaching English in British

and American Universities

Gretchen H. Gerzina

I begin this chapter with a certain amount of reluctance and several c­ aveats.
The reluctance stems from a worry that what follows will appear to make
sweeping generalisations about the way all colleges and universities in the
United States approach the teaching of English Literature, and will put
those into supposed opposition with the way that all British universities
teach English. Obviously, there will be overlaps as well as oppositions, and
just as obviously not all American institutions have the same pedagogical
practices, any more than all British institutions do. What follows, therefore,
is based almost entirely on my own experiences in teaching in both places,
and in my career not only as an instructor in two places, but also as an
administrator involved in teaching and learning in the United States.
The first caveat is that, even more than the UK, the United States offers
a variety of higher education institutions. Four-year liberal arts colleges,
common in the USA, are often prestigious institutions. They are gener-
ally private, and usually do not offer postgraduate degrees, or very few.

G.H. Gerzina (*) 
Commonwealth Honors College, University of Massachusetts,
157 Commonwealth Avenue, Amherst, MA 01003-9253, USA

© The Author(s) 2017 17

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_2
18  G.H. Gerzina

Universities can be public or private, and therefore answer to very dif-

ferent constituencies in terms of development, funding, and student
funding. In between are what we call community colleges, public insti-
tutions offering 2-year ‘associate’ degrees, and the students who attend
them vary widely. Often attended part-time by working students, they
can offer practical coursework preparing students for employment, or
cater to those with an interest in a very particular class (since students
are not necessarily matriculated toward a degree, but can also come
and go as their interest moves them), or be a very viable and inexpen-
sive ­stepping-stone toward transferring, after the 2 years, into a 4-year
­college or u
­ niversity to complete their degree.
My own experience has mostly been at private, liberal arts colleges in
the United States, which have rigorous admission selection processes and
a largely residential student body, and at larger universities in England.
Along the way I have had many conversations with UK colleagues at
other institutions about the ways English, as well as other disciplines,
is taught in Britain and Ireland, and how that differs from American
assumptions about the teaching of English.
There are a variety of underlying assumptions in this area. In the USA,
for example, most English lecturers assume:

• that all students will enter our classrooms having had rigorous train-
ing in the practice of writing and critical thinking at the university
level, not just in occasional sessions, but in entire, sustained, and
required courses during the first year;
• that the students will be, or become, capable of developing and sup-
porting independent arguments about the material they read and
• that students will be studying or ‘reading’ in other fields as well as
in English, and that not all students in our classes will be English
• that there will be institutional support for struggling students, in
the form of peer tutors, writing centres, and online resources for
citation, development, and support of ideas;
• that there are strict penalties for plagiarism, up to and including
• that there will be institutional support for staff at all levels of experi-
ence, who can constantly hone their pedagogical skills through sem-
inars, training sessions, and outside lectures;

• that most staff begin their teaching careers after several years of
taking postgraduate seminars, followed by individual research pro-
jects and dissertations, and often have teaching experience, often by
being a teaching assistant to an established professor;
• that, finally, American staff have a great deal of leeway in the organi-
sation, marking, and content of their courses—a great deal of
autonomy is taken for granted.

In general, I would characterise the main differences that I have observed

in this way: in the UK there seems to be an assumption that students
arrive prepared to read and write at a competent university level, so that
the university does not need to offer that preparation in any sustained
way. In the USA, the assumption is that staff will be diligent teachers and
fair markers, available to students, without an overseeing system to ensure
this beyond deadlines for turning in grades, and requirements about a set
number of office hours (the latter is also true in the UK). I was delighted
to see that in the UK we are expected to use the full spectrum of grading
options, that these were clearly delineated, and that students accept this
for the most part. In the USA, the most frequent grading challenges I
receive are from students given an A-. This American grade compression
can, and often does, result in grade inflation, particularly amongst jun-
ior faculty, who live in fear that poor student evaluations will affect their
chances for tenure.
Another main difference in my teaching experiences was that in
America, classes meet more frequently, which means that students have
a couple of days between meetings to digest and respond to what has
been done in the previous class. US classes generally meet two to three
times a week, for an hour or two, although some universities do offer
weekly seminars of 2 h. I found in England that having to pack every-
thing about a particular book, and accompanying critical readings, into
a weekly 3-h session, made teaching very challenging. The length of
time of each class meeting itself was not as problematic as the lack of
­ruminative time between sessions to continue studying and build upon
discussion. For example, spreading Jane Eyre out over a week of multiple
meetings meant that we could concentrate on Victorian notions of child-
hood and education in the first class, discuss the gothic tradition in the
second, and expand to marriage laws and modern postcolonial readings
of the text in the third. It also meant that I could be sure that students
would have finished reading the book, and that they would have done
20  G.H. Gerzina

so from several angles. When I taught Jane Eyre in England, we raced

through the novel in one long lecture, followed by discussion groups led
by other staff members.
This could happen in large American universities as well, with the
‘stand and deliver’ mode of lecturing followed by discussion sections, so
again my experience likely stems from the kind of institutions with which
I am most familiar.

Student Issues
The most important overall differences in students studying in the USA
and in the UK has to do with length and concentration of study, and
preparation for study. As mentioned above, it is normal for all American
students to take ‘Freshman English’, or a formal course or two on how
to write scholarly essays at the outset of their university study. These
courses involve rigorous and regular writing, often a paper a week and
revisions, in order (hopefully) to become proficient at critical thinking,
argument, and citation at the outset of their education. This is based
on the premise that students have not been fully prepared by their high
schools to write scholarly essays.
At my American institution, all English faculty teach these modules,
and they are supplemented by staff with advanced degrees in writing and
rhetoric. However, it is also common throughout the United States for
these to be taught by adjunct or contingent instructors, or by postgrad-
uate students. The modules carry credit, although not for the English
major, since all students are required to take them, regardless of their
disciplinary area of study. But all English instructors must know how to
teach them. We therefore expect that students entering English literary
study, whether or not they become English majors—a decision made by
the end of their second of 4 years—will be able to write an independ-
ent, well-crafted essay, perhaps learning the conventions of any particular
­discipline along the way. This may of course in many cases be wishful
thinking, but at least the groundwork is laid for this before or as they
embark on literary study. When I wrote a university grant proposal to
offer critical writing instruction to my British students, the committee
turned it down. Many of my colleagues considered it remedial work,
rather than indoctrination into the expectations for scholarly literary

In many ways the expectations for incoming students in Britain in

terms of previously honed writing ability are closer to the Oxbridge
model of study and tutorials, and increasingly to the Russell Group expe-
rience, than to the so-called ‘civics’, which generally teach far greater
numbers of students and require fewer essays. The overall study hours
put into any single module or course tends to be much higher at these
‘elite’ universities, but interestingly, according to the Higher Education
Policy Institute (HEPI) studies of 2007, student satisfaction also rose
with the amount of time spent outside of the classroom on coursework.
Edward Acton, writes in the Times Higher Education that these studies

also highlighted wide variations between British institutions offering

the same degree subjects. Most striking was the yawning gap between
the mean amount of study undertaken at Oxbridge and all the others.
On average, in comparable subject areas, students at the University of
Cambridge spent 40 per cent more hours and at the University of Oxford
30 per cent more – equivalent to a year’s extra study – than students at
other Russell Group universities and their 1994 Group peers. Compared
with the sector overall, the differential rose to 50 per cent and 40 per cent
respectively. The crucial ingredient, especially in essay-based subjects, is
Oxbridge’s insistence on a vastly greater volume of written formative work
combined with swift and high-quality feedback.1

The Oxbridge model of regular writing and feedback achieves much of

the same purpose as the American model of first-year training in essay
writing, but without the need for a dedicated writing course. Particularly
striking is the way that this writing workload translates into higher levels
of student satisfaction, especially in the all-important National Student
Survey (NSS). Furthermore, a HEPI 2009 student experience report
also found a correlation between the number of study hours and the
ability to succeed after leaving university:

There is, however, a much stronger relationship between study hours

and the perceived benefits of higher education in relation to factors such
as career preparation and personal development. The investment of more
hours of study appears to bring substantial pay-offs after graduation.2

The report compared UK higher education experiences to those of the

European Union, but pointed out that ‘study hours’ could mean a vari-
ety of things, such as ‘study in isolation’, and could be affected by factors
22  G.H. Gerzina

such as the need to work in addition to study (an important issue with
the switch from public funding to student fees). It also pointed out ‘the
considerable differences which exist in national traditions and their impli-
cations for the student experience’.3 What is true, and increasingly prob-
lematic, in both the US and UK experiences is the increased pressure on
students to land paid work after graduation, placing the humanities in
general, and English in particular, in jeopardy as departments try to keep
the student numbers up, the courses relevant, and the students satisfied.
The dual notion of study hours and contact hours feeds directly into
the way that students of English find support for their work. A cadre of
helpers are there for them in the American system, but of course it is
up to students to avail themselves of this support. No one forces them
to take a draft of an essay to a writing centre or peer (student) tutor, to
meet with staff during office hours, or sit down with a reference librar-
ian to find scholarly critical articles. During the first year, however, they
are introduced to all these services in their writing classes, with reference
librarians conducting full sessions, and tutoring representatives coming
in to introduce themselves. These are available to all, and do not carry
any stigma. In fact, it is not unusual to find A and B students using these
services regularly. Increasingly, however, British universities offer similar
services, often through the library and reference services, and also with
dedicated staff assigned to help students with study skills.
When my UK colleagues use the word ‘remedial’ for such services,
they are thinking more in terms of large, public American universities
and community colleges that track poorly prepared entering students
into remedial classes and services. Students at these institutions have
often been let down by their high schools, who allowed them to gradu-
ate without the competencies in reading, critical thinking, and mathe-
matics that were once the norm in American education.
As Acton also points out, greater contact hours affect too student
accomplishment and satisfaction. This can correlate to overall length of
study. Students in England usually attend university for 3 years; American
students attend for four. In the 3-year degree, students of English study
only that subject; in America, liberal arts students are required to study
in a number of areas and to major in one (although increasingly in this
climate of worry about employment, students are double and even triple
majoring). They can easily switch their major subject during the course
of study, and it is quite common for a student to apply to the university
declaring an interest in one discipline, and later switch to a completely

different major, something that is often rather difficult in Britain. A

­typical American English major will take between ten and 13 separate
courses or modules, depending upon whether their university or college
runs on semesters or quarters, and the rest of their courses in other dis-
ciplines. Many go on to write a thesis, but sometimes this option is only
open to students with a sufficiently high GPA, or grade point average (in
the USA, the word ‘dissertation’ is used exclusively for the PhD thesis, a
distinction that caused me real confusion when I first taught in Britain).
Others follow the British model of a required thesis but there is generally
some sort of ‘culminating experience’. This frequently takes the form of
an extended seminar essay in the final year, but in best-forgotten previous
decades, students had to sit for a gruelling examination, something still
practised in some British universities.
American English majors typically will take English courses d
­ uring every
term of study. In my current institution, this means that they carry a full
academic load in each of the three terms, whereas my British students use
the summer (what we call spring) term to do their written work. So I was
very surprised to discover that my British students, even though they read
exclusively in English subjects, were actually reading and writing less than
their American counterparts, and furthermore had little or no formal train-
ing in writing at the university level. In my American college, students
typically graduate having taken 36 courses (modules), whereas my English
students graduated with 18.
The difference of course is that the American and British stu-
dents probably took the same number of modules in English, but the
American students took as many again in other disciplines, not only fol-
lowing their interests in fields such as economics, pre-medicine, govern-
ment, and philosophy, but also fulfilling requirements in such fields as
foreign language study, and science and technology. Furthermore, my
American students in English frequently studied abroad. One of my
British colleagues commented that American students in his classes were
able to bring in a variety of approaches, such as philosophy or anthropol-
ogy, to literary conversation. But he also remarked that his British stu-
dents had read more literature. Some may disagree with the American
model, arguing for depth over breadth, but others find that it leads to
well-rounded students who are conversant in a wider variety of things
when they leave university and look for jobs.
However, this is also an increasing problem in the UK as well. I
was surprised by how little my English students had read, both before
24  G.H. Gerzina

arriving at university and while they were there. Some had only about
a dozen literary novels under their belts, and not that much poetry or
drama. A friend reported that she was giving her high school arts stu-
dents copies of classic fiction because they had only been required to
read selected chapters in preparation for their A level examinations.
Many of my students in their final year of English study had not even
heard the names of major Victorian authors, let alone writers of earlier
periods. It is the rare American university that does not require their
majors to have comprehensive literary period study. Many of them also
read beyond the assigned texts. While the detractors of modern English
studies decry the advent of theory-focused professorial research, and sug-
gest that we teach authors like Toni Morrison over John Milton, the fact
is that American students read and study a broad spectrum of literary
texts. I was surprised to have my students in England ask which of the
assigned texts they needed to read, as though doing all the reading was,
like attendance, optional.
These points are, of course, very subjective and anecdotal, and with-
out more sustained research that takes into account the enormous
number and variety of American colleges and universities, as well as the
varying requirements for the study of English in British universities, any
blanket comparisons are necessarily circumstantial. One of my American
students studying in Scotland reported that she worked hard to offer an
original analysis of a text, only to be told that developing and supporting
an original thesis was something that should be done at the postgraduate
level, and that undergraduates were only expected to demonstrate that
they understood the readings, lectures, and discussions. Yet my discus-
sions with British colleagues uniformly suggested that developing and
supporting an original thesis, using scholarly resources, was precisely
what they expect their students to do. Just as they do in America.

Staff Issues
Staff in American departments of English have a great deal of auton-
omy in selecting texts, setting deadlines and lengths for written work,
and in handing marked work back to students. Guidelines and standards
are decided by department consensus or practice, and dates for turning
in final marks are set by the registrar. However, it is certainly possible
that no one actually knows what requirements their colleagues estab-
lish unless they are being reviewed for reappointment or promotion. As

department chair, I read all annual reports, but did not necessarily review
each syllabus except for those of junior faculty. Even then, they usu-
ally had a faculty mentor who would hopefully guide them through the
shoals of new teaching, and their research production. These mentors
did not have an obligation to report back to the department; indeed, it
was deemed important to keep the mentoring function separate from an
evaluative function. However, other departments and institutions may
handle this differently. For example, a course syllabus could be posted on
the internet for all to see, with copies kept in the department office, or
only handed out to students on the first day of class. All of these things
were more codified and organised in the UK, with requirements about
due dates, number of texts, word counts for essays, and essays turned in
or returned anonymously through an office.
I had never, until I taught in the UK, given out a list of assigned essay
topics, but this is not necessarily the norm. Instead, I give out prompts
during the run of the course. When a student makes a particularly astute
comment or observation I generally tell the class that this would be
worth pursuing in a longer essay. Because this can make students uncer-
tain, I coupled this practice with extended office hours, where students
can come to discuss their plans for an essay. In the UK, I remember with
curiosity an occasion when in the USA a dissertation student came to my
office and worried that she might be using up too many of her allotted
meeting times. She was equally surprised when I responded that that is
what I was there for.
All this is different in the UK, where module booklets are written
months in advance, and once they are printed, there can be no devia-
tion. This came as a complete shock to me, since I was accustomed to
being able to make changes and tweaks as it became clear what the stu-
dents needed to learn, and the best way for them to do this. So, when I
thought through the module further, and decided—weeks in advance—
that I needed to require very short (500 words) of weekly writing on the
books, I discovered that this idea must go to committee to approve the
change. It took several weeks before the committee met, during which
time the students were turning in this work and improving with each
week. The committee took the decision not to allow this extra work dur-
ing that term (although it was approved for the future). When I told the
class that it could no longer count for points, but encouraged them to
keep it up, they not only dropped the writing, but fell behind on the
reading and indeed began to skip lectures entirely.
26  G.H. Gerzina

Had this been in the USA, I would have had an arsenal of measures
to take. First, no one would question my changing the assignments and
points before the course even began. I would have been able to take
attendance, and count it in the final mark. In the end, it was the inabil-
ity to predict and count attendance that was most frustrating. Plenty of
American faculty do not believe in taking attendance, or making it part
of the requirements, and it may be than I am an outlier in this respect.
I learned the hard way the Oxbridge tradition of only attending lectures
that one perceives to be directly relevant to a particular essay or exam.
The balance of power, it seems to me, lies with the students in these
cases, not with the professor who has spent a week preparing a lecture
that is ultimately delivered to only a handful of students. Seminars, how-
ever, tend to be well-attended in both countries, suggesting that the lec-
ture model may not be the most effective mode of teaching in either.
As with lectures, British students made less use of my office hours and
availability. They also rarely used email, even to retrieve important infor-
mation about classwork. American students, like students all over, pre-
fer text to email, but ‘get’ the idea that most professional interactions
take place through email. They email their thesis and topic proposals, ask
for feedback, and expect replies—perhaps too quickly (often my reply is
to tell them to come in person to discuss it). If I email something to a
class, I get numerous responses almost immediately. If I sent emails to
my British students, they rarely read them. They claimed that this was
because they got so much ‘unimportant’ email from the university that
they rarely checked their accounts.
All of these are specific differences between the two systems, but there
is another that I find more complicated because it is more pervasive
and a solution is less straightforward. I have spoken about the leeway
Americans have to design their English courses and their assessments.
Staff in both countries work equally hard, and often at lower pay than
the public expect. However, there is a cultural difference that filters
down into every aspect of teaching, writing, and administration, and into
departmental culture. Americans in general (and this is obviously a huge
generalisation) prefer the visionary over the bureaucratic. That is, when a
problem arises, they ask, ‘What is the problem? What is the best way to
picture it and think of other approaches to resolve it? What is the big pic-
ture?’ The British tend to start at the level of detail, of the nuts and bolts
rather than the big picture. For example, when one British university—
taking its lead, I presume from American universities—decided to begin

a centre for teaching and learning, they immediately wanted to start in

punitive ways: vetting each instructor’s module booklet, making lists of
what needed to be accomplished in each class, planning a website before
they had any content to upload. There was no ‘big picture’ discussion
about what such a centre ought to be or do, before setting up a series of
rules about how to do it. There seems to be a mentality designed to tick
Such centres are long established in the United States, and they exist
to help staff find best practices: the best ways to help students learn,
the best ways to approach developing a lecture or a discussion, the dif-
ferences between courses that involve memorisation and those that
approach big questions, innovative ways to make use of technology. They
do not exist to be punitive, but to help staff to be the best teachers they
can be and the students to be the best learners they can be.
Many American, and British, staff carry that ethos into the classroom,
but too often in the UK bureaucracy trumped learning. For exam-
ple, Americans often use the first class of a module to inspire, excite, or
intrigue students, to make them want to continue with the course, at the
same time that a certain amount of business needs to take place about
expectations and rules. (I for instance, ban screens in the classroom. I
prefer not to have students texting or posting on Facebook while we are
discussing Native Son or Mill on the Floss). Yet instead I found that in
Britain the department representative could come in and take the first
half hour of what was to be an inspirational opening to remind students
to fill out certain forms, participate in certain surveys, and attend certain
meetings. Can that not wait, I asked, until the last part of the class?
Studies show that the instructor who challenges and inspires (and
by this I do not mean ‘entertains’), even when the material is unapolo-
getically difficult, gets the highest ratings. This is important, because
English is notoriously difficult to fit into prescribed ‘assessment’ boxes.
Assessment is increasingly the name of the game on both sides of the
Atlantic, and yet how do we come to assess what a student studying
Shakespeare has learned, as opposed to a student in chemistry? How do
we assess whether a student has gained a larger vision of humanity by
reading King Lear, or been challenged to understand a character like
Bigger Thomas, the victim of racism in 1940s Chicago who is also a
murderer? Yet this is the very thing that we offer, even as we are required
to quantify it and assess its ‘impact’ in the world outside of the academy.
28  G.H. Gerzina

Despite all these differences, we are employed in a common mission
in the teaching of English Literature on both sides of the Atlantic, and
come to this work through a deep appreciation of the subject and a
desire to transmit the rigours of scholarly research, critical reading, and
the importance of this to human understanding. In both places we as
English professors are increasingly challenged instead to demonstrate
‘return on investment’, and to demonstrate to the wider world the mon-
etary value of such study. A university education is no longer viewed by
many as the training of the whole person, but as a necessary stepping-
stone to a career. With the increase of student fees and student debt,
English instructors in particular find themselves forced to do two seem-
ingly opposing things: to produce and publish careful research (for the
Research Excellence Framework in Britain, and for tenure in America),
and to find ways to offer students ‘training’ that will translate beyond
textual analysis into quantifiable outcomes. Here, rather than in the par-
ticularities of systemic differences, is where we need to make common

1. Edward Acton, ‘How can universities support students to work harder?’, Times
Higher Education (hereafter THE), 17 October 2013 (Edward Acton 2013).
2. John Brennan, Kavita Patel and Winnie Tang, ‘Diversity in the student
learning experience and time devoted to study: a comparative analysis of
the UK and European evidence’, Report to HEFCE by Centre for Higher
Education Research and Information (The Open University, 2009),
4 (Brennan et al. 2009).
3. HEPI report (2009), 31.

Edward Acton. 2013. How Can Universities Support Students to Work Harder?
Times Higher Education (hereafter THE). 17 October.
Brennan, John, Kavita Patel, and Winnie Tang. 2009. Diversity in the Student
Learning Experience and Time Devoted to Study: A Comparative Analysis of
the UK and European Evidence. Report to HEFCE by Centre for Higher
Education Research and Information. The Open University, 4.

Author Biography
Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina who has taught in universities on both sides of
the Atlantic, was until recently Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor of Biography at
Dartmouth College, USA, and is now Dean of the Commonwealth Honors
College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has written exten-
sively about Black Writing. Her publications include Black England: Life
before Emancipation (Allison and Busby, 1999) and three books about Frances
Hodgson Burnett.

Transition and Discontinuity: Pitfalls

and Opportunities in the Move
to University English Universities

Andrew Green and Gary Snapper

Transitions within the education system present both dangers and
opportunities; this is as true of the transition between school and uni-
versity as it is of the transitions between primary and secondary school,
and between secondary school and sixth form. These transitions offer
opportunities for students to become more independent learners, ­taking
their learning to new levels, and helping them to reframe their previous
learning in valuable new ways. But there are dangers too that whilst new
content and contexts for learning in HE literary study offer students
much that is stimulating and broadening, they also pose very particu-
lar cognitive and pedagogic challenges. Without paying due attention
to the continuities and discontinuities of literary study as it crosses the
divide between post-16 and HE phases, both students and lecturers can

A. Green (*) · G. Snapper 
Department of Education, Brunel University London, Kingston Lane,
Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, England

© The Author(s) 2017 31

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_3
32  A. Green and G. Snapper

struggle to engage with key ‘threshold learning’ concepts (Meyer and

Land 2003) and the differing demands of studying in HE.
In this chapter, we outline a number of issues surrounding transition
and, in the light of those issues, we sketch various curricular and peda-
gogical principles which might inform some of the work that university
lecturers do with undergraduates, especially in the first year. Exchange of
information and ideas between teachers at school and university level—
which, under ideal circumstances, might smooth transition—has been
regrettably sparse over the years; this chapter aims to provide a starting
point for such an exchange.
The present authors were both Heads of English in 11–18 compre-
hensive schools in England, and have both carried out doctoral research
into the relationships between school and university English. Both have
also worked with school and university teachers in seeking to understand
and ameliorate school to university transition in English. This chapter is
intended for a readership of university lecturers, but readers should be
assured that we recognise that many aspects of transition must also be
addressed in what happens before students arrive at university; we have
written along similar lines for a readership of sixth form teachers (e.g.
Atherton et al. 2013).
We begin by outlining in very general terms some of the ways in
which sixth form and university English have diverged and converged in
recent decades. We go on to sketch current developments in sixth form
English and the experience of sixth form Literature students. We con-
clude by suggesting ways in which university lecturers might respond to
these scenarios in their dealings with first year undergraduates.

Issues and Trends in the Teaching of Literature in the

Sixth Form
There is not space in this chapter to outline the entire history of the
relationship between sixth form and university English in the hundred
years or so since the subject became a major force in the UK’s educa-
tion system, and indeed this task has been carried out amply in other
publications (e.g. Atherton 2005; Eaglestone 2000; Snapper 2007). We
focus here on summarising trends since the ‘theory revolution’ of the
1970s and 1980s and drawing out a number of issues that have preoc-
cupied teachers in the last 2 decades or so. We also focus specifically on

A Level; the issues we discuss, however, are broadly relevant to both the
International Baccalaureate (IB) and Scottish Highers too.
The essentially Leavisite synergy between university and A Level English
which existed until the 1970s (before ‘theory’ hit the universities) largely
evaporated in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving a complex picture of ideo-
logical affiliations and curricular and pedagogical trends in both schools
and universities. Broadly, however, whereas university English gradually
assimilated the lessons of linguistics, cultural studies, and literary theory,
school English largely retained its Leavisite focus. The transfer of examina-
tion boards from the direct control of universities at around the same time
intensified the divergence between school and university English.
During the 1980s, new A Levels were introduced in English Language
and Media Studies, reflecting the development of Linguistics and Cultural
Studies in the university. English Literature A Level, however, remained
largely impervious to developments in linguistic, cultural, and literary
theory. A minority of Literature teachers experimented with or argued
for new curricular models founded in contextually aware, theoretically
informed, and politically alert approaches to interpretation (e.g. Greenwell
1988; Peim 1993; Scott 1989) but dominant models of literature teach-
ing at this level went unchanged.
More influential for sixth form English than literary theory at this
time was the constructivist approach to language and literature teaching
dominant in English in schools, founded in the work of Vygotsky (activ-
ity theory), Halliday (systemic functional linguistics), and Rosenblatt
(reader response theory). This approach, which flourished particularly
at a time of democratisation and first increasing then widening partici-
pation in post-compulsory education, stressed the central importance
of student-centred learning—with teachers drawing out and developing
student response through a curriculum designed for ‘personal growth’
(Dixon 1969), seeking to nurture a genuine, meaningful engagement
with literature by privileging the interest and motivation of students and
thus leading them on to more abstract learning (Britton 1970; Brown
and Gifford 1989).
There was a corresponding shift at this time towards a sixth form
­literature curriculum (in both A Levels and Scottish Highers) which privi-
leged Shakespeare, the Romantics, the Moderns, and contemporary lit-
erature at the expense of the Medieval, the Enlightenment, and perhaps
even the Victorians, considered in many respects relatively dry and inac-
cessible for contemporary sixth form cohorts. One of the established
34  A. Green and G. Snapper

centrepieces of sixth form English, the response to an unseen passage or

poem, also largely disappeared from syllabuses, having come to be seen as
working against the production of authentic and sustained response from
inexperienced readers. This component for study has, however, been rein-
stated as a compulsory component in the latest iteration of A Level.
It is crucial to recognise the positive, liberating effects of these trends,
which sought to dislodge dominant transmissive modes of pedagogy and
foster more genuine critical engagement. Nevertheless, traditional sylla-
bus structures and assessment practices remained essentially in place, with
set texts generally (though not always) studied in splendid isolation from
related texts and contexts, and with little focus on theory or on organising
concepts such as narrative, genre, period, or movement. Evidence (e.g.
HMI 1986) also suggests that, despite the growth of s­tudent-centred
pedagogy which resulted in much inspiring practice, a great deal of class-
room practice at A Level remained focused on ‘transmission’.
More recently, significant modernisations of A Level in 200, 2008 and
2015 have allowed some of the concerns of modern university English to
be addressed explicitly in some A Level English Literature syllabuses for
the first time. There is universal consensus that the constructivist prin-
ciples described above must be maintained: teaching and learning must
start from where students actually are in terms of knowledge, skills, and
motivation at the end of their pre-16 qualifications, and must seek genu-
ine response and engagement from students, leading to new knowledge
and understanding. It has also, however, been recognised that there need
to be moves towards fortifying students’ grasp of more abstract disci-
plinary frameworks, broadening their experience of the subject, helping
them to place their responses more firmly in a variety of critical and theo-
retical contexts, and preparing them for the critical practices dominant in
university studies (Atherton 2003; Snapper 2010).
Progress in this direction—brought about through piecemeal actions
on the part of examining bodies, curriculum authorities, and pressure
groups—has nevertheless been, and remains, slow and inconsistent, lack-
ing any kind of concentrated focus. It must also always be remembered
that externally imposed curricular change does not automatically trans-
form the ethos of individual teachers’ classrooms; just as, before these
changes, some teachers were teaching beyond the requirements of the
syllabus and assessment, so, despite recent shifts, some teachers continue
to be circumscribed by narrow visions of the subject. Furthermore, even
where teachers are inspired by new models for teaching and learning
about literature, the pressures of high-stakes assessment regimes and the

paucity of opportunities for professional development tend to constrain

and inhibit classroom experimentation. In a sense this trend has also
been exacerbated by university admissions policies which have tended to
make A Level grades the primary (if not the sole) criteria for acceptance,
thus reinforcing the need to focus more narrowly on passing examina-
tions rather than developing more generous models of the subject.

Students Now: What Do They Know?

It is, of course, impossible to generalise beyond a certain point about
students’ experience before they arrive at university. They will emerge
from a range of social, cultural, and educational backgrounds with vary-
ing degrees of literary knowledge, cultural capital, and political aware-
ness. We can do no more here than reflect in general terms on the kind
of experience the majority of students are likely to have had at school,
and the kind of attitudes with which the majority of students are likely to
approach English at university.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that not all students who study
English Literature in the sixth form (whether through choice in A Level
or Scottish Highers, or as part of a compulsory programme in the IB)
do so because they have a passion for the subject. Sixth form classes—
normally consisting of students who have achieved a GCSE ‘C’ grade
equivalent or above—are likely to contain students with a very var-
ied range of knowledge, skills, and motivations. Of course, those who
choose to go on to read English at university are likely to be among
the most able and committed, though even these students’ disciplinary
understanding and commitment is likely to be less sophisticated than
many university lecturers might anticipate, as we will discuss later.
Whether students learn through A Level, Scottish Highers, or the IB,
the main focus of their work will be set texts. The specified number of
set texts at A Level varies, but the range has been more firmly prescribed
so that all students must study a certain number of pre-nineteenth cen-
tury texts other than Shakespeare, and at least one post-1990 text, as well
as the Shakespeare and nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts that are
most popular. For university lecturers, the crucial point is that beyond
these very broad chronological boundaries there is likely to be little com-
monality between what individual students have studied or the ways in
which they have studied. There are five different A Level syllabuses, as well
as Scottish Highers and the IB, each offering largely different choices of
36  A. Green and G. Snapper

set texts, and each offering a certain amount of free text choice. There
is no guaranteeing that students will have studied any of the same texts
or even periods and movements. Though most students will have studied
some First World War literature in the upper years of secondary school or
in the sixth form, for instance, or a Victorian novel, it is quite possible for
some to reach university without doing so. The only thing that can be
guaranteed is that all students will have studied a range of poetry, prose,
and drama, including at least one Shakespeare play in the sixth form (often
two), and at least one (often two) before the sixth form.
If lecturers cannot expect students to have covered specific texts or
periods, what generic elements of subject knowledge can they expect?
The problem here is that practice varies widely between teachers and
between schools, and there is only limited agreement about what subject
knowledge, theoretical paradigms, or pedagogical practices might involve
at this level. As suggested earlier, the dominant paradigm for literary
study in the sixth form is of appreciation of single set texts, although the
IB and more recent versions of A Level have included specific require-
ments for students to relate core set texts to wider reading. Even now,
however, when coherent units of study group texts according to theme
(e.g. Love Through the Ages), period or movement (e.g. The First
World War), genre or mode (e.g. the Gothic and the Pastoral), or literary
feature (e.g. Aspects of Narrative), syllabuses still tend to specify only the
texts that are to be studied rather than the knowledge to be gained. And,
whilst most syllabuses contain a very short general statement of the aims
of study, there is generally no agreed set of concepts or topics across syl-
labuses constituting a literature curriculum beyond the set texts and units
in specific syllabuses.
Some students may come to university having read a substantial range
of literary criticism, whilst others may have read none. Some students
may have a solid grasp of the principles of poetic metre and form, whilst
others may have very little (despite having read a number of poetry set
texts). Some may have a thorough understanding of the role of style or
imagery in language and literature, whilst others may have only a lim-
ited appreciation of the effects of specific instances in relation to their set
texts. Some may have a good basic grasp of some fundamental issues and
ideas underlying literary theory, whilst others may never have heard of
literary theory. And so on.
Where lecturers are more likely to meet with consistency is in stu-
dents’ response to and engagement with the issues and ideas that emerge

from the subject matter of literary texts. Whatever students may feel or
know about the technicalities of literary study—and as we have suggested
this is likely to be widely varied—their interest in what texts have to say is
what is most likely to bring them to university literature.
Why are fewer students interested in how texts say what they have to
say, and the disciplinary procedures associated with investigating this?
We suggest that this is partly a matter of youthful priority, partly a result
of the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy they have encountered at
school, and, as we suggest below, partly a result of the curriculum and
pedagogy they face when they arrive at university. Advanced study of lit-
erature should clearly involve a shift from engaged reader response to
critical analysis, and most would agree that the appropriate time for this
to happen for most students is between the ages of 15 and 20. The prob-
lem for universities is that its arriving students will be at various points
along this continuum.
Despite the many successes of sixth form literature, progress towards
a more modern and coherent approach in the sixth form continues to
be slow and inconsistent. If students are to be successfully engaged with
the project of university literary study, then, what lecturers do is clearly

Making the Transition: Implications for Classroom

Faced with a seminar group of first year undergraduates, how then should
the lecturer prepare? First, it is vital for lecturers to reflect on students’
expectations and to note that their perceptions of learning in HE are col-
oured by assumptions based upon prior experience (Green 2010; Smith
2003, 2004). Students’ personal responses to sixth form English and
their understanding of the new demands of HE need to be understood
and addressed (Booth 1997; Clerehan 2003; Cook and Leckey 1999).
It is helpful to consider how difficulties in this area can be concep-
tualised. Bourdieu’s (1990: 205) notion of the habitus, ‘the site of the
internalisation of externality and the externalisation of internality’, is
illuminat-ing. The personal expectations, dispositions, and schemas
residing in the habitus—the product of school English—significantly
impact upon students’ preparedness for HE English. Those who have
­developed strong transferable processes as learners are often well prepared
38  A. Green and G. Snapper

(Baird 1988), but where there is a hiatus between students’ and ­lecturers’

expectations (hinging upon mutual misunderstandings about the nature
of English as academic subject) a potential conflict emerges (Bourdieu
and Passeron 1977). Similarly, Vygotsky (1978) emphasises the signifi-
cance of socially constructed and culturally transmitted rules, which oper-
ate as internalised guiding systems. These individual systems naturally
reside on a spectrum. Some are largely enabling, whilst others tend to
create barriers and misunderstandings.
Both of these philosophical stances reflect on the issue of transition.
For Vygotsky, experimental play is central in learning. This play is not
spontaneous but rigorously defined by internalised rules which provide
cognitive and process touchstones against which new experiences can be
measured. Students commencing their HE studies employ rules inter-
nalised from their previous learning as a benchmark. By understanding
students’ personal ‘rules’, lecturers can develop appropriate interven-
tions to enhance the connection between school and HE English (Green
2010). It is, therefore, important to consider how teaching processes can
be developed that will explicitly address personal expectations and study
In order to illustrate the points made above, we here give brief out-
lines of two separate studies into transition carried out by the authors
and draw out some implications for classroom practice.

Study 1: Transition and Acculturation

This study involved working closely with a group of first year English
Literature students at a pre-1992 university. The principle focuses of this
study emerged from a large-scale mixed method survey of students and
teachers of English literature in schools and colleges and in higher educa-
tion institutions (HEIs). This background study provided an insight into
the views of literary study expressed by students and their teachers of
English at A Level, and of first year undergraduate students and their lec-
turers. The varied perspectives, expectations, and experiences of learners
and teachers that emerged on either side of the transitional divide were
illuminating, and provided the initial stimulus for research.
Building on Colin Evans’s (1993) depiction of English as the arche-
typal ‘boundaried’ subject, both in terms of content and pedagogy, the
study set out to explore how A Level students’ and teachers’ version of
English and the expectations and paradigms they derived from it related

to the lived experience of students and lecturers in HE. The purposes of

the research were as follows:

• to identify the expectations of sixth form and first year undergradu-

ate students of English, and to consider their effectiveness as transi-
tional models in managing the move from A Level to HE;
• to evaluate student responses to a range of pedagogical approaches
adopted at A Level and in HE and to evaluate their impact upon
student development in the first year of HE;
• to explore the ‘boundaries’ of A Level and HE English studies and
to consider whether these represent a meeting or a division of per-

The major issue emerging through the study was how differently learn-
ing is structured at A Level and in HE: curriculum content, methods
of teaching and learning, staff-student contact, and assessment all vary
significantly and can lead to confusion and uncertainty as students man-
age their transition. Such differences, which this study identified are not
typically explicitly addressed, have a significant impact on students, oblig-
ing them (often with minimal assistance) to reconceptualise their engage-
ment with English as a subject and to reshape what they thought they
knew about it.
Table 3.1 outlines more fully some of the significant differences in
‘order’ between post-16 and HE English.
The study identified that internalised assumptions about the nature of
subject and personal expectations are very significant factors in determining
the success of students’ progression to HE. They are a frequent cause of
difficulty. Problems are perhaps exacerbated by the nature of staff–student
contact. After the frequent and sustained contact typical of A Level, the
relatively ‘impersonal’ nature of large seminars and lectures, and increased
demands in terms of independent study (Green 2007) come as a surprise
to many students, who can quickly become isolated. The social context
of learning is substantially different from A Level and can, unless carefully
mediated, limit students’ academic development. For many students, the
lack of discussion of the changing nature of subject and subject learning
are significant boundaries to overcome.
As developing learners, students need systematically to be intro-
duced to the conventions and processes by which English as a discipline
functions (Grossman et al. 1989). Where such issues are not explicitly
40  A. Green and G. Snapper

Table 3.1  A comparison of a level and HE english (Adapted from Green 2007)

A Level HE

Curriculum •S
 tudents study for English as • Students follow single hon-
one of four or occasionally five ours, combined honours or
subjects in the first year, then major/minor programmes of
usually drop one subject as study;
they progress to the second; • Students follow multiple
 tudents follow two modules modules per year, each cover-
per year, each requiring the ing a wide range of texts;
minimum (often in reality •L  iterary theory often plays an
maximum) study of three extensive and significant role;
texts per module; •T  endency to cover a wide
 ome (often minimal) empha- range of texts, both canonical
sis is placed on the use of and non-canonical.
literary theory in relation to
set texts;
 endency towards a limited
and largely canonical list of
set texts.
Teaching methods •S  low coverage, generally of a • Quick coverage of many texts;
maximum of 12 texts; • Reading largely unguided;
• Strongly guided reading; • Much secondary reading;
• Little secondary reading; • Seminars and lectures (and
•S  mall teaching groups (typi- very rarely, tutorials) —large
cally 12–18); forum teaching;
• I nteractive methods of teach- • Students often passive; a more
ing, employing a variety of limited variety of approaches
techniques such as drama and to teaching.
Directed Activities Related to
Texts (DARTs).
Staff–student contact • C
 lose contact, usually with • Distant contact, often with
one or two teachers; many lecturers;
• Regular personal contact with • More limited contact, often
teachers—usually about five or impersonal owing to group
six hours per week; sizes—often only one hour
• Staff frequently available. per week;
• Staff contact often limited to
‘office hours’ and email.


Table 3.1  (continued)

A Level HE
Assessment •D  etailed (and structuring) • Assessment subservient to
assessment regime—evidence cognitive content;
suggests this often overrides • Holistic views of text and of
cognitive content; discipline required through-
•A  ssessment objectives out university study;
weighted and allocated to • Assessment objectives less
specific texts—can encourage overtly used in teaching;
students into atomised rather • Assessment generally at year
than holistic views of text and end;
of the discipline as a whole; • Where retakes are permitted,
•A  ssessment objectives often retake grade has a ceiling
used in teaching—heavy mark—usually pass only.
emphasis on assessment;
•M  odular assessments are pos-
sible throughout both years;
• Grades can improve in retakes,
leading to problems of grade
maximisation and inflation.

addressed, students naturally apply the understanding and expectations

they import from their previous experiences of studying English, and
these models, as established previously, are not always useful within the
new context. If students entering HE are to engage effectively in the
kinds of sophisticated intellectual risk-taking Knights (2004) advocates,
the creation of opportunities for sustained critical-creative reflection at A
Level and in HE is required. Otherwise, the lack of perceived and famil-
iar structure can distance students from effective engagement in learning.
HE English offers new and exciting possibilities, but if students are not
made explicitly aware of how it functions, or given opportunities to inter-
nalise and reflect on new modes of learning and models of curriculum,
new freedoms can serve to close possibilities rather than to open them.

Study 2: The Silence of the Seminar—A Case Study

Whereas the study described above sought to explore issues in the transi-
tion between sixth form and university English through analysis of data
from a relatively broad range of students and teachers across institutions,
42  A. Green and G. Snapper

the study described in this section (Snapper 2013) focused on analysis

of the interactions which were observed to take place between teachers
and students in one first year university English class over the course of
one year. The class, consisting of 20 students with an average B-grade
profile, took place at a ‘new’ university. The study drew on data from
observations of students’ weekly ‘core’ lectures and seminars, and from
interviews with their lecturers and with selected students at several points
during the year.
In their first year, the students’ core English consisted of two
modules—an introductory literary linguistics module in term one,
­followed by a literary theory module in the second and third terms. The
main focus of this case study was the literary theory module. (Students’
other first year modules were chosen from non-English options; their
experience of English intensified in the second and third years of the
The purposes of the research were to explore and reflect on:

• the issues first year undergraduates and their lecturers engage with
in relation to the theoretical and conceptual framework of literary
study, and the implications of these for A Level English, university
English and the transition between them;
• the curricular and pedagogical strategies employed within the uni-
versity course selected for study to support students’ transition from
A Level to university English.

In the literary theory module, students were often unresponsive in

seminars. Substantial dialogue never developed, there were frequently
uncomfortable silences, and lecturers tended to ‘fill in’ with their own
comment. As soon as discussion moved away from a discourse about the
characters, themes and events in a text, the social contexts of the fictive
world of the text, or straightforward observations about a text’s style
or structure, into more theoretical or abstract areas, almost all students
seemed to lack confidence and were unwilling to contribute. Even dur-
ing the more successful periods of discussion in class, the vast majority
of students did not participate unless asked directly, and there was often
a palpably tense atmosphere. As the course went on, students became if
anything more muted and less inclined to participate, reflecting a grow-
ing frustration at their inability to engage with the theoretical material at
an appropriate level.

Some of the difficulties encountered by both lecturers and students

seemed to be related not to the essential content of the module—the
theories and texts to be studied—but to the manner of presentation of
these, given the students’ probable starting points. Despite the awareness
of the nature of the gap between A Level and university English revealed
by lecturers in interviews, in class they nevertheless made considerable
assumptions about the motivations of students in terms of their appre-
ciation of literary texts and of literature as a cultural phenomenon, the
value which they might ascribe to the activity of literary criticism, and
their understanding of the nature, purpose, and methods of the disci-
pline. These assumptions manifested themselves partly in the design of
the course, partly in the module’s approach to reading, and partly in a
pedagogy which frequently missed opportunities to establish what stu-
dents actually knew, thought, or were able to do in relation to the topics in
The first year of this course strongly prioritised an overview of literary
theory over an overview of literature, which was problematic given the
lack of the latter in most A Level courses. In moving directly to literary
theory, a number of foundational aspects of literary study, which would
likely have helped students to assimilate new ways of thinking about lit-
erature, were neglected.
This problem was exacerbated by the approach to reading in the mod-
ule. The main difficulty observed was not in the reading of the primary
literary texts set, but in the reading of the secondary, critical texts. The
anthology of literary theory which constituted the core set text of the
module was simply too difficult for students to negotiate without con-
siderable mediation (which was not forthcoming), especially given the
fact that none of the students had previously read critical theory, and few
had had any prolonged exposure to literary criticism. Even were these
B-grade students to have been introduced to literary criticism at A Level,
however, this text would still have been too difficult.
The design of the course reflected a strong agenda on the part of
the lecturers, but this agenda often seemed to be one which was not
shared by the students—not because they were unwilling to enter
into it, but perhaps rather because they did not know how to enter
into it, or why the agenda existed. This was often because they had
not been given the opportunity to discuss the agenda; at other times,
it was because the agenda made unjustified assumptions about their
­pre-existing knowledge.
44  A. Green and G. Snapper

In particular, however, lecturers often did not take the opportunity

to establish where students actually were in terms of their knowledge,
understanding, engagement, or response, which might have allowed
them (the lecturers) to address the topic under consideration at a
more appropriate level. Students were rarely (if ever) given free rein to
say what they wanted to say or ask about a topic or text they had been
required to prepare, without the lecturer imposing an agenda on them—
a restraint of a kind which often precluded discussion of the underlying
issues which students may have needed to talk about first. Often these
were metacognitive questions such as ‘what are we actually trying to
achieve in this course?’, ‘why are these texts and/or issues significant?’,
‘what does it mean to be a critic?’ At other times, when the lecturers’
agenda was concerned with the application of theory to set literary texts,
the questions might relate to fundamental areas of response which stu-
dents had not had a chance to discuss, such as ‘what do we feel is impor-
tant in this text?’ or ‘what are the key issues relating to the cultural and
social context of this text?’

Recommendations for Practice
As has been suggested, A Level sits at the uneasy and pressurised
juncture between two educational phases and systems. Under these
circumstances the potential for problematic relations between versions
of subject has developed. A Level, rather than flourishing as an effec-
tive bridge between school and HE, has increasingly become a pres-
sured ‘demand’ reinforced by both schools and HEIs, with students
­awkwardly caught in the middle. Without constructive dialogue between
teachers of A Level and lecturers in HE, misunderstandings proliferate
around crucial boundaries and threshold concepts (such as the role of
literary theory and criticism or the validity of personal interpretation
in literary study), which are unclearly demarcated and which, in many
cases, remain tacit. The result of this lack of clarity is that unhelpful
assumptions and expectations take hold which in their turn can lead to
important ­mismatches in perspective between sixth form teachers and
HE lecturers, and also between lecturers and incoming students (Green
2006; Snapper 2013).
Through considering students’ expectations, the intra-subject ‘bound-
aries’ they encounter, and the extent to which learned processes prove
useful in enabling effective transition, it is possible to establish students’

‘location’ as they commence their HE studies. This provides a basis

for identifying a range of key areas which are likely to prove potential
sources of difficulty in terms of progression. Pleasure, contact time and
the nature of contact, independent study, pace of study, the nature of
curriculum and assessment, the development of student voice, study
skills and time management (including how to manage large and varied
reading demands), and development as academic writers all emerge as
areas of potential difficulty for students.
Some practical implications are as follows:
In the Sixth Form
The need:

• to engage more fully with wider reading and to learn ways in which
to manage the large quantities of independent reading expected in
university English Studies;
• for teachers to introduce students to processes similar (or at least
more similar) to the processes they will experience at university;
• to develop students as independent learners and to provide them
with requisite skills for managing large amounts of independent
• to create constructive and creative links with HE, whereby students
and teachers in both environments can construct shared under-
standings of subject content and process.

The need:

• to work proactively with students early in their courses, teaching

them how to manage the substantially different nature and quantity
of work required in university English Studies;
• to develop a range of strategies to assist students as they learn to
operate in unfamiliar learning for a such as lectures and seminars;
• to adopt a more explicit pedagogy to inform practice, thus more
effectively engaging students in understanding and ‘owning’ the
processes of their own learning;
• to ascertain the status of students’ current knowledge and prior
learning, using students’ responses to and reflections on their past
and present learning to inform approaches to pedagogy and curric-
46  A. Green and G. Snapper

• to create links with sixth form education to increase awareness

amongst sixth form students and teachers of the requirements and
forms of HE English, and amongst university lecturers of issues
relating to curriculum and pedagogy at A Level;
• to develop admissions criteria less exclusively linked to A level
grades, and thus to encourage more generous and less instrumental
practice at sixth form level amongst both staff and students.

Whilst these factors are expressed generically, we can also identify some
key subject-specific concerns in the English curriculum. It is crucial for
those who teach and develop both sixth form syllabuses and university
courses in English to keep in mind a number of foundational aspects
of English which are in danger of neglect in the process of transition
between sixth form and university. These might be summarised as:

• an overview of the development of literary genres (e.g. poetry,

drama, the novel);
• an underpinning exploration of the significance of form, structure,
and narrative;
• some exploration of literary history, periods, and movements;
• an introductory consideration of processes of literary production,
consumption, and reception;
• some reflection on issues of cultural value and the nature and pur-
pose of literary criticism and theory.

At present, as suggested earlier, there is little consistency in the ways in

which sixth form syllabuses and classrooms cover this kind of material.
Whilst this is the case, it must be of particular concern to university lec-
turers to take this into account in their work with students.
To return to Bourdieu’s observations on transposability, then, transi-
tion highlights two mutually interdependent issues:

• the need for post-16 study to provide a corpus of useful and rel-
evant transposable abilities for use within higher education; and
• the need for lecturers to recognise what abilities their incoming stu-
dents do and do not bring with them and to reflect this within their
pedagogical choices.

Pedagogy functions simultaneously as a means of empowerment and a

product of necessity. It recognises the imperatives (cultural, curricular,
philosophical) of the institution, and also seeks to enable students to
operate and demonstrate accomplishment within these imperatives. This
necessitates the development of a range of critical-creative pedagogic
practices. Knights (2005) argues that such pedagogic encounters, if they
are to be effective, must be dialogic. As F.R. Leavis famously used to say,
literature is the place where minds meet. The dangers inherent in transi-
tion from school to HE are that too often minds do not meet. The essen-
tial presuppositions of English as a discipline and therefore of English
pedagogy are dialogue and interaction, and if transition is to be handled
effectively, dialogue is a prerequisite.

Atherton, C., A. Green, and G. Snapper. 2013. Teaching English Literature
16–19. London: Routledge.
Atherton, C. 2003. The New English A Level: Contexts, Criticism and the
Nature of Literary Knowledge. Use of English 54 (2): 97–109.
Atherton, C. 2005. Defining Literary Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Baird, J.R. 1988. Quality: What Should Make Higher Education ‘higher’?
Higher Education Research and Development 7 (2): 141–152.
Booth, A. 1997. Listening to Students: Experiences and Expectations in the
Transition to a History Degree. Studies in Higher Education 22: 205–220.
Bourdieu, P. 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, 2nd ed.
London: Sage.
Bourdieu, P., and J.-C. Passeron. 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society and
Culture. London: Sage.
Britton, J. 1970. Language and Learning. London: Allen Lane.
Brown, J., and J. Gifford. 1989. Teaching A Level English Literature—A Student-
Centred Approach. London: Routledge.
Clerehan, R. 2003. Transition to Tertiary Education in the Arts and Humanities:
Some Academic Initiatives from Australia. Arts and Humanities in Higher
Education 2: 72–89.
Cook, A., and J. Leckey. 1999. Do Expectations Meet Reality: A Survey of
Changes in First Year Student Opinion. Journal of Further and Higher
Education 23: 157–171.
Dixon, J. 1969. Growth through English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eaglestone, R. 2000. Doing English. London: Routledge.
Evans, C. 1993. English People: The Experience of Teaching and Learning English
in British Universities. Buckingham: Open University Press.
48  A. Green and G. Snapper

Green, A. 2006. University to School: Challenging Assumptions in Subject

Knowledge Development. Changing English 13 (1): 111–123.
Green, A. 2007. Making a Move: The Problems of Transition. International
Journal of Adolescence and Youth 14 (1): 1–8.
Green, A. 2010. Transition and Acculturation. London: Lambert Academic
Greenwell, B. 1988. Alternatives at English A Level. Sheffield: NATE.
Grossman, P.L., S.M. Wilson, and L.S. Shulman. 1989. Teachers of Substance:
Subject Matter Knowledge for Teaching. In Knowledge Base for the Beginning
Teacher, ed. M.C. Reynolds, 23–36. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
HMI. 1986. A Survey of the Teaching of a Level English Literature in 20 Mixed
Sixth Forms in Comprehensive Schools. London: DES.
Knights, B. 2004. Building Bridges: Traversing the Secondary/Tertiary Divide.
English Subject Centre Newsletter. Issue 6.
Knights, B. 2005. Intelligence and Interrogation: The Identity of the English
Student. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 4: 33–52.
Meyer, J.H.F., and R. Land. 2003. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome
Knowledge—Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising. In Improving
Student Learning—Ten Years On, ed. C. Rust. Oxford: OCSLD.
Peim, N. 1993. Critical Theory and the English Teacher. London: Routledge.
Scott, P. 1989. Reconstructing A Level English. Milton Keynes: Open University
Smith, K. 2003. School to University: Sunlit Steps, or Stumbling in the Dark?
Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 2: 90–98.
Smith, K. 2004. School to University: An Investigation into the Experience of
First-Year Students of English at British Universities. Arts and Humanities in
Higher Education 3: 81–93.
Snapper, G. 2007. A Level Revamped: English Literature, the Universities and
the Schools. Changing English 14 (2): 107–120.
Snapper, G. 2010. From School to University and Back Again. English Drama
Media 21: 43–50.
Snapper, G. 2013. Student, Reader, Critic, Teacher: Issues and Identities in Post-
16 English Literature. In International Perspectives on Teaching English in a
Globalised World, ed. Goodwyn et al. London: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental
Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author Biographies
Andrew Green taught English in a variety of schools in Oxfordshire and
London before becoming Head of English at Ewell Castle School, Surrey. He
now lectures in English Education at Brunel University in West London. His

research interests include the teaching of English post-16 and issues surrounding
the transition between the study of English post-16 and at university. He is the
author of Starting an English Literature Degree (Palgrave, 2009) and Becoming a
Reflective English Teacher (Open University Press, 2011).

