Bringing English up to date in the wake of coronavirus

New survey aims to foster more international collaboration in studying contemporary writing and help academics understand the needs of potential overseas students

May 18, 2020
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Universities may need support in engaging with the literature published during their students' lifetimes

Academics may need help in bringing British literature into the 21st century, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, when an understanding of the needs of international students will be crucial, according to Katy Shaw, professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University.

Professor Shaw has written widely on post-millennial fiction and, when Granta magazine published its new Best of Young British Novelists list in 2013, she accompanied the 20 writers to events and university visits around the world.

Although she “found that students were really hungry for contemporary literature”, keen to take modules and to write dissertations about it, many of their courses seemed to interpret “contemporary” as ending in 1945 or 1960.

And given the expected ructions in higher education caused by the coronavirus pandemic, she went on, British academics would need an even clearer sense of “what motivates a student to come to the UK” and how they can be supported.

“If someone rocks up to my campus and wants to do an MA in contemporary literature, that is really challenging if they have only read texts up to 1945, whereas my [British] students have been taught post-millennial material from day one,” she said. “There’s a big knowledge gap.”

Professor Shaw has found that recent British literature is taught in some unexpected places, though. Her own 2010 book David Peace: Texts and Contexts − a study of the writer whose novel about the football manager Brian Clough was filmed as The Damned United − sold quite well in the US because it is taught on sports studies degrees. What was unfortunate, she said, is that “no one has ever mapped where [post-millennial British novels, poetry and plays] are taught and how they are taught. We academics don’t know the market, and nor do authors and publishers.”

The British Association of Contemporary Literary Studies, of which Professor Shaw is vice-chair, makes available on its website details of all relevant courses in the UK. She has now launched a major new survey, with the support of the British Council, to gather similar information for the rest of the world.

Write Now: Teaching Post-Millennial British Literature Survey will be distributed through the British Council’s contact list of academics and subject associations all over the world. This will encourage universities and individual teachers to provide details of what such writing they teach, at what level and the name of the module. The survey will remain live until the end of September and results made available in an open-access report during the winter.

So how will this help academics working in the area?

“Mapping the field [will make] us better prepared to support [foreign students] and ensure [we] can give them an experience of parity with our own British students...That makes them feel more confident as learners and will help communication,” said Professor Shaw.

Furthermore, it would give individual scholars and their publishers “a better sense of likely markets for their work”, she added.

If the survey does identify countries that are “cold spots” with little interest in studying contemporary British literature, Professor Shaw made clear that there were no plans to “go in there with all guns blazing, saying: ‘Study British literature! What’s wrong with you?’”

But she remained confident that it would identify many areas for fruitful collaboration. On a previous British Council project in Russia, she had found “great interest in contemporary British literature” but academics operating with “no support, no professional development, no resources”.

Just as they had been able to provide guidance on that occasion, so now “if we identify a real emerging market in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, we can go in and help them and give them examples of lectures and teaching materials and networks”.

By providing information to the survey, academics would also benefit through enabling the whole discipline to “share resources, identify areas of interest and network better”, she said.

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