Contingencies of Meaning Making: English Teaching and Literary Sociability

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This paper draws on interviews conducted as part of the Australian Research Council funded Discovery project Investigating Literary Knowledge in the Making of English Teachers. Those interviews inquire into the role of literary knowing in the professional learning of early career English teachers, focusing specifically on their experiences as they make the transition, via teacher education programmes, from university students of English to school teachers. We have also been interested in how key institutional settings, practices and policies might have shaped their experiences of literary education at tertiary level; the knowledge and values they bring to their work as English teachers; and the professional learning they undergo in their first years of teaching. The aim of this article is to present an exploration of ‘literary sociability’, a working concept of the project for identifying and exploring ways of literary meaning making that might have particular relevance and use for understanding early career English teachers’ experiences across the settings of their education and work.

This article about the English classroom and literary engagement arises out of the project Investigating Literary Knowledge in the Making of English Teachers, funded by the Australian Research Council (2016–2019). Our specific interests in this project are in questions of literary meaning making and the experience of early career English teachers as they make the transition from being graduates to teachers of English and literature within our contemporary Australian pedagogical and policy context. This environment is currently characterised by a pronounced emphasis on improving students’ ‘literacy’ skills (that is, language for functional purposes) rather than on the role that literature might play in their education (Van de Ven and Doecke 4), prompting us to investigate the salience of graduates’ literary knowledge when they enter the English teaching profession. The broader project asks these questions: How do we understand literary knowledge and what is its role within subject English? What do curricular frames assume literary knowledge is and what has been the beginning teacher’s prior experience of learning about literature? How do beginning teachers, in their early experience of the classroom, negotiate those frames?

In relation to these questions, this article aims to articulate some constitutive relations between literary sociability and literary knowledge, both multiplex terms. The understanding of literary sociability explored here is also an extension of our work elsewhere, which examines this idea within the English classroom in contrast to other ‘networks of writers and readers that cluster around’ literary activities and institutions (McLean Davies et al. 229). As a further investigation of this concept, we offer a heuristic for identifying and expanding our understanding of the relational scenes of knowing and learning about literary texts that happen in the classroom, where modes of reading (and writing) are practised and meanings are produced. These scenes of knowing are not settled spaces of knowledge transmission, still less ones for skilling and drilling students for the purposes of standardised literacy tests, but rapidly changing, disciplinarily contested and new-media-inflected spaces.

Literary sociability refers to an eclectic range of events and contexts where literary meaning making takes place in plural social settings. The disparate groups and events where literary sociability operates, sometimes informal and sometimes institutional, all share an emphasis on the experience and uses of literary texts in groups or communities whose constitution is defined by literary and reading activities of one kind or another. In the Australian tertiary literary studies context, Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon’s deployment of the term in their edited collection, Republics of Letters (2012), is designed specifically to shift attention from ‘individual writers and great books to examin[ing] the various forms of community that facilitate and sustain writing and reading, and also the kinds of communal identities that are formed by the practices of writing and reading’ (v). In their introduction, Kirkpatrick and Dixon instance schools as sites of a kind of literary sociability, along with reading groups, book clubs, writers’ festivals and other non-professional communities of literary study. With respect to the use of the term literary sociability within institutional settings such as schools, the transactions surrounding literary texts within an English classroom are shaped by specific attitudes and practices that make them distinctive. For one thing, unlike book clubs and writers’ festivals, students in school settings hardly participate on a voluntary basis. Those settings are also organised hierarchically, which does not easily accord with the free association and social networking that Kirkpatrick and Dixon, drawing on Joan Shelly Rubin’s history of books and reading in the United States, ascribe to the notion of literary sociability (Kirkpatrick and Dixon vi–vii). But this is not to say that the concept of literary sociability is foreign to how influential educators have conceptualised English curriculum and pedagogy over the decades.

