Contemporary Literature from the Classroom

Edited by Rebecca Roach

Contemporary Literature from the Classroom

Rebecca Roach

Envisioning AfAm Literary History in Norwegian Fjord og Fjell

Eir-Anne Edgar

Multicultural Literature in a Superdiverse City

Joseph Anderton

The Play of Classrooms

Rob Gallagher, Chloé Germaine, and Paul Wake

“Literature” and the “Contemporary” in the German American Studies Classroom

Tim Lanzendörfer

Teaching Ten Years of “Last Year’s Novels”

Dave Gunning

Marginality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the contemporary English Literature classroom: an ‘aggregated’ perspective

John Roache and Cyrus Larcombe Moore

Melancholy Margery

Ramsey McGlazer

Notes From the Edge: Reflections on Black Literature, Feeling, and Teaching

Janine Bradbury

Bodies’ Return to Physical Books: Teaching through and alongside BookTok and Bookstagram

Clare Mullaney


It feels like a precarious moment to be talking from the classroom. It has for a long time. When I originally wrote these words (January 2024) the politicization of the campus classroom was visceral, the morning after Claudine Gay's resignation offering one more beat in the rhythm of cancels, bans and pings. Here in the UK, months after a cyberattack, the British Library was still effectively shuttered: "knowledge under attack" and the government quietly indifferent.1 The media cycle moved on, the disquiet remains. Culture wars take many forms but the idea that the classroom has ever been a place outside politics grows ever less tenuous.

The politics, affects, and aesthetics of precarity, precarization, the precariat, have been the focus of economists, political theorists, philosophers, activists, critics, and fiction writers. It's an already-arrived AI "textpocalpyse" that renders any effects this writing might hope to have as itself precarious: the "sense of an imperfect present that is without the compensation of a hopeful future."2

In our era of crises political, epidemiological, social, ecological, but also of expertise, institutional and disciplinary legitimacy the teacher of contemporary literature seems constantly to face their own existential crisis; students, too. This cluster was not envisioned as being oriented around continued crisis, around precarity (it's an exhausting position to inhabit), but rather the question of how we might understand contemporary literature from the classroom.

Laura Heffernan and Rachel Sagner Buurma have compellingly elucidated what they call the "work" of classrooms, which they insist has been crucial to the development of literary methods and canons.3 In the context of teaching contemporary literature the work seems to take on further complexity. When Robert Eaglestone contemplated contemporary fiction in the academy a decade ago, he chose the form of the manifesto (or notes "towards" it), a mode of writing explicitly oriented around political futures, a hope for change which the ontology of precarity would seem to undercut.4 If this work of classrooms isn't simply speculative (I'll admit I have long resented the emotional work that speculative fiction seems to demand of me), then what is it today?

Theodore Martin emphasizes contemporary literature's conceptually tense relationship with history: the category of the contemporary "compels us to think, above all, about the politics of how we think about the present."5 We are asked to contemplate the mediating, framing work that must occur to place the literary object in the classroom; it is sometimes a precarious, vulnerable position to occupy. Our own participation, our function in shaping that literary object and its classroom reception, is exposed. This isn't just a question of what texts make it into the classroom. Content wars might be rancorous but we also grapple continuously with our own determinations of expertise, archive, period, form, politics.

We are forced to confront questions around the work that goes on in and from contemporary literature classrooms. What is that work? To what purpose? How do we characterize the work that teachers and students singularly and collectively undertake? And what might that tell us about what we understand contemporary literature (from the classroom) to be? From the vulnerability of this position, what might we learn?

In early 2021, against the backdrop of another lockdown, I was teaching a course titled "The Social Life of Literature." It aimed to get final-year undergraduates thinking about how we interact with literature today about the ways in which books don't exist in a vacuum, and how communities discover, read, and talk about books in the twenty-first century.

I hadn't imagined that the course would take place online, another small failure of imagination from that time. Without access to a physical space, we were newly tenanted in digital spaces. The experience of teaching from that classroom was a disorientating one, affectively and spatially: the dreary desperation of Zoom breakout rooms mixed with the giddy respite that seemed to come from the chance to simply talk together about books. The students, anxious, self-surveilling, restless, vulnerable, and depleted, were also resolved to enjoy these discussions: it was their last class before they graduated, warily, into a traumatized world.

