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Discipline-based pedagogic research: English in Higher Education

Ben Knights

Professor Knights is Director of HEA's English Subject Centre

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The starting place for this short case study is a recognition that no discipline area can afford to ignore pedagogic research carried out following established methodologies of education research in a broadly social science mould. Given the ‘tribal' nature of disciplines (Becher and Trowler 2001), and what Shân Wareing has detected as the ‘Orientalist' propensities of disciplines to assert their own intellectual superiority to each other (Wareing, forthcoming), this is an important observation. Academic disciplines are apt to treat their own methods and folk histories as both superior and private, a fact that can lead to narrow-mindedness and to inter-disciplinary conflict (for example as experienced by novice lecturers taking SEDA or Academy accredited PG Cert programmes). In this case study I do not wish to imply the superiority of ‘English' (broadly conceived) to Education, or indeed to any other discipline. But I do want to argue that the study and practice of pedagogy may be enriched from ways of thinking and modes of enquiry derived from different disciplines, and then to sketch a case about English.

What has ‘English' to offer to the common stock, or that might have implications for other disciplines or for Educational research as such? To answer this question requires a rapid tour of some of the constitutive dynamics of the subject. (While it is not the subject of this article, it is important to note that English in both primary and secondary education is and has been for many years the subject of an extensive research literature, more of which may be relevant to HE than practitioners always realise.) This rapid tour will be followed by some conceptual samples. Much of the constitutive dynamic of the subject may be accounted for by the degree to which its subject matter is actually shared with the community at large. Because people think about and discuss books, language, or films and TV programmes the subject has always had to struggle to account to itself and to stakeholders for what makes it special. What ‘value added' accrues from the academic scholarship and teaching of the subject? Once it had moved beyond being simply the historical study of language and literature, English was thus characterised by a more or less overt anxiety about its relation to ordinary readers and speakers. Over time, this anxiety has led to a number of defence systems ranging from the arcane scholarly study of older languages and texts, through the rigorous protocols of ‘practical criticism' to the elaborate ‘theory' of the 1980s. These procedures for marking off what happens in universities have all had consequences (not always benign) for the pedagogy of the subject. Some of the misalignment lecturers report between themselves and their current students may derive from the fact that a prevailing populist ideology subscribed to by contemporary students means they do not see why they should be marked off (either as producers or analysts of language) as in any way separate or special.

While it may appear homogeneous from the outside, English in HE not only differs in significant respects from English in schools, but also harbours a wide range of traditions and sub-disciplines both emergent and residual. These extend across a disciplinary spectrum of Literature (variously defined), Language studies, and – increasingly – Creative Writing. It is also typically practised in close relationship with other, related, subjects, e.g. Drama, History, Gender Studies, and Media and Cultural Studies. Some of the subject elements shade into identifiably separate subjects (e.g. English Language into Linguistics). This short study will inevitably have to take a broad brush approach in making a general case that in foregrounding literature, language and culture, English (however inflected within local environments) has the study and practice of communication at its core. To that extent, it acts out or performs its own subject matter. A dialogue (in the classroom or in a VLE as well as in the scholarly literature) over a text, or a sample of language is at once ‘about' that text and itself an example of communication in action. Typically, such a dialogue will move back and forth between the ‘micro' (the verbal and stylistic specificity of the text or utterance itself) and the ‘macro': the cultural and linguistic contexts in which the text was made, or in which it has been understood. The study of interpretation and the social negotiation of meaning has a profound if often unrealised implication for English as pedagogy. For early examples, see Evans (1990) ‘Teaching the Humanities: Seminars as Metalogues' , Knights (1992) From Reader to Reader : Theory, Text, and Practice in the Study Group and Knights (1995) ‘Group processes in higher education: The uses of theory' .

So far, English has only made limited progress in applying such methods to itself, studies of the subject more typically taking the form of institutional or intellectual history, though with occasional examples of ethnography (e.g. Evans1993). A preliminary sketch can be found in the Pedagogic Research pages of the English Subject Centre Website , and a number of examples and case studies in Pedagogy volume 7, issue3 . The application of ‘close reading' to the study of pedagogy is the subject of Bass and Linkon (2008) ‘ On the Evidence of Theory: Close reading as a disciplinary model for writing about teaching and learning '. Further examples of the Scholarship of Teaching with a broadly English inflection include Bass's (1998) paper ‘ The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?' , Land and Mayer on ‘threshold concepts' (2003 and 2005) - Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines and Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning , Jones et al . (2005) and Bruce et al . (2007).