In the context of the history of English curriculum and pedagogy, many educationalists have emphasised the determinate social aspects of the classroom. Marjorie Hourd’s notion of ‘in-betweenness’, for example, is a response to a binary in educational discourse between pedagogical theory, which is out of touch with classroom realities, and ‘tips-for-teachers’, which reduce classrooms to sites where teachers simply deliver ‘knowledge’ to their students (18). Classrooms, according to Hourd, should be conceived as sites for social interaction where students and their teachers are able to share their experiences and, on that basis, engage in the joint construction of meaning. In-betweenness, she argues, ‘is the quality that matters, that educates. We all recognise in-betweenness in everyday life as a state of existence which belongs neither to one thing nor another but has its own significance’ (125). Post-Dartmouth discourse about English teaching also frequently evokes a pedagogical mode for the English classroom that emphasises activity and doing, the active voice, student-centred language arts and knowledge in the making.1 All of these features assume the sociality of the classroom, but often from a concern to promote good pedagogy without necessarily making that assumption an object for scrutiny or philosophical reflection. The work of John Dixon (1967) and Douglas Barnes (1976) highlights the constitution of collectively generated meanings as a result of what happens when students and their teachers come together to talk and write about books. Yet, it still seems fair to say that within the sociality of the English classroom, what we call literary sociability has not been fully recognised, either for its continuities and affinities with other forms of literary sociability in the wider community, outside the formal educational setting, or for its different, constitutive role in collective meaning making via literary texts in the classroom.

Early career teachers have recent experience of literary sociability across the contexts of their own education, including pre-service education and other activities in which they may have participated in other institutional settings (such as book clubs, reading groups). We have also found that the concept might be used to explain the important impulses behind their professional work in the classroom, even though they have not used this term in the accounts they have given to us of their teaching. Many of them are facilitating activities that promote literary sociability, and much would be gained, in the form of an enhanced understanding of their practice (or a more ‘knowing practice’, as Stephen Kemmis expresses it), by naming those activities as such. We draw special attention to the scene of encounter with literary texts in the school English class as the collective construction of contingent, unsystematic, impure, ‘untutored’, collaborative meanings, the stuff of exchanges which occur when students in classroom settings offer and share their opinions about a text chosen for study. While on one level these exchanges are generated by the activities of the classroom, they are not fixed and are therefore unexpected, exploratory, unpredictable and serendipitous – perhaps not even generative. This meaning making is an open-ended and processual mode of knowing, subject to revision, and does not necessarily conform to any educational outcomes, as these might be defined in curriculum documents. This is in contradistinction to the classroom characterised by the transmission of pre-defined or static knowledge or meanings; of the cultivation of literary or aesthetic appreciation on the part of individuals; or, of a curricular-determined teleology of educational norms or outcomes (Yandell, ‘Culture, Knowledge and Power’).

These aspects of meaning making are not always recognised in the many accounts in educational discourse of what learning is to be achieved in English classrooms or how attitudes, identities and values are transmitted through the study of literary texts (ACARA). There have certainly been significant attempts to affirm the value of meaning making within classroom settings, most notably Ian Reid’s argument about the need to reconceptualise classrooms as workshops, with an emphasis on writing, where students can explore the complexities of the relationship between texts and contexts as well as the assumptions behind their own interpretations of literary texts (The Making of Literature 20). Yet, the spectre of what Reid characterises as the ‘Gallery’ (that is, the fetishisation of authors and books as part of various literary canons) still looms large in debates about the role of literature within the English curriculum, as well as the pressures posed by high stakes examinations to formalise interpretation and to privilege the essay produced under exam conditions as the most legitimate form of response to literary works (Teese 14). Preparation for examinations, including familiarity with the protocols for writing essays for high stakes assessment, marginalises the possibility of other forms of engaging with literary texts, and of embracing the contingent, relational, every day, situated creation of literary texts’ meanings in the social and negotiated setting of the classroom. We emphasise ‘contingent’ because such interpretive activities are both dependent on the text as the collective site of reading and meaning making, and are processual and unpredictable. These are all qualities that conflict with the heavy emphasis in current policy on being able to specify a set of outcomes in advance of instruction that supposedly legitimate the teaching of literature (ACARA).

Varieties of sociability

Reading is typically thought of as something private and solitary. Indeed, such individual states are privileged as the ideal form of engagement with literary texts (Pawley 144; Yandell, Social Construction 25). With solitary reading we seem to experience the deepest, purest subjective involvement in our reading of literature; we learn how to dwell, as individuals, with texts, their history, language, affect and what we know or imagine of their authors, and their ability to expand interiority and enhance self-reflection and imagination. But while such moments are a vital aspect of the experience of engaging with literary texts, equally important is the social scene of literary meaning making, which can be a more variously communal or public phenomenon. These two dimensions are obviously closely interconnected; they might each be said to be a condition for the other. As Pawley and Mello et al. observe, the experience of literature is both individual and social, not divided and separate: the individual experience is always linked to and mediated by the social experience (though not in any rigidly deterministic way), while the social experience relies on and incorporates the individual reading (184-186). This dialectic of subjective and collective experience of literary study helps to explain what Deidre Shauna Lynch points to as ‘English studies’ eccentric relation to the norms of publicness and impersonality that seem to govern other knowledge-producing occupations’ (5).

