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Clown teaching?

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For 35 years Philippe Gaulier has been teaching performers how to find their inner clowns. A ‘small, hunched, bearded, long-haired man with a beret and red glasses on his nose’, Gaulier uses pedagogic techniques variously described as frustrating, insulting, inspiring and falling ‘somewhere between absurd and totalitarian’:

He said that drama schools like RADA with their big audition processes choose the better students, the ones who have a natural flair for performing, teach them a few vocal warm-ups and then put them into the world, claiming that the school made them the great actors they are.

He’s also been called a ‘Zen-master in Dilbert suspenders’.

Here comes the TEF….

Universities & Science Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference this week (9th September 2015) draws attention to the role that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will play in the forthcoming green paper and the ongoing transformation of the Higher Education landscape.

In summary, Johnson’s speech announced:

  • The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework will allow those with “high quality teaching” to increase fees with inflation and that “high quality” will most likely be linked to graduate employment figures (especially in graduate-level jobs). This will somehow be used to give teaching in higher education the same “professional recognition and career and pay progression” as research, although how it proposes to do this is unclear
  • Widening participation: targets to double 2009 entry rate from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020 and to increase entry, completion and progression to work rates of BME students by 20% through better analysis of data.
  • Re-opening applications for Degree Award Powers and University Title to alternative providers, with aim to speed up process, in order to increase competition.
  • Simplification and rationalization of regulatory regime, including REF process.

1523065505The backdrop to the TEF is the government’s quandary over the economics of HE funding: the high number of graduates expected not to cross the earnings threshold at which they begin repaying loans and so, with the trebling of tuition fees, the continued high levels of debt associated with HE funding despite the attempt to make cuts in direct funding and the failure to create a market in HE because of the decision of most institutes to set fees near to the maximum level. The government is therefore reluctant to introduce a genuine market (since the increase in fees will have to matched by higher loans) but wants to have a greater variation in fees to increase competition within the sector, and the primary mechanisms at its disposal for doing so are the cap on tuition fees and student number controls. In 2015, the cap on student numbers was lifted for HEFCE-funded institutions but it will be retained for alternative providers without degree-awarding powers as a way of managing budgets and improving quality. The TEF will be used to allow some institutions to increase fees in line with inflation (since as inflation begins to increase the value of the capped £9k fees begins to diminish for institutions). Linking these fee increases to teaching quality will allow reassurances to be made about the improved regulation and quality of HE for consumers. A recent HEFCE consultation document note that “initial views from the Government are that a cyclical, external, independent, peer review will form a key part of the coming TEF” (i.e. OSTED-like inspections for HE). Severing the link between teaching and research will presumably help increase the number of academic staff on teaching-only contracts and so either reduce costs or – if professional recognition and pay for teaching is to be made equal – increase teaching workloads.

The TEF will be primarily linked to graduate employment figures because, according to theories of human capital, investment in education and training should lead to increased earnings and the ongoing expansion of higher education should therefore lead to economic growth. The increased amount of debt related to student loans that accompanies this expansion is a problem, however, so the government wants to encourage courses that lead to graduate employment because this should increase economic growth and reduce the student loan debt by improving repayment figures. Permitting a partial relaxation of the cap will also introduce greater variation in course fees and so open up more of a market between kinds of providers; linking this to employment figures justifies the return on investment for the student.

A few recent posts giving more detail about the speech and the TEF:

http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/how-to-read-jo-johnsons-speech-to-universities-uk/

http://wire.novaramedia.com/2015/09/5-reasons-the-teaching-in-excellence-framework-is-bad-news-for-higher-education/

https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/how-not-to-measure-teaching-quality-and-learning-gain/

http://www.richard-hall.org/2015/04/14/on-rage-against-learning-gain/

Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature

To teach is to be battered
Scrutinized, and drained,
Day after day. We know this.
Still, it is never said.
– Jane Tompkins, A Life in School, 1

Collected below are my notes on reading Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, first published in 2003. Showalter is a (now retired) Professor of English at Princeton, perhaps most well known for her 1979 work ‘Towards A Feminist Poetics’ in which she advocated a practice of gynocritics that sought to develop new models for literary criticism ‘based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories’ (Showalter 1986: 131) .

