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Assessment design and critical (literary) theory

Once again I have been wrestling with the difficulties of a module designed to introduce students to critical theory.  This is particularly difficult on the degree course I teach, because English only constitutes 50% of the course - so however I try to fit critical theory in, it needs to be done effectively enough so that students have a confident grasp of it before they hit their final year, where an understanding of the relationships between text and theory become pre-supposed.

I have been trying to grapple with this challenge for many years now, and have variously gone through phases of:

questioning the value of critical theory altogether, and asking whether we really need it? (I eventually came to the conclusion that we do).
embedding critical theory in modules, rather than having a dedicated standalone module (but this led to repetition and confusion).trying to crow-bar critical thinking into Research Methods modules, as a research method (a nice idea but proved impractical). 
I …

Studying Literature: How to design assessment that teaches students what they need to know

For me, the first English module of the course is always the most difficult.  Introductory modules are often given the near-impossible task of providing students with everything they need in order to continue studying the subject at a higher level - but particularly in literature this seems to be an increasingly difficult task.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, while there are countless Study Skills guides now available for students to use, there is very little in terms of clear guidelines and support for how to do English literature.  In particular, the idea of 'textual analysis' remains on the whole largely undefined.  I have posted about this issue a couple of times already, so won't go into it again here.

The other issue relates to what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as 'cultural capital' or 'habitas'.  This notion relates to the extent to which there are often broad assumptions made about the basic levels of education people have - and I don't…

English Dissertation: Three core questions

The most basic core of a dissertation plan hinges on three main questions:

What do you want to know?How are you going to find out?What will you do with the answers?
The answer to the questions will hinge on your initial narrowing of a research area.   The range of research or project areas can be varied, but a very generic approach might suggest that for a literature project the answers could include:

What do you want to know?How or whether a text, or texts within a particular period demonstrate a particular characteristic, or reflect a historical or sociological context.
Whether concrete evidence can be identified which adds to our understanding of a particular text, or whether a group of evidences can be analysed in ways which allow for different conclusions
How different critical approaches to a text or texts can add to our appreciation / understanding of it.
How are you going to find out?Through primary research and close analysis of your key texts.By looking at either primary historica…

English Dissertation: Structure of your topic

English Dissertation: Structure of your topic



Your literary dissertation might be one of the following:
• An argument for or against an existing critic (or critical position) in relation to the author or group of works you are studying
• An argument about the importance of a particular influence of a writer, or influence exerted by him or her
• An argument for the importance of some particular piece of evidence to the discussion of the work of some author or group of authors
• An argument about the value of a theoretical approach to a text or set of texts
• An argument about the significance of a particular authors work
• An argument about some historical or literary-historical aspect of literature
• An argument about existing scholarly texts on a particular work
• An argument showing how a particular theme or concept may be related to a group of texts

English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic

English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic



1. Develop a topic that has interested you throughout your undergraduate career.
For some people this is obvious. Some students come to the dissertation knowing exactly whom they want to work with and what they want to write about. For others, the dissertation is part of the process of exploring. It may help to look for your patterns of interest.
Make a list of classes you have taken as a student. Look at the essays you have written. Make a list of your favourite texts and authors. Make a list of things you like to read or think about. What patterns emerge? What topics and questions have continually interested you? Look for ways to connect seemingly disparate topics.
Start a file of topics that interest you. If you begin early, you'll have a jump-start on choosing a dissertation topic. If you're reading this because you are now at the dissertation stage already, a file can still be useful if you include ideas for later proje…

English Dissertation: What is it?

English Dissertation: What is it?



You’re (almost) on your own!
This dissertation itself is an extended project that will run the length of your final year.  You will have the opportunity to define your own area of interest and identify an area within it that you can research.  You will be able to research different aspects of it, identifying appropriate sources.  You will be able to write up your own conclusions with a depth, and sustained argument unlike any of your other assessments.  Through the dissertation, students are able to develop and demonstrate new levels of independence (both intellectually and in terms of using academic skills).


You will not be given an essay title.You will not be given learning outcomes.You will not be given a reading list.The responsibility is yours to find a problem or issue, within a specific area, which you can research – and this is what makes the module both exciting … and daunting.  Think about your other assignments as learning to ride a bike.  The…

Can using social networks lead to better essays?

This is my first blog of the new term, and is rather conveniently facilitated by the fact that I forgot to pre-order my books at the British Library, and have a rather pleasant wee wait until the real work begins. In fact, getting back to blogging is something which is long overdue – for no other reason that I have found the process of blogging a necessary form of exercise, and this has made me think quite a lot again about the value of social networks for study purposes.

I remember once getting some very good advice from a journalist colleague, who said that I should make sure that I write something everyday. Of course, that is never going to happen – but I can certainly testify that if I let myself go too long without writing anything not only do I struggle more to write when I need to, but even my thinking seems to calcify. It is almost as though the process of writing forces us to solidify thoughts in a way which we might not otherwise do – and until we solidify our thoughts they…