Literary meaning making, then, is characteristically the result of inter-personal, social and institutional relations. Literary communities and/or literary-social events are formed around the varieties of reading, discussion, learning experience and interpretive work between individuals in groups (Doecke, ‘What I Know’ 304). There are many communities of literary engagement of varying size and constituents – book clubs, literary festivals, intra-family reading, poetry readings, reading and discussion groups (in face to face format or on digital platforms), TV and radio book shows, creative writing workshops, theatre company and dramatic society readings, and others. School classrooms and university seminars and conferences can also be characterised as social settings. But these locations are ones where the study of literary texts – their language and form; their history and cultural value – usually comprises part of formal or professionalised English or Literary Studies, and where the teacher and the apparatus of the discipline have some kind of influential and structurally determining presence.

The secondary English classroom

The school English class, mediated by hierarchical structures and often by non-negotiable examinations (at the upper secondary level, at least) is a distinctive site of literary meaning making and perhaps the most pervasive and influential site of the experience of literary texts in Australian society, with its various state-based compulsory English curricula. Yet, as we have suggested earlier, its distinctiveness as a site of literary education is often in tension with the realities of individual and groups’ engagement with literary texts, and their meaning making. The English classroom is a social structure and at the same time, in its formal educative purposes, unlike voluntarily social spaces of literary engagement or transaction. The social life of literature may be only partly educational and institutional, but school is compulsory and English is a nationally and state-mandated subject. The compulsory nature of the curriculum and of school attendance also means that the sociability of meaning making within the English classroom will necessarily and frequently entail negotiation of the unsociable, or less than sociable, aspects of schooling.

The Australian Curriculum: English, the national curriculum recently developed for implementation in all Australian schools, comprises three curricular strands: language, literacy and literature (ACARA). This structure is the result of ‘a renewed focus on knowledge as an organising principle for curriculum design and development’ (Green 274), though ‘knowledge’ is conceived primarily as a linguistic knowledge rather than deriving from Literary Studies (McLean Davies and Sawyer 840; Doecke et al. 37). The learning in which students engage is conceived primarily in the form of acquiring a knowledge ‘about’ language – a phenomenon understood as external to the individual; as a body of rules that individuals are expected to master (that is, Standard Australian English) – thus marginalising the experience of meaning making through engaging with literary texts, where meaning is always provisional and something to be negotiated in dialogue with others.

Thus, the distinctive literary sociability of the English classroom, where literary texts are still at the centre of relations between teachers and students, is subject to all the influences deriving from the role of the school within society. These include curricular and assessment imperatives, normative models and approaches of subject English, and the power matrix of pedagogical praxis, or lessons. In addition, there are factors driving the individualisation of teachers and students, such as teaching standards and standardised test results by which the performance of each individual is judged. The combined effect of these forces at work is a tendency to displace or devalue the sociable origins of literary meaning in favour of the reified strata of curricular imperatives, normative reading and standards-based testing. Nevertheless, the actual encounter with the literary text, especially in the early stages, need not be totalised by the institutions, or by the categories and practices of literary study, even while it is always inflected by them. In other words, the English classroom produces certain kinds of experience of literary texts (of whatever kind), just as it produces its own kind of (contingent) knowledge, while other sociable groups are formed around different kinds of experience and knowledge. Ideally, sociability is a process, a series of events characterised by ‘relations rather than substances’ (Frow 51). In this moment of meaning making it is the communal act of reading and the text itself that are at the centre of attention, including the semiotic practices and experiences that students bring to their encounters with the text chosen for study. The management of literary meaning making by the two early career English teachers discussed below exemplifies two different processes of literary sociability.

So, it is worth recalling aspects of the classroom which make it a social space conducive to the generation of new understandings. The first is the fundamental notion of learning as a social activity (Vygotsky; Barnes), with talk as a crucial determinant of what is learnt. As Tony Petrosky remarks, ‘Conversation is the engine – it is the means by which they [the students] make their thinking visible, but it is also the means by which they socialize their intelligence’ (244). The second is the teachers’ fundamental role in creating ‘spaces for dialogue’ (Turvey et al. 154, 165). While the literary sociability of the classroom is distinctive because of the ways it is mediated by the hierarchical structures of schooling, it is also characterised by engaged inter-personal and social exchanges around literary texts that characterise other literary sociable collectivities.