ES begins by pointing out that most practical studies of teaching English emphasize the teaching of composition rather than the teaching of literature itself (vii). Her book is an attempt to respond to this deficit. Two guiding themes seem to run through it: first, that part of the reason for this deficit is, negatively, connected to our own anxiety about teaching literature; second, that literature itself might offer a positive way of thinking about our teaching practice that we can learn from.

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1. Overcoming Teaching Anxiety

Although we talk a lot about what we teach, we are embarrassed or afraid to ask why and how we teach. (vii)

In her first chapter, ES shares a number of teaching dreams, calling them an ‘occupational hazard of all professors’ which reveal our ongoing anxiety about our teaching (1). She wonders if this anxiety is more acute when teaching literature because ‘unlike physicists or economists, we are not confident of our authority’ and because ‘we believe that what we say in the classroom reveals the deepest aspects of ourselves …feels like an externalization of our personality’ (3). She categorizes teaching anxieties into seven basic types, related to our lack of pedagogical training, isolation, stage fright, coverage, grading, student or peer evaluation, and the conflict between teaching and publication (4). In this way, ES’s taxonomy of teaching anxiety leads into some positive recommendations, which I’ve grouped below into four key suggestions.

1.1 Postgraduate Training

‘Teaching is a demanding occupation, but few of us actually have studied how to do it’ (4).

In ‘Pedagogy of the Distressed,’ ES points out, Jane Tompkins claimed: ‘teaching was exactly like sex for me – something you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way, but that you were supposed to do properly when the time came’ (5, quoting Tompkins 1990: 655). (Note: Although this may have changed a little since the last century, my own personal experience is that teaching in the humanities is still something that you aren’t supposed to talk about (except to complain about students) and part of the intention of the HEAT initiative was to provide another forum – specifically for those working or interested in Theory – for doing so.) In response to this, ES recommends that ‘graduate training for the PhD should include training in pedagogy, and also in acting, performance, and writing’ (viii).

In the meantime, she suggests, ‘every teacher of literature should have a personal collection of well-thumbed pedagogy guidebooks, which provide an overview of research on learning in higher education, plus theories, techniques for course design, lecturing, leading discussions, giving examinations, grading, dealing with problem students, counselling, advising, and handling cheating or plagiarism’ (7). She recommends a few key works, although annoyingly her own book has no bibliography, so I’ve collated the specific references from her footnotes here:

  • Biggs, John. 1999. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
  • Eble, Kenneth J. 1988. The Craft of Teaching. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McKeachie, Wilbert J. 1999. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 10th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1.2 Shared Experience

Unlike scholarship, ES points out, teaching does not have to be original to be good, yet ironically it is ‘perhaps the most privatized of all the public professions …we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight …we rarely talk about what happened or what needs to happen next, for we have no shared experience to talk about’ (9, quoting Palmer 1998: 142). Showalter recommends teachers met regularly to discuss teaching approaches and theories, share ideas and problems with imaginative friends, and where possible team-teach (10).

Teachers can also learn about teaching from the experience of listening to research lectures, paying more attention to what is pedagogically effective in such conference papers. In this context ‘we live very comfortably with the necessity of being heard and watched by our colleague and peers,’ ES writes, ‘because we have defined lecturing and giving papers in ways that obscure or occlude their pedagogical elements’ (10). We all know this, she adds later,

because we have all endured the conference papers and public lectures that illustrate the worst aspect of lecturing – narrow readings of unfamiliar texts, pointless cultural expositions, narcissistic display. In nine cases out of ten, everything the lecturers supposedly know about reaching an audience vanishes under the pressures of intellectual competition or prevailing conference fashion. (49)

1.3 Adjusting our Teaching Expectations

The first two recommendations – better formal and informal preparation for and reflection upon teaching – would already start to address some of the other types of anxiety ES lists: over what we should teach (coverage), how we should teach it (performance), how we should evaluate our students (grading) and how others evaluate us (evaluation). Her recommended responses to these anxieties seem to share the basic principle that ‘we have to adjust our intellectual aspirations to a realistic workload’ (13). (Note: this often involves allowing what I’d like to call – anticipating a discussion of Levine’s ‘The Two Nations’ in the next section – the ‘teacher’ side of our professionally-divided self to win out over the expectations and aspirations of our identity as a ‘researcher’.)

