Scholarship and Research

Suman Gupta

Slightly out of focus

The connotations of the word ‘scholarship’ have always been a bit fuzzy, especially in academia. The OED puts it between, on the one hand, ‘learning, erudition; the collective attainments of scholars; the sphere of polite learning’, and, on the other hand, ‘applied, by unlearned speakers, etc., to educational attainments of a more modest character.’ Politeness and modesty in learning are not the average academic’s forte.

In a 1922 book, the linguist Otto Jespersen had decided a touch impatiently to ‘use the word “philology” in its continental sense, which is often rendered in English by the vague word “scholarship,” meaning thereby the study of the specific culture of one nation.’ That didn’t clear things up particularly. In English-speaking circles ‘philology’ was apt to be received with confusion and trepidation. To academic ears now that sounds like a specific sort of esoteric research.

Under the lens

Of late though, we professional academics in Britain are assured by HE bureaucrats that things have been cleared up. There is ‘scholarship’ and there is ‘research’, and these entail quite different activities. They are funded separately, accounted separately in our workload calculations, understood as leading toward distinct sorts of outcomes. Different centres of excellence (I haven’t come across any other sort) are devoted to each. Since the bureaucrats know that ‘scholarship’ and ‘research’ are different animals, they must have a rigorous definition of ‘scholarship’ at hand.

It seems that British HE bureaucrats have worked on it for a while, or rather have looked for guidance to their counterparts in Australia who have worked on it for a while. A policy paper produced by the Australian Minister for Employment, Education and Training in 1988 did the needful (for a discussion see Moses 1990):

systematic and rigorous investigation aimed at the discovery of previously unknown phenomena, the development of explanatory theory and its application to new situations or problems, and the construction of original works of significant intellectual merit.

the analysis and interpretation of existing knowledge aimed at improving, through teaching or by other means of communication, the depth of human understanding.

In brief, one deals with new knowledge and the other with existing knowledge, and one is an end in itself and the other serves teaching.

That should have been the end of the matter, but it wasn’t quite. Questions remained. Is there a relationship between the two? Perhaps research is really an aspect of scholarship, or one is a subset or collateral of the other? Moreover, is the kind of work on existing knowledge that serves teaching also not research? Is that not what passes in Education faculties as research? Insofar as academics across all disciplines are exhorted to undertake ‘scholarship’ (apart from ‘research’) are they not being asked to encroach upon the research areas of their worthy colleagues in Education faculties? In the German education system, space for discipline-specific research into teaching practice was conventionally designated as ‘methodology’ within different faculties – in what way is this conception of ‘scholarship’ different? But that idea of ‘methodology’ allowed for a specific sort of research, so why is ‘research’ here separated from it?


The matter was seemingly laid to rest when the British government made it mandatory for all HE institutions to follow an academic workload accounting system (initially with the punchy acronym TRAC). The first TRAC guidance in 2005 put a lid on any debate, and we are still living with it despite slight modifications:

Research and Experimental Development (R&D) comprise creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge of man, culture and society and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications. R&D is a term covering three activities: basic research, applied research and experimental development.
> Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.
> Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.
> Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience that is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed.

Scholarship is activity that updates or maintains the knowledge of an individual; or adds to their skills and experience.  The knowledge base already exists elsewhere.
> Scholarship is therefore different from Research.  In particular, it is different from institution-/own-funded Research.  It is important that these terms are clearly distinguished.

I hope that answers all questions and any further debate can now be considered inefficient and impactless academic dithering.

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Three Books

Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer, Creative Writing

I’ve no idea how many books I’ve read in my life. I know I started young and read avidly from the age of five. My earliest reading focused around magic and adventure, and I developed a passion for Roman warfare via the medium of Rosemary Sutcliff. The obsession with the details of shield deployment in a battlefield situation has faded; the love of reading that transports me to an unfamiliar place has not.

Here are three books that stand out from the rest:

The book I remember from my childhood

My common law step-grandfather gave me a boxed set of all the Narnia books when I was seven. I loved and re-reread them all, but the one that blew me away was The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis, the tale of two Victorian children who travel back to the Genesis of Narnia. (I had yet to make the discovery that all of these books were Christian allegories, though very little seems to be under the radar when I look back on them now.) What I liked best was the evocation of lost London, in particular the attics that connected a row of tall houses, and the way in which Lewis boldly sets out his own Creation story, with Aslan breathing the new Narnia into being. It seemed that anything was possible, anything could be described in a book, and I found that so exciting.

My all-time favourite book/ultimate recommendation

It’s impossible to be accurate about this, as these things do shift around as you find new things, but I keep coming back to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which recently took a bit of a drubbing among some of my Facebook friends for its poor plot structure.  There is a danger in teaching creative writing that you might suggest that there are absolutes in writing, when I would say there are just two – read a lot and write a lot – and this book is proof of that.

This is what I wrote on Facebook in its defence: ‘It’s not a sensible book at all, but so mad and intense that it creates its own weird magic space, unlike anything. Charlotte Bronte’s books, crazed as they are, are positively Austen-like in their restraint compared to this one.’ What stays with me from this book is its character, the moor, the intensity of teenage passion, something bleak and mysterious that doesn’t make any sense. It’s my ultimate recommendation (today) because of this – few writers can communicate the essence of obsession and contrariness as Emily Bronte does in this book. And I also actually love the Russian doll structure, tales within tales, the enjoyment in a story told by a fireside with the wind howling outside.

The book I am reading now 

I’m currently reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, which is opening my eyes to the extent to which my own genre of writing, historical fiction, overlaps with creative nonfiction as well as fiction.  I’d describe this book as an opinion-starter, and it’s a bit ‘novel is dead’ (or at least in intensive care) for my taste. I think the novel, literary or generic, will absorb all comers – the success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s maximalist My Struggle series is an example of fiction that encompasses many of the tropes and conventions of nonfiction.

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On Establishing Creative Writing Programmes

Linda Anderson

A Career of Two Halves

Although every academic post carries its freight of blood, sweat and tears, I may well have had the two best jobs on offer in Creative Writing in higher education. I spent a decade at Lancaster University running its distinctive programmes, followed by eleven years at the Open University, which I joined in 2002 to chair the design, launch and presentation of our first undergraduate course, A215: Creative Writing and to work on a suite of short ‘Start Writing’ courses already in the making.

The jobs were dramatically different, especially in scale. Lancaster’s courses were splendid but small, and at the OU I was set on producing a course that could be available and attractive to lots of students, preferably armies of them. Despite the profound differences, everything I learned at Lancaster turned out to be a rehearsal for producing an effective distance learning course.

When I joined Lancaster in 1992, it was in its tenth year of running an MA set up by David Craig and, along with University of East Anglia, offered one of only two Masters’ courses in the country. (Now there are hundreds.) A PhD programme was in its early stages and I immediately took on supervision of two writers, who both had their ‘PhD novels’ published in 1996. One of them was Alison MacLeod, who has gone on to become acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and Professor of Creative Writing at Chichester. It was this opportunity to work with truly gifted writers that I relished, the stimulation of it as well as the sense of helping launch careers that have been sustained over time and have enriched contemporary literary culture.