Even though the experience of reading in a secondary classroom is highly regulated by the institutional setting, including mandated curriculum and assessment practices, the English classroom still consists of people who are bringing diverse experiences to their reading of any text. The literary sociability that is distinctive to the English classroom enables a complex and layered matrix of interactions but at its core is the simultaneously individual and collective encounter with the literary text. This encounter produces an immediate, multifaceted, often non-cohesive and thoroughly contingent enactment of meaning. Students always have responses to the texts set for study, and the teacher negotiates and mediates those responses, even as she might be trying to encourage her students to reflect on what it means to learn and to know about reading, the language that is used, and the genre or literary-historical aspects of a text. The liveliness of the exchanges that can occur around texts in classrooms means that the meaning of a text is always ephemeral, impressionistic, often inchoate and contradictory, even heretical and singular, a fact that undermines the presupposition behind examinations and standardised testing that a literary or linguistic text has a unitary, unchanging meaning, or that a ‘good’ reading can be differentiated from a ‘bad’ one in any straightforward way. A teacher negotiates with what students bring to their encounters with texts, even when what they say might initially seem aberrant or wrongheaded (Yandell, Social Construction). Otherwise, a productive conversation that might prompt them to consider other readings of the text can never begin. Reading literary texts foregrounds the way the relationship between language and meaning is unstable, a provisional outcome of the social relationships in which a literary text is read and appropriated. The conversations surrounding literary texts therefore often remain unresolved, resisting any notion that there can be a definitive reading. This is a large part of their attraction and the reason why classroom conversations around literary texts can be so vigorous and insightful.

At the same time, there are complex issues here because curricular frameworks and assessment regimes structure subject English as a ‘knowledge’ subject that can take its place alongside other subjects that have their foundations in particular fields of inquiry (Young; Yates et al.). In reality, it is difficult for English to appeal to any foundational discourse of literary form, meaning or value, whatever the institutional materiality of English education, literary culture, critical discourse, book history, canons, textual editing, digital re-mediation, authorship. Arguably, Literary Studies is a massive and continually developing field of professionalised and institutionalised knowledge, but it is difficult to posit any direct relationship between this expanding field of inquiry and what gets taught in secondary English classrooms. Influential curriculum theorist, Michael Young, argues, as the title of his book indicates, for the need to ‘bring knowledge back in’ as the foundations of the school curriculum, but this assumes a stable body of knowledge, identified (somehow) by the Literary Studies field, that can be directly imported to schools and imparted to students. It is noteworthy that his chief examples are science and other forms of propositional knowledge, all of which he conceives as ongoing forms of inquiry that produce knowledge that is objective and subject to scientific validation, which is hardly how Literary Studies functions as a field.

As John Frow observes, with Literary Studies it is ‘a matter of constant reinvention within discontinuous frameworks of value and for changing social uses, rather than the constant recognition of a timeless worth’ (49). And while Literary Studies or disciplinary English is also highly organised professionally, paradoxically it is far from homogeneous or systematic as a discipline or field (Uhlmann; Dale). So while some of its defining methods of meaning making may be codifiable – like close reading – and the professionalised discourse of school English pedagogy is a huge source of debate and example here, it is difficult to prescribe for either disciplinary Literary Studies or secondary subject English any ‘knowledge base’. That aspect is always indefinable or in ‘crisis’. Reid’s 1982 essay, ‘The Crisis in English Studies’, with its survey of content, curricular problems and pedagogical innovation is a good example of the serial self-reflexivity of English studies in response to its own foundational instabilities, which includes the indeterminacy of the category of literature itself and the unpredictable meaning making of any scene of reading. In his history of the field in North America Professing Literature (1989), for example, Gerald Graff argues that it is precisely the crises in the history of tertiary English that are signs of change and vitality. Terry Eagleton’s perspective on literary study is that its object is psychoanalytic and diagnostic: ‘[I]f literature is centrally concerned with anything, it is not truth or morality but fantasy and desire’ (36) – language which hardly seems congruent with the ambition to ground school English within a field of inquiry that offers a propositional disciplinary base.

