English: Shared Futures – A Conference Review

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Dr Emma Kennedy reviews her experience of the English: Shared Futures conference in July 2017.

Educational Development is one of those strange ‘third spaces’ in which practitioners have both the field itself and, usually, a different subject background. Mine is English Literature – I did my PhD in seventeenth-century civic pageant texts – and although I have embraced the world of educational development with open arms, I always welcome a chance to pop back into my old discipline.

This made me very excited to speak at English: Shared Futures, a conference run in July 2017 by the English Association. I was speaking on a panel entitled ‘Renaissance Pedagogies’, but sessions at the conference ranged from the education-focused (“A Level to HE: Reading”) to those focused on professional development (“Early Career Researchers in an Age of Anxiety”) and English-focused themes such as “Language and the Problem of Female Authority”. There were specific workshops dedicated to every imaginable theme and period, but many covered broader topics relevant to multiple practitioners in the subject and beyond.

The first panel I attended, and one of my favourites, was entitled “Defending, Advocating, Promoting: The Value and Importance of Literary Study” and featured four early-career academics speaking on the broad value of their research and teaching activities. Speaking first, James Paz gave an excellent paper on his experience of teaching Old English, showing that it gives students much more than mere linguistic knowledge. Teaching Old English, Paz and his students were able to challenge ideas of ‘relevance’, deconstruct the processes of scholarly editing and translation, and explore the value of the distant past. Naomi Kruger followed, outlining some of the wonderful exercises she and her students had done to link creative writing with literary-critical work around identity. This culminated in what sounds like an amazing project between students and local refugee groups. Asha Rogers made excellent points about the complex relationships between literature and the state: her research helps to untangle these and explore the two-way exchange further. Last – but by no means least – Rose Harris-Birtill focused on the timely concept of ‘alternative facts’ and how the skills of literary analysis can help us through uncertain times like these. Long live the (literary) expert!

I was intrigued by the roundtable of (University) department heads, entitled ‘Delivering English’. As the title suggested, the roundtable linked the practical aspects of running an academic department with loftier questions: what is English as a discipline, and does it require any particular resources? How can a department lead both defend individual staff and maintain the department’s standing within the university? One point that really stood out to me from this roundtable was that made by Professor Helen Fulton, of Bristol: she noted that one of the most important roles of a HoD is to manage student expectations. This made me think (inevitably) of the creeping overload of work in universities. Not that HoDs are responsible for everybody’s workload (and Fulton was definitely not saying that): rather, that HoDs may have the power to challenge unreasonable student expectations around 24-hour contactability and excessive contact time (and where they can, they should).

I attended two panels on the theme of “A Level to HE” – one on reading and one on writing. I was quite excited for these panels: so often in universities we worry about student transitions to higher education, but that doesn’t always translate into seeking out knowledge of students’ previous educational environment. To help students transition into university, we really need to think about where they are transitioning from – which for a large number of our students means school or college and A-Levels. Up first, the panel on reading explored some useful ideas around how students read at A Level and then at university. Barbara Bleiman made the excellent point that although A Level examiners have previously indicated students should have read a set text four times, students don’t – and indeed shouldn’t – read texts all the way through, over and over again, in a linear fashion. Rather, students at A Level are beginning to learn about reading in a scholarly fashion: moving from the general to the particular, getting to grips with its overall shape and then focusing in on aspects of the text that interest them. Ben Poore’s activity helped us all to exchange useful ideas on how reading features in the university curriculum, and made the panel a lively, collaborative experience.

The panel on writing from A Level to HE sadly lacked that feeling. My favourite speaker was the second speaker, Professor Catherine Maxwell, who provided excellent examples of student creative writing inspired by her module on nineteenth-century aesthetic prose. Maxwell showed how her students were able to combine creative writing with literary-historical awareness, entering the mindset of the writers they studied by writing themselves. Professor Maxwell’s positive exemplars provided relief after a rather negative section on A Level writing. In this section we were given examples of ‘bad’ student writing, taken from entries to the English and Media Centre’s close-reading competition, and a long discussion of the shortcomings of many A Level students. The ethical problems of this are obvious: although the samples were anonymised, it felt extremely mean-spirited to sit, a roomful of privileged academics and teachers, criticising the work of students we’d never meet. The end didn’t justify the means, either. The ‘bad habits’  we were urged to identify in this work – faux-scholarly rhetoric, not reading the passage properly – surely weren’t new to anyone who has ever attempted literary criticism (we’ve all seen it, and most of us – me included – have done it). I came away from the session knowing little about A Level writing that I didn’t know already, which was a shame. I’d much rather have learned about the good things that students are doing, and the skills they’re developing at A Level. That way, when students come to HE and think they’re unprepared, we can show them what they’ve already got – a much more productive view of the school-university transition than bemoaning the A Level syllabus. I’d suggest going to the link above and reading the fantastic pieces by winners of the competition – this is far more illuminating than picking apart those who didn’t do well.

