Pedagogic research: Research your teaching

Pedagogic research

There is an enormous scope for interested colleagues to go on contributing to the growing body of writing and resources on the teaching of literature, language, and creative writing. These resources could take many forms, and be shared through both print and electronic media.

We recognise that one inhibitor can be the belief that to undertake this kind of work you have to be trained in social science methods, or command an educational discourse. Before we take up this point, we should make one thing clear. We are not arguing for an insular dismissal of work carried on by educational researchers within (broadly) social science paradigms. That is a tradition of work which English lecturers should respect and from which we all have much to learn. Naturally, there are bad examples as well as good, but that is true for literary criticism or sociolinguistics as well. Even at the a pre-eminently qualitative ends of the discipline, there are occasions when we actually need more empirical evidence, and to equip ourselves with the means for gathering and analysing it. We should not be too proud to check our intuitions and impressions against other forms of evidence, even while acknowledging that surveys, interviews and so on are themselves discursive forms which do not yield up unmediated truths.

Nevertheless, we also believe that there are within Humanities disciplines traditions which could be developed to form the basis for subject-sensitive pedagogic research. Thus, for example, traditions of textual analysis on the one hand, or linguistic analysis on the other provide powerful tools for the analysis of group process. Histories of the subject can be developed into accounts of the shaping of the identity of the learner. The preoccupations of the community with the performative nature of text and discourse, or in reading and comprehension as active processes, provide starting places for forms of work which would in many ways blur the conventional distinction between subject and pedagogic research activity.

We believe it is important that research on learning and teaching should remain plural, and not dominated by any one school or tradition. In this light, we believe that ‘English’, like the other Humanities disciplines, should not simply be the recipient of ‘know-how’ from elsewhere, but by contrast actually has much to offer to a plural, qualitative research domain. The traffic between ‘educational research’ and ‘English’ can and should be two-way. (See Ben Knights ‘Discipline-based pedagogic research: English in HE’ and ‘Researching and Writing about Masculinities in HE English’.)

In that sense, subject-inflected pedagogic research might be seen as bearing some correspondence with the novel itself: a prosthesis that enables us to articulate and enter into dialogue over the meaning of the experience of learning – including the articulation of the precarious ambiguities of the teaching relationship itself. In its curiosity about the inferencing work of readers and listeners, English has already much in common with the constructivist tradition in education. Poetry, remarked Jerome Bruner, is a ‘vehicle for searching out unsuspected kinship’ (On Knowing, Essays for the Left Hand, 1962), and poetry and narrative have been woven through his work ever since.

It is of course open to any member of the subject community to systematically collect and reflect upon information on a thousand topics: about the varying success of different forms of assessment or group activity; about the changing nature of the curriculum; about the experience of entering university from school. In fact, we warmly encourage you to carry out useful bits of participant ethnography on our subject activity. But further still, it would not be entirely fanciful to suggest that different traditions within the subject might generate intellectual resources for particular areas of work. Cognitive poetics, we might suggest, would provide a fertile basis for the investigation of the metaphors of learning and the conceptual architecture of learning occasions; new historicists would understandably want to explore the subject in terms of discourses of regulation and social management; humanists in terms of the enlistment of literature and literary discussion in a project of human development and fulfilment; ecocritics in terms of intellectual habitats and the representation of the non-human world; psycho-analytic critics might profitably build on the work of Wilfred Bion to explore the affinities between narrative and group process, and language people use linguistic analysis to understand the processes of the classroom. And so on. The point is that engagement in the focused and systematic analysis of learning and teaching need not represent a betrayal of the discipline. More positively, that our family of disciplines is and always has been rich with conceptual languages for the understanding and enhancement of learning.


What kind of things might be the subject of pedagogic research? The Subject Centre certainly has no wish to be prescriptive, and the ideas that follow are intended simply to exemplify a proposal that might otherwise seem abstract. In each case, even a small-scale research endeavour might challenge or supplement commonsense interpretations, and provide a starting place for enhancement.

  • Why is it that over 70% of literature students are women? What accounts for the gender variation between those who study literature and language A-level? What, about our practices and curricula, might enforce or subvert conventional gender identifications?
  • Could we explore and build up a basis of good practice for working with ethnic minority students of English? Why, outside a few locations, is the subject so relatively unattractive to ethnic minorities?
  • How (given widespread evidence of growing dependency among young students) might we establish learning communities in the first year? What are the perceived obstacles to independent study?
  • How do joint and combined honours students make sense (or not) of the relation between their subjects? How might we foster synoptic understanding?
  • How might we build more formative assessment into the first year without either overloading staff or turning off students?
  • Does the student experience of researching and writing a dissertation at L3 enable us to think creatively about the earlier stages of the degree?
  • Could we identify the different kinds of learning experience within an English degree, and see ways to build bridges between the different elements?
  • Do students feel they belong to a learning community? If not, how could we foster such a sense of community?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between ‘voice’ in the classroom and confidence in writing? How could we help build students’ confidence in their ‘voice’ in either sense?
  • Might we adapt drama and rehearsal methods to the study of non-dramatic topics?
  • How should we blend classroom activity with that supported through Virtual Learning Environments in order to enable students to stretch and fulfil themselves?
  • How in detail does the contemporary experience of AS and A2 and its unitised assessment impact upon the expectations of degree level study?
  • How do the 18 year old cohort understand the experience of reading compared, say, to mature students?
  • How can we as a community share ideas about group and workshop activity? How do we customise generic forms of activity for our specific purposes?
  • How do English graduates make use of their degrees in their jobs and careers?
  • How might we re-purpose the great digital research archives so as to make them accessible for student learning?
  • Can we account historically for the rise and fall in popularity of particular areas of the syllabus?
  • What does the practice of creative writing workshops have to tell those who work in the literary field?
  • How can we build on the registers and skills that students themselves possess as consumers and makers of culture?
  • Given the policy (and desirability) of widening participation, how can we best support students who do not possess wide reading experience in acquiring appropriate repertoires of cultural knowledge?