In August 2016 Katie McGettigan attended a workshop on ‘Academics in the Classroom’ at the University of Oxford. In this report Katie summarises the main outcomes of the workshop, including some insight into the most effective ways to work with teachers and support the teaching of American texts in schools.
At the centre of the recent ‘Academics in the Classroom’ workshop, organised by Dr Catherine Redford with funding from a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, were two large questions: what does successful outreach with schools look like, and how can academics work together with teachers to deliver it?
The workshop, held at Hertford College, Oxford on August 15th and 16th, brought together Early Career Researchers in English and allied departments, and teachers of GCSE and
A Level English Literature and English Language. As a specialist in nineteenth-century American writing, I attended in order to find out how academics might support the teaching of American Literature in schools, especially in the wake of curriculum reforms under Michael Gove that removed the teaching of American texts at GCSE. More broadly, I wanted to get ideas about how to inform and get students enthused about topics that they might not necessarily encounter in the classroom – a challenge that also faces those in American History, Politics, and Studies when trying to recruit students and guarantee the future health of their subjects.
The workshop was structured around talks on different aspects of outreach. Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University opened by demonstrating how academics can support the teaching of historical and literary contexts, and critical interpretations. Context and interpretation cover two of the five Assessment Objectives at A Level, and are areas in which teachers, who often have no access to online databases, struggle to find accurate and up-to-date resources.
Teachers often have no access to online databases and struggle to find accurate and up-to-date resources.
Professor Smith also emphasised that, rather than being “stardust”, academics should always support the day-to-day work of teachers. Her talk was followed by reflections on outreach projects from Dr Laura Varnam, Dr Natasha Alden and Dr James Castell, who talked about University-based initiatives at Oxford, Aberystwyth and Cardiff, and from Michael Amess, a teacher from Hampstead School.
A panel on the new GSCE and A Level curricula detailed their opportunities and challenges for teachers and academics. At GSCE and A Level, the volume of work has increased substantially, while, in some places, the breadth of texts studies has narrowed. Jane Adams, Head of English at The Barclay School, explained that GSCE students will study a canon that is exclusively British, and overwhelmingly white and male. Dr Calum Mechie, Head of Key Stage 5 at Brentford School for Girls, suggested there are more opportunities for studying American and non-white texts at A Level, but that the sheer numbers of possible set texts makes it difficult for academics to know where their expertise might be useful. Also in this panel, PhD researcher Ushashi Dasgupta, and Dr Kate Ash-Irisarri discussed successful outreach projects around Dickens and Chaucer. Next was a session by Dr Velda Elliot, researcher in English Education at Oxford University, on Active Pedagogies, which encouraged academics as well as teachers to reflect on classroom strategies by asking them to participate in a lesson that taught interpretations of Shakespeare through drama.
Dr Gary Snapper, a former English teacher and researcher in English education, then shared his enlightening research on transitions to University. Snapper argued that although changes in expectations placed on students and in the scope of literary study at University are necessary, they can leave first years feeling lost and frustrated. The talk has encouraged me to carve out time in the first semester to discuss with students how they think studying literature has changed from A Level, and what they think we’re talking about when we talk about texts. Such discussions might be especially useful in American Studies programs, where students are being introduced to new sub-disciplines that they may not have studied at A Level, as well as a new interdisciplinary field.
Before planning an event consider who you want to engage and why – engagement can be as fruitful a path to impact as economic or public policy outcomes.
Day two opened with Dr Lesley Paterson, Senior Facilitator and Co-Ordinator for Public Engagement at Oxford University, discussing public engagement with research, including, but also moving beyond, outreach in schools. She encouraged academics to think of who they wanted to engage and why before planning events, and showed that engagement could be as fruitful a path to impact as
economic or public policy outcomes. She was followed by a roundtable from representatives from the Globe Theatre, the Bronte Parsonage Museum and the British Library, as well as an academic blogger, Dr Eleanor Parker, who talked about their work engaging the public. BAAS Members interested in outreach might consider teaming up with a local cultural institution to offer workshops, especially as American history and literature have often left rich footprints on this side of the pond.
Providing a case study of academic-teacher collaboration, Dr Marcello Giovanelli of Nottingham University and Dr Andrea McRae of Oxford Brookes University shared their experiences of running the Integrated English blog and conferences. Their talk anticipated the keynote by Adrian Barlow of the English Association, who addressed what might happen to English in schools and universities under the new curriculum. Barlow suggested that universities should consider whether they have a responsibility toward the future teaching of school English. GCSE students now have to study early nineteenth-century poetry, yet in university curriculum engineered to give high levels of student choice, students can avoid studying poetry – sometimes altogether. Whether or not university courses give sufficient subject knowledge for secondary teaching may be a particular problem for American Studies, in which students are balancing an interdisciplinary course load.
The most useful part of the workshop was, however, its opportunities for discussions between teachers and ECRs. What arose from these discussions has relevance beyond literary studies. Although most academics came to the workshop with the idea of outreach as direct student engagement, the teachers suggested that resources and workshops aimed at teachers could be more useful. An academic can work with a single class, but a teacher who works with an academic can share resources and information amongst an entire school.
Teachers welcome resources on literary and historical contexts – podcasts and videos are particularly useful.
Teachers said they would particularly welcome resources and training around literary and historical contexts, and new approaches to texts, and also that podcasts and videos were particularly useful. Ideas about ways to better direct teachers to open access research, and for organising a Sixth Form conference also emerged.
BAAS does successful outreach work with schools, thanks to the dedicated work of the Schools Representative on the Exec. As well as running our own schools’ conferences, we support the Congress to Campus initiative, and smaller schools events run by members. We have started to post talks from these events on our web channel, making them a useful resource for teachers. But there is much more we could do, particularly using the BAAS website as a platform for podcasts, discussion groups, and resources. I would welcome responses from teachers, or other members of the BAAS Community who have further ideas.
Tweets from the conference and ongoing discussion are under the hashtag #EnglishOutreach. Podcasts and Videos from the Workshop are available here.
Katie McGettigan is a Lecturer in American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and sits on the BAAS Executive Committee.