The Centre is aware that its activities to date have inclined - though not exclusively or heavily - towards the literature-based model of English. In order to redress this balance, in late October it organised a discussion group whose remit was to disclose the priorities and concerns of those teaching language under the broad heading of 'English' - both inside and outside of English departments, some of which are dominated by Literature teaching. It aimed, by the end of the day, to come up with a list of firm suggestions for future events which the Subject Centre will take forward through its own programme, and through supporting and combining with the programmes of existing organisations and networks.
What follows is a summary report of the meeting.
The meeting began with introductions and a broad discussion of the context of Language. The main points were:
- It is evident that for most, but not all, people who teach Language, there is a 'glass wall' between their area and colleagues teaching Literature. In some places this is more emphatic, and in others less so. Even where numbers appear to be equally divided, Literature tends to assume a dominant position in such Departments, thus making the position of Language (in such matters as policy, resource, strategy) that of the lesser partner. In Language and Literature degrees, Literature occupies the larger proportion of the syllabus.
- In some cases (e.g. Lancaster, Edinburgh) the areas are completely separate, and here students of Language are not following a Literature programme unless they are joint honours students.
- It was generally felt that the dominant factor in many institutions in the relationship between language and literature was territory rather than educational good practice.
- Some institutional contexts were more flexible, accommodating and creative however, and there are therefore examples of literature and language colleagues working alongside each other without difficulty, in combined or separate awards. Such contexts may have been well-served by an established tradition of pedagogical innovation and interdisciplinarity.
- There is some evidence emerging of an increased demand for Language, and new degree programmes in English Language are coming through. There is also evidence of increased take-up of the 'Literature and Language' route in the new A/S-A2 structure which will, in turn, increase demand for English Language at degree level.
- Some colleagues occupy the position of being lone English Language people in an otherwise exclusive literary context. There is clearly a need to develop and facilitate networks for such colleagues.
- It was generally felt that there were strong links between language and literature however, and many colleagues felt that language study offered a structured academic approach to literature that fostered student learning. Stylistics was felt to be the most common and substantial bridge between the areas.
- It was pointed out that new Language and Literature degrees are appearing in a College context: two examples being at Blackburn College and at Blackpool College. These are not franchised courses but free-standing directly funded programmes.
English Language work has an established provenance as an area of pedagogical innovation. The view was expressed that this was a result of the area having had to work hard to attract and retain students, and in addition, that interactive teaching techniques were also of prime importance in Language study. In some institutions peer observation across the literature/language divide had proved mutually beneficial.
Students of English Language do not always come with a Language qualification, and it was stressed that the intakes have extremely variable levels of expertise. Foundation programmes necessarily cater for this variation, and tend to assume a near zero knowledge base without patronising the students or devaluing their prior experience. Indeed the strength and quality of some A level courses was emphasised. Other student issues were as follows:
- It is sometimes difficult to persuade students of the importance of the meta-language and the technical vocabulary. Successful techniques included 'drip-feeding' and high levels of structure in which this is given primacy. The students' tendency to gravitate towards the discursive level was found to be a general condition figuring large in pedagogical strategies.
- The potentially strong links between close reading and stylistic analysis was emphasised. Stylistic analysis might be recognised as a logical conclusion to 'Practical Criticism', and it was also noted that there were potentially strong triangular relations between these two areas and the teaching of creative writing.
- Curriculum design was now a key issue, as the student intake changes, and as English Departments respond to the needs of students coming through the 'Language and Literature' route.
- While some colleagues felt that Language study offered a vital underpinning to Literary work, it was also felt that there was good reason to draw short of an insistence that this was so. It was generally agreed however, that all English students should have the opportunity of doing Language work, and that first year modules in Language were the only real means of ensuring informed choice.
- Those students who came to Language work with A level qualifications in Language had the benefit of open-mindedness in the main.
There are opportunities for developing Language work across disciplinary divides, although in some cases these are limited. In some institutions for example, it is difficult to work with Media - unless Media Studies is incorporated within English. However, instances were cited of Language work in Management programmes, and there were further examples of vocational and business areas requesting Language expertise.
Of all the current available networks, it was thought that the English Language Forum would be the most representative and appropriate body for the Subject Centre to work with. Rather than the Centre setting up yet another network, it should therefore seek ways of supporting the ELF within the Centre's broad brief of teaching and learning.
The following topics/themes/subjects were considered to be likely areas for the development of events, materials and discussion:
- International context of Language study
- Joint events with the Subject Centre for Language, Linguistics and Area Studies
- IT and the study of English Language
- Teaching styles, techniques and pedagogies
- Curriculum design
- The improvement of students' capacity to accomplish close reading
- Contemporary Poetry: Language and Literature (a possibility here of parallel events in the different areas)
- Language and Independent Study
It would be useful to work with the ELF to locate colleagues working on their own as Language specialists in Literature departments in order to provide a broad base of support.
In all these matters, it was emphasised that the study of English Language was never a single unitary discipline or set of practices, and that it might be equally useful to think of the differences in this area. These, in turn, could yield particularly interesting exchanges on pedagogies and techniques.
Newsletter Issue 3 - January 2002
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