This ‘in-between’ world of theory and practice: The role that literary knowledge plays in the teaching of literature

Submitted by: Brenton Doecke
Abstract: Keywords: Literature Teaching, Literary Knowledge, Early Career Teachers

There is, I believe, room for many more attempts to move in this in-between world of theory and practice …’
Marjorie L. Hourd (1968 [1949]), The Education of the Poetic Spirit

This presentation arises out of a four-year longitudinal study into the teaching of literature in secondary schools in Australia. A key question that motivates this study is how the literary education of graduates informs the work they do when they join the English teaching profession. The main source of data for the study are interviews conducted over the life of the project with early career teachers about their literary education, when they have been invited to share stories about the formal situations in which they participated at school and university when studying literature and to reflect on their experiences of literary texts at home and in other social settings.

Drawing on the data that we have thus far collected from these interviews, we shall present an argument about the relationship between the literary knowledge of these early career teachers and their teaching, challenging some dominant conceptions of how knowledge informs teaching. These include Shulman’s (1986) notion of ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ (as distinct from content knowledge produced by fields of inquiry) and Young’s (2008) understanding of ‘powerful knowledge’ (as distinct from ‘experience’ as Young understands this word). Both conceptions of the relationship between knowledge and teaching provide problematical frameworks for understanding the relationship between the literary education of these early career teachers and their emerging pedagogies.

What these early career teachers have had to say to us reflects more than a phase in their professional learning as English teachers but might more properely be taken to exemplify the fundamentally distinctive nature of reading and writing ‘literary’ texts when compared with other school subjects and the fields of knowledge on which they draw. This distinctiveness might be summed up by Marjorie Hourd’s words, as an ‘in-between world’, not a direct relationship between literary studies as a field of inquiry and the teaching and learning that occurs in literature classrooms (as though it is simply a matter of converting literary knowledge into a content that secondary school students can access), but a social space in which teachers and their students can meet to share their experiences of literary texts and thus enact a fundamentally important form of sociability.


Hourd, M.L. (1968 [1949]), The Education of the Poetic Spirit: A Study of Children’s Expression in the English Lesson, London: Heinemann.
Shulman, L. (1986), ‘Those Who Understand’: Knowledge Growth in Teaching, Educational Researcher, 15 (2), pp.4-21.
Young, M. (2008), Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education, London and New York: Routledge.