Although the next panel was called “ECAs and PhDs in an Age of Anxiety”, it had a surprisingly therapeutic effect. Drs Sarah Lewis and James Grande facilitated a warm, collaborative session on feedback – giving it, receiving it, seeking it out and acting on it. We shared tips on seeking out mentorship and dealing with the inevitable, but still painful, rejection that comes with any academic career. The panel didn’t shy away from difficult issues such as the job market and the woes of casual employment, but although there was space for venting the overall feeling was one of positive solidarity. Of course one panel can’t solve all the problems of ECRs; but Sarah and James’s panel demonstrated the value of community, and the space to connect with others in a similar situation. More practically, it also illustrated a truth I’ve known for a while: ECR contributions are vital to making academic conferences lively and collaborative. It’s therefore in the field’s best interest to make conferences as accessible as possible to those who don’t have funding – and in universities’ best interest to provide funding for their casual employees, PhD students and early career academics. I want to shout out here to the English Association provided a number of fee waivers and travel bursaries for Shared Futures, as well as a sliding scale of fees determined by income. These things make all the difference.

The next morning, it was time for my panel, a roundtable on ‘Renaissance Literature: New Pedagogies’, featuring three very talented teachers of early modern literature and myself. Dr Douglas Clark kicked us off with some fascinating insights into using digital resources such as EEBO and ECCO, and how he uses these in his teaching to help students get to grips with the period and what’s available to study it. Dr Kirsty Rolfe introduced her work in teaching early modern literature at QMUL, including some fantastic points about inclusivity and whiteness in the curriculum – difficult but necessary conversations that we in early modern studies should be having, taking our cue from the excellent work in medieval studies. Dr Elizabeth Evendon-Kenyon showed us how she teaches early modern literature on potentially-controversial topics such as Christo-Islamic relations, helping students to confront the modern resonances of these topics while also using them to explore the distant past of 16th-century theatre.

I felt rather inadequate coming after these three, but introduced my work as an educational developer and my desire to find a balance between interdisciplinary enhancement of practice and respect for subject-specific expertise. The latter can be forgotten in academic development courses, as we have to serve so many disciplines – but as this panel showed, a high level of research expertise equips academics to produce groundbreaking, exciting teaching as well. The roundtable covered a variety of topics, from inclusive education to the digital turn. Digital humanities are all very well – but do all students have the necessary equipment? Should they bring devices – or should we ban devices from the classroom altogether? Is demanding that students buy a particular edition of a text exclusionary for those who can’t afford it, and how far are teachers responsible for helping students navigate the confusing, often expensive world of academic publishing? How can we help students get to grips with this weird, confusing but rewarding period of literature and culture? I’m still asking these questions, but after that conversation I feel refreshed and refocused – not least thanks to our excellent audience and able chair, Dr Rachel Willie.

The last panel I attended was another Renaissance one (and also chaired by Rachel Willie, who is the Duracell Bunny of early modern studies), this time on ‘New Perspectives’. Esther van Raamsdonk gave a wonderful paper on the value of studying transnational literature, especially in fighting narratives of nationalism and xenophobia. Esther’s work uncovers less well-known texts such as travelogues, but also sheds new light on over-studied stalwarts such as Paradise Lost (Satan comes from the same place as cloves, a prime Dutch export). Tamsin Badcoe argued for the importance of Renaissance Literature in the environmental humanities: early modern scholars are underrepresented in this area, despite the wealth of thinking on ecological issues in work of the period. Eoin Price brought a fascinating theatrical perspective, arguing for greater transparency from both scholarly and cultural institutions on issues such as performance, the canon and representation. Brett Greatley-Hirsch introduced us to Digital Renaissance Editions and opened up broader questions of the digital humanities, including an excellent maxim: just because you can do something using digital tools, this doesn’t mean you should. Moving from the digital to the manual, Daniel Starza Smith introduced us to his work on letter-locking, including some fantastic models of locked letters (one of which is pictured above). Letter-locking raises questions of security and transparency – a fitting and surprisingly modern end to this panel.

Reflecting after the conference, I realise that during my time out of literary research – and perhaps in it, too – I hadn’t realised how rich and diverse our discipline is. We have work to do, of course: we need to address whiteness, ableism and the widespread exploitation of labour in universities. Shared Futures helped me realise that this work is worth doing. I feel lucky to be a part of English Literature, and to have had this opportunity to remember how much I love it.