The department at Lancaster was at that time the only independent writing department in the UK. The teaching was characterised by a remarkable freedom. There were no rules, no formulae, no assignments. Students were invited to look into themselves to find their own best ways of creating new images of the world from the ideas, memories or visions, sometimes still inchoate, which they wanted to crystallise in words.  All the courses were based on workshops with detailed discussions of work-in-progress with a tutor and peer group. In short, the role of the tutor and the peer group was important at the stage of revision rather than at the stage of conception. This student-centred approach was very popular and successful in developing writers’ prowess and originality as recognised by external examiners, including Maggie Gee, who praised ‘the wide variety of writing being supported’ and the ‘remarkable strengths’ of the courses at all levels.

One of the first things I did at Lancaster was to design a level 1 course, including a lecture series for the first time in the department’s existence. These were lectures on craft, outlining the varieties of forms and techniques used in fiction, poetry, and drama. They were aimed at absolute beginners but the front row of the lecture theatre was always commandeered by MA students. This convinced me that writers do not simply breathe in methods by reading a lot of literature. They crave a toolbox of techniques and getting it accelerates their progress.

When David Craig retired in 1995, I led the department for the next eight years. I was lucky to appoint Bill Herbert (the poet W.N.Herbert) and we co-tutored the MA for six years. The MA and PhD were always consistent producers of published writers but the year 2000 was stellar. Weidenfeld & Nicholson offered Justin Hill a six-figure advance for The Drink and Dream Teahouse, set in China and only one-third completed at that stage. The novel went on to be an international success. It was a strange experience, elating and unnerving in complex ways. It galvanised the other students and over half of the group earned distinctions. Scribner bought Monique Roffey’s equally outstanding novel Sun Dog for a five-figure sum shortly after the end of the course. Never had the classroom felt closer to the publisher’s office. Ironically, reaching these heights in the ‘star system’ made me more discontented with the privileged nature of the MA.

Every year we were inundated with applications, offered places to about ten percent, and ended up with groups of eight or ten, many people having dropped out for lack of funding or time out from jobs and family responsibilities.

I had begun to wonder about making a distance learning version of the MA as early as 1996 although I was unsure whether the charged power of the face-to-face workshop could transfer to a virtual learning environment. But I wanted to widen access and increase student numbers. I won some funding from Lancaster’s Innovations in Higher Education unit, enough to hire a researcher, David Swann, to help me. We carried out all kinds of research: literature searches, market research, interviews. We had VLE training and ran pilot conferences with Creative Writing and Philosophy student volunteers. I went on an OU training course held at Stony Stratford – straight to the experts – but with no presentiment that I could end up working for the OU. But maybe I came away with a sense of the sheer reach of the OU to new student constituencies, and definitely an admiration of the infrastructure for creating world-class teaching materials.

The Lancaster MA by distance learning launched in 1999 with online tutor-led workshops, elaborate ‘netiquette’ instructions, and an ever-open forum for discussion and exchanges of work. We held a weekend face-to-face meeting at the start and a week-long summer school at the Poets’ House in Ireland for the first two years, and then in the Lake District. Each student was allocated an individual tutor for tutorials and email support.  I saw three cohorts through their MA and found no difference from the campus course in terms of student achievement or reported satisfaction. The course definitely widened access and has gone on to thrive at Lancaster, with a truly global reach. It was the first computer-mediated postgraduate course in creative writing in Britain.

As for me, I loved teaching by the written word and wanted very much to transmit what I knew about creativity and writing in a less fragmented way. When the OU English department advertised its intention to introduce Creative Writing, I jumped at the chance.

Creative Writing at the OU

I fetched up at the OU in 2002, already a designer and deliverer of a successful distance learning writing course. Here’s what I knew. Distance learning widens participation in a dramatic way. It is a truly intimate form of shared learning. It empowers shyer people to have their say. Students benefit from a permanent record of feedback and discussions that they can return to as necessary. I also knew about the risk of quarrels that can blaze suddenly, leaving relationships in tatters. I knew on a deeply personal level about tutor burnout. I had been warned about it on the OU training course but had naively failed during the first couple of years to set limits to word counts or frequency of submissions to tutors. In the production of A215, I hope I kept in mind the tutors’ right to have a life.

I still remember how thrilled and challenged I felt by the job. At its core was a highly demanding form of teaching that had to be lucid and accessible as well as replete with lively, planned activities to both practise and test skills. But there was a cluster of other exciting elements: team management, peer review, editing, programme-making, interviewing famous writers, liaising with publishers internal and external, and ultimately, tutor training and supervision.

In the making of A215, what I wanted to import from the Lancaster model was the student-centred approach, to mix tutor-led online conferencing with occasional face-to-face day schools. I wanted students to try their hand at the three main genres of fiction, poetry, and life writing, finally being free to specialise in their chosen form or forms. The production team was a superb one, and despite our fair share of arguments and injured feelings, our work was relatively frictionless. The main authors were myself; Mary Hammond, an expert on publishing; Sara Haslam, a prime mover in the establishment of the ‘Start Writing’ series; W.N. Herbert, award-winning poet based at Newcastle University; and Derek Neale, who was steeped in the UEA writing culture both as an MA and PhD graduate and tutor for many years. Bob Owens, despite his workload as head of department and staff tutor in London, edited the Readings section of the Workbook. He and Shirley Coulson (course manager) contributed their extensive knowledge of how to navigate OU systems, a vital role in a team with so many new staff. Clare Spencer gave us an AL perspective.

I was surprised at how much teamwork kept us to a tight schedule while not curbing our creativity. Different colleagues often pushed the boundaries to create ambitious or unexpected elements, such as Sara Haslam’s recorded panel discussion by eminent biographers – Michael Holroyd, Blake Morrison, and Jackie Kay, chaired by Robert Fraser – a beautifully realised debate. Derek Neale included a range of innovative styles of biographical writing in the Workbook, showing how to mix fact and fiction. Within a couple of years we had an array of audio CDs, a study guide, and a 600 plus page book, Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, co-published with Routledge.

The course launched in 2006 with approximately 2500 students and gained the highest retention level in the University as well as high scores of student satisfaction. The Workbook was acclaimed and is still in wide use in other universities. Over a hundred ALs, most of them new to the OU, were trained and supported in online teaching. These successes remained consistent over eight years, so that 22,000 students had taken the course by the time I left in 2013. It was Maggie Butt, our first external examiner, who made what felt to me like the best tribute to the course: ‘You have managed the industrial scale without losing the personal touch.’

Creative Writing has gone from strength to strength. Derek Neale chaired A363: Advanced Creative Writing, which launched in 2008. Although I had some hand in the production, the course materials were largely written or produced by Derek Neale and Bill Greenwell. Derek designed a distinctive approach of experimenting with form. He aimed to deepen students’ engagement with fiction, poetry, and life writing while also introducing scriptwriting for various media. The core text A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice was co-published with A & C Black. When both courses were up and running, we were organising teaching and assessment of more than 3000 students annually with a very small course team.

