Brief Description

‘How is English conceptualised as a discipline and how does this, or should this feed into the ways it is delivered and developed in universities?’  This was the question asked in 2007, by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching. Semi-structured interviews with English lecturers and student focus groups revealed how they saw English as a discipline, how it is taught at Brighton and how its delivery is organised now and might be in the future.  The researchers, Professor Gina Wisker, Maria Antoniou and Stuart Cameron, set out to document the development of a new discipline identity of English at Brighton and to map the institutional and disciplinary traditions which led to its current state.

Background

In the context of contemporary and ongoing debates about the nature and composition of English degrees, conceptualisations of what English studies might involve, and questions about the threshold concepts* of English as a discipline in terms of its epistemology and practices, this project explored the special case of the emergence of a more coherent iteration of the study of English at the University of Brighton. Three Schools at the University of Brighton run English courses (Languages, Education, Social Sciences). English also forms part of the work of the School of Historical and Critical Studies. The focus of the Connotations and Conjunctions’ project was on emerging plans and activities to integrate the delivery of English across the first three of these Schools, via joint degrees and other initiatives for closer working and learning.

The project explored the ways in which cohesive course development works to forge the identities of the students, the staff, the version of the discipline being studied and its construction of knowledge and worldviews. The project investigated conceptualisations of English held by staff and students across the three Schools and the learning and teaching practices undertaken. We interviewed staff, and held focus groups with students. As well as documenting the development of the emerging coherent course presentation and discipline identity of English at Brighton, the project encouraged cohesion between staff and students on these courses, leading to a sharing of subject knowledge, a collective identity, and closer working relationships. We hope to enhance both the internal and external English communities by providing insight into similarities and differences within the discipline and how networking and collaboration can be encouraged.

*’Threshold concepts’ are key concepts which must be recognised and overcome by students in order to progress in the subject and on their course; places where ‘learning leaps’ take place.

Aims and Objectives

The project aims were to:

  • Explore understandings of what constitutes English as a discipline,  its epistemology and learning and teaching practices
  • Develop and share understandings and strategies for the ownership of threshold concepts in the discipline, between students and staff
  • Encourage cohesion between different iterations and conceptualisations of English in practice within a coherent course  and discipline identity
  • Document the development of the emerging coherent course presentation and discipline identity of English, exploring how such a development problematises and addresses constructions of the discipline, its worldview and pedagogy,  putting into action resultant learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  • Map the institutional and disciplinary traditions and circumstances which have led to the current state of English and whether they constitute opportunities for or barriers to change.

Methodology

This was a multi-method project and included the following activities:

  • individual interviews with staff teaching English and discovery of the ways in which they conceptualise the subject, the understandings of English embedded in their courses and Schools, and their view of the threshold concepts in their subject and course.
  • collection of background information such as the academic career pathways of staff teaching English and their disciplinary locations, affiliations and identity. We also sought their views on and ideas for the closer integration of English at the university.
  • focus groups with a selection of students on each course in order to examine their conceptualisations of English, why they chose their particular course and School above other English courses at the university and elsewhere, their recognition and understanding of threshold concepts in their subject and course, their views on the integration of English at the university and ideas for closer integration of English at the university.

Data gathered was carefully analysed to draw out the main themes, especially the differences and similarities in perspectives and practices of the discipline in action.  We underpinned local data with information gathered via literature searches and informal discussions with individuals and groups within the wider English community. This involved literature available (historically) from CCUE, and debates about the nature of the discipline, from the English Subject Centre, benchmarking information, the English Association, and debates influencing practice at different universities.

Outcomes

The main outcome of this project was its contribution to our understanding and knowledge about the conceptualisation of the discipline in practice, the threshold concepts which inform the discipline, understood, owned and put into practice by staff and students through this case study of a new stage of development of a new version of an English degree rising out of previous fragmented iterations at the University of Brighton.

The data and evidence of staff and student reflections on and awareness of the ways in which we conceptualise, learn and teach in the discipline will hopefully be of use to other colleagues developing versions of English,  rewriting and seeking revalidation, making decisions about interpretations of the discipline, its pedagogy and threshold concepts, and those beginning to articulate across the disciplines of Higher Education learning and  English to forge new dialogues about the pedagogy of the discipline in practice.

Tangible outcomes

  • Connotations and Conjunctions Final Report
  • One-day conference at the University of Brighton (September 2009)
  • Conference paper and session at English subject centre Renewals conference (July 2007)
  • Journal article in appropriate English publication (tbc)

Our engagement strategy included sharing project results with staff and students in English at the University of Brighton and agreeing with them the next steps regarding the shaping of English. We also engaged with the wider English community via the subject centre conference and magazine, and other formal and informal discussions with colleagues online and at meetings, conferences and other events.

Project leader

Gina Wisker
Centre for Learning and Teaching
University of Brighton