‘Instead of aiming for comprehensive coverage’ of the content in our courses, of the kind often demanded by the expectations that follow from our research on the subject, ‘we have to think about what students need to read in order to establish a basis for further learning’ (13). In practice, ‘we should strive to include less’ (13, quoting Ramsden 1992: 137). Drawing on the work of Robert Scholes, ES suggests that courses should focus on ‘the craft of reading …rather than any particular Great Books or political canons’ (26, cf. Scholes 1985). That is, what we really hope our students learn, contrary to many of the stated “outcomes” on module outlines, is a general process, practice or skill, rather than ‘general appeals to “understanding” or “knowing” about a particular group of texts’ (25).

Similarly, instead of projecting our fears onto our students – ‘I myself turned the students in the back row into what Parker Palmer calls the generic Students from Hell’ (15, quoting Palmer 1998: 49-50) – or allowing them to project their anxieties onto us as teachers, we should devote more class time getting to know them individually. ES recommends ‘having students introduce themselves, and taking some time at the beginning of a course to let the class relax, get to know each other, and bond’ (54). New technological software, she suggests, can be ‘a terrific way …to learn about students and for them to learn about each other’ and useful in facilitating this interaction through discussion boards (57). She later quotes Kenneth Elbe with similar implications:

It is surely among the simplest truths of public speaking that the audience’s interest picks up when the discourse turns personal. Thus, a deliberate introduction of the personal is a teaching technique as vital as the use of illustrations and examples, which themselves gain in interest as they are drawn from the teacher’s personal experience. (52, quoting Elbe 1988: 16)

‘Preparing to teach is an intense form of research, and researching our subject is what professors have always excelled at and enjoyed’, ES suggests, but asks can ‘teachers prepare too much’ (44-5)? (Note: this is often because what I’ve called our ‘researcher’ identity takes over: lecturing is ‘an active form of thinking for the teacher, but a passive form for the listener’ (49, citing Bickman 1995: 90); we might say preparing and lecturing allows the teacher to slip back into the more comfortable role of the researcher.) Instead of over-preparing our classes from the fear that students will be judging us, we should be more confident in ourselves and our ability to engage and interact with our students in the unrehearsed moment (17). Conversely, ‘what may seem banal or obvious for the professor who may have passed this way decades ago and forgotten his or her learning processes may need to be stated, clarified, reiterated, explicated by undergraduates for each other’ (116, quoting Bickman 1995: 95).

(Note: I talked a bit about this last point in a recent talk on ‘Education as Transmissibility’ at a conference hosted by Goldsmith’s Department of Education Studies: ‘”Knowledge becomes transmittable,” [Walter] Benjamin insists, “only for the person who has understood his knowledge as something that has been transmitted.” In other words, teaching is only possible for the one who grasps what she has learnt as something that was, in turn, taught or transmitted. This is quite a startling idea, perhaps, especially for many of us working in higher education. It requires us to remember how we learnt from other, to think about how our interested were shaped by but also shaped that knowledge, and to foreground our own previous or ongoing conditions of ignorance or innocence within that educational process as we teach it to others, rather than forgetting or concealing how our knowledge was acquired.’)

Instead of succumbing to anxiety over “grade inflation” and deluding ourselves that students learn more because their grades are lower, we can recognize that ‘assigning grades is not the most important function‘ of assessment (18, quoting McKeachie 1999: 85), that ‘assessment is about helping students learn – not sorting them out for employers, punishing them, or showing how tough you are’ (18), and to ‘learn how to plan assignments and construct tests that match objectives to evaluation’ (19). She is constantly looking for assignments that do not require students to write essays and allow those who do not write well to show what they understand what they have studied (100). An interesting assignment that ES has her students undertake to make them concentrate on literary style is to translate a passage from a novel with a strong style into that of another: rendering the Nadsat of Alex in A Clockwork Orange into other kinds of slang, or making up to-do lists in the style of Lorrie Moore in Self-Help (99). ES also recommends ‘providing models of good writing, and allowing time for students to discuss them’ in order ‘to help establish realistic goals’ (55). She stresses the importance of prompt feedback on assessments and suggests beginning with a positive comment and then indicating three specific areas for improvement (59). ES specifically recommends the following text:

