Ten years of the English Subject Centre
The English Subject Centre is ten years old this year! We marked the anniversary with a small celebration at King's College London on the 17th September and have published an anniversary issue of WordPlay magazine. We also asked academics we've come to know over the years to to reflect on what the Subject Centre means to them. The resulting narratives (click on a face in the graphic below) capture some of the interactions and successes of the last decade. You can also read some of the achievements from across the network of Subject Centres in 'Success Stories from the HEA Subject Centres: Evidence of Impact' .
Great Expectations: Workshops for postgraduate teachers
Starting in 2008, the English Subject Centre has run several workshops geared to the needs of postgraduates who are new to teaching. Attended by over 80 postgraduates, the workshops concentrate on seminar teaching and assessment. One participant said ‘tips about how to approach and structure seminars made the prospect of teaching less daunting.’
The English Subject Centre Website
For many, the English Subject Centre is its website. It is accessed about 3,500 times per week. The Subject Centre website is a ‘shop window’ for what it does, ‘the shelves’ for delivering its resources and information, a ‘café’ where our community can talk to us and to each other and a ‘delivery bay’ for handling event administration. Recent innovations such as students blogs and T3 teaching tips evidence the growing diversity of content on the website.
Lesley Coote - University of Hull
Back at the beginning (which seems a very long time ago), I remember that there was what appeared to be a very good idea. And, like many good ideas – of which there were many in the HE sector at that time – I also harboured a deal of scepticism about whether it would take off, or become something less than what it was intended to be.
My own personal ‘interest’ was the use of new technology and media in enhancing the experiences of students and tutors, so it was great to be invited to take part in events on precisely that. At the first of Michael Hanrahan’s C and IT (Computer and Internet Technology) Roadshows I met a small group of other practitioners (most of whom are still, like myself, involved with the Centre) with similar interests and a wide variety of experiences. The development of this area of the Centre’s work owed a great deal to the enthusiasm of Michael, and of Brett Lucas, Michael’s co-organiser of C and IT events.
I was wrong to be sceptical; the idea – of invigorating, inspiring, connecting and supporting practitioners in English Studies – is still, amazingly and invaluably, going strong. Over the years, Centre has expanded not to exclude, but to embrace, new developments within and without the subject, such as the recent expansion of Creative Writing, the development of new, creative methodologies and the media ‘revolution’. The Centre’s inestimable value is that it retains its original ideals whilst generating new ones, and bringing together practitioners in as many aspects of the subject as possible, rather than becoming exclusive or protectionist. The new interdisciplinary initiatives inherent in the Humbox project are great…more dynamic possibilities, yet still grounded in the quality and integrity of English Studies.
The ESC is still a unique institution, serving a living community. What a great idea it was, how much more it has become, and how great is its potential for the future…long live the ESC!
Wordplay - The English Subject Centre Magazine
The English Subject Centre’s magazine WordPlay (previously entitled The English Subject Centre Newsletter) is published twice a year and contains a mixture of feature-length articles, news items and activity reports. Over 3,000 copies are distributed free of charge to academics in our subject areas. WordPlay has the highest production standards and has a created a well-respected publication space that didn’t previously exist to discuss pedagogy and policy in HE English studies.
Robert Sheppard - University of East Anglia
I obtained funding from the subject centre in 2003 to investigate what I called 'supplementary discourses' in creative writing teaching, and I am eternally grateful for that. What I meant by that deliberately cumbersome term (which I could not imagine being adopted as a term by teachers and so was useful as a meta-descriptor) was all the non-creative writing writing we ask students to do, by way of reflection and response to other writings. I was surprised to find that many centres had well-advanced modes of reflection (and some of them approximated my own preference for poetics as a speculative, writerly discourse, but that didn't seem the point). I attempted to summarise these and to suggest some ways forward. Some of this work fed into the benchmarks for creative writing put together by the NAWE committee recently and it consolidated my sense of creative writing as an autonomous subject with teaching and research methodologies of its own. I hope others found it useful, and I think there may still be life left in its findings, conclusions and recommendations.