Gary Snapper  is an English teacher and editor of Teaching English, the profes-
sional journal of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE).
He is the author (with Andrew Green and Carol Atherton) of Teaching English
Literature 16–19 (Routledge, 2013).

The Shame of Teaching (English)

Rosie Miles

• He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.—George Bernard Shaw.

• The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the
academy. —bell hooks.
• But, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek

As though she had had there a shameful blow,

And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame
All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,
She must a little touch it …—William Morris, ‘The Defence of
• It is an uneasy task this writing shame. How could it be otherwise when
it involves a body grappling with interests, hoping to engage others?
—Elspeth Probyn

In terms of academic disciplinary attention, Shaw is effectively ‘one of

ours’, so it seems appropriate that his notorious observation heads up this

R. Miles (*) 
Department of English, Linguistics and Creative Writing, University
of Wolverhampton, MX Building, Camp Street, Wolverhampton WV1 1AD, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 51

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_4
52  R. Miles

essay. Shaw’s aphorism features amongst the ‘Maxims for Revolutionists’

at the end of The Revolutionist’s Handbook, which is at the back of the
play Man and Superman (1903). Two aphorisms further down is the
suggestion that ‘Activity is the only road to knowledge’, and it seems
thus that for Shaw, teaching is not doing. Nor is teaching revolution-
ary. Thankfully, many others—including radical educators such as bell
hooks—disagree. But whatever order of activity teaching belongs to here,
it is for those who cannot, who fail. And this essay wishes to suggest that
teaching—as it is currently figured within English Studies (but also in the
wider academy as a whole) is shameful.1
Shame has been haunting me for a while. As a Victorian scholar I am
increasingly aware that shame is everywhere in the period if only you have
eyes to see (and shame is all about being seen). Sally Shuttleworth’s intro-
duction to the Oxford World Classics edition of North and South alerted
me some years ago to how ‘Margaret [Hale] is constantly associated with
the workings of shame’.2 Suddenly a whole new way of reading the novel
opened up, and Margaret’s blushes were everywhere (for shame writes
itself in and through the body, particularly on the face). Ewan Fernie
has argued that there is a particular obsession with shame in Shakespeare
which is unparalleled, but he also acknowledges that ‘Victorian literature
is richer in shame than any since the Renaissance’.3 It is out of this con-
text that the discipline of English came into being, and while it may seem
far-fetched to suggest that English Studies emerged from a Victorian cul-
ture of shame, are we not now mostly ashamed of that original Arnoldian
impulse to civilise the masses with secular versions of sacred texts?
But shame haunts me too, as it haunts everyone who attempts to write
about it. Shame is also about interest (being too interested in something—
say teaching—or someone one should not be) and lack of interest (the thing
I’m interested in—say teaching—I shouldn’t be, or the person I am inter-
ested in is not interested in me, and thus I feel shame). Those who write
about shame—certainly amongst the recent work I have read—are all
interested in it for reasons that their work tends to map out. We all know
what we are writing about. If there is a certain pull towards the personal or
confessional in writing on shame then this in itself is shameful within aca-
demic discourse, which favours objective discussion and precisely a kind of
disinterestedness. (How many times have I crossed out ‘I think …’ or—the
horror—‘I feel …’ in student essays? How can we encourage an appropriate
register for academic expression that doesn’t erase students’ emerging sense
of a writing self?) I am not interested here in glorifying shame or in some-
how trying to make it appear a ‘cool topic’—it is, as Fernie says, ‘the most

intense and painful of our human emotions’.4 But as I am going to argue

that the academic culture we work in is shot through with shaming potential
we might as well see what can be done with it and attempt to ‘ask … good
questions about shame’.5 The ground-breaking essay in which Eve Sedgwick
suggested that shame needs to be put to use was in the cause of the resist-
ance inherent in queer performativity. But whether we are queer or not I am
interested in finding out if reflecting on shame, teaching, and English Studies
can take us to a place where academic identity can be productively reconsti-
tuted on the other side of the shamed self.

The Shame of Teaching

In what way(s) do I mean that teaching is shameful? Shame is inherently

relational (and so of course is teaching). It is ‘always concerned with the
viewing of the self from the point of view of the other’.6 It is the other
who has power to shame us (whether a ‘genuine’, hierarchised power, or
a power we project onto them). There are inherent power relations bound
up with teaching and the classroom, between student and lecturer/tutor.
Faced with a sea of silence in response to a question, it may well be that
no student hazards an answer for fear of the shame of being wrong … in
front of both their tutor and their peers. bell hooks notes that ‘When edu-
cators evaluate reasons some students fail while others succeed they rarely
talk about the role of shame as a barrier to learning’.7 hooks’s specific con-
cern is over how shame can operate in academic settings on students of
colour, but more widely she suggests that ‘Until the power of shaming is
taken seriously as a threat to the well-being of all students, particularly indi-
viduals from marginalised and/or subordinated groups, no amount of sup-
port staff, positive programming, or material resources will lead to academic
excellence’.8 What also interests me is where she goes next: ‘Many white
male professors entered college as students fully aware that they might be
subjected to rituals of shaming to prove their worth, their right to be one
of the chosen’. If shame rites are effectively the gatekeepers of entrance
to academic life then is it any surprise that we who work in the profession
‘inhabit an academic culture of shame’.9 There is potential for shame and
shaming in the relationality of lecturers/tutors and students, and if we care
about how and who we are in our classrooms we will be attentive to this,
but the shame of teaching that I am interested in for the rest of this essay is
the shame that circulates between academics and that is communicated—
subtly or not so subtly—by the professional cultures in which we work.
54  R. Miles

In short, teaching is shameful because it is not research. When we

actually consider the process whereby we come to be (if we are fortunate)
permanent members of staff in English departments, it becomes clearer
why this is. The PhD is pretty much the sine qua non of entrance into an
academic job. In the British system, the equivalent of three years full-time
written-up research is the marker that you have made an original contribu-
tion to your specialist field. The doctoral student will have learnt many very
valuable and necessary research skills along the way. They will, in effect,
have become a researcher. You are, however, unlikely to get a job interview
unless you have also got some teaching experience as well, meaning that
English departments are rarely short of a steady stream of either their own
postgraduate students only too willing to fill slots in the curriculum or out-
side postgraduates/postdocs also eager to gain such experience. So some
teaching experience is necessary, but it is difficult to see how the doctoral
experience prepares a future member of an English department to become
a teacher with anything like the same amount of intentionality and focus
as it prepares them to become a researcher. The model of identity that the
humanities PhD sets up (in the UK at least) is of someone who effectively
spends pretty much all of their professional time doing research. When (if)
these PhD students get a job, they may find that the reality of what is then
expected of them is somewhat different. As Donald E. Hall writes:

what many of us found in our new jobs … was stunningly different from
anything we had imagined: … heavy teaching loads that our research uni-
versity mentors had never encountered or even mentioned to us; mid-
career or seasoned junior colleagues who were horribly stressed and well
on their way to a state of ‘burnout’; and too often a tense, competitive
atmosphere in which personal achievement (often the single-minded pur-
suit of ‘stardom’) was valued over collegial atmosphere and communal

Hall writes as an English academic in the USA, but his lucid and thought-
provoking book on The Academic Self has wide application to all English
Studies academics (particularly those new to the profession). If you are on
Twitter, you may well be aware of the #ECR hashtag, used to designate
tweets and topics of interest to early career researchers. It is understand-
able in the light of the identity formation model alluded to above that
researcher is the identity tag which the postdoc wishes still to claim as their
own, but it is also telling that there is no early career lecturer hashtag.

What has been of interest to me in researching and reading for this

essay is that there is a small but distinct critical literature on shame and/
in English Studies, and the conditions that produce and lead to it, but
it is all written by US colleagues. In a significant article entitled ‘True
Confessions: Uncovering the Hidden Culture of Shame in English
Studies’, J. Brooks Bouson writes of the shaming tactics inherent in
belittling or dismissing a colleague’s work, whether at conferences or
in book reviews, and also of the ‘class-shame system within the acad-
emy’.11 The class-shame system Bouson perceives is entirely related to
the research–teaching hierarchy and the relative hierarchies of institu-
tions, professional status, and the differing kinds of roles and activities we
undertake as English Studies academics. Thus, as long as the ‘Magister
Implicatus’ of the ideal English academic remains the ‘star’ research pro-
fessor who works at one of a select few universities, the potential for a
‘shame script’ to be triggered amongst the many who do not inhabit
similar positions (and may never do so, as there are only so many to go
around—the star system’s value is based on a scarcity model) is ubiq-
uitous.12 Joseph Urgo discusses the shame of internalising the ‘affilia-
tion blues’ if one is attached to an institution that is perceived as lower
down the hierarchy, and Bouson notes how this also plays out in rela-
tion to tenured or permanent staff versus hourly paid or adjunct fac-
ulty.13 It is also notable that Bouson’s article appeared in JAC: A
Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics, which highlights on its submis-
sions page its primary interest in ‘articles that explore the intersections
between theoretical work in rhetoric and writing studies’.14 In the USA
the Lit(erature)-Comp(osition) divide is also part of the class-shame cul-
ture in English departments, as highlighted by Eileen Schell in an article
which responds directly to Bouson’s. As Robert Scholes notes, ‘The best
scholars in literature do not regard the research of people in writing and
rhetoric as serious … They don’t accept work dealing with pedagogical
problems or classrooms as on the same level as literary analysis or the-
ory’.15 It is perhaps not surprising that those who experience being on
the wrong side of the class-shame binary are the ones both to notice it
and to articulate something of its workings and negative effects.
Closer to home, in the UK, in the run-up to the latest research assess-
ment deadline under the auspices of the Research Excellence Framework
2014, stories exist of English (and other) academics being threatened
with ‘teaching only’ contracts not only if they are without the requisite
number of ‘outputs’ (four), but if those outputs are perceived as not
56  R. Miles

being of sufficient quality. How did it happen that it is acceptable to use

teaching as a punishment in this way? In a recent essay on the demise of
the UK English Subject Centre, its former director Ben Knights writes

the leaders of the English disciplines [in the UK] have successfully pro-
moted the subject through playing the Research Excellence Framework
and the research council game for all they are worth. In doing so, they
have inadvertently colluded in a massive distortion of the subject group
and the paradigmatic academic career towards specialised research. To
survive as an intergenerational venture, the subject needs a re-balancing
towards teaching.16

One of our most notable and compelling writers on the state of UK

higher education is also—interestingly—an English academic. Stefan
Collini’s concerns are wider than Knights’s above, but their sentiments
echo one another when Collini states

there can be no doubt that the Research Assessment Exercises have …

fostered a culture within universities that rewards research dispropor-
tionately more than it does teaching. The devoted university teachers of
a generation or more ago who were widely read, keeping up with recent
scholarship … have in many cases been hounded into early retirement, to
be replaced (if replaced at all) by younger colleagues who see research pub-
lications as the route to promotion and esteem, and who try to limit their
commitment to undergraduate teaching as far as they can.17

Pedagogic research, however clearly emerging from a specific discipline,

is also regarded with a degree of nervousness or uncertainty about its
reception and ‘value’ in relation to official research assessment exercises.
As English academics we should surely be attentive and alive to the ways
we utilise language: we routinely talk of ‘teaching loads’ but have you
ever heard someone talk of their ‘research load’? Why have we come to
figure teaching as so burdensome, and what do we do to our sense of
academic and professional identity by so doing? Within higher educa-
tion in the UK there has for some time been an expectation that new
academics will undertake a year-long Postgraduate Certificate in Higher
Education as a training qualification.18 Some academics regard this
requirement with a certain degree of contempt. There is also an increas-
ing drive for all academics to be in receipt of some kind of professional

accreditation for their teaching and institutions now have to return data
on this to the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE). Again, it is
interesting that this is sometimes met with a great deal of reluctance (by
academics from many disciplines).

Shame’s Demeanour
Shame is associated with certain demeanours and gestures, as outlined by
Charles Darwin: ‘Under a keen sense of shame there is a desire for con-
cealment. We turn away the whole body, more especially the face, which
we endeavour in some manner to hide. An ashamed person can hardly
endure to meet the gaze of those present, so that he almost invariably
casts down his eyes or looks askant’.19 Shame causes a break in connec-
tion with the (desired) other and exposes to the shamed self its failure
to live up to the ego ideal the other embodies. If, as I am suggesting,
only one model of academic ‘success’ prevails within English Studies and
higher education more widely, then any ‘failure’ to live up to this hegem-
onic paradigm has the potential to trigger shame. Hall emphasises how
the academic employed at institutions with greater teaching expectations
can end up ‘break[ing] productive connections with the larger profes-
sion; fall[ing] out of the conversation in their fields of specialization; and
sink[ing] into silence and resentment under the weight of papers, exams,
and committee work’.20 All of these can be read as conscious or uncon-
scious shamed responses.
Eve Sedgwick makes the connection that ‘[i]f … the lowering of the
eyelids, the lowering of the eyes, the hanging of the head is the attitude
of shame, it may also be that of reading’.21 She acknowledges that this
is also the demeanour of absorption, in which an eyes-down, discon-
nected-from-others posture becomes ‘the kind of skin that sheer textual
attention can weave around a body’ and this is not about shame.22 But
note here the linking of these two gestural postures and how they are
both written on and through the skin, just as blushing is one of shame’s
most visible bodily attributes.23 Today, eyes-down absorption is also the
demeanour of anyone engaged with their mobile phone or tablet, which
is paradoxically characterised by some techno-detractors as the antithe-
sis of the deep immersion experience of reading. Is reading something
of length—a Victorian novel, say—becoming shameful in an era of the
bite-size (screen-size) and readily consumable? Don’t spend all that
time reading Middlemarch—connect! In our contemporary culture does
58  R. Miles

reading at length, with the concomitant disconnect from others neces-

sary to do so, in any way parallel the identity-dissolving disconnect of the

Recognition: The Way to Soothe Shame?

The ontological nature of shame (concerned with who I am, rather than
what I do) reveals its connection to questions of identity, and here my
interest in academic identity. I am under no illusions that one small essay
is able to effect anything so grandiloquent as a change in how academics
think about themselves, but I have wanted to articulate something about
shame and its functioning within both English Studies and the wider aca-
demic community because it seems important at least to try and speak
of an emotion that is not easily discussed. As Margaret Werry and Róisín
O’Gorman say, ‘To talk about shame is not to ratify or (re)produce it,
but to intervene into the mechanisms by which it is circulated, intensi-
fied, and privatized, precisely through its unspeakability’.24
If shame has the capacity to destroy the self, in ways that are clearly
painful and far from productive, then it is interesting that several writ-
ers on shame also give attention to the possibilities of a self who is con-
structed on the other side of being shamed. As Sally Munt states, shame
can ‘act[] as a solvent or catalyst for transformation’.25 Helen Lynd,
whose classic account of shame and identity is still cited, writes that ‘it
is possible that experiences of shame if confronted full in the face [note
the metaphor] may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point
the way toward who one may become. Fully faced, shame may become
not primarily something to be covered, but a positive experience of
revelation’.26 Fernie cites King Lear as Shakespeare’s ‘fullest vision of
shame’,27 and indeed the Lear who emerges from the other side of his
experience of being reduced to the basest level of humanity (if not quite
‘nothing’) on the heath is a transformed man.
As shame is always shame in the eyes of the other then Munt sug-
gests that ‘Recognition would seem key to soothing shame, an agenda
focussed upon recognition tries to resolve the injurious abjection caused
by the withdrawal of the gaze of social acceptance’.28 In one sense, it
could be argued that the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS),
which has run since 2000 in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland,
has been one such attempt to provide high-profile recognition for uni-
versity teaching. Indeed, in a formal review of the NTFS, a section on

‘Recognition and validation’ charts how some fellows think that gain-
ing a National Teaching Fellowship has ‘[given] them recognition within
their institutions and disciplines’.29 Approximately thirty NTFs have to
date been awarded to English (or Creative Writing) academics. Do they
have anything collectively to offer the subject? This is not the place to go
into a full-scale assessment of the NTFS, but it is clear from the research
done so far that while the scheme is respected and has become estab-
lished (and is here to stay for the foreseeable future), the gap in esteem
given to teaching versus research achievements within higher educa-
tion remains very real. As reported in the 2012 review, ‘One academic
remarked, rather dramatically, that the research exercises have such a
strong influence on universities that the NTFS was “just a sticking plas-
ter on this gaping wound where teaching and research are being hacked
apart”’.30 Recognition can obviously take different professional forms,
and at a small gathering of National Teaching Fellows some years ago,
the NTFs present regarded parity with research, and recognition of good
teaching as essential criteria for promotion and progression through
an academic career as more effective at genuinely fostering an aca-
demic culture that encourages and values teaching over and above giv-
ing individual ‘prizes’.31 Indeed, shame can still inadvertently lurk at the
edges of the NTFS: Kerry Shephard and others have written an article
on ‘Preparing an application for a higher-education teaching-excellence
award: whose foot fits Cinderella’s shoe?’, while Donald Nathanson cites
Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis which has shame as ‘the
Cinderella of the unpleasant emotions’.32

The Unashamed (Academic) Self

Recognition may soothe shame, but it is potentially given by the same
other who can or has also done the shaming. The power to shame, or
not shame, still resides in the eyes of the other. As such, the self—the
academic self—who reconstitutes themselves on the other side of experi-
ences of shame needs to do so in ways that are not solely dependent on
that gaze. This is not easy, and as I have been talking about academic
cultures, it is effectively impossible in some lone heroic way to take on
a whole culture’s modus operandi. However, I want to argue for a nec-
essarily resistant model of academic becoming that embodies, values,
and celebrates teaching and research together, and this self will be con-
stituted in full knowledge of the way that teaching has been figured as
60  R. Miles

shameful whilst refusing it utterly. I want the exemplar of what being

an English Studies academic is to be someone absolutely committed to
teaching and research, and who communicates that both in the class-
room and to their colleagues. This may make for a tension in the becom-
ing of the academic that it would be easier all round to do without. As
John Henry Newman said, ‘[t]o discover and to teach are distinct func-
tions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united
in the same person’.33 Doing both—with passion and commitment—
may well be the road less travelled. There is a need for many of us to
articulate multiple ways of being—becoming—an (English) academic.
As Donald Hall says,

unless we speak honestly and often about the range of lives and careers
across the landscape of our profession and our ways of finding fulfilment in
them, we will continue to perpetuate the very debilitating myth that only
those very few students who land jobs at research institutions are successes,
[and] that the rest … have failed already or will fail inevitably in their pur-
suit of a vital professional life that includes, in whatever necessary or cho-
sen balance, scholarship, teaching, and service.34

I suggested earlier that it may now be with a certain sense of shame that
some of us look back on the civilising mission of the origins of English
Studies in the later nineteenth century (or, at the very least, uncomfort-
able embarrassment). And again, while this is not the place to go into
a lengthy rehashing of how English Studies came into being and sub-
sequently established itself both as a university subject and at the heart
of a national school curriculum, it is also worth saying that at its roots
English as a subject was pedagogic: it wanted people (working men, and
women) to know about something worth spending time with (litera-
ture).35 I for one am still very much ‘with’ that: I want my students to
know about what literature has been, is, and is becoming, and I want
them to be involved along the way in my own discoveries about the
Finally, to return to where this essay began. In Shaw’s Man and
Superman John Tanner launches into a longish speech on how

We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is

real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our
accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our

naked skins … we are ashamed to walk, ashamed to ride in an omnibus,

ashamed to hire a hansom instead of keeping a carriage, ashamed of keep-
ing one horse instead of two and a groom-gardener instead of a coachman
and footman. The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable
he is … [there’s more].36

This may well be a very particular fin de siècle male heterosexual

shame,37 and writers on shame are sometimes keen to claim it as specifi-
cally of one historical moment or another. For Fernie shame is never the
same after the Renaissance, for me the Victorian period is saturated in
it, for Anthony Giddens, shame is pervasive in our late-modern lives.38
Shame keeps moving, and perhaps that is how it ever will be and needs
to be, as when shame sticks, or we try to stick it to others, then things
get uncomfortable. I have attempted to explore whether it is possi-
ble ‘to mobilize our shame’39 as an idea—an emotion—that is produc-
tive and transformative, and to end I want to cite a Victorian writer
who puts shame to work in his writings in equally transformative ways.
William Morris’s Guenevere, in ‘The Defence of Guenevere’—the title
poem of his very first published work in 1858—is caught in medias res
as the subject of the condemning gaze of the knights of King Arthur’s
court. Shame, as it does, writes itself through the awkward ‘passionate
twisting of her body’ (line 60).40 She is that most Victorian of shamed
female subjects: a fallen woman. But Guenevere is almost unique as a
representation of a transgressive sexual woman in Victorian literature.
Her speaking out about that for which she is meant to be most ashamed
(her adultery with Launcelot), ‘with no more trace of shame’ (line 59), is
the very means of her redemption. If this is striking at the beginning of
Morris’s career, then towards its end Ellen in News from Nowhere (1890)
is something else again, as the embodiment of what humanity looks
like in post-shame Nowhere. No more twisting and contorting there.
Significantly, in Nowhere education has also been utterly transformed.
She who can, does. And she teaches.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman and The Revolutionist’s
Handbook (London: Constable & Co., 1903), p. 230. For this reader
Shaw’s aphorisms in ‘Maxims for Revolutionists’ contain a certain sub-
Wildean flippancy. How seriously or literally they were ever meant to be
taken is a moot point.
62  R. Miles

2. Sally Shuttleworth, ‘Introduction’ to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

(Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998), p. xiii.
3. Ewan Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 232.
4. Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare, p. 1.
5. Eve Sedgwick, ‘Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry
James’s The Art of the Novel’, in Gay Shame, David M. Halperin & Valerie
Traub (eds) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 61.
Sedgwick’s essay first appeared as ‘Queer Performativity: Henry James’s
The Art of the Novel’ in GLQ 1:1 (1993): pp. 1–16.
6. Sally Munt, Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (Aldershot:
Ashgate, 2008), p. 83.
7. bell hooks, ‘Moving beyond Shame’ in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy
of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 93.
8. hooks, ‘Moving beyond Shame’, p. 101.
9. J. Brooks Bouson, ‘True Confessions: Uncovering the Hidden Culture
of Shame in English Studies’, JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and
Politics 25:4 (2005): p. 625.
10. Donald E. Hall, The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (Columbus:
Ohio University Press, 2002), p. xiii.
11. Bouson, ‘True Confessions’, p. 635.
12. Bouson, ‘True Confessions’, p. 635.
13. Joseph Urgo, ‘The Affiliation Blues’, in Affiliations: Identity in Academic
Culture, ed. Jeffrey Di Leo (Lincoln, NA: University of Nebraska Press,
2003), 19–32. Cited in Bouson, ‘True Confessions’, 636–37.
14. See JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics: http://www. The journal is also, inter alia,
interested in writing on ‘academic culture and the politics of higher edu-
15. Robert Scholes, cited in Alison Schneider, ‘Bad Blood in the English
Department: The Rift Between Composition and Literature’, Chronicle
of Higher Education 13/02/1998, A14. In Eileen E. Schell, ‘Putting
Our Affective House in Order: Toward Solidarity Rather Than Shame
in Departments of English’, JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and
Politics 26:1–2 (2006): p. 211.
16. Ben Knights, ‘The Politics of Enhancement: The Last Days of the
English Subject Centre’, in Literary Politics: Political Literature and the
Literature of Politics, eds. Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw (Basingstoke:
Palgrave, 2013), p. 191.
17. Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin, 2012), pp.
18. Typically, such schemes are undertaken ‘on the job’ and are administered
by a university’s Centre or Institute for Learning and Teaching.

19. Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

(London: John Murray, 1872), pp. 321–22.
20. Hall, The Academic Self, p. 23.
21. Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank, ‘Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading
Silvan Tomkins’, in Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, eds.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick & Adam Frank (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 1995), p. 20.
22. Sedgwick, ‘Reading Silvan Tomkins’, p. 21.
23. For more on blushing in Austen, Gaskell and others, see Mary Ann
O’Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and
the Blush (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).
24. Margaret Werry & Róisín O’Gorman, ‘Shamefaced: Performing
Pedagogy, Outing Affect’, Text and Performance Quarterly 27: 3 (2007):
p. 228 (213–30).
25. Munt, Queer Attachments, p. 216.
26. Helen Merrell Lynd, On Shame and the Search for Identity (New York:
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1958), p. 20.
27. Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare, p. 173.
28. Munt, Queer Attachments, p. 222.
29. Mark Rickinson, Rosa Spencer & Caroline Stainton, NTFS Review 2012:
Report on Findings (York: The Higher Education Academy, 2012). Other articles which review
the UK National Teaching Fellowship Scheme through interviewing NTFs
about their perceptions on and experiences of the scheme also include
discussion of the recognition conferred (or not) by gaining a NTF. See
Alan Skelton, ‘Understanding “teaching excellence” in higher education: a
critical evaluation of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme’, Studies in
Higher Education 29: 4 (2004): pp. 451–468, and Philip Frame, Margaret
Johnson & Anthony Rosie, ‘Reward or award? Reflections on the initial
experiences of winners of a National Teaching Fellowship’, Innovations in
Education and Teaching International 43: 4 (2006): pp. 409–419.
30. NTFS Review 2012, p. 31.
31. Association of National Teaching Fellows, Birmingham ‘Bounce’ Event,
8–9 July 2013. Good practice documents for ‘recognis[ing] teaching
as core academic work’ can also be found at the website, which came out of a 2009 collaborative project
between the Higher Education Academy and the University of Leicester.
32. Kerry Shephard, Tony Harland, Sarah Stein & Toni Tidswell, ‘Preparing
an application for a higher-education teaching-excellence award: whose
foot fits Cinderella’s shoe?’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and
Management 33: 1 (2011): 47–56. Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride:
64  R. Miles

Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (New York & London: W.W. Norton,
1992), p.15.
33. John Henry Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University (London:
Longmans, Green, & Co., 1907 [1873]), p.xiii.
34. Hall, The Academic Self, p. 24.
35. For accounts of the origin of English Studies see Alan Bacon, ed., The
Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate,
1998), Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848–
1932 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), Brian Doyle, English and Englishness
(London: Routledge, 1989). Good (student focused?) accounts can also
be found in Robert Eaglestone, Doing English, 3rd edition (London:
Routledge, 2009 [2000]), and Peter Widdowson, Literature (London:
Routledge, 1999).
36. George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, in George Bernard Shaw’s
Plays, ed. Sandie Byrne (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), p. 86.
37. For a more contemporary take on this see Steven Connor, ‘The Shame of
Being a Man’, Textual Practice 15 (2001): 211–30. The full-length ver-
sion can be read at
38. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1991), p. 65. Cited in Hall, The Academic Self, p. 13.
39. David Halperin, ‘Why Gay Shame Now?’ in Gay Shame, David M.
Halperin & Valerie Traub (eds) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Press, 2009), p. 45.
40. William Morris, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, in The Early Romances of
William Morris in Prose and Verse (London: J.M. Dent, 1907), p. 4.

Bacon, Alan (ed.). 1998. The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies.
Aldershot: Ashgate.
Baldick, Chris. 1983. The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848–1932. Oxford:
Bouson, J. Brooks. 2005. True Confessions: Uncovering the Hidden Culture of
Shame in English Studies. JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics 25
(4): 625–650.
Collini, Stefan. 2012. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin.
Connor, Steven. 2001. The Shame of Being a Man. Textual Practice 15: 211–
30. The full-length version can be read at
Darwin, Charles. 1872. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
London: John Murray.
Doyle, Brian. 1989. English and Englishness. London: Routledge.

Eaglestone, Robert. 2009 [2000]. Doing English, 3rd ed. London: Routledge.
Fernie, Ewan. 2002. Shame in Shakespeare. London: Routledge.
Frame, Philip, Margaret Johnson, and Anthony Rosie. 2006. Reward or Award?
Reflections on the Initial Experiences of Winners of a National Teaching
Fellowship. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 43 (4):
Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.
Hall, Donald E. 2002. The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual. Columbus, OH:
Ohio University Press.
Halperin, David. 2009. Why Gay Shame Now? In Gay Shame, ed. David M.
Halperin, and Valerie Traub, 41–46. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York:
Knights, Ben. 2013. The Politics of Enhancement: The Last Days of the English
Subject Centre. In Literary Politics: Political Literature and the Literature of
Politics, ed. Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw, 181–94. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Lynd, Helen Merrell. 1958. On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York:
Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Morris, William. 1907. The Defence of Guenevere. In The Early Romances of
William Morris in Prose and Verse, 1–11. London: J.M. Dent.
Munt, Sally. 2008. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame. Aldershot:
Nathanson, Donald. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New
York: W.W. Norton.
Newman, John Henry. 1907 [1873]. The Idea of a University. London:
Longmans, Green., & Co.
O’Farrell, Mary Ann. 1997. Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English
Novel and the Blush. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Rickinson, Mark, Rosa Spencer, and Caroline Stainton. 2012. NTFS Review
2012: Report on Findings. York: The Higher Education Academy.
Schell, Eileen E. 2006. Putting Our Affective House in Order: Toward Solidarity
Rather Than Shame in Departments of English. JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric,
Culture and Politics 26 (1–2): 204–220.
Sedgwick, Eve. 2009. Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry
James’s The Art of the Novel. In Gay Shame, ed. David M. Halperin, and
Valerie Traub, 49–62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sedgwick, Eve, and Adam Frank.  1995. Shame in the Cybernetic Field: Reading
Silvan Tomkins. In Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, eds. Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Adam Frank, 1–28. Durham, NC: Duke University
66  R. Miles

Sedgwick, Eve. 1993. Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.
GLQ 1 (1): 1–16.
Shaw, George Bernard. 1903. Man and Superman and The Revolutionist’s
Handbook. London: Constable.
Shaw, George Bernard. 2002. Man and Superman. In George Bernard Shaw’s
Plays, ed. Sandie Byrne. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shephard, Kerry, Tony Harland, Sarah Stein, and Toni Tidswell. 2011. Preparing
an Application for a Higher-Education Teaching-Excellence Award:
Whose Foot Fits Cinderella’s Shoe? Journal of Higher Education Policy and
Management 33 (1): 47–56.
Shuttleworth, Sally. 1998. Introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South,
ix–xxxiv.  Oxford: Oxford World Classics.
Skelton, Alan. 2004. Understanding “Teaching Excellence” in Higher
Education: A Critical Evaluation of the National Teaching Fellowship
Scheme. Studies in Higher Education 29 (4): 451–468.
Urgo, Joseph. 2003. The Affiliation Blues. In Affiliations: Identity in Academic
Culture, ed. Jeffrey Di Leo, 19–32. Lincoln, NA: University of Nebraska
Werry, Margaret, and Róisín O’Gorman. 2007. Shamefaced: Performing
Pedagogy, Outing Affect. Text and Performance Quarterly 27 (3): 213–230.
Widdowson, Peter. 1999. Literature. London: Routledge.

Author Biography
Rosie Miles is Reader in English Literature and Pedagogy at the University of
Wolverhampton, UK, and a UK National Teaching Fellow. She has published
extensively on William Morris, and was for some years editor of the Journal of
William Morris Studies. With Phillippa Bennett, she edited William Morris in
the Twenty-First Century (Peter Lang, 2010). Rosie has also published Victorian
Poetry in Context (Bloomsbury, 2013), and, as a poet, Cuts (HappenStance,
2015). She was an e-learning advocate for the HEA English Subject Centre, and
has published a number of articles and reports on online teaching, discussion
forums, using social media and assessment in English Studies.

Transition into the Profession: Accuracy,

Sincerity and ‘Disciplinary Consciousness’

Robert Eaglestone

One of the central challenges for academics beginning their careers,

­making the transition from PhD researcher to member of the faculty, is
balancing the demands of research and teaching. This chapter, sadly, does
not explain how to achieve this balance, but it does recast the debates—
and certainly the damaging rhetoric—over ‘research versus teaching’ in a
more useful form: a form which I hope makes this process easier. I want
to explain why research and teaching, which are so frequently presented
as opposed forces, just simply are not. I am not suggesting that academ-
ics with newly minted PhDs are somehow—as if by magic—excellent
teachers: you have to learn how to teach just as you have to learn how to
research. Instead, I am suggesting that the virtues that make one a good
researcher are, at their deep roots, those that make one a good teacher
and that seeing things this way perhaps might ease that transition, achieve
a better balance and make ‘thinking about teaching’ more attractive.

R. Eaglestone (*) 
Department of English, Royal Holloway, University of London,
Egham TW20 0EX, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 67

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_5
68  R. Eaglestone

The transition from PhD to faculty is made harder—or seems harder,

at least—because there is a view, so common now as to be an orthodoxy,
that research and teaching are profoundly different. The PhD especially
is said to be a poor preparation for teaching. In some superficial ways,
this might appear so: working by oneself appears not to teach ­teamwork
skills; writing 80,000 words of original research might not seem to
give one skills for lecturing. In a discourse that refers constantly to
skills, the experience of earning a PhD might seem irrelevant to teach-
ing and to make pedagogy both as practice and as intellectual and per-
sonal enquiry look discontinuous from research work. And it is a terrible
irony that educational developers—the very people who, in the last 10
or 15 years, in response to the public perception that academics were
not good at teaching, are tasked with helping improve pedagogy—may
have aggravated this situation, and further demoralised new academics,
by relying on this discourse of skills. No one sensible can complain in
principle about the courses in teaching that new academics are almost
always compelled to take for accreditation in their institution: it is
obviously important to receive training to become better at one’s job.
However, almost invariably, these courses are widely disliked and often
ineffective because they work within a discourse that invokes ‘skills’. This
means they are usually ‘generic’ and pass over the differences between
academic disciplines. To an educational developer using the language
of skills, it might look as if, for example, departments teaching History
and departments teaching English Literature are doing roughly the same
job: in fact, these departments have very different heritages, problems,
demands, and ways of doing things. Moreover, on the other side, aca-
demics (whose tendency to snobbery is cultivated by informal hierar-
chies as well as formal ones such as the Research Excellence Framework
and ubiquitous league tables) often look down on developers if they do
not possess the same level of qualification or experience. These courses
also rightly encourage pedagogical self-reflection but if this ‘reflection’ is
based on contentless, generic truisms (‘students like to be interested’), it
is not usually reflecting on anything useful or concrete. Of course, there
are some skills to teaching (how not to overload a PowerPoint slide with
information, for example) but ‘bolted on’ skills are far from the heart
of teaching, as they are far from the heart of research. The language of
skills implicitly prevents a PhD from being seen as useful for teaching
and works against a more useful synthesis of teaching and research: it
means that one’s experience as a researcher is disconnected from one’s
­experience as a teacher.

Instead of a language of skills, then, I want to draw on the

Aristotelian language of virtues. I want to suggest that a doctorate, seen
correctly, can be very effective training for teaching, for two linked rea-
sons. First, because the process of a doctorate in a discipline is more
than simply (simply!) making an original contribution to knowledge: it
is also where the ‘scripts’ or ‘disciplinary consciousness’ of a discipline
are learned. And second, and stemming from this first, I want to identify
some profound and important qualities—or virtues—that underlie these
scripts that are absolutely central to academic life and which are taught
through the doctoral process. More importantly, these virtues under-
lie both good teaching in higher education and the learning process
through which academics become even better teachers. The PhD pro-
cess, understood correctly, is not a barrier to transition into the teach-
ing aspect of academic life, but utterly central to it. The PhD process
not only creates new research, but also inculcates in the candidate both
the discipline they are researching and the more profound virtues of aca-
demic life.

The PhD, Scripts, and Disciplinary Consciousness

An academic discipline, as Ben Knights and others argue, is not only
about its ostensible subject but is also constructed by the ways in which
it enlists its members in its ‘intellectual style’ (Knights 34). Knights sug-
gests that all disciplines have ‘scripts’, ways of thinking and behaving,
both formal and informal, which have to be learned and into which stu-
dents are inducted:

socialisation into a ‘student’ role involves learning scripts and identify-

ing with the behaviours associated with the script. At a general level this
might mean acquiring the activating codes to do with the conspicuous
consumption of alcohol, the occupation of the day or the adornment of
the domestic environment… Radical intellectual movements will tend to
supply oppositional scripts for the learner. These typically include cultural
identity codes (a demonstrative passion for a particular writer or philoso-
pher – or for a particular lecturer as ‘guru’); typical forms of argument and
stylised forms of aggression involving the ability to recognise and demolish
the cultural icons of the opposing camp. (35)
70  R. Eaglestone

Knights discusses in some detail two such ‘scripts’ for students from
periods in the history of English as a subject (the ‘moment of Scrutiny’
and the influx of theory in the 1980s) and shows how a central part of
undergraduate education involves these scripts. Academics teach less, as
it were, ‘facts’ or texts and more ‘ways of thinking’. In the sciences, stu-
dents are not taught the answers to experiments, but how to do effective
experiments. We teach students to ‘think as’ historians, mathematicians,
geographers: in English, we teach them to ‘think as’ literary critics. (This
might include, through creative writing, teaching students to think, as
Nietzsche argued, from the ‘point of view of the artist’: an artist is also
a sort of critic, just as a critic is a sort of artist.) We teach students a
­disciplinary consciousness.
If there are ‘scripts’ for students there are even more developed
‘scripts’ for academics. These scripts are what make up, in Tony Becher’s
phrase, an ‘academic tribe’ (Becher and Trowler 2001). Colin Evans’s
English People (1993) analyses some of the habits (from the early 1990s,
at least) of that ‘English tribe’. For academics, scripts are even more
powerful: following or not following the script in a formal sense clearly
has an impact on career, promotion, pay, and general professional good
will (how far does one ‘play the game’, for example? And perhaps, if ‘not
playing the game’ is to one’s credit, that is a good thing?). These disci-
plinary scripts become most deeply embedded during the PhD process:
this is how and when one learns how to be an academic. (Sometimes the
implication of this sort of discussion can be taken up in a less construc-
tive way: the idea of ‘scripts’ and of ‘playing the game’ sounds cynical, a
sense of ‘knowing the moves’, of how to perform. This is the source of
the campus novel as a comedy of manners, in which academics in English
departments are most often the targets—and, of course, most often the
Of course, scripts can change: indeed, Knights’s article i­mplicitly
focuses on the change in scripts. Some behaviours or, say, ‘gurus’, fall out
of favour; academic work develops over time, both over one’s career and
as a result of shifting intellectual winds and personal interests. Academics
can and do gently move between writers and periods or alter their the-
oretical views. That said, I want to suggest that some behaviours are
‘deeper’ and less susceptible to change, and these offer congruities across
disciplines and across periods. These deeper dispositions are what some
philosophers might call the virtues of our profession.

The PhD process not only creates original research, it also inculcates
the disciplinary scripts and the deeper academic virtues. It is these which,
properly understood, are not only central to research, but also crucial for
transition into a job and for life-long ‘learning how to learn’. More, and
this really is my central claim here, these virtues, which I outline below,
are established in and for research (usually but not exclusively doctoral
research) and are contiguous with and vital for transition into a univer-
sity job. They are ‘deep scripts’, or dispositions that are taught through
the PhD process and are what we turn to when we reflect on how to
improve our teaching.

The Virtues of Doing a PhD

In his luminous book, Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams offers a
genealogy of the idea of truth, trying to find a middle path between, on
the one hand, postmodern sceptics and pragmatists and, on the other,
dogmatic positivists. Eschewing a definition of truth, he turns to a dis-
cussion of the ‘value of truth’, of the ‘various states and activities asso-
ciated with the truth’ (Williams 2002: 7). These ‘two basic virtues’ are
‘accuracy and sincerity’ (11). He continues:

you do the best you can to acquire true beliefs, and what you say reveals
what you believe. The authority of academics must be rooted in their
truthfulness in both these respects: they take care, and they do not lie. (11)

These virtues, accuracy, sincerity, and the ways they work in the aca-
demic sphere, are explored, inculcated, and learned in the process of
undertaking a PhD. They apply in a profound way to all academics in
all disciplines although they are, as it were, transmuted from discipline
to discipline: that is, the means by which, say, a historian, a sociologist, a
biologist, and a literary critic display the academic virtues of sincerity and
accuracy can differ, although they are the same virtues. (A car, a shoe and
a phone are all different but may share the virtue of being made well and
with care). The position of academics in English is especially complex, as
I will show.
Incidentally, there is no question that one of the subtexts of Williams’s
book is an attack on parts of the discipline of English, especially in its
wilder theoretical and political garb: for example, he decries the ‘frivol-
ity’ of the ‘rhetoric of political urgency’ offered by the ‘café politics of
72  R. Eaglestone

the émigrés from the world of real power, the Secret Agents of literature
departments’ (11): the reference to Conrad suggests Said is his target
here. However, even in English, these central virtues still apply.

Sincerity for Williams ‘consists in a disposition to make sure that one’s
assertion expresses what one actually believes’ (97). Sincerity is the link
between one’s beliefs and their assertion. It is tied in with trust, and so
with a series of wider social implications. It seems to me that all academic
research should be sincere.
There is an immediate problem with this for the researcher in English.
Deep in the process and detail of doctoral (or any) research work on
a subject, it is very hard to know what it is one exactly believes, so it
is hard to know to what it is that one’s belief is sincere. In researching
any writer, for example, there will be divergent critical opinions and one
may side with one or another: and one (usually) shifts from view to view.
With any thinker or theorist there is a similar, time consuming agonis-
tic struggle. Ideally in both cases one comes to one’s own view, which
will itself change and develop, but (rightly, I think) this may take ages.
Critics often say things like ‘I realised that Clare was a much greater poet
than others had previously argued’ or ‘what I had been taught about
Lawrence was wrong, I felt’. Perhaps this is different from ‘defending
a position’ in philosophy or analysing an archive in history, although I
suspect there are analogous relations to material in these disciplines too.
In any case, it is normal for one’s view to vary a great deal during the
process of doctoral research because a core part of doing serious research
involves trying out different views or inhabiting different perspectives:
the PhD is where that fundamental process is most deeply learned.
While it is hard to see how this leads to sincerity in a conventional
sense, these explorations in or as research are not meant to mislead. It
is akin to what Rorty calls an ironic position (an ironist ‘is the sort of
person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central
beliefs and ideas’ (Rorty xv)); however, in this case the contingency is
based on the sense that there is further research to explore. It is perhaps
an open sincerity: both a commitment to the beliefs one holds—to test-
ing them, to arguing them with others—and an openness to their con-
tinuing development. Of course, and again perhaps rightly, some of these

beliefs may harden with age but it seems to me that to have a sense of
the ironic, open sincerity of one’s position while undertaking a PhD and
in the early years of scholarly career is an important part of the script.
This virtue, I think—like any virtue—does not arrive fully formed but
rather develops and grows with use.

For Williams, the virtue of accuracy has two aspects. The first is an
attempt to avoid one’s own ‘wishful thinking, self-deception and fantasy’
(127). (This desire runs so strongly in other philosophers and thinkers
from Williams’s generation—in Iris Murdoch as both philosopher and
novelist, for example, or in Mary Midgley—that I cannot help but think
it somehow marks out a cohort of thinkers who grew up watching fas-
cism and came to maturity engaged with the bitter struggles of Marxism
and Marxist hypocrisy). The second aspect is ‘care, reliability and so on’
and relies on one’s ‘effective investigation’ (127). In some humanities
disciplines, accuracy is easier to measure or to understand. A historian,
for example, checks quotations against the archive for their partial or ten-
dentious use, avoids wilder explanations of documents or events, does
not invent incidents or conversations. Historians try to maintain accu-
racy by ensuring their work is checkable (and, in fact, the major debates
in history are not about ‘facts’ but are ‘meta-historical debates’ about
intentions and causes). Archaeologists, on digs, are painstaking about
accuracy and measurement.
What do English PhD students learn about accuracy? There are sim-
ple examples: not to quote too selectively or partially, say, or to get
dates and orders of things right. As in other disciplines, it is right not to
­misrepresent people’s arguments and to read what the text really says,
not what you wish it might say. But in the end all quotation is fragmen-
tary and partial and all readings are interpretations so it is quite hard to
see in what accuracy might consist. In terms of following a methodology
accurately, English lies somewhere between T.S. Eliot’s comment ‘there
is no method except to be extremely intelligent’ and a (mostly imaginary,
I suspect) form of hardcore ‘structuralist’ or Marxist or neuro-critical (or
whatever doctrinaire approach) reading of texts. Moreover, any and all of
these methods, as the critical debates of the last 50 years have shown, fail
to be a ‘method’ in the way that the natural or even the social sciences
have methods.
74  R. Eaglestone

Arguments, too, are issues of accuracy: of being free from error.

Disciplines are also shaped by forms of argument, but even matters
of argument are complex in English. It is simply the case that differ-
ent disciplines have different forms of argument that they find accept-
able. While some aspects—coherency, the attempt to avoid an obvious
partiality, clarity—seem the same across the humanities (and even that
is not a given, as some in English and in philosophy have suggested:
Spivak’s ‘We know plain prose cheats’), other aspects vary. What might
count as a convincing argument in English or in History may not meet
the demands of logical argument as laid out by some versions of analytic
philosophy, or, say, legal argument. Outside of the basic forms of accu-
racy (care in quotation, lack of extreme misrepresentation), the virtue of
accuracy in English pertains not so much as accuracy to a source, but
accuracy to the correctness of standards and norms of argument, and so of
interpretation, of a community—in fact, of many linked sub-communities
within English. Indeed, for English, what determines accuracy here is
akin to what Stanley Fish named the ‘interpretive community’ (and, in
turn, akin to the idea of a ‘language game’). Accuracy, the ‘script’, and
the community that is created by and acts out that script are interwoven.
This sense that English is a subject more linked to its community than
to the object or series of objects that it studies is the principle reason why
the discipline has always been so riven by debates about its own nature.
Because it has no one object, no one methodology, its tribal rules are
even more dependent than most disciplines on what the tribe happens
to say they are at any given moment. Part of the tradition of the tribe
is precisely debate and argument about what is and is not part of that
tradition. The tradition in English consists in conflict over what English
is. There are other forms of conflict, too, which are part of the tradi-
tion: conflicts between formalism and historicism (in their many different
guises); between the aesthetic and sociological views of art; between a
sort of political engagement with the present and a position of objectiv-
ity; over intentionality and so on. Part of the tradition of English, too, is
to wrangle over these different approaches. This is all learned, and viscer-
ally experienced, during the PhD process.
This might give the impression that English is a very strict guild with
complex entry rules. In fact, we judge and come to opinions about
interpretations or ideas through a dialogue. Some views are admit-
ted (Webster is more ironical than previously thought); others denied
(Chaucer was an Italian, Shakespeare was Bacon); most are discussed,

gone over, debated at length. There is no strict universal gatekeeper.

Instead, it is the deployment of the virtues of sincerity and accuracy that
determines this: a large disciplinary degree of ‘open sincerity’. English
as a discipline is more open to new ideas (more ‘faddish’ as our col-
leagues in other disciplines sometimes sneeringly suggest) but also more
dialogic, more open, and more communicative. There are not really any
‘lone scholars’ in our subject and it is not by chance that the Modern
Language Association convention is the biggest academic gathering
in the world: it is a symptom of the communal and dialogic nature of
the discipline. This also means that our professional borders are more
porous than those of some of our colleagues in other disciplines, as we
decide, often in an inchoate way, what is and is not an acceptable inter-
pretation of a text. It is no surprise, perhaps, that feminism, postcolo-
nial, and other oppositional forms of thinking and reading thrived in
English before they took root in other disciplines: it is not only because
our subject often concerns the expression of subjectivity but because our
sometimes fractious dialogues with each other are a central part of the
subject and serve to continue to open up the canons of our reading and
our thought. It is rare, in a PhD, to discover a new text or archive: it is
common, however, to offer, in distinction to other critics, new interpre-
tations. (In work on contemporary literature, when one does often write
on a new text, it is often to put it into a wider critical and interpretive
context.) This ‘accuracy to a community’ is why, in essence, English is
a more communal subject than many others. (This is perhaps a rather
Panglossian view: interpretations are also forced through by institutional
power, of course, and by a desire to be a la mode and so on: but these
are the failures of virtue and themselves rely on the existence of virtues in
the first place.)

Sincerity, Accuracy, and Early Career Academics

How, then, do these two academic virtues, instilled through the doctoral
process and shaped into their form for English, serve as the core for tran-
sition into an academic job? These ‘deep scripts’ are not alone, of course:
other professional virtues are important too: responsibility, reliability. But
accuracy and sincerity have a special role to play in academic pedagogy.
Sincerity, believing what you say, seems central to teaching. Again,
this is less in relation to the content of one’s research and more to do
with the virtues involved in producing that contribution to knowledge.
76  R. Eaglestone

One of the difficulties in making the transition into an academic job is

that the subject knowledge created in doctoral research, almost by defi-
nition, is too narrow in its content and at too high a level to be directly
useful for undergraduate teaching. And however much universities and
senior academics talk about, for example, interdisciplinary work, a uni-
versity department mostly wants courses and teachers who are able to
offer both something new-but-recognisable (a course developed from
research on obscure humourists of the 1890s) but also something estab-
lished-and-traditional (a survey course on Victorian literature; a course
on Dickens). But sincerity underlies this because it is part of how one
teaches. Stanley Fish writes that

not only does one believe what one believes but one teaches what one
believes even if it would be easier and safer and more immediately satis-
fying to teach something else. No one ever tells a class that he will not
teach the interpretation he believed in because he thinks the interpreta-
tion to he used to believe in was better…. And since you always believe in
something, there will always be something to teach, and you will teach that
something with all the confidence and enthusiasm that attends belief, even
if you know, as I do, that the belief which gives you that something, and
gives it to you firmly, many change. (Fish 1982: 364)

More than this ‘confidence and enthusiasm’, the very experience of the
‘openness’ of sincerity is important because it is almost the essence of
the process of learning. One’s own views change, not in the sense of the
sophists, changing to match one’s argument or audience, but in the sense
that one learns and develops. In exactly the same way, one is aware that
the views of one’s students change and develop. Putting new views and
ideas to students and helping them work through these with an open
sincerity is absolutely central to teaching in higher education, certainly
in the humanities. This is why being a researcher is vital to teaching in
higher education: because researching is not only about the subject mat-
ter but about the understanding of the constant change and development
of one’s views, and in this understanding the ‘teacher’ and the ‘student’
are the same: both learning, both developing their thoughts. And with
a moment of self-reflection—trying to avoid self-delusion, of course—
the virtue of open sincerity can also effect change in one’s own teaching
practice: reflectively to weed out what does not work, refusing unthink-
ingly to teach in the way one was taught, and changing one’s ideas about

how one teaches in relation to oneself. Teaching at this level is not cen-
trally a matter of skills, tricks, or techniques: it is a matter of sincerity to
one’s ideas and oneself. This demanding, unusual, scholarly open sincer-
ity is taught first and foremost by the experience of doing a doctorate.
Sincerity, in its more conventional form, too, is important for being a
good colleague: who can trust an insincere person, after all? But here,
too, the scholarly openness is a useful virtue: to explore the other’s argu-
ments and views is central.
Accuracy is obviously important in all the aspects of teaching. In
English, as I have argued, it means helping students engage with a com-
plex, contradictory network of traditions. It means, perhaps, being very
aware of the scripts, the ‘disciplinary consciousness’, that make up the
subject. If our job is to teach students to ‘think as’ literary critics and
theorists, then accuracy to that is central. More, the virtue of accuracy,
of commitment to a community, comes to play out in odd ways. It is
widely noted that academics feel their primary identification not with
their institutions but with their disciplines, and this is especially the case
in English. Indeed, while it is their institutions that pay them and pro-
mote academics, it is the norms of the discipline, the script, that lead to
kudos in one’s field, publication, and promotion. This bifurcated loyalty
is unusual to universities, I think.
As Williams points out, the authority academics have stems from
the virtues of truthfulness. However, oddly, it is issues around author-
ity, with being ‘an authority’ that often create worries in the transition
from doctoral researcher to academic. Indeed, many academics making
this transition feel like frauds. Imbued with authority by their position,
by the expectations of the students, often having to put together lec-
tures on subjects far from their research and to speak with the author-
ity of the lecture theatre, the division between one’s inner and outer
self seems to be large. This aspect of feeling a fraud or imposter is also
weighted with issues of gender, class, race, and the other markers of
inclusion and exclusion of society at large. But for the most part, these
feelings stem from precisely the virtues of accuracy and sincerity I have
been discussing. Part of the journey of doctoral research is the discovery
of how very much one does not know, and how limited one’s resources
are: there are always people who know more than you do about particu-
lar topics. Moreover, as I suggested, part of scholarly sincerity is a con-
stant evolution of one’s views, so it is easy to recall how little one knew
only relatively recently. On top of this, part of what makes the virtues
78  R. Eaglestone

of scholarship so demanding is the constant testing of one’s views by

scholarly dialogue (which is perhaps most often disagreement, ques-
tioning, and critical review). All this leads to a form of psychic backlash:
one’s intellectual work is never finished, always and rightly open to cri-
tique and disagreement—moreover, often designed with that in mind—
and coming to terms with this sometimes leads to a sort of vainglorious
boasting but most usually to the feeling of being an imposter or fraud-
ster, especially when one has to stand up in front of students or judge
their work.
However, I think that this feeling, stemming as it does from the vir-
tues of sincerity and accuracy, may not be a bad thing, however distress-
ing it is to experience. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski writes
that a ‘modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of
being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is prob-
ably not worth reading’ (2001: 1), and this surely more widely appli-
cable. Our feeling of being a fraud, and our desire to avoid this, in our
own work, in our teaching, avoids the easier forms of self-deception
(although, of course, it can be paralysing). Furthermore, it keeps us on
our toes. And if it is seen as coming from the virtues that the doctorial
process teaches, as it does, perhaps we could come to terms with it more
easily, and see it as a function of the open sincerity and desire for accu-
racy that should rightly structure our academic roles. Perhaps if we did
not feel like frauds, we would not be doing our job properly.