  • Brown, George. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Finally, instead of being ‘defensively suspicious of teaching evaluations, and dimiss[ing] them as nothing more than popularity contests …we are better off using student evaluations as guides to improvement’, supplementing the inadequacies of standard university forms with ‘informal but confidential mid-semester evaluations we prepare and distribute ourselves’ and use these ‘to make quick adjustments’ (19-20).

1.4 Professional Recognition

More fundamentally ES draws on a text I’ve already mentioned and will speak about in a little more detail than ES does here: George Levine’s ‘The Two Nations’, which characterizes English studies as ‘a nation divided’ (Levine 2001: 7). Levine is primarily interested in how the profession systematically divides our work as teachers and our work as scholars and ‘rewards one half much more than it does the other, even when both activities are done by the same faculty member’ (Levine 2001: 9). This division is also reflected in the contrasting attitudes to ‘writing about literature’ and ‘writing about teaching’ literature: ‘Only after a faculty member has made a name in research can he or she feel free to write about teaching’ (Levine 2001: 7 & 9).

(As an aside, although Levine attributes this professional division to the two-tier system endemic within US universities – in which most low-level teaching is done by doctoral researchers (as a way of keeping costs low) and academic success is associated with high-quality research activity (which is predicated on others doing low-level teaching) – it is interesting that such a professional division nonetheless exists within UK institutions, which don’t currently rely quite so heavily on such a system, although are systematically determined in their own way by research funding, the increasing pressure of which is to win funding in order to buy out teaching time.)

Although Levine admits his recommendations seem utopian, his suggestion that, for the system to change, ‘writing about teaching must become as a central to professional life as writing about Renaissance poetry, Derrida, Hegel, or popular culture’ (viii, quoting Levine 2001: 17) is taken up seriously by ES, as her own book demonstrates. Like Levine, she wishes to challenge and overcome this division, although she tends to play down the more systematic or utopian transformation that Levine suggests would be required. Her recommendations are more mundane, less systematic but perhaps therefore less utopian. As noted above, even if teaching is not formally rewarded (as Levine recommends), academics in Literature can begin to informally recognize and discuss its importance: ‘we can improve our students’ lives and morale by sharing ideas about how to teach better, and improve our own lives and morale by thinking about why we want to teach literature in the first place’ (ix).

ES recommends that in order to overcome the professional divide ‘we should reconceive our pedagogy to make it as intellectually challenging as our research …reflecting upon the relationship between what we teach and how we teach it, in new ways, so that the same problems we deal with in our research, including performance and narrative, become part of the vocabulary’ (11-12). This leads on to the second, positive, part of ES’s recommendations, specifically concerned with teaching literature: reconciling our research and teaching by thinking of literature as pedagogical and pedagogy as literary.

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2. Literature as Pedagogy

Although teaching a subject such as literature might contribute to our anxiety as teachers, ES also argues that ‘teaching literature offers the best of all subjects to teach’ because, in the words of one Modern Language Association president, “we hold in our hand the best cards in the scholastic pack, we are rich in trumps…” (20, citing Padelford 2000: 1834).

I believe that literature itself shapes our teaching practice, or could… genres of drama, poetry, fiction, and theory, with their emphases on performance, memory, narrative, and problem-solving, offer guides to our task as teachers, and a way to see teaching and scholarship as organically related. (vii-viii)

She suggests, for example, that our concern with the temporal structures of stories should alert us to the importance of the rhythm of semesters and, in particular, of beginnings. She concludes from this that we shouldn’t use the first class simply for administrative details or dismiss the class early, since it ‘offers a never-to-be-recaptured moment of excitement and opportunity …your chance to preview the best material you have to offer’ (46). Instead, begin ‘with a sample of the most stirring, memorable text you plan to read. Convey your enthusiasm to the students by sharing with them from the start the riches you have in store. Give them your best shot’ (46-7).

