Developing Subject Knowledge in English Literature

After seeing a couple of threads on Twitter over the last week about the difficulties of developing subject knowledge, I wanted to jot down some of the sources and resources I use to develop my own subject knowledge in English Literature.

A couple of caveats first though:

1. This will necessarily be a very subjective list. I’m sure there are many, many other resources English teachers could and do look to, but I wanted only to use those things I’ve personally engaged with in detail and know to be of great benefit. Please don’t think I intend this to be an exhaustive list!
2. When I refer to subject knowledge in this context, I specifically mean disciplinary knowledge specific to the domain of English Literature and not, as interesting and valuable as it is, pedagogic knowledge about how to teach English.
3. As this list relates to subject specific knowledge and not pedagogic knowledge, there’s not really any reason the vast majority of it couldn’t be shared and used with students as a form of academic enrichment. In fact, some of it is designed with students in mind anyway. But then, aren’t we all still students in a certain turn of mind!
4. Following the above, one thread in particular that I saw seemed to suggest subject knowledge was a finite entity and that once a certain level was reached (say degree level) there was nothing further that needed to happen. This, of course, isn’t true. We’re all learning all of the time. And this is a wonderful thing. We should all be very proud to model for our students the great benefits of a life filled with learning and books and knowledge. Dull indeed would be the day we could say our subject knowledge was done.

With that in mind, on with the list…!


This is such a superb resource and possibly the one I get most use and benefit from on a week by week basis. There are so many courses to choose from covering a vast range of texts and literary topics, the below offering a small snapshot:

I tend to use these with my classes, but I also watch them all the time purely for my own enjoyment and subject development. When doing this, I make notes using the Cornell style and try to return to these notes in the future to revisit the material covered by the course, as below from a course I recently did on In Cold Blood:

I also really like that the courses tend to be relatively short and the episodes in the region of 10 to 20 minutes, making it a lot easier to fit alongside other commitments.

MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses)

Similar in nature to Massolit, but, broadly speaking, probably more detailed and often pitched academically at a slightly higher level, MOOCs are short online courses that you enrol onto and complete in a designated window of time. They typically require a certain number of hours commitment per week and last anywhere between 4 to 10 weeks. They tend to be comprised of materials to read, podcasts to listen to, and videos to watch.

These courses are offered by universities and university academics and tend to be pitched at high A Level or beginning undergraduate level, making them perfect for someone looking to brush up on or learn about an academic area with which they’re otherwise only slightly familiar.

Some excellent sites for MOOCs include:

1. FutureLearn
2. Coursera
3. EdX
4. Stanford Online
5. Harvard Online
6. Udacity

Here, for example, are some of the literary ones currently available on FutureLearn:

By far the best MOOC I have ever completed though is one offered by Coursera called ModPo, which looks at a broad sweep of modernist and postmodern literature across the twentieth century. It is amazing. As someone with a PhD in exactly that area of study, I cannot tell you the level of quality in this MOOC. It is like getting a 10 week undergraduate course in twentieth century literature for absolutely free. I share and promote it with all of my A Level students.


There are some excellent literary-based podcasts out there, not including listening to books themselves on Audible or similar. My favourite collection of podcasts, though, are the ones offered by Oxford University, as below:

There are some absolutely superb podcasts here, including the always excellent Emma Smith whose book This Is Shakespeare is a must read in itself!

There are also other great podcasts, even if not always directly related to English such as Philosophise This, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Shakespeare Unlimited, and You’re Dead to Me.

In Our Time

Deserving of an entry of all its own, even if now best treated as a podcast, In Our Time is simply an incredible resource for subject specific development. With over 800 episodes spanning a massive range of disciplines and topics, there will be something of interest and value here.

In the recent couple of months, for instance, I’ve listened to episodes on Emily Dickinson, Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, The Rosetta Stone, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amongst others.

Given every episode includes experts in whatever topic is being discussed, the conversation is always incredibly stimulating and insightful. The one on Emily Dickinson, for instance, included contributions from Fiona Green who is a leading and internationally renowned scholar in the area of American Literature.

Norton Critical Editions

Moving away from podcasts and online lectures, some of the most useful books I buy when trying to develop of my subject knowledge on a particular text or writer is the relevant Norton Critical Edition. In fact, if I am teaching a text for the very first time, I’ll always look to buy one of these first.

As well as the text itself, these editions often include really useful supplementary resources like contemporary reviews, scholarly articles, detailed annotations, relevant historical or social context, and a whole host of other valuable materials. When I first taught Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a few years ago, for instance, the Norton Critical Edition was invaluable and a lot of the ideas I then taught I first encountered in its introduction or the articles.

It’s worth saying too that these editions are often updated and so it is best to look for the latest one so that the articles are as recent and up to date as possible. However, if price is an issue, you can find earlier editions often incredibly cheaply.

New Critical Idiom

This is a series of books that function as a high-level introduction to various topics within literary studies, as well as other disciplines. Rather than focussing on a specific text or writer, these texts often look at broader areas such as literary movement, genre or something like literary form. They are really excellent at condensing a really broad topic into a couple of hundred pages of accessible yet still scholarly prose.

Taking a quick look at their catalogue, for example, I can see books on modernism, Romanticism, comedy, stylistics, literature itself, intertextuality, the gothic, satire, myth, the author, genre, discourse, science fiction, and on and on.

