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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1 Response to Direct and Mediated Contact in Literary Pedagogy

  1. Sara de Jong says:

    This post reminds me of similar interesting reflections in archive studies on the relation between technologies and knowledge production/transmission. In the 2004 article ‘Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines’, Marlene Manoff refers to Derrida’s work on archives – in particular Derrida’s claim that Freud’s psychoanalysis would have developed differently if the media of communication he and his contemporaries would have had access to would, for instance, have included telephones and computers – to underline that “The methods for transmitting information shape the nature of the knowledge that can be produced.” (2004: 12). If technologies of archivization frame the ways we relate to and within the world, technologies of pedagogy are also framing the ways students and teachers relate to the teaching material and the worlds it reflect.

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