In addition, get students actively involved from the very beginning (47). One interesting pedagogic technique for doing this, and one that as scholars of drama and theorists of performance we should be receptive to, is the use of our bodies to facilitate discussions. ES describes a videotape of C. Roland Christensen leading a seminar, ‘moving his arms gracefully like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, as he posed questions to students, listened carefully to their replies, and then responded’, ‘he swivelled towards whoever was talking, and then back again towards whoever he wanted to respond, holding his hands up in the air. I had the feeling that he was carrying something from student to student …suggesting a kind of commonality of theme’ which when practiced ‘seemed to get [everybody] involved and engage each other in a deep way’ (54).

ES also draws attention to our understanding, as experts of literature, of narration and our role as the classroom narrators of our courses: ‘Just as teaching drama is reinforced by the theatrical space of the classroom, and teaching poetry is enabled by the oral and communal aspects of recitation, so too teaching fiction provides an opportunity to play with the teacher’s narrative role and perspective’ (94). ‘Every literary technique of realist, modernist, or postmodernist/metafictional narrative,’ she writes, ‘cam be adapted into a pedagogical technique as well; every literary convention of narrative structure can be turned into a classroom practice’ (95). As with fiction, therefore, we can be reliable or unreliable narrators in the clasroom: providing the answers or raising more questions; being a source of authority or subverting that role by deliberately arguing against ourselves. The latter can be as frustrating for students as the ambiguous or unreliable narrator can be for readers (95), but as with these novels, there may be an effective pedagogic function to such techniques.

ES also raises important points about the responsibility required for the teaching of literary works that deal with suicide or written by authors who were suicidal (126-7).

(Note: many may find ES’s claims in this regard parochial or her suggestions too generic to be imputable specifically to literature. At stake in ES’s argument is the attempt to conserve a common sense of value about literary studies, grounded not in a shared ability to define what the object of our research is (which she admits is contentious and, by implication, a source of threat to the unity and coherence of contemporary Literary Studies itself) but a shared sense of what the object of our teaching can do. She wonders if ‘attention to pedagogy itself, and to learning theory, could offer a new direction for English studies’ by providing it with more of a shared goal and sense of purpose (24). But if studying literature doesn’t offer the unique opportunities for teaching that she suggests, her defense of literary studies and its object is weakened and the systematic divide between teaching literature and researching literature her recommendations seek to reconcile remain, perhaps, untouched. I wonder if, like Levine, there is ultimately something conservative about ES’s privileging of teaching literature here, in which her attentiveness to teaching literature in a fresh way is intended to protect the discipline and its objects from needing to change too radically. These thoughts lead me to a third section, below).

3. Teaching-Led Research and the Pedagogical Turn

As noted, one aspect of ES’s argument about anxiety draws on Levine’s characterization of the professional divide that systematically pits researching and writing on literature against teaching literature and the need to overcome or reconcile this division. Both ES and Levine offer slightly different propositions in this respect, although both authors distance their positions from that of Gerald Graff. This final section of notes therefore considers the relation between Graff, Levine and ES’s proposals.

Levine and ES both respond critically to Gerald Graff’s proposed solution to this pedagogical problem: that we reconceive our ‘research in ways that make it more teachable’ (11, quoting Graff 1992:123), specifically by “teaching the conflicts” that govern our research. As Graff himself notes, the ‘most comprehensive version of this argument appears in my Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992),’ (Graff 2007: xxi, n.2), but it is familiar from earlier works such as Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987) and is extended more broadly in later works such as Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (2003).