Early career English teaching

In the history of English teaching, the idea of literary sociability has been important to a number of influential documents, even though the term itself might not appear. Since at least the Newbolt report (1921), to the Dartmouth seminar (1966) and its legacy, and up to the present, there has been a strong emphasis on sociability as a condition for reading and responding to literary texts (Doecke, ‘Rewriting’). The challenge for the research project has been to gauge the value of the concept of literary sociability for understanding the dynamics of English classrooms, including the meaning making that centres on literary texts within classroom settings, and the extent to which those moments have been mediated by the literary theoretical knowledge that our interviewees have brought to their professional practice.

The experience of contemporary Literary Studies for the early career English teacher is likely to have been very diverse, with a broad range of historical, scholarly, theoretical and methodological elements. That unsystematic disciplinary experience has some recognisable (but constantly evolving) ‘core’ objects of study and canons, but has also very indeterminate disciplinary boundaries and levels, open to all kinds of inter- and trans-disciplinary interventions, methods and appropriations. The field is also represented unevenly in educational settings and institutions around the world, with many national differences in the study of literature at the tertiary level. And there are just as many differences in the relations, historical and contemporary, between tertiary Literary Studies (in English) and ‘subject’ or secondary English (‘English Across the Sectors’). Comparative study or analysis of the global extent of Literary Studies, with its pre-tertiary and higher education manifestations, and of how people – pupils and teachers – negotiate their trajectories across and within those manifestations, is limited.

How do early career English teachers, then, experience these differences and complexities that constitute Literary Studies across the institutional terrain they are traversing: secondary English and tertiary Literary Studies, teacher education, and early experience in the classroom? Here we focus on some of the responses of the early career teachers to our interview prompts, which were designed to enable them to reflect on both their own education and their practice as English teachers.

In the local context of our study, the dissonance between the classroom encounter with a poem (in this case) and other shapers of textual meaning are sharply apparent. An early career English teacher’s account of her own experience of Year 12 English is exemplary of this tension:

[W]e were studying his poetry for Year 12. [The poet] got up, he spoke about all his poems and we’re thinking, ‘Oh this is great, write down everything he says’, but a lot of things he was saying was not what we’d interpreted in the class, you know he was saying, ‘No, I really wasn’t upset you know as a young man, you know I wasn’t depressed, that poem isn’t about you know wanting to cut myself or anything’ and all these things we thought. And then straight after him, like an academic got up and spoke about what she’d thought about his poetry, and you could see him in the front row getting all really annoyed, and we were kind of going ‘Well what’s all this about?’ It was pretty interesting, but I think as teenagers we just wanted the right answer. (Rebecca)2

In this memory of a senior English class and a related excursion outside the classroom, Rebecca is alert to the contested and suddenly puzzling status of the meanings of the text previously generated in the classroom. She and her Year 12 classmates encounter two different kinds of literary authority: the actual author of the text they are studying and a Literary Studies professional (academic). Rebecca does not outline the meanings her Year 12 class generated, or indeed analyse or defend them as the class’s initial encounter with the poetic text. She recalls, rather, how those initial meanings were demoted in the face of the three-way tension between author, literary academic and Year 12 examination imperatives, all of which devalued the class’s original collaborative reading in favour of readings generated outside of the classroom by individuals with different investments in the text.

It is not clear that Rebecca had a sense, as a Year 12 student, of the necessity of a ‘right’ answer to the poem’s meaning before the experience with the authorial, academic and assessment authorities on the study day. She does say in the interview, however, that her teacher later emphasised, in positive terms, the work they had done prior to the study day, presumably in a gesture of allaying the anxiety suddenly produced by the question of the text’s singular meaning raised by the contradictory representatives of the institutions of authorship, knowledge and assessment. Rebecca is thinking about this experience in relation to the continuum of her own history, including her early practice as an English teacher. Her school and university experience of English study is vivid and detailed throughout the interview, as is her sense of how the curriculum and assessment regimes she is encountering in her teaching have to be negotiated in relation to literary sociability:

. . . in some of the younger years, you don’t have time to explore every perspective, you know, it’s all very assessment driven a lot of the time, so a lot of the time you say okay, well this is the one reading and we’re going with it, and we don’t have the time to explore as much as maybe you would like to or would be considered like, you know, increasing their literary knowledge . . . you know you could really dig in deep with some of these texts we do, but it’s a matter of different priorities and time and assessment and, you know, just getting them to have all the pieces they need to form a really good argument, and sometimes . . . you don’t explore as much as you could, and maybe talk about some other things that you would at uni or you would later on, you know, it’s more . . . it’s always about . . . in the end it comes down to their results a lot of the time, which is really frustrating. (Rebecca)

The possibilities of meaning making arising out of literary sociability, then, are curtailed or frustrated by the assessment regime, or by what Frank Kermode referred to as the ‘institutional control of interpretation’ (74). Rebecca’s sense of her identity as an English teacher reflects here two instances – one a memory of Year 12 English, the other of her early experience of teaching – where literary sociability defines the initial encounter with a literary text at the same time as the meanings that eventuate from that encounter are repressed or displaced.