Research developments

The PhD programme began in 2008. Of the four researchers I co-supervised with Derek Neale, two won internal scholarships against Faculty-wide competition and all gained their doctorates either shortly before or shortly after I retired. Three of their four novels have now been published and widely reviewed: The Longest Fight by Emily Bullock was named as ‘a fine addition to the canon of boxing literature’ inThe Independent’; Owl Song at Dawn by Emma Sweeney was shortlisted for the Amazon Rising Star Award in 2016; Heather Richardson’s Doubting Thomas was recently listed by ‘The Independent’ as one of the nine best Scottish fictions of 2017.

In the spring of 2012 I founded The Contemporary Cultures of Writing research group with my creative writing colleagues. I organised and chaired our first series of seminars at the Institute of English Studies, University of London on the theme of ‘The Rise of Creative Writing’ to coincide with just over forty years of Creative Writing in higher education in the UK.  We explored the question of whether writing courses had a traceable and positive impact on literary culture. I found that eminent authors and academics like Maureen Freely, Andrew Cowan, and Alison MacLeod, were prepared to travel to London and speak for expenses only. (It’s a generosity that my colleagues have subsequently also been able to rely on.) The audiences were gratifyingly large, with about 25 people showing up to two events and a dozen for one on poetry. These series are still going strong and have given colleagues experience in event organisation and panel chairing as well as raising the public profile of the OU.


Linda Anderson worked as Reader in Creative Writing at The Open University from 2002 – 2013. She is a contributor to the short story anthology The Glass Shore, ed. Sinead Gleeson, which won the 2016 Irish Book of the Year Award. She is co-editor with Dawn Sherratt-Bado of the acclaimed anthology Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island 2017), described by Arts Council Head Damian Smyth as ‘one of the most important books to be published about Northern Ireland in half a century.’  Her novel Cuckoo, first published in 1986 by The Bodley Head, will be reissued in 2018 as a modern Irish classic by Turnpike Books.

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Reflections on the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, Belfast, 12-18 March 2018

Patricia Ferguson

I have four days in Belfast and a whirlwind of events, and those are only a dozen chosen from more than eighty on offer, and of those dozen, space available here to discuss only four or five. First of all ‘Belfast as a Restorative City’, a title which expresses the theme of the whole festival. ‘“Imagine!” What does that word bring to mind?’ asked the presenter. ‘John Lennon’s song, of course’, we said. So then, let us imagine Belfast – Belfast of the Troubles – as a place where the police don’t stop and search, they stop and chat, where schools don’t have a discipline policy, they have a relationship policy. A relationship policy? This is something rich and strange to me who has painful memories of the ‘tawse’, an all too common punishment in Scottish schools until the 1980s. These good things are beginning to happen although, as we were reminded at another event (‘Equality: A Question of Attitude?’), the tribal divide with its two completely different worldviews is centuries deep, and political parties thrive on conflict. The students from Liverpool who interviewed residents on the Shankill Road found not one respondent who favoured the idea of a Restorative City, but their interviewees were all of an older generation, and the project for Integrated Schools continues to thrive. As Koulla Yiasouma, the Children’s Commissioner, pointed out (‘Ask the BreXpert’), Northern Ireland now has a whole generation of young people who have no personal memory of the Troubles, and they say to that older generation: please, don’t let Brexit bring them back.

How do you change a punitive mindset into a restorative one? Can the answer to this question be something as simple as, for example, establishing Friendship Clubs (there’s one on the Crumlin Road) with language groups, walks, board games, food? – Ah! Food! Imagine! is a festival of hospitality as much as of ‘ideas and politics’. I heard a woman mutter, ‘You don’t get this where I come from’, as we tucked into ‘The People’s Breakfast’ on Democracy Day. The Belfast Friendship Club certainly thinks so. It meets every Thursday at the Common Grounds Café: ‘fifty people, twenty-five nationalities, one vision’, according to the Café’s website. The answer, in a word, is the craic, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as that ‘enjoyable time spent with other people, especially when the conversation is entertaining and funny’, which is part of the Irish psyche. The café is a remarkable place, carrying the conversation through an intricate network of barriers. It’s run by City Church Belfast, staffed largely by volunteers, many of whom are refugees or asylum seekers, and gives all its profits to charity. ‘Can Belfast Become a City of Sanctuary?’ was held there; its participants much encouraged by Nuala McAllister, the current Lord Mayor, and her vision of the city as ‘Global Belfast’.

It’s important to remember that underneath all this progress with the twenty-five nationalities lies that hitherto intractable tribal divide. Has it become possible, in these days, to bridge a chasm as profound as this? Perhaps it has: as part of its Oral History Project, The Open University gave us the event called ‘Books that bend bars’, in which three former political prisoners spoke about the books and the Open University courses that had inspired them and given them hope. The reasons for their imprisonment were not trivial: Billy Hutchinson had murdered two Catholics, Jennifer McCann had shot a police officer, Séanna Walsh had been caught making bombs; yet here they were, Loyalist and Republicans sharing the same platform, telling such similar stories of understanding, as they read and studied, that the conflict must cease from violence and become political. All three are graduates of The Open University, and are now prominent in public life. They read authors such as Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, and J. S. Mill. Jennifer read Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism, and has become a fierce defender of women’s rights. Séanna read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, that burning exposé of the trauma of colonisation; he would have read in Sartre’s Preface that: ‘if this suppressed fury fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. In order to free themselves they even massacre each other’.1  And so it proved. Musing about this, I realise the inadequacy of using that old metaphor about bridging chasms. Billy Hutchinson is on record as saying that he does not regret his violent past because it ‘contributed to preventing a united Ireland’, while to Séanna Walsh of Sinn Féin, the Westminster government represents a colonial power to which no allegiance is due.2  Sooner or later the bridge will break, because no matter how heartfelt their desire for peace, neither will give way on that one fundamental point which would secure it.

There do exist, however, some who will give way, and it seems to me that the ultimate hope rests with them. I am thinking of people like Tony Macaulay, whose book Paperboy featured in another Open University event called ‘Reading in Conflict’. For this occasion we gathered in Waterstone’s excellent café (more food and drink!) where we discussed extracts from the works of writers who had lived through the death and destruction wrought by conflict. Paperboy describes, in the most engaging way, Macaulay’s life as a child growing up in West Belfast at the start of the Troubles. He too in adult life, became active in the peace process, and what he chose to do is truly remarkable: in 1985 he and his wife, Protestants from the Shankill Road, moved to New Lodge, a nationalist area nicknamed the Murder Mile, and set up a youth club. Their adventures are told in his new book Little House on the Peace Line: Living and Working as a Pacifist on Belfast’s Murder Mile.

‘Imagine there’s no countries’, wrote John Lennon, ‘It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion too’. Macaulay is a religiously minded person, as am I, but I don’t think he would be disconcerted by those words. Lennon himself said in an interview that what he meant was ‘no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing’, and then one could indeed ‘imagine all the people living life in peace’.3  A hard sell, but essential I think, and the theme underpinning the whole festival. I shall certainly be back next year, and back to Belfast long before that. I am just beginning a PhD study on the reading experiences of Belfast’s own C.S. Lewis, who would have loved this festival and never forgot that he was from Ireland, and so I finish this post with words that he wrote to his friend Don Giovanni Calabria in August 1953: ‘Tomorrow I am crossing over (if God so have pleased) to Ireland my birthplace and dearest refuge so far as charm of landscape goes, and temperate climate, although most dreadful because of the strife, hatred and often civil war between dissenting faiths. [ … ] Let us, however, with mutual prayers pray with all our power for that charity which “covers a multitude of sins”’.4  And to that, let us all say, ‘Amen’.