As Nancy Buffington and Clyde Moneyhun summarize:

The basic principle is that within and between disciplines exist conflicts of all kinds, philosophical, epistemological, political, even ethical. Most teaching is designed to obscure or minimize these conflicts. Students may come to see two professors’ disagreement as a product of personal idiosyncrasy, not as an issue that runs to the heart of a critical debate (for example new criticism versus deconstruction). Dissonance between the classrooms of the positivist linguistics professor and the postmodern philosophy professor may be unexplored and unexplained, leaving students with a fragmented rather than a holistic intellectual world view. Graff recommends in “Teach the Conflicts” that “the most educationally effective way to deal with present conflicts over education and culture is to teach the conflicts themselves. And not just teach the conflicts in separate classrooms, but structure them into the curriculum, using them to give the curriculum the coherence that it badly lacks.”‘ (Buffington & Moneyhun 1997: 1)

Consequently, ‘academic institutions are already teaching the conflicts every time a student goes from one course or department to another, but they are doing it badly… they are denied a view of the interactions and interrelations that give each subject meaning’ (Graff 1992: 12); Graff proposes “teaching the conflicts” explicitly.

For Levine, Graff’s proposal is ‘at least, a serious idea about pedagogy that is linked to questions of literary study’ (Levine 2011: 11), although it is significant that Graff himself sees his interests as related to issues of curriculum reform rather than pedagogy per se (Buffington & Moneyhun 1997: 3). But Levine objects that although this might make ‘the teaching of lower-level courses an intellectually satisfying occasion for aspiring “stars”,’ thus suggesting a way of reconciling the professional divide, ‘there is little critical or empirically based writing that works out what [this]… might entail’ and Graff’s proposal works more interestingly and effectively as a theoretical possibility than a pedagogical reality (Levine 2001: 11).

What Levine seeks to do instead is to not to transform teaching – either the curriculum itself or the mundane nature of low-level teaching – in order to make it more intellectually attractive to “star” researchers (in this Levine admits to be relatively conservative about the practice of teaching literature) but rather to transform the practice of research so that ‘publication of essays about the teaching of literature [becomes] the norm, not the exception’ (Levine 2001: 12). For this, he proposes the development of a ‘whole new genre that would make it possible to see discussions of teaching as integral to the development of knowledge’ (ibid.).

Like Levine, ES takes issue with Graff’s proposed solution: his ‘suggestion is that we should reconceive our “research in ways that make it more teachable.” I believe the opposite: that we should reconceive our pedagogy to make it as intellectually challenging as our research’ (11, quoting Graff 1992:123). As already noted, ES suggests that for literary scholars this can be done by ‘reflecting upon the relationship between what we teach and how we teach it, in new ways, so that the same problems we deal with in our research, including performance and narrative, become part of the vocabulary’ (11-12). Actually, ES seems to be more opposed to Levine (and his proposal to transform writing and research) than to Graff here (who claims that, although “teaching the conflicts” informs his own pedagogical practice, for others who teach differently it is more connected to the curriculum, i.e. what is taught rather than how it is taught). Nonetheless, what ES proposes to invert (whether her actual target is Levine or Graff) is the currently fashionable mantra of “research-led teaching”.

(Note: I hope to write a bit more about ‘research-led teaching’ in another post. The principle derives from pedagogic ideas about ‘deep learning’ and is usually discussed in relation to the The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (2001) and the works of Griffiths (2004), Healey (2005), Jenkins & Healey (2009) and Levy and Petrulis (2007). Officials of UK HE institutions began to emphasize ‘research-led’ or ‘research-informed’ teaching as part of their “tradition,” “defining characteristics,” or “strategic vision” from around 2009 onward, as part of an attempt to differentiate research intensive universities belonging to the Russell Group – and specifically the ‘added-value’ of their tuition fees – from their UK competitors.)

What’s interesting to me about ES’s proposed inversion of (what I’m generalizing as) “research-led teaching” is that it gestures towards some kind of “teaching-led research.” Given the potentially problematic context (suggested in the note above) in which more facile versions of research-led teaching are often invoked, ES’s gesture might be worth pursuing further. For example, without talking about “teaching-led research,” ES raises the question of ‘whether we teach from our area of research specialization, make teaching a subset of research, or whether we make teaching an exploration for us as it is for our students’:

All of us have had the experience of reading a book the night before class, just one breathless step ahead of the students, and discovering that our teaching suddenly seems electric and the students are lit up with excitement. Teaching new material works, because we are teaching a way of reading, and modelling the way a trained professional thinks about understanding and analysing literary texts …Teaching new material …has led many professors to expand and redefine their research. (45)

This suggestions responds – in interesting and of course problematic ways – to the systematic professional divide between teaching and research: here, by reducing the “research” time spent on teaching preparation in order to leave more time for that research, by making classroom discussion itself more intellectual stimulating, and by making teaching new material the basis of our new research (and, we might add, teacher familiar material in new ways).

