I’ve just completed one of the most enjoyable years of teaching in my career, as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo. One of my duties there has been to give an undergraduate survey course on 500 years of Scottish Literature – I got to teach it twice, once per semester. I don’t usually teach literature; usually I teach English language and linguistics, which I also enjoy, but this experience has been a special pleasure in many ways.

There is a perceived cultural shift between teachers of ‘language’ and ‘literature,’ based partly on the differing methodological assumptions of each discipline, and partly on mutual snobbery, but obviously that cultural divide blurs when you teach literature in a foreign language environment. It became evident over the two semesters that the ways of teaching language can be creatively applied to literary studies, and vice versa.

‘Why on earth would people in Brazil want to learn about Scottish Literature?’ This was my mother’s question when I told her what I would be doing this past year, and like most of her questions, it has a point. The students who signed up for my courses were a mixed bunch: they ranged from freshmen to students who had been attending USP for so long that they couldn’t actually remember which year they were in. Some were majoring in English, but a fair proportion was from other disciplines, either curious about Scotland, or just keen to practise their listening skills with a visiting native speaker. Few had much prior experience of the literatures of Scotland. So I had to figure out how to address the issue my mother had raised: what did I hope to achieve by the end of the course?

Well, first I wanted simply to introduce students to some interesting writers, some canonical (a few had already encountered a poem or two by Robert Burns in a poetry survey course, Walter Scott and RL Stevenson are well-studied at USP and I felt the students should know about other figures with an international reputation, like Muriel Spark. But I also wanted to introduce them to characters who might not be so well known here, like Henryson, Dunbar, Lindsay, the court poets of James VI, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Ramsay, Fergusson, John Galt, Margaret Oliphant, and a selection of contemporary figures like Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. I knew there would be huge gaps – the rich Gaelic tradition would only be referred to in passing, and I would not be able to cover figures of international importance historically, like James ‘Ossian’ MacPherson, the subject (I was later to discover) of a local graduate student’s PhD thesis. But  I was keen to look at Hugh MacDiarmid, since one of my illustrious predecessors at USP was Kenneth Buthlay, who later taught me at Glasgow University. He actually wrote his fantastic little introduction to MacDiarmid’s poetry while here, and copies of it are one of the few texts on Scottish Literature available in USP library. And I wanted to look at Edwin Morgan’s connections with and translations of the avant garde Brazilian poets, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. In short, I wanted the students to read stuff – usually poems and short stories, but also two or three novellas like Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’

But I also wanted to tell a story. The survey was organised in a routine chronological fashion, but the title of the course, I discovered on arriving, was in fact ‘Non Hegemonic Literatures in English’, a convenient umbrella title that allowed local and guest lecturers to deliver courses in (usually) African, Caribbean, Indian, or Irish literatures. In conversation, I figured out that these courses fall into a post-colonial template of resistance to British imperialism, nationalist affirmation, and globalized self-questioning. Scotland doesn’t quite fit that template, but on reflection I had a possible narrative: we would begin before the Treaty of Union with a ‘pre-colonial’ phase in the 16th century; we would consider the consequences of the Union in the 18th century; and then we would look at ways in which Scotland accommodated itself to Unionism in the 19th century and then began to question it in the 20th. In a way, part of the course reversed the ‘non-hegemonic’ expectations of the course description, since during the 17th century the ‘hegemons’ were actually Scottish members of the Stuart dynasty, who ruled over countries not their own – including England. Anyway, if the students followed the course attentively, they would at least have a better understanding of the debate leading to the independence referendum that is scheduled for September 2014.

The first semester went well enough – I enjoyed it and the feedback from students was generally positive. Yet over the mid-semester break, I was slightly dissatisfied. From the students’ assessments (a mid-semester close reading and an end-of-semester theoretical reflection) I wasn’t really sure if I had addressed my concerns – I wasn’t really sure that the students were reading as much as I wanted them to (not an uncommon concern!) and I wasn’t happy that the assessment procedure actually challenged the students very much. They wrote good-to-middling academic essays, picking away at a poem or a novel and responding to some of the theoretical issues in usually a fairly superficial way. In particular, it struck me that the written English of the students was not likely to improve if I only asked them to write a longish essay twice per semester.

