WWW-based stylistics teaching

Author: Mick Short


This paper describes the development of an interactive, learning should be fun, WWW-based introductory undergraduate course in stylistics and a pedagogical experiment to be undertaken involving the course. The WWW-based course is itself derived from a more traditional lecture-seminar course and the aim is to compare student reactions to, and performance on, the two different versions of the course. The pedagogical principles underlying the two versions of the course are discussed, as well as the design of the experiment. Stylistics teachers in other HE institutions are invited to take part in the pedagogical experiment.

Table of contents


Mick Short is currently developing an introductory WWW-based course for students interested in the stylistic analysis of literary texts(see Notes). The WWW-based course is based on an existing successful lecture-seminar course that has been taught to first year students at Lancaster University for some years. The eventual aim is to run an experiment, in Lancaster and elsewhere, using the two different versions of the course, in order to compare student responses and learning outcomes to WWW-based and more traditional teaching. The WWW-based course should be ready for the academic year 2002/3, when it will be pilot-tested in Lancaster. In the following year the major experiment will be run in Lancaster and other HE institutions in the UK and overseas. Colleagues in some other institutions have already 'signed up' to take part in the experiment, but Mick is hoping that a few more stylistics teachers in other HE institutions will be interested in taking part in the experiment. This will involve providing the WWW-based and traditional lecture-seminar formats side-by-side to parallel groups of students, and monitoring both groups using a common set of methods. We hope, after the experiment has been run, to make the course available, free to all, on the web. But that depends on getting copyright clearance from authors and publishers for some of the texts we are using (this is proving to be a rather thorny and time-consuming issue). Anyone who is interested is invited to contact Mick at the above email address.

The traditional lecture-seminar version of the course

The present approach embodied in this course was originally conceived by Mick Short and Mike Breen (now Professor of Language Education at the University of Stirling (see Breen and Short 1988 Short and Breen 1988). Dan McIntyre currently runs the course with Mick. It was originally a 'long thin' course, running through the first year. Because of larger-scale changes to our curriculum it is now being run as a 'short fat' course, in one term. It has the following design features:

  1. The main aim of the course is to enable students to read texts sensitively, and perform stylistic analysis on texts they are encountering for the first time (in this sense it follows on from, and shares some assumptions with, the less analytical 'practical criticism' courses with which many will be familiar). All three literary genres (plus relevant comparisons with non-literary texts) are explored and a wide range of texts and textual extracts are used.
  2. We assume that students beginning the course will have little, if any, knowledge of the formal and pragmatic properties of the English language, and of stylistic analysis (though increasingly some, but by no means all will have done some elementary English language work at school).
  3. Students should interact with literary (and non-literary) texts from day 1 and in each week of the course.
  4. Language description and analytical skills are not taught in 'blocks' (which previous students found indigestible), but are 'drip-fed' - i.e. introduced at the point it is needed to help describe a particular text or account for a particular issue being discussed.
  5. Learning should be as 'hands-on' and interactive as possible, with students doing tasks individually and in small groups in both lectures and seminars.
  6. Learning should be fun. Besides the acting out (by staff and students) of dramatic extracts etc., lectures have always involved 'silly' moments (e.g. games, jokes, illustrative comic sketches) to illustrate and reinforce points being made.
  7. To hold learner interest, learning should be in digestible chunks and varied (and appropriate), in terms of texts, analytical methods and pedagogical approach, both within and across sessions.
  8. The checksheet approach developed in Short (1996) is used extensively (and will also be used in the WWW-based version of the course).

The WWW-based version of the course

If the teaching experiment is to be able to compare like with like, we need to ensure that the course content and as many of the above design features as possible are present in the WWW-based version of the course. That said, the new format is bound to involve changes. Below we list some of the salient features of this version of the course (which provides very similar, but not identical, content compared with the version just described):

  1. There is a heavy interest on students working with other students if possible, to help reproduce the 'social' element of traditional teaching. In the Lancaster version of the experiment, students will access the web site in small groups in workshops run in computer laboratories, as well as being able to 'log on' outside these class hours.
  2. Students are continually involved in doing tasks on texts and related matters, and then comparing their conclusions with ours, via a variety of 'feedback' means (e.g. 'guess and test' and 'drag and drop' devices, or comparing an account of a text or text-part they have produced with one we have).
  3. The electronic version of the course is divided into thirteen topics, several of which have two 'sessions'. Each page of each 'session' has a 'click-on' menu down the left-hand side of the screen, which indicates the other 'pages' in that session and some other elements (e.g. click-ons to a grammar website, a topic-contents summary, a glossary, and advice on reading). This structure has several purposes:

    (a) to signal to students that the course is similar to others they will be taking

    (b) to indicate what we think is a sensible order for them to go through the web pages (though we know they will also 'go their own way') and

    (c) to aid navigation through what is, after all, a complex site. (There is also a navigation bar at the top of each page with links to the contents page, the welcome and introduction pages, a course summary page and the course homepage).

