Education and Arts

Frances Christie

Emeritus Professor, University of Melbourne and University of Sydney

Seizing the moment: the case of English literature studies

With the advent of the National Curriculum, it is timely to consider that no school subject has generated more heat and heated debate over the years than school subject English.  What might be involved then, in seizing the moment, as the conference suggests? While much of the debate has been about matters such as the values of teaching grammar, or the claims of genre theory in teaching writing, another area of disagreement has been the study of English literature. Here, while there have been arguments over the rival claims of the literary canon and of popular culture, there have also been arguments over what is involved in responding to and evaluating literary texts. A strong argument has often been advanced over the years regarding the need to encourage students to develop "their own" responses to literature in reasonably unfettered ways.  This paper will consider the teaching and learning of English literary studies (ELS). Drawing on both Bernstein (2000) and Maton's work on knowledge and knower codes, I shall argue that in learning to respond to literary texts students are apprenticed into ways of interpreting, evaluating and responding to literary texts, where considerable constraints actually apply. In fact students must learn to adopt the desired "gaze" in responding to literature, displaying capacity to establish symbolic meanings by reference to literary texts and demonstrating facility in expression of abstract ideas. My object will be to uncover what is involved in developing  such facility, so that we can indeed "seize the moment" in terms of teaching English literature.


Bernstein, B. (2000) (2nd. Ed.) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity. Theory, Research, Critique. Rowman and Littlefield: Boston and Oxford.

Maton, K., Hood, D. and Shay, S. (Eds.) in press) Knowledge Building: Educational Studies in Legitimation Code Theory. Routledge.