We will next give a sample of the concepts and their associated methods that have potential significance for pedagogic research. Within the broad notion of a subject which gives disciplined attention to the occasions where meaning is negotiated, we will here look briefly in turn at the following ideas:

  1. Discourse (language as social practice)
  2. Genre (the tacit assumptions which govern particular kinds of performance and give them recognisability to readers and audiences)
  3. Ambiguity and polysemy (the multi-layered nature of language)
  4. Metaphor (the propensity of language to describe one kind of phenomenon in terms of another)
  5. Narrative (the conventions through which events are arrayed into satisfying stories)


1. Discourse . Without going into nuances, one might note that in broad terms the study of discourse has broad affinities with important traditions in sociology and social psychology, not least (to name one tradition) the work of Basil Bernstein in the 1960s and 70s, and of the phenomenologists (Shotter, Gergen, Billig and others) in a tradition that goes back to Berger and Luckman's 1966 Social Construction of Reality . The study of discourse sees language use as both constitutive and as potentially transformative; above all as always taking place in dialogue. Such study can bring acute, systematic perceptions to generalisations about ideology. In this context it offers itself to the analysis of subjects and institutions in discursive terms. Educational subjects, and institutions enact social meanings that have material force for participants. Discursive analysis connects with the important idea of the ‘addressee' (the imagined or real recipient of communication), and thus in turn to the more specialised concept of ‘interpellation': the idea that a discourse calls into being a particular kind of social subject. The point is that an act of communication requires not only a text or utterance, but readers or listeners who can activate the code into meaning through a process of inference and decoding the clues. To take an example, here one based on the idea of the ‘implied reader' - the reader that a text so to speak needs in order for its meanings to be realised. Ben Knights (2005) uses the idea of the ‘implied student': the kind of social and linguistic identity the discipline invites you to occupy.

One ensuing route for pedagogic research would be to explore through surveys and interviews the alignment (or lack of it) between actual and ‘implied' students within a particular discipline. In doing so, one might theorise the degree to which particular disciplines – the analogy might be with the soft / hard spectrum – engage in dialogue with stakeholders and potential learner communities over their meanings and curricula. English (for reasons indicated above) would be at the ‘soft' end of this spectrum in the degree of its permeability to the definitions of a range of lay stakeholders.

2. Genre . English speaks of genre, the web of conventions and expectations that govern recognisability, (e.g. romance, quest, tragedy, or school stories). We can employ the concept more broadly to refer to particular forms of social performance and their norms. Thus, for example, we might examine the academic lecture or seminar as a ‘genre', each with certain protocols and conventions that either come to be accepted by participants, or experienced as an insuperable barrier. On the other hand, the lack of transparency about the discursive features of the genre could give rise to valuable research not only to develop taxonomies of what – in particular situations – those conventions actually are, but also about how students apprehend and internalise (or fail to internalise) the expected norms. Exciting empirical research on these lines has been conducted by the ‘ Production of University English Project English ' project at the University of Keele (see Jones et al . 2005, and Bruce et al . 2007).

3. Polysemy (or, more traditionally, ‘ambiguity') is a fundamental concept in English studies. Put simply, it alludes to the propensity of any symbol, word or utterance to be susceptible of multiple meanings. Certain kinds of discourse are characterised by an attempt to be as ‘denotative' as possible. But instruction manuals and legal documents may be the exception: the vast body of texts and human utterances can be read or understood at multiple levels. They have connotations which go beyond their simple, dictionary meanings, so that whether in everyday communication or in studying texts, people inevitably seek to weigh up and debate possible implications and meanings. As a subject, English has generally staked its existence on the penumbra of semantic possibility. Most thinking and talking work, so to speak, analogically, a propensity heightened literary forms. Thus Bruner speaks of poetry being a ‘vehicle for searching out unsuspected kinship' 1962: 62. This preoccupation with the leakage of unintended meanings connects with the long-standing affinity between English literary studies and aspects of the psycho-analytic tradition (viewed heuristically, rather than as a system of scientific truth.) A pre-occupation with the unconscious meanings of the text extends naturally to the unconscious life of groups. This intellectual propensity has obvious implications for the study of pedagogy, not least since, in throwing instrumentalist approaches into question, it suggests the limitations of many well-meaning interventions. Some suggestive work has taken place bringing together the ‘Tavistock' school of group relations and English Studies (Evans 1995, Knights 1992). Analysis of the multi-levelled nature of all communications (whether or not rooted in the Freudian unconscious) has powerful implications for the study of seminars and other educational interactions, and, at a ‘meta' level for the study of research discourses themselves.

