Developing Subject Knowledge in English Literature

Andy Atherton suggests a wide range of materials to enrich the English Literature Curriculum and to support students in their studies.

When I first started teaching A Level English Literature, an experienced colleague offered me some advice. Over the years, I’ve offered this same advice to countless other colleagues as they embark on their own A Level teaching journey. ‘Just make sure you know the texts inside out’, he said. Sometimes the simplest advice is the best.

It seems to me the last several years have witnessed a revival in the importance of subject knowledge as a key lever of pupil progress. Knowing your texts inside out is not just excellent advice for A Level teachers, it’s excellent advice for everyone.

However, what practical steps might we take to accomplish this? In this article, I’ll outline some of the resources I personally use to develop my own subject knowledge in English Literature. Whether it’s a text I’m teaching for the first time or one I’ve taught for many years, trying to improve our own knowledge is always time well spent.

Massolit

This is such a superb resource and possibly the one I get the 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. In recent months, I’ve completed courses on Emily Dickinson, Unseen Poetry, Hamlet and Philip Larkin.

When completing a course, I try to make notes using the Cornell method — a strategy I have shared and modelled with my students — so that I can return to these notes at a later date.

I also really like that the courses tend to be relatively short and each episode is in the region of 10 to 20 minutes. This makes it very easy to fit in alongside other commitments.

MOOCS

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 on 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 a 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.

By far the best MOOC I have ever completed 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 free. I share and promote it with all of my A Level students.

Some excellent sites for MOOCs include:

1. FutureLearn

2. Coursera

3. EdX

4. Stanford Online

5. Harvard Online

6. Udacity

Podcasts

There are some excellent literary-based podcasts out there, not including listening to books themselves on Audible or similar. With a 30-minute commute to school each day, I have racked up many hours of enjoyable and fascinating literary discussions.

Some of my favourites, all freely available, include:

  1. In Our Time
  2. Hardcore Literature
  3. Backlisted
  4. Shakespeare Unlimited
  5. Emma Smith’s series of podcasts about Shakespeare for Oxford University

There’s then a great range of podcasts that whilst not directly related to literature, connect really well:

  1. The Rest is History
  2. Philosophise This
  3. You’re Dead to Me

Taking The Rest is History as an example, recent episodes on the history of climate thinking helped me to teach Romanticism; one on the murder of Julius Caesar, perfect for Shakespeare’s play; and a series on Ronald Reagan was really helpful for thinking about the political context underpinning The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Our Time

Deserving an entry of all its own, 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 for everyone.

In recent months, for instance, I’ve listened to episodes on Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and 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. 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 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.

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 the 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 focusing 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.

Subject-specific Organisations

Over the years, I have learned an incredible amount from associations and groups such as NATE (National Association of Teaching English), LATE (London Association for the Teaching of English), The English Association, and EMC (English & Media Centre). A quick browse of their respective websites reveals a huge amount of subject-specific guidance, both pedagogic and literature-specific.

EMC’s emagazine 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.

Likewise, NATE’s magazine Teaching English is always wonderful, including a vibrant range of articles written by teachers, academics and others involved in the teaching of English. A recent issue dedicated to the teaching of poetry included lots of practical ideas to try out, but also, for the purposes of this article, signposted lots of interesting new poets and books.

Conclusion

Taking the time to develop our own subject knowledge is always a worthwhile venture. It leads to richer conversations in the classroom and the ability to immerse our students in the literary hinterland that exists beyond and around the texts we study.

As a final suggestion, here are ten literature-specific books I’ve read over the last year that I thoroughly enjoyed. Happy reading!

  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. Carlin Borsheim-Black’s Letting Go of Literary Whiteness
  10. Maud Ellmann’s The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud

You can read more articles by Andy Atherton here.

Author

Andy Atherton is a Teacher of English as well as Director of Research in a secondary school in Berkshire. He regularly publishes blogs about English and English teaching at ‘Codexterous’ and you can follow him on Twitter @__codexterous

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