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Bigger and Bigger Questions: The BIG Questions of Literary Studies

I’ve been very fortunate this term to run an optional and additional enrichment course based around Bob Eaglestone’s excellent Doing English.

The aim of this short course has been to expose Y10 students to some of the most interesting debates within literary studies that they otherwise wouldn’t really encounter until A Level or perhaps even beyond. This has included, for example, sessions exploring:

1) What is literature?
2) Where does English as a discipline come from?
3) What is an author?
4) What is the canon?
5) Why do we read so much Shakespeare?

However, in our final session I wanted to go really big and I also decided to put myself in the spotlight. Here’s what I did.

The Lesson Before

At the end of our penultimate lesson, I explained that the next and final lesson would be a little different, but hopefully really fun. It would involve us thinking about and discussing some of the biggest questions we could ask within the discipline of English.

First, I handed out a sheet with the below 20 questions:

1) What is literature?
2) What is the difference between literary and non-literary language?
3) Why are some books read and studied but others are not?
4) What is the canon and why is it problematic?
5) Why do we read so much Shakespeare?
6) Is an author’s life important when reading and studying literature?
7) How do you decide if literature is valuable?
8) What is the difference between studying English and studying History?
9) Do you think ideas are less valuable if they are not original?
10) What is the difference between poetry, a novel and a play?
11) How is poetry linked to music and other arts?
12) Is there any text you have taught that you don’t think should be taught?
13) Can you have a single authorial voice in a play?
14) What is the difference between good and poor quality literature?
15) How would you justify studying English to an Engineering student?
16) Is a translation of a text a different text?
17) Is there such a thing as ‘women’s writing’
18) Does literature have to have a meaning or a message to be literature?
19) A critic said that poetry is ‘violence wrought upon language’. What did he mean by this and is it true?
20) Should a book ever be banned?

I then explained that what I wanted them to do was to go away and pick 2 or 3 of the most interesting questions, and really think about how they might respond to it using all the knowledge they had gained within the course.

They would then come to the next lesson with these selected questions and thoughts prepared and put me on the spot by taking it in turns to ask me the questions. They would also have the option of inventing their own literary-based question.

Whilst I of course created these 20 questions, I wouldn’t know which they would select and so there would be a very real element of being put on the spot and needing to respond spontaneously. And of course, as I explained, these are really complex and tough questions.

However, I did also warn them that once I had offered my answer it may well become a longer conversation, going back and forth and bringing other members of the class in. As such, they would need to have thought about it themselves.

And away they went.

The Lesson

With a certain trepidation, and with a week for my students to plan my intellectual demise, the day of the lesson had arrived! I started by reinforcing that these questions are some of the biggest we could ask within literary studies, often not encountered until A Level or perhaps beyond. I also reminded them that whatever answer I might give would just be one answer and these are not the kinds of questions that have a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response. I also encouraged them to offer their view, challenge mine, and debate with each other. And with that we made a start…

The first question was ‘Is there any text you have taught that you think you shouldn’t have taught?’ Interesting! I thought about this for a few moments and then responded with ‘no’, but suggested what is especially fascinating is the underpinning debate surrounding the canon (a concept we encountered earlier in the course). I suggested that part of the conversation, here, is about who has the authority and power to decide what ought to be taught and how certain texts come to gain prominence above others. We had only the previous week discussed why we seem to teach Shakespeare so much. I also raised the point that what would I, or a student, do if there was, say, a text taught at GCSE that for whatever reason we felt shouldn’t be taught. What recourse would we have to challenge such a decision? The point, I suggested, was that canon construction operates in such a way that institutions of power do make such choices.

This then continued into a fascinating debate, bringing back some of the issues around canon construction we had discussed a few weeks ago, including one student citing Toni Morrison’s view that ‘canon building is Empire building’.

The lesson then continued in much the same way: students asking me tough, complex questions, me offering an answers, and then all of us discussing and sharing views.

Next up was ‘should a book ever be banned’ (who gets to decide and why were they imbued with such authority?), then does literature always have to have a meaning or message? We then talked about the difference between literary and non-literary language, bringing us back to a conversation in our first lesson about defamiliarisation and the Russian Formalists. This also allowed us to re-engage with the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who famously transcribed word for word a series of traffic reports. At what point, if ever, does this become ‘literary language’?

We then moved on to discuss the difference between ‘good’ and ‘poor’ quality literature and whether or not a text can be valuable if it’s not original (I drew the distinction here between ‘original’ and ‘inventive’, arguing that literature doesn’t need to be original, but probably does need to be inventive). We finally ended with the question of whether a translated text is a new text, with me offering the perfectly placed example of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

At every point, I felt genuinely intellectually stretched and we had some fascinating conversations as well as, at various points, students challenging me, each other, and expressing their own views. It was truly a joy to see a group of Y10s talking about, with authenticity and precision, canon construction, avant-grade American poetics, the defining attributes of literature, and the problems inherent within any syllabus.

Final Thoughts

We talk a lot about ‘fun’ and what this means and how it ought to emanate from the subject and not be external to it. We talk a lot about teaching to the top and having the highest expectations of our students. We talk a lot about hinterland and signposting those aspects of our disciplines that may not come within the boundary of the syllabus but is still crucial. In each case, I could not have asked for a more fitting end to this course.


One thought on “Bigger and Bigger Questions: The BIG Questions of Literary Studies

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  1. This is fascinating. I work in an all boys, predominatly muuslim school and we struggle with getting our students to see the point of English (especially literature) and have considered looking at and discussing the cannon with them.


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