English Pedagogy as Engagement
with Contemporary Contexts

Anticipating Gregory Ulmer's entreaty "for the humanities disciplines to establish our cognitive jurisdiction over the communications revolution" (1989, p. viii) is a much older pedagogical framework designed for the teaching of English. Like Ulmer, Wilbur Hatfield (1935) saw the need not only to study and learn from the material forces that were shaping an increasingly modernized and media-saturated society but also to incorporate those changes into the fabric of pedagogy. To do otherwise would be to ignore one's own (extra-curricular) experience, and experience — for Hatfield — was essential to one's education:

Experience is the best of all schools. And experience need not be a dear school, if it is competently organized and conducted by a capable teacher who illuminates each situation in prospect and retrospect. The school of experience is the only one which will develop the flexibility and power of self-direction requisite for successful living in our age of swift industrial, social, and economic change. (Hatfield, 1935, p. 3)

In his An Experience Curriculum for English (1935), Hatfield saw the teaching of English as an opportunity to better prepare students for change and allow them to embrace it. Written on the heels of the popularity of John Dewey's progressive movement for education, Hatfield's curriculum reflected a departure from traditional approaches to English pedagogy. By defining his "experience curriculum" as a pattern subject to adaptation by different teachers and schools, Hatfield's text is a blueprint for student-centered classrooms where the teacher's role is that of a facilitator for experiences and not merely a dispenser of requisite content.

For Hatfield, the key to establishing a curriculum based on experience is to make it topical yet malleable, a governing pattern that can be varied to allow for the individual particularities of the user. In a digital culture where we can customize everything from our desktops and home pages to our (electronic) mail delivery, the notion of a custom-fit curriculum — however difficult to realize in practice — is perhaps even more relevant today. Hatfield's concept of curriculum as a pattern thus seeks to create a more apposite relationship between course content and lived experience:

The place of English in this program is obvious; to provide the communication (speaking, writing, listening, reading) necessary to the conduct of social activities, and to provide indirect experiences where direct experiences are impossible or undesirable. An effective program in English must make provision for carrying the literary and linguistic activities beyond the confines of the English classroom. (1935, p. 4)

This connection might also be even more urgent for a discipline such as English, which is not only deeply embedded in traditional pedagogical models (the essay, exam, the lecture) but also teaches material that is not necessarily contemporary in context (art and literature of the past).

Many of the details in Hatfield's curriculum are dated (such as focusing on the use of radio in the teaching of English), but the premise remains valid: Teachers and students should develop an understanding of English as a discipline that includes more than the skills derived from literature discussions and writing essays. Along these lines, Hatfield asserted that "[p]erhaps no other subject gains so much as does English from the integration of the school with everyday life" (p. 4). Hatfield's curriculum suggests that English pedagogy can and should be presented as the medium with which one views the world. In this context, as the media ecology grows ever more complex and differentiated, the humanities might be seen not simply as adapting to the demands of digital culture but rather as vital to understanding and engaging with it.

Mel - class of 06 Joe - class of 05 Todd - class of 07 Llew - class of 06


You Can Start Here
On the Digital
Threat / Salvation
On English Pedagogy & Contemporary Contexts
On the Course:
Motivation & Inception
Nothing Too New


On the Literary
On the Technical


Students as DesignWriters
Examples and Analysis