What is knowledge in English? A workshop for educators in English at all levels

Bob EaglestoneMMUb

Knowledge is a central idea of education and research: yet the sort of knowledge that English teaches and provides is complex. The aim of this workshop, aimed at teachers of English at all levels, is to investigate both theoretically and practically what knowledge in this discipline is.

This is a pressing question not only of intellectual interest. In education more widely, ‘knowledge’ – understood in a range of novel ways, often drawing on educational psychology - is becoming the key rhetoric.

In secondary education, the question of ‘What is knowledge for English?’ is being posed by the demands of curriculum design and by the growth of a range of cognitive models for learning drawn from psychology, and perhaps of questionable use in English. It is also a crucial question for teachers for the understanding of their role in educating students not only for future study of the subject but also for their lives as educated citizens.

In Higher education, the well-known fissiparousness of the discipline, the dominance of historicism (which suggests that literary knowledge is historical knowledge, often constructed in a positivist form), the growth of the digital humanities and the attendant use of a mass corpus, alongside the rise of creative writing, all pose questions about what knowledge in the subject is.

At both levels, ‘knowledge’ is used to differentiate the discipline from ‘skills’ and ‘the skills agenda’, yet the ‘know-how’ associated with practising the subject is intimately related to what we know. Knowledge is also central to issues of assessment – are we seeking to test what is known, what is ‘mastered’, what is understood or, perhaps, what is felt? These issues are given more urgency at a time when recruitment into the discipline is a cause for concern.


This 75 minute workshop will begin with a short overview of the issue of knowledge in the discipline, briefly highlighting both the historical and more philosophical concerns, along with some of the current ways of thinking about knowledge that are emerging at secondary level.

It will then turn to a practical exploration, inviting educators at all levels to explore what knowledge in the subject might be.

We suggest that English is a complex mixture of different forms of knowledges. These may map onto older traditions of knowledge (say, the five intellectual virtues in Aristotle: craftsmanship, knowledge, wisdom, understanding and intelligence) or may be understood in more recent kinds of analysis of knowledge.

Certainly English is a mixture of generic knowledge (of the deep forms that structure the novel, for example); linguistic knowledge; contextual and traditional knowledge (of some of the key movements in literary history, for example); ‘how to’ knowledge (finding one’s way around a poem); and other, perhaps more demanding kinds of knowing.

We hope that this will add to the growing conversation over these matters.

Barbara Bleiman was until recently Co-Director of EMC and continues to work there as an Education Consultant and Co-Editor of emagazine. She is a novelist and a Salon Guest at ESF.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of Literature: why it matters (Polity 2019)

Sat 12:45 pm - 2:00 pm