The subject of this chapter has been the experience of doing a PhD and
transition into full-time academic employment. However, there are three
further issues that need to be addressed as caveats. The first is that many
people with a PhD do not become university academics. But who would
deny someone with a doctorate but no job working in higher education
membership of the tribe? People with PhDs not in university employ-
ment have, obviously, learned the same scripts and developed the same
virtues. It is clear that, in themselves, the virtues learned from a PhD do
not lead to or stem from a job: they come from the process of research.
The second issue is that being an academic in English is some-
times called a ‘vocation’ or a ‘profession’, and, while both these words

illuminate the role a little, strictly speaking it is neither. It is not a voca-

tion because, no matter how much one feels driven to further study, no
one is ‘called’ except in a metaphorical sense. It is not a profession, as
more technically understood, because there is no professional body that
guarantees the standards and norms of ability and public good, nor does
one—as barristers or accountants do—have to take an exam to enter the
profession. (Although a normative but not absolutely essential element
of what it takes to enter the ‘tribe’, even among creative practitioners,
it is the PhD). Indeed, our ‘profession’, with its professors, predates the
idea of a profession (as the founding profession, it is outside the techni-
cal definition of a profession). Unlike others, in our professing of our
profession, it is only ourselves, our community extant, before it becomes
a guild or association, which decides who is or is not a member. There is
no clear-cut rule for this ‘tribe’: an accountant who has not passed the
exams is not a chartered accountant (although they may have ‘trained
as an accountant’); a person not called to the bar is not barrister. But an
expert on Gaskell, who has written on her work, perhaps taught a lit-
tle, but is not a doctor and does not teach in a university, may clearly
be some part of our tribe, with its fuzzy borders. Again, here, it is the
virtues of sincerity and accuracy that are being recognised in this accept-
Thirdly, while this chapter has focused on work in English Literature
and theory, I am certain that the virtues of sincerity and accuracy apply
in other parts of English too. How they may be transmuted into the vital
and still expanding world of creative writing, for example, is a crucial
topic, as that part of English grows and becomes more formalised.
The aim of this chapter has been to try to show that research and
teaching are actually closer than people seem to think, as both emerge
from the same roots, the same virtues. These deep virtues are learned
through the PhD process, as is disciplinary consciousness, and when we
come to think about teaching—either in a practical or a reflective way—
we rely on the same deep virtues, rather than a more anaemic discourse
of skills. English is teaching students to ‘read as’, ‘see as’, and ‘think as’
a critic or theorist and so, perhaps, it should be done by people who
are not only ‘thinking as’ but also ‘teaching as’ a critic or theorist. This
means, surely, bringing to bear on our teaching the same care, accuracy,
and sincerity that we expend on our research.
80  R. Eaglestone

Becher, Tony, and Paul Trowler. 2001. Academic Tribes and Territories.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Evans, Colin. 1993. English People. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Fish, Stanley. 1982. Is There a Text in This Class? Harvard: Harvard University
Knights, Ben. 2005. Intelligence and Interrogation: The Identity of the English
Student. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 4 (1): 33–52.
Kołakowski, Leszek. 2001. Metaphysical Horror, ed. Agnieszka Kołakowska.
London: Penguin.
Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Williams, Bernard. 2002. Truth and Truthfulness. Oxford: Princeton University

Author Biography
Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought
at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, and a UK National Teaching
Fellow. He has written extensively on contemporary literature and philosophy,
and in Holocaust and Genocide studies. He is the author of Doing English:
A Guide for Literature Students (Routledge, 4th edition, 2017).

‘Getting in Conversation’: Teaching

African American Literature and Training
Critical Thinkers

Nicole King

C.L.R. James, the West Indian novelist, historian, activist, and politician,
was also a teacher. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he paused for a time
in his varied and peripatetic career and taught at Federal City College in
Washington, DC. A reflection on his work at FCC captures the momen-
tous historical period that changed higher education along with many
other institutions. In his essay ‘Black Studies and the Contemporary
Student’ (1969), James sets out a position that delineates his philosophy
from his own teaching practice. On the one hand, he sees the role of black
people in history as one which has been submerged and over-­ written.
As a corrective, he feels strongly that black makers of history should be
studied as part of human history, not just as makers of ‘black history’ in
other words, not just in Black Studies courses. On the other hand, he is
well aware of the times in which he was living and of the specific cam-
paigns for the creation of black studies departments in universities.

N. King (*) 
School of Literature and Languages, University of Reading, Whiteknights,
Reading RG6 6AH, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 81

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_6
82  N. King

He is sympathetic to those campaigns in their challenge to the status quo

in educational institutions. In solidarity with that struggle, James states, he
is happy to teach black history in whichever way the local, on the ground,
activists wish him to do so within the context of struggle and political agi-
tation (James 1984).1
‘Black Studies and the Contemporary Student’ is instructive for sev-
eral reasons: it takes us back to the gestation of African American and
black diaspora studies which are now, in the second decade of the
twenty-first century a staple of university curricula and are often depart-
ments in their own right, at least in the United States. Moreover, the
essay highlights a particular philosophical and pedagogical dilemma:
how best to teach ‘black studies’—as a separate or as an integrated cur-
riculum? Ultimately, James put his own political and philosophical opin-
ions to one side and aided the formation of a Black Studies department
at FCC (now known as the University of the District of Columbia, or
UDC). For the most part the United States higher education establish-
ment has followed suit: African American literature and multi-ethnic
studies of all kinds were eventually, after considerable agitation in the
1970s and 1980s, accorded specific and self-contained places at the cur-
ricular and departmental table. Fast forward to 2013 and shift focus
to the United Kingdom, to a final year module I taught on African
American literature to students for whom it was their first experience of
a module dedicated to literature written by black people of any nation-
ality. As their London-based, African American instructor I, like James,
had and still have some ambivalence about African American writers not
just being creators of ‘black’ writing and I have questions about how we
teach this literature and the unforeseen consequences of particular peda-
gogical practices.
Presented with the opportunity to teach an African American lit-
erature module after nearly a decade of only working with postgradu-
ate students and staff members, I leapt at the chance. In UK higher
education parlance, my class was an option module, a reward reserved
for advanced students. I waded in, like a seaside bather on a hot sum-
mer’s day; the texts were old friends and the 30-odd students, fellow
holiday-makers. Then a cold wave crashed over me and I lost my foot-
ing. Through an examination of my own teaching and in an attempt to
address my pedagogical ambivalence and concerns that followed on from
the actual experience of teaching the module to two cohorts, I found
myself asking an unexpected question: what exactly do I teach when I

teach African American literature? The question arose for me because of

a dual estrangement: returning to the subject after several years outside
the classroom and returning to the subject in the UK. These two forms
of estrangement enabled me to see the field and examine my own teach-
ing practice from a distinct national and professional vantage point to
that in which I first studied and taught literature. I worried that without
a US teaching context the political and historical logic for a dedicated
African American literature module would need justification and/or that
my students would not have the opportunity to see African American lit-
erature as both integral to and unique within American literature. The
political and curricular struggles of 1969 in America, as outlined in
James’s essay were a distant, virtually invisible time and place for my UK
students. The Civil Rights Movement was an era they knew by its head-
lines and superstars, but not in any fine-grained detail—and why should
they? They signed up for the module because they were interested and
wanted to learn. It became clear quite quickly that my teaching portfo-
lio relied heavily on contexts that simply were not present in my British
classroom: whilst experts in contemporary popular culture, most stu-
dents had no firm grounding in American history, the transatlantic slave
trade or, any significant prior experience with African American literature
or the notion that it might contain some volatile internal contradictions.
I knew too that this lack of contextual knowledge should not be wielded
as an excuse by the students or me, for as final year students they knew
literature and it was my task to teach them how to critically engage with
this particular area of the subject.
This essay tells the story of how I adjusted my own pedagogi-
cal approach to meet the needs of my UK students and to accommo-
date some serious pedagogical theorisation. This is what happened:
The process of alerting students to the ongoing debates within African
American literature and the scholarship about racial categorisation and
racial authenticity became the focus of my teaching. I helped students
learn aspects of the history and the distinguishing attributes of African
American literature, such as ‘signifying’ and ‘talking back’ to earlier texts.
I demonstrated ways of analysing texts from particular theoretical per-
spectives such as feminism or post-structuralism. But the core focus, the
way the literature came alive for the students, was by their gaining an
awareness and understanding of the persistent self-assessment and ques-
tioning about what race (e.g. blackness and whiteness) means in relation
to American identity and what meanings it holds in relation to literary
84  N. King

expression. The fact that these are open questions and openly debated
across generations of writers and scholars created a space for the students
to inhabit as critical thinkers engaged in scholarly debates. It relieved
them of the rather more one-dimensional role of passive learner (a role
I sometimes, inadvertently, cast them into). It also lifted the burden of
authenticity or inauthenticity—sometimes audibly framed as ‘can I say
that if I’m not black American?’—from these students’ shoulders.

Making the Implicit Explicit

The task of answering what do I teach when I teach African American lit-
erature through an explicit discussion of the internal contradictions over
what African American literature is or does and why, was not as awkward
as I expected because African American literature has a long history of
being interpolated by pedagogic issues. At key moments, such as the
period when slave narratives and fugitive slave narratives were popular,
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is a literature of persuasion
and conversion. In the early twentieth century, as exemplified by autobi-
ographies and novels such as Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery
(1901) and Jesse Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928), it is a literature
of ‘uplift’, providing direction for how the post-slavery generation could
achieve mobility through education and the acquisition of skills, while
directing the nascent middle classes to help their poorer brethren. Such
didacticism continues in later periods such as the 1960s, during the Black
Power movement, when much of the literature purports a specific brand
of cultural nationalism, as exemplified by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin
in the Sun (1959) or Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (1963). Thus, using this
pedagogical subtext in the literature as part of the work of the lecture or
seminar was one way to make the implicit explicit. It is perhaps obvious
to teachers of African American literature, although not always obvious
to students, that the classroom learning encounter mirrors and echoes
these historical processes of conversion and persuasion. To make such
mirroring explicit, to provide students with an opportunity to read and
evaluate allegories of teaching and learning in the literature in parallel to
their own experience, eliciting as it does so analogous processes of anger,
hope, anxiety, and beliefs in justice, can be understood as a productive
offshoot of experiential or embodied learning in which students experi-
ence an aspect of what they are studying. Using allegories of teaching
and learning in the texts along with encouraging students to reflect on

the hierarchy and flow of information and experiences they had as stu-
dents in our classroom became another way of helping them to develop
as critical thinkers. Like the Brazilian peasants in educational projects,
of whom Paolo Freire states, ‘Almost never do they realize that they
too, “know things” they have learned in their relations with the world
and with other women and men’ (45), students’ copious knowledge
and experience of systems of education can be brought to bear on the
various expressive registers to be found within African American litera-
ture, including how passive or conventional subject positions (variously
defined) as well as hegemonic structures are reproduced and resisted.
This was a useful reminder to my students who sometimes keenly felt
how much more of African American literature there was to learn.
Precisely because I could not draw upon a cultural and national short-
hand that would have been reliably available in a US classroom, I realised
that an explicit theorisation of African American literature was required
as an intrinsic element of the theorisation of my pedagogical practice.
These theorisations took shape slowly. By reflecting on what I wanted
these students to know and be able to do when I was no longer their
teacher, I was able to recalibrate what I said and what we did together
in class. When we show students that there is not one view or one way
of reading African American literature, when we show them how knowl-
edge is contingent and also evolving, when we teach them to grasp the
concept that African American literature simultaneously has a canon, a
history, and an unfinished identity we transfer a complex set of ideas to
them whilst conveying the complexity of the literature. As a bonus, stu-
dents will likely be able to use these ideas to critically engage with other
literatures and non-literary texts even as they bring their critical acumen
acquired on other modules to bear upon African American literature.
Like James, I felt it important that my students understood that African
American writers are not just writers of African American literature. By
making the internal contradictions within African American literature
explicit to my students and by giving them the means to discuss, analyse,
and theorise about these contradictions I was also able to help them to
develop their skills of critical engagement and to situate themselves within
the work of critical engagement. It was a means of helping them to see
themselves as part of what Gerald Graff calls ‘real conversations’ about
literature that enable students to find meaning in their assignments, and
possibly even reduce the cynicism some may have about assessments
(Graff 2009: 11).
86  N. King

Importantly, adopting such classroom practices militated against my

students’ more comfortable experience of African American literature as
a closed and knowable body of knowledge. Faced with the imperatives of
a single module—the only sustained encounter these students had with
the study of African American literature—how and what I taught (inten-
tionally and unintentionally) and how and what my students learned
raised significant, ongoing pedagogical questions to address through
practice. I began to see that my responsibility as a teacher was to create
opportunities to reflect with my students on the nature of the teacher/
student relationship, the seduction of power and the seduction of being
a passive learner, and to do so in the context of our study of African
American literature. Indeed, African American literature, containing as it
does a deep thematic vein of literacy and of learning to read between
the lines of literal and figurative texts—from spirituals to purloined let-
ters of manumission to dissembling and subversive performances in the
face of white power—imbues the study of the allegory of teaching and
learning with a particular resonance. I began to highlight this thematic
to my students through a discussion of various internal debates within
African American literature, beginning with the question of whether
there is such a thing as African American, or Negro literature and mov-
ing on to the use of allegories of teaching and learning as a means for
students themselves to read and explicitly discuss the implicit debates and
pedagogical transactions to be found within the texts.

Teaching African American Literature

Why should Negro artists of America vary from the national artistic form
when Negro artists in other countries have not done so? (Schuyler 1924: 27)

Writing in response to the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s, novel-

ist, critic, and satirist George Schuyler argues that Negro art, including lit-
erature, is both a misnomer and an impossibility. He claims that particular
characteristics of Negro art that others point to, people he terms ‘negro-
phobists’, evidence a strong connection to rather than separation from
other regional American art and that this ‘shows more or less evidence of
European influence’ (25). Rather than herald as special certain characteris-
tics of Negro art, Schuyler sees such attention to difference as dangerous,
because the Negro had always been singled out not just as fundamentally

different from the white European but also as inferior. Whether in celebra-
tion or denigration, Schuyler finds the reasoning of racial difference both
weak and dangerous. What Schuyler would make of modules devoted to
African American literature is easy to surmise but the points he makes and
similar debates within African American literature about its purpose and
definition are fantastic texts to use in the classroom alongside works of
fiction. Posing provocative questions to students such as ‘is it still useful
to designate some literature as African American?’ (Warren 2011) or, as
Schuyler might have asked, ‘do students and scholars of African American
literature tread a problematic racial separatist line?’ can help engage stu-
dents in the themes and struggles which continue to animate the field of
African American literature. For when we are pious or apprehensive about
discussing that which is controversial we risk presenting students with a
sanitised, or worse, a falsely monolithic literary history. We also submerge
our teacherly complicity in maintaining African American literature as sepa-
rate—we do this for a variety of reasons and in theoretically informed ways,
but how do our students know that? Indeed, one cannot assume that stu-
dents know or even care about the struggles to ‘diversify’ literature cur-
riculums and university syllabi. Thus, it is far better to name the issues and
tensions that bind us together in our classroom activities, and connect such
tensions and points of divergence to the work of the module, rather than
elide such tensions altogether. Indeed, students ‘may have no idea that dis-
senting views exist’ (Graff 2009: 11). In the case of African American lit-
erature those dissenting views are often expressed most provocatively by
other African American writers and scholars of the field. The criticism and
theory that has developed within and alongside African American literature
provides a rich array of viewpoints from which students can first imagine
and then develop their own arguments and viewpoints in order to partici-
pate in class discussion and write essays that have both skill and relevance.
For instance, such an explicit engagement with the debates about the lit-
erature can enliven students’ aesthetic and theoretical appreciation of the
literature of racial passing or literature that encompasses political satire, like
Schuyler’s own novel Black No More (1931).
The teacher of African American literature has many such debates to
choose from. For instance, the debate over theory between Joyce Ann
Joyce, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston Baker, Jr. in the 1980s.2 Or,
the arguments voiced during the 1920s and 1930s regarding the use of a
stylised Negro dialect, whether literature must always have an overt polit-
ical message, and for whom the Negro writer should be writing.3 Using
88  N. King

such debates and arguments, indeed tasking students with researching and
analysing these arguments allows them to construct their own knowl-
edge both individually and in conversation with their peers rather than
just mirroring or mimicking the teacher’s opinion. Vygotsky named this
mode of learning ‘zones of proximal development’ and it is useful to the
project of decentring authority in the classroom.
In addition to constructing the syllabus so that debate and dissent
around what constitutes African American literature and how its aes-
thetic and political attributes have been formulated, assessments, whether
essays, oral presentations, or exams, should also require an e­ ngagement
with multiple viewpoints. By modelling debates in my lectures and
drawing attention to how and where novelists are implicitly engag-
ing in debates my goal was to convey to students that a heterogeneous
approach is most true to the literature itself. Nonetheless, even when class
discussions were attuned to multiple perspectives, in their writing stu-
dents sometimes feel compelled to make generalised statements about,
for instance, ‘the’ black community as singular and unified. I think this
stemmed from a belief that such assertions would signal a type of mas-
tery and comprehension of the course materials. To try to counteract that
impulse I found that returning to close readings of the literature itself
worked effectively: Ann Petry’s diverse representations of women in
The Street (1946), the multiple black communities (and interracial com-
munities) that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) moves through,
James Baldwin’s multiple representations of masculinity in ‘Going to
Meet the Man’ (1965) are all pertinent examples to use in the class-
room. The literature theorises heterogeneity and the debates and schol-
arship that take African American literature as their subject carry that
theorisation forward. By explicitly connecting teaching practice to the
themes highlighted in the literature itself, I saw how the process of schol-
arly writing and scholarly argument could feel more holistic to students
and therefore less alien. The more complex task was getting students to
consider the dialectic of authenticity that runs as argument and counter-
argument through the literature and through its surrounding scholarship
and criticism: the drive of characters or plot to find belonging or a singu-
lar cohesive identity as a black American is continually foiled by authors
keen to simultaneously free the concept of ‘blackness’ from the confines
of homogeneity. For example, Richard Wright’s protagonist in Native
Son (1940) easily slots into prevailing racist stereotypes. Yet, unexpect-
edly and at a high-tension moment of the narrative, Wright substitutes a

pen for a knife in Bigger Thomas’s hand, transforming the character into
an author and someone who wields power through intellect rather than
violence (Johnson 1993: 150). Within that small but significant textual
act, Wright destabilises the reader’s notion of an ‘authentic’ depiction of
a disenfranchised black youth caught in the web of racial hatred and fear.

Productive Marginality
The example from Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is useful for get-
ting students to read texts for the oblique, the tangential, and not just
for plot, to uncover the implicit as well as to review and consider the
explicit. It also makes them attentive to the craft of writing, and can help
dislodge the impulse to read all African American writing as autobio-
graphical and to understand how authors such as Wright practiced their
writing, read widely, and drafted their work, in much the same way the
students themselves are expected to do. Observing how authors of the
African American experience use and theorise margins and use ambiguity
is one way to get students attuned to the oblique rather than the obvious
in texts. Gloria Anzaldua speaks to such practice in her discourse on ‘a
new mestiza consciousness’ in reference to the specificities of Chicano/
Chicana cultural formations. Building on Freire, we can extrapolate
a useful pedagogical meaning from Anzaldua’s suggestion that the
development of a new consciousness able to elide a reductive, closed
oppressor/oppressed formulation, requires a ‘tolerance for ambiguity’
(101). Such tolerance is especially important for the student of African
American literature: the recurrent themes of black/white racial antago-
nism, and the struggle against oppression and discrimination are among
the dichotomies that students find readily accessible and consequently
latch onto, without necessarily observing other more complicated struc-
tures within texts. The greater challenge for students is to develop the
critical consciousness to accommodate, understand, and evaluate the
contradictory representations of intra-racial discord, class conflict, and
the ambiguous notions of identity as represented in African American lit-
erature. By alerting them to ambiguity whilst also teaching them how
African American literature uses the concept of productive marginality to
interfere with closed and reductive formulations is a good place to begin.
In my teaching and as I reflected on it, I suggested to my students
the perspectival advantage of reading the implicit as well as the explicit,
reading and interpreting the centre as well as the boundary. Recalling her
90  N. King

Kentucky childhood in the era of Jim Crow, feminist theorist bell hooks
speaks of developing a particular way of seeing that I tried to pass on to
my students:

We focused our attention on the centre as well as the margin. We under-

stood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole
universe, a main body made up of both margin and centre. Our survival
depended on an ongoing public awareness of the separation between mar-
gin and centre and an ongoing private acknowledgement that we were a
necessary, vital part of the whole. (Hooks 1984: xvi)

The margin/centre formulation, well-worn though it is, proved expedi-

ent given the constraints of my module and my over-arching pedagogical
concerns. The dialectic of margin and centre helped to situate African
American literature within American literature, especially in terms of
emphasising the centrality of black people and culture to formulations
of American identity (Morrison 1992). My students were also able to see
(and apply) how a vantage point on or at the margin can be a dynamic
and powerful position from which to critique the centre. They also
understood this in terms of their own status as students, as young peo-
ple, and often as ethnic minorities.
My classroom experience revealed how the central concerns of African
American literature—theorisations of individual, group, national, and
regional identity—find productive refraction within the very relation-
ships we forge in our classrooms, as students and teachers (Baillie 2011;
Carroll 2008). In both the literature and in our classrooms, such theo-
risations of identity, and authenticity in particular, highlight m­ utability,
elasticity, and multiplicity alongside stereotype, boundaries, and ­hierarchy.
Rachel Carroll writes:

The identifications and appropriations which are at work in a pedagogic

situation—between tutor, student and subject matter—are as complex,
contingent and contradictory as the identities of its subjects. The student
of African American writing, and its contribution to a historic struggle for
liberty and equality, can inspire impassioned student engagement. Such
identification can be both problematic and productive … the provisional
and imaginative occupation of the space of a historical and cultural ‘other’
can effect meaningful estrangement from one’s own lived identity. The
pedagogic situation is … a performative space. (Carroll 2008: 141–142)

Carroll captures the parallels between what happens in the texts and
what happens in our classrooms, in particular the complexity of our
shared enterprise and how it might be read. In identifying another strand
of meaningful estrangement, Carroll highlights other ways students
might engage with African American literature in modes they are perhaps
initially unaware of but which themselves suggest productive teaching
The theorisation of race and racial identification as narrated within
African American literature foregrounds inherent contradictions and
the performance of othering and authenticity. I have found that how we
identify and discuss such controversial moments in our classrooms is use-
ful and productive. This is especially true when othering or manifesta-
tions of estrangement mirror the diverse experiences students may have
as they are reading the texts: in addition to the identification with the
other that Carroll describes, the pedagogic situation occasioned by the
study of African American literature may instil a sense of inauthenticity
in students. This too can be problematic and can lead to self-silencing
or a reluctance to speak about or on behalf of the perceived ‘other’.
Fortunately, the idea of authenticity and being or not being ‘black
enough’ is a recurrent theme in the literature that, in parallel with alle-
gories of teaching and learning, are ideal materials to present for class
­discussion. Such discussions help students to learn and question their
own presumptions about racial and cultural identities in general and spe-
cifically representations of African American culture in literature.

The Idea of Authenticity

As Marlon Riggs depicts brilliantly in his documentary film Black Is,

Black Ain’t (1995) identities are hybrid and multiple and defining what
black is or is not is constantly foxed by the overlapping of age, gender,
sexuality, geographical location, and class. All militate against singularity
and notions of authenticity that align themselves to purity of any sort.
In the context of black American literature, in addition to grasping the
contrarian nature of defining blackness, students can observe how this
theme parallels the broader social and cultural definitions of blackness as
they shift across historical periods, such as the quest for creative expres-
sion, full citizenship, and equal rights. Slave narratives, novels and essays
from the Harlem Renaissance, and fiction and non-fiction of the post-
Civil Rights period all participate in defining different types of authentic
92  N. King

blackness. For many of the literature’s greatest scholars and producers,

naming or representing an authentic blackness has been part of a larger
project of defining the particularities of black American literature and
culture, Schuyler’s position notwithstanding, and proclaiming its distinc-
tive attributes alongside its universal, humanist elements.4
African American authenticity narratives balance the demonstration of
racial authenticity with the assertion of authenticity as flexible and open
to debate. In addressing the racial authenticity of a protagonist or oth-
erwise pontificating upon how racial authenticity might be ascertained,
the notion of truth or discoverability drives these narratives forward.
This propulsion manifests itself in a variety of ways that are accessible to
students including form, theme, and characterisation. Slave narratives,
especially those written during the height of the abolitionist movement
(1830s–1860s), are particularly useful in helping students understand
how authenticity works at the formal level because they were intended
to appeal to specific audiences. As Valerie Smith remarks, such narratives
‘are shaped according to the requirements of the abolitionists who pub-
lished them and provided them with readers’, thereby maximising the
sales and readership numbers (Smith 1987: 9–10). Thus, one topic of
class discussion might be the marketing of slave narratives as authentic
as a way of influencing Northern voters to oppose slavery. Another topic
might highlight the authenticating documents from respected Anglo-
Americans that served as introductions or conclusions to slave narratives
and were part of their accepted format. For instance, leading abolitionist,
William Lloyd Garrison, introduces Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself (1845).
Garrison’s text is not only integral to the presentation of Douglass’s
autobiography, together they assert authenticity on multiple levels. The
authenticating documents, the editorial arrangements and, when narra-
tives were transcribed on behalf of ex- or fugitive slaves, all contribute to
what Smith calls the ‘panoply of other voices’ that prevent the interpre-
tation of slave narratives as a single truth of a singular individual (Smith
1987: 11). As texts they help students relinquish the notion of authentic-
ity as a fixed position and introduce the idea of how first-person narra-
tors in African American literature enact a political and creative ambition
to represent the individual and the collective of enslaved Americans.
Students might find such duality familiar in terms of their own responsi-
bilities in the literature classroom. They are often expected to speak and
perform as individuals and as members of a group. Part of their initiation

into their roles as students is discovering and defining their own sense
of an authentic voice and then playing with that authenticity. In other
words, learning how to adjust and align their responses and their perfor-
mances appropriately in seminar discussion, in group work, and within
their essays and exams.

Using the Moments of Destabilisation to Teach

The critical literary discourse which attaches to the creation and inter-
pretation of authentic blackness has been analysed by J. Martin Favor
as helpful yet limiting to how one might read African American litera-
ture (3). I am less concerned with the choices about what is and is not
authentic that individual writers or critics might make and more inter-
ested in the pedagogical opportunities the discourse presents. Favor
highlights how some authors, including Schuyler, ask ‘pointed questions
about the underlying ideologies of “race”’ and as such present ‘a some-
times playful, sometimes disturbing destabilisation of the black subject’
(Favor 1999: 3–4). Such moments of destabilisation are the ones to use
in the classroom to help students build meaningful arguments about the
texts. The discourse of literary blackness and its destabilisation arises fre-
quently within allegories of teaching and learning. For example, Toni
Morrison recalibrates the reader’s notion of femininity and knowledge in
an exchange between Pilate, Guitar, and Milkman, in the second chapter
of her novel Song of Solomon (1977). It is a passage that students find
both funny and enlightening, once they are directed to pay close atten-
tion to it. An informal teacher who nevertheless is forthright with her
‘pupils’, Pilate’s mode of questioning and answering is as alien and there-
fore destabilising to Milkman and Guitar as our own students might find
us (Morrison 1977: 37–38).
One could go further and frame questions around the nomenclature
of African American literature and seek out those moments in texts that
make it possible (and critical) for the reader to distinguish between the
idea that there is a knowable racial authenticity and the literary and polit-
ical imperative to appear to be authentic. The racial logic of the United
States ingrains the former upon the national psyche whilst the latter is
a peculiarly durable topic across the African American literary canon.
Collectively, the instructor can use these topics and conversations within
texts to help students to make the connection between the literature, the
criticism, the historical contexts, and the wider cultural contexts—and to
94  N. King

their own experience as readers. In Percival Everett’s 2002 satirical novel

Erasure, the protagonist narrator, Thelonius Ellison, is phenotypically
black and an author of dense, avant-garde novels that have nothing to do
with the so-called African American experience (1–2). From the outset,
Everett plays with the reader’s expectations of African American identity
and African American literature, positing both as simultaneously open
and closed systems subject to manipulation and extreme contradiction.
The meta-textual aspects of Erasure enable students (and their lecturers)
to critically assess notions of ‘race’ and black racial authenticity within
the context of studying (so-called) African American literature. The
notion, from Derrida (1967), of a concept under erasure is an appropri-
ate apparatus for such discussions, as Everett is only too aware. Students
can also be directed to consider who the author and who the protagonist
presume they are addressing given the declamatory mode of much of the
novel: who is teaching, who is learning?

In my introduction I spoke of engaging students in the literary and criti-
cal debates within African American literature as a way to lift them out of
the passive learner role and also to deny any assertion that there need be
an authentic identity that authorises speech regarding African American
literature. Roof and Weigman pose the question ‘who can speak?’ as a
way of interrogating academic authority and critical identity. Their com-
ments from 1995 are still relevant and, I would assert, need to inform
twenty-first century classrooms not least because of the way students are
potentially unaware of how they came to be reading something called
African American literature. Roof and Weigman address this as the prob-
lematic of the ‘minoritized subject’:

Too often the minoritized subject who has sought to speak from the speci-
ficity of its cultural position has been recontained through a new, deafen-
ing ‘authenticity,’ one that disturbingly reduces the complexity of social
subjectivity. (Roof and Weigman 1995: x)

They go on to make the point, that ‘speech founded on representativity

as “minority speech” is more often an authorized guarantee for contin-
ued, albeit newly visible, social subordination’ (x). The fear of such social

subordination echoes Schuyler’s warnings regarding the false assertion of

a peculiar Negro art and recalls James’s dilemma at UDC.
In both years that I taught my module I wanted my students to gain
an understanding of the postmodern qualities inherent within African
American literature. I hoped to foster in them a reflexive questioning of
knowable identities and a passionate curiosity about the ‘shifting syntax
and vocabulary’ of blackness (Lyotard 1986: 74). The difficulty is and
remains that this unstable syntax and vocabulary exists in the literature
in paradoxical symmetry with grand narrative structures. In other words,
there was something about both the texts and aspects of my own teach-
ing practice that created a seemingly safe space for some students to
relax back onto the soft furnishings of singular and monolithic notions
of blackness as either authentic or inauthentic. My counterbalance to
such effects, situated within my ongoing project of making the implicit
explicit while attending to discourses and theorisations of authenticity,
was and is to move the paradox and dialectics of African American litera-
ture to the front of the classroom, for full and continuous engagement.
Asking what we teach when we teach African American literature can
feel like a reactionary and dangerous question, but the occasion of asking
allowed a different type of teaching and learning encounter to evolve.
My purpose in asking the question was not to question the usefulness
or value of the literature but rather to interrogate the practice of teach-
ing and determine how such questioning can itself inform and potentially
improve student learning and how students assimilate the processes of
learning. Martin Heidegger, in What is Called Thinking, encapsulates the
dilemma I could not precisely name when I returned to undergraduate
teaching a few years ago:

Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is
this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than
learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we
properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly under-
stand the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his
apprentices in this alone, that he still has far more to learn than they—he
has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more
teachable than the apprentices … if the relation between the teacher and the
taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of
the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. (Heidegger 1976: 15)
96  N. King

Where I asserted myself, through copious PowerPoints and what could

be considered insider knowledge regarding ‘the’ African American expe-
rience, I succeeded in deadening my students’ curiosity some of the time.
Where I posed questions and presented the internal debates that animate
African American literature I helped my students to be more active learn-
ers, to develop as critical thinkers, and I was able to learn alongside them
and from them. This theorised approach to racial identity and pedagogy
opened a space for my students and me to, like Janie Crawford in Their
Eyes Were Watching God (1937), ‘get into conversation’.

1. I would like to thank my African American literature students whom I
taught in 2013 and 2014 and whom I reference in this chapter. I would
also like to thank Ben Knights for his guidance and patience as I prepared
this chapter.
2. The various essays of the debate between Joyce, Gates, and Baker were
collected in the Winter (1987) issue of New Literary History. See Joyce
A. Joyce ‘The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary
Criticism’; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘“What’s Love Got to Do with It?”:
Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom’; Houston A. Baker, Jr. ‘In
Dubious Battle’; and Joyce A. Joyce ‘“Who the Cap Fit”: Unconsciousness
and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’
3. See for instance, W.E.B. Du Bois ‘The Criteria for Negro Art’ (1926);
Langston Hughes ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1923);
and Richard Wright ‘Blueprint for Negro Writing’ (1937).
4. Representative texts include The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois,
The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes, Passing and Quicksand by
Nella Larsen, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, Brown Girl,
Brownstone by Paule Marshall, and The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis
Gates, Jr.

Anzaldua, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San
Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Baillie, Justine. 2011. From Margin to Centre: Postcolonial Identities and Barack
Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Life Writing 8 (3): 317–329.
Baker, Jr., and Houston A. 1987. In Dubious Battle. New Literary History 18
(Winter): 363–369.

Carroll, Rachel. 2008. Invisible Men: Reading African American Masculinity.

In Masculinities in Texts and Teaching, ed. Ben Knights, 141–154. London:
Palgrave Macmillan.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1926. The Criteria for Negro Art. The Crisis 32: 290–297.
Everett, Percival. 2001. Erasure. New York: Hyperion.
Freire, Paolo. 1970. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.
Gates, Jr, and Henry Louis. 1987. “What’s Love Got to Do with it?”: Critical
Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom. New Literary History 18: 345–362.
Graff, Gerald. 2009. The Unbearable Pointlessness of Literature Writing
Assignments. The Common Review 8 (2): 6–12.
Heidegger, Martin. 1976. What is Called Thinking? A Translation of Was Heisst
Denken? With an Introduction by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Perennial.
Hooks, Bell. 2000/1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed.
Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Hughes, Langston. 1923. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The
Nation (June): 692–694.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1986/1937. Their Eyes Were Watching God. London:
James, C.L.R. 1984. Black Studies and the Contemporary Student (1969). In At
the Rendezvous of Victory, ed. C.L.R. James, 186–201. London: Allison & Busby.
Johnson, Barbara. 1993. The Re(a)d and the Black. In Richard Wright: Critical
Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., and K.A. Appiah,
149–155. New York: Amistad.
Joyce, Joyce A. 1987a. The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American
Literary Criticism. New Literary History 18: 335–344.
Joyce, Joyce A. 1987b. “Who the Cap Fit”: Unconsciousness and
Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. New Literary History 18: 371–383.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1986. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester:
Manchester UP.
Martin Favor, J. 1999. Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro
Renaissance. North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1978/1977. Song of Solomon. Great Britain: Chatto and
Roof, Judith, and Robyn Weigman (eds.). 1995. Who Can Speak? Authority and
Critical Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, Valerie. 1987. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
98  N. King

Schuyler, George S. 2000/1926. The Negro Art Hokum. In African American

Literary Theory, ed. Winston Napier, 24–26. New York: New York University
Warren, Kenneth. 2011. What Was African American Literature?. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Wright, Richard. 1937. Blueprint for Negro Writing. New Challenge 11: 53–65.
Wright, Richard. 1993/1940. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins.

Author Biography
Nicole King was, until recently, a lecturer at the University of Reading UK,
and Director of Teaching and Learning for the School of Literature and
Languages. She is now Lecturer in American Literature at Goldsmiths, University
of London. Previously, she was Discipline Lead for English at the UK Higher
Education Academy. She has taught at the University of California at San
Diego, and is the author of C.L.R. James and Creolization: Circles of Influence
(University of Mississippi Press, 2001).

Beyond the Essay? Assessment and English


Jonathan Gibson

How can the academic progress of English Literature students best be

‘assessed’?1 As the title of this book makes clear, the study of literature is
dialogic, involving, at its best, rich overlapping conversations between stu-
dents, the literature they read, and the teachers they meet. Assessment can
enter into these conversations in many different ways and in many different
guises.2 Part of the aim of this chapter is to celebrate the creativity with
which departments of English in UK higher education are devising exciting
new module-specific assessment tasks.3 To explain the value of such ‘inno-
vative’ approaches to assessment, however, I must also discuss the deep
but tortured relationship between English Studies and the essay, still—for
excellent reasons—our overwhelmingly dominant assessment method.4
Set and marked well, as we all know, essays can be exceptionally pow-
erful pedagogic tools. The qualities they demand of undergraduates—
pre-eminently the ability to construct an interesting, fresh argument and
sustain it at length—are unlikely to go out of fashion. I will not suggest
their abolition: rather I will advocate a flexible approach to assessment
design and provide some prompts designed to help lecturers match up

J. Gibson (*) 
Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 99

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_7
100  J. Gibson

what they want students to do in their modules with a variety of different

assessment methods. To get students to write better essays, I will sug-
gest, we could do worse than, paradoxically, set fewer essays: deployment
of a more varied range of assessment tasks can help students to work, if
not necessarily ‘beyond the essay’, then at least ‘towards’, ‘through’, and
‘with’ it.
Essays come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In what follows, I use the
word ‘essay’ to refer to four variant forms, each of which demands that
the student mount and sustain an argument at some length:

1. timed essays (for example, in exams);

2. coursework essays (submitted, for example, as part of a process of
‘continual assessment’);
3. long essays or ‘dissertations’;
4. oral presentations in class, in which students are required to sustain
an argument about a text or theme.5

In Peter Womack’s words, ‘The essay is, so to speak, the default genre
for student writing. Other forms may come into play to meet special
requirements, or as a result of inventiveness on the part of the tutor or
student; but if no such exceptional factors apply, everyone returns, as if
by a common homing instinct, to setting, writing and marking essays’
(Womack 1993: 43). The most widespread innovation in the assessment
of English over the last 50 years—the shift away from exams towards
continual assessment—represents a move from one kind of essay to
another. More recently, the seismic shifts in the discipline’s content since
the 1980s—the incorporation into English degrees of literary theory and
the extension of the canon—seem to have left the centrality of the essay
The essay’s dominance still leaps out from any trawl of English depart-
ment websites: modules frequently combine more than one essay-type
assessment (often, exams and coursework, each counting as about half
of the module mark). An interplay between different types of essay-
based assessment, with a leavening of other types of assessment thrown
in, remains the typical pattern. A snapshot of the developing relationship
between essays and other forms of assessment is provided by in the shift
in emphasis between the first and second versions of the English bench-
mark statement (QAA 2001) and the second (QAA 2007).6 Having listed
a range of key skills, the authors of the earlier statement say: ‘In order to

develop and demonstrate the skills identified above, to engage in informed

written debate and to present ideas in a sustained discursive form, English
students should be required to write essays as a fundamental part of their
learning experience’. In the 2007 rewrite, whilst the first part of the sen-
tence remains the same, the final requirement changes: instead of essay-
writing, the expectation is that students ‘engage in informed written
analysis and … present ideas in a sustained discursive form’ (QAA 2007: 6).
The features that make essays compelling for our discipline are also
those that make them a challenge to twenty-first century educational the-
ory and practice. Although constituting a genre whose raison d’etre is to
be assessable, they are notoriously hard to pin down: the difficulty of anal-
ysis and ‘marking’ or ‘grading’ has a mystical quality that withers when
exposed to the light (‘I know when a student’s writing is not A quality,
but I have no satisfactory explanation why’, a university English teacher
gaily admits [Weatherford 2004: 495]). The other side of this coin is
the difficulty of devising assessment criteria, or of specifying in advance
what good, middling, and bad essays might look like. The essay’s appeal
of the genre for English lecturers has always been its flexibility, its capac-
ity for complexity and nuance—something that has been found congenial
by literary critics of every ideological stripe.7 The fact that the essay has
no particular implied reader and, in English Studies, no rigidly prescribed
structure, means that in theory it is open to intelligent exploitation by
the best students. Such openness is linked to the high valuation English
places on student originality and independence. From the first year of a
BA degree onwards, says the Benchmark, ‘Students should be given the
opportunity to pursue original thought and ideas, and encouraged to
question received opinion’ (QAA 2007: 6). The flexibility and vagueness
of the essay is a perfect match for such aspirations. Literary texts are exe-
getically inexhaustible, cultural forms can always be analysed in different
ways, from different angles, in different voices. Moreover, English likes to
think of itself as an antinomian sort of a subject, constantly kicking over
the traces: according to Thomas Docherty, English ‘above all [other sub-
jects]’ occupies ‘the terrain of mediation, of deferral and an unreality, a
reality that has been or is about-to-be’ (Docherty 2007: 23).
The flexibility of the essay, on the face of it, gives undergraduates an
excellent way to develop intellectual independence. The essay certainly
provides an intellectually independent student with a hospitable context
within which to explore her or his ideas and thus demonstrate intellec-
tual independence to markers. But is the essay the best assessment tool to
102  J. Gibson

use to help students who are not critically independent to move towards
that happy state? The essay is—potentially—an excellent ‘summative’ tool
for testing students’ ability to develop extended original arguments. It is,
though, perhaps a less than ideal instrument for performing another key
role in assessment: the ‘formative’ nudging of students towards greater
achievement. This was perhaps not always the case. Shifts in higher edu-
cation over the past 2 decades have made it increasingly difficult for lec-
turers to use the essay formatively. Arguably, ‘traditional’ essay-based
pedagogy was dependent on a set of circumstances that no longer obtain:

• very small tutor-led seminar groups;

• automatic and lengthy one-to-one tutorial feedback on essays;
• first-year undergraduates already au fait with the conventions of aca-
demic essay-writing;
• circumstantial limitations on the opportunities for plagiarism;
• long, unmodularised courses the only summative assessment for
which is an end-of-year exam—all other assessments for which are
therefore formative and, potentially, developmental;
• lecturers not hidebound by the need to maximise their research

At least theoretically, these factors made possible (and perhaps, in some

institutional settings, still do), a close, pastoral collaboration between
tutor and student: ideally, a freeform, continuous dialogue allowing the
student to try out and develop her own ideas and, simultaneously, her
writing skills.8 Intellectual collaboration of this sort might—in an ideal
world—have been a good preparation for the ‘joined-up’ thinking and
problem-solving characteristic of ‘deep learning’.9 For many reasons, this
situation is no longer dominant in UK Higher Education. Genuinely
‘small’ groups are still taught in a very few English departments, whilst
groups in double figures, for reasons of economics, are the standard
everywhere else. Automatic one-to-one essay feedback is, likewise, not
universal. ‘Widening participation’ drives, meanwhile, and the shift in
the UK to a ‘mass’ higher education system, mean that many of today’s
undergraduates enter university with expectations and skills very differ-
ent from those brought into higher education by students 30 years ago.
For a variety of reasons, students from socioeconomic groups previously
under-represented in universities tend to find the process of adapting
to higher education problematic.10 A levels have given less opportunity

than was available in the past for students to hone essay-writing skills.
As a result, the proportion of students who find the academic culture
of essay-writing problematic and alienating seems to have risen (Davies
et al. 2006). Often, students attend a university or college near their
home—and stay at home (or work) when not in the seminar-room, a
situation less likely to build student commitment to the intellectual life
of their university and department. Plagiarism of essays is now, thanks
in part to the rise of the internet, easier than ever before.11 Modularised
courses are now the norm, and where English departments set end-of-
year unseen exams they are nearly always complemented by coursework
of some kind. More assessments done over the course of the module
now tend to count towards the final mark; there is less purely ‘forma-
tive’ assessment.12 The Research Assessment Exercise has meant that, for
many lecturers, teaching time has been squeezed by the need to produce
high-quality research. Less time is available to help individual students
develop a sense of being ‘at home’ in the discipline.
In other words, the openness of the essay form—its strength—is now
also its weakness. ‘Scaffolding’ that was (albeit in a piecemeal way) avail-
able to higher education in the past in the form of long-term, small-scale
pastoral support must now be provided from another source. Non-
subject-specific instruction in essay-writing technique can only go part
of the way to solving the problem (Davies et al. 2006; Lillis 2001). As
things stand, over-dependence on the essay can push students towards
‘surface’ learning, and thus lead to undigested, badly constructed work.
In the traditional model, formative assessment—a succession of ‘prac-
tice’ essays—is incorporated into the dialogue and plays a crucial role in
the development of ‘deep learning’ and the students’ construction of
their own knowledge. Whilst formative assessment, then, is at the heart
of the process, summative assessment is restricted to a single high-stakes
examination at the end of the course. Testing the aptitudes developed
during the formative phase of the course afterwards with this all-or-noth-
ing ordeal has something mad about it, as the first Professor of English
at Oxford, Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh wryly registered in ‘Some
Thoughts on Examinations’:
‘No instrument smaller than the World is fit to measure men and
women: Examinations measure Examinees’ (Raleigh 1923: 120). As
John Hodgson reports, there are eerie similarities between this, ‘tradi-
tional’ examination system and the use of essays as high-stakes assess-
ment tools at the end of modules:
104  J. Gibson

It appears that the marking of a coursework essay has taken on the judg-
mental power  of examinations, ‘where the man was weighed [/] As in the
balance!’… It is unlikely that the proponents of examination reform in the
1960s, 1970s and 1980s foresaw these consequences when they argued for
coursework assessment as an alternative or complement to ‘sudden death’
examinations. (Hodgson 2010: 27)

The changing circumstances of higher education mean that more ‘self-

sufficient’ forms of assessment will be needed that demand less intensive
pastoral support. If such assessment tasks are to work, they need to be
designed with student needs at their heart. Because students (naturally
enough) adapt their work patterns to fit in with assessment requirements,
the lecturer’s choice of assessment method is a crucial means of get-
ting students to ‘engage’ with a topic in the way or ways in which she
or he wants: it is at the heart of what we as lecturers hope to achieve.
Current academic practice dictates that assessment must be matched to
student needs by first detailing in advance the things that a module aims
to get its students to do (in learning outcomes and assessment criteria),
and only then designing assessment strategy and module teaching. ‘The
logic is stunningly obvious’, say the advocates of this method: ‘say what
you want students to be able to do, teach them to do it and then see if
they can, in fact, do it’ (Biggs and Tang 2011: 206). Such ‘construc-
tive alignment’ does not always come easily for lecturers in English who
have always been wary of specifying in advance exactly what they expect
their students to learn.13 The requirement to construct detailed learning
outcomes is sometimes felt to be a bureaucratic ‘box-ticking’ exercise,
an invasive piece of institutionalised surveillance, rather than as a valu-
able aspect of pedagogic planning.14 The language of learning outcomes
and the associated language of skills is viewed as an inhibiting, artificial
attempt to put limits on an open-ended organic process of intellectual
and personal exploration. Thus, much of the opposition of English lec-
turers to learning outcomes, ‘constructive alignment’, and, more gener-
ally, to what is sometimes referred to as ‘the audit culture’ is implicitly an
assertion of the importance of critical independence in undergraduates
and of the essay’s flexibility. The feeling is that the language of learn-
ing outcomes seeks to artificially pin down—and hence constrain—the
free play of the conversation between lecturer and student, and that as a
result critical independence will be harder for the student to aspire to. As

Sally Mitchell says, ‘it is fundamentally not possible to devise criteria that
can account transparently for everything that might have a bearing on a
holistic judgment of quality, particularly when judging a discursive arte-
fact like a text’ (Mitchell 2010: 145).15
It is perhaps worth taking a step or two back here, for it is in fact per-
fectly possible for English lecturers to decide in advance what they want
their students to learn. The process just needs to begin at an earlier stage
and to take place as part of a more holistic consideration of student skills,
before the writing of learning outcomes and assessment criteria.16 When
running seminars on assessment in English departments for the English
Subject Centre, I found that a list of ‘desirable student attributes’ drawn
up by the Subject Centre director, Ben Knights—intellectual skills and
qualities that any lecturer would be happy to see in her students—con-
sistently received an enthusiastic response from academics sceptical about
learning outcomes and served as stimulating starting point for detailed
module planning. Here is an edited version of Knights’s list:

• Pleasure in language at the level both of production and of read-

ing; delight in irony, wit, pun, verbal facility, register shifting, code
switching …
• Discursive flexibility: attention to style and register (oral or written)
as appropriate to both subject matter and audience.
• Flexibility of mind: an ability to move between interpretations or
conceptual possibilities.
• Athletic reading: an enthusiasm for diverse kinds of books (includ-
ing long ones).17
• Patience: tolerance of anxiety generated by ambiguity or uncertain
meanings … and for there being no hard and fast rules.
• Willingness to draft, edit, re-draft.
• Impatience for cliché, stale and hackneyed language.
• Ability to pick up a wide range of cultural and historical resonance
(religious, mythological, historical).
• Risk taking: willingness to try new texts, new approaches … open-
mindedness about possibilities.
• Interest in ideas; enthusiasm for long or surprising words … when
106  J. Gibson

There is life and substance to this collection of desiderata, and I think

few English lecturers will fail to concur with most of its judgements.
Mapping these sorts of considerations onto any given module will gener-
ate strategies both for assessment and for other elements of the teaching
programme and thus make it possible to write learning outcomes and
assessment criteria. In the rest of this chapter, I will group ‘innovative’
assessment types currently being used in English departments under
headings broadly similar to but much cruder than Knights’s—reading
skills, fact-finding skills, and arguing skills—to give an indication of how
lecturers can begin to think proactively about assessment choice.18

Developing Skills in Reading Literature

Perhaps the key skill students of English Literature need to learn is how
to move from emotionally charged first impressions of a book (whether
positive or negative)—often the reason for the choice of an English
degree in the first place—to the kind of analytical evaluation that will
get them good marks. In the past, when theory was in its pomp, there
was a tendency to deconstruct and denigrate this non-academic, fuzzy
aspect of student reading. The picture is now different, and many lec-
turers seek to use subjective engagement with the text in a productive
way, to develop students’ reading skills without betraying this enthusi-
asm. Log books or reading diaries, whether in hard copy or in digital form
(as blogs, for example) or as digital audio (or podcasts), can provide stu-
dents with, in Phyllis Creme’s words, ‘a space for the free exploration of
their own and others’ thinking, and for the unfolding process between
the inkling of an idea and its fruition’, a space giving scope ‘for a kind
of edgy nonchalance’ (Creme 2008: 50). They are particularly valuable
in situations where students are reading unfamiliar material, whether pri-
mary or secondary, and can be a powerful tool in helping students to
respond to the challenges of literary theory. For second and third year
students, reading journals can be used as the basis for a ‘free reading’
module, in which students, in consultation with a tutor, choose their
own course of reading, following whatever topic they like—an escape
from the tyranny of the reading list and ‘spoon feeding’. Learning
journals are often written over the period of a whole module, tracking
student response to all the learning experiences on the course, giving
students the opportunity to reflect in detail not just on their reading but
also on their feelings about the topic and their intellectual engagement

with teachers and other students. They are a good way of showing how
a student’s reading strategies develop across the progress of a module
(Maxwell 2010). (Because of the personal nature of learning journals,
some lecturers make them a compulsory but unmarked assignment—a
condition for passing the course. An alternative is to ask for a further
short piece reflecting on the process of journal-keeping [Creme 2005]).
Shorter response statements, in whatever medium, can be used to record
students’ immediate, unstructured responses to their reading of a text.
More elaborate autobiographical assignments linking modules to stu-
dent lives will require very sensitive management. Writing newspaper-style
reviews of primary or secondary material can be a good method of help-
ing students find their own way into a text. Alternatively, assessed online
discussion allows students to compare notes on their reading and develop
their responses in dialogue with others.19
Reading skills can also be developed by means of short creative e­ xercises:
the rewriting of part of a text from a different point of view, for example,
or in a different genre, the transformation of poetry into prose or vice
versa, and so on, an approach discussed in detail elsewhere in this volume
[cross-ref?]. This technique is an enticing way to alert students to a wide
range of literary features.
An important element in student reading, often neglected, is note-
taking. Note-taking exercises, geared to specific texts and run online or in
the classroom, can help students think about their own strategies and can
be assessment tools in their own right.