One of the implications of this opening up of the classroom time and of the material studied to such an approach, however, is the possibility that the material or object of disciplinary study itself might start to become transformed in unexpected ways as the knowledge, experience and expertise of the students themselves is foregrounded. At this point I can only suggest tentative examples of such transformation, but I’m interested in the development of English Literature itself as a discipline (from out of Classics) in relation to the experience of imposing English texts on colonial subjects in British India, or to the development of Cultural Studies as a discipline (from out of English Literature) in relation to the experience of teaching Literature to working class students in adult education institutes. This historical emphasis on the role of student experience in teaching and the role of teaching in the development of disciplinary knowledge perhaps suggests that EL’s intention to conserve the unity and coherence of the discipline through her pedagogic proposals may involve tensions, conflicts and contradictions of its own. In this, I’m influenced by the lesser-known work on pedagogy by Walter Benjamin, who is better known as a literary critic and critical theorist. In an article published in 1931, Benjamin criticizes the ‘attempt to portray the history of scholarship as an independent, separate process set apart from overall political and intellectual developments’ and calls for a response to the crisis of literature and of education that is ‘perhaps a matter less of renewing teaching through research than of renewing research through teaching …literary history has now completely lost sight of its most important challenge – namely, its pedagogical task…’ (Benjamin 1999: 459 & 462). This alternative approach will prove effect, Benjamin adds, only where ‘in principle teaching is capable of adapting to new strata of students in such a way that a rearrangement of the subject matter would give rise to entirely new forms of knowledge’ (Benjamin 1999: 419-420).

This brings me back to Graff and what, in 1994, he anticipated as a ‘pedagogical turn’ in Theory. ‘If I were a betting person,’ Graff wrote, ‘my prediction for “the future of theory” would be that over the next decade we are going to see a significant redirection of theoretical attention to issues of education and pedagogy’ (Graff 1994: 65). Graff identifies ‘the reconciliation of research and teaching’ in a way that does not ‘try to shift the emphasis from teaching to research but to rethink both research and teaching together’ as ‘the most promising aspect of the new turn to pedagogy’ (Graff 1994: 66). He regards this as leading to a more ‘student-centred approach’ than that of ‘the current empowerment pedagogies’ he identifies with the critical pedagogy of Freire and others (Graff 1994: 67; it is for this reason that Graff’s idea of “teaching the conflicts”, with some justification, has been identified with a ‘reactionary’ position that attempts to depoliticize literature and theory). In response to Diana Fuss’s questions – “what contributions has theory made to pedagogy? How has the teaching of theory changed our theories of teaching? Is the theoretical classroom different, in any philosophical or structural way, from other (supposedly non-theoretical) classrooms?” – ES herself suggests that ‘the open-ended problems students confront in studying literary theory offer opportunities for literature teachers to experiment with a variety of collaborative and innovative course structures …Their innovations …have made theory one of the most exciting and creative fields of literary pedagogy’ (106; quoting Fuss 1994: 44).

It is significant that Graff identifies this ‘pedagogical turn’ with intellectual developments (reader-response, institutional critique, defamiliarization) in literary studies itself rather than reflecting on its conflictual and inherently unstable disciplinary status, one that – like other subjects – has always resulted from its interaction with the wider world (and teaching is one example of such an interaction between ‘research’ and ‘the world’). Whilst I’m not convinced by Graff’s proposal of “teaching the conflicts,” then, his characterization of a pedagogical turn in theory suggests that some of ES’s rich recommendations in Teaching Literature might (1) entail a more drastic or radical transformation of the discipline of Literature – from Literary Studies to Educational Studies via Cultural Studies –  than perhaps she herself envisages; and (2), contrary to institutional claims about the prestige of ‘research-led teaching’ could emerge from the less research intensive institutes.

Works Referenced

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