Diversifying a core skills module (English Literature)

Dr Nicola Abram, Literature and Languages
n.l.abram@reading.ac.uk
Year of activity: 2015-6

Overview

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This entry describes the diversification of a core Part One English Literature module, Research & Criticism (EN1RC). As a result of the changes outlined here, every graduate of English Literature at the University of Reading will have encountered Anglophone texts from across the world, and considered critical issues around ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Objectives

  • To construct a diverse curriculum that is representative of a wide range of identities and experiences.
  • To expose students to the rich variety of global literatures in English.
  • To promote critical thinking about processes of canon formation.

Context

Over 200 students enter English Literature programmes at the University of Reading each year, from a range of educational backgrounds. To ensure they all have the key skills and theoretical understanding needed to succeed throughout their degrees, we run a compulsory module in the first year called ‘Research & Criticism’. I was tasked with convening this module from 2014/15.

The module’s priorities of delivering skills training and theoretical literacy – rather than focussing on a particular period, author, or literary genre – produce the freedom to draw on diverse texts. I recognised in this an opportunity to redress the Eurocentrist and white supremacist organisation of the established literary canon.

This reform was timely: a student-led campaign called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ began at UCL in November 2014 and spread across various higher education institutions, questioning the narrow and exclusionary nature of a range of degree programmes. At a subject-specific level, the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement was revised to describe the duty attendant on literary studies to represent the subject’s diversity: “The geographical, historical and social varieties of written and spoken English, and the range of world literatures written in or translated into English, enrich the subject and its study”.

Implementation

The first step was to consider the existing course content and assess it for diversity and inclusivity. I found it useful to ask the question: ‘What kind of student does this module imagine?’. Alternatively, you might look at how many of the works cited are authored by women or non-white people, or published in the Global South. In the sciences and social sciences, you might consider how far your case studies prioritise Eurocentric concerns or population samples – and whether this is intellectually necessary. If not, from where else could you source your material?

My own research in postcolonial and feminist literature meant I was familiar with a pool of texts that could be drawn on. The final reading list included texts that engage with black British, African American, Indo-Canadian, Nigerian, and Palestinian contexts, as well as those raising issues of imperialism, heteronormativity, and gender performativity. Other academics searching for equivalent materials could consult relevant subject associations for colleagues’ suggestions (such as the Postcolonial Studies Association, Feminist and Women’s Studies Association, etc.).

I chose to limit the set texts to short stories and critical essays, continuing the model I inherited with the module. I felt a series of manageable readings would promote students’ sustained engagement, given that the content was likely to be unfamiliar to many of them. I would encourage others to think similarly about the context in which students will encounter this material, and plan accordingly.

I drafted a proposed reading list and lecture schedule, which was circulated to colleagues in the Department of English Literature. The communications that followed helped to refine the plans, producing a module that would be appropriate for new entrants – who are facing significant personal and educational transitions – as well as sufficiently challenging.

At the end of the first year that the module ran, a meeting with the teaching team helped to further polish its content and organisation.

Impact

Students’ feedback has affirmed that: “The content of this course made me raise questions about the way I read and how I understand a text”, “Everything I thought I knew was challenged by what was talked about”, and “Although at times it made your head hurt, once you got around the idea it linked brilliantly to everything else and made you question everything else you ever read”.

Colleagues have commented that students’ sophistication has demonstrably improved in other modules, as they apply the skills of critical thinking learned in ‘Research & Criticism’ to enrich coursework that does not explicitly require – but nonetheless benefits from – such theoretical scaffolding.

It has been an unexpected pleasure to signpost forward from this module to options available later in the degree, and to potential dissertation topics. This will be formalised with the development of Pathways on the English Literature degree programmes. A Pathway consists of linked modules on a particular topic, such as Creative Writing; participating students receive acknowledgement of this specialism on their degree transcript. There are several junctures at which students can opt in: they may enrol from the beginning as a Pathway student, or join at the end of Part One or Part Two, which allows for those who come to consciousness of a topic later or feel able to commit to it only after some initial study.

Reflections

The revisions to the module successfully reflected a wide range of identities and experiences, and exposed students to the rich variety of global literatures in English. It is vital that this material sits at the core of the degree programme, to ensure that all students are exposed to it and to avoid the subject being devalued as peripheral or ‘minor’. However, the effort to integrate and embed this material into the curriculum may unwittingly render its differences invisible, and reduce its oppositional potency. For this reason the module works especially well as the foundation for a Pathway; later in the degree, in more specialist modules, more time can be given to establishing the relevant contexts necessary for mature interpretation.

Perhaps most successfully met was the aim to promote critical thinking about what literatures are valued, and why. By centring non-canonical writers, this module actively encourages norm-critical thinking. It foregrounds the importance of questioning the canon rather than simply adding to or updating it.

Follow up

The module continues to run as part of our compulsory offering for new entrants to English Literature programmes. It has been presented as a model of good practice at RUSU’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic conference (1 June 2015) and at a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Showcase on ‘Diversifying the Curriculum’ (18 January 2016).

To flag up how students might continue their learning on ‘Research & Criticism’ into future optional modules, we have since designed posters which formally indicate connections: ‘Critical Issues’, and ‘Writing, Gender & Identity’ in Part Two, and ‘Class Matters’ and ‘Psychoanalysis and Text’ at Part Three. These posters are displayed to prospective students at Open Days, and within the Department throughout the year.

Links

Universities Scotland Race Equality Toolkit:
http://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/raceequalitytoolkit/

‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, UCL, November 2014:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dscx4h2l-Pk

‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, LSE, February 2015 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGbxLPbetvo

This entry was posted in Diversity & Inclusion, Research Informed Teaching, School of Literature and Languages, Teaching Approaches and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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