Teaching the New English
Teaching the New English is a series of books about teaching English in HE conceived by the English Subject Centre in 2002. Published by Palgrave Macmillan with the English Subject Centre as series editor, the series now amounts to nine volumes (with more in the pipeline) and over 3000 copies have been sold around the world. The three latest volumes to be published are ‘Teaching Nineteenth Century Fiction’ ‘Teaching Modernist Poetry’ and ‘Teaching Romanticism’. The series if the first and only one of its kind in the UK and has created a space for pedagogical publication that did not exist previously. Elaine Showalter, Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University has said, “Imaginatively conceived and professionally edited, the series will be required reading for instructors in English studies worldwide.”
Arran Stibbe - University of Gloucestershire
Over the last five years I have been involved with the English Subject Centre in a variety of ways – I have written up my teaching practice in case studies published in the Centre website, written a feature article on Education for Sustainability for the newsletter, and was lucky that a member of the Centre staff came to facilitate an away day for our course team. My involvement with the Subject Centre has been extremely helpful in giving an extra sense of legitimacy to my teaching innovation. In a sector that can be quite rigid in reproducing disciplinary identities and quite intolerant of those who question whether those identities are appropriate in the changing conditions of the world this has helped me gain acceptance for new ways of doing things. There is always the question of whether institutions like the Higher Education Academy exist to mould the academy to the badly thought-out whims of the government, and this is a danger I recognise. My experience, however, has been that there are enough layers of academics between the government and actual lecturers on the ground to minimise this danger, and the Subject Centre has acted as a catalyst for reflection on practice, evaluation of teaching methods and carefully thought out innovation that responds to real needs. The English Subject Centre, and the Academy's Education for Sustainability Project which I have also worked closely with, have helped me change my professional identity. I have moved from being a researcher who occasionally disseminates research findings to students, to a reflective educator where my research and educational practice are integrated. I now approach the deep question of what my role as an educator is under the conditions of the 21st century with as much rigour as I approach the research questions in my specialist area.
Curriculum and Teaching Surveys
The English Subject Centre has conducted two major survey of the English curriculum and teaching in UK HE, the first in 2002 and the second, in response to demand from the subject community, in 2009. These surveys have generated previously unavailable data on what is taught and how, data which has informed decision making in departments and input to policy consultations at a number of levels. It has also been possible to track changes in the discipline across the seven years between the surveys.
Why Study English?
‘Why Study English?’ started in 2003 as a leaflet distributed to all secondary schools in the UK outlining the benefits of studying English at HE level. It was followed in 2007 by a website of the same name which helps young people and their parents make informed choices, and addresses some of the concerns they may have about studying a non-vocational subject. The website receives about 400 hits per week at peak times.
Jan Jedrzejewski - University of Ulster
Remember the Subject Review? Back in 2001, with the RAE just out of the way, it was perhaps the hottest topic of discussion in university common rooms the length and breadth of the UK. Feared and loathed in equal measure, the prospect of having the teaching in the department scrutinised in minute detail by a team of QAA inspectors filled those of us who were designated to prepare our subject teams for that particular exercise with a genuine sense of anxiety. All in all, the Subject Review caused many of us sleepless nights, not least because English departments, with all the diversity of the teaching we offered and with the discipline-specific spirit of critical questioning informing everything we did, not to mention the almost proverbial eccentricity and sheer bloody-mindedness of some of our colleagues, particularly when faced with what they considered to be a bureaucratic encroachment upon their academic freedom, were never going to be easy to bring into line with what the QAA expected.