1    Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. by Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 17.
2    Sam McBride, Belfast News Letter, 19 March 2014 <> [accessed 27 March 2018]
3    David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ed. by G. Barry Golson, new edn (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000), p. 212.
4    Clive Staples Lewis, Collected Letters, ed. by Walter Hooper, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000-06), iii, p. 358.


Patricia Ferguson is about to start a PhD in English with The Open University. She is researching the reading habits of C. S. Lewis and his brother, Warren Lewis. She is a longstanding volunteer on the UK Reading Experience Database project.

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Digital Habitus and Institutional Responsibility

Suman Gupta

Pedagogic Context

I continue here with the argument of the earlier posting on Direct and Mediated Contact in Literary Pedagogy. I do so at a similar level of generality, without as yet nuancing the argument along the lines of Richard’s Response (for which I am grateful).

Effective teaching and learning of literature – and of other Humanities areas – depend upon a shared awareness of the pedagogic context among teachers and students. In other words, teachers and students need common reference points for the cultural context within and with reference to which pedagogy is undertaken. Conventionally this has been ensured by direct contact, grounded in the culture of the classroom or peer group, of a university, of a geopolitical location, and so on. When pedagogy is undertaken through mediated contact, typically through digital means, those conventional markers of the pedagogic context are dispersed. Each student and teacher meeting on a forum may be located in vastly different cultural and linguistic contexts, without the conventionally shared reference points to inform their pedagogic engagement. Hence a question: in mediated-contact literary pedagogy then, what features of a shared culture could inform teaching and learning? It is necessary to pause on this question instead of rushing into ‘strategic transformations’ from direct- to mediated-contact pedagogy. That was the gist of the argument made earlier.

The obvious answer to that question is: literary pedagogy would need to draw upon the shared culture afforded by the internet, the online forum, the digital form themselves – that is, the culture that has developed around the means via which mediated-contact pedagogy is conducted. Let’s call this the culture of a digital habitus. There are complex negotiations of linguistic, regional and social difference involved in the digital habitus. Numerous scholarly publications have explored these, and research is ongoing. There is, however, comparatively little research into the particular sort of digital habitus of interest here: the digital pedagogic habitus, within which mediated-contact teaching and learning is done. As observed in the previous posting, the drivers for scholarship have focused on how to do it (hurriedly and cheaply) rather than on what it involves for disciplinary practices (thinkingly). Scholarship into the digital pedagogic habitus wherein literary teaching and learning might be effectively done is very thin indeed. That could be a meaningful dimension of the otherwise nebulous buzzwords ‘digital humanities’ so beloved of university managers, research funders and HE policy makers.

Contemplating literary studies apropos of the digital pedagogic habitus necessarily calls for some grasp of the architecture of that habitus. That is, teachers and students need a shared sense of this habitus’ underpinning technological and sociological principles, the various agencies involved in it, its economic arrangements, the legal regimes governing it, the distinctive communicative practices it has engendered, etc. These are yet to be inculcated within literary pedagogy to any significant degree. But emerging scholarly frameworks could be productively recruited for the purpose, especially from analyses of ‘the posthuman’ and of e-literature ….

… I had intended to set forth tentatively in that direction for this posting. But I took a break and went for a leisurely chat instead with a former student in the university café. Several years of direct-contact pedagogy preceded these regular meetings, liberated now from pedagogic aims and objectives. These meetings are rituals of friendship now, and I look forward to them. So, I put the above thoughts to my former student, and he raised a few posers, and I mulled them, and he dissected my mullings, and a bee was set buzzing in my bonnet. The idiomatic bee hovers before the project of exploring the digital pedagogic habitus, and this posting is addressed to its buzzing.

Data Matters

The exchanges involved in direct-contact teaching allow for necessary transience and forgetting, much as in everyday exchanges – as in friendly conversations in a café. The detritus of irate remarks, inadvertent and misjudged comments, ill-expressed sentiments, lapses of memory, errors, talk at cross purposes, incomprehension and so on are largely negotiated out of existence through communicative exchanges to leave teachers and learners with a mutual crystallization of what is relevant. Space is made for these mishaps to be accommodated and to be forgotten gradually in the process of direct-contact pedagogy. There is an agreement between teachers and students and the institutions providing the pedagogic space that those mishaps are inevitable, and overcoming them is what teaching and learning consist in. It is also understood that pre-agreed junctures will be appointed wherein a record of performance will be knowingly obtained – that’s the assessment juncture. The periods, contents and rules of assessment are clear to all parties. Performance is evaluated at the pre-agreed junctures. The rest of the learning process, with its inevitable mishaps, remain unrecorded. In brief, a ‘right to forget’ some parts of the process of direct-contact pedagogy is built into educational programmes – that is, a right for students and teachers. Those unrecorded parts are left, as everyday conversations are, to the vagaries of living memory. This foreknowledge gives both students and teachers confidence in the integrity of the programme they engage in.

Mediated-contact pedagogy through digital interfaces necessarily comes with the possibility that nothing will be forgotten, that all exchanges will be recorded. Digitization is for recording and is in itself a formation of record. It is a mode of disposing all information that passes into its form such that it can be easily stored, retrieved, and transferred. Thus every text that is digitized, every exchange on a digital forum, anything that is input or uploaded in any programme (whether networked or in-house, publicly accessible or secured) is immediately a record, already recorded and retrievable. Mediated-contact pedagogy takes place, then, in an environment of potentially total recall and absolute accountability. The only kind of forgetting and transience that is possible is by the voluntary act of deletion; and it is also possible that any part of that record can be modified by a voluntary act. However, in mediated-contact pedagogy the ability to delete or modify the record of exchanges is largely not in the hands of the main digital interlocutors, the students and teachers. It is usually in the hands of the institutions that administer pedagogic programmes: university managers and those who maintain the university’s servers. The digital record of what teachers and students say and write is not owned by them, it is owned by universities – and it is a total record that the university, as an institution, can use in various ways. It is exploitable data.

From a student’s perspective, two kinds of data can be elicited by the university from the record that accrues through mediated-contact pedagogy. On the one hand, data to profile each student individually can be obtained. This data may potentially incorporate information which the student didn’t intend for recording or would prefer to be forgotten. On the other hand, data to profile cohorts of students collectively in relation to various factors may be obtained. This sort of data appears to be of little concern to students since individuals are anonymized or lost in aggregates. However, such data may be used in ways which do concern all students. For instance, such data may be used to design or engineer the performance of cohorts in ways which are not obvious in the ostensible rules and mutual agreements of assessment. Such data may also be used to structure public perceptions, design entry and learning pathways, massage the student experience, and attract investments in various ways which neither students nor teachers may be aware of – may not consent to if they were.

Insofar as a student may exercise some prerogative on data relating to herself individually, the prerogative is usually legally enjoined by requirements of ‘information disclosure’, erasure upon request, or consent for use, and a promise of maintaining the security of such data. This calls for considerable awareness of what sort of individual data may be generated and held, and anticipation of how it may be used. Active intervention from the student is necessary to find out what individual data is held and seek its removal, akin to actively unticking an option which has been ticked in advance by a service provider.

