Whose voices count? Unsettling literary study in secondary English

Year: 2019

Author: McLean, Davies, Larissa, Truman, Sarah E., Buzacott, Lucy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Black literary theorist Sylvia Wynter (Wynter & McKittrick, 2015)puts forth the notion of Homo Narransto explain how in her view, the human brain developed biologically in conjunction with language and storytelling.For Wynter, this means that as a species we are partially produced throughthe narratives we tell about our pasts, presents, and futures.Thinking with Wynter’s Homo Narransand intersectional feminism – which recognizes race, ability, and class, as well as gender inequalities – this paper draws on data in a pilot project to highlight how authors, teachers, and researchers of English are attempting to unsettle the canon through attending to different narratives and voices in Australian literature.

Recent analysis of Australian literary texts set for study in the secondary curriculumhighlight the overwhelming whiteness of English literary authors’ identities, and central characters, the “dominance of heterosexual characters” (Bacalja and Bliss, 2019, p. 17), and lack of representation of queer themes or characters. In response to these concerns, and in conversation with curricular mandates to include Australian literature in secondary English, this paper focuses on a pilot project called the Teacher-Researcher Project. ThePilot supported five secondary English teachers to undertake a week-long literary research project drawing on the University of Melbourne Archives and the expertise of the project team – which included academics in education and literary studies – to investigate texts and sources relevant to their teaching of Australian literature.

This project built on earlier research that showed that, despite the enduring nature of canonical and heteronormative frameworks on official text lists, teachers are eager to foreground diverse Australian voices in their classrooms, but often lack time or support to develop knowledge and resources to support these intentions (McLean Davies et al, 2017, 2019). A partnership with The Stella Prize for women’s writing was central to this project and the texts investigated by teacher participants were Stella Prize long-listed written by Indigenous, people of colour, and Australian women authors. Key to this project was the commitment to teacher-participants as co-researchers (Mayes & Sawyer, 2014).

This significant pilot project made space for teachers to become researcher-practitioners of Australian literature by allowing them to create scholarship and diversify the curriculum and their practice. This resulted in new understandings of what constitutes Australian literature in the 21stcentury, and new insights regarding the role of cultural collections and archives in contemporary classroom practices.