Category Archives: Curriculum

some keywords from last semester’s discussions of doctoral studies: synthesis

Spending a semester with students entering PhD programs in Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric/Composition was both interesting and difficult for me because I struggled to find language for our activities that could serve for all three groups, each of which had distinct orientations towards writing, research, and teaching.

Throughout the term, even designating the class as a whole, or addressing the different groups that comprised it, was a challenge: was English studies in any sense a discipline, with discrete sub-disciplinary groups?  were we three distinct disciplines?  two research-oriented disciplines joined with an arts program? And so forth.  These answers varied, too, depending on whether we were comparing groups internally or externally.

One of my “solutions” (which of course only deferred these problems) was to begin the semester with Bruce McComiskey’s English Studies, which offered a narrative of a loosely disciplinary English studies that comprehended the various groups, but to pair it Tony Becher’s Academic Tribes and Territories, which described university life as a kind of organized chaos of competing disciplinary cultures and sub-cultures.  The advantage of Becher’s more “anthropological” approach, I learned, was that it showed that the hierarchical and boundary relations, as the source of both conflicts and institutional power, were the focus of everyone’s attention, and constituted the battleground in the usual Hobbesean war of all against all in the contemporary university.

One of the terms that came up repeatedly was synthesis, the combination of different elements to create new wholes.  Though it seems that each group maintained its own professional version of synthesis, it seemed to me that the literary studies group had the most institutional investment in a deliberate, closely monitored process of synthesis of one’s research and reading.

This heavy emphasis on synthesis to me seemed to be the most plausible rationale for practices like the comprehensive exams and the dissertation, which remain the transformational moments in grad education for lit students (different kinds of exams and expectations surround the other groups at these stages).

It also seemed to me that both periodization and close reading offer very distinctive forms of synthesis for lit studies. To use Shulman’s term, these are “signature pedagogies” whose rationale remains often unclear to students until they reach more advanced stages of reading and research. And, of course, it is precisely this kind of synthesis that we forget we have learned when we teach novices or address others from other academic subcultures, even if those are found in “our” departments.


helen day on revealing the hidden language and literature curriculum

Since my last post, I’ve thought further about the significance of cultural studies for the literature curriculum, and done a little bit of additional reading about Meyer’s and Land’s notions of “threshold concepts.” In the course of my reading, I found an interesting article by Helen Day about the process of curricular discussion and reform at the University of Central Lancashire [avail. at Project MUSE].

Day begins by claiming that departmental curricula represent a prime opportunity for faculty to test their ideas about education:

It is through curricula, argue Barnett and Coate (2004: 25), that ideas about education are put into action: “Through curricula too, values, beliefs and principles in relation to learning, understanding, knowledge, disciplines, individuality and society are realised.” Yet, they continue, there is little considered
collective reflection on the curriculum, especially involving those who experience the curricula firsthand — the students (534-5)

The absence of collective reflection, either among faculty in the same department, or among departmental faculty and students more generally, leads to the common problem of departmental curricula developing piece-meal and irregularly over time, resulting in a mish-mosh of good intentions and hidden agendas.  Curricula in this historically stratified condition become difficult for faculty to discuss, or for students to learn from. Whatever portions faculty are unable to agree upon, they may very well leave tacit, even if students will experience the same portions as either contradictory or compartmentalized (“culture means x in one classroom, and y in another”) The portions of the official curriculum that have accumulated their own separate, largely tacit uses and meanings from teachers and students, Day treats as the “hidden” curriculum.  Day separates the formal from hidden curricula in the same manner that a literary scholar would distinguish authorial intention from audience reception.  This has some important consequences for how we view curricula.

The first consequence is to take seriously the temporality of the curriculum.  As Day points out, students will almost certainly experience the curriculum differently from how it was constructed anyway, since their linear and temporal experience of threading through the curriculum over time strongly contrasts with a faculty-member’s vertical and segmented organization of knowledge.

The second consequence is to attend seriously to the lessons that the hidden curriculum teaches its students, whatever the intentions of the faculty who designed it.  In Day’s own department, these were only disclosed in a survey of students in their third year in the program: lessons included sentiments like, “lecturers teach according to their disciplines” and “students are not encouraged to take a holistic or ‘helicopter’ view of the modular structure of their degree.”  Even in an avowedly interdisciplinary program, students were not taught to recognize the overlaps or connections between the different “modules,” but instead to assume that the knowledge represented by each box in the grid was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient.