After some stimulating conversations with a graduate student who had taken a more advanced seminar with me, I decided to do two things: first, I decided to add short, weekly written tasks as part of the assessment process. These would not be your standard academic essay, but they would ask students to respond to the course reading in more creative and unusual ways. And second, I would ask students to contribute to a ‘Digital Companion’ – which we eventually imagined as a website that covers part of the course (1500-1900, i.e. before copyright gets difficult) and which features content based on my lectures, the tasks I set the students before each session, and recordings of the students giving model responses.

These decisions revolutionised the second semester. I asked the students to do ten of a possible fourteen weekly tasks; by simply reading the course texts and uploading a short (c. 200-word) response, they could get 30% of the course grade. I asked them to spend no more than an hour per week doing this – though I later learned that some of the more assiduous were spending much longer. Unsurprisingly, I immediately lost a few students who were unwilling to commit to a regular regime of coursework. But those who stayed benefited a lot. And they began to demonstrate a very high degree of imaginative interaction with the materials.

I tried to vary the tasks as much as possible. The students were asked to update two stanzas of Henryson’s ‘Testament of Cresseid’ into modern English and then we compared their versions with those of Seamus Heaney and the Canadian poet, Fred Cogswell. The students imagined how they would stage a scene from ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ and then watched a scene from the recent Edinburgh production online. They were asked to write a sonnet, using the ‘reulis and cautelis’ of James VI, and they devised 4 or 5 characteristics of their own ‘universal language’ in response to Thomas Urquhart’s. Some wrote a short ballad using traditional ballad formulae and some Scots words, culled from the Dictionary of the Scots Language online. They wrote love letters in the style of Burns and Clarinda. They provided pleas for or against clemency to the judge at the end of Walter Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers’.

In one of my favourite tasks, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, they turned Galt’s ‘The Annals of the Parish’ into a series of tweets – and I began to realise the power of hashtags in bringing out the themes underlying an extended piece of fiction. They were forced to confront issues of narrative reliability by attempting to dramatize ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and they psycho-analysed the disturbed narrator of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, ‘The Library Window’. They translated some Scots-rich paragraphs of a kailyard novel into Portuguese, and wrote down a think-aloud protocol of their encounter with one of MacDiarmid’s early lyrics. They turned a scene from ‘They Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ into a film script and then compared it with the Ronald Neame version on YouTube. And to finish off, they devised their own concrete poems, before looking at how Edwin Morgan translated some of the de Campos brothers’ verbo-visual texts. They worked incredibly hard.

A number of things emerged. First, I became confident that the students were reading the set texts with a greater degree of engagement than before. Some, naturally, invested the tasks with a greater degree of enthusiasm and engagement  – and talent – than others. But each week I was surprised by a thoughtful or reflective or just downright witty response from a different student. People responded in different ways to the different tasks. Secondly, for the substantial proportion of students who regularly submitted their weekly assignment, the level of their written English slowly improved. There was still quite a range of written competence by the end of the course, but there was clear improvement. And finally, the understanding displayed in the close reading and theoretical essay was deeper.

Progress on the ‘digital companion’ was slower, but by the end of the semester a small group of keen volunteers was ready to make recordings of some of the course readings, and of model responses to the weekly tasks. We begged and borrowed classrooms and equipment to make some rudimentary video-clips. As of yesterday, we have all the material we need to complete the course companion, but there is a fair amount of editing and uploading to be done before the course goes public on WordPress (at – we are aiming for Burns Night, on 25th January 2014.  A sneak preview of one of the video clips is given at the end of this blog.

When it does appear, I hope that the website will encourage others to deliver similar courses on Scottish Literature elsewhere. But even if it doesn’t, it will serve me as a reminder of one of the happiest teaching experiences I’ve ever had. My grateful thanks go to all who made it so.