At this difficult point, enter the Subject Centre: the four Subject Review seminars, three in London and one in Glasgow, were, for many of us, the first taste of what the Centre was to stand for over the years: a place where we could discuss the practicalities of what we did in our day-to-day work, be reassured that we were not the only ones who faced problems, get useful tips from colleagues who may already have found ways of dealing with this or that difficulty or addressing this or that issue. And it is, to this day, this sense of collegiality and sharing that provides the most important feature of what the Centre does: it is a place where you can always drop in, whether to participate in an event or as you visit the website; an academic home from home where you can be sure of meeting like-minded people who can help you deal with whatever aspect of your pedagogic practice you are trying to do something about, whether you want to update the range of electronic resources you recommend to your students, or get tips about devising a format of assessment for that rather unusually structured module you are planning to introduce, or find an external examiner for that new course you have just developed. The Subject Centre is therefore, above all, a community - it is there for us, but it could not exist without us, and we need to ensure it remains with us, for another 10 years and beyond. Ad multos annos!
Chris Ringrose - Northampton University
What the Subject Centre means to me: (a) two fine Directors over the past decade (Philip Martin and Ben Knights) possessed of energy, integrity and ideas; (b) a great team, always quick to respond to queries; and (c) a fund of ideas for developing English and Creative Writing. Personally, two things stand out. The Centre’s E-Learning Advocate Project was based on the premise that the way to develop technology-enhanced learning was to recruit small teams of lecturer- enthusiasts, get them together with Brett Lucas to share ideas and techniques and learn some new ones, and then have them encourage others in their home institutions. It has had lasting influence at those universities, and more generally through Rosie Miles’s entertaining and informative Blog on the Centre website, and the recent Good Practice Guide to Online Discussion. The Renewals International Conference at Royal Holloway in July 2007 was another highlight, full of inspiring ideas, and with a memorable plenary talk from Richard E. Miller. In fact, thinking over ten years of the English Subject Centre sent me back to its website. Each year it is hard to see what one might squeeze in there that has not already been covered in some way—but it keeps generating new angles. One can discover in T3 new ways of approaching texts one is teaching, or read one of the excellent good practice guides, from Part Time Teaching to Work Related Learning. You can also order Why Study English? , an unassuming little pamphlet that ‘flies off the shelves’ at university Open Days, or something from the scholarly and up-to-date book series (‘Teaching the Gothic . . . Teaching Children’s Fiction etc.). But for me the Centre is more than a bank of professional materials; through its meetings, one-day events and project teams it has helped me to meet up with English lecturers from all over the UK, and share ideas about learning and teaching that don’t often find a space in standard academic conferences.
As well as organising workshops on pedagogical themes (assessment, e-learning) and more broadly based conferences, the English Subject Centre specialises in workshops where academics come together to discuss teaching particular aspects of the curriculum. Examples include: Teaching Victorian Fiction, Teaching Romanticism and Shakespeare across Ages and Stages. These events enable lecturers to engage with teaching and network with colleagues in their areas of special interest. In some cases books in our Teaching the New English series have emerged as a direct result of these events.
Virtual Worlds: educational undertakings in Second Life
The English Subject Centre has supported a number of projects that have explored the teaching potential of Second Life. The Theatron Project reconstructed theatres from different historical periods so that they could be explored and understood by students; staff and students at the University of Hertfordshire created a virtual reality literary magazine and another project is building a three-dimensional virtual model of a printing press of the kind used to print books in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to enable students to be used for teaching purposes.
From 2007 onwards the English Subject Centre has supported a number of e-learning advocates in departments. These are academics who champion e-learning and support colleagues in exploiting its potential. Advocates have formed networks supporting each other, and one in particular now has a ‘roving’ role visiting departments around the UK and blogging about her own e-learning experiences.
Staying the Course: a report on the experiences of disabled students of English and Creative Writing
An example of just one of the reports in our extensive Report Series, Staying the Course, was based on a student survey and includes sections drawing out the implications of the findings for classroom practice. Professor Robert Eaglestone said of it “All the voices in this report, even the most critical, should be heard by us all, because not listening, not being open and sensitive to them, is somehow failing students and what lies at the heart of the subject.”