What I found most intriguing about Day’s account was that this largely-tacit notion of compartmentalized sub-specialties “owned” by particular specialists, each with their own self-contained methodology and subject-matter, was not even recognized until the students were surveyed and required to reflect upon what they had learned.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students did not initially enjoy the reflection-process entailed by the survey (though they valued it afterwards), nor did the faculty necessarily welcome the insight into the unintended effects of their curriculum. Nonetheless, this exercise in mutual reflection did make possible a kind of collective action that otherwise would not have occurred.

To bring it back to cultural studies, what this article suggested to me was not that literary scholars should stop cultural studies, but that we certainly need to provide students with  opportunities to reflect upon what we, and they, are doing, when we engage in this kind of approach, and to make clear to them the conceptual overlap–or dependence, even–between cultural and literary studies.


how might the notion of the “threshold concept” be applied to cultural studies? (response to Kathryn Temple)

Since Kathryn has opened up some interesting possibilities with her references to Meyer’s and Land’s notion of the “threshold concept,” I thought I’d briefly outline how this notion might be relevant to both cultural studies and literary studies.

In Glynis Cousin’s helpful “Introduction to Threshold Concepts,” she suggests that the threshold concept, or TC, helps us to overcome the “stuffed curriculum” problem that occurs whenever disciplines define their teaching as the transmission of an undifferentiated bulk of specialized knowledge, or set of facts, that need to be learned before students can be initiated into the concepts and research that characterize the field.

This unreflective view of disciplinary teaching focuses on the materials used by a discipline to define itself, rather than the concepts, intellectual organization, or  ways of thinking deployed by experts.  These are closely linked with the characteristic practices and skills necessary to “do” work in that field.

In other words, an expert in literary studies is not simply someone who knows more literary works, authors, and genres than someone else, but someone who knows how to think, write, and talk like a literary scholar, in a manner that is recognizable to other scholars.  (We often make this distinction when evaluating amateur or undergraduate work in relation to professional work in our field.  One exists in relation to existing conversations and debates, and follows the field’s protocols about evidence, reasons, and arguments, and the other does not(

Interestingly enough, the most characteristic features of a discipline cannot be brought into explicit analysis, reflection, or discussion except with reference to its pedagogy, meaning the process by which its distinctive forms of thinking are acquired by novices in the incremental process of mastering the discipline’s forms (cf., for example, the “Decoding the Disciplines” project).

Thus, instead of focusing the instructor’s attention on a bulk quantity or set list of disciplinary facts, the TC enables instructors to focus teaching time and energy on the relatively small number of field-specific concepts that, once grasped and eventually mastered, are genuinely transformative, integrative, and troublesome (among other things).  The TC is a concept that holds the key to entering into an understanding how experts think about a particular field.  In literature, concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” “close reading,” “interpretation,” “context,” and so forth represent terms that no literary scholar can do without, no matter what her individual project might be.  And we have seen how much resistanced the advocates of practices like machine-reading or culturomics have faced in arguing for new protocols of reading, interpretation, and evidence for literary studies.

In my view, the rich and complex notion of “culture” developed by Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and now elaborated by several subsequent generations of scholars can be said to operate in precisely in the manner outlined by Cousins: as a transformative, integrative, and troublesome concept in relation to literary studies.

At the same time, this rich sense of  “culture” is also “bounded” in Cousin’s sense as having a “provisional explanatory capacity,” and leaving a space for continued questioning of the concept itself.  And, we might add, such concepts in Cousin’s account are also “irreversible” in the sense that, once learned, scholars are unlikely to forget them, though they might modify or reject them in favor of a more refined or rival understanding.

When viewed from the perspective of the threshold concept, Cultural Studies becomes yet another instance of the ongoing debate over whether literature and literary studies should be defined as the transmission of a preexisting set of literary “content” or as a group of skills, and ultimately, concepts, to be learned by students and practiced by professionals. And, of course, from the perspective of the classroom, it seems unlikely that students can truly learn either skills or content in isolation from one another.  The promise of the threshold concept, I suppose, is that it makes it possible to think about the process by which the learner acquires both content and concepts a bit at a time, by moving from one to the other and back again.

NB: for two accounts of how threshold concepts can inform curricular discussions in English departments, see these examples, from the University of Brighton and Helen Day’s article in Pedagogy.