How Can We Hack English Literary Studies?


Towards an Education by Stealth

At thirty-two years of age, I’m relatively young to be a teacher of teachers, and I know I strike some of my senior colleagues as a little too green behind the ears to give serious advice on how teach literature effectively. In an important sense, though, I’m a young educator who often feels like a cantankerous octogenarian when it comes to discussing the problems faced by students of literature today. The foremost problem, as I see it, is simply that most of today’s students of literature just don’t read enough outside of the classroom — if, indeed, they read outside of the classroom at all.

That’s an old complaint, of course, but it’s also a vital one, particularly because this problem has dire knock-on effects for students who believe themselves able to study literature at an advanced level: an AP class in the United States, an AS or A2 Sixth Form class in the United Kingdom, or an undergraduate class at college or university. Students in these classes are assessed on much more than their ability to conduct a close reading of a work of literature, hunting for figurative devices in the language and identifying idiosyncrasies of expression. They are also assessed on their ability to take a work of literature and contextualise it both historically and aesthetically, and then to write about it in a way that is fluid and logically sound and stylised with a bit of flair. As readers, then, they must possess sufficient background knowledge of the field and of various literary movements throughout history, and as writers they must have been exposed to an array of voices broad enough to empower them to discover their own. Whatever their merits as close readers, it is essential for them to read widely outside of the classroom in order to familiarise themselves with as expansive and diverse a body of literature as they can possibly muster up.

And yet, far too frequently, these sorts of students don’t read much at all.

Unfortunately, this complaint usually draws defeatist responses from English teachers of all stripes. Many simply settle for Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit: thus has it ever been, and thus shall it ever be, so what’s the point in resisting it? Others who would very much like to make an effort to resist it tend to throw up their hands in despair in the face of pervasive technology, noticing their students immersed in smartphone screens rather than books and believing there’s no way to salvage a student’s interest in literature from the ceaseless flood of snapchats and status updates and trivial tweets.

I wonder, though, if it’s not possible for educators to hack the status quo as students today experience it and broaden their literary horizons without making them conscious of it. By “hacking,” I mean identifying those spaces of day-to-day life in which students engage in habitual behaviours that are not academically oriented, and hijacking and infiltrating those spaces in a way that engages students in intellectual activities by stealth.

I don’t have a fully fleshed-out system of thought, but I do have a few ideas about how to get today’s students interested in literature and a few techniques for getting them engaged in literary study outside of the classroom. They’re all based on recent research into best practices and they’re all things that I have personally implemented with a lot of success in my classes — although, crucially, not always in my classroom. Blending together intellectual modelling and peer mentoring with some simple flipped classroom principles and an embrace of technology, I hope you find them useful as I share them here in the weeks ahead.