Developing Skills in Gathering and Understanding

This is an underdeveloped area in English Studies. Because of English’s
valorisation of originality and creativity, many university courses do not
independently assess factual and conceptual knowledge about texts—
about history, about writers, about ideas. Instead, these things have
been assessed in essays pari passu with argumentation and writing skills.
(Unseen essay-based exams, of course, can be a particularly challeng-
ing—and inevitably partial—means of assessing knowledge.) In many
modules, there is an easily identifiable amount of information desirable
for students to know, from the historical contexts of literary works to the
critical history of specific works and genres to the complexities of literary,
artistic, social, and political theory. There is a strong case for separating
108  J. Gibson

out some of these elements for individual assessment. The ease with
which basic online questionnaires can be constructed within virtual learn-
ing environments such as Blackboard or Moodle means that lecturers
increasingly use quiz-based assessment to test basic factual knowledge.
Quizzes can, however, also help students get to grips with complex texts
and topics: their building blocks can just as easily be quotations from
primary or secondary texts and key terms in critical theory as names or
Another way to extend knowledge through assessment is to set writ-
ing tasks requiring students to read and summarise secondary material:
literature reviews; annotated bibliographies; glossaries. Editing exercises
come partly in this category too: students will have to find out about
many different things to contextualise the text they are editing. Asking
students to design posters requires them to work out a strategy for depict-
ing a topic in an arresting visual format: for some students, this will be a
very appealing way of working. Similar advantages can be gained from
website creation—like posters, often a group project, and from the vari-
ous unguided group research projects commonly grouped under the
umbrella-term of problem-based learning (Hutchings and O’Rourke
2002). Much can be gained, too, from independent student work with
online databases of primary texts, such as Early English Books Online: this
is an excellent way for students to get to grips with crucial aspects of
unfamiliar periods and topics.

Developing Skills in Structuring an Argument

One obvious way to help students develop this skill is to get them to
write essay plans and similar small-scale texts with argumentative struc-
tures, not just once but repeatedly, to acquaint them with the problems
and opportunities that marshalling (or attempting to marshall) informa-
tion into arguments can present. Other forms of assessment can get stu-
dents to examine the cut and thrust of seminar debate—writing up notes
on seminar discussion, for example. Peer review and peer marking of essay
plans, first drafts of essays, and other similar texts will provide further
opportunities for reflections on the process of argumentation.
Another way for students to explore the complexities of argumenta-
tion is through short writing exercises (maybe quite small bits of argu-
mentation) that can either be assessed or not. Such exercises can be easily
peer assessed and redrafted before being handed in, can be related to

what happens in a seminar much more easily than essays, can be used
cumulatively throughout a course to build up a student’s knowledge of a
topic gradually and compellingly, give students the opportunity to exper-
iment with writing in ‘real world’ genres, and provide an unthreatening
way into the mysteries of academic discourse. There are many possibili-
ties: arguments can be broken down and organised by students in various
ways, small sections of an essay can be practiced and rewritten, and so
on.20 Longer assignments using some of these structures can perform a
similar role to essays. Influenced by Bakhtin, Theresa M. Lillis argues for
the value of dialogism, suggesting that students be encouraged to write
texts that juxtapose, perhaps column by column, material written in dif-
ferent voices (academic, personal, poetic …) and from different points of
view (Lillis 2011). More conventional, quasi-Socratic, dialogues can be a
useful form of assessment too. Such exercises will, like the conventional
essay, require students to think through complex topics elaborately and
ambitiously, and will be particularly appropriate for certain modules.

Catherine Maxwell argues that ‘a log that reflects on classroom discus-
sion is often a better medium than the essay for expressing the student’s
sense of the multifaceted nature of a complex text or artwork and the
variety of responses it can elicit’ (Maxwell 2010: 196). The log Maxwell
asked her students to write, on a course on nineteenth-century aestheti-
cist prose, reflected on, among other things, nine short writing exercises
undertaken across a 12-week semester. Students had to select four of
these to count as 40% of the module’s mark; the log received the remain-
ing 60%. This sort of portfolio structure is a good way to integrate a
number of difficult types of small-scale assessment into the module and
also to introduce an element of student choice. It can of course support
essay-writing; indeed, many ‘non-essay’ forms of assessment can be used
to ensure that students write more (and receive more feedback on their
writing) than on an essay-only course.

It will be worth spending some time in thinking how best to integrate
non-essay assessments such as those listed above into a programme.
Perhaps the rarest use of such assignments is also the most obvious: to
110  J. Gibson

use them as replacements for the end-of-module essay. The choice of a

replacement will obviously depend on the nature of the module—the
spread of student attributes it is seeking to develop.
For a thoughtfully planned assessment strategy to work, of course,
successful communication with students is essential. Learning outcomes
and assessment criteria owe their existence to the unanswerable argu-
ment that it is important that students understand the basis on which
they are being taught and assessed. One way to achieve this end, and
to address some of the inadequacies of outcomes and criteria, is to run
sessions in which students and staff can jointly navigate these treacher-
ous texts (O’Donovan et al. 2004; Higher Education Academy 2012).
Students can, for example, apply marking criteria themselves, marking
sample assignments (either anonymised student work or pieces written
by the lecturer), an excellent way of getting students (and lecturers) to
think about the meaning of words such as ‘structure’, ‘analytical’, and
It is perhaps worth thinking, too, about how essays can best be used
across a whole English degree. Adverting to the list of desirable student
attributes above will enliven the process of planning such things as the
relationship between assessment type, module, and level and the balance
within the different levels of a programme of module and assessment
type. The aim is simple, but the task difficult: to ‘assess’ more accurately
and more comprehensively the full range of qualities we would like our
students to have gained from their period of study. Raleigh provided
some consolation for students inadequately rewarded by the exigencies
of what I have called the ‘traditional’ assessment system:

No one was ever injured by missing a First: all who deserve a First read for
fun, and have their reward.

The nightingale got no prize at the poultry show. (Raleigh 1923: 119,

A hundred years on, can we offer our students more than entertaining

1. For the UK government’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher
Education (the QAA), assessment ‘describes any processes that appraise an
individual’s knowledge, understanding, abilities or skills’ (QAA 2001: 1).
The latest revision of the QAA English Subject Benchmark can be viewed
2. For more on the matters discussed in this chapter, and useful material on
topics not covered here, such as inclusion, feedback, employability, and
institutional strategies, see Higher Education Academy (2012). For more
on assessment in English Literature, see Chambers and Gregory (2006:
3. In the UK, some of this innovation has had a negative motivation: consist-
ently weak National Student Survey scores for assessment and feedback.
In the 2013 figures many departments’ assessment and feedback scores
were 10% or more adrift of scores in other categories (http://unistats.
4. For some student views on the role of essays in English, see Hodgson
5. The English Benchmark Statement mandates ‘the ability to present sus-
tained and persuasive written and oral arguments’ (QAA 2007: 25),
implicitly viewing oral presentation and the essay as testing the same abili-
ties. Oral presentations can derail seminars and need careful preparation if
they are to work well (Bazin 2010).
6. This chapter was written before the most recent revision of the English
Subject Benchmark.
7. Thus Womack (1993) critiques the ideological baggage carried by
Victorian conceptions of the essay at the same time as finding it the best
genre in which to carry out such a critique.
8. Such a dialogue is the starting point for Diana Laurillard’s influential
‘conversational framework’ for e-learning (Laurillard 2011). Similarly,
Lillis (2001) advocates dialogic ‘talkback’ as a replacement for monologic
‘feedback’. In the past, the reality, of course, often diverged dramatically
from this ideal. Whilst a system based around the end-of-year exam can
involve much very valuable formative assessment preparing students for
the exam, the pressure of the exam itself often creates anxiety and its
frequent corollary, a merely ‘surface’ approach to learning (cf. Ramsden
2003, 69–72).
9. The distinction between ‘deep learning’ and ‘surface learning’ (the aggre-
gation of unintegrated particulars) is described in detail in Ramsden
112  J. Gibson

10. For a rich study of the challenges presented to ‘non-traditional’ students

by ‘essayist literacy’ across a range of disciplines, see Lillis (2001).
11. Other factors discussed in this paragraph—student anxieties about aca-
demic discourse, the shift away from unseen exams and so on—are
at least as important as the internet in creating a climate favourable to
plagiarism, as is the increased job market pressure on students to secure
‘good’ degrees.
12. The case for shifting the balance back towards formative assessment has
been strongly argued in a recent report (Higher Education Academy
13. The ‘constructive’ nature of the alignment derives from ‘constructivist’
educational theory: in other words, the learner-centred idea that learners
‘construct’ what they themselves learn.
14. Learning outcomes are not used by all English lecturers as a means of
structuring their teaching activities: frequently, it seems, they are added
to course specifications after the course, together with assessments, has
been planned. Part of the problem is historical: lecturers were forced to
incorporate aims and objectives into pre-existent courses when learning
objectives were first introduced. It is unfortunate that the introduction of
learning outcomes coincided with the inception of a ‘quality assurance’
system designed to police practice as much as to improve standards. See
also Hussey and Smith (2002).
15. Docherty makes a similar point in arguing that ‘QAA speak’ implicitly
transforms substantive and complex ‘knowledge’ into quantifiable ‘infor-
mation’ (Docherty 2007). Such worries are reflected in a recent report,
which states that ‘There are some aspects of learning that cannot reason-
ably be assessed’ (Higher Education Academy 2012: 19).
16. Another way of formulating this might be to say that it makes sense for
lecturers to split off their own assessment and teaching planning (the
focus of what follows in this chapter) from their explanation of assess-
ment and teaching rationales to students.
17. And an ability to be bored—and to read past boredom (see Sullivan
18. Many of these methods develop more than one type of skill, and so
could easily appear in a different section. Links to examples of many of
the assessment methods listed here can be found in the Assessment area
of the archived English Subject Centre website: http://www.english.
19. See Miles and Colbert 2010.
20. The Thinking Writing website at Queen Mary, University of London,
provides a wealth of information about these methods: http://www.

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Lillis, Theresa. 2011. Legitimizing Dialogue as Textual and Ideological Goal in
Academic Writing for Assessment and Publication. Arts and Humanities in
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Author Biography
Jonathan Gibson is a senior lecturer in English at the Open University, UK,
and a former academic co-ordinator for the English Subject Centre. He is a spe-
cialist in early modern literature and the history of the book, with a particular
interest in early modern manuscripts.

Critical or Creative? Teaching Crossover

Writing in English Studies

Chris Thurgar-Dawson

Whereas creative writing usually entails the use of the imagination and
memory to produce written texts and critical writing often takes the
form of essays, articles, or exegesis, crossover writing, in the sense I
shall be using it here, maintains both critical and creative functions in
an uncertain hinterland between the two. The scholarly framing of such
an area becomes particularly important because it occupies what Entrikin
has called a space of ‘betweenness’ (Entrikin 1991), and what Shulman
and others have labelled a ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’ (Shulman 2005);
it remains a territory which offers an enriched curriculum when success-
fully negotiated by student and tutor alike. Not only is it placed between
creative practice and critical approach, it also lies between responses to
the text which have traditionally been labelled subjective and objec-
tive. Furthermore, it follows that crossover writing might or might not
be based on another text—a trigger or source text—as is always the case
with transformative writing and other kinds of ‘textual intervention’
(Pope 1995). Further still, it may or may not move between academic

C. Thurgar-Dawson (*) 
School of Design, Culture, and the Arts, Teesside University,
Middlesbrough TS1 3BA, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 115

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_8
116  C. Thurgar-Dawson

disciplines and schools of thought and it may or may not involve critical
and cultural theory. And while it can often be supported by some kind of
metacritical commentary or journal, to help explain what might be going
on, this is not always the case; it might have to include its own autono-
mous, implicit, or embedded regulations, its own signposts, mappings,
or indexical formulations.
In recent usage, in the wake of J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, and
Geraldine McCaughrean, for example, crossover writing also designates
the growing and highly commercial market between children’s and
adult literature and as such is situated between conventionally different
readerships. A third category has simply come to designate books that
are adaptations of two or more genres into one, often a hybridisation
of manga classics or graphic novels, or a Hollywood blockbuster that
merges superheroes from Marvel and DC comics. These texts are often
supported by a sequel or prequel narrative, or represent something close
to fan fiction where plot and story amalgamations occur. The crossover
texts I am signalling here, though clearly worthy of critical attention in
themselves (Falconer 2009; Pugh 2005; Beckett 2009) are not my topic
below, nor in fact are the alluring sub-genres in which they are often
transported: slipstream, cyberpunk, slash, avant-pop, new wave fabulist,
new weird, and transrealist fictions.
From another direction, it could be argued that one of the main changes
in English Studies over the last 30 years has been the gradual institu-
tionalisation or theorisation of the practice of creative writing. By this I
do not mean that the two disciplines were mutually exclusive before the
1980s—far from it—or that this gradual process has now been successfully
achieved—it has not—but I do mean to signal a certain change in emphasis
which began to make itself known in the early years of that decade. Both
Nigel McLoughlin and Graeme Harper have undertaken interesting work
in this area, in their own ways addressing the contested relationship in uni-
versity English departments between students studying both creative and
critical writing. One of Harper’s conclusions at the end of the ‘Reading to
Write, Writing to be Read’ project emphasises the mutual benefit to stu-

Interestingly, and perhaps a little unexpectedly, students were equally

enthusiastic about the role of the study of English in improving their crea-
tive writing. I say ‘a little unexpectedly’, because it has been suspected on
occasions that the growth in creative writing as a subject in UK Higher

Education has been largely down to some discontent with canonical issues
surrounding the study of English and that, while HE providers often saw
the logic of including creative writing in English Departments students
themselves were more inclined to question the reasons for ‘having to do
English’ alongside creative writing. (Harper 2003: 18–19)

Buoyed up by such findings, then, I aim to emphasise the key importance

of that unexpected ‘or’ and argue that it is precisely because of this fork
in language, this vel of the ancients, this agonistic uncertainty in the rela-
tionship between creative and critical praxis that we lend such importance
to the learning experience of apprentice writers in particular and English
students at large. This ‘or’ and our daily interrogation of its luminous
ontology (wherein students can be encouraged to write their own exam-
ples of the decision-making process) is the prime mover of much that
we achieve as HE practitioners. More recently and from an auto-ethno-
graphic perspective, Jane Speedy offers a position with potential, outlining

a multi-sequential space in which ‘either/or’ is abandoned in favour of

‘and/ and/and’ (Douglas 1996), and in which readers can re-order and, in
some cases, re-create the text in any way they choose. (Speedy 2008: 185)

In the workshop or seminar this context could be more easily recast by

thinking about parataxis and hypertaxis on the formal level, and students
might want to try their hand at both of these, or perhaps by taking a tem-
poral stance, and working with diachronic and synchronic modes of nar-
ration. Next year I shall be assessing our Level 5 crossover module by
collage, and such an activity can be downsized to fit a couple of weeks if
appropriate guidance is given and the group is willing to play along. I sup-
pose the point here is that no matter the complexity of critical thinking
involved, the process of translation from high theory to ‘practical thing I
can have a go at’ is one that holds value in and of itself. It is this very pro-
cess of working in and between the gists and piths of meaning that then
simultaneously makes manifest both the enriching content which arises
and those models of the English Studies discipline worthy of our atten-
tion. As the aphorism goes, ‘there’s nothing as practical as a good theory’.
With the above in mind, I am going to look at the writing that lies
between our conventional understanding of creative and critical dis-
courses under three headings and these are: cross-disciplinary writing;
life writing; and transformative writing. Consideration of peer feedback
118  C. Thurgar-Dawson

provides a fourth and final part of the chapter, and is drawn, broadly
speaking, from experience in trialling and delivering the first three.
Associated theories and examples will run alongside each of these head-
ings in turn, though it should be possible to see links and connec-
tions between them as the topic unfolds. As with any nomenclature of
grouping, these categories are arbitrary place-holders, but in terms of
mapping crossover territory, some kind of cognitive tagging is helpful.
Another key concept to be kept flowing as an undercurrent is that of
negotiation, not in the guise of negotiated learning, but more as tac-
tile affect, as emotional development of personal and professional self in
the seminar environment. Such development via a negotiated process of
safe experimentation is as elusive as it is important. It is hailed, interro-
gated, and renounced in every good teaching encounter, as it is simul-
taneously made and unmade by our everyday processes of learning and
the exercises we set.

Constraint: Cross-Disciplinary
Writing and Project Perec
The recognition that language and the concepts it carries are transitory,
in transit between previously agreed if not fully known epistemologies,
is so pervasive that its exploration becomes mandatory for the writer
engaged in crossover practices. In reality, though, the energy with which
Anglo-American education systems oppose such work becomes a bar-
rier to learning and this is the case precisely because the work challenges
the legitimate demarcations of a paper-based culture. This is not the
same in continental Europe where inter- and trans-disciplinary research
is a required part of many undergraduate humanities programmes, and
where language translation, itself the carrier of such cross-cultural think-
ing, is geographically embedded between the contested and contexted
boundaries of an ever-changing border politics. The rhetoric of cross-dis-
ciplinary work in this current context therefore provides fertile ground
for student explorations of liminal, counter-cultural practices including
topics such as subversion, transgression, and reinscription. Ultimately it
is the recognition of the orthodoxies of such textual expressions (usually
via a variety of modernist and postmodernist writing simulations) which
return us to the ‘or’ of our title here. The journey towards such recogni-
tion, though, allowing for multiform deviations in narrative typology, in

narrative voice, in literary stylistics, in chronological dislocation, in unre-

liable focalisation, and so on—in fact in form qua form—is a valid and
valuable one. It also provides a place within most modular programmes
where such thinking is not only encouraged but practised, not conceptu-
ally formulated in response to an essay question, but actually constructed
by the student on the written page with direct reference to her or his
own lived preferences and experiences. McLoughlin refers to this as a
‘ludic space’ and it is worth dwelling on his explanation for a moment:

What is actually happening is that something is being introduced to the

participants which will require an imaginative response; a set of rules of the
game are given, and the participants are asked to construct a new ‘space’
from their imaginative interaction with the object, according to the rules
(or by bending or breaking them). This space is the space of the poem or
story produced …. The workshop leader’s function is to provide the frame-
work for the writer to construct their own‘language game’ which becomes
the intellectual space which the writing occupies. (McLoughlin 2008: 5)

Such a pedagogy can of course bring into question deficiencies and lacu-
nae in the content of more conventional content-driven or survey mod-
ules on a programme, which might then enable a more informed critical
reflection upon cohort development and skills acquisition.
An example of explorations in such cross-disciplinary writing is the
ongoing ‘Project Perec’ at Teesside University which seeks to engage
students from Dance, Graphic Design, Fine Art, and Creative Writing
to make creative/critical responses to a shared text, Species of Spaces, by
the French writer Georges Perec. Over the course of the last academic
year, tutors made room in their home discipline programmes for work-
shops, performances, and lectures which gave second year students the
chance to participate in modules they would not normally encounter
across the School of Arts and Media. The idea was that the common
text would provide some kind of shared resource for those struggling to
get on board; this was often the tutors themselves. Without going into
the exact details of each session, a summary reads as follows: the dance
students produced a dance palindrome and a performed sequence using
Perec’s ‘knight’s move’ (two steps forward and one to the side); the
fine artists involved us on a dada tour of Middlesbrough, reading Perec
aloud at certain designated sites at the signal of a whistle and air-horn;
the graphic artists had us produce our own concertina books in octave
120  C. Thurgar-Dawson

format, and a 23-part translation of Species of Spaces; and the creative

writers devised a Perec ‘pass-the-parcel’ game based on Pandora’s box
in homage to Perec’s constraining use of language. At any point during
these four sessions, which were carefully prepared in advance, participants
were encouraged to write notes and responses which might be returned
to at a later date; these were thought of as notes and drafts towards more
permanent crossover expressions. In our creative writing module, for
example, these jottings were then used as trigger texts for transformative
writing in the students’ assessed journal.
So, what did this kind of interdisciplinary crossover writing achieve?
In the first place it very clearly demarcated and shadowed forth the usu-
ally invisible and taken-for-granted boundaries and rituals of our own
working practices. Writers were not necessarily comfortable in removing
their shoes in the dance studio and warming up by pretending to be an
island, or indeed in performing Perec unannounced in the city’s art gal-
lery, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Nor were they too con-
fident at first in sharing their own work with graphic designers—it was
sometimes difficult to see the useful connections between that mode of
very precise visualisation and their own. Likewise, undergraduates from
the other programmes said that they enjoyed the creative writing work-
shop and the retro song from the Bee Gees used for passing the textual
parcel (‘Staying Alive’), but only one or two were fully able to overcome
their suspicion of the written word because it was, for them, completely
another language. So, although the benefits of such cross-disciplinary
writing were at times slow in coming, or hard to spot, there was at the
pre-Christmas feedback seminar a surprising willingness to take the mat-
ter further—which we did. Finally, and not perhaps unexpectedly, all
tutors agreed that such future engagement would need to form some
part of all the formal modules’ assessment in order to maintain motiva-
tion and energy. As noted above, transdisciplinary study is an animal we
recognise in the UK, but only if we have to.

Life Writing
Life writing is another area where the ground between critical and crea-
tive practices is often contested—more so than ever, I would argue, in
delivering the new English. It is also a particularly vivid, enriching, and
exciting area to teach, and one that contains more than a few trapdoors
and pitfalls for the English tutor. Although definitions of life writing

rightly differ depending on academic context, for current purposes and

in my own institution I am using the term in its widest possible sense, a
catch-all to include diaries, journals, blogs, tweets, biopics, (auto)biogra-
phies, letters, epistolary formats, emails, memoires, portraits, vignettes,
and even (more often than you might think) nature and animal narra-
tives. Beyond these we move into cognate areas which might loosely be
termed therapeutic, political, or childhood writings, ‘faction’, ‘blovels’
(blog novels), prison writing, dream diaries, lyrics, and various other
near-, quasi- or post-life related sub-genres. Much that is labelled fiction
is also life writing at a one-step remove, or indeed at no remove, depend-
ing upon your viewpoint: fact or fiction—again that puzzling ‘or’.
Three significant advantages from a pedagogic standpoint of building
life writing into the new English are these: first, an instant constructivist
gain in the form of relevance to what the student already knows, his or her
own life experience which can be built on and developed (Vygotsky 1978);
second, personal development of the self in the holistic mode going right
back to Tavistock, DUET, the early days of Lapidus, and the consistently
important work produced by Celia Hunt, Fiona Sampson, and others;
third, professional development as an independent (perhaps budding free-
lance) writer where what is sometimes called ‘self-writing’ produces copy
that pays, and at the very least informs documents such as CVs, presenta-
tions, and creative pitches. Another gain, by far the most important, has
been identified by Murray Cox and those who followed, and this is dis-
closure. The aesthetic arts of revealing the self, so cogently put by Judith
Barrington as being ‘self-revealing without seeming self-obsessed’, plays a
significant role under this section since it is easy to overlook the mandatory
processes of externalisation which the act of writing involves: out of your
head and onto the page. The safe handling and encouragement of appro-
priate acts of disclosing utterance (perhaps indirectly via study of performa-
tives or communication theory) becomes for us the major part of advanced
tutoring in this arena.

Transformative Writing: Written Objects

and Transcription

I have addressed the varieties of writing production which fall under

this heading elsewhere (Knights and Thurgar-Dawson 2006), so I want
to use this opportunity to bring some more recent trends into focus.
122  C. Thurgar-Dawson

Courtesy of William Carlos Williams, the American Objectivists went by

the mantra from Paterson ‘no ideas but in things’ and as a way of set-
ting out I am going to draw attention to the number of three-dimen-
sional responses which have been submitted on our transformative
writing module. These have included: a papier maché model of a prison
cell with writing attached to the diminutive furniture; an empty whis-
key canister enclosing seven letters rolled up into scrolls with elastic
bands; a two-metre triptych of writings in response to a Renaissance art-
ist; a three-way, see-through polycarbonate palimpsest with writing on its
translucent surfaces; a five-foot, working rope noose with stapled inscrip-
tions in response to capital punishment texts in America; a world map
on a mounted frame with statistical responses pinned to sites of tsunamis
and natural disasters, joined by cotton threads; an attic shoe box contain-
ing rock memorabilia from the various tours of The Kings of Leon; a
rewriting of Hitler’s diary made to look original and distressed accord-
ingly; a children’s poetry collage in response to a six-year-old’s reading
habits; and a Cluedo box ‘whodunit’ with the rooms of the mansion
laid out on a game board. In addition, there have been countless digital
accompaniments in the form of DVD images, USB stick performances,
links to social media sites, and more recently, YouTube transformations,
Twitter feeds, and Wordpress blogs. Several transformations have taken
the form of actual books, rather scrappy and unprofessional in appear-
ance, but nevertheless recognisable (and often illustrated) texts.
What do these transformations which go that extra step mean? Is it
to do with a chance to move ‘beyond English’ within the degree, or is
it part of an individual’s creative urge to express the written word within
a more aesthetic—a potentially more complete and fulfilling—context?
The actual percentage of participants wishing to make such a 3D inter-
vention has been remarkably consistent—about three a year, equating to
around 10% of each cohort, and the marking of such items has always
been applied under the module’s rubric for presentation, which is to say
that the presentation of the transformed text must be appropriate to the
source at hand and explained in full in the critical commentary.
A second mode of transformative writing that has proved increasingly
popular is transcription, and becoming an advocate of transcription in
the workshop is not common practice, at least in other higher educa-
tion institutions I have visited. Moreover, this avoidance of transcrip-
tion within crossover writing in general is easily understandable. How is
any betweenness to be explored, any creativity to be cultivated or any

transformation to occur in the mere copying of the same text from one
place to another? Surely this is one type of inscription which should
indeed have ended in the medieval monasteries? But this proves not to
be so, as consideration of a couple of brief examples shows.
Erin writes me a proposal explaining that she will use an online gam-
ing forum for her final year project. It has a suggestive title which sparks
my interest: ‘“Squad Z” Game Prose: Descriptive paragraph cut-scene
with fictional transcript based on real life gaming experience’. She will
transcribe and review the real-time comments between players as they
play a group RPG (role-playing game) in a virtual community. Her team,
‘Squad Z’ is fighting another team on the internet at roughly the same
time every day. Her material looks like this, and there are pages of it:

Pvt McCartney [gunfire] Ahh! Did someone shoot me?

Pvt Valentine  /[giggles]Gad-dammit Kishy
Pvt McCartney  /Did you shoot me?
Sgt Kishy  There’s blood all over the thing. Ahh! [gunfire]
Pvt McCartney  Someone shot me!
Sgt Temple  [patronizing tone] McCartney…
Pvt McCartney  [grumbles] I’ll shut up…
Sgt Foxx  Tilley’s gone missing again
Sgt Kishy  [musically] Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na
Pvt McCartney  Tilley’s not dead (2) Just five more minutes
Pvt Valentine  [musically] Flying down the motorway, his legs flew
the other way, DEAD TILLEY! [laughs]
Pvt Tilley  Hey I’m not dead yet!
Sgt Temple  Yet.
Pvt Tilley  Well, yeah.
Sgt Temple  [Explosion in distance] Tilley if you get here I can
bandage your wounds.
Pvt Tilley   How did you know I accidentally almost exploded
Sgt Kishy  It’s you Tilley.
(McCartney 2013).

These communications interest me, and are nothing quite like the text
I was expecting. They lie somewhere between micro-blogs or tweets
(in that each one provides a journal entry of an event sequence) and an
124  C. Thurgar-Dawson

actual discussion board (in that real agents do interlocute their inten-
tions). They are also very high-energy communications which employ
expletives, exclamations, and hyperbole in an environment of great pace
and linguistic force. Some utterances are therefore hard to make out,
and others seem to seek reassurance that somebody is actually listening,
such is the speed with which the group fights on. Needless to say, they
are both critical and creative responses to the game narrative, providing
crossover commentaries on an already complex medium. Also, there is an
urgency here which is appealing and, in passing, it is for this reason that
my favourite warm-up text has always been Roberta Allen’s The Playful
Way to Serious Writing. Allen continually exhorts writers to make their
writing decisions based on ideas or language which ‘have energy for you’
and Erin’s text is a good example.
James, on the other hand, has been watching his favourite US show,
Chuck, and has become somewhat involved in it. His proposal, like
Erin’s, revolves around a desire to transcribe an episode word by word,
so that he can then transform the show across the pond into a kind of
UK equivalent, based around the secret service. He does not want to
introduce any new characters unless he has to and he does not feel the
need to change the history of the existing ones: he just wants to write his
own episode in a new geography. However, after painstakingly making
his own actual transcripts of the episode, James decides that the trope of
the transcript itself, in this case the device of the audio-interview as prac-
tised by MI5, will be a useful addition to his own rewriting arsenal. Part
of James’s transformation therefore goes like this:

MI5 Transcript from Audio Recorded Conversation

Between Agent Sarah Walker and Asset Charlie
‘Chuck’ Bartowski. Recorded at 05.23, 24/09/2013,
Kirby Park
CHUCK  o what happens now? I’ve still got all of your crazy govern-
ment secrets in my head. You really gonna throw me in a
WALKER  No. No hole. At the moment they’re still deciding what to
do with you. It always takes a while for the desks to work
anything out.
CHUCK That’s why I hate government.

WALKER  hat’s not really why you hate the government.

CHUCK Well right now I hate them because I have all of their spy
secrets stuck in my head. I’ve been shot at, nearly blown
up, and worst of all this incredibly hot girl I was on a date
with turned out to be in the middle of it all.
(Miller 2013)

Putting the wonderful metonymy of ‘the desks’ aside, there’s actually a

great deal to unpack here, not least the mismatch between formal inter-
view situation and low colloquial register and topic choice. The sexual
tension of the lesbian relationship referred to in the last line is an impor-
tant plot driver for the piece but again, like Erin’s text, the writing dis-
plays a creative immediacy with much potential for critical theorisation.
The use of transcription as part of a crossover writing practice is
informed by at least three distinct English Studies histories. One is critical
sociolinguistics as practised by Deborah Cameron, Ron Carter, and oth-
ers where the exact transcriptions of spoken material from everyday life
display social codings and behaviours for analysis when written out on the
page. Anyone who has done this—and I get participants to do it every
year as a matter of course—soon discovers that spoken communication
is almost always pure miscommunication and cross-talk. A second refers
us to Joseph Conrad and his statement in the author’s note to The Secret
Agent that ‘it would have bored me too much to make-believe’, his point
being that there is a certain disinterested and hence valuable ‘self-surren-
der’ in the very act of transcription. Third, found poetry provides exam-
ples from a rich conceptual heritage whereby documentary evidence and
testimony is provided by quotidian materials in often unexpected envi-
ronments—fish and chip wrappers, ghost signs, discarded rubbish, both
the abject and the ‘utile’ in communication (Jones 1959: 180). In short,
crossover writing has a big future in transcription, and vice versa.

It’s Over, I’m Cross. Peer Feedback for Crossover

A great deal has been written on tutor-to-student feedback for creative
writing (May, Anderson, Harper) so I want to focus here on what for
me remains the more problematic area: peer feedback. While every year
I think I make small advances with first and second year participants, it
126  C. Thurgar-Dawson

is fair to say that apprentice writers do not really make significant pro-
gress in this area until their third year or even until postgraduate level.
Interviewing someone recently to join such an MA, I was disappointed
to learn that they never really felt that they had received any useful feed-
back at all on their writing from their undergraduate cohort. Why was
There are a number of problems we run into here and they are worth
figuring out so that practitioners can address them in their own ways
in the classroom. One such is easily mustered and somewhat perennial:
fear of receiving poor feedback if we are critical of another’s writing our-
selves. This is perhaps a most obvious concern and it is certainly under-
standable. What is less explicable is exactly how difficult it remains to
address, break down, or reframe such an anxiety. Plenty of useful advice
can and has been given on the importance of building trust in the writ-
ing group so that over time learners feel safer in their expression of con-
structive criticism to others: I am not going to underplay the importance
of creating such an environment now. I am, however, firmly going to
assert that it does not solve the problem, a problem which is partly a
result of my second obstacle below.
The ability to link and connect someone else’s ideas to my own ideas
or their expressed communication to mine is a highly advanced cogni-
tive function. It becomes even more so for crossover writers who have
to hold what they have heard or read from another person and perform
a double rewriting of it themselves—one in critical mode for public
consumption in the group and another for their own creative use as it
applies to their own writing project. Unlike ‘pure’ creative writing, there
will inevitably be multiple source texts to comprehend in addition to
the actual text at hand, so a relational nexus where the learner has to
negotiate similarities and differences, weaknesses and strengths between
three or four simultaneous narratives is not uncommon. This is essen-
tially a metaphorical activity, one which asks participants to interpret one
field of data, or one genre, or one sign system, or one semantic field,
or one way of talking and hold it up against another—their own. To
perform this coherently in a live situation where you might indeed be
put on the spot and asked to share your thoughts is not easy for any-
one—tutors included—and with the potentially limitless frame of textual
reference that literature provides, the fact that those links and connec-
tions can prove elusive to even the brightest in the room should be no
surprise. This metaphorical nature of the feedback circuit is hardly a

groundbreaking finding. In the following paragraph, Jon Cook links it to

the importance of a sense of discovery:

The process corresponds to a basic literary trope, that of metaphor. As

strong metaphors interrupt routine uses of language by making unex-
pected but illuminating connections between bits of language ordinarily
held apart, so an education which understands metaphor-making as a form
of learning as well as a literary trope will interrupt the routinized organiza-
tion of pedagogic time. Time becomes charged with the possibility of dis-
covery, revelation or change. (Cook 1995: 147)

But here we run into the crux of the matter as I have experienced it:
many writers actually do not want feedback, or, if they openly confess
that they do, they actually want a certain specific kind of feedback which
they have already decided upon, perhaps unconsciously, in their own
minds. What they actually seek is reconfirmation of that version of them-
selves which writerly intention makes available to each of us, an iden-
tity-in-process of which only a part has been disclosed or made extant in
their creative text. That which actual feedback represents, or frequently
can come to represent in the mind of the writer, is thus a misrecognition
of textual intention and, by extension, of the writer’s textualised identity
itself. It might nevertheless be said that feedback embodies the threat of
the other, not because it comes from an other, but because it occupies
the place of our own displaced desires and the threat of an encounter
with the real. The real in this case is our own blindside which we were
so busy not recognising that we had not the courage to voice it to our-
selves. Note that this position is more than just a confession of our own
weaknesses as a creative practitioner; if it were only this it would not
take three years of study to address. Some writers do not want feedback
because it makes obvious the possibility that the text which they thought
they were controlling is actually creating a language which not only reads
them as individuals but makes obvious the fact that their own text has
been the silent arbiter of their identity all along.
Yet, to the understandable fear of others’ criticism discussed above,
to the difficulty of linking another’s ideas to our own, to the threat
posed to our enunciative control and identity, we may add a fourth
and final obstacle to peer feedback. This one is less hazardous, perhaps,
because more contextual: it is about judgement, and the inability of
many learners to be able to judge good writing from bad, stylistically,
128  C. Thurgar-Dawson

narratologically, aesthetically, linguistically, or ethically. When I, myself,

say that I do not like a particular novel but I recognise that it is well
written, as a tutor I am able to employ a certain critical objectivity which
my own previous teachers, mentors, and colleagues have encouraged in
me as appropriate to the discipline of English Studies. How, then, do I
go about encouraging such tacit critical objectivity in others for the pur-
poses of peer feedback in the workshop? Certainly I can do the usual
things such as requiring detailed reasons for all feedback given, asking
learners to share their own feedback expectations in advance, perhaps
with the use of a group contract, or, as Steve May sensibly advises, insist-
ing that the most useful feedback takes the form of appropriate questions
rather than statements about the work (May 2007: 61–63). I can go on
to ask for active listening and note-taking while a piece is shared aloud,
for participants to focus in on one specific part or point that they heard
or for timed written feedback to be given on a shared text we can all
see in front of us. I can also encourage feedback preparedness via drafts
posted on our module discussion board so that we can return to analyse
such responses in the seminar room, and I can hold a feedback forum
once a term to make sure we are all sharing better feedback practice;
perhaps I will include guest staff on that one too. I can also provide a
peer feedback sheet, mid-semester, with questions relating to each of the
module’s actual learning outcomes and ask students to mark each other’s
work and see it from the examiners’ point of view; perhaps they will give
it a percentage score or even put themselves in the shoes of the external
examiner commenting on the first reader’s comments—the beginnings
of a metacritical discourse being modelled in the classroom. I say these
are the usual things, but even having completed them, even having facili-
tated such peer-related activities, is it still unreasonable to expect creative
writers to be able to ascertain and express the merits of one text over the
demerits of another? The answer to this is of course ‘yes’. The quality
and judgement which any student is able to bring to the creative writing
of another person is no different from the critical quality of their inter-
pretation of Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, or Christopher Marlow and this
takes time and a good deal of Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’.
So, finally, we return to the hinterland from which we set out. Nick
Royle is useful as a coda as he has recently summarised many of the
shortcomings and accusations likely to be laid at the foot of crosso-
ver writing. In a deliberately polemic but highly informed article in
Times Higher Education he talks of the ‘traumatic impact of “theory”’
as another name for crossover writing. Students I have talked to are

sympathetic with this view and agree that there are indeed no ‘straight-
forward distinctions’ between the critical and creative modes:

What so-called ‘theorists’ such as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot,

Hélène Cixous, Derrida and Jacques Lacan all have in common is a com-
mitment to questioning, experimenting and tampering with language.
Above all, their texts interfere with any straightforward distinctions
between creative and critical writing. The sort of old-fashioned senses of
inferiority and anti-academicism noted earlier are giving way to more intri-
cate and interesting effects. The traumatic impact of ‘theory’ is continuing
to register in the discipline of English. ‘Creative and critical writing’ (as
taught at an increasing number of institutions, including the universities of
Sussex and East Anglia) is one of the names for this. (Royle 2013)

In summary, then, I am going to conclude that a number of valuable

practices and discourses have come to find shelter in the house of cross-
over writing. If not quite a new home for theory as Royle suggests, it
is certainly more than an adjunct or supplement to the field of English
Studies. If it makes sense to prepare students for the uncertainties of liv-
ing by using a flexible curriculum that empowers them to dwell more
comfortably not just with semiotic instability but with ambiguity, mul-
tiplicity, and their own variform anxieties of selfhood, then, responsi-
bly and imaginatively delivered, the new English will be well served by
a refreshed interrogation of the fertile ‘or’ between critical and creative

Beckett, Sandra L., and Crossover Fiction. 2009. Global and Historical
Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Cook, Jon. 1995. In Developing University English Teaching, ed. Colin Evans.
New York: Mellen.
Entrikin, Nicholas. 1991. The Betweenness of Place. London: Macmillan.
Falconer, Rachel. 2009. The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Fiction
and Its Adult Readership. London: Routledge.
Harper, Graeme. 2003. Reading to Write, Writing to be Read. English Subject
Centre Project Report.
Jones, David. 1959. Epoch and Artist. London: Faber.
Knights, Ben, and Chris Thurgar-Dawson. 2006. Active Reading: Transformative
Writing in Literary Studies. London: Continuum.
May, Steve. 2007. Doing Creative Writing. London: Routledge.
130  C. Thurgar-Dawson

McCartney, Erin. 2013. Squad Z Game Prose (Unpublished article). Teesside

McLoughlin, Nigel. 2008. Room to Rhyme: Towards an Investigation of
Intellectual Space in Creative Writing. Previously Published Articles Section,
Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice.
Accessed Mar 2010.
Miller, James. 2013. Chuck Versus the Short Story (unpublished article). Teesside
Pope, Rob. 1995. Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for
Literary Studies. London: Routledge.
Pugh, Sheenagh. 2005. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context.
Bridgend: Seren.
Royle, Nicholas. 2013. Composition and Decomposition. Times Higher
Education, March 28.
Shulman, Lee S. 2005. Pedagogies of Uncertainty. Liberal Education. 91 (2): 18–25.
Speedy, Jane. 2008. Narrative Inquiry and Psychotherapy. London: Macmillan.
Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological
Processes. Harvard: Harvard UP.

Allen, Roberta. 2002. The Playful Way to Serious Writing. New York: Houghton
Anderson, Linda (ed.). 2005. Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings.
London: Routledge.
Barrington, Judith. 2007. Writing the Memoir. In The Handbook of Creative
Writing, ed. Steven Earnshaw. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.
Cameron, Deborah (ed.). 1990. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader.
London: Routledge.
Carter, Ronald. 2004. Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk.
London: Routledge.
Cox, Murray. 1988. Coding the Therapeutic Process: Emblems of Encounter.
London: Kingsley.
Dawson, Paul. 2005. Creative Writing and the New Humanities. London:
Harper, Graeme. Teaching Creative Writing.
Hunt, Celia. 2013. Transformative Learning through Creative Life Writing:
Exploring the Self in the Learning Process. London: Routledge.
Hunt, Celia, and Fiona Sampson (eds.). 2011. The Self on the Page: Theory and
Practice of Creative Writing in Personal Development. In Life Writing as a
Critical Creative Practice, ed. Margaretta Jolly, 878–889. Literature Compass
8.12 (Dec. 2011).
Perec, Georges. 1997. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. London: Penguin.

Author Biography
Chris Thurgar-Dawson is a Senior Lecturer in English at Teesside University,
UK, and Director of the MA in Creative Writing. He is the author (with Ben
Knights) of Active Reading: Transformative Writing in Literary Studies
(Continuum, 2006). His research interests span cultural geographies, the con-
temporary long poem, and reader-writer practices.

Teaching ‘Literature+’: Digital Humanities

Hybrid Courses in the Era of MOOCs

Alan Liu

One of the debilitating aspects of recent discussions about the use of digi-
tal technologies in higher education—whether these discussions occur
in university planning contexts or in the wider theatre of media reports
and national policy—is that attention to the quality of learning and teach-
ing comes at the very end of a long train of broader topics. At its peak a
few years ago, for instance, the controversy over MOOCs (massive open
online courses), tended to occur in the stratosphere where policy-makers,
technology entrepreneurs, media pundits, and university boards raced to
see who could provide the most sweeping global, national, economic,
societal, or other macro-level rationales for the ‘disruptive innovation’ of
current higher education.1 Where the quality of the learning and teaching
experience came in for attention at all, its integrated character was disag-
gregated into separate student and instructor components to be assessed
via ‘accountability’ measures—that is, quantitative indexes of student
tests, instructor evaluations, enrolments, tuition and student debt levels,
graduation rates, job placements, and so on, all increasingly aggregated

A. Liu (*) 
Department of English, University of California, Santa Barbara,
CA 93106-3170, USA

© The Author(s) 2017 133

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_9
134  A. Liu

for ‘transparent’ public inspection in ‘sunburst charts’ and ‘college score-

cards’ (e.g. the European U-Map tools and the US College Scorecard).2
In this essay I take the opposite tack and explore what would hap-
pen if we started with attending to the quality of the learning and teach-
ing experience in a small-scale hybrid digital humanities course (one that
makes use of both a physical classroom and online digital technology)
and only then widen the gyre of discussion to the larger national and
international contexts where it might make sense to talk of all-digital or
mostly-digital MOOCs.3 Doing so means that we must first consider
quality in the non-comparative light of the ‘qualities’—the specific prop-
erties and attributes—of the mixed classroom/digital experience. Only
with some directly observable sense of the educational qualities afforded
by innovative digital technologies—‘micro-disruptions’, they might be
called—can we then scale up the discussion to the wider institutional
and socioeconomic contexts of online instruction with awareness of the
equivalent qualities that will be needed.

The Literature+ Course
Since academic year 2006–2007, I have taught a course at both the
undergraduate and graduate levels called ‘Literature+’.4 The undergrad-
uate versions of the course are generally capped at about 35 students;
while the graduate courses enrol about ten to 12 students. The essential
idea is stated on the wiki sites for the courses as follows:

Because of the recent, shared emphasis in many fields on digital methods,

scholars in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences increasingly
collaborate across disciplines. . . . Literature+ is a course that reflects theo-
retically and practically on the concept of literary study by asking students
to choose a literary work and use digital methods to treat it according
to one or more of the research paradigms (including data-oriented para-
digms) prevalent in other fields. Students, for example, can choose a story
or poem to model, simulate, map, visualize, encode, text-analyze, blog, or
redesign as a database, hypertext, multimedia construct, virtual world, or
social network. What are the strengths and weaknesses of literary reading
by comparison with other methods of knowledge? For instance, what is the
relation between close reading, interpreting, or imagining and modeling,
simulating, and adapting?5

During the first 4 weeks of the quarter (10 weeks total at my university),

Literature+ courses meet in the usual manner of small instructor-led
classes, combining class discussions with presentations by the teacher to
establish contexts and conclusions. I start the course by asking students
to reflect on the normative practices of literary interpretation, concen-
trating on lower-order techniques of close reading rather than higher-
order schools of interpretation. Then successive classes ask students to
compare such interpretation to the research paradigms of science, engi-
neering, and social science disciplines where creating and analysing data
sets are cardinal activities. To prompt discussion, I assign readings from
noted digital humanities scholars who have suggested methods of liter-
ary interpretation that borrow from non-humanities protocols or oth-
erwise vary from the norm—for instance, Franco Moretti on ‘graphs,
maps, trees’, Willard McCarty on modelling, Lisa Samuels and Jerome
J. McGann on ‘deformance’, Stephen Ramsay on ‘algorithmic criti-
cism’, and Geoffrey Rockwell on text analysis.6 I also demo some of the
online or downloadable digital tools that allow non-programmer users
to create and share interesting projects. To assist students in discover-
ing such technology, I keep an online ‘Toy Chest’ with descriptions and
illustrations of selected tools. Currently I include tools in the categories
of text analysis, visualisation, mapping, simulation, social network analy-
sis, sound and animation, gaming and machinima, and presentation and
In the last 6 weeks of the quarter, Literature+ courses shift into stu-
dio or lab mode to build projects.8 Students form small teams of three
or four, choose a literary work (or part of a work), and—as I explicitly
require—do something with it by the final week that is anything other
than normative literary interpretation. The goal is to prototype a project
that provokes fresh thought about how literary scholars might ‘do’ lit-
erature in league with—though sometimes also against the grain of—the
way other disciplines practice knowledge. Some projects concentrate on
producing, analysing, or modelling data sets while secondarily re-render-
ing or ‘adapting’ the original literary work; others reverse the emphasis
to focus on adapting literature while in a lesser way throwing off data.
Examples of student projects include:

• The Textones Project (assigns musical values to word types in

Shakespeare’s sonnets to create analytical soundscapes of individual
136  A. Liu

• The Borges Modeling Project (adapts a short story by Jorge Luis

Borges as a film in which the parts of speech in the original text are
mapped over a corresponding typology of film techniques).
• The Berlin Project (models the formal features of Jason Lutes’s
graphic novel Berlin: City of Stones through analytical image, film,
and text adaptations—for example, video animations that transform
static forms into temporal durations).
• The Ringu Transmission Project (creates an interactive timeline to
track the new global production, publication, and dissemination
patterns represented by the international Ring phenomenon, a
proliferating, self-organising set of novels, films, video games, and
• The Close Reading Re-visited Project (applies text-analysis, visualisa-
tion, automatic translation, and plagiarism-detection tools to trans-
form/deform texts analytically—for example, into word-trees, word
influence maps, tag clouds, punctuation patterns, etc.).
• The Emigrants Project (plots the travels of the characters in W.G.
Sebald’s novel The Emigrants as a set of ‘Google Lit Trips’ or anno-
tated itineraries in Google Earth).
• The Romeo and Juliet Facebook Tragedy Project (adapts Shakespeare’s
play as a set of Facebook pages complete with a ‘social graph’ of
character relations).
• Emily Dickinson Collocation Browsers (investigates Dickinson’s
poems ‘through various interactive animated navigations of collo-
cated words’).
• Affective Networks in Ensemble Character Dramas (applies social
networking tools to analyse ‘affective relationships and racial and
sexual difference in multi-season television dramas’).
• Making a Face: Assessing Avatar Creation Tools (innovates tech-
niques and a theoretical framework for assessing the technical
parameters and cultural assumptions of face modelling systems in
video games).9

Supporting the team project-building assignment is a series of more tra-

ditional solo research and writing assignments, including an annotated
bibliography, a research report, and a final paper discussing and reflecting
on the project. I also require students to participate in preliminary and
final project presentations—an exercise I coach with some care to incul-
cate general presentation skills.

During the course’s project-building phase, students work outside

class collaboratively and individually on research, technology, and writ-
ing—mounting their results on a wiki serving as the course’s online
­staging ground. (While in the past I have used MediaWiki, the open-
source wiki software best known for producing Wikipedia, currently
I use the PBworks wiki, an online hosted wiki platform with a strong
user base in education.) In class, students group around workstations or
laptops to work on projects together. My role in these classes is a com-
bination of coach and senior collaborator. I rotate among the teams, sit-
ting in with each to discuss objectives, methods, and problems while also
occasionally assisting with technical tasks (where I have relevant knowl-
edge) and with web-authoring and other processes. Students also have
access to additional technical help during drop-in support hours staffed
by a graduate student research assistant.

The Qualities of Literature+

In assessing these Literature+ courses, it might seem natural to jump
immediately to issues of quality judged in a comparative framework,
starting with subjective impressions of quality and going on to evidence
adduced from ethnographic observation, student evaluation question-
naires, assessments of learning outcomes (including student portfolios
and capstone projects), placements after graduation, and so forth. For
example, a sceptic might start with the impression that asking students to
take a literary work and do anything with it other than traditional literary
interpretation using a digital ‘toy chest’ can only be a recipe for dilution
and popularisation. In response, I might report my impression that I have
rarely seen students (referring in particular to the undergraduates) more
truly engaged with literature than in these courses, where they decide
what is essential about a work that must be captured through new meth-
ods and media to bring out its meaning in a fresh way. As I move among
student teams during the studio/lab classes, I ask such questions as, ‘So
what is this work really about? What does your project have to carry over
no matter what?’ Given such responsibility, students act as if they were
at the sensitive joystick of a jet fighter called literature. They are not
­performing ‘research’, ‘criticism’, or ‘interpretation’ (though they are in
fact enacting all these); they are engaging with literature in a way that
gives them some control and a stake in the outcome. Just as a novelist
feels despair when a book she or he is writing ‘is not working’, in other
138  A. Liu

words, so the students worry when their project seems not to be work-
ing; and just as that novelist is exhilarated upon overcoming the block,
the students are radiant when their text analysis, social network analy-
sis, graph, video, sonification, game, or other project finally works and
goes online. Even sketches and partially working versions—in the case
of projects that make it only to prototype stage—are celebrated. More
objective assessments based on my student evaluation forms, enrolments
(the Literature+ courses tend to be packed to their maximum), and so
on would be next up in the testimony—though I have not engaged in
­formal ethnographic observation or testing of outcomes.
But my argument here is that we would not even know what apples
and oranges we are comparing in quality until we first take up the hard
question of what kind of activity is actually happening in a hybrid digi-
tal classroom like this. What are the ‘qualities’ of learning and teaching
in these courses, meaning the specific properties, types, and affordances
of their educational experience? The question is hard because there are
no categorical answers. The introduction of digital technology into the
core activities of humanities learning and teaching catalyses changes
on so many fronts at once (‘micro-disruptions’, I called them) that, as
Robin Wharton has recently written in an insightful essay for the journal
Hybrid Pedagogy, the usual categories in which we think of those activi-
ties break down. Wharton portrays herself as not just a scholar who has
taught her own hybrid digital courses but also as a parent with a young
daughter. She is inspired to compare the activities that occur in higher
education hybrid classrooms with those in her daughter’s ‘K-12’ (kinder-
garten through high school) learning environment. Alluding to the way
the digital humanities emphasise ‘building’ activities alongside critical or
interpretive tasks, she writes:

I’ve begun to wonder if our turn to these methods [of ‘building, curation,
and creative production’] in college and university classrooms is actually in
fact a return—to pedagogical strategies already familiar to many of our stu-
dents from their primary school days. . . . One of the most striking things
I noticed when I first visited the school my daughter now attends was the
variety of activity in the classroom. At all levels, the curriculum involves
engaging the body and senses as well as the mind. In kindergarten and
the younger grades, instruction might require children to combine physical
gestures with recitation of their multiplication tables, or a poem about how
plants grow from seeds. In the older grades, material demonstration of sci-
entific and mathematical principles plays an important role. Art, handwork,

music, woodworking, and even recess are core parts of the curriculum.
And, perhaps most relevant to my purpose [here], literature is a means of
conveying information about self and the world, as well as the material of
creative production. Children learn by listening and reading to, and also by
reinterpreting, retelling, performing, and remediating stories drawn from a
variety of cultural and historical sources.