From a more positive angle, in another account by one of our interviewees (Janet) about teaching Niccolò Ammaniti I’m Not Scared (2003) to Year 9 students, there is a moment in which sociable meaning making, assisted by a simple pedagogical technique, is both valued and encouraged by an early career English teacher. At the same time, an imperative of the curriculum in the form of a testing regime is temporarily suspended:

. . . it’s set in Italy, and there’s a lot of complicated town names. One of the classes was doing a spelling test on the town names included in the book, and I’ve decided not to do the spelling test . . . we do a thing that I call ‘Texta of Death’ where the students write a response to one of my questions, and if they feel like it they can take a whiteboard marker and write their response on the board. If someone’s struggling with it, they’re free to copy that student’s work, and then we sit down and talk as a class, and there’s 23 in this English class that I use it mostly in. We talk as a class about what makes that a good response and what was that person thinking? The student has a chance to talk about it, and I just think that my lessons are much more valuably taught that way than I’m going to set a test of the place names in the text. (Janet)3

The responses elicited in this sociable exercise are both individual and collective, and Janet’s class learns to evaluate them in terms of their own sense of the meanings of the text. Less confident or willing readers benefit from this collective act of reading. It is a sign of Janet’s confidence as a first-year teacher that she perceives the value of suspending a more traditional pedagogy, as well as the testing regime, in her enabling of this instance of literary sociability. In this context, the identifier ‘sociability’ is useful because it describes not just an institutional scene of literary engagement or instruction – the classrooms of teachers and students in all their variability – but also the communally enacted meanings of the literary text itself, the subject of subject English. Sociability is about recognising that immediate literary meanings arise from the experience of reading texts within learning and interpretative communities (like the classroom); that textual understanding is both the source and the result of social groups’ engagement with texts, whatever the other influences at work within the classroom (Kirkpatrick and Dixon vii). And the name of Janet’s exercise here, ‘Texta of Death’, gestures toward the way sociability might occur in the most unsociable circumstances. For the irony of the lesson’s title arises from the way it evokes all the compulsion and regulation that is part and parcel of school learning, but that in fact functions as a device to encourage students to share and trust their responses to the text.

Outside the limits of educational institutions, literary meaning making is inherently social in its generation and circulation. And English teachers often envisage their classrooms as sites of literary sociability, where everyday relational meaning making is part of the negotiation with discourses of literary knowledge and learning regimes, and where they are alert to the fact that the language students bring to class exists in some kind of conversation with the language of texts. Indeed, they may have considered in their own teacher education along the lines of James Britton’s insistence that there can be no alternative for an educator but to begin ‘from where the children are’, and that ‘there can be no alternative in the initial stages to total acceptance of the language children bring with them’ (134). Just as teachers’ literary education is intersubjective and contextual in nature, it also repeatedly begins from where they are professionally.

In the discourse of English teaching, though, what can intervene in, obscure or override the recognition of everyday, contingent literary meaning making is a complex and historically dialectic range of educational and policy discourses and agendas. Teachers are continually confronted by prescriptions as to what they should be doing with English students and what ‘learning outcomes’ should be achieved.4 This is not to say that those educational discourses are not relevant and valuable; they are. But we can think about the classroom as a scene of a specifically literary sociability in this way: that while it is not produced by those discourses, the sociable engagement with the text itself within the classroom is inflected and shaped by them (and other discourses), something that is negotiated by and through the teacher in myriad ways (Doecke and Mead 3). The two examples from our interviews exemplify the complexity of literary sociability and also reveal that some of those intervening educational and institutional discourses might be more amenable or sympathetic to literary sociability than others (Yandell, Social Construction 129–150). We know, for example, that the classroom can be deployed as the site of the transference of ideologies, dispositions and established knowledges, which is at odds with the idea of classrooms as the sites of self-affirming generation of inter-personal meanings.