If there was a particular area of literary studies that I wanted to know more about and to get a broad overview of the debates within that area then this would probably be my first call.

Cambridge Companions

Similar in nature to the above, but typically a series of essays rather than a single text and also including text and author specific entries, the Cambridge Companion series are also a really excellent way into an otherwise potentially intimidating area of literary study.

The essays are always written by specialists within that field and tend to be geared towards a high performing A Level or first year undergraduate audience. As such, like New Critical Idiom, you can be guaranteed to really get a sense of the key debates and ideas within a specific field, even if it’s not something with which you’re particularly familiar. The two often go really well together too, if, for example, you read the relevant New Critical Idiom for a specific movement or genre and then the text-specific Cambridge Companion.

Robert Eaglestone

I cannot recommend Robert Eaglestone’s work enough: he is absolutely superb for taking big literary topics and writing about them in such a way that they are instantly enjoyable and accessible. I recommend all his work to my A Level students, but they would function just as well for anyone who is keen to develop their understanding of what might be described as the ‘philosophy of literature’. I suspect this might be possibly of particular interest to those who may not have done literature as a degree subject as these are the kinds of debates that tend to populate and frame undergraduate literature courses.

For example, his Doing English takes a look at lots of big debates within literary studies such as how we define literature, what we mean by canon construction, the politics of literature, the reasons for the prevalence of Shakespeare beyond simply ‘he’s really good’. Equally, his Literature: Why It Matters offers a really interesting defence for the subject itself and why it continues to matter. This is exactly the kind of material you might want in your back pocket when a sullen Y10 demands to know what the point of it all is on a rainy Friday afternoon!

Nick Royle and Andrew Bennett

Very similar in nature to Eaglestone’s material, in the sense of offering an insight into the critical/theoretical/philosophic debates within literary studies, Nick Royle and Andrew Bennett are superb.

For me, their most interesting and important book is An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, which is comprised of a series of short essays about various literary topics. This includes, for example, an analysis of the figure of the monster, the supernatural, war, laughter, the role of the author, the uncanny, the end, literature itself, readers and reading, amongst many others. They are excellent examples of how to read and think about literature through a critical lens as well as modelling really skilled close reading.

There’s also a personal reason for my interest in this particular book: I can honestly say it is one of the main reasons I’m now an English teacher. Age 16, I was fanatic about history and this was without doubt the subject I most wanted to study. However, at the start of A Levels, I read An Introduction and it completely transformed how I thought about English as a subject, leading me to eventually, amongst other factors, to shift my allegiance from History to English. It’s definitely a book I could not recommend more strongly.

Their This Thing Called Literature is also really, really excellent, and similar in tone and scope to Eaglestone’s Literature: Why Does It Matter.

English Media Centre

I’ve attended a few EMC CPD sessions over the years and have always found them to be incredibly interesting and valuable. Their e-magazine is always packed full of really interesting subject-specific articles and they have published loads of really great study guides for various texts and writers. Their Literature Reader, a collection of critical essays, is especially valuable, including a range of topics such as how we define literature, context, modernism, Romanticism, the novel, post-colonialism, dystopia, and many more.

The Use of English and NATE

I hadn’t come across The Use of English, an excellent English journal, until relatively recently, but I’m glad that I did. It’s an excellent journal written specifically for English teachers and contains a wealth of articles, including close analysis of specific texts or writers, discussions of topics within the literary world, and pedagogic content.

The journal is associated with the English Association, which itself is an excellent source of subject specific CPD and knowledge, and it’s well worth checking their website.

There’s also, of course, organisations like NATE who offer loads of resources and subject specific CPD. Their Teaching English magazine edited by Gary Snapper is excellent as is English in Education, a research journal co-ordinated by NATE and published by Taylor and Francis.

JSTOR, Project Muse and other Articles

Both of these are online repositories of peer-reviewed journal articles and so a really valuable resource for engaging with debates within literary studies. Increasingly schools have a subscription to one or the other, usually JSTOR, which is great.

Of the two, my personal preference is Project Muse, mostly because it tends to include the most recent articles being published, whereas a lot of JSTOR material is back-catalogue and so can be rather dated. However, this isn’t so much an issue in English as it might be in, say, STEM, since a really interesting analysis of a text written 10 years ago will likely have the same relevance and insight as one published a couple of months ago.

Whilst I don’t get time to do this as much as I did when completing my PhD, I do still like, when possible, to browse specific journals to get a sense of any current trends or debates, typically Modernism/modernity, Contemporary Literature, and Twentieth-Century Literature.

There’s also loads of other excellent places to find articles such as Guardian Poetry, Paris Review, Wasafiri, Tears in the Fence, and Granta, to name just a couple.

Books, Books, and Books!

I suppose this goes without saying, and is covered anyway by lots of the above, but here are a few English specific books I’ve read over the last year or so that I think are great:

1. Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry
2. John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature
3. John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry
4. Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922, Modernism and all That Jazz
5. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
6. Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
7. Robert Hass’ A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry
8. Don Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets
9. Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History
10. Carlin Borsheim-Black’s Letting Go of Literary Whiteness
11. Maud Ellmann’s The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud

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