Wharton reflects that because digital technology encourages the resump-

tion in higher education of something like this mix of learning activities,
it points toward ‘the decomposition of many received binaries: personal/
professional, K-12/“higher” education, consumptive/productive read-
ing, student/scholar, pedagogy/scholarship’.10
The qualities of my Literature+ courses disrupt binaries in precisely
this spirit. In particular, the courses remix at least the following binaries
that normally organise our thinking about higher education pedagogy:

Learning and Teaching
One of the major remixings in such a classroom occurs when the teacher,
figuratively and literally, stops facing the students and stands shoulder to
shoulder with them to look at a screen where a project is being prototyped
or debugged. What this moment represents is some of the deepest learn-
ing and teaching in the course: students learn by sharing with their men-
tor the role of being an educated professional investigating a phenomenon,
having ideas about it, and trying to make that idea meaningful to others.

Individual and Team Work

Students in Literature+ courses work in teams through both face-to-face
and online collaboration. But they also have a structured set of individ-
ual assignments. Learning how to manage one’s own work so that it co-
ordinates with collaborative work in a blended on-site/distributed digital
environment is one of the key lessons of the course.

Content and Process
The rhythm of the courses is iterative in a way that teaches that the han-
dling of interim processes is important to the richness of final results.
I ask students in each class meeting to give briefings about progress and
140  A. Liu

problems, review deadlines and milestones, and discuss intellectual or

technical issues in a way that opens the discussion to others. (This is not
unlike the way I have learned to run project meetings for funded digital
humanities projects involving graduate students as research assistants.) A
lesson of the course is thus that mid-stream work and final projects are
part of an organic curve of activity. Indeed, some of the most rewarding
moments in these courses occur at mid-project points when seemingly
low-level technical issues (e.g. how to enter an anomalous date in a data-
base) suddenly soar to the level of class-wide philosophical discussions
(e.g. about the meaning of human temporality, the social changes that
underlie changing expectations of temporal precision and uniformity, and
such like).

Building and Interpreting
An assumption of the modern higher education humanities classroom
has been that there is a more or less settled hierarchy of knowledge
activities through which a student progresses to the crowning output
of a synthetic research essay or critical interpretation. Thus, gathering
research materials should prepare for one’s oral presentation or short
essay assignment, which in turn should sublime into one’s final research
or critical essay. Literature+ courses expose humanities students to
one of the hallmarks of the digital humanities: a more various cycle of
­knowledge activities in which ‘building’ and ‘interpreting’ (or ‘hack’ and
‘yack’) mix.11 In these courses, research and critical papers are important,
but not necessarily because they are positioned as the king product that
all other activities serve. Research and critical papers are also positioned
as intermediary products intended to provoke fresh iterations of techni-
cal work. Discussion, presentation, short essays, research reports, and
technology work cycle around in support of each other.

The Academy and the Public

One of the most eye-opening moments in Literature+ courses occurs
when a student team receives its first online comment or response on
their project from someone outside class, whether another member of
the university or a member of the public. I have also made it a custom
to invite other faculty and graduate students to final project presenta-
tions, and I encourage students in the class to invite their friends. In my

experience, the students’ discovery that others (not just their instructor)
will be viewing their project gives them enormous incentive to put extra
hours into improving the quality of their work and also rehearsing their
final presentations.
Other remixed binaries might be added to the above list to charac-
terise the qualities of hybrid digital humanities courses—for instance,
those I discuss in an article entitled ‘Digital Humanities and Academic
Change’: writing and authoring/collaborating, reading and social com-
puting, interpreting and data-mining/modelling, critical judgement and
information credibility, peer reviewing and commenting, and teaching
and co-developing.12 But the remixings I have outlined here are suffi-
cient to suggest the kind of qualities that can be catalysed by digital tech-

Wider Contexts
Starting from such qualities in a small-scale hybrid course gives us the
grounded experience we need to think about the opportunities and
constraints of digital higher education in widening contexts. Indeed,
if we pull back from a close focus on Literature+ , we can see that the
remixings of the learning and teaching experience it exemplifies signify
larger intellectual, institutional, and social remixings to which education
is adapting. Without trying to be comprehensive, I instance just three
such larger horizons, starting within the context of higher education but
ending in a boundary zone where academic issues engage broader socio-
economic ones. In each case, a grand remixing of categories and roles is
underway in a manner that, for better or worse, typifies ‘knowledge soci-
eties’ and ‘knowledge economies’ in today’s developed nations.

Deep Academic Interdisciplinarity

Digital networked technology is now used across the board by scientists,
engineers, social scientists, humanists, and artists in higher education
who need each other’s expertise to design and implement multidiscipli-
nary research and teaching initiatives of the kind solicited (in the USA,
for example) by the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate
Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT), the National
Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities grants,
the American Council of Learned Society’s (ACLS) Digital Innovation
142  A. Liu

Fellowships, and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning

initiative.13 One consequence of such digitally catalysed collaboration
is that disciplines must truly communicate with each other so that their
perspectives cohere in shared intellectual paradigms, institutional struc-
tures, funding arrangements, and software (whether ‘deliverable’ software
defined as a project’s goal or facilitating software for collaboration and
dissemination). For example, to develop collaborative software projects
even to the beta stage characteristic of many academic research initiatives
requires unprecedented intellectual, work-arrangement, and resource-
allocation agreements enforced through explicit consensus about goals
and methods. (Just as one instance: how exactly can a project employ both
computer science and humanities research assistants, given the often wide
disparity between funding sources, pay structures, and pay scales for grad-
uate students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths)
fields versus other fields?)
In the end, the kind of intercommunication I refer to is more fun-
damental than the normal ‘interdisciplinarity’ by which one academic
discipline borrows high-level concepts from another while uprooting
them from their underlying instruments and procedures—for exam-
ple, the prolific poaching engaged in by literary theorists in the past few
decades in their roles as armchair linguists, psychoanalysts, anthropolo-
gists, lawyers, physicists, and so on. Instead, digital networked technolo-
gies provoke cross-disciplinary communication at a level of premises and
methods deep enough, in my experience, to lead to unsettling questions
about why one’s native discipline practices knowledge the way it does.
(My favourite anecdote concerns a computer scientist on my campus—
broad-minded but frank—who, upon hearing a fine literary interpreta-
tion in a planning meeting, crossed his arms, rocked back in his chair,
and asked: ‘What was that for?’ At which point, a social scientist piled
on: ‘That’s item one. Where are the other thousand needed for a sam-
ple?’14) Facing up honestly to such impasses in disciplinary paradigms,
rather than retreating into separate and equal expertises, requires going
back, if not to first principles, then to first methods.
My Literature+ courses do not necessarily give a blank cheque to the
thesis that interpreting literature should be ‘just like’ making models,
simulations, visualisations, statistical analyses, and other non-human-
ities constructs designed—in the vocabulary of Willard McCarty’s phi-
losophy of modelling—to make data sets ‘tractable’ and ‘manipulable’.15
The goal of exploring data sets and models is to encourage new thinking

about the similarly, not identically, tight yet supple constructs—forms,

genres, styles, plots, characters, structures, contexts, and so forth—of lit-

Changing Workload Mixes in the Academy and Society

Bridging from academic to larger social contexts, I should declare that
a supplementary motive for inventing my Literature+ courses was to
address workload problems that will be depressingly familiar to all
humanities scholars who develop digital projects or, more generally, lead
collaborative projects requiring them to write grant proposals, learn new
methods and technologies, train research assistants, organise collabora-
tion and dissemination activities, and exercise ongoing budgetary and
other administrative oversight (in my own case, during a decade and a
half of nearly continuous grant-driven projects on small and large scales).
In the wake of budget and staff cutbacks at university systems like mine,
especially in the wake of the Great Recession with its catastrophic effect
on public universities in the USA and California in particular, humani-
ties scholars now individually have more and different kinds of work
to perform—more ordinary work, more mixed work, and more new
work chasing grants and ‘impact’. In this regard, they are just joining
the postindustrial workplace, where restructuring and downsizing since
the 1970s has generally led to increased workloads and more mixed or
changing work.16 In the specific case of the humanities, the question
might be asked: where does all that new and different work fit in one’s
workday (or work night), especially given that the humanities have few
traditional supports or direct rewards for grant-writing, collaboration,
or technology development? How might the workload that is the ‘new
normal’ be accommodated without perennial course relief, significant
increases in permanent FTE (full-time employment positions) for more
faculty and staff, and other such now unsustainable remedies that uni-
versity administrations are hard pressed to offer humanities scholars on
more than an ad hoc basis—especially when down another road lies the
temptation to offload work to more underpaid and/or career-precarious
temporary instructors and others?
The partial, mitigating solution hypothesised in my Literature+ courses
is for humanities faculty to include in their ordinary workload one or two
workshop/project-building courses each year. Courses of this sort effec-
tively lighten an instructor’s overall teaching load because they require less
144  A. Liu

formal class preparation during the part of each term devoted to project-
building or studio-style work. Yet they are not ‘instruction lite’ for two
reasons. One is that they call on all that an instructor can muster when
first developing innovative syllabi, assignments, technologies, and other
resources.17 The other is that such courses require instructors on a daily
basis to apply the best of themselves in mentoring individuals and pro-
ject teams, thus using the looser framework of the course (requiring fewer
formal lesson plans, writing of lectures, etc.) to release the deepest wells
of their experience. Not instruction lite, in other words, but instruction
different in a way that also fits in with larger workplace trends toward flex-
ible, project-based work.

A Different Role for Expertise in the World

Finally, I will mention just one more context that bridges even more
fully from the academy to the larger world. Over the next few decades,
it seems clear, higher education scholars will need to join many other
traditional faculties of organisational expertise—for example, govern-
ment or business analysts, media journalists, publishers, museum cura-
tors, and so on—in embracing, rather than simply reacting to, one of the
key consequences of the new information technologies: open networked
public knowledge (as exemplified in Wikipedia or the blogosphere).
Professional experts, in other words, will need to be able to contrib-
ute to, and also receive from, the new public knowledge in ways that
do not make them just the same as the mass public but preserves their
value-added role as an institutionally trained and housed body. That can
only happen through the invention of appropriate institutional mecha-
nisms—new organisational structures, promotion incentives, commu-
nication protocols, workflow patterns, and intellectual paradigms—to
support engagement with the public qua institutional experts and not,
as is now often the case when scholars make the attempt, as individuals
with personal blogs, Twitter accounts, and so forth. The impediments
to such institutional support for public engagement are not trivial, since
they include both procedural problems (e.g. how to use ‘alt-metric’ bib-
liometrics to accredit academic blogs and Twitter posts for promotion)
and fundamental epistemological impasses (e.g. the incommensurability
between academic standards and Wikipedia’s ‘no original research’ rule).
But signs of the potential for reciprocal engagement between expertise
and open public networked knowledge are everywhere—for example, the

growth of the ‘pro-amateur’ knowledge sphere (as sociologists term it),

‘crowdsourcing’ for research, ‘open access’ scholarly publication, initia-
tives by the Wikimedia Foundation and scholars to encourage academics
to write for Wikipedia, and so on.18
Ultimately, it might be hypothesised, the ability of higher education—
including perhaps especially the humanities—to reach out to the public
for continued funding and moral support will hinge on such potential for
reciprocal engagement, which changes the relation between the academy
and society from one that might be captioned, ‘you give us support, and we
will give you knowledge’, to one that can be recaptioned, ‘engage with us
in a two-way process of knowledge discovery, production, and curation so
that we can support each other’. Such public engagement has been a main
theme of the humanities advocacy projects I have recently been involved
in, for instance the 4Humanities initiative ( The
moment in class that I earlier described when students discover with both
delight and alarm that their work is being viewed by an outsider is sympto-
matic of the new public engagement.

I conclude by resuming the macro-disruptive perspective I earlier deferred

in favour of first considering the micro-disruptions that are the ‘quali-
ties’ of digital pedagogy. There has perhaps never been a time when issues
on the scale of world economies, world security, world health, world food
and water, world energy, world ecology, and so on have created such a need
for interdisciplinary work in the academy in collaboration with the pub-
lic sphere. For students—the best of whom are idealistic about such issues
but also worried about their careers—there has also perhaps never been a
time when the workplace seems more to reward ‘knowledge workers’ able to
engage digitally across the boundaries of expertise, work units, organisations,
and nations. And there certainly has never been a time when the digital tools
facilitating such interdisciplinarity and collaboration are more accessible,
shareable, and useable.
This, finally, is the macro social, economic, and political context—
entangled with the personal scale of the individual student struggling to
find a berth in the world—where MOOCs were discussed as a p ­ ossible
panacea. As envisioned, MOOCs were to offer digitally delivered video
lectures, discussion forums, peer grading, and so on that would allow
constrained resources to scale up to otherwise unattainable student
seat numbers, graduation rates, and opportunities for lifelong learn-
ing or retraining while also providing more responsive on-demand and
146  A. Liu

just-in-time curricula (such mass efficiency combined with custom flex-

ibility being the formula of ‘postindustrialism’). For some policy-makers
and industry leaders, privatisation—or the offloading of the responsibil-
ity for higher education from national or public universities to market-
driven providers—also seems ideal. If the quality of learning and teaching
on these platforms ever comes in for consideration, it is conceived wholly
on the basis of such an aggregate, large-market scale making it prima
facie credible that MOOCs have more total functional value (measured
quantitatively in terms of graduates, jobs, salaries, business start-ups,
gross domestic output, etc.) than the summed dysfunction alleged to
be the value of traditional higher education with its legacy inefficiencies,
slow-to-change structures, inability to meet immediate student and soci-
etal needs, and rising tuition fees.
My experience teaching Literature+ courses, small-scale and hybrid
as they are, does not by itself equip me to gainsay the macro-argument
for MOOCs—though, of course, like many other experienced higher
education scholars with administrative experience (in my case, serving
as chair of my English department in the University of California sys-
tem during the Great Recession), I have other grounds for thinking that
the ‘disruptive innovation’ promised by the champions of MOOCs will
prove to be merely disruptive. In particular, I fear that it will truncate
the ‘OOC’ to leave us only with the ‘M’—in other words, ‘massive’ but
not ‘open’ in a socially meaningful way; not truly ‘online’ (­enacting only
an incomplete porting of the older top-down, one-way delivery para-
digm to the decentralised, two-way paradigms of Web 2.0 and mobile
computing); and not ‘creative’ in the actual learning and ­teaching expe-
rience. But, true to my long-term willingness to adopt digital technol-
ogy in areas such as the humanities that did not initially seem amenable
to it, I am quite open to the possibility that the technologies, practices,
personnel structures, and business plans that have gone into MOOCs
will ameliorate. Perhaps they might even add the necessary meta-sup-
port structures that will allow them not just to provide instruction today
but also to prepare tomorrow’s generations of scholars (or their equiva-
lents) who will be our teachers in the future and the creators of future
knowledge. To be planters of corn and not just eaters of seed corn,
after all, MOOCs will likely need to end up supporting a whole under-
lying ecology of research and training able to produce ‘star’ professors
at the top, not to mention seeds of new knowledge for those profes-
sors to MOOC—at which point they will have de facto become a variant

of the present higher education system, especially if they come under

governmental or legalistic scrutiny to ensure that they fairly serve the
needs of society’s multiple constituencies.
What my experience in Literature+ courses does give me a basis for
pointing out, however, is that the quality of MOOCs as they evolve
will need to be posed at some point not just at the macro scale but in
comparison to the sorts of micro-disruptive ‘qualities’ I discussed. Only
when such particular qualities are identified and analysed can we engage
fruitfully in comparing the quality of MOOCs with those of other edu-
cational pedagogies, traditional or hybrid. For example, how will the
intermixing of learning and teaching in a MOOC compare to that of
other pedagogies using digital technology? How will the intermixing
of individual and team work compare? Will MOOCs be able to match
hybrid digital courses in remixing content and process? In building and
interpreting? In coursework and public presentation? And with regard
to the larger intermixings of disciplines, modes of work, and expert/
vernacular knowledge I mentioned: will MOOC digital pedagogies be
equal to the task of giving students the knowledge and practice they need
to flourish in those changed socioeconomic and sociocultural milieus?
(How interdisciplinary are most current MOOCs, for instance? Does lis-
tening to a video lecture, sometimes in fast-forward, really prepare one
for the style of multitasked yet also collaborative work attentive to oth-
ers that society today values? Do MOOCs encourage the intermixing of
expertise and collective social good?) These questions are all open ones;
the answers will need to be taken up one quality at a time.
Finally, a note of caution for humanities scholars in particular. It is
not just the case that MOOCs or any other digitally facilitated pedagogy
will need to prove to ‘us’ that they can live up to our standards of what
counts as true learning and teaching. The reverse is also true: it will be
up to humanities scholars, including but not limited to digital human-
ists, to prove to other academic disciplines and social sectors that the
humanities can help experiment with new ways to train students to meet
the needs of, and also to benefit from, today’s work of knowledge. That
means not just taking an oar, but helping steer in a way that adds the
unique value of the humanities. I stated earlier that ‘a grand remixing of
categories and roles is underway in a manner that, for better or worse,
typifies “knowledge societies” and “knowledge economies” in today’s
developed nations’. The phrase ‘for better or worse’ signals that many
humanists are wary of the neoliberal political-economic views that define
148  A. Liu

our age as one of knowledge society-cum-economy. The humanist’s con-

cern is that in such a world, the development of nations will wholly sub-
sume education such that learning and teaching will be synonymous with
‘development’ stripped of any of its older associations with humanistic
Bildung (self and civilizational development). For the humanities to add
their unique value to such development will require that they help cre-
ate pedagogies that can train students to contribute both to the knowl-
edge economy and to civilization. For example, might digitally assisted
humanities courses teach students to manage spreadsheets, databases,
reports, code, and other forms of contemporary techno-knowledge so
that the bleak, blinkered perspectives that are the usual purview of such
forms expand to offer scope for fuller ethical intelligence, social aware-
ness, communicational fluency, aesthetic/design sensibility, and other
cultural quotients of a robust human knowledge?

1. See, e.g., Thomas L. Friedman’s much noted op-ed piece entitled ‘The
Professor’s Big Stage’ in the New York Times, 5 March 2013 (http://
big-stage.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=1). Friedman’s endorse-
ment of the MOOC concept ends by reporting on an analogy made
by Clayton Christensen between MOOCs and ‘disruptive innovation’
in business—a kind of discourse that was common in discussions of
MOOCs (see, e.g., the quotations from leaders of the companies behind
MOOCs in Laura Pappano, ‘The Year of the MOOC’, New York Times,
2 November 2012,
pace.html?pagewanted=all). Friedman’s endorsement, however, also
acknowledges a ‘strong consensus’ that a ‘blended model’ of hybrid
online/classroom pedagogy is ‘ideal’, and that ‘there is still huge value in
the residential college experience and the teacher–student and student–
student interactions it facilitates’ (Friedman 2013) (Pappano 2012).
2. The European Classification of Higher Education Institution’s U-Map site
offers ‘two tools to enhance transparency’: ProfileFinder, which ‘produces
a list of higher education institutions (HEIs) that are comparable on the
characteristics you selected’, and ProfileViewer, which ‘gives you an institu-
tional activity profile you can use to compare three HEIs’ (http://www.u- Australia similarly considered implementing a version of the
U-Map tools (Andrew Trounson, ‘Australia’s New Accountability Tool’,

Inside Higher Ed 13 February 2013,

universities). The ‘College Scorecard’ tool created by the US Department
of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center in 2013
(announced in President Obama’s State of the Union speech that year)
was available prior to the change to a new administration at http://www.
3. ‘Hybrid’ as the term is used in my context ‘refers to learning that happens
both in a classroom (or other physical space) and online’ (Jesse Stommel,
‘Hybridity, Pt. 2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy?’ Hybrid Pedagogy 10 March
4. The pilot version of Literature+ was an undergraduate course I taught in 2006–
2007 (archived at I have since
taught more evolved versions of the course at both the undergraduate level
(once co-teaching it with my colleague James Donelan) and the graduate level.
Websites for the courses include:
Undergraduate Version:
Graduate Version:
The undergraduate courses are part of my English department’s Literature
and Culture of Information (LCI) specialisation, a curricular ‘track’ for
English majors awarding a supplementary credential.
5. Quoted from the homepage of the Winter 2009 undergraduate version
of Literature+ , This instance
of the course was co-taught with James Donelan. For a 2014 instance
of the undergraduate course I revised the description to the following
(reflecting the greater cohesiveness and visibility of ‘digital humanities’ as
a field):

Digital technologies and methods have recently become important

in the humanities as scholars use the new tools not only to help
read and write about literary, historical, and artistic materials in
traditional ways but in new ways influenced—not just communi-
cated by—the new media forms. Literature+ is a course that draws
on the new fields of ‘digital humanities’ and ‘new media studies’ to
ask students to think about, and experiment with, how new digital
methods enhance the study of literature.
150  A. Liu

Students choose a literary work and use digital methods to model,

map, visualize, text-analyze, social-network-analyze, blog, or other-
wise interpret it using new tools and media. How can such methods
augment or change our understanding of literature by comparison
with other methods of literary interpretation? What is the relation,
for example, between ‘close reading’ of literary texts and ‘distant
reading’ methods that identify trends in language or themes across
thousands of texts? (

6. Reading assignments I have required over the years include material

from Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary
History (London; New York: Verso, 2005), Willard McCarty, Humanities
Computing (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Lisa Samuels
and Jerome McGann, ‘Deformance and Interpretation’, New Literary
History 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1999): 25–56; Stephen Ramsay, Reading
Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Urbana-Champaign: University
of Illinois Press, 2011); and Geoffrey Rockwell, ‘What is Text Analysis,
Really?’ Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 209–219. The
graduate version of the course includes more extensive readings; see, e.g.,
Reading assignments are grouped under topics such as ‘close reading’, ‘dis-
tance reading’, ‘deformance’, ‘modelling’, ‘gaming’, ‘visualisation’, and so
on. Given the time constraints of the course (10 weeks in my university’s
quarter system), I include in each particular course only a few such repre-
sentative methods (Moretti 2005; McCarty 2005; Samuels and McGann
1999; Ramsay 2011; Rockwell 2003).
7. My ‘Digital Toy Chest for Humanists’ is at http://dhresourcesforproject- A much fuller listing of tools is the DiRT (Digital
Research Tools) site at
8. The undergraduate version of the course is housed in an English depart-
ment-controlled classroom with an instructor’s workstation, digital pro-
jector, and wifi, supplemented by ‘loaner’ laptops for students without
their own laptops. During the studio-work portion of the course, stu-
dents and the instructor often migrate to the Transcriptions Center in my
department, a facility with a suite of workstations at one end and a semi-
nar table with a projector at the other. Graduate versions of the course
generally meet in the Transcriptions Center.
9. For these and other student projects, see the project pages on the course
wiki sites for the instances of Literature+ cited in n. 4 above.
10. Robin Wharton, ‘Building in the Humanities Isn’t New’, Hybrid
Pedagogy 28 May 2013,
files/Building_in_the_Humanities_isnt_New.html (Wharton 2013). (For

Wharton’s own experiment in digital hybrid pedagogy, see the syllabus

for her course on ‘The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Geoffrey Chaucer’,
Jesse Stommel’s essay in the same journal similarly speaks of hybrid peda-
gogy as focused on ‘intersections’ between the following binaries:
Physical Learning Space/Virtual Learning Space
Academic Space/Extra-academic Space
On-ground Classrooms/Online Classrooms
Permanent Faculty/Contingent Faculty
Institutional Education/Informal Education
Garden-walled Academia/Open Education
Academic Product/Learning Process
Performed (School-y) Selves/Real (Vulnerable) Selves
Individual Teachers, Students, and Scholars/Collaborative Communities
Learning in Schools/Learning in the World
Analog Pedagogy/Digital Pedagogy
Use of Tools/Critical Engagement with Tools
Machine and Machine-like Interaction/Human Interaction
Passive Learning/Experiential Learning
Teaching and Learning/Critical Pedagogy
Stommel adds: ‘each of these binaries is currently being challenged by the
evolution of educational technology’ (‘Hybridity, Pt. 2: What is Hybrid
Pedagogy?’, Hybrid Pedagogy, 10 March 2012, http://www.hybridpeda-
11. The relation between building and interpreting, or ‘hack and yack’, has
been much discussed in the digital humanities field. See for example the
essays in the ‘Conversations’ section of Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1
(2011),—e.g. the introduc-
tion to that section by Natalia Cecire entitled ‘Introduction: Theory and
the Virtues of Digital Humanities’.
12. Alan Liu, ‘Digital Humanities and Academic Change’, English Language
Notes 47 (2009), special issue on ‘Experimental Literary Education’:
13. For information on these agencies and grant programs, see: National Science
Foundation, ‘Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship
Program (IGERT)’,
id=12759; National Endowment for the Humanities, ‘Office of Digital
Humanities’,; American Council of
Learned Societies, ‘ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships’ http://www.acls.
org/grants/Default.aspx?id=508; MacArthur Foundation, ‘Building the
152  A. Liu

Field of Digital Media and Learning’,

14. On this incident, see also my ‘Digital Humanities and Academic Change’, 26.
15.  McCarty: ‘Two effects of computing sharpen the distinction between
“concept” on the one hand and the “model” on the other: first, the com-
putational demand for tractability, i.e. for complete explicitness and abso-
lute consistency; second, the manipulability that a digital representation
provides’ (Humanities Computing, 25).
16. See my Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004) for more extended dis-
cussion of postindustrial workplace trends, esp. chs 1 and 4.
17. One way that forward-looking universities can foster innovation in the
humanities is to provide seed-funding for assistance in developing digital
research projects integrated with the development of new hybrid peda-
gogy courses. On my own campus, I helped draw up plans for a digital
‘humanities incubator’ for this purpose (though the planning was ill-
timed because the California budget crisis during the Great Recession
stopped any further progress). The main idea is that groups of faculty
should be able to apply on a competitive basis for an annual development
seminar and resources fund giving them access to high-level technology
consultants, staff, and research assistants; cross-project brainstorming;
and other support dedicated to hatching innovative humanities research
projects that also involve an organic curricular component. The goal is
a collaborative deliverable research product complemented by courses
instead of the more usual humanities paradigm of talking events (confer-
ences, colloquia, etc.) leading to individual scholarly deliverables (articles
and books) with no direct link to curricular development.
18. On these phenomena related to open public networked knowledge, see
Robert A. Stebbins, Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure (Montreal:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992); Charles Leadbeater and Paul
Miller, The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts are Changing our
Economy and Society (London: Demos, 2004 (available online at http://; Charles Leadbeater,
We Think: Mass Innovation, Not Mass Production (London: Profile, 2010);
Ruth Finnegan, ed., Participating in the Knowledge Society: Research
beyond University Walls (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
2005); Melissa Terras, ‘Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation Via Amateur
Digitization’, Literary and Linguistic Computing 25.4 (2010): 425–438;
Dan Cohen, ‘Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values’, Dan Cohen,
27 May 2010,
publishing-and-scholarly-values/ (my thanks to Shana Kimball for this
reference); Zoe Corbyn, ‘Wikipedia Wants More Contributions From

Academics’, The Guardian, 29 March 2011,


Acknowledgement    Portions of this essay—primarily the section on “The

Literature+ Course” and some parts of the section on “Wider Contexts”—are
adapted and updated from my earlier article ‘Literature+,’ Currents in Electronic
Literacy (2008): 19 January 2009,
plus.html. My gratitude to Currents in Electronic Literacy for permission to use the
earlier piece as a starting point here.

Friedman, Thomas L. 2013. The Professor’s Big Stage. New York Times, March 5.
McCarty, Willard. 2005. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Moretti, Franco. 2005. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History.
London: Verso.
Pappano, Laura. 2012. The Year of the MOOC. New York Times, November 2.
Ramsay, Stephen. 2011. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.
Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Rockwell, Geoffrey. 2003. What is Text Analysis, Really? Literary and Linguistic
Computing 18 (2): 209–220.
Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome McGann. 1999. Deformance and Interpretation. New
Literary History 30 (1): 25–56.
Stommel, Jesse. 2012. Hybridity, Pt. 2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy? Hybrid
Pedagogy, 10 March.
Wharton, Robin. 2013. Building in the Humanities Isn’t New. Hybrid Pedagogy,
May 28.

Author Biography
Alan Liu  is Professor in the English Department at the University of California,
Santa Barbara. His books include Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989); The
Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (2004); and Local
Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database (2008). Recent
essays include ‘The Meaning of the Digital Humanities’ (2013), ‘Where is
Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?’ (2012), ‘The State of the Digital
Humanities: A Report and a Critique’ (2012), and ‘Friending the Past: The
Sense of History and Social Computing’ (2011). Liu started the Voice of the
Shuttle website for humanities research in 1994. He is founder and co-leader of
the advocacy initiative.

Teaching Stylistics: Foregrounding in E.E.


Dan McIntyre and Lesley Jeffries

What Is Stylistics?
Stylistics is the linguistic study of style in language. It aims to account for
how texts project meaning, how readers construct meaning, and why read-
ers respond to texts in the way that they do. The object of study of stylistics
is often literature, but is not limited to literary texts as the linguistic choices
of speakers and writers in all language use can have important consequences.
Although authorial style is of interest, there are many other aspects
of style that we may wish to investigate. These include, for example, the
style of genres such as advertising or political speeches, as well as the sty-
listic effects to be seen in individual texts. In this chapter we illustrate
stylistic analysis using a single poem to link the linguistic choices of the
poet to the poem’s literary effects.
In order to produce insights into the literary effects of a text, it helps
to approach the analysis in a systematic way. This avoids the danger
of only describing those textual features that are most obvious from a

D. McIntyre (*) · L. Jeffries 
University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK
L. Jeffries

© The Author(s) 2017 155

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_10

cursory reading. We can think of language as comprising a number of

different levels ranging from the smallest units of structure (phonemes)
through intermediate size units (morphemes and words) to larger units
(phrases, clauses, and sentences). One way of being systematic is to com-
prehensively describe the text using each level of language in turn. This
description will form the basis of a stylistic analysis, which will usually
focus on the foregrounded elements of the description. Foregrounded
elements are those features that differ from the surrounding language
(internal deviation) or from our expectations of the language in general
(external deviation).

Using Poems to Teach Stylistics and Stylistics to Teach

One of the reasons for using poems to teach stylistics is that the short
lyric poem is amenable to comprehensive description as a first step on
which to base the full stylistic analysis. Trying to analyse the whole of
a novel on every linguistic level is a huge endeavour so the length of a
poem is often more suitable for introductory work with students. In
addition, poems have a tendency to feature more deviant uses of lan-
guage than novels or plays, making them ideal for finding exemplars of
stylistic concepts.
One of the reasons for using stylistics to teach poems is that students
often find reading poetry a challenge precisely because poems frequently
include deviant language. Stylistics provides a way of accounting for and
understanding such deviation. The process of describing and analysing a
text stylistically can therefore help students to interpret what they per-
ceive to be difficult texts. However, stylistic analysis is much more than a
remedial technique for understanding literature. Stylistics enables readers
to notice things about a text that might otherwise go unobserved and
support literary insights with textual evidence. This level of explication
allows others to engage with the interpretation being put forward on the
basis of the evidence provided, meaning that agreement and disagree-
ment can be discussed on a rigorous basis, rather than multiplying inter-
pretations with no points of contact. We aim to demonstrate the value
of stylistics by analysing a poem by E.E. Cummings. Following this, we
suggest some approaches to teaching material of this kind from a stylistic

Poem 63 by E.E. Cummings

Poem 63 (or ‘(listen)’) is taken from E.E. Cummings’s 1964 collec-
tion 73 Poems. None of the poems in the collection have titles but are
instead referred to by number. The poem is typical of Cummings’s style
and contains some striking uses of language. There is, for example, a
lack of capitalisation where it might normally be expected, strange use
of punctuation, and the seemingly odd structure of particular phrases.
Interestingly, in the past, some literary critics disregarded this appar-
ently odd use of language as being of no interpretative significance. R.P.
Blackmur, for example, a critic writing in 1954, had this to say about the
strange linguistic choices in Cummings’s poems:

extensive consideration of these peculiarities today has very little impor-

tance, carries almost no reference to the meaning of the poems. (Blackmur
1954: 320)

The view that Blackmur gives is now extremely dated. What he refers
to as ‘peculiarities’ are in fact highly significant linguistic deviations and
it is important for us to assume that every foregrounded element of a
piece of writing has a possible interpretative significance. Evidence that
this is the case is provided by van Peer (1986), whose empirical research
demonstrates that readers treat foregrounded elements of a text as sig-
nificantly meaningful and highly interpretable. Stylistic analysis enables us
to describe and explain such foregrounding. Here is poem 63:

[1] (listen)
this a dog barks and
how crazily houses
eyes people smiles
[5] faces streets
steeples are eagerly
ing through wonder
ful sunlight
[10] – look –
quickly come

run run
[15] with me now
jump shout(laugh
dance cry
sing)for it’s Spring
- irrevocably;
[20] and in
earth sky trees:every
where a miracle
you and I may not
[25] hurry it with
a thousand poems
my darling
but nobody will
stop it
With All The
Policemen In The

Whilst the punctuation and graphology of the poem is the most noticeable
feature of its language, a systematic analysis of all the levels of language
using a stylistic approach enables the reader to interpret the poem more
confidently, bringing linguistic evidence to bear on the interpretation.

A Stylistic Analysis of Poem 63

After making a comprehensive description of all the textual features at
each level of language, the analysis itself can be organised in a number
of ways. Here, we order our observations largely according to the levels
of language, rather than, for example, the structure of the poem itself or
using stylistic concepts to organise our discussion.

If we begin by looking at the smallest units of linguistic structure
(graphemes and phonemes) there are examples of deviation both visu-
ally (graphology) and aurally (phonology). Perhaps the most obvi-
ous aspect of graphological deviation in poem 63 is the consistent use
of lower case letters where we would normally expect capitals. This is

typical of Cummings’s poetry, which breaks with the normal conventions

of written language in order to foreground his own usage. This external
deviation creates an internal consistency whereby the reader learns not
to expect capital letters in the usual places. The result of this aspect of
authorial style is that where Cummings does use capitalisation it is inter-
nally deviant, consequently foregrounded and therefore meaningful.
Because of this foregrounding we can infer that the word ‘Spring’ in line
19 is an important concept in the poem, since it is the first word with
initial capitalisation. Likewise, the final line of the poem is heavily fore-
grounded by each word beginning with a capital letter, going beyond the
norms of everyday English to capitalise even the grammatical (or func-
tion) words ‘with’, ‘all’, ‘the’, and ‘in’. This final line emphasises the idea
being expressed in the poem; namely that nothing (least of all poetry)
and nobody is able to stop the progression of spring or the poet’s love
for his addressee—not even conventionally powerful people such as
Other graphological deviations include the use of brackets and punc-
tuation marks in grammatically unexpected places (‘are(leaves;flowers)
dreams’); words split across line endings; hyphens between letters in a
word (o-p-e-n-i-n-g), and the lack of spaces between words and punctu-
ation (selves,stir:writhe). Some of these deviations result in iconic effects
(see Jeffries 2010; Fischer 2014) whereby the form directly mirrors the
meaning in some way. In lines 12 and 13, for example—‘o-p-e-n-i-n-g/
are(leaves;flowers)dreams’—the bracketed part of line 13 seems to mean
that leaves and flowers are physically opening at the same time as the
poet’s dreams are opening metaphorically. If this had been a simple con-
ventional list (leaves, flowers, and dreams), there would not be the same
juxtaposition between physical and metaphysical objects. The semantic
deviation here results from the mismatch of the physical verb ‘open’ and
the fact that dreams, being abstract, cannot actually open, so this part of
the line is foregrounded too. This may suggest that with the arrival of
spring the speaker becomes more aware of his dreams and aspirations,1
more ‘open’ in the sense of receptive and unguarded. Cummings tries to
capture the idea of a multitude of thoughts occurring simultaneously by
breaking graphological conventions.
In lines 7 and 8, Cummings divides the word ‘tumbling’ so that
the progressive morpheme ‘-ing’ appears on a separate line. This fore-
grounds the verb and also creates an iconic effect where the verb appears
to ‘tumble’ from one line to the next and so we experience the meaning

through its visual as well as its linguistic form. Similarly, the word ‘won-
derful’ runs across two lines (10–11) and as a consequence is highly fore-
grounded. Dividing the word into its constituent morphemes (‘wonder’
and ‘ful’) allows us two interpretative effects. We first read the word as
the noun ‘wonder’, and then as the adjective ‘wonderful’. The graph-
ological deviation here foregrounds the word and creates a density of
In line 12 Cummings uses deviant graphology to split the progressive
participle ‘opening’ into its component letters (‘o-p-e-n-i-n-g’). Again,
this foregrounds the verb and creates a visual representation of the mean-
ing of the word, suggesting iconically that the opening is a long, drawn-
out process, reminiscent of the slow rate at which flowers come into
If we look closely at the occurrences of graphological deviation in the
poem, we can see that it often works to foreground the dynamic verbs—
that is, those verbs which indicate action of some sort. Line 10 (‘-look-’)
is an example of this. The line consists of a single verb in the imperative
mood, foregrounded by a hyphen either side of it. The initial verb of
line 14 is also foregrounded due to the deviant punctuation (a comma
is used to begin the line). And in line 11 (‘selves,stir:writhe’) the verbs
are foregrounded through being connected by a colon and by the lack of
spaces between words. Other actions are foregrounded in different ways.
In line 15 we get repetition of the verb, and in lines 16, 17, and 18 the
verbs occur in an unpunctuated list, with the list in brackets running on
to a new line. The fact that all the dynamic verbs are foregrounded in
some way brings to the attention of the reader the centrality of energy
and action in the poem.

Phonological patterning in the poem can be seen in the repetition of par-
ticular sounds. Although ‘(listen)’ does not have a rhyme scheme of any
regularity (though there is a regularity to its graphological organisation
on the page), Cummings does make use of internal rhyme at particular
points within the poem. What is noticeable is that there is phonological
patterning in each stanza except the last one. Often we find a repetition
of vowel sounds in words in close proximity to each other, as we can see
in the examples below (repeated vowel sounds are in bold):

how crazily houses [3]

/haʊ kreɪzɪlɪ haʊzəz/
eyes people smiles [4]
/aɪz pi:pəl smaɪlz/
steeples are eagerly [6]
/sti:pəlz əri:gəlɪ/
…wonder/ful sunlight [8, 9]
/wʌndəfʊl sʌnlaɪt/
,come quickly come [14]
/kʌm kwɪklɪ kʌm/
sing) for it’s Spring [19]
/sɪŋ fər ɪʔsprɪŋ/

What we can note from this is that the absence of phonological paral-
lelism in the last stanza again foregrounds this part of the poem. The
last stanza, then, is heavy with deviation (both internal and external, at
a number of different linguistic levels), which suggests it is important in
interpretative terms. We will argue that the crux of the poem’s meaning
is conveyed in this last stanza and highlighted by a congruence of fore-
grounded features.

Lacking normal punctuation, it is not immediately obvious where the
sentence boundaries are in this poem. However, the reader will natu-
rally make clauses out of what initially appear to be random sequences
of words, and some of these appear to have an inverted word order, with
the grammatical object preceding the subject and verb. This could be
the case in line 2 (‘this a dog barks’) where if we interpret ‘this’ as the
object, it is not clear whether it refers back to the first line (‘(listen)’) or
whether it refers to something else that the dog is communicating (by
its bark). There is also the possibility for interpreting ‘this a dog’ as two
noun phrases in apposition, which both refer to the dog. The effect of
overwhelming activity and confusion, linked to excitement, is embodied
in this syntactic ambiguity.
In lines 12 and 13 (‘o-p-e-n-i-n-g/are(leaves;flowers)dreams’) the
inverted syntax makes the grammatical subjects (‘leaves’, ‘flowers’,
‘dreams’) the focus of the clause and produces a delay in understand-
ing as the verb (‘opening’) is unusually placed first, but the reader does

not know what it is that is opening until after the verbal element has
been processed. This enhances the effect mentioned earlier in connection
with the unusual graphology, underlining the slow process of the arrival
of spring and its euphoric connotations.
The other foregrounded feature in the syntax of the poem is the fact
that there are clause elements such as grammatical subject or predica-
tor (verb phrase) which are made up of abnormally long sequences of
nouns or verbs. These include lines 3–6: ‘houses/eyes people smiles/
faces streets/steeples’, where the list of nouns all perform the function
of the subject of the verb phrase ‘are tumbling’. The effect is to over-
whelm the reader in the processing of this clause, producing a sense of
jumbled images and chaotic, but exciting, impressions. The list combines
nouns for people and aspects of their bodies (eyes, faces, smiles) with
nouns referring to static features of the townscape (streets, houses, stee-
ples). The dynamic verb ‘tumbling’ produces an effect of all these things
moving, though in fact some of them are unable to do so. The overall
impression is of a person moving quickly through an urban environment
and seeing all the images flash by.
The other abnormally long sequence of items is the list of imperative
verbs in lines 14–19: ‘come quickly come/run run/with me now/jump
shout(laugh/dance cry/sing)’. Again, there is a sense of chaotic energy
as these are all dynamic verbs and the addressee is being exhorted to per-
form each one. A similar effect is created by all the other verbs in the
poem which are marked for tense (finite verbs) and are in the present
tense. So, we have present simple verbs such as ‘barks’ [2], ‘is’ [19] and
‘arrives’ [24] and present progressive forms such as ‘are [eagerly] tumb/
ling’ [6/7/8] and ‘o-p-e-n-i-n-g/are’ [12/13]. In addition to helping
establish the sense of immediacy, the progressive participles (‘tumbling’
and ‘opening’) indicate the continuous nature of the actions, as if the
poem is charting the arrival of spring as it happens.

Lexis and Semantics
In our discussion of syntax above, we began to consider the types of
verbs in the poem and noted that the majority are dynamic (as opposed
to stative). Examining the types of words is revealing since, although
there is no lexical deviation in the poem, it is clear that there is a

distinctive pattern of usage. Despite his reputation for unusual usage,

cummings does not take the opportunity to invent new lexical words
here, though many poets do so and in other poems cummings uses lexi-
cal words in new ways. The table below shows the open class (or lexi-
cal) words in the poem (as opposed to closed class or grammatical words
such as prepositions, determiners, etc.)

Table 10.1 Distribu-
Nouns Main verbs Adjectives Adverbs
tion of open class words
in poem 63 Dog Listen Wonderful Crazily
Houses Barks Eagerly
Eyes Tumbling Quickly
People Look Irrevocably
Smiles Stir
Faces Writhe
Streets Opening
Steeples Come (×2)
Sunlight Run (×2)
Leaves Jump
Flowers Shout
Dreams Laugh
Earth Dance
Sky Cry
Trees Sing
Miracle ’[i]s
Poems Arrives
Policemen Hurry
World Stop
19 21 1 4

We can see from the above table that the poem consists mainly of
nouns and verbs. We have already commented on the types of main verbs
in the poem, noting that with one exception (‘’[i]s’) these are dynamic
verbs, primarily of movement. This accounts for the sense of energy in
the poem. What is also apparent is that ten of these—‘listen’, ‘look’,
‘come’, ‘run’, ‘jump’, ‘shout’, ‘laugh’, ‘dance’, ‘cry’, and ‘sing’—are
in the imperative mood with the speech act force of an exhortation.
This creates a sense of excitement as a result of the speaker imploring
the addressee to join him in his celebration of the arrival of spring. It
is also noteworthy that there are more adverbs than adjectives present.
Movement is intrinsic to the poem and this is supplemented by adverbs

of manner that qualify the movement. The relative lack of adjectives

is perhaps explained by the fact that the energy and excitement of the
poem, and the speaker’s exhilarating movement through the streetscape,
is such that this leaves insufficient time for qualifying the assortment of
images he sees.
What is apparent about the nouns in the poem is that these are mostly
concrete—that is, they refer to physical objects—and that natural objects
(e.g. ‘earth’, ‘flowers’, ‘trees’) are juxtaposed with man-made objects
(e.g. ‘houses’, ‘streets’, ‘steeples’). The abstract nouns too are either
related to nature (‘sunlight’, ‘sky’) or humans (‘smiles’, ‘dreams’, ‘mira-
cle’), such that it is possible to divide the nouns into two rough areas of
meaning, or semantic fields (see Table 10.2):

Table 10.2  Distribution of nouns in two semantic fields

Nouns related to nature Nouns related to humans

Dog, sunlight, leaves, flowers, earth, sky, Houses, eyes, people, smiles, faces, streets,
trees, world steeples, dreams, miracle, poems, policemen

The mixture in the poem of nouns belonging to these two different

semantic classes demonstrates a juxtaposition between nature and man
which perhaps emphasises the speaker’s perception of the natural process
of spring’s arrival as something miraculous.

Congruence of Foregrounding in the Final Stanza

Our account of the poem so far suggests it to be a celebration of the
imminent arrival of spring and all the joy and newness this brings. There
is a dynamic feel to the poem and along with the references to new life
we can note related sexual connotations; the poem seems also to be an
address to a lover to share the poet’s happiness, and to acknowledge
the inevitability of the natural world and all that this encompasses. The
themes of spring and sex and nature and humanity are intertwined, and
we might interpret the poem as a tongue-in-cheek plea to a lover to let
nature take its course. The speaker’s point appears to be that, like the
arrival of spring, his love is inevitable and cannot be stopped. Our analy-
sis above has pointed to the foregrounded features in the poem that trig-
ger this interpretation. We have also pointed out that the final stanza
of the poem is slightly different, in that it is not deviant in the sense of

being very different from Standard English. What makes it stand out
is its internal deviance: its difference from what has come before in the
poem. This is then emphasised by external deviation in the final line of
the poem. The final stanza as a whole, then, contains large amounts of
deviation at various linguistic levels, giving rise to what Leech (1969)
describes as ‘congruence’ of foregrounding. This is the presence of lots
of different types of foregrounding in a concentrated part of the text and
may be seen as increasing the interpretative significance of this part of
the poem.
The internal deviation in the last stanza occurs at a number of lin-
guistic levels. At the phonological level, unlike in the other stanzas, there
is a lack of any sound patterning. At the syntactic level, the grammati-
cal ordering of the stanza follows the rules of Standard English syntax.
At the lexical level, there is the only use of pronouns (‘you’ and ‘I’) in
the poem. We can note too that the romantic relationship between the
speaker and whomever he is addressing is made clear by the phrase ‘my
The final line of the poem is then foregrounded by means of exter-
nal graphological deviation as a result of the initial capitalisation of each
word in the line. The effect of all this is to make it unusually easy for
us to understand the last stanza. There is no difficult interpretative work
to do (in comparison to the rest of the poem) and so the final message
of the poem is made extremely clear; nothing and nobody can stop the
progress of spring and the speaker’s love, the implication being, perhaps,
that we should not struggle against these forces, but simply resign our-
selves to accepting and becoming participants in them.

How to Teach Poem 63 Using Stylistics

There are very many ways to approach the study of this poem’s lan-
guage, but here is one option, which takes the levels of language one by
one and builds up a description, followed by analysis, at each level.

Phonetic Transcription
It can be useful, depending on the student group, to get them to make
a complete phonetic transcription of the poem. For those not already
familiar with phonetic symbols, this may mean a detour to learn the IPA
(International Phonetic Alphabet), which is time consuming, but once

acquired, this knowledge can change the appreciation of the music of

poetic language. After a complete transcription has been produced (pos-
sibly as a collective task), this comprehensive description of the phonology
of the poem may reveal patterns of consonants and/or vowels which can
be investigated for musical or meaningful significance. Here are some of
the interpretative tasks that the students can be set in relation to any poem:

1. Search for dense concentrations of certain sounds or types of

sound. This can include individual sounds, but is often more likely
to be a class of consonant (e.g. plosives or fricatives) or vowels
(e.g. back vowels or long vowels).
2. Where there is patterning, consider whether it is musical or
directly meaningful. It may simply be that the observed patterns
make musical sense, and this can be analysed in terms of its pat-
tern (e.g. end-rhymes or internal rhymes; alliterative or assonantal
patterns). Some of these patterns are also a way of foregrounding
significant parts of the poem whose syntactic or semantic features
may contribute to an interpretation. More iconic use of sound is
also common and it is worth spending time working through the
articulatory and acoustic properties of the different classes of con-
sonant and vowel to establish any direct (iconic) or indirect (index-
ical) uses of sound patterning. Thus, for example, the perceived
sharpness of plosive consonants arises from their articulation which
requires there to be a complete closure at some point in the vocal
tract, allowing the exhaled air from the lungs to build up until the
pressure causes the articulators to burst apart, producing the short
explosive sound which gives plosives their name. These sounds are
inevitably short because the sound only lasts whilst the pressure is
released. The possibilities of iconic representation by plosives are
many, but include all short sharp sounds, such as gunfire, slammed
doors, shouting, dogs barking, and so on. More indirect (indexi-
cal) links from plosives to meaning might be that since they are
short sounds, they can be used to infer small size or insignificance
or distance. The possibilities of phonological meaning are very
broad and the risks for students is that they may read too much
into their analysis. This tendency can be tempered by insisting that
they explain exactly why, in a particular poem, the back vowels (for
example) link to darkness or negativity whilst the front vowels con-
note light and air.

3. It can be the case, as in the Cummings poem, that there is inter-
nal deviation whereby some parts of the poem are full of phono-
logical patterning and others are not. Here, there is nothing of
significance going on in the phonology of the last stanza, though
the earlier stanzas have the vowel patterns we observed above.
The foregrounding of the last stanza in this way makes it sound
like ‘normal’ speech and this contrast with the highly unusual look
and sound of the earlier stanzas makes the direct address to the
beloved addressee all the more striking in its simplicity. In the case
of this poem, the students could be asked at this stage to consider
whether the final stanza is also foregrounded by internal deviation
on the other linguistic levels and how these different instances of
foregrounding work together to produce the overall effect.

The look of this poem is one of its most obviously foregrounded fea-
tures, and students will quickly comment on this. However, it is worth
working methodically through the different types of graphological fea-
ture including layout on the page (less relevant here than in some
concrete poetry), placing and use of punctuation, and lineation. The sys-
tematic investigation is more likely to produce nuanced discussion of the
effects than an impressionistic description of the main oddities that strike
the eye. Thus, it is worth looking at the sets of brackets and deciding
what is odd about them in each case and what kind of meaningful effect
they have each time. Are any of them similar in use and effect? Also, do
the hyphens, which are used within words as well as between words,
work differently in each case?

