Joseph Anderton (Birmingham City University)


Dr Joseph Anderton is Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birmingham City University, UK. He is author of Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure after the Holocaust and has published widely on modernism, dehumanisation and the nonhuman in relation to Kafka, Lawrence, Coetzee, and Auster. He is currently working on a new book, Writing Homelessness in Contemporary British Literature.

Productive Discomfort: Teaching Literary Modernism from Troublesome to Transformative

Pedagogy of discomfort prompts students to reflect critically upon their perspectives and practices to refine, expand, and diversify their values and skills. While a mild form of discomfort is a part of learning in general as we push the limits of our knowledge and understanding, studies in literary modernism are particularly disposed to profound discomfort because of its purposely disruptive and difficult forms of literature that, as many students will attest, have the power to confuse, exclude, and exasperate. Feelings of discomfort can be among the most engaging experiences a student has, as James and Brookfield (2014) suggest: ‘upending the normal and familiar can be threatening and confusing but it is usually also unforgettable. So a large part of student engagement entails creating moments of productive discomfort’ (6-7). However, the framing of modernism is now so deeply ingrained with difficulty and discomfort that this ‘productive’ aspect can go missing. As Jeff Wallace (2011) puts it in his introduction to modernism, ‘we could easily erect difficulty as an artificial barrier to understanding, failing thus to see how modernist texts might call for the dismantling of established habits or protocols of reading and for the creation of new ones’ (13). Even if modernism’s difficulty is recognized as a change of requirements, as it disturbs functioning and successful practices of reading developed over a student’s academic career so far, it can feel like a regressive move that undoes confidence and competence. This paper considers how educators can continue to approach literary modernism through productive versions of difficulty and discomfort. With reference to a final year undergraduate module I lead, ‘Modernism and its Legacies’, which moves from the solicitations of close reading (James 2020) to the ethics of reading (Attridge 2004), I am interested in how teaching in modernism today can pass the threshold between troublesome (difficult to grasp) and transformative (creating a significant shift in thinking about a subject).