English Studies and the C-word(s): Class, Classrooms, & Contexts

Graham HallMCRn

This roundtable discussion reflects on the place of social class within the Higher Education English subject area(s). While English educators (language, literature and creative writing) are often advocates for equality, diversity and inclusion – and for social justice more broadly – the lenses we commonly apply to equality issues tend to focus on protected characteristics of race, gender, religion, sexuality, age and ethnicity (in line with the Equality Act, 2010). Discussions of socio-economic background and attainment are often more difficult to embed within educational curricula and processes relevant to general professional practices; consequently, the correlation between HE academic engagement and excellence (student and professional) is challenging to trace (Vandrick, 2014; Block 2014). Understanding more about the class-contexts of HE English university cultures makes patent sense in the current market – with falling application numbers to both secondary and tertiary Englishes across the sector; and the impetus to do so, as dust settles on the 2017 fee increase (to £9,250), has arguably never been higher. Issues of fees and student recruitment are core aspects of this discussion, but they also feeds into wider challenges of curriculum design, classroom pedagogical practice, and the concept of the student experience; wider HE pressures and professional working cultures relevant to class-backgrounds should also come under scrutiny in light of similar concerns.

This roundtable therefore aims to explore the relationship between social class and what, how, and to whom English might be taught in universities. Furthermore, we also ask how, from the perspective of social class, the academic journey through English (from undergraduate to lecturer and researcher) may play out. Discussion brings together lecturers and postgraduate students from Northumbria University – a former polytechnic with a high proportion of students from low-participation backgrounds (in stark contrast to its close-neighbours at Newcastle University and Durham University). Drawing upon the range of experiences of speakers and audience participants, the C-word roundtable will share individual and institutional perspectives on these sensitive issues. Each speaker will prepare lead-in discussion points and personal reflections on issues relating (but not limited to) class and: the student experience; tertiary recruitment; pedagogy; professional working cultures; and intersections with other equality issues/determinants.

Questions might include:

  • How is social class dealt with in the English(es) curricula, if at all? To what extent is ‘class-washing’ or ‘class awareness’ built in to our programme content?
  • In what ways do our classroom pedagogies and modes of assessment facilitate or create barriers to learning and achievement for students from a range of social backgrounds?
  • How do entrants to university English(es), either as students or as ECRs, from a range of social backgrounds experience their arrival and subsequent experience of the English academy? What enabling factors and/or barriers to participation and membership of the academic community exist?
  • How might we better engage with class (and its intersections with protected characteristics) through equality and diversity agendas?

Dr Clare Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Department of Humanities Equality and Diversity Lead, Northumbria University.
Dr Paul Frazer, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, Northumbria University.
Dr Graham Hall, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics/TESOL, Northumbria University.
Louise Pybus, Northumbria University BA English Language Studies alumnus, current Northumbria University PhD researcher.
Dr Lyndsey Skinner, Northumbria University BA (Hons) English Literature and PhD alumnus; writer.
Dr David Stewart, Associate Professor in Romantic Literature, Northumbria University.

Block, D. (2014) Social Class in Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge.
Vandrick, S. (2014) ‘The Role of Social Class in English Language Education’. Journal of Language, Identity and Education, 13/2. 85-91

Sat 3:45 pm - 5:00 pm