It may seem a bit dull to have to list all the morphological structures pre-
sent in the poem, but it is just this kind of detailed description that pro-
duces insights which we could not achieve otherwise. Strangely, students
who are feeling a little anxious about the stylistic endeavour can also find
it reassuring to go through the descriptive phase whereby they iden-
tify forms and can get ‘right’ answers. The harder part is teaching them
to identify the significant (usually foregrounded) parts of the resulting
description. The following are some of the descriptive and interpretative
processes that students can (singly or in groups) be asked to perform:

1. Identify the word classes of all the words in the poem and their
forms. This would result in the recognition in the Cummings
poem that the verb phrases are mostly in present tense (and some-
times continuous) forms and this observation can be discussed in
relation to the poem’s themes and meaning. The noun forms are
largely plural in the poem, which adds to the impression of abun-
dance and overwhelming of the senses, particularly the visual sense.
2. Identify free and bound morphemes. This is already achieved by
the previous task, but in identifying the morphemic construc-
tion of the words, the contrast between splitting words between
two free morphemes (e.g. every-where) and between a free and
a bound morpheme (e.g. tumbl-ing) can be highlighted and dis-
3. What are the effects of the foregrounded forms? The interpreta-
tive discussion can follow from a more rigorous descriptive phase,
whatever form the latter takes. The description should produce
some idea of any internally or externally deviant uses of morphol-
ogy and the analytical phase will focus on just these forms, so that
their meaning or effect can be established.

Unless the students are accomplished in grammatical description, they
may find a complete parsing of the structures in this poem beyond them.
One step towards achieving an understanding of the grammar of the
poem is to rewrite it in Standard English so that it makes sense to the
student concerned. The different versions of the poem produced by a
group of students can then be used to discuss the extent of ambiguity in
the poem and whether any of the grammatical interpretations are better
than others in relation to the evidence of the text. In most poetic anal-
ysis, the following phases can be helpful, particularly in identifying the
meaning of any unusual or ambiguous structural features:

1. Identify clauses, clause elements, and structures. The use of long

(and sometimes complex) and short (usually simple) clause struc-
tures can in itself produce foregrounded effects, so the basic gram-
matical description is vital to understanding the poem at a deeper

Discuss ambiguous or non-standard structures and relate them
to meaning. Many poems from the early twentieth century to
the present have ambiguous or vague grammatical structures, like
Cummings’s poem does here. These ambiguities have effects which
can only be investigated once the nature of the non-standardness is
revealed fully. Some of the features may make the language sound
like the imperfectness of the spoken language—or a version of our
thought processes when we are experiencing extremes of emotion.
In Cummings’s poem, for example, the classic link between spring
and being in love is presented partly by means of a jumbled, glori-
ous mess of impressions, mostly visual (the list of plural nouns) and
physical (the list of active verbs).

Lexis and Semantics
The investigation of lexis is one of the more obvious starting points for
students who are not highly trained in other areas of linguistic analysis.
The danger of this is that they will simply mention the most obvious cases
of neologism or juxtaposition of word choice rather than thinking in more
detail about the subtleties of lexical and semantic structure of texts. Here
are a couple of options that might move them beyond the mundane:

1. Use word class lists (see above) as the starting point to identify
semantic fields of words with related or overlapping meanings.
In this poem, there are nouns relating to people and body parts
(people, faces, eyes), urban structures (houses, streets, steeples),
and nature (leaves, flowers, earth, sky, trees). The verbs, as we have
mentioned above, are almost all active (what linguists would call
material actions). This combination of people (in general and the
writer/addressee), activity (run, jump, shout), and scenes (urban
versus rural) is a potential starting point for a discussion about the
trajectory of the poem, from overwhelming impressions through
activity (of the protagonists) to some kind of rural idyll and finally
something that cannot easily be fitted into any of these semantic
fields: ‘a miracle’.
2. Identify semantic sub-classes of words. A similar point can be
reached by looking first at the possible sub-classes of the word
classes. So, for example, nouns can be identified as concrete/
abstract or countable/mass. We have seen in this poem that there

is a predominance of concrete and countable (plural) nouns here,

at least until the point in the poem when ‘a miracle arrives’. The
verbs can be divided according to their function (transitivity) cat-
egories of material (intention actions, supervention actions, and
event); verbalisation; mental (perception, reaction, and cognition)
and relational (intensive, possessive, and circumstantial). All such
frameworks lead to a description which can help to identify the
patterning and foregrounding which form the basis for textually
grounded interpretations.
3. This set of tasks is just one way to approach stylistic analysis. It
demonstrates the amount of time a thorough analysis can take
and of course many courses do not allow for this kind of detailed
description to take place during class time. However, it should
be stressed that these processes, once understood and practised
a number of times, become much quicker to perform and more
intuitively natural for the analyst. Sharing out the detailed descrip-
tive analysis is one way to exploit the strengths of a group and keep
everyone on task. This can be set as a task which individuals under-
take between classes and bring to the next meeting to share with
other students.

Our analysis of poem 63 shows how stylistic analysis can support an
interpretation of a poem by providing textual evidence for intuitive
responses, and how it can also highlight features of the poem that might
otherwise be overlooked. It also enables us to speculate with more cer-
tainty about why Cummings chooses to use such seemingly odd stylistic
techniques in the poem. For example, we showed that deviant punc-
tuation is linked to the foregrounding of dynamic verbs, which goes
towards explaining why we perceive movement to be an integral part of
the poem. Analysing the poem stylistically also highlights how its most
internally deviant features are those which we would usually consider to
be ‘normal’ language in both everyday communication and poetry, and
suggests a reason as to why this might be.
There are, of course, features of the poem which we have not been
able to account for. For example, we have not been able to explain the
comma between ‘selves’ and ‘stir’ in line 11, or the relevance of the colon
before ‘every’ in line 23. A stylistic analysis which could account for these

factors would supersede the one we have given here. Such falsification is
key to the stylistic endeavour and is made possible by being clear about
the analytical method used and the perceived linguistic source of any
interpretative claims. The systematic analytical techniques of stylistics ena-
ble interpretative claims to be supported by linguistic evidence.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that there are considerably more ana-
lytical techniques that could be deployed to investigate poem 63 than
we have used here. We have concentrated on a linguistic description of
the text linked to foregrounding theory. This is arguably the basis of
any stylistic analysis. Beyond this, it would be valuable to consider the
cognitive aspects of text comprehension (see, for example, Stockwell
2002; Sandford and Emmott 2012), encompassing the reader’s con-
struction of text worlds during the reading process (Gavins 2007), and
the use of conceptual metaphor (Deignan et al. 2013). Further aspects
of Cummings’s authorial and text style could be investigated using cor-
pus stylistic techniques (see, for example, McIntyre and Walker 2010).
For readers interested in exploring stylistic analysis further, Jeffries and
McIntyre (2010) provides an overview of the state-of-the-art in contem-
porary stylistics while Jeffries and McIntyre (2011) focuses exclusively on
the teaching of stylistics.

1. Note that we cannot state conclusively that the speaker is male since there
is no textual evidence for this. However, our schematic assumptions make
it likely that we will imagine the speaker to be a man, since ‘darling’ is per-
haps more likely to be used by a male to a female (of course, this is only an
assumption; note that we could test this hypothesis by concordancing the
word ‘darling’ in a corpus of spoken English). There is also a tendency for
readers to assume that the persona in a poem and the poet are one and the
same. Because we know that the writer of the poem is male, it is likely that
we will suppose the persona to be male too.

Blackmur, R.P. 1954. Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry. London: George
Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Cummings, E.E. 1964. 73 Poems. London: Faber and Faber.
Deignan, A., J. Littlemore, and E. Semino. 2013. Figurative Language, Genre
and Register. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, O. 2014. Iconicity. In The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, ed.

P.  Stockwell, and S. Whiteley, 377–392. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Gavins, J. 2007. Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Jeffries, L. 2010. “The Unprofessionals”: Syntactic Iconicity and Reader
Interpretation in Contemporary Poems. In Language and Style, ed. D.
McIntyre, and B. Busse, 95–115. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Jeffries, L., and D. McIntyre. 2010. Stylistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Jeffries, L., and D. McIntyre. 2011. Teaching Stylistics. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Leech, G.N. 1969. A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. London: Longman.
McIntyre, D., and B. Walker. 2010. How Can Corpora Be Used to Analyse
Poetry and Drama? In The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics, ed. A.
O’Keefe, and M. McCarthy, 516–530. Abingdon: Routledge.
Sandford, A., and C. Emmott. 2012. Mind, Brain and Narrative. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Stockwell, P. 2002. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Van Peer, W. 1986. Stylistics and Psychology: Investigations of Foregrounding.
London: Croom Helm.

Author Biographies
Dan McIntyre is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the
University of Huddersfield, UK. He is interested in corpus stylistics (on which he
is currently writing a book for Edinburgh University Press) and in the historical
development of style. He is editor of Language and Literature (Sage), the jour-
nal of the international Poetics and Linguistics Association. With Lesley Jeffries
he wrote Stylistics (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and edited the Teaching
the New English volume on Teaching Stylistics (Palgrave, 2011).

Lesley Jeffries is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the

University of Huddersfield, UK, and a former Chair of the Poetics and
Linguistics Association. She is the author of Critical Stylistics: The Power of
English (Palgrave, 2010), and has written extensively on stylistics, in particular on
applications of stylistics to the analysis of contemporary poetry and to politics and
the press, most recently publishing Keywords in the Press: The New Labour Years,
co-authored with Brian Walker (Bloomsbury 2017). With Dan McIntyre she
edited the Teaching the New English volume Teaching Stylistics (Palgrave, 2011).

Teaching Historically: Some Limits

to Historicist Teaching

Simon Dentith

In the course of his remarkable Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer

asserts provocatively that ‘[t]he text that is understood historically is
forced to abandon its claim to be saying something true’.1 What can he
mean? It appears that the philosopher of ‘historically-effected conscious-
ness’, who most insists on the historicity of all forms of understanding, in
the same breath condemns historicist understanding as a way of consign-
ing texts from the past to the archive, so that they cannot speak to us in
a way that has the force of truth. I take this as a challenge to teachers
as well as to critics: how to acknowledge the evident historicity of texts,
of the various materials that we require our students to read, without
consigning them to the archive in the manner that Gadamer condemns.
If you think that this is an esoteric problem, I ask you to recall the last
batch of student essays that you read, in which the apparently historicis-
ing vocabulary that we have so painstakingly taught them has reappeared
as deadening generalisations on what, apparently, all people in the past
believed, and how this removed the necessity of taking them seriously.

S. Dentith (*) 
University of Reading, Reading, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 173

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_11
174  S. Dentith

So, in this essay I wish to explore, first, the necessity of a historicist

pedagogy, and outline what it might look like—and indeed, already does
look like in many seminar rooms in the contemporary academy. I then
ask whether such a pedagogy is in any way sufficient, or whether it needs
to be framed by some other account of the teaching of ‘English’ more
fully able to speak to the place of the subject in the curriculum, and
indeed in the lives of our students. Broadly speaking, I shall be arguing
that the reference to historical context (and how we understand this) is a
necessary but not sufficient pedagogical gesture; and that we do indeed
need to place this gesture in a more ambitious ideological frame if we are
not to fall foul of Gadamer’s admonition, and indeed other dangers of a
more familiar colour.
I start from the presumption that any pedagogy, understood in its
barest terms as teaching materials and practices, leading questions, class-
room and discussion management, writing exercises, and assessment
drills, must be based on the particular character of the subject (which,
incidentally, suggests the limitations of generic approaches to ‘teaching
and learning’). In this instance, the particular character of our subject—
the teaching of English Literature—presents itself a set of interpretative
problems, and initially as this single problem: how to make sense of what
we read? Since most of what we read, and require our students to read,
comes from the past, ‘making sense’ of those materials inevitably involves
a recognition of their historical alterity. Historicism, as an ‘ism’, may be
a developed system of thought, but the core of it is this recognition that
the texts we read come from elsewhere. In this sense historicism is an
inevitable phase of the hermeneutic process, provoking interpretative
moves from our students which we are obliged to recognise one way or
another. A pedagogy of historicism should flow naturally from this start-
ing point.
But this last phrase puts the matter too organically, and leaves some
large questions unanswered. The biggest of these is the question of
where we should start: with the historical context and move inwards
towards the text?—or with the text itself and move outwards towards the
context? This too is a version of a classical hermeneutic question, going
back at least to Friedrich Schleiermacher and his original formulation of
the hermeneutic circle in the early nineteenth century.2 This, the herme-
neutic circle, is a benign way of formulating the process of understand-
ing, in which one moves from detail to overarching view and back again,
at each moment extending, enriching, and adjusting one’s sense of both.

Schleiermacher is explicit that this way of understanding understand-

ing, which describes the process of making sense of the individual text,
can also be applied to the question of text and context: the fuller and
richer one’s sense of context, the more it informs one’s understanding
of the individual text; the greater one’s sense of the individual text the
more this transforms and extends one’s sense of the period in which it
was written. But the question remains: where to start? Schleiermacher’s
own preference was for the bigger picture: start there and then move
into the detail (contemporary parlance calls this ‘drilling down’). These
apparently abstract hermeneutic questions have very practical pedagogic
consequences, familiar to all teachers of literature. Should we provide
our students with as full as possible a sense of the context, and then lead
them to see how the text fits into this? Or should we start with the text
and wait and see how the matter of context appears, and then deal with
that as best we can? Such questions can divide departments, with the
advocates of ‘close reading’ and ‘historical context’ sometimes unhelp-
fully ranged against each other.
The pitfalls of both strategies are evident enough. We are all familiar
with the kind of student essay which adduces a description of a histori-
cal period, and then shows how a particular text conforms to it. More
typically, such an essay shows how a particular text disconfirms it, and
thus demonstrates its surprising modernity; I teach the nineteenth cen-
tury especially, a period dominated by ‘the Victorians’, who had a set of
beliefs of an especially reprehensible kind (‘patriarchy’, chiefly), which
a particular text, and more especially its feisty heroine, challenged.
Comparable caricatures could doubtless be supplied for all historical
periods. The teaching investment required to move beyond such carica-
tures is considerable—it would require a recognition, above all, of the
complexity of the multiple social and cultural currents of the nineteenth
century, and the conflictual and contradictory immersion of all literary
materials in them. This is difficult, but not impossible, as I shall propose
in a moment. In the mean time we can note the obvious and recognis-
able pitfalls of starting with the context and moving inwards to the text.
But what of the other strategy, of starting with the text and moving
outwards? I confess that this remains my default mode of teaching: I pre-
sent students with a piece of text (poems, a novel, a play, an essay) and
ask them what they make of it. In that respect my teaching has hardly
moved on from that characterised by Tony Davies a generation ago, who
self-deprecatingly described his own typical English class starting with
176  S. Dentith

the question ‘well, what do you think of this, then?’3 If historicist ques-
tions are, from my starting presumption, bound to present themselves
even from such an unpromising start, it is fair to say that they often
remain implicit, and are likely to manifest themselves with just the level
of untutored generalisation as appears even when more tutored efforts
at historical teaching have been made. My defence remains that at least
this way students will have encountered and learnt something real, in
being required to concentrate on this particular web and to test wider
period characterisations against it. But the inadequacies of such a strategy
in the long run are certainly apparent, in the evident difficulty in moving
beyond the specific and ad hoc to any wider sense of significance.
The truth is that students will never get to a more satisfactory histori-
cist vocabulary unless they are led there. To do this requires particular
teaching strategies; here are some descriptions of what are widespread
pedagogic approaches, with some indications of their strengths and
The first is perhaps the simplest: requiring students to read a history
textbook on the relevant period and assuming that will at least do some-
thing to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and prevent the most egre-
gious errors. On the principle of ‘the more you know, the better’, this
is surely uncontroversial, and indeed my facetious formula could readily
be given a more respectable hermeneutic colouring by being extended
to read ‘the more you know, the better position you are in to learn
more’. But the inadequacies of this as a sufficient strategy are also appar-
ent, above all in encouraging students to assume that there is something
called ‘history’, described in history books, and that literary texts can be
measured up against it.
A brief digression on the pedagogies of History and English may be
permitted here. Both are interpretative disciplines, working with the same
distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources. Clearly enough,
the potential extent of primary sources for historians is vastly greater than
it is for literary scholars, at least those of the latter who confine them-
selves to the contested category of ‘literature’. And in a certain version
of History, certainly in this country, the primacy of primary sources is
repeatedly emphasised; at least in one way of describing the discipline,
History is an inherently open and developing subject because current
orthodoxies are always likely to be challenged by new discoveries in the
archives or new ways of studying and sifting them. But curiously enough,
in my experience the pedagogy of History does not reflect this; the typical

History class consists of a group of students who have read more or less
of a prescribed reading list of secondary sources, and a class leader who
has read them all. Sir therefore knows best. By contrast, English as a dis-
cipline scarcely expects to make new discoveries in the archive, though
these are always possible and exciting when they occur, and it is even pos-
sible, given the apparent digitisation of everything, to incorporate archi-
val study in the classroom. Moreover, English has long acknowledged
the centrality, to put it no more strongly, of the various interpretative
strategies, theoretical paradigms, and interpretative communities which
make up the subject. While these are indeed explicitly taught in most
departments, the default class in English remains the study of the ‘pri-
mary sources’, that is, of the original writing itself, however powerfully
that may be framed. This remains the discipline’s unique advantage, and
part of the source of its continuing attraction: however naïve it may be to
say so, however it ignores the hidden and not-so-hidden power dynamics
of the seminar room, English is a discipline in which all readers are pre-
sumed to be equal before the text, and therefore have as much right to
contribute to discussion as everyone else.
This seems to me to be a valuable pedagogic tradition, and any move
towards a more historicist mode of teaching should do nothing to
threaten it. It is partly in this spirit, then, and partly from a more par-
ticularly New Historicist inclination, that I describe another historicising
strategy, doubtless also one that has been practiced widely. It is simply
to place literary texts alongside other primary sources more or less con-
temporary with it. Such a tactic addresses the sense of historical alterity
felt by readers as they read texts from the past, by seeking to actualise
the values and attitudes that they intuit from their reading; it plays to
the strengths of English as a discipline as providing more materials for
interpretation; and it begins to allow some of the discursive actualities in
which all texts are embedded to become visible. Moreover, some of the
practical difficulties of making non-canonical material available have now
been solved by the internet and, indeed, by the Norton Anthology.
A familiar example suggests itself: Jane Eyre and the woman question.
Here is one of the famous paragraphs from Chap. 12:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they

must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are
condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt
against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political
178  S. Dentith

rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are
supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they
need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their
brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagna-
tion, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more
privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves
to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and
embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them,
if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced neces-
sary for their sex.4

It is a straightforward matter to place this alongside the classic text of

nineteenth-century liberal feminism, John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of
Women of 20 years later:

[B]ut in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always
been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit
and pleasure of their masters. Then . . . certain products of the general
vital force sprout luxuriantly and under this active nurture and watering,
while other shoots from the same root, which are left outside in wintry air,
with ice purposely heaped all around them, have a stunted growth, and
some are burnt off with fire and disappear.5

In the first instance, this juxtaposition doubtless reinforces some of the

stereotypes of ‘Victorian’ culture: both Brontë and Mill can be readily
cast as pioneering battlers against oppressive discursive impositions placed
upon women. Such a characterisation is surely correct, though it is not
the whole truth even in relation to these two passages, since it is pos-
sible to glimpse, in both Brontë’s and Mill’s polemics, a submerged sug-
gestion for a possible bildung, conceived as a creative development of all
an individual’s human capacities in propitious circumstances, from which
women have been blocked. This is in part a matter of readerly expecta-
tion: while both passages are necessarily fixated on the negative moment
(that is, on the constraints that bind women), they suggest, in that very
gesture, other possibilities for growth, though such expectations are not
actually realised. In this respect both texts, while concerned with the neg-
ative liberty which constrains women, intimate the positive liberty which
might also be available to them, but cannot give narrative embodiment
to this intimation. This theme is not pursued in Jane Eyre, in particular,
which is why it remains a romance and not a bildungsroman.

So even this act of elementary historic juxtaposition yields some inter-

esting possibilities. But the matter clearly should not end here. Another,
earlier passage from Jane Eyre takes the reader in an altogether different
direction. Here is a dialogue between the young Jane and her new friend
Helen Burns at Lowood school, Jane first:

“But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to stand in

the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a great girl: I am far
younger than you, and I could not bear it.”

“Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak
and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear.”

I heard her with wonder: I could not comprehend this doctrine of endur-
ance; and still less could I understand or sympathize with the forbearance
she expressed for her chastiser. Still I felt that Helen Burns considered
things by a light invisible to my eyes. I suspected she might be right and I
wrong; but I would not ponder the matter deeply: like Felix, I put it off to
a more convenient season. (88)

‘A doctrine of endurance’—unattractive to Jane here, but a persistent

theme both in Jane Eyre and elsewhere in Charlotte Brontë’s writing. It
emerges from a different moral and intellectual tradition than the ver-
sion of liberal feminism articulated in the passage quoted earlier. In this
respect, Jane Eyre resembles other nineteenth-century novels, which
draw on differing prevalent narratives, inflect and reinflect disparate and
even contradictory moral-ideological positions, and hold them together
in an unstable rhetorical economy. This appearance of the ‘doctrine of
endurance’ points especially to the evident presence of religion, figured
and articulated by Helen Burns in the novel, but crucial for Charlotte
Brontë herself and for the culture in which she lived.
But it is possible to find comparable statements elsewhere in the mid-
nineteenth century, and not necessarily in religious contexts. Maggie
Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss struggles through to her own version of a
principle of renunciation, though here too there are conflicting ideologi-
cal currents in the novel which reflect the complex wider conflicts and
alternative cultural possibilities of the period. My point is simply that a
genuine historicism cannot ignore these contradictory currents. While it
is indeed the tendency of the passage of time to alter, even to disrupt,
the rhetorical economy of texts, giving salience to this or that aspect
180  S. Dentith

which previously seemed unimportant, and vice versa, it is part of our

responsibility as teachers to insist on those aspects of the text, and its
relevant context, which challenge its too ready assimilation into modern
A pedagogic practice which places one text against another relevant
text contemporary to it clearly does not solve interpretative questions
but creates new ones. Indeed, it is absolutely the case that while contex-
tual knowledge is a necessary condition of understanding, it can never
determine meaning, and that the responsibility for interpretation—‘what
do you think of this then?’—remains in place whatever contextual knowl-
edge readers acquire. It is also the case that students will not spontane-
ously generate a vocabulary for making sense of the questions that arise
when texts are put in conjunction; or at least, the likeliest spontaneous
vocabulary is that of ‘norm and deviation’, and as teachers we might
wish to suggest something more productive, be it Raymond Williams’s
structure of feeling, or Foucauldian discourse, or simply intertextuality.
This last word nevertheless suggests a more fundamental problem
with the historicist classroom that I have just outlined. Intertextuality,
since its coining by Julia Kristeva out of Bakhtin, has always had an
equivocal set of implications. On the one hand it can lead to a kind
of positivist hunt for ‘sources’ or analogues of a very traditional kind,
though it should be said that even that traditional scholarly activity can
go a long way to undermine notions of original genius. On the other
hand, intertextuality can point to the anonymous hum and buzz of a cul-
ture, that famous Barthesian ‘tissue of quotations’ which makes up a text
but which cannot, at least in general, be sourced.6 Novelistic ‘double-
voiced discourse’, to use an explicitly Bakhtinian vocabulary, is especially
productive of novelistic effects in which the reader recognises the pres-
ence of another word than that of the novelist, but not in ways that can
be presented to students as evidence.
The opening of Mansfield Park (1814) provides a characteristic exam-
ple of such double-voiced discourse, immediately apparent to most
readers, but impossible to fix with any convenient piece of roughly con-
temporary prose such as Mrs Ellis’s The Women of England: Their Social
Duties and Domestic Habits, however conveniently supplied by the
Norton Anthology:

About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven
thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of

Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised

to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences
of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on
the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed
her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to
it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of her
acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome
as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal
advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the
world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.7

Bakhtin, in ‘Discourse in the Novel’, provides a striking analysis of

comparable extracts from Dickens’s Little Dorrit. His analysis turns
on the co-presence, in novelistic prose such as this, of two competing
value-systems, which striate the language even at the level of the sen-
tence, the clause, the individual word. In the passage from Mansfield
Park, the reader recognises the presence of a value-system opposed to
that of the narrator, especially visible in the second sentence, where this
value-system appears to be held by ‘all Huntingdon’. There is even, in
this sentence, some suggestion of the prose catching the cadence of
speech, above all in the little sequence ‘her uncle, the lawyer, himself’.
The reader thus has to posit a value-system beyond the text, pointed
to by that phrase ‘all Huntingdon’, and perhaps most simply described
by Bakhtin himself with the phrase ‘common opinion’. But it seems to
me to be impossible to determine exactly the precise degree of irony to
which this common opinion is subject; while it certainly appears strange
to expect to be able to assign exact monetary values to women in the
marriage market, as ‘her uncle, the lawyer, himself’, wants to do, I do
not think that we can deduce from this a repudiation of the marriage
market altogether. This is not, however, a matter that could be decided
by external evidence; such a passage as this precisely supports Barthes’s
view of literature as a tissue of quotations without an origin, and no his-
torical research is ever going to unearth an explicit table of monetary
equivalences for dowries and the estate that you can expect to get in
return for them, or an account of what all Huntingdon thought of such
matters in 1784, 30 years before the novel was published.
Having said as much, however, student-readers are certainly right to
recognise in a passage such as this the presence of a posited value-sys-
tem with respect to marriage and money radically at odds with whatever
182  S. Dentith

system people profess to live by 200 years later. One danger of such a

recognition is that of a kind of bad historicism, by which a historical real-
ity is projected from the text, and then hypostasised as a reality by which
to measure it. This is a malign version of the hermeneutic circle with
which we began. Another danger is that students will exactly fall into the
attitude decried by Gadamer—in recognising the historical alterity of the
system glimpsed here, it is only too easy to consign it definitively to the
archive, complacently confirming the superiority of the present moment
as they (we) do so. A more interesting attitude is perhaps to seek to work
out the contours and valencies of this system—the way in which the
values of feminine beauty, personal wealth, rank, and landed estates are
interlocked—and use them to defamiliarise the comparable sexual econ-
omy of the present. Austen’s irony, however hard to place, can still be
mobilised now.
The immediate point of this example is the impossibility of being
able to find appropriate contemporary materials to contextualise all
texts, since the tissue of quotations out of which texts are constructed is
in principle ultimately untraceable, and because any such source would
not in any case answer the question of its articulation in the primary
text in question. But the example of Mansfield Park leads us in another
direction also, which is to question the way in which historicity has
been constructed in the contemporary academy. My nod towards New
Historicism might indeed be part of the problem. Let us put the mat-
ter in large terms. For the nineteenth century, historicity was diachronic,
a matter of origins and descent; for the twentieth century and subse-
quently, it has been synchronic, a matter of networks, epistemes, and sys-
tems. An alternative way of understanding Mansfield Park historically is
not to seek to place in its contemporary moment, but to see it as part of
a diachronic historical series, centred in this case on the marriage market,
or better still on the successive systems of sexual exchange which have
succeeded the marriage market in western societies. So instead of the
class which placed books of marriage etiquette and a copy of Debretts
alongside Mansfield Park, we would have a class which featured a novel
by Trollope, some anthropology, Joseph Carroll and (sorry about this)
Bridget Jones’s Diary. This too can find some theoretical justification, in
Gadamer’s notion of ‘historically effected consciousness’: our very ability
to understand Mansfield Park, even to recognise its alterity, is because
of historical continuities which link us back to that moment of its pub-
lication. It may be that the defamiliarising shock of reading the novel is

better activated when placed in that diachronic series than when it is con-
signed to the early nineteenth-century archive.
While it is possible to imagine such a ‘historicist’ class on Mansfield
Park—a class, that is, that sought to place it in a diachronic rather than
a synchronic series—it would scarcely fit in the standard period-based or
survey style course that remains the backbone of most English syllabi.
It would be more likely to occur in a smaller, specialist course, perhaps
on the ‘courtship novel’ from the eighteenth century to the present.
Indeed, such a course would not itself conform to the standard contem-
porary understanding of historicism. It would nevertheless have more
potential to unsettle contemporary readers than the standard historicist
Which leads to the large question with which I wish to conclude:
what, after all, is the point of historicism? Why would we wish to lead
our students to ways of thinking and understanding the literature of the
past which emphasises its immersion in, and emergence from, histori-
cally bounded sets of social and cultural circumstances? Gadamer, from
a context well outside the Anglo-American debates about historicism and
humanism, the New Historicism and cultural materialism, formulates the
question trenchantly, in a passage which follows on from the anti-histori-
cist assertion with which I began this essay:

We think we understand when we see the past from a historical stand-

point—i.e. transpose ourselves into the historical situation and try to
reconstruct the historical horizon. In fact, however, we have given up the
claim to find in the past any truth that is valid and intelligible for ourselves.
Acknowledging the otherness of the other in this way, making him the
object of objective knowledge, involves the fundamental suspension of his
claim to truth.8

‘Any truth that is valid and intelligible for ourselves’—this is scarcely a

vocabulary that is current in the contemporary academy, and indeed a
conservative notion of the wisdom of the past is not far to seek behind it.
But Gadamer nevertheless has a point: reading which is not objectifying,
which is not premised on the ultimately dismissive ‘they would say that,
wouldn’t they?’, has to allow the otherness of the other to act upon us.
In pedagogical terms, we have therefore to allow the force of those old
texts to act upon our students, always allowing them to acknowledge or
resist the validity of the claim that they make upon us.
184  S. Dentith

This assertion is little more than gestural unless backed up by a con-

vincing pedagogical strategy to ensure that ‘the force of those old texts’
is allowed to act upon our students. And here I have another admission
to make; not only has my teaching scarcely moved on from the question
‘what do you think of this, then?’, it also depends largely on what I have
never managed to describe better than as a ‘good bit’—that is, any pas-
sage or poem which seems to me and the students to be especially pow-
erful, moving, funny, or exciting. I try to get my students to find a good
bit, but often end up pointing them out myself, and then reading them
This is such a loaded practice in class, gender, and racial terms that
it seems dangerous to admit to it. Two writers of working-class ori-
gins have skewered the practice of reading aloud especially sharply. The
canonical example is Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Them and [uz]’, which
describes a classroom in which Harrison is asked to read out loud:

4 words only of mi’art aches and… ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’9

Later in the poem Harrison describes poetry as being ‘dubbed into

RP’ (Received Pronunciation). Since I happen to speak in a confident
RP voice I am aware of one at least of the dangers of the practice of
reading aloud, especially poetry—that it is all too close to the practice
of elocution, in which the class transition to which education can lead
is to be marked by the class-marked enjoyment of ‘well-spoken’ poetry.
Terry Eagleton’s still more ludicrous example concerns a Cambridge don
whose principal method of teaching consisted of declamation:

One of my own teachers at Cambridge, a retired public schoolmaster in

a tweed suit and a walrus moustache, used occasionally to declaim poetry
aloud à la [Dadie] Rylands, since he had nothing intelligent to say about
it. Having nothing to say about it, he just said it instead. At the end of a
prolonged, deafening bout of declamation, he would sit back, clutch his
belly and announce complacently: ‘It’s all a matter of the stomach mus-
cles, you know’. Studying English literature seemed largely a matter of the
stomach muscles.10

‘Having nothing to say about it, he just said it’—a worrying phrase for
a pedagogic practice designed to alert students to the particular force of
writing from the past.
Nevertheless, I think it is possible to defend the practice of concen-
trating on especially powerful passages in a seminar, even including the
practice of reading them aloud. Here is one good bit, relevant to that
earlier discussion of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘doctrine of endurance’. It comes
from Villette (1853), and is an account of her life in the school in Villette

At that time, I well remember whatever could excite—certain accidents of

the weather, for instance, were almost dreaded by me, because they woke
the being I was always lulling, and stirred up a craving cry I could not
satisfy. One night a thunder-storm broke; a sort of hurricane shook us
in our beds: the Catholics rose in panic and prayed to their saints. As for
me, the tempest took hold of me with tyranny: I was roughly roused and
obliged to live. I got up and dressed myself, and creeping outside the case-
ment close by my bed, sat on its ledge, with my feet on the roof of a lower
adjoining building. It was wet, it was wild, it was pitch-dark. Within the
dormitory they gathered round the night-lamp in consternation, praying
loud. I could not go in: too resistless was the delight of staying with the
wild hour, black and full of thunder, pealing out such an ode as language
never delivered to man—too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds, split
and pierced by white and blinding bolts.

I did long, achingly, then and for four-and-twenty hours afterwards, for
something to fetch me out of my present existence, and lead me upwards
and onwards. This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to
knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to
Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die:
they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail
with a rebellious wrench: then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill
to its core.11

Indeed, the ‘doctrine of endurance’ is too tame to describe this passage,

in which the costs of Lucy Snowe’s survival strategy are shockingly real-
ised as a kind of enduring self-torture. The passage gives an immedi-
ate sense of intensity of feeling and human suffering, though of course
articulated in a specifically nineteenth-century idiom. Indeed, this is
the point; attention to a passage such as this allows simultaneous rec-
ognition of the historicity of human existence, its embeddedness in the
186  S. Dentith

particularities and commitments of a particular culture, and also the

capacity of some articulations of it to travel across time and affect readers
in other times and other places.
The enduring power of a passage such as this provides a challenge to a
certain kind of historicism, as the last quotation from Gadamer suggests.
My only half-mocking description of it as a ‘good bit’ will scarcely have
hidden the evaluative vocabulary carried by the term. There is of course a
whole large discussion to be had around historicism, evaluation, and his-
torical transcendence.12 But my point here, in a more narrowly pedagog-
ical context, is to assert that it is possible to mobilise the power of texts
such as Villette against the complacencies and unexamined assumptions
of our own time. I do not think that this can be done by teaching that
remains in a solely historicist register, as long as that historicism remains
as Gadamer describes it.
In this instance the passage from Villette might provoke a discus-
sion of the notion of ‘repression’. But it is unlikely to do so in a con-
text which simply dismissed it as a ‘Victorian’ aberration, from which we
have cured ourselves now, though that is always of course a danger. A
range of scholarship on the invention of the Victorians, and their place
in the tangled cultural history of the twentieth century, has suggested
how they have been invoked as the repressive others of various liberatory
politics, as well as at times of serving the opposite function of providing
the positive pole against such politics, as in ‘Victorian values’.13 It is my
impression that in the contemporary academy the first of these usages is
predominant, and that the apparently historicist term feeds into a uto-
pianism of the present and reinforces our complacency about it. Any his-
toricist criticism which reinforces this complacency is regrettable, though
that does not mean that we should abandon the historicist classroom in
favour of the simplest presentism. The literature of the past at the very
least reminds us that things can be otherwise; the force of that recogni-
tion depends on the force with which we allow the historical alterity of
the literature of the past to provoke us to thought about our present.

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second revised edition, trans-
lation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York:
Continuum, 2003), 303 (Gadamer 2003).

2. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings,

translated and edited by Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998) (Schleiermacher 1998).
3. Tony Davies, ‘Common sense and critical practice: teaching literature’, in
Peter Widdowson, ed., Re-reading English (London: Methuen, 1982),
32–43. Davies’s account of his practice is worth repeating: ‘Whatever I
may write or think, however pure, rigorous and systematic my discourse
may be on such occasions, when once again I sit down to a tutorial or sem-
inar, with Lycidas or Middlemarch open in front of me, and turn, in that
expectant pause, to the surrounding faces, what comes out of my mouth
then is likely to sound, by the highest standards of discursive rigour, decid-
edly limp: “Well, what do you think of this, then?”’ (34) (Davies 1982).
4. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Q.D. Leavis (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1973 [1847]), 141 (Brontë 1973 [1847]).
5. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, in Mary Wollstonecraft,
The Rights of Woman and John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women
(London: Everyman’s Library, 1977), 238–239 (Mill 1977).
6. Roland Barthes, ‘Théorie du Texte’, Encyclope[acute]die Universalis
(Paris, 1974) (Barthes 1974).
7. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ed. Tony Tanner (Penguin:
Harmondsworth, 1975), 41 (Austen 1975).
8. Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 303–304.
9. Tony Harrison, Selected Poems (2nd edition, London: Penguin Books,
1987), 122 (Harrison 1987).
10. Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (London: Allen Lane, The
Penguin Press, 2001), 142 (Eagleton 2001).
11. Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Everyman’s Library, 1974 [1853]),
96 (Brontë 1974 [1853]).
12. See, for a recent instalment in this discussion, Andy Mousley, Literature
and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice (Abingdon: Routledge,
2013) (Mousley 2013).
13. See Simon Joyce, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (Athens: Ohio
University Press, 2007); Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fictions,
Criticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); and Matthew
Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber and Faber, 2001) (Joyce
2007; Kaplan 2007; Sweet 2001).

Further Reading
Austen, Jane. 1975. Mansfield Park, ed. Tony Tanner, 41. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
Barthes, Roland. 1974. Théorie du Texte. Encyclopedia Universalis. Paris:
Encyclope[acute]die universalis.
188  S. Dentith

Brontë, Charlotte. 1973 [1847]. Jane Eyre, ed. Q.D. Leavis, 141. Harmondsworth:
Brontë, Charlotte. 1974 [1853]. Villette, 96. London: Everyman’s Library.
Davies, Tony. 1982. Common Sense and Critical Practice: Teaching Literature.
In Re-reading English, ed. Peter Widdowson, 32–43. London: Methuen.
Eagleton, Terry. 2001. The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, 142. London: Allen Lane,
The Penguin Press.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2003. Truth and Method. 2nd rev. ed., trans. rev. by Joel
Weinsheimer, and Donald G. Marshall, 303. New York: Continuum.
Harrison, Tony. 1987. Selected Poems, 2nd ed, 122. London: Penguin Books.
Joyce, Simon. 2007. The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror. Athens: Ohio
University Press.
Kaplan, Cora. 2007. Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1977. The Subjection of Women. In The Rights of Woman and
John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, ed. Mary Wollstonecraft, 238–239.
London: Everyman’s Library.
Mousley, Andy. 2013. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice.
Abingdon: Routledge.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1998. Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other
Writings, trans. and ed. Andrew Bowie. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Sweet, Matthew. 2001. Inventing the Victorians. London: Faber and Faber.

Author Biography
Until his recent death, Simon Dentith was Professor of English at the
University of Reading, UK. He wrote widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-
century literature. He was the author of Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century
Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and, most recently Nineteenth-
Century British Literature Then and Now: Reading with Hindsight (Ashgate,

Towards an Unprecedented Ecocritical


Greg Garrard

There is an episode in nineteenth-century urban history, popular amongst

environmental sceptics or ‘cornucopians’, as I have previously called them
(Garrard 2011), that shows how unprecedented technological change
can rapidly render anxieties about resources or pollution anachronis-
tic: what Elizabeth Kolbert has called the Parable of Horseshit (Kolbert
2009). Although horses had been a key source of motive power for mil-
lennia, rocketing human populations in nineteenth-century Europe and
North America required far more animals to move them and their new
machines around. The result, as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner glee-
fully observe in SuperFreakonomics, was a formidable pollution crisis in
cities such as New York:

Decades earlier, when horses were less plentiful in cities, there was a
smooth-functioning market for manure, with farmers buying it to truck off
(via horse, of course) to their fields. But as the urban equine population

G. Garrard (*) 
Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, University of British Columbia,
Okanagan Campus CCS 391, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, BC V1V 1V7,

© The Author(s) 2017 189

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_12
190  G. Garrard

exploded, there was a massive glut. In vacant lots, horse manure was piled
as high as sixty feet. It lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summer-
time, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse
manure flooded the crosswalks and seeped into people’s basements. Today,
when you admire old New York brownstones and their elegant stoops, ris-
ing from street level to the second-story parlor, keep in mind that this was
a design necessity, allowing a homeowner to rise above the sea of horse
manure. (2010: 9)

By the last decades of the century, at least 200,000 horses worked in

New York, which required that 45,000 tons of manure be shifted out
of the city every month, a Herculean task that kept on getting bigger.
Projections showed that, if the upward trend continued, the city would
literally be buried in horseshit within three decades. As Kolbert points
out, ‘When the world’s first international urban-planning conference
was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situa-
tion. Unable to agree upon any solutions – or to imagine cities without
horses – the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled
to last a week and a half, after just three days.’ The 2009 Copenhagen
climate conference seems strikingly successful by comparison.
The solution to the crisis, of course, came without international agree-
ments, campaigns for individual restraint, or radical changes in equine
excretion. Electric tramcars and automobiles supplanted horse-drawn
vehicles, and the polluting consequences of growth in wealth, popula-
tion, and travel were transferred from underfoot to overhead, eventu-
ally causing a whole new set of problems. Severe automotive pollution
from lead, ozone, and particulates was reduced in the West in the 1980s
and 1990s only for climate change to emerge as a far greater threat on a
planetary scale. Yet Levitt and Dubner remain sanguine: ‘It isn’t that the
problem [of global warming] isn’t potentially large. It’s just that human
ingenuity—when given proper incentives—is bound to be larger. Even
more encouraging, technological fixes are often far simpler, and there-
fore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined’ (11). Whereas
environmentalists continue to hope for elusive global agreement on cut-
ting carbon emissions (the ideal solution, these authors admit), they go
looking for a ‘fix’ that will see us through to a post-carbon economy.
Matt Ridley similarly refrains from contesting the International Panel
on Climate Change consensus, although like Levitt and Dubner he men-
tions the supposed 1970s ‘global cooling scare’, a favourite denialist

canard (Peterson et al. 2008). Nevertheless, Ridley finds that the same
projections of economic growth that make CO2 emissions alarming also
make its impacts far less worrying, because if the global economy and its
concomitant emissions grow as expected, there will also be more money
available for mitigation, adaptation, and innovation:

Remember I am not here attempting to resolve the climate debate, nor

saying that catastrophe is impossible. I am testing my optimism against the
facts, and what I find is that the probability of rapid and severe climate
change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate
change is small; the probability that no adaptation will occur is small; and
the probability of no new low-carbon energy technologies emerging in the
long run is small. Multiply those small probabilities together and the prob-
ability of a prosperous twenty-first century is therefore by definition large.
(Ridley 2010, loc.5055–9)

Citing evidence that the carbon:hydrogen ratio of energy sources has

been declining for well over a century (from wood to coal to oil to gas
to, in the future, nuclear-generated hydrogen), Ridley affirms his confi-
dence that climate change will not undermine or reverse the extraordi-
nary human progress that has taken place in the last 200,000 years, with
nearly all of it in the last two centuries. Indeed, it is hard not to agree
with his breathless assessment:

Even allowing for the hundreds of millions who still live in abject poverty,
disease and want, this generation of human beings has access to more calo-
ries, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years,
nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, and of course
dollars than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vita-
mins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis
rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine need-
ing. (loc.179)

In almost all respects, a middle-class European is wealthier than even the

most extravagant despot of previous centuries. A good-sized American
Wal-Mart is a cornucopia beyond the wildest medieval fantasies of
Cockayne, made possible, according to Ridley, by a largely beneficent
global trade in money, goods, and ideas.
This Enlightenment paradise of low rates of homicide and infant mor-
tality, as well as unprecedented levels of material plenty, education, and
192  G. Garrard

personal freedom, is not, of course, where most environmentalists think

we live. Cornucopians have a strong case, but only if we agree not to
question appalling inequalities amongst humans and ignore the flourish-
ing of every species but our own. For Elizabeth Kolbert, the Parable of
the Horseshit is a ‘terrifyingly cavalier’ cornucopian decoy that minimises
the deeply intractable character of climate change, while at the same time
legitimising ‘alluring and … dangerous’ ideas like geoengineering. She

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like …

cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to
replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn
that SuperFreakonomics takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their
hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of
horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.

The obvious rejoinder to Kolbert is that the cognitive, social, and eco-
nomic implications, to say nothing of the technological capabilities, of
the iPhone in my pocket are beyond anything imagined in the science
fiction of my youth. (I thought Star Trek communicators would be cool;
no one suspected they would play music, take photos, plan journeys, and
locate recipes.) As Ridley observes, ‘When asked at the Chicago World
Fair in 1893 which invention would have a big impact in the t­wentieth
century, nobody mentioned the automobile, let alone the mobile phone’
(loc.346). Nevertheless, Kolbert confidently aligns herself with Al Gore
in asserting that dramatically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions
‘would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get
around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves’. No short cuts, no fixes.

Legends of the Fall

The ramification for sustainability education of the argument between
cornucopians and environmentalists is the subject of this essay. From the
latter camp, David Orr’s influential manifesto for environmental educa-
tion Earth in Mind retells a familiar story of the route to the impasse
Kolbert identifies: the Enlightenment disenchanted the natural world,
setting Western Man free from the ancient moral scruples that once
allegedly restrained our depredations:

The disordering of ecological systems and of the great biogeochemi-

cal cycles of the earth reflects a prior disorder in the thought, perception,
imagination, intellectual priorities, and loyalties inherent in the industrial
mind. (Orr 2004, loc.104)

Orr seeks to reverse the alienation, fragmentation, and arrogance that

characterises industrial modernity and the educational systems that
reproduce it. Citing a list of environmental harms, Orr claims that these
are not random facts but:

part of a larger pattern that includes shopping malls and deforestation,

glitzy suburbs and ozone holes, crowded freeways and climate change,
overstocked supermarkets [sic] and soil erosion, a gross national product
in excess of $5 trillion and superfund sites, and technological wonders and
insensate violence. (loc.93)

Orr’s pattern of decline depends on a list as selective as Ridley’s of the

achievements of western civilisation. It takes both Enlightenment politics
and modern technology to make possible the emancipation of women,
for example, and it would be a brave Romantic who preferred premod-
ern mortality rates of both mothers and babies to modern ones (50–500
times higher before antiseptics and forceps, say Dubner and Levitt). Even
so, Orr is prepared to state that ‘Capitalism has failed because it destroys
morality altogether’ (loc.191), a claim that could be challenged both for
its premise and its conclusion. Has capitalism ‘failed’, or succeeded too
terribly? And what is the popular basis of modern rights of women, disa-
bled people, oppressed races, and sexual minorities if it is not moral? The
role of education in promoting such rights is evidently far less important
to Orr than its failure to promote Romantic environmentalism:

much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of education
that alienates us from life in the name of human domination, fragments
instead of unifies, overemphasizes success and careers, separates feeling
from intellect and the practical from the theoretical, and unleashes on the
world minds ignorant of their own ignorance. (loc.248)

All environmentalists lament the immense transformations industrial moder-

nity has wrought upon the non-human world, yet there is no evidence that
Orr considers the health, wealth, security, and freedom ­millions of humans
enjoy as in any way countervailing, let alone vindicating, it. Dana  Phillips
194  G. Garrard

derides this declensionist view of human history as ‘something went horribly

wrong, and it was bound to’ (Phillips 2003: 117).
Despite Orr’s determined myopia, it is not as if environmentalists in
general are unaware of the metrics of progress; they just tend to read
them very differently. An alarming series of graphs produced by the
International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) for its ‘Global
Change and the Earth System’ summary document, for instance, repli-
cates the exponential upward surge of the population chart with remark-
ably little variation: global water use, fertiliser consumption, telephones,
and McDonald’s restaurants (the latter being perhaps the equivalent
in the ecosystem of consumerism to the ecologist’s ‘indicator species’)
(Steffen et al. 2004: 15). These curves do not celebrate the fact that
more and more humans can eat, talk, and travel as they please; rather
the juxtaposition of GDP growth with rocketing atmospheric CO2 con-
centration, overexploited fisheries, and alarming estimated rates of spe-
cies extinction suggests that all are approaching their zenith together. We
cannot help imagining ourselves as passengers nearing the top of the first
incline on a rollercoaster. The next phase—first projected in the 1970s
to occur in the 1980s, but now expected by mid-twentieth century at
the latest—could be the classic Malthusian meltdown: overshoot and col-
lapse, most likely accelerated by abrupt and severe climate change. The
report comments dryly that:

In terms of key environmental parameters, the Earth System has recently

moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over
at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring
simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change
are unprecedented in human history and perhaps in the history of the
Earth. (4)

The present, as the report illustrates, is ‘unprecedented’, and the future

is, given the nonlinear responses of Earth systems and the inadequacy of
our present state of knowledge, profoundly uncertain.
Such radically opposed positions recall the curious flipping of per-
spective engendered by Joseph Jastrow’s famous ‘duck-rabbit’ image:
progress and calamity seem not so much opposed diagnoses of con-
temporary society as bi-stable gestalts that make very different sense
of the same graphs. Not quite the same graphs, though: environmen-
talists never map the spread of democratic governance, for example,

while cornucopians seldom mention the severe over-exploitation of the

world’s fisheries. ‘Sustainable development’ is the means by which envi-
ronmental educators and policy-makers seek to reconcile—or at least
camouflage—these competing valuations, prognoses, and prescriptions.1
I will not rehearse all the objections levelled at the concept from both
environmentalists and cornucopians, except to say that it implies that
we can eat our cake—enjoying human ‘development’—and still have it,
provided we meet the vague and mobile criteria of ‘sustainability’. The
latter is understood either as a demandingly restrictive process of accept-
ing objective restraints or as a changing, creative relationship between
money and materials. Here is Ridley again, from the second perspective:

The amount of oil left, the food-growing capacity of the world’s farm-
land, even the regenerative capacity of the biosphere – these are not fixed
numbers; they are dynamic variables produced by a constant negotiation
between human ingenuity and natural constraints. (loc.4418)

Disputes about the real meaning of ‘resources’ and ‘sustainability’, as well

as disagreements about the ends or purposes of education, matter in the
environmental humanities because they affect the framing of problems
and the relationship of students and instructors to possible solutions. The
contention here is that the role of learners in higher education themselves
in terms of conceptualising and practising sustainability has been under-
stood as basically passive, and therefore dramatically under-estimated.
David Orr’s Romantic pessimism leads him to dismiss contemporary
higher education almost entirely. He asserts that ‘The vast majority of so-
called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worth-
less’ (loc.165) —an argument more often heard in the right-wing tabloid
press in the UK. Moreover, disciplinary boundaries and established cur-
ricula would have to be eliminated in favour of a common programme of
study, because, he says:

no student should graduate from any educational institution without a

basic comprehension of things like the following:

• the laws of thermodynamics,

• the basic principles of ecology,
• carrying capacity,
• energetics,
196  G. Garrard

• least-cost, end-use analysis,

• limits of technology,
• appropriate scale,
• sustainable agriculture and forestry,
• steady-state economics, and
• environmental ethics.

I would add to this list of analytical and academic things, practical things
necessary to the art of living well in a place: growing food; building shel-
ter; using solar energy; and a knowledge of local soils, flora, fauna, and the
local watershed. (loc.220)

A philosopher or economist would argue in vain that students need to

study their subjects deeply in order to understand and critically evaluate
environmental ethics or steady-state economics: the point for Orr is to
save the world, not comprehend or question it. At least they might have
jobs in Orr’s Academy; historians and literary critics need not apply. It is
worth noting, too, the list’s pervasive emphasis on constraint: thermody-
namics threatens us with entropy; carrying capacity caps animal popula-
tions in a given area; energetics implies fixed energy budgets mandated
by scarcity; technology has limits rather than capabilities; and so on.