One reason why this class sticks in my mind is how much it showed up the disconnect between the work of classrooms and their imagined, textualized form not in novels but in paperwork (parsing the latter is less appealing but both entail undervalued labor). In the UK, higher education course materials now fall under consumer protection laws, overseen by the Competition and Markets Authority, with the bureaucratic result that all classes are set in textual form around eighteen months ahead of anyone entering a classroom. There is an art to dangling texts and course details to tantalize the prospective imagined student while trying to leave room for the exigencies of life and actual students.

Like so many classes taught in that period at institutions around the world, the 2021 iteration of "The Social Life of Literature" was utterly reconfigured from its bureaucratically ordained form. It was reconceptualized in a way unanticipated by the paperwork that governed the class, reminding us that viewing the classroom as an object or site, rather than a salutation ("from the classroom") is a precarious perspective. If the disconnect between the present reality of 2021 and the textual make-believe of 2019's course descriptions was unusually stark, it nevertheless pointed to an underlying situation in which contemporary literature in the classroom is always out of date, precariously framed by an institutional commitment to predictable futures.

The structure of "The Social Life of Literature" was thematic, each week dedicated to a site, practice, or community form. Alongside UK school curricula, BookTok, and publisher imprints, we analyzed bookstores, public reading events, festivals spaces and events we had planned to experience collectively but were forced to engage with from our geographically dispersed isolation. What had initially seemed like a vulnerability decentering the physical book quickly became an asset as we assessed the impact of less tangible forms and practices upon our interpretative norms. It was the class on school curricula that most seemed to invigorate students with the possibilities to be found in precarity. Framed around the lack of diversity in the GCSE English syllabus (a compulsory exam taken at 16 by all pupils), students were asked to critically assess that document. Up in arms about the lack of authors of color and women writers, (a legacy of former UK Conversative Education Secretary, Michael Gove, an easy target in the UK, especially in the midst of a lockdown heavily associated with Tory mismanagement), students imagined other possible curricula speculative fictions I can get behind. In emphasizing the precarity of the syllabus as a politically constructed documentthese students found, in their precarious collectivity, the agency to imagine a different classroom and a different future.

That 2021 course demands memorial tenancy rights for another, corporeal, reason. Along with the pandemic, it met the gestation of my second child with a bump. Pregnancies and parenting don't fit easily into academic planning, even in countries with barely decent family leave (state precarization of reproductive labor). Hence why my memories of that class interleave talk of Genette's paratexts with retching into a bucket just off screen. The academic worker in the classroom relies upon bodily regulation. In the reconfigured classroom mute buttons have their advantages.

While we all like to think we are irreplaceable, it is difficult (particularly during a pandemic) to replace bodies mid-semester: try giving a colleague's lecture for them, or sub in to cover a seminar. It isn't just a question of expertise. It isn't just content, it's about tone, style of delivery, claims that one is and isn't comfortable making or discussions led. You can muddle through, hoping the students do too, but it is an uncomfortable experience. We received a reminder that we teachers and students aren't as easily subbed out, like players on the pitch, as the rhetoric of worker fungibility that pervades the neoliberal university might suggest.

I don't seek to dismiss the insidious effects of casualization and worker precarity on a sector-wide level. In the shift to adjunct, short-term contracts, in the gigification of higher education teaching, in the exploitations made possible by worker "oversupply," and in the precarity that these processes produce, are very real problems. I write from the privileged position of having a permanent job but with the recognition that precarization has economic, affective, and political results for all of us and for the work of classrooms. Exactly what those effects might be is more slippery. To conceive of classrooms as sites of work seems to assume a kind of locatedness, of place and containment that belies the leaky, contaminated, plural, and gestative experiences of which I have been writing. But I wonder whether the precarious work of and from contemporary literature classrooms might help us to aggregate some ideas that often remain disconnected and remaindered in our discussions. The essays in this cluster attempt to do just that.

