Some thoughts after ‘Engage’ by Erin Sullivan

As a Lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, I would say that I work on a daily basis with a great writer, although I don’t stop and think about what this term means to me as much as I possibly should. The workshop at the Oxford University Computing Services was a great way of starting a really productive debate about what a ‘great writer’ is, how s/he ‘inspires’, and how as educators and researchers we can be a part of this process. For me the most exciting and profitable event was the discussion among 5 Oxford academics about what a great writer, or indeed a great text, is. With discussions ranging from Wordsworth to Milton to Auden to Shakespeare to more contemporary (and less Anglo-centric) writers, the speakers opened up a range of critical issues important to our understanding of why and how we teach certain writers. Is there something intrinsically and universally ‘great’ about certain writing, or is ‘greatness’ simply a product of cultural prestige and influence? Personally I feel that there’s a middle ground that needs to be found – great writing does evidence certain formal and philosophical properties (the ability for continued and varied rereading, for instance, an issue brought up in the discussion), but we also need to be sensitive to the ways in which ‘greatness’ is also produced by social factors such as the visibility of the book (i.e. whether or not it’s available in print, and if so to what extent) and the cultural hegemony of the country/government in which it is produced. I think more material along these lines in the Great Writers Project would make for really interesting reading and study. Once we’ve started to think about some of these issues, we can then proceed to considering why and how great writing inspires, and how teachers can be facilitators of this process. Very much looking forward to seeing what the project ultimately produces!

Erin Sullivan is a Lecturer and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

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