The Biocultural Curriculum

Despite its popularity in ecocritical discussions of teaching (see Garrard
2007), Orr’s approach is deeply threatening to the environmental
humanities. Besides his didactic and inflexible curriculum, reactionary
anti-intellectualism, and pedagogical banality, his vision of environmen-
tal education shows no awareness of the critical and analytical potential
inherent in our subjects—perhaps because the urgency of environmental
crisis implies we have no time for such fripperies. Quasi-military train-
ing certainly makes more sense than liberal education if the future looks
more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Star Trek.
If we are not wholly convinced of the nighness of the End, though,
we might find the cornucopian approach more intellectually and peda-
gogically constructive. For example, Ridley’s gloss on ‘resources’ implies
complex transactions of things and signs that we recognise as semiotic:
‘oil’, ‘farmland’, and even ‘endangered species’ are at once promiscuous
signifiers subsisting in a near-limitless inter- and hypertextual field and

definitely—sometimes defiantly—material intra-actors (see e.g. Tuana

2008 and other contributors to the same volume). Somewhat similarly,
Ursula Heise has contrasted the environmentalist conception of risk as
an objective condition of possible ecological or human harm with the
more subtly mediated notion elaborated by sociologists such as Ulrich
Beck. Rather than serving a mere explanatory role—the best one might
hope for under Orr’s dispensation—Heise sees ecocriticism in a mutually
instructive relationship with risk theory:

Not only is risk theorists’ exploration of the ways cultural worldviews and
institutions shape risk perceptions fundamental background knowledge for
anyone interested in the forms that environmental art and writing have
taken at different historical moments and in various cultural communities,
but inversely, literary critics’ detailed analyses of cultural practices stand to
enrich and expand the body of data that an interdisciplinary risk theory can
build on. (Heise 2008: 138)

If resources are semiotic and risk is enculturated (without in either case

denying the material reality of oil or pollution) ecocriticism has impor-
tant work to do, both in terms of research and interdisciplinary teaching.
As it happens, such a biocultural constructionist perspective enjoys the
additional advantage that it is not threatened by the paradigm shift in
ecology from the myth of the balance of nature to the post-equilibrium
science outlined by John Kricher. ‘The balance of nature paradigm,’ he
argues, ‘is of little value within evolution and ecology. It has never been
clearly defined and is basically misleading. But the balance of nature is
esthetically satisfying, a fact that is largely responsible for its continued
vigor through the ages.’ (Kricher 2009: 23) If there is no balance of
nature, sustainability can only be understood in provisional and dynamic
By contrast, the more conventional view in ecocritical pedagogy
understands ‘sustainability’ as either the restoration of an ecological
status quo ante or the achievement of a stable, harmonious relationship
of humans and their environment, even though post-equilibrium ecol-
ogy and the consistent findings of environmental historians render such
notions extremely problematic. Orr’s Romantic ecocritical pedagogy is
at once wildly ambitious—we are to dethrone Enlightenment Man after
a 400-year reign of terror and re-enchant the world—and desperately
impoverished: our job is merely to identify and promote the literary texts
198  G. Garrard

that might accomplish these extraneous objectives. Of course, it is cer-

tain that, in reality, Orr’s literary disciples encourage critical discussion in
their classes, yet in so doing they depart from both the letter and spirit of
environmental education as he conceives it.
Insofar as what is preached is also practised, conventional ecocriti-
cal pedagogy is dangerously counterproductive as well as reactionary.
Passionate support for environmental causes (as opposed to vague anxi-
ety and a hope that ‘something will be done’) has been on the wane for
decades, as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger point out. If, as
they argue, 1960s and 1970s environmentalism was the product of post-
war affluence and optimism, the emphasis on pessimistic critique of capi-
talism and consumption was destined to rebound on the movement:

environmentalism has … saddled us with the albatross we call the politics

of limits, which seeks to constrain human ambition, aspiration, and power,
rather than unleash and direct them. In focusing attention so exclusively
on the nonhuman worlds that have been lost rather than also on the aston-
ishing human world that has been created, environmentalists have felt
more resentment than gratitude for the efforts of those who came before
us. (Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2007: 17)

Quite apart from the depressing construction of students as fallen

Romantics in need of reform, or ineffectual environmental cadres in need
of rigorous re-education, the curriculum, methods, and implications of
conventional ecocritical pedagogy embody a demotivating politics of
limits. As Nordhaus and Schellenberger aver, ‘No single word better
describes the ethics of environmentalism than “sacrifice” (124). But do
we really believe our students will adopt with enthusiasm what one com-
mentator called ‘a lifelong celery diet’? As ex-smokers and serial dieters
know all too well, while giving up takes a lifetime’s commitment, giving
in takes but a moment’s weakness.

A Practice of Emergency
My suspicion is that unprecedented ecopedagogies are already being
widely practised, but are not yet articulated in terms appropriate to a
humanistic discipline. By contrast, in an interview on contemporary eco-
poetics, Jonathan Skinner observes:

I worry about letting crisis define ecopoetics; it has defined the environ-
mental movement for nearly half a century, and ultimately has limited
the kind of response needed over the long term—an everyday practice of
responsibility to the earth. I am okay with calling it a practice of emer-
gency, if by that we mean to include the emergence of new forms of life.
(Hume 2012: 756)

Ecopedagogy as a ‘practice of emergency’ in this productively ambigu-

ous sense would conjoin environmentalist objectives with progressive
humanistic educational techniques and ideals.
Ecofeminists have long espoused open-ended teaching that consti-
tutes the student as a co-producer of knowledge, not merely a recipient
or consumer of it. Patrick Murphy imagines the educator as a ‘Trickster
Midwife’, who ‘teaches by story, paradox, and questioning’ (Murphy
1995: 135):

The Trickster Midwife allows for the possibility of engaging in … desed-

imentation [of student’s existing beliefs] without imposing a new set of
received values, hardly better understood than the former ones, which
would only replicate the patriarchal monologues of the traditional class-
room. Such a teacher serves as a guide who encourages students towards
self-consciousness, self-motivation, and inquiry in search of commitment.

However, as John Parham shows in a critique of ecofeminist works by

Greta Gaard and John Paul Tassoni, even those ostensibly committed
to ‘Midwife’ pedagogies lapse back into more coercive assumptions and
techniques that accentuate the teacher’s superior ‘environmental capi-
tal’. Despite their progressive allegiances, these professors’ accounts of
their classes betray ‘no sense either that the students might bring a pre-
existing environmental awareness to class, that could supplement the
teachers’ expertise, or that the teachers’ claim to possess environmental
capital might itself require examination (not least in light of the students’
own understandings of, positions on and experiences in environmental-
ism)’ (Parham 2006: 11). Murphy, for all his exemplary openness, por-
trays himself as a ‘guide who encourages students’ in the direction of a
‘commitment’ that seems resilient to questioning in its own right, whereas
Parham urges that ecocritical pedagogy engage more honestly and con-
structively with the challenges brought by mass access to, and creeping
200  G. Garrard

vocationalisation of, higher education, and with postmodern decentring

of authority. Students should be free to critique the tutor’s ‘environmen-
tal capital’, perhaps with the help of anti-environmentalist, cornucopian
authors such as Levitt, Dubner, and Ridley. Where conventional ecocriti-
cal pedagogy implies that knowledge and values flow from environmental
philosophy and politics into the classroom, Parham’s ‘transactional peda-
gogy’ suggests we might learn from students the parameters of unprec-
edented future configurations of environmentalism.
Similarly astute and revealing reflexivity, interspersed with a range of
practical suggestions for teaching, distinguishes Mitchell Thomashow’s
superb Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global
Environmental Change. Although Thomashow admits he is ‘not will-
ing to let go of [his] place-based philosophy’ (Thomashow 2002: 176),
the real message of both his book and its array of ‘perceptual exercises’
is that awareness of global environmental change requires research and
experience at multiple scales of time and space. Rather than simply
bemoaning such revolutionary technologies as the car or the internet,
Thomashow shows how the rapidity of travel (real and virtual) they ena-
ble ‘reveals some patterns and conceals others’ (148). The potential of
such technologies for environmental education is inseparable from their
inherent biases:

The Internet and the interstate strike me as the psychedelics of biospheric

perception. They provide remarkable vistas at an extraordinarily rapid pace.
They open the doors of perception so that you can take in much more
than you may be prepared to see. Their perceptual impact is veiled by their
habitual use. The world moves forward by leaps and bounds and you are
always trying to catch up. (139)

Thomashow even suggests that airlines might offset their environmen-

tal impact a little, morally if not materially, by providing geographical
commentaries on the continents they overfly so that passengers can take
better advantage of their unique vantage point. His references and exer-
cises prioritise natural history and local knowledge, much like David Orr,
but Thomashow is far from contemptuous of book-learning and open-
minded research. Moreover, it is easy to imagine a literary ‘Biospheric
Curriculum’ inspired by his four ‘cognitive categories’: interspatial, inter-
species, intertemporal, and intergenerational. The literary canon has
always been open to the otherness of the past; has been reconfigured by

postcolonial perspectives towards geographical openness; and is in the

process of being opened to other-than-human beings by ecocriticism and
critical animal studies. Most importantly, Bringing the Biosphere Home
argues for an orientation towards environmental change that is adaptive
as well as principled, not reactionary and declensionist.
Thomashow’s interest in spatial and temporal scales allies his work
with that of Timothy Clark, who has strikingly characterised the phe-
nomenological impact of climate change as a ‘derangement’ of our exist-
ing assumptions:

Environmental slogans urge us to ‘eat less meat and help save the planet’,
or they follow horrifying predictions of climate chaos with injunctions, no
less solemn, not to leave electrical appliances on standby or overfill the ket-
tle. Such language would have seemed surreal or absurd to an earlier gen-
eration and enacts a bizarre derangement of scales, collapsing the trivial
and the catastrophic into each other. (Clark 2011: 136)

Alongside such provocative observations, Clark’s Cambridge Introduction

to Literature and the Environment incorporates 13 ‘quandaries’ of envi-
ronmental criticism, each of which presents pedagogical opportunities.
For example, he gives an example of a work of environmental nonfiction
by Gretel Ehrlich that ‘garbles’ basic elements of the science it incorpo-
rates, and asks: ‘What effect does such scientific illiteracy have on a text of
this kind and what critical issues does this raise?’ (178). Neither novelists
nor literary critics would ordinarily be considered answerable to scien-
tific facts, but the ecocritical emphasis on nonfiction and referential truth
seems now to require it. The predicament is still sharper for undergradu-
ates who may have quit science subjects many years before. Clark’s quan-
daries are better suited to teaching a critical and humanistic discipline
than Orr’s prescriptions.
To illuminate how ecocriticism extends, but also departs from, the
long tradition of considering ‘English’ as charged with a countercul-
tural ‘mission’, Richard Kerridge provides a critical history of the field in
Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. He too characterises
our position in terms of conflicts, as between ‘the aspiration to schol-
arly impersonality in reading, and the contrary recognition that reading
is “situated” and “embodied”, always taking place at a moment in some-
one’s life and somewhere in physical space’ (Kerridge 2012: 20). A key
dilemma is that both ecocriticism and the vision of a degree programme
202  G. Garrard

that prevails among politicians and business leaders construct higher edu-
cation as urgent and instrumentalised, leading to sustainability for the
former and individual employment in a competitive knowledge economy
for the latter. The countercultural claim of English Literature, on the
other hand, lies in its defiant exteriority (variously contested but never
quite eliminated) to such prescriptions. The key anti-reductive practice of
English, namely slow, close reading, is a meditative, mindful art, accord-
ing to Timothy Morton, that ‘make[s] deconstruction experiential’ by
suspending both cynicism and certitude:

Deconstruction means being ready to be wrong. There is a humility in that

and a high tolerance for ambiguity. These are good traits for humans to
manifest to other life forms right now. (Morton 2012: 161)

While both Kerridge and Morton acknowledge that environmental

emergency conveys a necessary sense of urgency, they also plead for a
countervailing sense of the value of slowness and acceptance of unprec-
edented emergence. As Kerridge argues, close reading

is an alternative to the rapid consumption of the text, or its opportunistic

utilisation and reduction to commodity-value. As a teaching practice, what
this idea aspires to encourage in students is the explicit aim of a lifelong
relationship with literary texts—rereading and revisiting rather than dis-
carding or obsolescence. A text is for life, not just for the degree. Here is
‘slow reading’ to go with ‘slow food’. (21)

However, it would not be sufficient, Kerridge argues, merely to practise

slow reading; the teaching must also encourage reflection on the differ-
ence between such slowness and the goal-orientated, accelerated culture
that prevails both within and without the university.
We are now in a position to reframe ecocritical pedagogy as a prac-
tice of emergency that holds urgency and emergence in creative tension;
that consciously juxtaposes spatial and temporal scales in order to foster
biospheric perception; that teaches quandaries, not received ecological
truths; and that practises reflective close reading. Some further quanda-
ries that might shape such teaching are:

1. Place: Conventional ecocritical pedagogy valorises place-based learn-

ing, but as Ursula Heise has pointed out, ‘the local itself is thoroughly

unfamiliar to many individuals, and may be epistemologically unfath-

omable in its entirety as larger entities such as the nation or the globe’
(Heise 2008: 41). The weighting of local and global is therefore a
crucial quandary (Garrard 2010).
2. Interdisciplinarity: As Clark suggests, scientific illiteracy is a par-
ticular problem for ecocriticism. How much does it matter? Ted
Toadvine has highlighted six ‘myths of interdisciplinarity’ in a use-
ful discussion based on years of experience teaching on a collabora-
tive Environmental Studies programme (Toadvine 2011).
3. Experiential and mediated knowledge: Conventional ecocritical
pedagogy stresses the value of direct personal experience, but the
overwhelming bias of both the modern academy and the world
outside it is towards increasingly mediated ways of knowing. Can
this opposition be reconciled, or must it remain a fundamental
4. Reconnection and critique: The objective of Romantic ecopeda-
gogy is to overcome students’ supposed alienation from nature,
which Richard Louv characterises as ‘nature-deficit disorder’.
Symptoms include ‘diminished use of the senses, attention diffi-
culties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses’ (Louv
2008: 34). Contemporary ecocriticism, though, is better charac-
terised as a critique of biopolitics that understands the Romantic
myth of alienation as itself symptomatic of environmental emer-
gency. How do we respond if, as seems likely, biopolitical analysis is
historically and philosophically more cogent, but healing alienation
is more emotive?
5. Limits or possibility: The last quandary brings us back to where
we started, and the contest of cornucopians and environmentalists.
My central argument is that, rather than a pre-given notion of sus-
tainability directing our pedagogy, the ecopedagogy of the unprec-
edented I have outlined will yield a provisional, dynamic practice
of sustainability that corresponds to post-equilibrium ecology. Our
pedagogy should mould our politics, not the other way around.

Back in the S**t

The trouble with the Parable of Horseshit is, as Kolbert points out, that
it legitimises a kind of complacent meliorism. Worse still, not only are we
reassured that technology is the panacea, environmental anxiety itself is
204  G. Garrard

recast as part of the problem. As Frederick Buell patiently explains, for

every instance of environmental ‘alarmism’ there is at least one exam-
ple of accurate or even understated projection: ‘Doomsters … can turn
out to be absolutely correct and vital to humanity’s safety’ (Buell 2003,
loc.1576). The most outlandish predictions of the effects of ozone
depletion and acid rain did not come true, but only because the warn-
ings were heeded and action taken. The commercial interests opposed to
control of CFC and sulphur pollution countered environmentalist argu-
ments with their own economically apocalyptic scenarios and it is these
that turned out to be hysterically exaggerated.
The value of the parable, though, is that it reminds us that the unprec-
edented is, precisely, unprecedented. This is why Orr’s dismissal of aca-
demic research as ‘worthless’ is of a piece with his prescriptive set of
criteria for environmental education: he is confident we already know
what we need to know to escape the crisis. Even mass literacy, one of the
great achievements of modernity, appears to threaten sustainability: ‘It
is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived
sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or like
the Amish do not make a fetish of reading’ (loc.132). Yet such people,
if they even existed, were certainly small in number, relatively limited in
technology, and simple in terms of social organisation. Undergraduates
living in a complex, populous industrial civilisation can learn little that is
practicable from hunter-gatherers (although of course anthropology stu-
dents continue to learn a great deal about and from indigenous peoples
in other respects).
To put it bluntly, there has never been a sustainable human society, if by
that we mean one that has deliberately regulated itself ecologically in the
absence of severe demographic, epidemiological, agricultural, or techno-
logical constraints. The environmentalism of the past, which gestated in
a world of killing smogs and knee-deep horseshit and was born in the
glare of the hydrogen bomb, will not suffice. As Bill McKibben has said
of the main greenhouse gas:

If you want to understand the death of environmentalism, you need

to understand the gas on which it choked … Unlike carbon monoxide –
the key ingredient in nasty brown smog, the pollutant that helped kill
Londoners breathing coal fumes – carbon dioxide, ironically, is essentially
nontoxic.… Think about that, and perhaps you can understand why a polit-
ical movement strong enough, barely, to protect blue whales and whooping

cranes might be having a bit of trouble – and why any attempt to deal with
climate change will mean something that looks very different from envi-
ronmentalism as we’ve known it. (Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2007: cited

Feminists are sometimes frustrated by the indifference and hostility they

encounter among young students—perhaps especially women—and see
it as a symptom of backlash rather than a sign of significant progress. We
ought to be proud and pleased that environmentalist rhetorics of fear
and constraint seldom move our students as we were moved. A pedagogy
of the unprecedented is both preferable in its own right, and far more
likely to allow our students to show us a way out of the deep shit we are,
in some respects, in—a way we most likely will never have suspected.

1. UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development has run
from 2005 to 2014. In the UK, at least, it has made very little impression.

Buell, F. 2003. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the
American Century, Kindle ed. New York: Routledge.
Clark, T. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment,
Kindle ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Garrard, G. 2007. Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability. Pedagogy
7: 359–383.
Garrard, G. 2010. Problems and Prospects in Ecocritical Pedagogy. Environmental
Education Research 16: 233–245.
Garrard, G. 2011. Ecocriticism. Abingdon: Routledge.
Heise, U.K. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental
Imagination of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hume, A. 2012. Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Hass, Brenda
Hillman, Evelyn Reilly, and Jonathan Skinner. Interdisciplinary Studies in
Literature and Environment 19: 751–766.
Kerridge, R. 2012. Ecocriticism and the Mission of ‘English’. In Teaching
Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. G. Garrard. Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan.
Kolbert, E. 2009. Hosed: Is There a Quick Fix for the Planet? [Online]. http://
kolbert?currentPage=1. Accessed 13 Sep 2012.
206  G. Garrard

Kricher, J.C. 2009. The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth, Kindle ed.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Levitt, S.D. and S.J. Dubner. 2010. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic
Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, Kindle ed.
London: Allen Lane.
Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit
Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Morton, T. 2012. Practising Deconstruction in an Age of Ecological Emergency.
In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. G. Garrard.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Murphy, P.D. 1995. Literature, Nature, and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Nordhaus, T., and M. Shellenberger. 2007. Break Through: From the Death of
Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Orr, D.W. 2004. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human
Prospect, Kindle ed. Washington, DC: Island.
Parham, J. 2006. The Deficiency of “Environmental Capital”: Why Environ-
mentalism Needs a Reflexive Pedagogy. In Ecodidactic Perspectives on English
Language, Literatures and Cultures, ed. S. Mayer and G. Wilson. Trier:
Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.
Peterson, T.C., W.M. Connolley, and J. Fleck. 2008. The Myth of the 1970s
Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bulletin of the American Meteorological
Society 89: 1325–1337.
Phillips, D. 2003. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in
America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ridley, M. 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Kindle ed.
London: Fourth Estate.
Steffen, W., A. Sanderson, P.D. Tyson, J. Jäger, P.A. Matson, B. Moore Iii,
F. Oldfield, K. Richardson, H.J. Schellnhuber, B.L. Turner Ii, and R.J.
Wasson. 2004. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure
(Executive Summary).
92f2a680007761/. Accessed 27 June 2013.
Thomashow, M. 2002. Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global
Environmental Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Toadvine, T. 2011. Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity. Thinking Nature [Online],
tedtoadvine.pdf. Accessed 27 Jan 2013.
Tuana, N. 2008. Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina. In Material Feminisms,
ed. S. Alaimo and S. Hekman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Author Biography
Greg Garrard is the FCCS Sustainability Professor at the University of British
Columbia, a founding member and former chair of the Association for the Study
of Literature and the Environment (UK & Ireland), and a UK National Teaching
Fellow. He is the author of Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2011) as well
as numerous essays on eco-pedagogy, animal studies, and environmental criti-
cism. He has recently edited Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies
(Palgrave, 2011) and The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (OUP, 2014).

Opening up the Seminar: Children’s

Literature, a Case Study

Pamela Knights

In Noel Streatfeild’s novel, Ballet Shoes (1936), Doctor Jakes, an advanced

literary scholar, keeps Shakespeare at the heart of her curriculum; but,
talking over books with a bright 11-year-old, she is also impressively
­matter-of-fact about admiring Beatrix Potter:

“Do you think Peter Rabbit good reading? I would have thought a person
who taught literature was far too grand for it.”

“Not a bit—very old friend of mine.”1

It would probably have come as no surprise to her (or to Streatfeild) to

see, in the twenty-first century, her successors teaching Peter Rabbit (or
Ballet Shoes) as an accepted part of English Literary Studies. In its peda-
gogical forms, within schools of librarianship and education, children’s
literature had a place in higher education from the early twentieth cen-
tury; and migrating across disciplinary boundaries, reshaped and reori-
ented, would begin to enter university English departments from the

P. Knights (*) 
Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 209

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8_13
210  P. Knights

late 1960s. Following its introduction in North America, it continued to

establish itself as a subject; and burgeoning over the past 25 years or so,
it is now researched and taught worldwide.2 It appears in a diverse array
of disciplinary contexts, from Media Studies to History or Geography,
Childhood Studies to Archaeology or Linguistics, and in many schools
of Modern Languages—all areas with potential to enrich approaches in
literary classrooms. In English departments, it flourishes in both the gen-
eral survey, introductory, format, and, with wide historical and thematic
range, in more concentrated specialist options, reflecting individual staff
interests. As it has legitimised itself, it has taken advantage of opportu-
nities for refining its subject identities, branching into audience-related,
period, generic, or thematic sub-divisions; and histories of childhood,
and children’s writing and response, have expanded the field for inves-
tigation. With each of these, from chapbooks to Y/A (‘Young Adult’,
or ‘Adolescent’) fiction, fairy tales to digital media, come debates over
taxonomies, terminology, and calls for the development of appropriate,
theoretically informed, classroom methodologies. The term ‘children’s
literature’ remains a convenient label, however, and I use it in this chap-
ter to refer to a broad spectrum of interests.
English departments regularly scheduling more than one or two chil-
dren’s literature options, or systematically integrating texts for children into
a mainstream undergraduate curriculum, nevertheless remain a ­ minority.
Though today’s early career academics (unlike their forerunners in the
­subject) are likely to be entering English departments with experience for-
mally accredited in their own degree studies, they will be privileged if they
find themselves in one of those rare posts that enables them to focus exclu-
sively on their specialism in their teaching. Even where the subject has
become thoroughly embedded in a department, institutional memories can
be short: where one teacher has launched children’s literature, staff changes,
or a break to take up a research grant, can mean that its local history is for-
gotten, only to be encountered again, as an innovation, by fresh generations
of students or colleagues. Graduate school publicity, too, in the competition
over markets, often perpetuates representations of children’s literature pro-
grammes as somehow newsworthy—conveniently overlooking the venerable
record of such programmes as the Master’s degree at Reading University,
more truly groundbreaking, in the UK, when founded in 1984. An unfor-
tunate, more far-reaching, implication of such publicity is, perhaps, that the
subject still needs defending—reviving the slurs of being ‘lightweight’, or

some how tainted by association with childishness, or vocational training,

that plagued it from inception. It is not so astonishing, then, that even some
four decades after founding the first UK children’s literature course within
an English department (at the University of Wales, at Cardiff), Peter Hunt,
one of the subject’s pre-eminent champions, can be heard, in interview,
continuing to deflect the casual dismissiveness of potential detractors: ‘Some
people say, “Oh, children’s books—so easy. It’s for children. Must be sim-
pleminded.” But actually it’s twice as hard as reading an adult book.’3
Individual teachers, initiating the subject area might understandably,
then, still regard themselves, too, as pioneering a slightly risky venture;
and might find their students, similarly, expressing apprehension as well
as excitement. In this chapter, therefore, I am aiming particularly to keep
early encounters in mind—to suggest the sort of questions that might
be worrying students about to embark on academic study of children’s
texts, and, in mirror-image, some of the questions perhaps preoccupy-
ing their teachers as they prepare their topic. While largely presenting an
overview of general issues, rather than, say, debates over establishing a
children’s literature canon, or details of syllabus selection, I also attempt
to give brief glimpses of some problems and possibilities, as they play out
in day-to-day teaching practices.
These reflections draw extensively on dialogues, through the years,
over shared experiences within the ever-growing community of teachers
in vibrant programmes. But I am also trying not to forget the kind of
position I first experienced when launching myself into children’s litera-
ture teaching (in the early 1990s), and that, even today, some colleagues
might face: that of bringing children’s books into the syllabus, and/or
offering a single, standalone, option dedicated to the study of children’s
texts, within a more traditional university English programme (and, in
some cases, feeling themselves to be a lone voice ‘crying in the wilder-
ness’4). In any area of teaching, however, as any pedagogical discussion
reminds us, no matter how many times participants have taken students
successfully through a particular topic, the sense of starting again always
stirs some anxiety. At an extreme, this can immobilise teaching—at
worst, into mechanical repetition of formulae that ‘worked’ before, or,
less damaging, into moving away to explore other terrain altogether.
More positively, teaching conversations re-energise the classroom.5
So, contemplating a fresh incarnation of your module, with a group of
freshly recruited students, what might you (and they) be asking?
212  P. Knights

Sameness or Difference?
With children’s literature, one of the most acute forms of such
questioning is comparative: does the subject make any distinctive
demands of us, our students, or of our classroom practice? Although
usually wishing to reassure prospective students (or a head of depart-
ment) about what might seem a novel, and possibly daunting, enterprise,
with children’s literature we might always feel some tension: do we want
to naturalise our subject, as fitting seamlessly with other literary studies,
or rather decide to emphasise some likely sense of divergence? This is not
just a matter of subject politics, though these bear on any decision. At
its crudest, underlining difference and difficulty—signalling that, in Peter
Hunt’s words, reading children’s books will be ‘twice as hard’—serves
both to warn off any student seeking short texts and a lighter workload,
as well as beating the bounds of academic status; but, more crucially, it
also significantly shapes how we and our students work together.
‘Do you have to read in a different way?’—Asked this question, from
the position of a student about to study children’s literature, Hunt in
the interview above responds at some length. He begins by emphasis-
ing ‘one major adjustment’ that makes children’s books ‘different’: that
‘they have in them the idea of the child’ (‘some concept of childhood or
childishness, or whatever’), held by ‘the writer or the publisher, or who-
ever, involved in the book’. The reader will, he suggests, ‘in a sense’ be
looking for that element.6 As every essay in this volume suggests, all lit-
erary study calls for learning ‘to read in a different way’. For students still
adapting to the formal role of ‘being an English student’, any trepida-
tion about opting for children’s literature might turn, at least initially, on
matters of skills and knowledge. In literary studies, students do not often
encounter topics grouped under putative readership, let alone framed
as a kind of elusive quest. Will they have to cast aside newly acquired
analytical strategies, or abandon theory, to navigate the unknown depths
of language acquisition, child psychology, the history of education, or
the material cultures of publishing? If they have spotted picture books
on your syllabus, will they worry about their lack in expertise in the
finer points of art criticism? Participants coming into our groups from
other departments might already be at home in some of this territory—
and might, indeed, have been drawn to children’s literature as a natural
extension of their major discipline. But will they be disadvantaged with-
out the solid literary competence of the English students?

Turning back to Hunt’s response only complicates matters further:

the presence of the ‘whatever’ (of the child, childhood, childishness …),
he suggests, fissures and fractures the activity of reading. The reader,
torn between divergent perspectives, is, in Hunt’s running commentary
on the process:

doing four things, not two things. You’re reading it for yourself; but
are you reading the book for yourself as an adult or are you reading as
a child? – That is, are you responding to the implied readership of the
book – the book implies a child reader: do you go along with that, or do
you react against it?…And then you might be reading it on behalf of a
child – you know, I’m making a judgement about it – so that’s another
way of reading it; and of course that will also depend on how you judge
what a child is.

‘So’, he sums up, ‘it becomes an extremely complicated change of lens

really, to read a children’s book’.7
For teachers, all such questions ramify and intensify. We might hesi-
tate from the outset, at the stage of producing documentation, over how
to ‘place’ our subject, halted at points where it seems an awkward fit in
familiar departmental templates; and when it comes to detail—drafting
resource guides or sample assignment tasks, for example—we might find
ourselves wondering how far to go. How does anyone begin to make
manageable for students, or represent clearly to the eye of an external
examiner, the diverse literary and sociopolitical histories, or changing
constructions of the child and/or the audience, informing our chosen
texts? As Jack Zipes comments, gesturing at even more expansive inter-
connections in the wider social and cultural arena:

The field of children’s literature must include the interrelationships

between children, teachers, librarians, parents, publishers, bookstore own-
ers, vendors, business corporations, the mass media, and their various
practices of producing and consuming books intended for the young as

Thinking over what else he would have to consider in order to understand

children’s literature, Perry Nodelman, quoting this passage, then presses
Zipes’s observation further, in a battery of questions—a vision of an
ever-expanding network of cultural relations, underpinning any possible
214  P. Knights

reading of any specific text.9 As children’s books are ever more vigorously
marketed, what do we even ‘count’ as a text? As when teaching widely
read ‘classic’ literature (Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein, for example),
we have to decide whether, or how far, we engage with adaptation the-
ories or cultural studies, or even begin to acknowledge a vast legacy of
cross-media retellings and repackagings. Where, for instance, do we draw
the limits, within a literary programme, around Peter Rabbit’s plethora of
textual recastings and consumable transformations, as traced at its century
by Margaret Mackey?10 Contemplating the myriad artefacts now inhabited
by Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), do we include toys,
games, height charts, lunch bags, or duvet sets in our seminars on ‘read-
ing’ children’s picture books? As in all English teaching, no decision can
possibly address every complication; and in the confines of space likely to
be allotted to studying children’s literature, we might hope, at best, to
spark awareness. Such worries, even as I have sketched them here, can-
not be easily dismissed: they are part of the composition of the subject,
imprinted throughout its inter- and trans-disciplinary evolution.

Integrating Children’s Books

As always, the context for introducing a text structures expectation.
Naturalisation (slotting a children’s book, with little fanfare, into a main-
stream syllabus) can be a way of trying out approaches within a more
restricted frame, less ‘high risk’, for teacher or students, than full com-
mitment to an entire children’s literature module. The broader, recog-
nised, setting can help student confidence, keeping out of the way, at
first, potentially troublesome anxieties over some ‘child-related’ textual
identity. Logistical problems of how to engage students with informa-
tion about a society, period, or literary canvas, diminish too: the kind
of materials that can threaten to overload a historically or culturally
wide-ranging introductory children’s literature survey course are here
already part of the wider reading of the module as a whole. If we decide
to impart some necessary ‘context’ through an occasional brief lecture
within a seminar structure, we know that the time taken will be in pro-
portion to its usefulness. (The occasional ‘lecturette’, applicable to a
range of texts over several seminars can be valuable; delivered, each time,
as the classroom norm, with different material for each text, we risk ren-
dering any group passively dependent.)

More compellingly, for children’s literature studies in general, even

a single text can rouse the curiosity of a student who might otherwise
never have considered pursuing a specialist study; and, long-term, desir-
ably, routine integration might thoroughly acclimatise and assimilate
texts for children into more traditionally focused English programmes.
At the very least, we reduce our chances of meeting, sooner or later,
one of those heart-sinking undergraduate dissertation proposals, which
announces that children’s literature, and the student’s selected author
(Roald Dahl, perhaps, or C.S. Lewis) has, to this day, suffered total and
unaccountable neglect. Most positively, with only minor changes of
inflection in a syllabus, we offer students more scope for venturing out-
side the canon; and for reading across borders, between high and popu-
lar art, or between conventionally discrete periods, in a field with its own
fascinating cross-connections and continuities.

Reading Through Childhood

Looking at any syllabus, we find the ground ready prepared: representa-
tions of childhood experience are central to a wide sphere of adult lit-
erature, and for many students an intriguing area. Discussions of William
Blake’s songs, or the struggles of young David Copperfield or Jane Eyre,
or Stephen Dedalus’s infant growth into language (to take commonly
taught examples), often seem to open ways into historical and poetic
worlds that might otherwise initially seem distant. As in any teaching sit-
uation, we can frequently sharpen the focus by accenting a small concrete
detail in the text, inviting students to follow a thread into larger, more
abstract issues. (Offered ‘upfront’, a concept such as ‘The Romantic
Child’ can easily become an empty phrase, tempting new students just
to hurl it into discussion with little understanding.) So, here, we might
simply suggest that students each find a moment of telling and listening,
or of reading, that foregrounds a child’s encounter with stories; then that
(perhaps in pairs) they try to draw out everything their miniature story-
scenes suggest. The group might go on to reflect on how children are
regarded in that culture, and how they seem to be constructed for the
reader; or about how stories themselves ‘fit’ here, the ‘work’ they do in
terms of the text as a whole.
In thinking about ‘writing the child’, finding room for a related chil-
dren’s book seems a small but helpful further step—instances within
some of the contexts above might include a fable by William Godwin,
216  P. Knights

perhaps, or the opening chapters of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s

School Boys (1857), or Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). Taking stu-
dents’ observations onwards, attention will normally turn first to topics
highlighted throughout their immediate syllabus—models of character,
gender, social class, or imagination, and so on, that often emerge more
clearly when viewed through the lens of childhood. Students them-
selves often propose analogies—seeing resonances of Tom Brown in
Harry Potter, for instance, or of Black Beauty in Michael Morpurgo’s
War Horse (1982)—and, these, along with any ‘presentist’ assumptions,
can be investigated, and directed back into understanding of the earlier
literature. Childhood favourites frequently spark insights. In an intro-
duction to American Literature, for example, students remembering
Little Women, Jo’s Boys, or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, will already be
acquainted with the period’s anxieties about the future for the United
States: concerns over young men and women growing up in a new con-
sumer culture, tempted (like Twain’s Tom Sawyer) by sharp practices, or
(like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) by the lure of the city. Such anxieties, in texts
framed for and through children, bring out what is significant, the pre-
ferred models of a society’s ‘adulthood’, its fears and its monsters. For
some students, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), usually unfamiliar,
prompts recall of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (1932–1943),
still widely shared between generations. A short extract from one of
the novels, or a YouTube clip from the 1970s series, can help to refresh
memories, draw in all group members, including the uninitiated, and
give a specific shared focus for comparison. Adding a later, more contem-
porary, response enables another turn to the ‘story’—here, for example,
on the prairie, Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House (1999) would bring
into view one of the Native American perspectives, excluded in Cather
and Wilder. When linked into their peers’ own reading histories, such
reflections—whether on myths of national childhood, celebrations of a
white destiny, and constructions of ‘family’ or ‘frontier’, or on the value
of a ‘child’s eye’ in creating a modernist aesthetic11—engage students far
more immediately than when they merely respond, conscientiously, to
teacher-generated lists of ‘Points for Discussion’.
In any classroom, even a slight change of angle can jolt perceptions.
Beside the ‘parallel’ text option, children’s literature offers an array of
possibilities, some of which we might integrate almost in passing. Alerted
to a mainstream author’s ventures into other genres, students are often
keenly interested; and the ‘estrangement’ effect of a book for children can

be exciting. Looking at texts such Christina Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses

(1874), or, with quirky graphics, Joyce’s The Cats of Copenhagen,12 or
Toni Morrison’s (with Slade Morrison) The Big Box (1999), generally
leads to animated class discussion, opening out beyond theme to matters
of voice, figuration, angle of vision, or affect. Adaptation, too, as ever,
is a rich field in print as well as on screen. To stay with examples from
American Literature: like many of their British contemporaries, some tra-
ditionally taught novels—such as The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, or
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—are first met in ‘simplified’ retellings
for children. Students wary of lengthy mid-nineteenth century classics
might find they can say more than they expected about these strip-story,
or abbreviated, illustrated versions.13 As with screen versions, presented
for a range of audiences over different periods, they open entry points
to thinking about ideological tensions (in nationhood, race, gender, or
politics) as played out in densely complex texts. In former settler colonies,
Clare Bradford suggests, texts for children ‘evidence varying degrees of
unease, a sense of being un-settled or de-settled’.14 A group in class, try-
ing to map on to such texts even a simple diagram of binary oppositions,
as they cross, change, overlap, and conclude, in illustration, will soon rec-
ognise uncomfortable complications. Situating the syllabus on a broader
cultural canvas, they will also remark patterns in the plethora of retell-
ings—the dominant voices of the ‘great white male’ tradition, the absent,
silenced, or ‘assimilated’, ethnic and indigenous stories.

Working with ‘Resistances’
In placing the ‘child’s’ book, or children’s version, alongside the ‘adult’
classic, we might seem to be risking the appearance of setting up an
exercise in comparative status. (Hunt’s evocation of the ‘Must be sim-
pleminded’ viewpoint is paralleled in the figures of degeneration, reduc-
tion, and diminution that have haunted accounts of retellings, and in the
images of ‘moral pap for the young’,15 in Louisa May Alcott’s phrase,
that represent fictions for children as ‘bland, simple, homogenized’ nurs-
ery fare.16) Such an exercise does not, however, have to lead (in the way
of some old-style ‘Practical Criticism’) to a round of self-congratulation
on having now discerned the relative superiority of the ‘classic’ text.
Routine integration offers one way of challenging the unhelpful (teach-
ing-related) metaphors of ‘spoon-feeding’, and of dispelling any remain-
ing preconceptions.
218  P. Knights

Playing up, even minimally, some degree of distinctiveness, however,

can open out new horizons in students’ readings: the ‘resistances’ of
children’s texts shed light back on the module’s contextual literary land-
scape. Susan Wolstenholme’s introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of
Oz, for Oxford World’s Classics, offers a helpful instance. In exploring
the dynamics of the text and mapping out its complicated relationships
with its contemporary American culture, she advances as a starting point
a sketch of two opposing models of literature for children. Drawing on
its mixed critical lineage, she comments on its ‘double movement’: for
educators, ‘as a socializing tool—helping an imagined child-reader to
become more “adult”’; and for (some) literary critics, a regressive and
nostalgic site for adult fantasy:

Recent theory attends to this double movement, which may be seen as a

function of the literature itself, or of reading, or both. And while the tone
of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suggests that the text supports the status
quo, theory suggests how to read the text against itself.17

‘Reading the text against itself’ is often a gift for a student debate: a
group can divide into sections, or work in pairs, to pursue one particular
line, and gather textual evidence, before bringing their observations of
detail into a general forum; and the anchor in an aspect of children’s lit-
erature theory can help to defamiliarise and distance a text where analysis
might be otherwise be clouded by fond early memories.
Ideas of ‘doubleness’, underpinning a variety of children’s literature
analytical frames, may be useful, too, in a wide range of teaching con-
texts. There is no need to bombard students with specialist theory, but
we can make occasions to follow through any questions, or to tweak
inquiry, to open up ‘cracks’ in easy surface readings. Even brief refer-
ence to scholarly discussions of the crossover nature of texts—between
adult/child, high/popular art, the ‘dual’ voice, the tensions between vis-
ual and verbal semiotics in picture book narratives—gives students access
to a more extensive repertoire of investigative critical tools. While stu-
dents might be at home speaking about theme, they might need more
encouragement to reflect on other matters—such as style, register and
address, form and structure, affect, or spatiality. To remain with examples
of ‘auxiliary texts’ already mentioned: for students the strange extremes
of Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses sharpen the focus on the elusiveness of
her poems (some, like ‘Goblin Market’, that might have been read, first,

in anthologies for the young). While we might still hear the dismissive,
‘Aren’t we reading too much in?’, we also give room for group members
themselves to raise more searching questions. Even the briefest pause can
stimulate comment. Trying, informally (with a neighbouring student), to
supply a line or two of verse with an imagined illustration or caption, for
instance, can intensify discussion: Are these verses transparent, or evasive?
What of the voice: coy and teasing, or covertly suggestive? How many
voices? Adult’s or child’s? How might an actor mark up a poem for read-
ing aloud? Such gaps, for interpretation, self-censorship, and silences,
help to provoke thought about projections of cultural ideals, or what
may and may not be said.
The bearing upon interpretation, too, of the provenance of texts can
sometimes seem an irrelevance to students, but the availability of online
facsimiles now enables contact with the original formats and contexts—
as serials, or magazine fillers, with illustrations or advertisements, and
alongside letters, articles and editorial comment. So, Kate Chopin’s chil-
dren’s magazine stories (alongside her adult writings in popular publica-
tions) can lead students into thinking about the politics of culture and
the power of sentiment. Taking up the resonances of even a final sen-
tence (its sugar and its steel) animates how a text might speak within and
against a genteel tradition; and of how similar currents operate in their
broader late nineteenth-century readings. Talking about a novel pub-
lished for family groups, such as Alcott’s Little Women, brings into the
foreground such matters of reticence, indirection, and social approval at
the centre of so many critical readings of children’s and women’s narra-
tives, kindled particularly by second-wave feminist approaches in 1980s.
Again, even beginning with a couple of specific small details can spark
engagement. In American Literature, considering language, to take a
single example, students might start with Alcott’s own disapproval of
Twain’s voicing of Huck Finn (‘If Mr. Clemens cannot think of some-
thing better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop
writing for them’18); or, in 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library’s removal
of Huck from the juvenile division (reportedly on the grounds that
‘Huck was a deceitful boy who said “sweat” when he should have said
“perspiration”’19). They might go on to identify similarly direct words,
or passages (in Alcott’s texts, too) that figure strong words as material
objects. Where each student can bring an item of evidence to the table
(a screenshot from a digital search, or a single word, or textual frag-
ment, written down on an individual piece of paper), debates are likely
220  P. Knights

to  become more precise and more vigorous. From matters of literary
censorship, to the constraints of a ‘feminine’ sensibility, or the nature
of a ‘new’ vision or language—questions about the cultural panorama
open out from the challenge of looking in close-up at a few words ‘fit for

Children’s Literature as a Special Option

Throughout any such encounters, whether students are noting literary
influences, or intertexts, or asking questions about historically chang-
ing constructions of childhood, or beginning to reflect on blurred and
divided vision and voices in a text (an adult’s? a child’s? a culture’s?) they
are also raising the kind of queries about children’s literature with which
we started. Much of the discussion above, whether about the anxieties
or about possible practical approaches, applies to any group, where chil-
dren’s literature comes to academic attention. Offering children’s lit-
erature as a specialism, however, opens more space for exploration—of
subject, and of approach—and perhaps gives rise to some further compli-
cations; in the rest of what follows, I try to tease out a little more about
approaching the subject in practice.

Teaching in a Different Way?

In early planning stages, in a department where studying the area might
not yet be taken for granted, issues of register and authority (again)
come to the fore. If we have internalised concerns about some external
monitory eye, becoming ‘risk averse’ seems one way to display unassail-
able academic rigour. We might (as I did on first launching my topic)
try to settle every element of our itinerary in advance, to minimise any
sense of divergence from other forms of literary study.20 Plans to lead
students from text-to-text, on a scholarly literary-historical tour, illu-
minated by our own hard-earned theoretical and critical insights, may
seem a way to demonstrate our teacherly authority (and ‘research’
approach), as well as to offer students substantial reward for their invest-
ment. If our syllabus is a general introduction, rather than an intensely
focused historical or thematic study, determining, too, to stick with for-
mal, teacher-led (aka ‘grown-up’), methods can seem a route to bypass
a related set of worries: those of ‘imposter syndrome’. In many other

teaching areas we might be confident in trying innovative methods, bol-

stered by a sense that we are to some degree regarded as a scholarly
‘expert’: we introduce students to materials largely new to them, and
which they often perceive as arcane or (initially) hard to understand.
With children’s books, it can feel that everyone, inside and outside the
academy, comes with their mental map of the field, marked up with
their ‘must-visit’ landmarks. As individuals, our students are likely to
have read some texts we have never heard of, and, as a group, certainly
many more. In various niche areas of the subject, they might well have
knowledge of a high research order.
Not least of the subject’s demands—and, potentially, one of its rich-
est teaching resources—is that it will be a meeting point for diverse
students, from multiple disciplinary perspectives, all with views about
what they hope to study. No matter how carefully we word our sylla-
bus, and whatever our own professed intellectual emphasis in framing
an approach, some will be looking forward to particular lines of inquiry,
and others anticipating a moment in the spotlight for long-held favour-
ites. So, at the first meeting, might be a John Green follower who’s read
The Fault in Our Stars fifteen times; a parent looking for books to grab
a 9-year-old reader; two graphic novel geeks; an Enid Blyton devotee,
who’s never quite forgiven his mother for decluttering his Faraway Tree
books; exchange students keen to understand more about British cul-
ture; a philosopher, a social historian, and a creative writer. A miscella-
neous constituency is not, of course, unique to children’s literature. In
any teaching (and in specialised areas, particularly), we might expect a
few aficionados. In children’s literature, however, still defined in many
ways by its declared target audience, everyone can claim prior learning
(at the very least, participant observation as a former child); and most, as
adults (‘guardians’ of childhood), will probably be approaching the top-
ics from a set of firmly held, if not always yet fully articulated, premises.
Such enthusiasm can take a group a long way, but directing the energies
productively is not always straightforward; and, as in any subject with a
strong fan base, we might find the weighting of our challenge changes—
less how to hook students into our subject, than how not to disappoint
their hopes.21
Here, modern children’s literature presents a further set of challenges.
The slippage between a teacher’s and a student’s sense of a hotly con-
temporary syllabus, for instance, can accelerate as visibly and dramatically
as any time-lapse animation; and, if we want to keep a specific text in
222  P. Knights

view, we have to execute nifty footwork. Harry Potter was repositioned

in my own syllabus, as he rapidly aged from the fresh-minted hero of
an unrolling series, to a venerable ‘influence’, part of many students’
(or young colleagues’) own childhood history. Melvin Burgess’s Junk
(in the USA, Smack; 1996)22 remained in the category of controver-
sial ‘Y/A “Realism”’, comparable for some students with Irvine Welsh’s
‘adult’ Trainspotting (1993; film, 1995); but it soon settled down, to
represent a relatively sober technical experiment, upstaged by Burgess’s
own later fiction (‘Filth, whichever way you look at it’, as Anne Fine
characterised Doing It [2003]);23 and was outpaced, again, by a stream
of fresh headline-makers of younger generation writers. Teaching even
relatively recently published children’s literature, as with other popular
and ‘current’ reading, it can be hard, too, to differentiate ‘classroom’
discourse from ‘everyday’ forms of discussion. Where the boundaries
between the ‘Goodreads’ commentator and the academic tutor might
appear all but seamless, how do we ‘add value’, when there is already
keen ­engagement?
Highlighting some theoretical angles from the start can be a means to
resolve such problems. Although the kind of fault lines as described, for
example, by Hunt above, might be tracked with different ­emphases in
other literary areas, in teaching children’s literature the idea of a divided
text seems pertinent to almost any discussion. Even in the depths of
investigating literary form in texts for children, a group finds itself tra-
versing possible reading positions, the intersections of adult/child, or the
two-way pressures of text/production (and questions of historical and
cultural variability); and students need to begin to theorise the processes.
Here too, however, we might meet some surprising resistance, even from
students who otherwise have long since overcome discomfort at hav-
ing to ‘dissect’ their reading. With texts first encountered as childhood
reading (as with favourites from school, often texts with which students
have ‘done well’ in their exams), the penumbra of nostalgia and memory
can be a counterforce to analysis; and making the transition to critical
reading can be painful. From such a perspective, the subject might some-
times be perceived as the final bastion against the deadening effects of
academia: images of ‘The Romantic Child’, recollections of the plenitude
of the reading encounter, construct a children’s literary imaginary, as a
world before the ‘Fall’ into the imposed ‘set books’ of school and col-
lege. While students are keen to see children’s books acknowledged, they
might also be reluctant to see them ‘ruined’. A warning that ‘Memories

May be Crushed during the Progress of this Module’ might go only so

far: with strong cultural and emotional investments in the sanctity of
childhood,24 the drive to preserve the integrity of texts (and the mem-
ories of the child-self who read them) can press against the intellectual
excitements of returning to understand and analyse. As the reception
of the Penguin Modern Classics cover image for Dahl’s Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory reminds us (a ‘creepy’, ‘Lolita’-like child/doll), tam-
pering with children’s books can be figured, in public and media debate,
as akin to child molestation.25
The sheer interest of reframing texts might well be enough to carry
our classes through all such problems; but being prepared to talk about
and live with difficulties often proves more rewarding. Thinking about
the uncertain compasses of the field (in Hunt’s words, the shifting ‘what-
ever’ of the child, as constructed by ‘whoever’, including teacher and
student) can in itself be a useful way in bringing a group together and
assure every member that she or he has something to bring to debate. To
work with the possibilities fully, however, requires some letting go—not
to be in too much of a hurry to clear the decks for ‘literature’, by tidying
away academically ‘inappropriate’ discourses, or filtering out students’
interests, including conspicuously ‘non-literary’ elements, their feelings,
or their individual reading histories.

Opening Out the Subject

Roberta Seelinger Trites emphasises the importance in studying Y/A lit-
erature of theorising (in post-structural terms) issues of power relations
in the texts: understanding the ‘transactions between text, reader, and
culture, we can become more astute readers, teachers, and critics’.26
We might extend her commentary to the versions of ‘adult’/’child’
(or ‘teen’) positions in the teacher/student relationship in the actual
children’s literature classroom. Bringing problems forward for stu-
dents’ scrutiny in the classroom, talking through why we find mapping
a route so hard, examining the premises of our (always provisional) syl-
labus choices and general critical approach, is usually helpful, even as a
democratic gesture; but it can also be a powerful methodological tool
in itself. The beginnings of ‘letting go’ represent a shift of mind that,
though small, can be particularly significant—decentring the classroom,
to open spaces for divergence. In encouraging dialogue and stepping
back to disperse authority and make room for other forms of knowledge
224  P. Knights

in the group, we relinquish, to a degree, the integrating (and dominant)

role of the tutor. At the same time, instead, we begin to model ways for
students to find their own routes into understanding some of the com-
plicated fractures of the subject.
Planning for elements of openness in any module, while still offering
students a firm, clearly mapped, and well-structured topic can of course
import fresh anxieties. For teachers in any area, at the most basic level,
time itself is the major consideration. Teaching a traditional canoni-
cal author, or working with a closely structured thematic or historically
linked group of texts, it is, after all, difficult enough to manage primary
and critical reading, gauge pace and workload (keeping students involved
throughout), and devise stimulating modes of assessment. In any chil-
dren’s literature contexts (whether concentrated on, say, Lewis Carroll,
or on late twentieth-century dystopias), we need, additionally, to find
time to guide students towards relevant theoretical frameworks or criti-
cal histories to help locate their studies within wider literary landscapes.27
Within the tight constraints of a seminar series (perhaps like my own, a
‘one-off’ ‘introduction’, undertaken, not untypically, with only ten two-
hour seminars, each on a distinctive topic, and two 3000-word assign-
ments), allowing scope for ‘deviation’ can seem a hazard. An often-used
solution is to schedule, within seminars, a run of formal student presen-
tations on individual research subjects. But though a method that fre-
quently produces high-quality work, and one that hands responsibility
to students, it can sometimes introduce other pressures. Once set up,
early in the seminar series, the format becomes unalterable. With large
numbers, especially, it commits a sizeable chunk of the series to a par-
ticular pattern as presenters take their turn. If done well, the talks are
stimulating, but the sense of the looming ‘Presentation’ can become
over-dominant (and for some students also, perhaps, suggests ‘leisure’,
when not involved); and, on occasions, no matter how generous the
audience, it can be hard for a seminar to rescue itself after a less than
enlivening performance.
In moving from a monologic to a more open form, changes can be a
matter of ‘tweaking’, rather than of reshaping the syllabus whole-scale
into ‘problem-based learning’, or a unit of independent study. Even a
few slight shifts of emphasis can make an impact, enabling flexibility, and
giving all students a chance to stay engaged, with a role in every seminar.
As Trites suggests of post-structuralist theories (in relation to studying

Y/A texts), for our new students, and in particular any unfamiliar with,
nervous about, or even hostile to literary theory, such shifts offer open-
ing points to ways of thinking:

Theories that invite us to be sensitive to language and how it constructs

the individual, theories that raise our awareness about race and class and
gender and adolescence itself as social constructs, theories that demon-
strate the relationship between narrative structures and ideologies, and
theories that help us to position the reader can work together to help us
discern how the elements of adolescent literature establish intricate pat-
terns that reinforce the contradictory positions of adolescents within our

Many of the kind of entry-points encouraged in Trites’s commentary

can be enacted through what might seem trivial, very practical, hands-
on tasks—the kinds of material engagement with texts, or abstractions,
exemplified in tutorial contexts above. Asking ourselves what we might
invite students specifically to do, rather than vaguely presuming that ‘the
group will now discuss’, helps to sharpen analysis; but it also allows space
for students to look outwards to wider, possibly untrodden, children’s
literature territories.