4. All of which is also true of Metaphor, a sub-set of polysemy, the analysis of which has implications that can be generalised from English to Education studies. Language is inescapably metaphorical, and while some metaphors may become so routine as to lose any special semantic charge ( own goal, blue skies planning, uphill struggle ), others are likely to be indicative of the thought processes that underlie their use. (There is a further implication, explored as long ago as Lakoff and Johnson 1980, that substituting one metaphor for another – if you thought of argument as a dance, say, rather than as a battle - might have transformative potency. In training settings, to foreground metaphor can provide trigger points for teachers or students to think about how they learn.) Dominant metaphors in education are well worth study. Many, for example, are bodily based, and imply the symbiosis of mind and physical deixis or prehension: grasp, grip, get hold of, put your finger on, point out, get a handle on . Subjects are frequently represented in terms of the soft / hard set. Metaphors relating to both nutrition and parenting are widespread ( spoon feeding ). The implications of these metaphors or substitutions of one for another all have profound pedagogic implications and lend themselves to meta-level analysis.

5. Narrative is now of course a concept widely deployed in the social sciences and in the discourses of institutions. (For bearings on Education research see ) The study of narrative (embedded in linguistic analysis and various Continental formalisms) is concerned with the conventions that govern the organisation of elements (characters, events, situations) into patterns likely to be experienced by readers or listeners as a compelling story. As a subject, English possesses a repertoire of varied methods for understanding and analysing narrative which could lend additional force to the rather glib way in which the term is sometimes used. Narrative needs to be explored at a number of levels: in terms of the relationship or compact set up between teller and listener (e.g. the telling of stories to persuade, to console, or to frighten); of the implied relationship between the tale as told and the events (actual or imaginary) it purports to relay; of the relations between the structural components of the story itself (characters, situations, events). At all these levels, narrative must be understood not as a transparent vehicle for pre-existing truth, but as a formal, socially constituted medium with its own rules and requirements. Once again, tools available in English Studies could bring sophisticated insight both to the study of the stories told in educational settings and to a meta-analysis of the discourses of pedagogic research.

The narrative of this contribution has its own final twist. For the suggestion that pedagogic research and English could learn from each other is not simply a piece of postmodern faddishness. For much of the twentieth century an important strand in English studies shared a common intellectual heritage with Education. From the turbulent years following the 1917 Revolution emerged the dialogic traditions which from the literary and language side we might associate with Mikhail Bakhtin, and from the Education side with the constructivism of L.S. Vygostsky. There may still be much to learn from re-connecting the sundered descendants of those cognate traditions. (Holquist 2002; a useful resumé on Vygostsky can be found at )


Anglo-American Pedagogy , volume 7 issue3 of Pedagogy: Critical Approaches in Teaching Literature, Language and Culture . 2007.

Bass, Randall and Sherry Lee Linkon. ‘On the Evidence of Theory: Close Reading as a Disciplinary Model for Writing about Teaching and Learning'. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education . 7.3: 245 – 261. 2008.

Becher, Tony and Paul Trowler. Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines . Buckingham: Open University Press. 2001.

Berger, Peter and Luckmann, Thomas. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge . Garden City, New York : Anchor Books. 1966.

Bruce, Susan, with Ken Jones and Monica MacLean. ‘Some Notes on a Project: Democracy and Authority in the Production of a Discipline'. Pedagogy 7.3: 481 – 500. 2007.

Bruner, Jerome. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand . Cambridge MA : Harvard University Press. 1962.

Evans, Colin. ‘Teaching the Humanities: Seminars as Metalogues'. Studies in Higher Education . 15.3: 287 – 297. 1990.

Evans, Colin. English People: The Experience of Teaching and Learning English in British Universities. Buckingham: Open University Press. 1993.

_____ (ed.) Developing University English Teaching: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Humanities Teaching at University Level . Lampeter: Mellen. 1995.

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World . London : Routledge. 2 nd . Ed. 2002.

Jones, Ken, with Monica MacLean, David Amigoni and Margaret Kinsman. ‘Investigating the Production of University English in Mass Higher Education. Towards an Alternative Methodology. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education . 4.3: 247 – 264. 2005.

Knights, Ben. From Reader to Reader: Theory, Text, and Practice in the Study Group . Hemel Hempstead : Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1992.

__________ ‘Group Processes in Higher Education: The Uses of Theory'. Studies in Higher Education . 20.2: 136 – 146. 1995.

__________ ‘Intelligence and Interrogation: The Identity of the English Student'. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 4.1: 33 – 52. 2005.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By . Chicago : Chicago University Press. 1980.

Meyer, Jan and Ray Land. ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising Within the Disciplines' ETL Project, Occasional Report 4. 2003:1 and 4.

Meyer, Jan and Ray Land. ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning' Higher Education. 49: 373–388. 2005

Wareing, Shân. [forthcoming: publication on the argument on the ‘Orientalist' propensities of disciplines not yet published – check for details from author's website in due course ]


How to reference this page: Knights, B. (2007) Discipline-based pedagogic research: English in Higher Education. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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