Putting stories to work


On Friday 22nd November, I found myself back in Parana, this time at the kind invitation of the Curitiba chapter of Braz TESOL, to give a day’s worth of presentations and workshops on intercultural language education. This will be the last of my trips out of Sao Paulo this year, and, as ever, my hosts in Curitiba were exceptionally hospitable, and the audience for the event was lively and receptive.

As usual, with such presentations, at least when you get to my age, you end up recycling and revisiting some material you have previously presented elsewhere. This can be a useful experience since the reception of the material always differs in some respects, or you find yourself listening more critically to your own words, as they tumble out of your mouth. Or someone asks a question you hadn’t thought of before.  At any rate, you take away a new perspective on topics you thought were familiar.

This time I found myself thinking more about a quotation from Ron Barnett that I often use, from one of his books on the limits of a competence-driven approach to higher education:

“A higher education designed around skills is no higher education. It is the substitution of skills for insight; of strategic reason for communicative reason; and of behaviour for wisdom.” (Barnett, 19984: 61)

This becomes a more startling quotation if we substitute the words ‘language teaching’ for ‘higher education’; thus, “language education designed around skills is no language education.”  Now, as a professional who routinely described his function as teaching the “four skills” of reading, writing, listening and speaking, that is a sobering idea. What would a classroom look like if we were to move beyond trying to teach competent “behaviour” (often codified as learning outcomes in curricular statements and lesson plans) and also tried systematically to engender “wisdom”? How do we teach wisdom in the classroom?

One truism is that wisdom comes from experience, and in Curitiba we explored the way that experiences can be shared and interrogated through stories. Stories are an obvious way of blending language activities (we encourage past-tense narratives all the time) and genuine experiences that can be shared and learned from. In a useful guide that is freely downloadable on the web, Tomkins (2009) guides teachers on ways of using stories to encourage critical reflection. There are several steps that the teacher and class are invited to follow:

1.       Story finding: this involves keeping your eyes and ears open for stories – in newspapers, magazines, fiction, gossip, conversation, social media postings or blogs, that serve as useful illustrations of issues you want to raise in the classroom. The teacher needs to develop a nose for a good story; but this is ultimately something that needs to be passed on to learners, so that they can find their own narratives to learn from.

2.       Story-telling: the learners then read, or listen to – and ultimately tell their own – stories that illustrate some issue. These acts of reading and listening go beyond the development of the receptive ‘skills’ of comprehension; they involve making sense of the story in a framework of cultural value, and within everyday ethical and moral systems.

3.       Story expanding: crucially, in Tomkins’ approach, the stories are then retold and expanded upon by the listeners. The listeners make their own meaning from the stories they hear, which usually involves seeing the events from a similar or different cultural, ethical or moral perspective.

4.       Story processing: once the stories have been shared and retold, the group of learners discusses the original narrative and the responses. What are the gaps, points of contention, similarities of judgement?

5.       Story transformation: the final stage is simply to reflect on what has been learned from the story; what can we as storytellers and audience draw from the story and the responses, to add to our lived experience?

These steps can give language teachers a procedure to follow when using stories to blend language learning with the kind of values education that is typical of intercultural studies. Ideally, as noted, the teacher would ask a multicultural class to share stories on a particular topic – but this activity demands a high level of mutual respect and empathy amongst the learners, and needs to be sensitively set up. When Andrea Assenti del Rio uses techniques from ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ to dramatise stories about the abuse of power, she spends necessary time building an atmosphere of trust and collaboration in the classroom.

Another way of establishing the process of storytelling and responding is for the teacher to search out useful stories to bring to the classroom. There are numerous possible sources –factual and fictional – but one that is rich and accessible is the Internet. Blogs and forums are full of brief, pointed, everyday stories of human experience – and many also come complete with comments and responses. These websites can be used as a source of stories for critical cultural reflection.

I noticed one simple story on the topic of a tourist disaster on a forum called ‘Woman and Home’.  I adapted it slightly so that it reads as follows:

Flight cancelled again!

