Set texts? New approaches to the teaching of literature in languages and related/area studies

Date: 6 June, 2003
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Seminar

Set texts? New approaches to the teaching of literature in languages and related/area studies

Programme | Event report

Past event summary

I really enjoyed the event and want to congratulate you on this excellent idea. It was an uplifting and inspiring symposium. I've already exchanged useful info with other participants via e-mail, so thanks again for the wonderful job you are doing in helping us all to interact with each other!

- Seminar attendee

The Subject Centre held a one-day seminar to explore innovatory approaches to the teaching of literature in or translated from languages other than English. Particular emphasis was placed on the evolving role of literature both as a subject of study in its own right (e.g. in language and area studies programmes) and as a tool of study in other disciplines (e.g. business, politics and the sciences).

Presentations focused on the following themes:

  • Teaching issues of gender through Slavonic literature
  • Applying Western methodologies to Eastern texts (in the postgraduate context)
  • Teaching literature in non-specialist language programmes
  • A French cultural studies approach to French literature and culture.

A workshop ran on the findings of a recent survey into the decline of literary studies in French language degrees.


10.00 - 10.30 Registration and Coffee
10.30 - 11.15 Critical questions: literature and French (Cultural) Studies in the 2000s
Diana HolmesUniversity of Leeds
11.15 - 12.00 The Cavalry Maiden rides again or how cross-dressing makes heroines of us all...
Margaret Tejerizo, University of Glasgow
12.00 - 12.45 Teaching literature in non-specialist language programmes
Geraldine McDermott & Marguerite Shanley, Athlone Institute of Technology
12.45 - 13.45 Lunch
13.45 - 14.30 Teaching/Reading Polish Literature through Interdisciplinary Approaches
Elwira Grossman, University of Glasgow
14.30 - 15.15 Workshop session: Requiem for French literary studies: a survey of recent trends
Diana Jones for Catherine Rogers and Gabriel Jacobs, University of Wales, Swansea
15.15 - 15.30 Afternoon tea
15.30 - 16.15 Innovation and change in literary studies: an overview
Michael Kelly, University of Southampton
16.15 Close

Event report: Set texts? New approaches to the teaching of literature in languages and related/area studies

by Diana Jones

I enjoyed the day so much! It's a very long time, in fact, that I have 'got so much out of' an event and so much goes to you and team for excellent organisation and for making us all feel so welcome - and that's apart from the academic side of things!

- Seminar attendee

Professor Diana Holmes (University of Leeds)

Diana Holmes opened the proceedings with a case-study of a Cultural Studies approach to teaching literature. She started by outlining a ‘mythical view’ of literary study. According to this view, prior to the 1970s canonical texts were studied strictly according to the time period and social origin of their authors, until a broadening of student intake in the 70s lead to a new approach seen as more relevant to the lives of students. From an autobiographical stance, she then explained that the new approach was not quite as remarkable as the myth appears to suggest, and that courses continued to combine close literary study with a recognition of the cultural work performed by literature. Importantly, the so-called ‘new approaches’ to teaching literature have been in place for rather longer than is usually recognised.

Important concepts in teaching literature identified in this presentation included the relativity of perspective learnt from literary study, and the student’s acquisition of an understanding of difference and of sameness. It was noted that endorsement of the student’s views is important, and that this is best achieved through listening and agreeing to the points made, before recapping them in a more formal way. The teacher might use expressions like: ‘So what I think you’re saying here is…’.

The issue of target language teaching was also raised. It was observed that the practical aspect of attracting students from a range of disciplines necessitated teaching in English.

Dr Margaret Tejerizo (University of Glasgow)

In this paper, Margaret Tejerizo discussed changes in the experience of teaching literature for both the student and the teacher. In the early 1980s, she recalled, students represented a ‘silent and frozen group’ who listened silently to lectures without contributing anything in their own right. As an example of how different things had been, she quoted the example of ab initio students of Russian who were required to read texts in the original after only 12 weeks exposure to the language.

She went on to cite a small book on teaching methodology from the 1960s, indicating once again that ‘new’ approaches to literary study had existed for longer than was typically acknowledged. She demonstrated that R. Arthur’s, The Teaching of literature, published in 1964, was still relevant to teaching literature in the modern university climate.

Turning to the example of Durova’s The Cavalry Maiden, a text she has been teaching for the past few years, Margaret went on to illustrate how use of the internet has made a much wider range of materials available to students and provided new ways for students to find ways into the text. She strongly emphasised the need to break down the traditional barrier between the teacher and her ‘frozen audience’ and above all, for the need to transmit enthusiasm for the material taught. Attention was paid to issues pertaining to the nature of the text itself, and the way in which content can impact on students’ lives to the extent where they form a lifelong bond with the texts and characters studied.

Geraldine McDermott (and Marguerite Shanley) (Athlone Institute of Technology)

This paper addressed the role of literature in non-specialist language programmes. Geraldine, McDermott began by establishing that students from a range of business-orientated courses recognise the value of literary study and its relevance to their future careers.