Opening Out Discussion

The diversity, enthusiasm, and knowledge in the room are resources that
need acknowledgment from the very first moments, else they can all too
easily slip away. Introductions of the ‘tell us one thing about yourself’
style are one way of tapping into student perspectives; but they are often
awkward, and even counterproductive, freezing more reticent students,
and encouraging the more demonstrative to step up to the ‘leadership’
role, to ‘save’ the situation and often to dominate discussion thereafter.
Once set, patterns are hard to break. At the very start of a seminar series
(the moment of ‘introductions’), diverting the spotlight from the indi-
vidual (student or text) to a more general topic can be helpful, not only
as an ice-breaker, but as a reference point throughout subsequent ses-
sions. If we can capture a few observations, materially—whether jotted
on paper or stored on a smart board—we have a resource of ready-made
micro-texts, to which we may return, to stir retrospections and reconsid-
erations; and if, meanwhile, students have added to initial points online,
226  P. Knights

the group has access to a potentially fascinating seam of its own discur-
sive history.29
In this kind of exercise, our role is to draw on, but disrupt, the
­familiar. As one mode of estrangement, for instance, at a safe distance
from any books close to the heart, we might choose to start with the
subject of childhood. Beginning with a few locally gathered images
(a school crossing sign, an ‘Under-25?’ ID notice, a height restriction
on a playground ride, a ‘PG’ viewing code) is one way of presenting
students directly with the confused, and often conflicting, social and
legal constructions of childhood in our immediate cultural environ-
ment. Inviting small groups to think of (or, with advance preparation,
collect) others, and, together, to try to ‘place’ themselves in relation to
‘signs of childhood’ precipitates negotiation with essentialist, universal-
ised myths of ‘the child’ and lays the ground for engaged textual analy-
sis. Even in a literature class, some awareness of Childhood Studies as a
complex discipline helps, from early on, to unsettle assumptions about
‘the child reader’, or simplified perceptions of characters, narrative voices
and ‘functions’, and to open up, as Trites enjoins, the tangled issues of
liminality, power and powerlessness, and adult/child/textual relations.30
We might, however, prefer to begin with literary perspectives, and indi-
vidual students’ reading. In a class such as the notional group instanced
above, even a short time spent first with immediate neighbours on try-
ing to find any connections between each other’s childhood books, can
draw out co-ordinates and divergences, and give students their chance to
articulate conceptual problems. (Capturing overlaps in a rough set of dia-
grams gives a set of easily shareable infograms that will continue to spark
questions, even if simply pinned up without additional explication, and
perhaps be collected in, to bring back to the room in a later seminar.)
Even with no actual childhood texts in front of them, memories of titles,
genres, vivid scenes, or of the scene of reading (with an adult? alone?), or
of the materiality of the book itself, may prompt suggestions before the
teacher sets the agenda.
A recollection, for example, of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking Forever
(1975), often read as a pre-teen, with the page opening at ‘that bit’,
can set going queries about cultural, generational, national, gendered,
or other, forms of relativism, or of issues of implied readership and its
governance, that will contribute to deliberations throughout the mod-
ule. In this particular instance, British and US students in my group,
with memories of furtive sharings of Blume’s pioneering passages were

galvanised to discover from our two visitors from the Netherlands that
such sexual taboos played no part in the raising of young children: even
very young Dutch readers were accustomed to unembarrassed sexual
openness. The visitors were intrigued, in turn, that for many of their
fellow students Blume’s explicitness was their doorway to sex educa-
tion.31 In another seminar, the group were fascinated by a fellow stu-
dent’s memories of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, encountered as
a young child in India and pored over for their insights into British life.
Here, the British students’ surprise echoed Nodelman’s observation, that
his Canadian students would discuss a Beatrix Potter story without refer-
ence to national origin.32 Literary students can sometimes be reluctant in
general to take up politicised, historical, readings; and perhaps even more
so when we invite them to apply these to founding books of childhood).
Stimulated by one of their peers, such resistance can rapidly diminish.
With this group, their colleague’s reflections on the series’ constructions
of the British class system, rapidly engaged responses beyond the sighs at
the ‘cuteness factor’, and set going strands of interest (into the effects of
‘charm’, animal characters, picturebook semiotics) that fed into discus-
sions throughout the module.
Slanting an ‘introduction’ in such ways can remain low-key, low-
tech, and impromptu; but with a little more structure, such moments
can be developed, often shaping inquiries that students go on to pur-
sue in relation to texts and topics later in the module, or to research for
their assignments. One very simple variant gives a little more weight
to reading histories. As preparation before the seminars begin, I have,
for instance, asked students to write from memory about a book read
in childhood, then to return to it, and jot down fresh impressions.
These then become the focus of that first shared task with their seminar
neighbours. For many students, the shock of return brings out, above
all, ideological dislocations between the first (childhood) reading and a
socialised, conscious, adult reprise. Giving individuals the chance to start
their own process of re/visioning avoids making a group feeling they (or
well-known books) are somehow under attack (an effect, I suspect, of
some of my own mini-scene-setting introductory talks); and their exam-
ples are often, in consequence, far more incisive and specific.33 For some
students, this kind of exercise kindles an interest in their own earlier
reading, of a kind legitimised, and offered interesting models and sup-
plementary analytical tools, by the burgeoning field of auto-ethnography
and interests in positionality.34
228  P. Knights

The same exercise motivates other students to turn outwards, to try to

place their own early reading on maps of continuity and change; in assign-
ments, they go on to initiate their own questions about genre, narra-
tive, editorial revisions, updatings, rewritings, or matters of intertexts and
­legacies. In my earliest syllabus, I took pains to justify my own selection
of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea as our sample ‘classic’,
a point of departure for our discussions of cross-currents and variants in
more recent texts throughout the module. Again, however, giving students
the chance to look at examples from their own ‘traditions’ often leads to
more engaged and precisely framed research than when beginning with
a specimen (no matter how interesting) imposed by the teacher ‘from
above’. Acknowledging student perspectives also bypasses, again, any per-
ceived ‘tampering’ with favourite texts or authors. (When individuals are
still establishing their ground in a group, simplified media sneers at the
‘PC-lobby’, identified in rewritten versions of texts, such as Blyton’s, can all
too easily enter a classroom, and get in the way of discussion and ­analysis).
Having some texts in common, nonetheless, remains useful, intellectually
and logistically; and trials of various kinds of blending ‘set’ reading and per-
sonal exploration can also be stimulating and productive.
Whichever route we take, the main point is that in emphasising stu-
dent knowledge and resourcefulness from these very first moments we
frame the classroom as a space for research; we offer them, in one stu-
dent’s words, ‘A good chance to get thinking about texts and not having
to rely on a grand canon of already-written criticism by academic types.’
Even this slight ‘letting go’ can help to transform what happens in our
classes from content-based to research-led activity. ‘Research-led’ here is
not to be read, however, as some institutions seem in danger of defining
it, as moulding students into mirrors (or support team) for the ­teacher’s
current high-profile research, but as a model of learning. Seminars
become spaces where we help to enthuse, create, and in turn support,
new researchers—students who look outwards and forwards, and begin
to pursue their own questions.

Opening Out the Text

This is much more hands on and interactive and a better way of learning
than seminars that are just big discussions. If you learn like that you are
really getting involved with the text, rather than sitting there and not really
paying attention.35

Although ‘openings’ begin only as warm-up activities, they inject a level

of confidence—in individuals and in the group as a whole—that even
more diffident students carry into later sessions.36 Within the struc-
ture of a children’s literature syllabus, we want to retain opportunities
for traditional close work on texts, textual theory, and guiding students
through established literary critical histories; but we can maintain that
first impetus by reserving breathing space in each seminar for students
to make their own connections. As we encourage students to develop
their own approaches, and continue to draw on each other’s expertise,
what remains important is to trust the cumulative force of small ways of
modelling ‘openness’—at the level of syllabus and seminar structure, as
well as in the declared intellectual agenda of the module. Over a semi-
nar series as a whole, varying the pace, as well as kinds of approach,
can help to prevent a group falling into a routine where most depend
on the teacher, or the same people always speak and others stay silent.37
Keeping some flexibility, instead, enables us to find ways of making the
most of all the strengths of a group as it establishes its own ‘character’.
In returning to any text in teaching, we enjoy a chance to explore
different ways of how to ‘open’ analysis; and this section will sketch
examples of activities, drawing on ways I have worked with different
groups over the years, and applying the suggestions mainly to a favour-
ite (now canonical) text, David Almond’s Skellig (1998).38 As in our
classes in general, a blend of small-scale activities and informal, on-the-
spot presentations, as well as various forms of whole-group dialogue,
generates a satisfying arc in a seminar, as investigation moves between
micro- and macro-perspectives. Later, it can be enough to open with an
‘agenda-setting’ session, but in early seminars, where children’s litera-
ture students may still be finding their ground intellectually and socially,
beginning with short, individual ‘micro’ tasks, seems particularly produc-
tive. It allows maximum space for individual perspectives at the start, and
­students then go on to enter their discussions with others, already equipped
with material to contribute. As with a number of activities already men-
tioned, discussion progresses seamlessly from the part to the whole: from
a narrow focus, to ideas about narrative motifs, networks of signification,
or diverse patterns of relations and hierarchies in a text. (For students
from outside an English department, working on such tasks alongside
more experienced literature students can be a pragmatic induction into
both close reading and literary theory.) It is often helpful to present such
activities as mechanical and observational rather than hermeneutic. One
230  P. Knights

pedagogical advantage is that this deflects some of the panic that can
set in at the outset of a seminar, where students believe they are being
asked to ‘interpret’ a text (to guess at ‘hidden meanings’, held back by
an omniscient teacher); and, with children’s literature, we perhaps also
allay students’ initial worries that they might look ‘stupid’ if they ven-
ture complex ideas about apparently ‘easy’ or ‘transparent’ texts. We also
avoid the fate of some opening plenaries: those where the first contrib-
utor succeeds only in blotting out fellow students’ potential responses,
and running debate into the ground. (When someone with an air of
well-intentioned finality has declared that Skellig is ‘about “the Rational
versus the Spiritual”’, or ‘A troubled child’, how do you go on from
An activity can be straightforward, and the instruction fairly open.
With Skellig we might, for example, invite students each to select and
write down (on separate cards, sticky ‘Post-Its’, or small strips of paper)
three fragments of text: a detail that has stayed in the mind, whether a
phrase, snatch of dialogue, or a reference to a seemingly insignificant
material object. After giving time for each to make quick jottings on how
much of the whole narrative their fragment would ‘hold’, if this were
all that survived some notional global disaster, small groups pool their
items, discard the equivalent of one item each, and arrange the remain-
der to compose as wide a picture as possible of the narrative canvas as lit
by their combined readings. Such an exercise serves two main purposes:
it gives every student a chance to identify threads, no matter how insub-
stantial, that capture their own immediate sense of what matters in the
text, what will be worth pursuing; and it compels attention, by building
meanings outwards, metonymically, from specific textual detail. Delaying
a move into plenary until after groups have briefly headlined what has
emerged as their main observations often opens up more energetic criti-
cal analysis than if students simply zone in on a major ‘theme’, or, as a
whole class, wait for the teacher to direct them to an ‘issue’. We are likely
to become more engaged, and often more searching and original, if we
have found ourselves teased, in Skellig, by Almond’s rhythms, ‘Falconer
Road’, or the takeaway menu (with its defamiliarised, almost hieratic
numerology) than if we have hurtled straight into trying to ‘decode’ the
mysterious stranger. In the processes of selection, pooling, and discard-
ing in this exercise, individuals often become quite possessive and heated
about particular ‘items’—whether a pigeon’s bone, or a bottle of brown
ale—and debate may focus subsequently on the resistances of texts, the

refusal of unfolding narratives and effects to be flattened into reduc-

tive ‘Sparks Notes’ summaries of ‘Theme’ or ‘Meaning’. While many
students may be at home with close and nuanced reading, such activity
also enables those who usually remain at rather a distance from a text
to try out different ways of working; and encourages them long term to
be alert to details in their reading in general, rather than just to wield a
highlighter over the more obvious ‘quotes’.39 (This kind of interaction
with a text also often turns out to be the place where students first begin
to shape questions they wish to pursue in assignments.)
As more directed, but related, alternatives, we might invite pairs or
small groups to begin by contemplating the narrative work done by a
particular passage, or repeated device. A children’s book often suggests
its own particularly apt way of drawing out individual students’ first
impressions of narrative shape and meanings. In the activity just out-
lined, fragments are themselves a frequent motif in narratives for chil-
dren and, in extending the correspondences, discussion can also lead, for
instance, into further reflections on the cultural work of texts for chil-
dren, as spaces where adults invite younger readers to investigate, con-
struct, and possibly reshape, social meanings. Literature for children,
with its licensed playfulness, offers an abundance of fascinating start-
ing-points for broader textually self-reflexive analysis. Often these stand
out on the page: the cases of mise-en-abyme, embedded texts (letters,
diary extracts, epigraphs, notices, songs), typographical or iconic mes-
sages, doodles, facsimiles of emails, or handwritten notes or lists, rebus
devices, scenes of oral recapitulation, maps or charts. Students reflect on
this version of the narrative in miniature, looking at what it refracts, what
it articulates, and at what it cannot say. Entering plenary with specific
observations still fresh in the mind, contributions are, again, likely to be
more focused than if starting ‘cold’, possibly quite some time after actu-
ally reading the text, and inquiries emerge naturally. A group who has
looked at Michael’s account of his story for his teacher in Skellig,40 goes
on to talk, for example, about the parallel enterprises of the protagonist
and the implied reader, and how to tackle the making of meaning; and
to speculate about whether this and other children’s texts hold out to
readers implicit theories of communication and language. Students raise
matters of what we now call ‘trigger warnings’—considering children’s
fiction as a ‘safe structure’ in navigating the uncertainty of a complex
adult world; and asking about representations of the power of story-
telling, and the promise of agency.41 In more extended investigations,
232  P. Knights

pairs or groups each consider a different moment in the sequence of vari-

ations.42 Asking ‘What kind of energies/disturbances does this import
into the narrative? What kind of territory does it open up?’, and anno-
tating their moment, in words, diagrams, or sketches, they provide a
fascinating set of visual representations of a narrative—the sophisticated
layerings of children’s literature.43
Beginning from outside the text (‘top down’) is a variant way to gen-
erate close engagement. These seminars take a more familiar pedagogi-
cal shape: we open matters with a short outline of a possible framework
or approach, ‘work’ a few examples with some class contributions, then
hand the seminar over to students to try out and explore their own
findings. Children’s literature scholarship provides a wealth of schema,
but, again, even a task using a simple homemade diagram can alert stu-
dents to complexities and (longer term) encourage them to research
and try out other, more theoretical, analytical frames. Activities that
highlight different figures from a text, for example, can assist students
(especially those from a non-literary background) to look beyond the
mimetic, or moral, function of literary ‘characters’, to analyse their role
in complicating a story. With Skellig, students might for instance work
with a paper divided into a quadrant: a grid with the vertical scale run-
ning from ‘Power’ to ‘Powerlessness’, intersected by a horizontal, from
‘Alternative’ to ‘Social’.44 Like any paper puzzle, the grid deflects the
attention away from meaning or interpretation (here, ‘character analysis’)
to pattern (here, narrative function). Asked to try to ‘place’ their char-
acter on the grid, to see what emerges and what problems arise, a group
finds itself thinking hard about narrative as a process. (Is Michael’s frail
baby sister, for example, the extreme of ‘powerlessness’, or the strong-
est, most ‘extraordinary’45 figure in the narrative?) Debate turns on how
characters move through changing roles, occupying different positions in
its hierarchies, and how they nudge an implied reader into more complex
forms of understanding, as focalisation and relationships shift. Students
consider the dynamics of power in the narrative—which agents ‘carry’
the story, how subjectivities are ‘written’. Some students perhaps wish to
go further in exploring and developing more formal narratological read-
ings;46 and for those who remained interested predominantly in charac-
ters’ psychology, questions of what is repressed and unspoken can be a
bridge into more stringent psychoanalytical forms of interpretation.

This kind of activity is helpful, too, when groups consider genre.

Trying to compose, together, for instance, a broad outline narrative
sequence for (say) ‘The Problem Novel’ or ‘The Classic Time-Slip’, is
a way of drawing on students’ prior reading, to identify reoccurring
patterns, and move subsequently into the specificity and subversions
of any particular work of children’s fiction. Examples of typical figures,
‘moments’, crises, tropes, characteristic objects, forms of address, can
also be gathered in advance, online, through message boards, surveys,
or ‘storifying’ hashtags. (This technique is also invaluable in garnering
‘data’ for more specialised topics—such as ‘retellings’ of a particular
fairy tale.) The results (layers of examples handily arrayed on screen, or
printed out) make visible the extraordinary variety (and imaginative inge-
nuity) of writing for children, and bring into the seminar arena a vivid
map of students’ encounters with books. This bank of prior knowledge
gives us a corpus of texts against which to examine the particular ele-
ments of the seminar text read in common.
Alternatively, we might begin with a concentrated approach to a sin-
gle text. So, considering ‘magic realism’ in relation to Skellig, we might
replace the quadrant with a basic ‘gradient’, inviting students to iden-
tify and plot an example under each of a line of headings, running from
‘Mimetic’ through ‘Heightened’ to ‘Transcendental’. Attending in detail
to stylistic nuance, groups reflect on textual minutiae: the semiotic ‘flick-
ers’ that make Almond’s writing so compelling.47 Football, here at first
viewed as a decisive anchor as irreducibly ‘realistic’, begins in discus-
sion to move away further along the spectrum: in this narrative, even a
representation of a school game in a north-eastern schoolboy’s idiom
becomes part of its subtle poetic (here skill/football/goals are ‘brilliant’,
and not, after all, so very different from the ‘magic’, the ‘extraordinary’,
elsewhere).48 Focusing like this also lends itself to comparative work—I
have taught Skellig formally ‘paired’ with various texts (Margaret Mahy’s
Memory (1987), for instance); but, more productively, it again provides a
chance to invite students to work with suggestions of their own. Accepting
their proposals can ‘untidy’ a seminar scheme—some students may want
to pursue more narratives of ‘Dangerous Spaces’; others more realist fic-
tions, perhaps, of region, family, class, or gender; and others to concen-
trate on how a single element (dualisms, names, spatiality, metaphor…)
features in a range of texts across one genre. With picturebooks, similarly,
234  P. Knights

some students become interested in content and repeated motifs, others in

techniques (page-turnings, fractured figures, mirrored images, colouring).
Whether we begin with wide-angle or close-up views, however, ‘playing’
with the text illuminates the intricacies and instabilities of narratives, some-
times masked by homogenising introductory seminar labels. The group
can move on to fascinating discussions about wider correlations, the prob-
lems of easy classification, genre, and politics.

Opening Out Research

Here, and throughout, all such exercises serve mainly as scaffolding:
members of the group soon become more confident about trying differ-
ent approaches (theoretical or practical), testing reading hypotheses, and
bringing detail to more speculative analysis. With firmer grounding, in
plenary debate participants share a history and begin to draw on a wider
range of reference to techniques, narrative strategies, and broader con-
texts and taxonomies. Still more significant long term, however, is the
impact on student research. Once we signal our respect for the range of
experience in the group, we also often find students starting to look out
for resources beyond a pre-digested gobbet on a hand-out, or a desig-
nated chapter in our bibliographies or ‘module packs’. Having seen ‘non-
seminar’ texts welcomed into seminar discussion, they also become far
more self-assured about the academic validity of their own reading and
methodologies and, with this, more adventurous in their propositions for
assignments. Those from other disciplines feel licensed to deploy knowl-
edge and skills from their ‘home’ areas, and all become more willing to
raid new territory, often taking a refreshingly distinctive angle on a well-
trodden text; or making use of archives and resources unique to their

It really does help you to learn how to use the library and online resources
a lot more – definitely. When I’m doing something, say, for Victorians, I
just go to the Victorian section and sort of pick the whole shelf of Dickens,
and I can then take it home with me.49

While as teachers we still need to affirm choices and offer guidance

to methods and resources, working with students like this, our role
becomes that of a co-researcher and mentor.50 This role brings us, in
turn, a greater sense of authority, to steer the subject beyond the more

conventional literary routes. Opening up seminars also allows recogni-

tion of the wider constituency of children’s books. If given the oppor-
tunity (for example in community engagement projects) we might feel
comfortable about moving back into some of the zones erased in the
­disciplinary migrations of children’s literature. We might, for instance,
take up any chance for our students to work with actual child readers—
shadowing award judging (online or in actual classrooms), looking at
children’s own writing, or sharing views on a particular text. With inter-
est strong in student employability, a publisher, agent, writer, or book-
seller (especially a former student) might be invited to contribute their
perspectives in a debate on some current theme.
Where opportunities for moving outside the university seminar room
are limited, we can play up (rather than trying to screen out) the inter-
ests of other children’s literature communities: role-play debates (for
instance on a topically controversial Y/A text) can be an introduction
to interwoven and contentious strands of the subject, and may be the-
orised once the drama is over. With careful evaluation, and a readiness
to analyse premises, students can regard children’s responses, writers’
blogs, or vlogs, publishers’ sites, or even Amazon reader reviews, as an
extended range of data. Although open to exploitation, many writers
are still extraordinarily generous in answering questions in open sessions
on online media, and even a brief response can be stimulating and excit-
ing. The prospect of conducting a more extended email interview can
spur a student into investigating lesser-known authors. Dedicated blogs
and news boards, such as those linked to the children’s literature pro-
grammes at the Universities of Roehampton (UK), or Rutgers (USA),51
or online publication of public lectures,52 can extend intellectual hori-
zons. Similarly, students themselves become bolder about chancing their
arm in a venture into creative writing. In a department where creative
practice is still a rarity, the option of an accompanying reflective com-
mentary is helpful. Mindful of a comment in an early group, where a
student noted the double work (of writing both the text and the critical
essay), I have found annotation offers a useful way of tracing the process.
(Word-processing ‘Comments’ and ‘Footnotes’ tools offer an effective
way of integrating reflection; but students often find innovative variants.)
Connected with the field in all these ways, students usually come to see
themselves as engaged, not in a low status, disciplinarily ambiguous,
­subject, but as a part of a purposeful and exciting common enterprise.
236  P. Knights

As one of my students, in our somewhat cramped classroom, remarked,

‘We felt like we were part of a wide academic community, not just a small
seminar in Durham.’53

To a casual eye, there might seem to be little difference between my
own seminar series as I first conceived it, and my practices as it began
to evolve. As always, any pedagogic choice (here moving away from a
version of a ‘literary landmarks’ approach) brings some inevitable losses:
while appreciating the new, some students might feel short-changed in
terms of ‘brand recognition’. No matter how far we open out discussion,
a few might still hanker for an official stamp on the familiar (named as
‘set book’, with designated seminar). So, a children’s literature bibliog-
raphy without some prominent ‘big names’ may draw similar expressions
of regret.54 As teachers, when we spend less time in plenary, and more in
‘workshop’ mode, we might also worry about not being able personally
to share in every conversation or judgement. In some seminars, we find
ourselves having to step back from one often-recommended pedagogic
role—to draw together threads, recap and sum up; in others, we might
feel a loss of one real pleasure, that of hearing and responding to all the
details. But as we ‘let go’, opening seminars outwards, we are as likely
to find that a different distribution of energies can bring ample com-
pensation. Once we are prepared to live with feelings of being adrift—
we might hope, eventually, to spark that jolt of discovery that makes all
effort worthwhile: ‘It’s eye-opening!’; ‘Different!’; ‘Expanded my hori-
zons’; ‘You have to think independently!’; ‘Learned so much!’55
Shaping the narrative arc of a learning programme to give the best
chance of engaging a group of (as yet unknown) students is a challenge
in any area of English teaching. Planning a new topic, a teacher looks
forward to the point where the list of projected learning outcomes and
disciplinary benchmarks—independence of approach, breadth and depth
of subject knowledge, first-hand research, awareness of audience and
genre conventions, and so forth—will be brought alive in the work of
interested individuals. Identifying such signs of achievement as we evalu-
ate the end-of-semester work remains, even in the most heavily central-
ised system, one of the personal job satisfactions of teaching. If we are
offering Children’s Literature, the prospects are good: we can be con-
fident that we shall recruit motivated students, often in overwhelming

numbers, excited at the chance to pursue a subject still, even now, after
half a century of recognition in higher education, perceived as something
‘different’. While a few might be seeking a perceived retreat from ‘dif-
ficult’ subject matter, most will arrive at our first seminar well informed,
and many, indeed, with our academic targets already strongly in evi-
dence. Offering dedicated academic spaces for developing such interest
clearly promises immense reward. Students’ enthusiasm will make discus-
sions memorable, and might well generate some of the best, and (often)
most original, work we are likely ever to see: ‘It was wonderful to have
such freedom to learn what I wanted to learn’.

1. The question is asked by a young character, 11-year-old Pauline Fossil,
who will shortly become Dr Jakes’s pupil; Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes
(1936; Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1949), 32 (Streatfeild 1949 [1936]).
2. For a more detailed account of the subject’s founding history and its
complications, see Pamela Knights, ‘Teaching Children’s Literature in
Higher Education’, International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s
Literature, ed. Peter Hunt, 2nd ed. Vol. 2 (Abingdon and New York:
Routledge, 2004), 780–801 (Knights 2004); and for fuller attention to
specialised areas of the subject, along with appendixes of sample under-
graduate syllabi, resources, and bibliography, see Charles Butler, ed.
Teaching Children’s Fiction, Teaching the New English (Basingstoke and
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) (Butler 2006). For teaching con-
texts, see particularly Butler, ‘Introduction’ (1–5), Roderick McGillis,
‘Looking in the Mirror: Pedagogy, Theory, and Children’s Literature’
(85–105), Pat Pinsent et al. ‘Children’s Literature at Postgraduate Level
in the United Kingdom’ (172–180), and Richard Flynn, ‘Children’s
Literature at Postgraduate Level in the United States’ (181–188). For
an illuminating, data-based snapshot of the UK scene, and the subject’s
place in relation to more general patterns of English teaching in the first
decade of this century, see Alexandra Cronberg and Jane Gawthrope,
Survey of the English Curriculum and Teaching in UK Higher Education.
English (Egham: English Subject Centre, 2010), (Cronberg and
Gawthrope 2010) Report Ser. 19.
3. Response to question 5. (See also, questions 3, 4, and 8, for Hunt’s com-
ments on academic study of children’s literature). Peter Hunt, inter-
viewed by George Miller, ‘An Introduction to Children’s Literature
(Audio Guide)’, Podularity: Authors Talking about Books, Writing,
Politics, and More (Oxford World’s Classics Audio Guides), 26 January
238  P. Knights

2012, [my transcript] (Hunt 2012). For an example of

continued assumptions of the lesser literary weight of books for children,
see the flurry of commentary following a dismissive remark (and subse-
quent apology) by the School of English at the University of Kent (UK):
‘We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and
affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on
our programmes.’ Quoted by Liz Bury, ‘Kent University “Penitent” after
Belittling Children’s Books’, Guardian 2 December 2013, www.the- (Bury 2013).
4. From participants’ feedback on English Subject Centre short sympo-
sium for HE teachers of children’s literature, quoted in Pamela Knights,
‘Teaching Children’s Fiction’, English Subject Centre Newsletter 10
(English Subject Centre, June 2006), 41–42 (Knights 2006).
5. Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer, introducing the third edition of their
invaluable. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, include attentive con-
siderations of their personal pathways into and through the subject—
reflections on cycles of self-doubt, rethinking, reinventing, and thinking
again, that could hardly represent more generous, or invigorating, mod-
els of this process: Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer, The Pleasures of
Children’s Literature, 3rd ed. (Boston and New York: Allyn and Bacon,
2003), 1–13 (Nodelman and Reimer 2003).
6. Hunt, interview, Podularity.
7. Hunt, interview, Podularity.
8. Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s
Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter (New York and Oxford:
Routledge, 2001), 70–71 (Zipes 2001).
9.  Nodelman is discussing children’s literature as a genre, in relation to
Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of a ‘cultural field’: Perry Nodelman, The
Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature (Baltimore MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2008), 118 (Nodelman 2008). See also, David
Rudd, ‘Theorising and Theories: How Does Children’s Literature Exist?’,
in Understanding Children’s Literature, ed. Peter Hunt, 2nd edition
(New York: Routledge, 2005), 15–29 (Rudd 2005).
10. Margaret Mackey, The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of
Literature for Children (New York and London: Garland, 1998) (Mackey
11. For a pioneering discussion of such questions, see Juliet Dusinberre, Alice
to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art (1987;
rpt. with alterations, Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s,
1999). (Dusinberre 1999 [1987])
12. Written in a letter to his grandchild, 5 September 1936, and first pub-
lished (in a deluxe limited edition), 2012. For access to Joyce’s text, type-
set by book artist Michael Caine, with drawings by Casey Sorrow, see

Maria Popova, ‘The Cats of Copenhagen: Delightful Recently Discovered

Children’s Story by James Joyce’, Brainpickings, 2 November 2012, (Popova 2012).
13. So, for example, after briefly showing a group some pages of The Last of
the Mohicans (1826), in the 1980s ‘Ladybird Children’s Classics’ series, I
invite students to find other editions: to look, particularly, at a treatment
of one of James Fenimore Cooper’s narrative crises or resolutions, and,
where possible, share discoveries in advance of discussion, on the group’s
online forum. Reworked, in a century of abridgements or graphical adap-
tations, images such as Magua’s attack, or the scene of Chingachgook
and Leatherstocking shaking hands over the graves of Uncas and Cora,
encourage the kind of detailed examination and nuanced commentary
not always immediately forthcoming in groups offered the text ‘cold’.
(My original stimulus for trying this approach was Peter Merchant’s
helpful article, ‘The Last of the Mohicans Reconsidered’, Children’s
Literature in Education 24.2 (1993): 85–100 (Merchant 1993).
14. See Clare Bradford, Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of
Children’s Literature ([Waterloo, Ontario]: Wilfrid Laurier University
Press, 2007), 3 (Bradford 2007).
15. Louisa May Alcott, journal entry (January/February 1877), in Joel
Myerson and Daniel Shealy, eds, and Madeleine B. Stern, assoc. ed., The
Journals of Louisa May Alcott (1989; Athens: University of Georgia Press,
1997), 204 (Myerson and Shealy 1997 [1989]).
16. Peter Dickinson, quoted in John Stephens and Robyn McCallum,
Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives
in Children’s Literature (1998; New York: Routledge, 2013),
30 (Stephens and McCallum 2013 [1998]).
17. Susan Wolstenholme, Introduction, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.
Frank Baum, Oxford World’s Classics (1997; Oxford: Oxford University
Press 2008), xxv (Wolstenholme 2008 [1997]).
18. Quoted in Stephen Railton, ed. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark
Twain (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2011), 428 (Railton
2011). Especially useful resources for a variety of approaches to Mark
Twain are available at the Electronic Archive, Mark Twain in his Times,
written and dir. Stephen Railton (University of Virginia Library: The
Electronic Text Center).
19. Reported in a letter to Twain, 19 November 1905, from a librarian sym-
pathetic to Huck, Asa Don Dickinson; in Benjamin Griffin and Harriet
Elinor Smith, eds, Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 2 (Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), 30 (Griffin and Smith
240  P. Knights

20. My first module description emphasised a theory-oriented approach, a tra-

ditional literary focus on my selected texts, and the warning that, in this
short introductory seminar series, any hopes of discussing group mem-
bers’ ‘favourites’, related cultural artefacts, or issues pertaining to actual
children and actual readers, would have to be set strictly aside. Even while
making modifications, I kept to all my central tenets—it seems only fair
to students in local institutional contexts not to take them too far from
prevailing norms, and to offer them, as learners, solid content, a satisfying
sense of distance travelled.
21. As a module establishes itself, expectations settle as students pass on their
experiences to prospective takers. In founding years, very different kinds
of assumptions may be much in evidence: see, for example, the range
of comments from earlier cohorts (2011–2012, and 2012–2013) on
the popular ‘EA 300: Children’s Literature’, introduced in 2009 by the
Open University (the pioneer Distance Learning university in the UK):
‘Loved, loved, loved this course’; ‘Hard work, very demanding, but I
enjoyed every minute of it’. The challenge to tutors, in how to respond
to a less than satisfied student, may resonate with most teachers of this
subject: [Student]: ‘I went into this module with high expectations as a
literature student and as a mother with an interest in children’s reading
material… I feel the module sits uneasily between trying to be a serious
literature module to attract literature students (like me) whilst focus-
ing (too much in my opinion) on child development and child stud-
ies.’ [Tutor response]: ‘EA300 does not cover child development but
like Children’s Literature courses elsewhere, it is interdisciplinary and is
not simply a literature module.’ ‘Student and Tutor Module Reviews:
Children’s Literature’, The Open University, For an illumi-
nating account, from MEDAL project interviews, of staff and student
perspectives from different disciplinary contexts, see Kay Sambell and Mel
Gibson, ‘Working Paper 2: Staff and Student Views of Academic Literacy
in Childhood Studies: Initial survey’ (2006),
websites/medal/reports.htm (Sambell and Gibson 2006).
22. Junk won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction
Award in 1997. For Burgess’s comments on the controversy, see ‘Junk/
Smack’, Melvin Burgess, Even in 2009, in the
syllabus of the new Open University module, Junk was selected as the
focal text for ‘Fiction for Adolescents’, in the section ‘Contemporary
Trends’: Heather Montgomery and Nicola J. Watson, eds, Children’s
Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (Milton Keynes:
Palgrave Macmillan, with the Open University, 2009), 313–329
(Montgomery and Watson 2009).

23.  Anne Fine, preview of Melvin Burgess, Doing It (London: Andersen

Press, 2003), ‘Filth, Which Ever Way You Look at It’, Guardian, 29
March 2003 (Fine 2003). For a more positive assessment, see also
Kimberley Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and
Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2007), 121–122, 125–127 (Reynolds 2007).
24. An aspect of children’s literature studies and its history explored vigor-
ously by David Rudd, Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An
Heretical Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) (Rudd
25. ‘Publisher defends “creepy” Roald Dahl book cover’, Entertainment and
Arts, BBC News,, 8 August 2014. Such fierce defen-
siveness can also extend to other elements: for a fascinating case study,
see Nodelman and Reimer’s account of devising a course in Canadian
Children’s Literature, and of the way they encountered and tried to
respond to the resistances of their students. Here, trying to hold on to
the image of the author as a lone creator, students were particularly reluc-
tant to admit wider material determinants (publishing, politics, nation-
hood, and so on) to their discussions of seminar texts: Perry Nodelman
and Mavis Reimer, ‘Teaching Canadian Children’s Literature: Learning
to Know More’, CCL/LCJ: Canadian Children’s Literature/Littérature
canadienne pour la jeunesse 98 (Summer 2000): 15–35 (Nodelman and
Reimer 2000).
26. Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression
in Adolescent Literature (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), x
(Trites 2000).
27. In his extended discussion of why and how he thought about his six
selected texts, Nodelman, in Hidden Adult, offers detailed insights into
the process: an analogy to the kind of choices we might have to make
in limiting the frames of a seminar series (see, for instance, 82–106).
Cutting away, deciding on exclusions, takes us to the heart of the subject,
and is a strong reason that curriculum choice often moves to the fore-
ground in accounts of teaching.
28. Trites, Disturbing the Universe, xi.
29. [Student feedback]: ‘I enjoyed every seminar and found each one incred-
ibly engaging and informative. As they progressed, links were apparent
between topics and this served to make the module more enjoyable.’
30. For a fuller account, see Pamela Knights, ‘Signs of Childhood’ (2005),
and ‘More Signs of Childhood’ (2007); and subsequent investigation by
first year students at Northumbria University, ‘Signs of Childhood: Data
Gathered by Student Researchers’, in ‘Learning Resources’, The MEDAL
Casebook. In an online forum, especially with a hashtag, a group can go
242  P. Knights

on rapidly to build an impressive collection of ‘Signs’, and expand out-

wards internationally, or with archives, historically, to generate their own
data-bank of variable ‘child’ identities.
31. Working with translations, and following up Emer O’Sullivan’s sugges-
tions about norm shift and conflict, can also jolt perceptions, and give
another turn to discussions about taboo-inflected, nationally based read-
ings. See, for example, O’Sullivan’s account of the ‘purification’ of Astrid
Lindgren’s Pippi Lockstocking, Emer O’Sullivan, Comparative Children’s
Literature, trans. Anthea Bell (London and New York: Routledge, 2005),
83–84 (O’Sullivan 2005); or Vanessa Joosen’s commentary, drawing on
O’Sullivan, on the difference between British and Flemish approaches to
Ingrid Godon and André Sollie’s Hello, Sailor (2003) [translation, copy-
right Macmillan, of Wachten op matroos (2000)]: Vanessa Joosen, ‘True
Love, or Just Friends? Flemish Picture Books in English Translation’,
Children’s Literature in Education 41.2 (2010): 105–117 (Joosen 2010).
32. Nodelman, Hidden Adult, 104–105.
33. For a detailed and extensive case study of a similar activity, see Alison
Waller’s project, ‘Rereading Children’s Literature’ (2007), in The
MEDAL Casebook (Waller 2007); and for exploration of continuities and
‘crossovers’, see Rachel Falconer, The Crossover Novel: Contemporary
Children’s Fiction and Its Adult Readership (New York and Oxford:
Routledge, 2009) (Falconer 2009).
34. One student, for example, undertaking an assignment on the topic of
‘selfhood’, pursued a study of texts by Australian Y/A novelist, John
Marsden. This included reflections on the construction of ‘selfhood’ of
the implied reader, and on the evidence of effects on an actual reader—
an analysis conducted on a collection of letters written by the student
during early teens, and on Marsden’s own unusually detailed responses.
The student then deployed the analysis to ask narratological and stylistic
questions about multi-levels in the literary texts, and about their narrative
35. Kay Sambell, presentation on interviews with students conducted as part
of the MEDAL project, quoted in Knights, ‘Teaching Children’s Fiction’.
36. [Student feedback]: ‘The challenge of discussing children’s texts in such a
complex way, which relies on confidence and experience in analytical pro-
cesses is well worth it’.
37. In any workshop situation, I also make available, as a matter of course,
some ‘background’ or more ‘invisible’ activities for occupation by any
socially anxious student. [Student feedback]: ‘The seminars have been
really different and interesting—the creative/pro-active elements to
them have made this module very colourful and the seminars lively’; ‘The
way that seminars were planned allowed us to think for ourselves, yet be

totally interactive with other members of the group and with the seminar
leader.… It has felt so easy to learn because the teaching methods have
been creative and appealing’; ‘Everyone talks!’; ‘Conversations continue
outside the classroom!’
38. David Almond, Skellig (London: Hodder Children’s Books, 1998)
(Almond 1998). As Skellig is now a staple text in younger classrooms,
suggestions for work with younger readers are widely available online and
may in themselves offer fruitful material for theoretical investigation in
academic study. (I would not, of course, bombard any single text with
every one of the activities mentioned in this section, nor subject every
group to this kind of activity in every seminar.)
39. [Student feedback]: ‘I have thoroughly enjoyed the seminar structure, it is
relaxed and fun, and I have found the ideas discussed permeate into most
of my study.’
40. Almond, Skellig, 119–120.
41. For an influential and still thought-provoking set of readings along these
lines, see Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin, Narratives of Love and
Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction [first published 1987], rev. edi-
tion (London: Karnac, 2001). (Rustin and Rustin 2001 [1987]).
42. With Skellig, obvious instances would include the ‘DANGER’ doorway,
the Persephone myth, one of the repeated lines of William Blake, or the
evolution theme, caught even in the name of Michael’s (otherwise unpre-
possessing) classmate ‘Leakey’.
43. See also, Pamela Knights, ‘Only Skin-Deep: Layering the Text’ (2005), in
The MEDAL Casebook.
44. This exercise can extend, if students are interested, into examining ide-
ological function, with the introduction of A.J. Greimas’s semantic
rectangle [also ‘semiotic square’]. See Fredric Jameson, The Political
Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen,
1983), 254–257 (Jameson 1983).
45. Almond, Skellig, 169.
46. For variants, see the material on Skellig in ‘Working with Binaries’; and,
on Gillian Cross’s Wolf, Activities 2 (‘Propp through Props’), and 3
(‘Whose Story? Where is the Story?’) in ‘Reworking the Fairy Tale: Some
Starter Activities’, case studies by Pamela Knights (2007), in The MEDAL
47. Given examples of possible ‘sites’ for investigation—names, metaphors,
intertexts, gaps, incongruities, coincidences—students soon find their
own points where boundaries dissolve and registers unsettle, destabilising
simple generic categories. The terms for this starting point derive from
Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary
Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
244  P. Knights

1975) (Todorov 1975), In adapting the frame, I also drew on Barthes’s

five semiotic ‘Codes’, from the ‘Empiric’ to the ‘Symbolic’, summarised
in Roland Barthes, S/Z, Trans. Richard Miller (London: Cape, 1975),
261–263 (Barthes 1975).
48. For examples, see Almond, Skellig, 159–160; 69; 169.
49. Sambell, presentation on interviews with students conducted as part of
the MEDAL project, quoted in Knights, ‘Teaching Children’s Fiction’.
50. Student feedback: ‘I actually enjoyed doing the essays! It’s nice to feel that
you’re not just regurgitating someone else’s ideas.’
51. ‘NCRCL Blog’ [National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature’,
University of Roehampton,; child_lit—
Theory and Criticism of Children’s Literature [Subscribers’ list], Rutgers
52. For example, the annual ‘The Philippa Pearce Lecture: Celebrating
Excellence in Literature for Children’, in association with Homerton
College, Cambridge, Children’s litera-
ture students have a wealth of material available, and it is impossible to
offer even a brief list here. For a rich and helpful set of guides, across a
wide spectrum of methodologies and pathways into research, see M.O.
Grenby and Kimberley Reynolds, eds, Children’s Literature Studies: A
Research Handbook (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) (Grenby
and Reynolds 2011). For resources on teaching the new English more
generally, see English Subject Centre,
53. Impact on other subjects was also a theme in much feedback: ‘[The mod-
ule] expanded my thinking on the mass impact that children’s literature
has on the “real world”. As a result, my learning did not seem isolated
from reality, but actually led into my other courses exceptionally well.’
54. Responses to the departmental standard question, ‘What elements in this
module might be reduced or expanded?’ often cancel each other out,
e.g. ‘Could possibly have included more traditional children’s fiction’/‘I
didn’t really enjoy Ransome/Blyton but I appreciate its importance as a
comparison to modern fiction.’ (Students often expressed such apprecia-
tion, even of texts not particularly admired in themselves.) Quite often,
however, students, given latitude, understand the constraints, and avoid
the more negative inflections of the question: ‘It is so well constructed
and balanced. The range is wide, from picture books to teen novels and
EVERYTHING in between. We are encouraged to bring our own per-
sonal favourite texts along to the sessions with the set texts’.
55. The enjoyment of independence was widely in evidence: ‘There is such a
vast amount of material and I like finding my own way in that’; ‘I have
learnt so much about the genre—and it is a module which has really
allowed me to feed my own interests at the same time as making me

really think about the texts.’ ‘It’s a challenging + innovative work pro-

gramme that stirs you to think for yourself instead of wading through
critical reading so as to form an argument.’

Acknowledgements    Many thanks are due to all my students at Durham

University, particularly those who signed up for ‘Children’s Fiction’, and who
put so much energy into their seminars and assignments. My reflections draw
on many incarnations of this ‘Special Topic’, as well as on a wide range of
tutorials in English and American Literature. Unless otherwise noted, however, I
confine any direct quotations from students to the years 2001–2008 when I was
privileged to be awarded funding for various teaching-related projects, and could
acquire the prior formal, written agreement of students to cite their work and
comments, arising from project activities. My thanks, for support, to the English
Subject Centre (then under the Learning and Teaching Support Network,
LTSN) for a ‘Small Departmental Project Award’; to Durham University for an
‘Excellence in Teaching Award’; to the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme
(then under the Institute of Learning and Teaching, ILT) for their award of
Fellowship; to the FDTL2, MEDAL project (Making a Difference to Enhance
Academic Literacy), led by Kay Sambell, for the opportunity to be part of the
steering committee of the collegial and inspiring MEDAL consortium. Fuller
details of a number of the teaching situations briefly alluded to in this chapter,
along with illustrated case studies from MEDAL participants and many
associates, were published in The MEDAL Casebook, 2005–2007, http://hces- My gratitude also goes to the
Department of English Studies at Durham University for permission to pursue
these interests; and, beyond measure, to my Children’s Literature and Childhood
Studies colleagues in all these projects across UK networks; and to fellow board
members and other colleagues in the IRSCL (International Research Society for
Children’s Literature) for perspectives on teaching the subject, worldwide.

Almond, David. 1998. Skellig. London: Hodder Children’s Books.
Barthes, Roland. 1975. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. London: Cape.
Bradford, Clare. 2007. Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s
Literature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Bury, Liz. 2013. Kent University “Penitent” after Belittling Children’s Books.
Guardian. Accessed 2 Dec 2013.
Butler, Charles (ed.). 2006. Teaching Children’s Fiction. Teaching the New
English. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Cronberg, Alexandra, and Jane Gawthrope. 2010. Survey of the English

Curriculum and Teaching in UK Higher Education. Egham: English Subject
Dusinberre, Juliet. 1999 [1987]. Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and
Radical Experiments in Art. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s.
Falconer, Rachel. 2009. The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Fiction
and Its Adult Readership. New York and Oxford: Routledge.
Fine, Anne. 2003. ‘Filth, Which Ever Way You Look at It’. Guardian. March 29. Accessed 2 Dec 2013.
Grenby, M.O., and Kimberley Reynolds (eds.). 2011. Children’s Literature
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Griffin, Benjamin, and Harriet Elinor Smith (eds.). 2010. Autobiography of Mark
Twain, vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hunt, Peter. 2012. ‘An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Audio Guide)’.
Interview by George Miller, 26 January. Podularity: Authors Talking about
Books, Writing, Politics, and More. Oxford World’s Classics Audio Guides. Accessed 8 Aug 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. 1983. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially
Symbolic Act. London: Methuen.
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English Translation. Children’s Literature in Education 41 (2): 105–117.
Knights, Pamela. 2004. Teaching Children’s Literature in Higher Education.
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Hunt, 2nd ed. vol. 2, 780–801. Abingdon: Routledge.
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Mackey, Margaret. 1998. The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of
Literature for Children. New York: Garland.
Merchant, Peter. 1993. The Last of the Mohicans Reconsidered. Children’s
Literature in Education 24 (2): 85–100.
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Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Milton Keynes: Palgrave Macmillan,
with the Open University, 313–329.
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1997 [1989]. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Athens: University of
Georgia Press.
Nodelman, Perry. 2008. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature.
Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Literature, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. 2000. Teaching Canadian Children’s

Literature: Learning to Know More. CCL/LCJ: Canadian Children’s
Literature/Littérature canadienne pour la jeunesse 98 (Summer): 15–35.
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248  P. Knights

Author Biography
Pamela Knights was until recently a Senior Lecturer in English Studies at
Durham University, UK. A UK National Teaching Fellow, she has written widely
about Edith Wharton (including The Cambridge Introduction to Edith Wharton)
and Kate Chopin, whose short stories she edited for Oxford World’s Classics. An
early proponent of teaching children’s fiction, she was a founding editor of the
journal International Research in Children’s Literature.

A Black studies, 82
Academic tribes, 13 Blogs and blogging, 106, 121, 122,
Adaptation, 116, 136, 191, 214, 217, 144, 235
239 Boundaries, 4, 8, 35, 39, 44, 90, 118,
Advanced Level GCE, 6, 20, 37, 82, 120, 145, 161, 198, 209, 222,
121, 126, 209 243
Allegories (of teaching and learning),
9, 84, 86, 91, 93
Ambiguity, 89, 105, 129, 161, 168, C
202 Climate change, 190, 191, 192, 193,
Argument, norms of, 74 194, 201, 205
Assessment and assessment criteria, Close reading, 10, 13, 88, 134, 135,
101, 104, 105, 106, 110 136, 150, 175, 202, 229
Assignments, 26, 85, 107, 109, 110, Collaboration, 102, 139, 142, 143,
136, 139, 144, 150, 224, 228, 145
231, 234, 245 Contact hours, 22
Audit, 8, 104 Context (historical), 4, 33, 34, 39, 41,
Authenticity, 83, 84, 88, 90, 91, 92, 42, 44, 52, 75, 82, 83, 86, 91,
93, 94, 95 134, 135, 141, 174, 180, 214,
Authority, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 71, 77, 88, 234, 240
94, 95, 200, 220, 223, 234 Coursework, 18, 21, 100, 103, 104,
Creative–critical crossover, 41, 47,
B 115, 116, 120, 124
Benchmark Statement, English Subject Creative writing, 2, 4, 13, 59, 70, 79,
(QAA), 13, 100, 111 115, 116, 120, 126, 235

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 249

B. Knights (ed.), Teaching Literature, Teaching the New English,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-31110-8
250  Index

Cultural studies, 3, 33, 201, 214 G

Curriculum, 3, 8, 9, 39, 45, 87, 129, Genres, 6, 9, 46, 107, 109, 116, 121,
139, 174, 196, 198, 200, 210, 143, 216, 226
241 Graphology, 158, 160, 162, 167

Decentring, 88, 200, 223 Historicism, 74, 174, 179, 182, 183,
Deconstruction, 202 186
Defamiliarisation, 10, 182, 218, 230 Humanities, 1, 22, 54, 73, 74, 76,
Destabilization, 9 118, 134, 135, 138, 140, 141,
Deviations (linguistic), 118, 157, 159 142, 143, 195
Dialogue, 5, 42, 44, 47, 74, 75, 78, Hybrid courses, 133
102, 103, 107, 109, 111, 179,
211, 223, 229, 230
Digital instruments, 142 I
Disciplinary consciousness, 67, 69, 70, Identity (formation of academic), 54
77, 79 Interactive learning methods, 40, 228
Discussion, 6, 19, 20, 24, 27, 39, 42, Interdisciplinarity, 10, 142, 145, 203
44, 52, 63, 70, 84, 86, 88, 133, Interpretation, 5, 33, 44, 73, 74, 75,
162, 174, 190, 215, 220, 228, 128, 135, 150, 166, 180, 219,
237, 239, 241 232
Dissertation, 19, 23, 26, 100, 215 Intertextuality, 180
Doctoral research, 32, 71, 72, 76, 77

E Learning journal, 106, 107
Ecological systems, 193 Learning outcomes, 104, 112, 137,
Ecopedagogies, 198 236
Educational development, 68 Lectures, 6, 18, 24, 25, 26, 39, 42,
Environmentalism, 193, 198, 199, 45, 77, 88, 119, 144, 145, 235
200, 204, 205 Lexis, 162, 169
Essay (as form of assessment), 7, 103, Literature
109 as curriculum domain, 9
Examinations (as form of assessment), African American, 82, 83, 84, 85,
103 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93,
94, 95, 96
Caribbean, 9
F children’s, 9, 11, 116, 209, 210,
Feminism, 75, 83, 178, 179 211-225, 229, 230, 232, 235,
‘Freshman English’, 20 236, 240, 245
Index   251

modernist, 7, 118, 216 Presentations, 88, 100, 111, 121, 135,

Victorian, 19, 24, 33, 36, 61, 76, 136, 140, 141, 224, 229
186, 234 Projects, 19, 85, 108, 135, 137, 140,
142, 143, 145, 235, 245

Margins (and boundaries), 12, 89 Q
Massive Online Open Courses Quality (of classroom experience), 6,
(MOOCs), 133, 134, 145, 146, 133, 134
Marking, 6, 19, 99, 101, 104, 108,
110 R
Mentoring, 25, 144 Reading diaries, 105
Metaphor, 5, 58, 79, 126, 127, 171, Research (as academic priority), 1, 55,
217, 233, 243 140, 204, 232
Modules and modularisation, 20, 23, Research Excellence Framework, 28,
40, 42, 85, 100, 103, 107, 109, 55, 56, 68
119, 120 Resistances, 218, 230, 241

Narrative, 1, 7, 34, 36, 46, 84, 88, 91, Schools (secondary), 20, 22, 32, 116,
92, 95, 116, 118, 121, 124, 126, 135, 209, 210
178, 179, 218, 219, 225, 226, Semantic field, 126, 164, 169
228, 229, 230, 231, 243 Seminar, 5, 26, 42, 102, 120, 128,
National Teaching Fellowship (UK), 152, 174, 177, 185, 214, 224,
58, 59, 63, 245 227, 232, 234, 236
Shame (as inherent in teaching), 9, 51,
57, 64
P Skills, 6, 10, 45, 68, 77, 101, 136,
Phonology, 158, 160, 166, 167 234
Plagiarism, 18, 102, 103, 112, 136 Small group activity, 102, 226, 230,
Plenary discussion, 230, 231, 234, 231
236 Structured tasks (for classes), 39, 139,
Poetry, 24, 36, 46, 107, 122, 125, 224
156, 159, 167, 170, 184 Students, 1, 21, 26, 36, 42, 46, 70,
Portfolios, 137 77, 84, 135, 170, 205, 226, 245
Practical criticism, 3, 217 Study hours, 21, 22
Preparation (of students, for classes), Stylistics (and stylistic analysis), 119,
19, 20, 21, 24, 68, 102, 111, 155, 156, 165, 171
144, 226, 227 Subject Centres (UK), 2, 9
252  Index

Sustainability education, 192 V

Syntax, 95, 162, 165, 168 Virtual learning environment, 4, 108

Teaching Excellence Framework Workloads, 143
(TEF), 1 Workshops, 6, 119
Teams and teamwork, 68
Theory, literary, 4, 33, 43, 70, 171,
197, 238, 244
Threshold concepts, 14, 44
Transcription, 122, 125, 166
Transition, 8, 32, 77