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Why English classrooms and book clubs are life-altering spaces

Researchers are working with teachers, students, and book clubs to make the rich experiences of literature available to all.


“The English classroom should be that space where you can broaden your understanding of literature, become a better writer, become a better reader, and become more able to think and talk about the ideas and experiences that you get from books,” says Dr Robert Clarke, Head of English at the University of Tasmania.

Ensuring that the English classroom remains engaging for students is a complex and challenging task for school teachers and university lecturers alike, particularly in Tasmania.

On the one hand, the island state can lay claim to the internationally celebrated novelist, Richard Flanagan, a home-grown winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

On the other, a hefty proportion of Tasmanian adults are functionally illiterate. The proportion of school students not meeting expected literacy standards on Australian and international tests is also troubling.

“The issues around literacy are many and complex in this state,” says Dr Clarke. “We have some of the lowest retention rates in the country between Years 10 and 11. We also have relatively low rates of engagement with higher education.”

Until recently, all Tasmanian high schools finished at Year 10. Students could only complete Years 11 and 12 at one of nine senior secondary colleges, all located in cities.

In an effort to give high school leavers in regional areas greater access to further education, the Tasmanian Government began rolling out a new model of secondary schooling in 2015. This launched 38 extension high schools across the state.

The focus now is on what happens once students graduate from high school.

Strengthening pathways to university

If you’re aiming to boost the number of students making the transition from the school classroom to the lecture hall, it helps to have teachers and academics on the same page.

Recognising the lack of opportunities for English educators to exchange ideas and share skills, researchers at the University of Tasmania brought teachers and academics together for a workshop called Building Links.

The workshop was a hit. It sowed the seeds for a collaborative project funded by the University and led by Associate Professor Lisa Fletcher, which involved the University’s English staff, the Faculty of Education, senior secondary English teachers, and the Tasmanian Association for the Teaching of English (TATE).

The resulting research group, known as TETCoP (Teaching of English in Tasmania Community of Practice), has proved fruitful in all kinds of ways.

“We were hoping to build a relationship between the English program and teachers, so they know what we're doing in our classrooms. It also gives us the chance to better understand the kinds of experiences that their English students are getting at high school and college, and that can inform how we design our courses,” says Dr Clarke.

“We want to know how best to teach the students who come into our classrooms, and that means understanding where they're coming from, and also noting those gaps in their knowledge.”

TETCoP also laid the groundwork for new opportunities for educators to become aware of gaps in their professional knowledge, and to keep on top of recent developments.

According to Dr Clarke, being part of a network like TETCoP helped members “think about new ways of doing things, get reassurance that what they're doing is still valid, and receive not only guidance, but assurance and support”.

“It requires looking to the college sector, looking to the mainland, seeing what's happening around other universities, and looking overseas to see what's happening in our discipline more broadly,” he adds.

With his colleagues, Dr Naomi Milthorpe and Dr Robbie Moore, Dr Clarke is hoping to build on the success of TETCoP with a new project examining ways of building ‘reading resilience’ in college and first-year university English students.

Beyond the classroom

A curious counterpoint to the high level of adult illiteracy in Tasmania is its thriving local book club scene. Dr Clarke says the scene is likely linked to the strong tradition of book clubs in the State and to the trend of mainland retirees moving to Tasmania. For them, joining a book club can be a way to meet others in their community.

Keen to understand what goes on inside book clubs, University of Tasmania researchers have carried out a series of studies on this under-researched aspect of Australian literary culture. They found that the benefits of participating in a book club were many, varied, and significant, both for individuals and society more broadly.

At one level, the appeal is “the simple fact of getting together with people and enjoying not just a book, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and a glass of wine on a week night”, says Dr Clarke.

Participants in his research also say they value the conversations that move beyond niceties and small talk.

“It puts them in a situation where they necessarily have to engage with ideas and topics that they wouldn't normally engage with,” says Dr Clarke.

This can mean diving into uncomfortable or controversial waters when books raise themes relating to gender, ethnicity, or class differences, for example.

One of Dr Clarke’s recent studies focussed on how book club members responded to the depiction of the relationships between Europeans and Indigenous Australians in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.

What he observed were robust discussions where people felt free to voice their opinions, while also being open to listening to different viewpoints. Some were even prepared to be convinced by what others said and change their opinions.

At a time when public debate has been characterised as impoverished and mean-spirited, the sort of discussion fostered by book clubs could benefit us all.

“In a perfect world, we might actually look at book clubs and the way that people engage with difficult topics as a kind of model for how we could craft a democratic conversation and discourse around difficult matters and challenging issues,” says Dr Clarke.

About the researcher

Dr Robert Clarke

Dr Clark teaches in the English program and is based at the Newnham campus. From 2005 to 2007 Robert lectured in literature and Australian Studies in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. In 2007, he taught units in academic writing and critical reading skills, and Australian studies, in the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University, Tokyo, Japan. He came to UTAS in 2008.

Associate Professor Lisa Fletcher

Associate Professor Fletcher is currently Deputy Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania. Her current research focuses on popular fiction in the 21st century. She is interested in interdisciplinary approaches to popular genres—especially crime, fantasy, and romance—which consider their industrial, social, and textual dimensions. Lisa is the author Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, the co-author of Cave: Nature and Culture and Island Genres, Genre Islands: Conceptualisation and Representation in Popular Fiction, and the editor of Popular Fiction and Spatiality: Reading Genre Settings. In addition to her research in popular fiction studies, her research areas include geocriticism and spatial literary studies, island studies, and contemporary historical fiction.

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