The issue of aliteracy, defined as a disinclination to read, was also discussed. Aliterate students have the ability to read, but claim not to see the point. These students tend not to read books in English, let alone in other languages. Thus, it was argued that the ultimate goal of literature courses in the context of non-specialist language study is to produce habitual readers. Surveys of students and staff had shown that while most welcomed the study of literature, some texts were seen as intimidating. The use of popular literature, relatively short texts using modern or slang language was seen as particularly useful in these courses. A major draw of the texts in question was their difference from the standard textbooks or news articles used in other course modules.

As non-specialist language students tend to be very practically minded, material needs to be very accessible (e.g. with resources available on line), concrete themes need to be addressed, focus must be on the meaning, rather than the structure of the language and empathy with the story’s characters must be possible. Again, the issue of empowerment was raised. Concepts such as writing on-line reviews for books listed on the Amazon website were shown to bring literature into the ‘real world’ and validate the student’s own opinions and reactions to the text.

Dr Elwira Grossman (University of Glasgow)

Elwira Grossman outlined the problems of attracting postgraduate students to courses in Slavonic Studies. Despite the imminent accession of Poland to the EU in 2004, no postgraduate students are currently working in her department, and Polish Studies do not seem to be seen as relevant. Grossman suggested that marketing the interdisciplinary, elements of the discipline, e.g. Gender, Cultural, Identity, Performance, Jewish Studies, would be worthwhile. Despite the break down of traditional taboos in the late 1980s, she argued, there was still much to explore. She cited a number of traditional philological binarisms dividing Polish studies between, for example, Jewish and non-Jewish studies, Émigré and non-Émigré studies. She argued that a confrontation between the periphery and core of the discipline (and traditional society), and a closer examination of the ‘underground’ might constitute a rich terrain for postgraduate research.

Another common criticism of the discipline was that Polish popular culture is traditionally overlooked by serious critics. The notion of ‘artistic merit’ was recognised as being particularly subjective, and one which might be usefully tackled by postgraduate students. While acknowledging that there is room for many models to exist side-by-side, including that of traditional Polish philology, Grossman closed by emphasising the need for new approaches to be adopted, in order that Polish studies might establish its place in the worldwide modern Humanities.

Dr Diana Jones (Subject Centre)

speaking on behalf of Gabriel Jacobs, Catherine Rogers and Alan Watkins (University of Wales, Swansea)

Diana Jones presented the findings of a two-phase survey into perceptions surrounding recent changes in the teaching of literary studies in French. The survey indicated that, as Diana Holmes and Margaret Tejerizo had observed, the perceived changes began in the 1970s, with increased class sizes, and that changes in the quantity and style of texts taught had occurred increasingly since the 1980s.


The discussion confirmed that the findings for French literary studies tended to correlate to the experiences of teachers in other languages. Colleagues in less widely taught languages such as Russian, Polish and Scandinavian languages, were obliged to teach literature in translation in order to retain student numbers although other arguments, such as the need to develop students’ critical and analytical abilities, were put forward for French.

Professor Michael Kelly (Subject Centre and University of Southampton)

In the closing session Michael Kelly identified the two key themes of ‘Power and Identity’ emerging from the day’s discussions. He observed that the study of literature provided ways for students (usually representing the 18-25 or 55+ age brackets) to ‘try on’ new identities and address questions such as ‘who am I?’ ‘Who could I be?’ or ‘Who will I be?’. This transformative aspect of literary study could, he argued, be used as a key marketing tool for the subject, but there are still equally significant barriers to overcome.

One such barrier is that Literature itself carries significant social and cultural power. Thus Literature teachers themselves become powerful as a result of their literary knowledge, their position as the teacher, and their years of training and experience. To teach literature effectively they must address the question of how to democratise Literature. Teachers need to learn how to manage their textual power, neither scaring students away nor denying their own authority.

Mike noted that students can get very excited about the issues of identity raised by literary study and asked how we might usefully tap into that energy. Above all, he acknowledged that in teaching literature we may be seriously tampering with people’s identities and lives. We want them to be touched, but not hurt or damaged by what we do. At present, it appears that literary study is not coming across as exciting although, as this argument emphasised, there is very little that is more relevant or more exciting than literature.


During discussion the question of differentiation was again raised. As course offerings in HE multiply, the place occupied by literature in specialist and non-specialist programmes needs to be vigorously defended. This may mean making it into more of a ‘feature’ of language-related courses and highlighting its relevance to students’ lives and future careers. For literary study to be maintained by language departments more energetic marketing will be needed and must be instigated at pre-A-Level level.

It was also pointed out that literary texts set from A-Level onward do not reflect what is read or set in the countries where the language is spoken.


Altogether this very stimulating day not only rehearsed the issues contributing to the current ‘crisis’ in Literature teaching in Modern Languages, but discussed new (and not so new) ideas for materials, methods and approaches to the subject that could make it more attractive to a wider range of students.

Literature should have ceased to be seen as elitist as far back as the 70s when it opened up to a wider range of students, but the society of the new century is very different from that of the 70s and in a multimedia society of ‘different’ readers, Literature may have to re-earn its place in the Cultural order.