  4. The 'learning should be varied and fun' assumption is achieved through a number of means. The breaking up of the materials into a series of reasonably short web pages with interactive exercises on each page keeps our commitment to the idea that learning should be varied. Besides written material, there are audio and video-clips (e.g. of texts to be analysed, discussions and, between Mick and Dawn, of particular exercises). We also use cartoon presentations, variations in text colour, size and shape and appropriate moving visual effects. Most of the academic WWW-based courses we have seen so far have been very text-dominated and, of course, stylistic analysis also needs be very text-dependent. But we are working hard to negate the 'boring set of lecture notes dumped on the web' effect.
  5. Besides interactive links from one page to another within the website itself, there are also links to other sites (including sites about authors whose texts are being analysed and the University College London Internet Grammar site).
  6. The finished site will have an on-line 'discussion room' where students (and staff) can ask questions and pose answers and also a self-assessment mechanism for students to practise stylistic analysis on three texts (one from each main literary genre) before doing their coursework assessment at the end of the course (which takes the form of a stylistic analysis of a chosen text). This self-assessment mechanism is based on extracts from the essays written by students on the 2000/2001 version of the course.

The teaching experiment

Mick allowed students who do the traditional course in January-March 2002 to have access to the materials thus far produced (more then half the web site was available) in order to get initial feedback. The pilot test will be conducted in Lancaster only in the academic year 2002/3, and the main experiment, in Lancaster and elsewhere, will be run in 2003/4. Although the Lancaster students will be first year students taught in one term, there is no requirement that this should automatically be the case in other institutions. Different contexts may require different timings, formats and administrative arrangements. However, it will be important to discuss possible variations with Mick in order to make sure that the arrangements put in place are appropriate and will enable a reasonable comparison between the two modes of delivery.

Besides the WWW-based version of the course, collaborators will be given a master set of handouts to use in the lecture-seminar version of the course and videotapes of the lectures on the 2001/2 version of the course, so that they can have a flavour of the approach we use. The monitoring of student and staff reactions to the two different versions of the course will be conducted via questionnaires, tape-recorded interviews and tape-recorded focus group sessions (conducted at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the course).

Those who want to collaborate in the experiment will be allowed access to the website straight away, so that they can monitor development and give comments on it. They will be able to run the WWW-based course in their institutions during the experiment (and hopefully thereafter, though we are still trying to clear copyright issues with respect to some of the texts we want to use on the site).

Collaborators will also be given sample questionnaires and lists of questions and prompts to use in the tape-recorded data-collection sessions. We will also have an on-line discussion group for collaborators to use, as well as direct email contact with us.

Concluding remarks

We are very interested in hearing from anyone wishing to take part in the experiment. We have already talked through our plans and demonstrated our web site at LTSN sessions for Modern Languages and Linguistics, at the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) conferences in London (August 2000), Budapest (April 2001), Birmingham (April 2002) and elsewhere.


Mick is using the prize money from his 2000 National Teaching Fellowship Scheme fellowship (sponsored by the Institute for Learning and Teaching) to finance the development of the web site and pilot-test the educational experiment.


M. P. Breen, M. P. and M. Short (1988) 'Alternative Approaches in Teaching Stylistics to Beginners', Parlance 1, 2, 29-48.

Short, M. (1993) 'Stylistics Upside Down: Using Stylistics in the Teaching of Language and Literature' Textus VI, 3-30 (reprinted in R. Carter and J. McRae (1996) Language, Literature and the Learner, , pp. 41-64, Longman).

Short, M. (1996) Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose. London: Longman.

Short, M. and M. P. Breen (1988) 'Innovations in the Teaching of Literature (1): Putting Stylistics in its Place', Critical Quarterly 30, 2, 1, 1-8.

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