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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