There is always the question – important to the curricular and various institutional modes of thinking about literary study – of the issue of literature as ‘Literature’, as cultural capital, as a value that supposedly transcends any specific social setting (Bourdieu 1; Guillory viii). This is a claim that continues to be made by culturally conservative critics (Donnelly; Ferrari). Subject English and its educational or curricular status can be taken as one gauge of this value. That English still generally holds its place within the school curriculum as a compulsory subject often rests on unexamined assumptions about its importance, as though it is simply natural to do English. But of course, the last thing that cultural capital, of whatever kind, is, is natural. Literature has no natural or inherent value. As Eagleton argues, literature is made of language, the ordinary, everyday medium of human communication, but it is not ordinary in the uses it makes of that language (Eagleton, How to Read a Poem 67-68).

But nor has the status and role of literature within curricular English remained static. It is enmeshed in a thick and powerful web of educational policy and governmentality, at every level of the educational system. And this includes the social organisation of knowledge and therefore the politics of knowledge and education. In Australia, for instance, there are significant variations in the role and status of literature within subject English across state and national jurisdictions. In some educational discourse the question of whether English is even a ‘knowledge’ subject continues to be a live one (Green 233). Yet, at the same time numerous attempts have been made to formulate ‘outcomes-based’ curriculum and standards learning for English, as though it is possible to stabilise it as a curricular, even disciplinary entity. All the while, the unresolved and indefinable status of literary texts themselves continually destabilises institutional attempts to prescribe and define literature and literary and linguistic knowledge. The conversations around literature in any classroom are always more complex and multilayered than any learning objectives specified in advance of instruction (Barnes 14). This aspect of literature has serious political repercussions because insofar as literature itself is an obstacle to the kinds of systematic knowledge formation that curriculum theorists like Michael Young see as the necessary foundations for a school curriculum, it runs the risk of being marginalised or ejected altogether from ‘English’ by state educational structures with their imperatives about literacy standards, outcomes and testing. It is precisely a fully inclusive English’s capacity to destabilise and to challenge certainties about ‘knowledge’, however, that is one of its educational values.

At the same time, educational institutions, including schools and government bureaucracies, do not look like loosening their hold on subject English. As with the idea of the English teacher in society, whatever its literary component, ‘English’ is categorised as necessary, socially and administratively, a compulsory core in the Australian Curriculum for example, and a continuing professional component of teacher accreditation and employment. But subject English’s actual literary content is determined by a different cultural and curricular equation altogether, as is its fate as a discipline within higher education. Hence the triangular tensions and tenuous relations evident between curricular English as an element of the ‘social organisation of knowledge’ (Yates 4), and literature as fluctuating cultural capital, and disciplinary Literary Studies.

It is worth isolating and identifying the actual moments and conditions of the ways in which teachers and students engage with and encounter literary texts. Within the concept of sociability there is the possibility of reconceptualising the professional learning of early career teachers, and the transition they make from being students of English and literature, to teachers of English and literature. The notion of literary sociability prompts us to see their learning as arising through their engagement with the social settings and relationships in which they are operating rather than as something purely individual, as a matter of their personal growth. Both Rebecca and Janet offer insights into the way their pupils engage with texts that reflect their literary theoretical knowledge as university graduates. Both are driven by a sense of the polyphonic nature of literary texts; a view that meaning needs to be negotiated, and is not something that can simply be defined, unchangeably. They are, in short, graduates of Literary Studies programmes evincing the kind of sensitivity towards the relationship between language and meaning that we might ideally expect of such graduates (Zabka 228).

That said, it also seems to be the case that the current moment is one in which the connections between Literary Studies as a university discipline and English as a school subject are more divergent than ever, involving at best occasional or intermittent communication between the two sectors (Green 247). We might consider, here, the possibility of a renewed ‘method’ or literary praxis – probably beginning with the assemblage of practices headed ‘close reading’ and creative response that engage with the language of the text (During 85; Herrnstein Smith; Reid, The Making of Literature) – as a techné or software for classroom literary sociability. This would be to identify the kinds of methods, skills and experience that the early career teacher might call on when engendering the space of sociability (linguistic, historical, generic, critical, rhetorical, interpretative, and more) (Herrnstein Smith). Such teacher-led collaborative discoveries and explorations of the literary text in the social space of the classroom – whatever the tensions and misunderstandings, whatever the texts themselves – are at the heart of literary study as an interpretive activity. And that space of literary sociability can also encompass more general and radical questions: How is this text literary? Why are we reading this text? Does anyone see any value in this text?