Gary Snapper - National Association for the Teaching of English
I came to the Subject Centre as an English teacher in a state secondary school researching for a PhD on the teaching of English Literature at A Level and in HE. Through my research, I had become interested in the historic formation of the discipline, and the ways in which school and university English had diverged; I was also interested in finding out how school and university English could learn from each other in the related areas of curriculum and pedagogy. Following the recent institutional history of HE English from the theory wars to CCUE, DUET, and so on, eventually led me to the English Subject Centre, with its determination to focus on theory and practice in the teaching and learning of the subject.
Rather nervous about being a lone representative of school English, I decided to go to what turned out to be a wonderful Subject Centre 'Renewals' conference – a most memorable event. There I met the redoubtable Ben Knights, amongst others, and this began an association with the centre which is still ongoing. A small but important part of the Subject Centre’s remit is a concern with transition from school to university and the fostering of relationships with secondary English, and I have been able to work with Ben and the centre on several occasions over the last few years in this regard. Most notable, perhaps, was our joint involvement in the setting up of the ‘English 14-19 Reform Group’, formed to thrash out some issues to do with the construction of A Level English at the time of the Tomlinson Report into 14-19 Education and the subsequent re-writing of A Level syllabuses.
In treading my somewhat lonely path of promoting greater interaction between university and school English, the English Subject Centre has been invaluable. I have a learnt a great deal from it, and I hope it has learnt something from me! Long may it continue.
Greg Gerrard - Bath Spa University
The English Subject Centre burst into my field of vision when Siobhan Holland attended our departmental board in [2002? Not sure!], firing us all with her terrific enthusiasm. Although I'd long been interested in pedagogical matters, I found generic training days and conferences frustrating, so the idea of learning and teaching events founded in the discipline was - and continues to be - far more attractive. Topical events, the major ESC conferences, the practical hints on the website, WordPlay and the special reports, and the small grant programme all contributed profoundly to my development as a teacher and pedagogical researcher, which was recognised in the award of a National Teaching Fellowship in 2006. Indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that, without the Centre, I would never have thought of pursuing research in ecocritical pedagogy, nor been in a position to apply for the NTF. Promotion to Senior Teaching Fellow in Bath Spa University's Artswork CETL was another direct consequence of my engagement with the Centre's work, giving me four years to experiment with curriculum, interdisciplinarity, employability and assessment. Though the staff at the Centre have changed over the years, the dynamism, creativity and support it has offered has been unwavering, most recently since I've been working on Poetiks, a JISC-funded elearning application to improve the teaching of poetic technique. In the straitened times that lie ahead, I hope the genuine progress that has been made in support of learning and teaching is not discarded. Having benefited from several funding strands, including CETL, NTFS and the work of the Subject Centre, I can say categorically that the last of these has been the most inspiring, the most collegiate and the most directly beneficial - as well as, I suspect, offering the best value for taxpayer's money. Long may it prosper.
Tracey Hill - Bath Spa University
I think I speak for my whole department at Bath Spa when I say that it’s always been very much ‘our’ Subject Centre. All the projects, events and other activities we’ve worked on together over the years have had that essentially collaborative, supportive dimension. What we have always especially appreciated is the responsiveness of the Subject Centre team, and the ways in which we pitch in together as equal partners. There are many examples I could cite; here’s just one…
A passing conversation with Jonathan Gibson from the Subject Centre back in 2004 about the then-new database of early printed books, Early English Books Online (EEBO), prompted us both to decide it was about time for some sector-wide reflection on the impact of such online databases. Given that myself and a colleague, Ian Gadd, were already ‘early adopters’ of EEBO in teaching, we thought it timely to try to host an event to consider how resources like EEBO could transform – and indeed, in some quarters, already were transforming – the teaching of early modern literature. I do remember discussing with Jonathan and Ian the need to make our putative event focus on both teaching and research: it was still early days, and we needed the carrot of research to bring in the stick of teaching, so to speak.