Our daughter has now been stranded in Lanzarote since last Friday and now the flight today has been cancelled too. That’s three flights that have been cancelled now. She is so upset and was sobbing over the ‘phone. We feel so helpless but what can we do? Very distressing. I joked that she might be home for Christmas. Wish now I had kept quiet.

Having noticed the story (step 1) , the teacher can ask the learners to listen to it, or to read it (step 2). As well as checking for reading or listening comprehension, the teacher can ask the learner to share their own three key points about the story. Are their perspectives similar? In this way the learners retell and expand upon the story (step 3). How do your learners comment on the posting?

Since this is a forum, the learners’ suggested responses can be compared with some actual comments made on the original posting:

1.       I can understand why your daughter is so upset. We got stranded in Lanzarote at Easter because of the volcano and although it sounds wonderful to be getting an extra week added to your holiday it is actually really stressful. Is the airline looking after your daughter? Has she been offered accommodation etc?


2.       I am sorry to read of your daughter’s situation. It must be hard and a worry for you and her. Still as you say she has some insurance and at least she is with friends and her situation isn’t her fault. I am sure she will be home soon.  Her employer sounds level headed and fair so try not to worry too much!


3.       After our experience earlier in the year I am really glad that we booked our flight with Thomson. The RyanAir people had to fend for themselves as your daughter is having to do. It is good that she is with people who are looking after her – let’s hope she can get home soon.

We can see even from these brief responses the importance of being able to articulate emotions clearly when responding to personal stories: ‘I can understand why X is so upset’, ‘it is really stressful’, ‘I am sorry to read/hear of…’, ‘it must be hard and a worry for you’, etc.

The learners can then be invited to re-tell the story, perhaps from the daughter’s perspective. How does she feel about the situation now, after the phone call? How does she feel about her parent’s failed attempt to cheer her up?

Now that the story has been understood, expanded and seen from another perspective, the learners can compare the difference between the different narratives and responses (step 4). The teacher can elicit the function of each of the narratives – the parent might be seeking reassurance; the daughter might be looking for acknowledgement of the parent’s tactlessness, or she might be more forgiving, depending on how the learners imagine her story. The first two responses show empathy and seem to respond to the parent’s desire for reassurance; the third, however, seems less empathic: the author seems to be congratulating himself on choosing a superior travel option, although, more charitably, he may simply be giving advice for the future. This is an example of a ‘second story’ in which the writer (a) narrates a shared experience and (b) observes that his outcome was better than that of the person who tells the ‘first story’.

Finally, we can look over the activity as a whole and ask what it can teach us (step 5). One thing is that blogs and forums express personal narratives, often written by people who share their experiences, good and bad, for others to comment on. They may be self-congratulatory or they may be seeking comfort. The commentators may take up the invitation to reassure the story-teller, or they may give advice based on their own experience – possibly in a way that will make them appear to be smug. A small nugget of practical, everyday wisdom to come from this kind of story might be that we should restrain ourselves from making poor jokes when we are talking to someone who is upset.

And so we go through life, ideally learning from our own experiences or the experiences of others, transformed into stories. Ideally. Sometimes we need to practise that kind of attentive learning. In the words of Stroobants, Chambers and Clarke:

“We do not learn from experience. Experience has to be arrested, examined, analysed, considered and negotiated in order to shift it to knowledge.”

The language classroom can be a wonderful place to make this happen.

Further reading

Barnett, Ronald (1994) The Limits of Competence. Buckingham & Bristol: The Open University Press

Stroobants, H., P. Chambers and B. Clarke (eds) (2007) Reflective Journeys. A Fieldbook for Facilitating Lifelong Learning in Vocational Education and Training. Rome: Leonardo da Vinci REFLECT Project Publication, Instituto Guglielmo, Tagliacane,

Tomkins, A. (2009) Learning and Teaching Guides: Developing Skills in Critical Reflection Through Mentoring Stories. Higher Education Academy Network for Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism