Engage Event: Some Personal Reflections

My most salient recollection from last week’s Engage Event is the enormous amount of enthusiasm circulating around the small and somewhat-stuffy windowless room in Oxford University Computing Services. We were not a huge group – around 12 external delegates, about 8 GWI staff, plus the eight-or-so academics who joined us on Friday. But we were certainly a convivial, conversational, and keen bunch of book lovers!

As well as loving books, we were (and still are!) passionate about teaching and learning. This passion came across particularly strongly on the second day of the event, initiated by a captivating academic debate on ‘What is a great writer?’ (see Kate’s blog posts – Parts 1& 2). Our collective love of literature and learning came across in our questioning of the terms ‘great’, ‘writer’, and ‘book’. I was particularly struck by the idea (perpetuated throughout our discussions) that a ‘great book’ is one with multiple meanings; a great book is one which necessarily engages, a book which asks to be read over and over  again. We agreed that the polysemous nature of great books can also be used as a teaching strategy, as a pathway to learning how to critically analyse texts. This idea fed into some useful feedback on our Great Writers Inspire website. Both secondary school and undergraduate level teachers said that they would value the addition of podcasted debates, as well as the single-speaker lectures. We all felt that showing academic debates in lessons (maybe via PowerPoints including clips from the GWI website) would help to stimulate class discussions and would inspire (and provide a model for) critical thinking.

On a personal note, I was relieved that my talk on ‘How am I Inspired?’ went smoothly; I was very pleased that it provoked such an open and productive discussion of student inspiration (see Kate’s blog post). We came up with a list of things that are key to inspiration: having access to inspiring things (such as books, art, and archival material); having supportive teachers, parents, carers, and/ or friends; having the freedom to experiment with ideas and resources; not being patronised or talked down to; being recognised as an individual with individual interests an individual learning style; having enthusiastic teachers who are able to model a love of literature; making texts relevant to students’ lives; and giving students’ achievable aims to help foster confidence in their own learning ability. Our Great Writers Inspire website cannot provide the services of a supportive and enthusiastic teacher, but we do hope to offer most of the other items on the list. We offer access to a wide range of texts and other resources; we provide a safe space for experimentation (by including a wide variety of extracurricular texts and subjects); we model enthusiasm for literature in our academic podcasts; we offer introductory texts that are comprehensive and clear, without being patronising; our resources can be explored by individuals from a variety of backgrounds in their own way, at their own pace; at the advice of our delegates, we are also looking into adding some learning pathways, enabling learners to gain a sense of achievement by completing a variety of tasks designed for different levels.

All in all, it was a fantastic couple of days. We’ve now got loads of great feedback to inspire us and to help us steer the project in a direction which is useful for teachers of children, teenagers, and adults. The tricky bit will be ensuring that we offer enough resources for each type of learner, without being too prescriptive or didactic. We want the website to be used by as wide a group as possible. We’ll be sure to keep you update with how we’re getting on!

Thanks once again to all of our inspiring delegates.

Here’s a geeky thank you gift for the Ulysses lovers amongst you!:


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