Less than a year later, and after volumes of email, considerable liaison with the Subject Centre, with Proquest (the publisher of EEBO), the JISC, and some extremely helpful colleagues both at our own and at other universities, Ian and I found ourselves launching a two-day event in front of some fifty delegates from across the UK and North America, including academics, librarians, tech-y folk, postgraduate and undergraduate students, and representatives from Proquest and – of course – the Subject Centre. I think I can safely say that ‘(de)materialising the early modern text’, as we called it, was a tremendous success: one delegate commented that it was such a good idea that they were surprised no one had ever done it before.
It seems to me that this event serves an exemplary example of what the Subject Centre can bring about: a lively, enthusiastic, ego-free get-together of people with a shared interest in – well, in sharing, I suppose. Long may it continue.
Mary McNally - University of Derby
I'd like wish the English Subject Centre all the best for the future and thanks for all you've done for me, personally, over the past ten years. I've really appreciated the day-schools you've organized—they've helped immensely in my day-to-day practice. Particularly useful and memorable ones were Teaching Tudor Literature, Teaching Shakespeare, Teaching Renaissance Literature, Computer-Aided Assessment in English, Networking Day for Admissions Tutors and the excellent Renewals Conference in 2007. I also remember Thinking Outside the Box: English Film and New Media at Hull in 2005 where I was able to publically showcase my e-learning module Shakespeare Today. I received lots of useful feedback from Brett Lucas, in particular, and the module has gone from strength to strength ever since! That colloquium helped to sharpen the focus about how I could improve my module by adding specific types of technology-enhanced learning, like wikis and blogs, in order to make the module more interactive. I've always been keen on the way ESC events are informally set up to include everyone and to encourage the sharing of ideas; no-one need ever feel left out. I've liked, too, that if you suggest a topic for an event, it's always acted upon and you feel as if you can be an active part of a widespread, yet committed, teaching network. Here's to the next ten years - you're an invaluable resource!
Matthew Day - Newman College
How do they do it all? Hosting international conferences on pedagogy, supporting projects on e-learning, organising topic-specific conferences, hosting events for Heads of Subject and early-career lecturers, disseminating Teaching Tips from the academy, publishing Good Practice Guides and disseminating pedagogical research through its Teaching the New English volumes are just some of the more formal ways that the Subject Centre advocates and actively promotes excellence in the subject. Yet, useful indicator as it is of the opportunities the Subject Centre provides just listing the events, activities, publications and projects that it actively promotes doesn’t do justice to its vital role in enriching the teaching and learning of English across the academy. That’s because the impact of the Subject Centre transcends the immediate activity, event or publication.
Some examples help to manifest this. The e-advocates scheme brought together academics interested in promoting e-learning within our own institutions. Yet we ended with not only research-led pedagogy within institutions but also across organisations of different ilks as our networks developed and then diversified. The impact of the project went well beyond – and continues to do so - its official ‘completion’. My colleagues who attended the Early Careers Lecturers Conferences speak not only of the value of the event itself but the long-lasting and ongoing relationships they have established with colleagues who are at a similar stage in their career. Other lecturers in our team have returned to the department invigorated and enriched with ideas from attending subject-specific events. They share with other team-members the new examples of good practice they have seen in relation to their own research specialism and their new knowledge and expertise are applied to a much wider spectrum of staff and specialisms than the conference theme ever envisaged.
The diversity of the Subject Centre’s approaches, its carefully targeted and well-organised events, its understanding of the way academics work and are enthused and encouraged have meant that student learning and staff teaching have been enriched in ways that exceed the merely measurable.
