The Production of University English

General curriculum issues, Seminar teaching, Student experience

Brief description

The project contributed to teaching expertise and to knowledge about the social construction of English by investigating the ways in which the subject is produced in day-to-day teaching situations in diverse types of university. Its particular focus was on the work of the ‘teacher’. The project made use of contemporary theories of rhetoric, in seeking to explain the construction of ‘English-as-taught’ in terms of the relations between rhetors (university teachers, who draw from various kinds of knowledge-based and pedagogic repertoires), audience (students, and the cultural and intellectual resources they draw from) and purposes and procedures, defined, for example, by quality assurance bodies and institutional contexts. Working ‘from the ground up’, the project aimed to identify both the common characteristics of the subject and its institutionally-influenced differences. To achieve this, the project

  • videoed tutorials and seminars,
  • analysed them in terms of a multi-modal approach, attentive both to speech and writing, and also to non-verbal modes of communication,
  • share understandings both with the academics whose work we explore and with the wider ‘English’ community.

Selected Outputs

  • Jones, K., McLean, M, Amigoni, D. and Kinsman, M. (2005), ‘Investigating the production of university English in mass higher education:  towards an alternative methodology’,Arts and Humanities in Higher Education4 (3), pp. 245-264
  • Susan Bruce, ‘”That is what we do, isn’t it? ” The Production of University English‘, English Subject Centre Newsletter April 2008
  • Bruce, S., Jones, K., McLean, M., (2007) ‘Some Notes on a Project: Democracy and Authority in the Production of a Discipline’.Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture7 (3) 481 – 500.


The discipline of English has historically been subject to a good deal of scholarly analysis and commentary, but such work has concentrated largely on theoretical accounts of what English is and what it does (questions about canon-formation, for example, or about the intervention of the discipline in various political debates).  This investigation took account of this abundance of stimulating work that seeks to identify the nature of English as an academic discipline.  But it differed from those accounts in that it sought also to illuminate the construction of the discipline in the less formal, but equally significant, context of the teaching space.

The project had three major aims with associated objectives :

Aim 1
to understand how the subject of university English is learned and taught in different institutional contexts. In pursuing this aim, the project explored the current construction of English in its social, political and historical contexts, made connections between disciplinary tradition and ‘classroom’ practice; and suggested what kinds of student identities and subjectivities are being constructed by university English.

Aim 2
to develop a distinctive methodology for investigating the pedagogy of university disciplines in different institutional contexts. This involved, for example, understanding the work of the teacher in rhetorical terms, and above all involved teachers and students as co-researchers in analysing pedagogic texts in the form of digital recordings.

Aim 3
to generate accounts of how English is learned and taught in universities that will be of use to university teachers and policy makers. In doing so we highlighted some of the processes by which students are introduced to the culture and practices associated with English as a university subject; and raised questions which may contribute to the development of new forms of university teacher education by extending current generic discussions about teaching towards a more complex focus on issues of subject knowledge and culture.

Project Design

The project explored the construction of knowledge and of social relationships by applying a theory of rhetoric to the intensive analysis of ‘classroom’ interaction.   Specifically the data collection comprised:

  1. Selection of an English academic in each of 3 universities; digital recording and analysis of the teaching of each 
    The universities have been selected to represent variation within the system: a ‘post-1992’ university, a ‘pre-1992’ university outside the ‘Russell Group’ and an ‘élite’ university.  Teaching recorded with a digital camera focused on seminars (groups of 4-30) and tutorials (1-4 students):  about 6 hours (2 for each teacher) of teaching was recorded and analysed for illustrative ‘moments’.
  2. Interviews with academics and students
    Establishing a strong role for participating academics was important.  Each teacher was sent a CD-ROM of the clips of their teaching sessions and then took part in a tape-recorded, discussion led by a researcher (as in our pilot study).  The teachers’ sense of the educational process as unfolding over time counterbalanced the researchers’ search for meanings that can be located in particular moments.
  3. Analysis of documents and background information 
    We explored contextual factors which influence the purposes, values and practices of English.  This context included such documents as: statistical data on student intake, performance and destinations from HESA and the institutions involved; course documentation from each department; local and national policy documents (for example, bench-marking statements; programme specifications; HEA papers).  The project explored the extent to which the practice and the voiced understandings of lecturers and students map on to national and local documents relating to teaching and learning.

Project Leader

Professor Ken Jones
Department of Education
Keele University

Project Partners

Professor David Amigoni, English, Keele University
Dr Susan Bruce, English, Keele University
Dr Monica McLean, University of Nottingham

Research Period

December 2005 – December 2009