Insofar as collective data are held there are no significant legal provisions to enable students – or teachers – to be informed. It is considered that such data are the university’s business and property.

In all cases, much depends on students trusting the integrity of the university apropos of the use of such data, in the absence of any proprietor-like control on their own part. However, universities are now necessarily rival institutions in many respects, competing with each other to meet targets in the ‘student market’ and vying for limited resources from funders. Some sceptical students might feel that competitive interests could possibly supersede responsibilities to students or teachers.

Similar considerations apply regarding such data from the teacher’s perspective.

These are significant considerations since the integrity of any educational programme depends upon mutual understanding between students and teachers, clarity regarding the assessment process, and conviction in transparent institutional support. Students need to feel they are in possession of their learning to be able to engage in the pedagogic process with conviction. It is critically important to institute procedures for ensuring that the integrity of the pedagogic process is unquestionable at the commencement of any programme with mediated-contact pedagogy. That involves giving comprehensive advance information for students and teachers on data generation and usage, and making robust arrangements for protecting students’ (and teachers’) interests. External regulation, audits and open-to-public reports on how institutions gather and use data – both individual and collective – would help garner the confidence of students in mediated-contact pedagogy. Such regulation is also necessary for quality assurance of educational programmes in the digital habitus.

Insofar as mediated-contact literary teaching and learning goes, wherein the digital pedagogic habitus needs to be explicitly in view, understanding the ins and outs of data elicitation and usage is as much a scholarly obligation as a practical necessity. That’s where engagement with the culture of the digital pedagogic habitus could begin.

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Opening the Curriculum: A brief personal history

Dennis Walder, Emeritus Professor of Literature

It was the mid 1970s, I’d left South Africa, and was a Research Fellow at Edinburgh University, doing a PhD on Dickens and teaching there to supplement my income.  I had heard about a radical new university offering degrees for mature, unqualified students, and when my friend the historian Angus Calder offered to let me sit in on one of his tutorials, I jumped at the chance.

I was amazed by the enthusiasm and motivation, as well as life experience, of Angus’s students, compared with my Edinburgh University first years.  Conventional university teaching seemed just that – conventional; and, what’s more, it served a very limited section of the population.  At the time, only 4% of school leavers were admitted to university, and almost everyone seemed well satisfied with that. But I was not.

So I applied for and became a tutor on the 19th century Novel course, which, unlike elsewhere at the time, assumed that you should study the novel as a European phenomenon, including texts in translation. After being appointed Arts Staff Tutor in Scotland and meeting the course team led by Arnold Kettle, I began to contribute more and more, since I was a Nineteenth Century Novel specialist.

I was seconded to Walton Hall to help revise and rewrite the (already hugely popular) course, and when a post fell vacant, I applied for and was appointed Lecturer and became chair of the new novel course team which, in those days (the 1970s-80s), included central academics, staff tutors, editors, production advisors, administrators, BBC colleagues and external assessors, all of whom would vigorously contribute to discussion and debate, with the result that our course materials – published booklets, radio and TV programs and summer schools – were of the highest quality.

The course team was and still is even in its slimmed-down versions the key, and I remain suspicious of attempts by other universities (increasingly nowadays) to offer distance material without this kind of input.  My own former Edinburgh PhD supervisor once confessed that he took our materials with him when preparing to teach in the USA; it was a common experience to find well-thumbed copies of our texts in other university libraries and on their lecturers’ shelves.

Acceptance of academic quality was more formally assured by being part of the national external examining system: we examined elsewhere and, more importantly, colleagues from other universities examined with us.  I recall one external exclaiming at a Board: ‘I agree this should be a first, but . . . perhaps not a transcendental first!’ Yet our classifications were increasingly accepted by other universities as well as by employers, irrefutable evidence that the OU was a ‘proper’ university, our graduates as good as any, often indeed – given their motivation and hard work over many years – better.

The Arts Foundation courses (for which I wrote) and which were repeatedly revised, seemed our most radical departure from the traditional curriculum, truly inter- rather than simply multidisciplinary, and a key to all the other Arts courses. The Literature curriculum was relatively traditional, perhaps to ensure its status, perhaps because of the orthodox backgrounds of the teaching staff (although Kettle had taught in East Africa).

I had long been impressed by the writings of former Anglophone colonies, and had begun publishing on South African drama, especially Athol Fugard (I wrote the first book on his work), and I proposed including a play by him and two black actors on a new Modern European Drama course. It did not strictly fill the bill, but after much debate the team agreed to include it as ‘political drama’, beside Brecht and John Arden, and in 1977 Sizwe Bansi is Dead became the first of the ‘New Writings’ to enter the curriculum. The student response, especially to the TV version, was tremendous.

This strengthened my resolve to propose other ‘post-colonial’ (as they were starting to be called) texts for the curriculum.  Our new third-level ‘Literature in the Modern World’ course offered the opportunity. With Angus Calder, Dinah Birch and Richard Allen, we wrote ‘blocks’ of teaching material on poetry, prose and drama from West Africa, the Caribbean and India, adopting the phrase ‘literatures in English’ instead of English Literature, to encourage an awareness of growing debates about the origin and nature of contemporary literary studies, and to prevent writings from abroad being ghettoised. We developed a related summer school at York, and I edited a reader of critical essays and documents, widely used outside the OU and revised for a second edition which remains in print with sales of over 60,000.

‘Literature in the Modern World’ was four years in the making and served some 10,000 students before being replaced by another Twentieth Century Literature course, chaired by Suman Gupta, which continued to highlight current debates, while incorporating texts dealing with contemporary society, now inevitably including writings from beyond as well as within the UK, by migrants as well as by long-established citizens.  In terms of quality as well as relevance, the work of authors as diverse as Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Nichols and Abdulrazak Gurnah was always going to have an impact.

At the same time, I joined History colleagues to set up a ‘project’-based ‘fourth-level’ course, with several lines involving minimal teaching material but substantial reading and set texts, aimed at bridging undergraduate and postgraduate levels (the MA was still in its infancy) through more independent student work. We taught the courses we were creating, believing it had always been a blunder to allow fulltime OU academics to create courses and appoint and monitor tutors (ALs) without teaching face-to-face themselves, and not only at occasional day and summer schools. The result was hugely rewarding for all concerned, producing students who did go on to postgraduate work, although numbers were inevitably limited by the nature of the provision.

Yet with the Department personnel expanding under my headship to include fellow experts like Robert Fraser, David Johnson and Susheila Nasta, it had become possible for a wider range of texts, voices and countries to be included on my project course (‘Post-Colonial Literatures in English’).  At the same time, while involved in setting up a Singapore version of the Arts program, I engaged with Ban Kah Choon of the National University there to write a Singapore version of the course focusing on local authors and texts to ensure their voices were dominant, not just ours from the UK. Without a course team, the results were uneven: it was difficult to replicate the depth and accessibility of the UK-based course.

University teaching material should always be informed by research, and it seemed natural to set up a research group while developing these initiatives – although as one colleague remarked at the time, mine was at first a group of one.  I was not fazed, and the Postcolonial Research Group has now survived for many years, organizing seminars, raising substantial funds from UK research bodies, and creating a Departmental culture in touch with developments in this still vital area of present-day literary study, whatever it is called – ‘world literatures’ is a recent favourite. The skills involved in critical reading are transferable, and the point remains to highlight the issues raised by any study of literature with texts suggestive of experiences beyond narrowly-defined European national cultures, through teaching that recognizes the claims of history and politics as well as aesthetics.  Or so I believe.

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Response to Direct and Mediated Contact: Further Questions

Richard Allen

The analysis and the questions raised in the previous posting on Direct and Mediated Contact in Literary Pedagogy are pertinent to the future of Literary Studies. My comments here don’t dare to provide answers but raise two issues which I think are relevant and which might require Suman’s questions to be posed in a more nuanced or variegated way.

First there’s a tendency to see Literary Studies and Higher Education in a somewhat monolithic way in Suman’s piece. In fact Higher Education has had and continues to have a strongly social class related hierarchy. So, do universities which attract and accept applicants from private schools and have significant endowments face the questions you raise in the same way as universities which are struggling to achieve recruitments and maintain income and whose managers then feel they need to ‘restructure’? Certainly some of these elite universities have found already methods of keeping the costs of direct contact pedagogy down by dint of employing junior researchers and others with ambitions to be academics in a way that is close to the ‘gig’ economy which has spread so much in recent years in the UK. There perhaps isn’t either a simple relationship between high status and direct contact pedagogy since a good number of the FE Colleges that have developed HE streams have found ways of teaching HE students in a quite intensive ‘direct contact’ way. This is to a significant extent because their teaching staff aren’t involved in research — another factor that is relevant to the issues here. But perhaps as relevant here is the fact that these FE colleges do not share/enjoy the massification and growth in student numbers that are found in most middle ranking universities. So perhaps the questions Suman raises are particularly pertinent to the middle of the hierarchy. Or maybe one should also put things onto a time dimension and say they are particularly relevant to the middle of the range now but the question will come to others in time?

The second issue here is the relation of study and employment and the ideological frameworks within which English Studies sit. The dominant framework for government policy makers now seems to be that the study of Humanities subjects should be subsidised less than the study of, for example, Medicine or Engineering. A higher government subsidy for these latter ‘useful’ subjects might — the Panglossion argument recently advanced goes — enable universities to reduce the fees for Humanities subjects. More likely any reduction in fees would be matched by a reduction in resources allocated to Humanities, hastening the shift to mediated contact pedagogy learning which Suman describes.  What is the result of thinking through the issues Suman describes in this frame? Is English Studies taught by ‘mediated contact’ likely to produce a social group competing for middle ranking ‘white collar’ jobs — just the group that some predict will be most detrimentally affected by increased automation and artificial intelligence? Research done by Suman and myself with others in India has perhaps a potentially intriguing relevance here. There we found that in the group of elite universities, studying English Literature was seen as valuable by students not just because of the skills they learned but because it would provide them with the skill and knowledge to position themselves within a high status social group. Can the whole range of what Suman calls ‘cultural formations’ be directed to a simple model of what students will do after they graduate or are different approaches required? How do those creating courses understand and place themselves in a ‘cultural present’ formed in such a variegated environment?

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Direct and Mediated Contact in Literary Pedagogy

Suman Gupta

Teachers and researchers in literary studies at The Open University have delivered Higher Education (HE) programmes using up-to-date methods and technologies for almost 50 years. In this they have followed the mission of the university: in particular, to make HE accessible to constituencies which may otherwise not benefit from it. Reaching and enabling students across distances, in different locations and under varied circumstances, is vital for the university’s mission. Of necessity that has entailed both making special arrangements for direct contact with students and using the available technological means for mediated contact. The Literature and Creative Writing Department has enjoyed remarkable success in this, and met all the standards of academic excellence appointed for the HE sector as a whole (including old and new universities).

Members of the English and Creative Writing Department at The Open University are therefore uniquely placed to engage with questions to do with teaching and learning literature by using multiple means and across multiple locations. Such questions are now becoming salient for the HE sector at large. Teachers and researchers in the department are accustomed to asking difficult questions about literary pedagogy before they are posed in conventional HE settings, and resolving them.

This posting is devoted to raising and clarifying such a question, of moment to present-day literary pedagogy in the HE sector generally.

The HE Sector

The HE sector, in widely dispersed locations around the world, is contemplating a significant shift in pedagogy. The shift is from the dominance of direct (face-to-face) contact towards foregrounding mediated contact via digital networks in teaching and learning. The latter is no longer the preserve of what was conventionally regarded as the ‘distance education’ part of the HE sector. It is being considered or incorporated to varying degrees across the sector. Policy moves to facilitate this are widely evident; significant investments are being made in the technological means to enable this; and large-scale publicity campaigns are underway to encourage it.

The sector-wide shift is contemplated predominantly for economic reasons. In brief, it is held that the costs of direct contact in HE pedagogy are now too high to be managed by public funding or fee regimes, such that HE can be provided equitably across disparate socio-economic strata and territories. Should conviction in direct contact be dislodged, a greater number of students in widely distributed locations (potentially globally) can be processed at low infrastructural and staffing costs – putatively without compromising the academic and pedagogic quality measures that exist.

This sector-wide drift has naturally excited the enthusiasm of education policy makers, university managers and corporate investors in HE. In broad outline, the following points cover the thrust of investigations underpinning the shift so far:

  1. The shift is between two pedagogic poles: full direct contact (in classrooms and tutorials; between students and teachers, amongst students and amongst teachers) on the one hand, and no direct contact (fully technologically mediated teaching and learning) on the other. The shift is not contemplated as abruptly flipping from one pole to the other. Rather, it consists in a gradual process of reducing direct contact and correspondingly increasing mediated contact.
  2. The factors that determine this process are: (a) development of internet-based technological affordances/capacities which may approximate expectations grounded on the norm of direct contact; (b) gradual reduction of infrastructure and staffing resources to acclimatise students to pedagogy by technological mediation; (c) installing measurements of academic quality and pedagogic effectiveness such that this process garners confidence amongst student populations, academic communities and broader publics. Thus, research has focused largely on two issues: first, how to make it technologically possible?; second, how to convince all that it is desirable?
  3. The success of moves in this shift are ultimately always measured in monetary terms: i.e. the financial investment in providing HE should be reduced, while maintaining confidence in the HE ‘product’ such that returns on investment should increase.

However, the norm of direct (face-to-face) contact in HE pedagogy is a powerful one, not easily dispelled, for three reasons:

  1. It continues to be the unquestioned basis of formal school education. The transition from school to HE is therefore likely to be rendered disjunctive/unsettling by this shift.
  2. Conventionally, in HE the entire received system of pedagogic practice (and therefore knowledge production generally) has developed on the precondition of direct contact.
  3. Consequently, the existing measures of pedagogic quality have been firmly based on direct contact. These are embedded in factors such as ‘resources’ or ‘environment’, and in practices such as ‘tutorials’, ‘lectures’, ‘seminars’, ‘conferences’, ‘workshops’, ‘supervision meetings’, etc. The very language of HE pedagogy is premised on direct contact.

Literary Pedagogy 

All the above issues are being intensively researched and investigated to facilitate the sector-wide drift. The thrust of this research is: how to make the shift happen across the sector so that it becomes economically profitable without becoming socially disruptive? The ongoing research is strongly determined by the need to make it happen as a sector-wide strategy. Contrarians articulate their interrogations accordingly, more to question this process in general conceptual terms (and sometimes to highlight inequities) rather than to examine the methodological nuances and integrity of this process from discipline-specific viewpoints.

There is therefore a discipline-specific space in contemplating this process which calls for more attention than it is currently receiving. This discipline-specific space is of especial significance or, rather, appears variously fraught from the perspective of humanistic disciplines, and particularly with literary pedagogy in mind.

That does not mean that the process of this shift should be resisted by literary scholars. It means that the process urgently calls for more careful and deliberative reckoning from the perspective of literary pedagogy than might be the case for some other areas. This reckoning could be with a view to either appropriately informing or carefully adapting the process so that literary pedagogy remains sustainable. The very substantial existing market of literary studies could then not only be suitably catered but expanded further, and the vitality of literary scholarship enhanced.

To convey why the disciplinary perspective of literary pedagogy calls for particular attention apropos of the shift, the somewhat overloaded term ‘culture’ is called upon in a reduced sense here. For present purposes, ‘culture’ refers to social references, allusions, preconceptions which render communication collectively meaningful (i.e. to large or small collectives, at broader or contained levels).

In some academic disciplines – such as mathematics, many areas of the natural sciences and some of the social sciences – there is a high degree of pre-existing consensus on the relevant terminology, evidence bases and inferential methods among scholars. Therefore, scholarly and pedagogic practices for such disciplines generally have a low sensitivity to context-specific cultural characteristics. Their integrity is not indifferent to cultural factors but work relatively consistently across a wide range of cultures.

And in certain academic disciplines – including most areas of the humanities, and particularly literary studies – consensus is sought by constant clarification and negotiation of the relevant terminology, evidence bases and inferential methods among scholars. A continuous interplay between distinct cultures of production and reception and analysis and pedagogy is entailed. Necessarily, a high sensitivity to and awareness of context-specific cultural characteristics is called for. That includes the cultural context in which pedagogy itself is undertaken.

In literary studies, this necessity is embedded in the very structure of disciplinary pursuits and organisation of disciplinary knowledge. Thus, for instance, critically engaging with literary texts calls for joined-up reflection on one or more of the following at the same time:

  • The cultural factors which bear upon the writing of a text in its historical context
  • The cultural circumstances of the historical context wherein the text is made public (the process of publication)
  • The cultures of reading in every period in which the text is perused and discussed
  • The cultures of translation, adaptation, publishing, criticism, pedagogy to which the text is recruited in various periods
  • The present day cultures in which the text is studied again, where its continuing relevance is registered – which is really a way for students to come to grips with and become productive within the cultures of the present in all their complexity and immediacy.

Insofar as literary pedagogy goes, this calls for a clear sense of where, when and why teaching and learning takes place: an immediate apprehension of the social, economic, political, everyday realities amidst which the rigorous discussion of literary texts is undertaken between students and teachers, amongst students and amongst teachers. In this sense, every literary pedagogic space, every classroom, lecture session, tutorial group, seminar group, workspace, etc. forms an immediate cultural grouping. Each of these exist within wider cultures – institutional, regional, and so on — and bear upon the rigorous teaching and learning of literature. Whenever a text is engaged in a tutorial group or a classroom, an immediate set of shared cultural references between students and teachers is called upon, which radiate out to wider collectives. That is the literary pedagogic enterprise.

The Question

In literary pedagogy the norm of direct contact has thus been particularly salient. Direct contact has generally provided the immediate living cultural references that inform teaching and learning. Literary pedagogy has developed through an extended period of disciplinary professionalization, well before ‘literary studies’ in its modern sense emerged in the 19th century, through older teaching and learning practices to do with rhetoric and philology. The real expectations of students, teachers, employers, and society at large with interests in literary studies have been formed accordingly – and these are, in every sense, very large interests.

In contemplating a HE sector-wide or even institutional shift towards increasing degrees of mediated contact (towards a horizon of  minimum or no direct contact), it would be imprudent to consider that mediated contact can replace direct contact on the same terms. The direct-contact teaching space (e.g. classroom) allows for literary pedagogy in a way that a mediated-contact teaching space (e.g. internet forum) cannot. But equally — and this is important — the mediated-contact teaching space might be able to offer modes and models of literary pedagogy which are unavailable in the direct-contact space.

However, the latter possibility has been too little investigated in relation to literary pedagogy. The putative and short-term economic advantages of this shift seem so tempting that HE policy and governance drivers, in government agencies and in educational institutions, are hurrying into precarious, half-baked pushes to make it happen. Breakneck drives for transformation and insistence on embracing change are accordingly enforced. In this vein, it seems expedient to simply try and make mediated contact approximate direct contact as quickly as possible, and to focus on how to do it across the HE sector rather that on what needs to be done for particular parts of the HE sector – such as, for pedagogy in specific disciplines.

Insofar as literary pedagogy goes, it is important that the classroom is a particular sort of cultural formation and the internet forum also a particular sort of cultural formation. They are not the same. The kinds of cultural referents offered by the former are different from the latter. For each, literary teaching and learning have to be arranged accordingly so as to be effective and productive. The direct presence of persons in a classroom allows for relatively easily accessible common cultural reference points. The dispersed presence of participants in an internet forum — perhaps under different political regimes, with different linguistic idioms and abilities, acclimatised to varied social customs – calls for a different way of registering the cultural present. Literary pedagogy is undertaken within and with reference to this awareness of the cultural present.

Given the direction being taken across the HE sector as a whole outlined at the beginning, this situation raises a pressing question for all who participate in literary teaching and learning. The question is best expressed as three questions, but it is really one:

  1. How does direct contact work for literary teaching and learning practices in cultural terms?
  2. How does mediated contact work for literary teaching and learning practices in cultural terms?
  3. In shifting from some element of direct-contact pedagogy towards mediated-contact pedagogy, what needs to be done in practice to ensure that literary pedagogy is enhanced and works in the best interests of students, teachers and society at large?
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Spots of Time


Richard Allen, Emeritus Professor of English (Dean of Arts Faculty 1998-1999, 2000-2007)

The first specialist Literature course, A302 The Nineteenth Century Novel and its Legacy, was half way through its first production when I joined the OU (but not the English Department) in 1973. Before then Literature played just a part in the multi-disciplinary courses that had been produced at levels 1 and 2. Working on a full 60 point canvas was plainly a heady experience and the enthusiasm of the course team was matched by that of the first students. I soon became a part-time tutor for the course and shared that enthusiasm — and the demands of the course. It was wide ranging; Mansfield Park AND Wuthering Heights AND Anna Karenina AND Middlemarch AND Germinal AND Huckleberry Finn to name but some of the texts. It introduced students to literariness but also asked them to read with a sense of literature as involved in the ethical, social, and political. Approaches that were explored in a summer school devoted just to this course. The course ran from 1973 to 1978 — courses were only expected to run for four years then — and then came back by popular demand in 1982 and ran then until 1990.

