Monthly Archives: October 2011

rosenthal and heiland’s literary study, measurement, and the sublime, reviewed

Since we’re talking about the value of curricular discussions, even when these reveal fundamental disagreements, contested terms, and hidden curricula, I thought I would point out that the Laura Rosenthal and Donna Heiland’s collection Literary Study, Measurement, and the Sublime has just been  discussed (and reviewed) in the latest issue of Change.

The writer of this article, Pat Hutchings, endorses the approach of Rosenthal, Heiland and many of this volume’s contributors (including myself), which is to use assessment in all its varieties to inquire into what is singular and distinctive about literary studies in relation to other fields.

Of course, this approach contrasts strongly with how assessment has generally been understood and practiced for many years in American higher education, as Hutchings admits.  She observes that

assessment’s focus on cross-cutting outcomes makes perfect sense, but it has also meant that the assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities within particular fields, focused on what is distinctive to the field, has received less attention. And that’s too bad.

It’s too bad because we do, after all, value what our students know and can do in their major area of concentration and because students themselves typically care most about achievement in their chosen field of study. But it’s also too bad because anchoring assessment more firmly in the disciplines may be a route to addressing its most vexing and enduring challenge: engaging faculty in ways that lead to real improvement in teaching and learning.
What Rosenthal’s and Heiland’s volume shares with the threshold concepts framework Kathryn and I have been discussing is the fact that, as one researcher notes, “getting academics to think about what is critical to learn in their subject is easier than getting them to think about learning outcomes” (7).  It also addresses a persistent problem in persuading literature faculty to adopt both assessment and student-centered learning, which has been these discourses’ consistent “mortification of the teacherly self” (Cousins, 5), or “erasure of teacher expertise” (6). Such a “restoration of dignity for academic teachers” (6) also helps to address the unsettling suspicion voiced by a number of contributors to the Rosenthal and Heiland volume, which was that the subjective, first-person experiences explored in literature courses would have to be “translated” via social science methodology into something more valued and “objective” before it could be taken seriously by outsiders, whether in- or outside the university community. Beginning, though not ending, with the disciplinary perspective of practitioners and experts seems like one of the best ways to address this disciplinary imbalance.

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.


First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

Thought readers of The Long Eighteenth might be interested in this. Even if you can’t get to London, you can look at the web site:



The First Actressespresents a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain.Taking centre stage are the intriguing and notorious female performers of the period whose lives outside of the theatre ranged from royal mistresses to admired writers and businesswomen. The exhibition reveals the many ways in which these early celebrities used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and create their professional identities.

Opens 20 October 2011
Admission £11/£10/£9
Free for Gallery Supporters
Supported by the Patrons of the National Portrait Gallery