Chris Hopkins (Member of the ESC Advisory Board from 2003-8.) - Sheffield Hallam University
On the 1st January 1991 I was appointed to my first full-time lectureship in English, at Sheffield City Polytechnic. By the 3rd of January I was also responsible for a new first-year English module laconically named 'Skills', which, I gathered, arose from a well-intended institutional policy. When I enquired what the content of 'Skills' was, I got the distinct impression that no one was very certain, but that it was intended to ensure students had appropriate 'study skills' for degree-level study and that it should, generally-speaking, cover how to get the most out of lectures, seminars, and note-taking, and how to give presentations, write essays, use the library and do your references. The 'generally' (or 'generically') speaking was part of the problem: it wasn't that easy to sell my new module to either staff or students; the syllabus seemed not to inspire degree-level excitement, and some students claimed (quite reasonably) they already had 'skills' or they wouldn't have got this far in the British education system (and one ex-colleague claimed he'd covered the whole syllabus in the first week's seminar…). And yet in every other possible forum (nation-wide as well as at SCP) both staff and students seemed to think there was some kind of mismatch between what A levels / Access courses gave students and what degrees demanded of them without due warning.
Nineteen years later and I'm still module leader for what is now called 'Introduction to English Studies' at Sheffield Hallam University. I do think it's a much better module than 'Skills' ever was, with an excellent and committed module team, but it still does, indeed, try to help students understand and deal constructively, practically and intellectually with the transition between school / college and degree level learning and simultaneously with the transition between A level / Access English and University English.
One of the things which intervened in the twenty years between the naivety of 'Skills' and the still unfinished project of Introduction to English Studies was the English Subject Centre's establishment in 2000. There must surely have been places to discuss such things in 1991, but on the whole I don't think I knew about them. The English Subject Centre provided me with a forum over the period where I and colleagues could test our conclusions about what and how we should be teaching first-year English students and compare our strategies and problems with other people's in other departments. Thus in the period between 2000 and 2008 in particular, I attended in one capacity or another numerous English Subject Centre Events or related events which fed and informed what was now a minor obsession with teaching first-year English students. I also tried to put some of what I thought we'd learnt since 'Skills' into a text-book designed to support first-year English Students in becoming more sophisticated, informed and independent readers and thinkers (Thinking About Texts - An Introduction to English Studies, Palgrave, 2001, revised edition, 2008).
The English Subject Centre through encouraging speaking and listening at events, and inviting writing for its newsletter or web-site, has helped English academics not only to share and borrow theories and practices on specific English topics such as this one, but also to develop their own partly subject-specific ways of thinking and talking about learning and teaching, discourses which have been used to articulate and reflect on current practices and assumptions and to develop better, or try alternative, practices (as well as to resist or refine overly-generic institutional expectations).
Barbara Bleiman - English and Media Centre
The English and Media Centre, a subject centre, CPD provider and publisher for English in the secondary sector, has had a long and fruitful relationship with ESC. We have seen ourselves as, if not a sister-organisation, then a much loved cousin, sharing many similar issues and concerns across the two sectors. We have very much appreciated the willingness of ESC to exchange knowledge on areas of common interest, such as secondary/tertiary transfer, developing understanding across sectors and sharing ideas about pedagogy. The relationship has been genuinely symbiotic. We have been asked to write for ESC , such as the report we wrote on A Level English in 2006 and our contributions to the Seminar pages of the ESC website. We have spoken at ESC organised events such as the QMC Poetry day in March 2010 and the day organised for Admissions Tutors at Birkbeck in 2009. At other times, Ben Knights and Jonathan Gibson have generously contributed their expertise through discussion, or in working groups like the informal cross-phase 'English Reform Group' that met at the English and Media Centre from 2003 to 2004 and of which Ben was an active member. We are in regular email contact about one thing or another, from names of someone worth approaching to speak at a conference or write an article, through to advice about what's happening on a particular issue of joint concern.
We are delighted to have established a such a fruitful and supportive connection with ESC, in a world where cross-sector relationships can be difficult to maintain and build on. We wish ESC all our congratulations for the excellent work it is doing and hope that it will continue to thrive.