Later, when I eventually joined the English Department in 1987 (it was the Literature Department then), A319 Literature in the Modern World was part way through its production. The course offered a quite different but equally interesting range of texts as previous courses but marked a major shift in engaging students with the theoretical developments in literary studies of the 1970s and 80s. This latter aspect was not universally popular with students. As course director for a week of the summer school associated with the course, I chaired a feedback session and was getting a good deal of flack from a group of students who seemed to represent the majority. I called on a new person who then said, ‘I just want to say that this course has introduced me to a lot of texts I didn’t know and a lot of new ideas and I’m really glad of that.’ Spontaneous applause showed that she was far from alone and perhaps in a majority. And that’s how it felt as we went on through the years of the course.

And finally, there was A210 Approaching Literature. Literature was in the vanguard of persuading the Faculty to change the policy developed in 1971 which limited specialist subject teaching to level 3. Now we were able to teach Literature in a new way. Positively, in that in such teaching of texts, methods and critical ideas could be spread over two levels (equivalent to two years) — a ladder rather than a single step. Students liked that. This fitted well with a further change that came a few years after, and the Faculty and the University introduced named subject degrees. Again, students liked that. But along with that shift, which brought the OU into the mainstream of UK higher education, came perhaps inevitably a more complex shift — to the world of progression and programmes. Positive again, because it provided in theory a planned rise in difficulty and demand for students; less positive in that it emphasised the frame against the separate elements within — ‘frame’ may here refer to a pedagogical framework or a thematic framework.

Later I learnt more about the system used by most US universities which combine a modular approach with a different kind of frame in which the focus is much less on progression and more on meeting certain conditions linked to skills, but also to coverage, multi-disciplinarity — and the possibility of more intense specialisation. But how could this be relevant given that the ‘international’ OU is firmly linked within UK systems? But how did the original OU academics think outside the box in the 1970s?

Maybe these ‘spots of time’ can — as Wordsworth says — provide ‘a renovating virtue’?

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Expressive writing workshops in Iraq

Dealing with the past, imagining the future

The effects of war stretch far beyond the battlefield. Many women who have suffered sexual violence in Iraq now find that the process of seeking justice through the legal system inflicts new trauma on them as they are forced to relive their experiences. But new research by Dr. Siobhan Campbell, Dept. of English and Creative Writing, The Open University, and Dr. Meg Jensen of Kingston University London, shows that the use of expressive writing techniques may work to enhance resilience, enable victims to seek justice, and even contribute to social integration.

Expressive life writing is a humanities-based intervention often employed in post-conflict situations, or during periods of cultural reconstruction. Using exercises and prompts adapted by Campbell for the ‘safe place’ created by a workshop, expressive writing can elicit stories in ways that one-to-one interviewing based on current protocols cannot. Campbell’s previous research in non-conflict settings and with combat veterans has demonstrated that the process of writing down reflections and working with the imagination to narrate what is previously unsaid helps survivors ‘detach’ from negative experiences by turning them into shareable stories, thus increasing their sense of well-being and of agency.

How the Expressive Life Writing Project works

Expressive Life Writing puts the creative writing tenet ‘learning by doing’ at its core. It values what can be observed occurring as part of the context of convening, encouraging and recording the writing and the founders believe that the story surrounding the emergent writing should also be told as part of its dissemination.

In 2016-17 we collaborated with INMAA for development, a NGO working to foster human rights and provide legal aid. The aim was to offer expressive writing and telling opportunities to women victims of violence and trauma in Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq.  The project also used iterative practice to work with stakeholders on the ground in order to look at current guidelines on the documentation and investigation of rights violations and suggest adaptations to existing protocols for the interviewing process. We developed this work with the support of Beyond Borders Scotland, a not-for-profit organisation facilitating international cultural exchange, and the research was funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Human Rights fund.

INMAA employ a team of Mobile Human Rights Defenders to document instances of sexual violence in conflict. However, it had come to their notice that as not all cases can be brought the juridical route, there was an opportunity to use the site of interview to begin to elicit and value the stories of individuals in ways which might support them in other ways.

Asmaa Al Ameen (INMAA), Meg Jensen (KUL) and Siobhan Campbell, The Open University

In collaboration with the General Director of INMAA, Asmaa Al Ameen, we developed writing and ‘telling’ (where writing was not useful) exercises in a three-unit model that could be employed at the point of INMAA’s initial interview with prospective clients but that had an implicit follow-up built in, thus making it more likely that the clients would return. We provided training to the social workers in the uses and implications of the workshop exercises, practicing these with them as part of the training. The emphasis was on exercises which allowed for recounting of experience but also for ‘imagining the future self’ as part of the set of tools for enabling the witness/survivor to produce and integrate their whole life story in ways that develop a sense of ownership and agency.

A handbook produced in both English and Arabic, was used by the mobile human rights team.  It contains original Expressive Life Writing exercises and storytelling prompts developed by Siobhan, and is accompanied by guidelines to enable the efficacy of the workshops to be tracked.

Asmaa Al Ameen writes in the project report:

The work by Beyond Borders contract teams from The Open University and Kingston University on the Expressive Writing project has gone well beyond expectations in the depth and comprehensive material they have produced. This in turn enabled the INMAA team to reflect on and improve their working practices especially with respect to the interface with victims/clients. The training you have provided to our team of human rights lawyers and social workers has changed the way we work with victims and allowed us to allow these victims to tell their stories.

INMAA outreach, Kirkuk
What next? Impact for the future

As we gather quantitative and qualitative forms of feedback, Campbell and Jensen will further develop the virtual learning environment toolkit of research-based and practicable teaching materials for effective, creative life narrative workshops in post-conflict contexts.

Identifiable outcomes of this work include:

>> Relationship Building – allowing for adaptive change in contested situations
>> Capacity Building – both among activists and those they serve
>> Learning to Learn – a distinctive ability to self-reflect on practice is engendered
>> Creative Expression and personal sharing – individual experience is valued over process

Already, this work has resulted (January 2018) in the development of a UNDP SIRI (Support for Integrated Reconciliation) project in Iraq where Campbell and Jensen are providing bespoke training in expressive writing techniques and workshop convening to UNDP reps, supplying PowerPoints and handbooks in Arabic for use on the ground.

For post-ISIL Iraq, as outlined by UNDP to Siobhan and Meg, the top priorities are ensuring stability and a return to peaceful coexistence, with a view ultimately towards implementing transitional justice, de-radicalization and institutional reform.

The value placed on individual experience and the possible functional value of expressing and recording that experience in a supportive and coherent space is what training in Expressive Life Writing techniques can help achieve. It can provide a sense of coherence and unity of purpose within the groups that undertake the exercises, discussions and the group workshop work.

With expressive telling and writing, vital goals such as social integration and de-radicalization are supported, since this expressive work values not only the expression of one’s own personal experiences, but the skill of intentionally listening to the experiences of others. In conflict and post-conflict contexts in particular, Expressive Life Writing can provide a powerful counterpoint to pre-existing social and political divisions and mistrust as evidenced by the research of Campbell and Jensen and our projects in Iraq.

For more information contact Siobhan Campbell on

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