The aim of this essay has been to contribute to the development of a relevant and effective language for emphasising and retrieving the moment of relational and inter-personal literary meaning making – literary sociability – as primary to the method and experience of English teaching. Literary sociability can be a feature of the work of an English teacher, whatever the specific community in which a teacher may be working, and the constraints posed by the school as an institutional setting. As we have shown, the focus on sociability holds out the possibility of reaffirming the value of the space of the classroom and the relations of students and teachers through reading literary texts as a space of making meaning, of enacted knowledge, particularly about language. That enacted knowledge as it emerges within the space of the classroom may be inchoate, partial, creative, contingent or confused, but it is the generative and authentic moment of literary and linguistic knowing. In other words, it is learning about the literary text, and therefore language and meaning – even if it might be characterised by losing your way, by distraction, by misunderstanding, by being misguided, by ‘bad’ reading, by being at odds with official literary knowledge of whatever kind, all of which can be part of the discovery of meaning. This difference between such understandings of meaning making and the competitive academic curriculum is closely related to the teacher’s job of identifying ‘literary knowledge’ within curricular frames and negotiating their relations to that knowledge without annihilating the formless but formative moment of sociable meaning making.

Drawing attention to, or focusing on, the sociability of the classroom allows us to understand, importantly, the originary moments of literary meaning in relation to the discourses and apparatuses of knowledge, including its social organisation (all important) represented by the school and the education system. It also allows us to recognise the English teacher’s role in negotiating, by keeping the space of literary sociability open and operative, the tensions mentioned above; the efforts to define English as a knowledge subject; the contingencies of meaning, the vagaries of memory, the unpredictability and uncontrollability of language; and the shared pleasures and puzzles of reading, at the core of that knowledge. In that sense, the understandings that literary sociability produces might be recognised in relation to educational governance and policy change. Given what we have already researched and learned about literary praxis and classroom pedagogy, what we argue for here is a more coherent and stronger understanding of literary sociability within the relevant strands of educational discourse, and to situate this proposed re-envisioning of the disciplinary, career and educative trajectories of early career teachers within a broader understanding of English teaching.


The research reported in this article was funded by the Australian Research Council under its Discovery scheme in the project Investigating Literary Knowledge in the Making of English teachers (DP160101084).

We would like to thank Prue Adams for her assistance with the presentation and analysis of interview material from this research project, and our colleagues Wayne Sawyer, Lyn Yates and Lucy Buzacott for their comments and suggestions in the preparation of this article.


  1. The Dartmouth Seminar was held in 1966 and was officially titled the ‘Anglo-American Conference on the Teaching and Learning of English’. The three-week seminar was designed to create dialogue between scholars from the United Kingdom and the United States around the purposes and future of subject English.

  2. Rebecca attended a regional government co-educational high school on the New South Wales central coast. She completed a BA (English Literature and Ancient History) and BEd at university. Her first temporary teaching position was in a senior (years 11–12) government high school on the Central Coast of New South Wales. At the time of the interview (2017), Rebecca was in her second year of teaching English and history at a government co-educational (years 7–12) high school of approximately 600 students in South Western Sydney.

  3. Janet attended a 7-10 co-educational independent school in inner regional South-East Victoria. In years 11 and 12 she attended a co-educational, non-denominational independent school in South-East Melbourne. Janet completed a BA (double major English Literature/minor in Linguistics) at university, later completing an MTeach after 20 years working in educational publishing. The school where the interview (2017) took place, in the area Janet grew up, is a Catholic co-educational (years 7–12) high school of approximately 850 students, in inner regional rural Victoria. The interview was at the very beginning of Janet’s second year of teaching.

  4. For instance: ‘growth’, imagination, creativity, generic skills, the aesthetic, policy and curriculum, cultural value, standards, effective pedagogy, a separatist idea of literacy, becoming oneself, assessment regimes (including high stakes examining/testing), bringing knowledge back in, the question of whether the moment of learning is ‘transformative’, and more.

Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: English literature - Study & teaching, Literary studies, Literary sociability, Assessment practices and policies, Education and Pedagogy, Australian curriculum.

Cite as: Mead, Philip and Brenton Doecke and Larissa McLean Davies. ‘Contingencies of Meaning Making: English Teaching and Literary Sociability.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.00225a9681.