Two of the essays deal explicitly with questions of classroom formation and place. Eir-Anne Edgar reflects on her experience of teaching contemporary African American literature in the Norwegian classroom contemplating the effects to be had from examining the literary object from a position of apparent geographical precarity. Joseph Anderton meanwhile explores the ways in which the location of the classroom in a superdiverse city might shape the interpretative work that students conduct.

If debates about diversity on campus have featured strongly in public discourse, they have been joined by those on generative artificial intelligence (the topic of my research outside the classroom), exposing a collective anxiety around the perceived vulnerability of our discipline's learning and assessment models in an age of computational reproduction. Even for the more measured MLA-CCC Joint Taskforce on Writing and AI, "The risks and threats to students, teachers, and the profession are real and profound."6 Precarity takes the form of disciplinary future obsolescence. This is precarity that turns precisely on the work that we identify so strongly as emerging from (but rarely within the writing and grading of student essays takes place outside) the classroom. Here Rob Gallagher, Chloé Germaine, and Paul Wake explore the precarization of the book by reflecting on the inclusion of video games in contemporary literature classrooms, acknowledging, as well, the logistics necessary for technological work from the classroom.  

From one perspective, these generative anxieties are nothing new, part of a much longer history of new technology and labor automation and debates which have forced us to grapple, restlessly, with the nature of classroom work. What do we do and how to we value it? Who will be replaced by the machine? Which work will be rendered obsolete? How do we prepare our students and ourselves for this unpredictable future? In the humanities, we are all luddites now or so the fearmongering goes.

That this is not a new concern is illustrated by the handwringing of postwar critics. Hugh Kenner was debating the work of campus classrooms in the pages of the conservative National Review in 1959 would the college teacher be "automated out" with the advent of television? Kenner was confident in his own liberal humanism: it was in the classroom dialogue between student and teacher that "letters" were transformed "into literacy, and literacy into civilization."7 The passivity of television didn't pose a threat to a classroom populated by the GI Bill, but is the situation more precarious today? Are the chattering bots coming for us all?

Such debates should push us to consider our own assumptions around what makes an idea teacher. What kind of interface between student and material, between student and contemporary do we find desirable, or positions us least precariously? Is the perfect teacher of contemporary literature in fact a (supposedly) "transparent" mediator a chat interface? In his essay "'Literature' and the 'Contemporary' in the German American Studies Classroom," Tim Lanzendörfer offers a hopeful vision: to teach contemporary literature is to become "'time-comradely" with ones' students. For another take on this topic, my colleague Dave Gunning reflects on the experience of a decade of teaching his course "Last Year's Novels." With a constantly updating and outdating syllabus, the teacher can have little claim to expertise.  

The general narratives of technological precarity miss, of course, the specifics of what might change, what human work will become devalued, casualized, precarized, and how we might choose to respond to those processes and their effects. (I, for example, have my own personal vendetta against administrations that seem to think that climate change will be solved if we stop printing out paper worksheets for classes as if the carbon footprint of cloud storage was as ineffable as the metaphor.  Teaching literature is not facilitating ecological precarity.) One useful avenue of thinking is explored by John Roache and his former student, poet Cyrus Larcombe Moore, in their essay "Marginality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Contemporary English Literature Classroom: an 'Aggregated' Perspective." What might it mean, they ask, to embrace a position on the margins in teaching? What might the aggregation of writing mean for our understandings of literary and classroom labor?  

The import of these questions is large. The humanities have long positioned themselves as a bulwark against the kinds of reproducibility that seems to lend itself, under capitalism, to precarization. The literary object, in its material and aesthetic specificity, with its cultural indexicality, offers a kind of resistance. So too, the charismatic professor, the knowledge worker whose expertise resists easy exchange offers an antidote to our current crisis of casualization even as we see that knowledge attacked as obfuscation, irrelevance, elitism today. Yet when we examine contemporary literature from the classroom, the traditional vision of the seminar room as sacred locus the utopic originating spot wherein the humanities gestate a future citizen, nation, culture, worker seems to dissipate.

There are opportunities to be had in this precarization. Several essays in the cluster grapple explicitly and generatively with the affective import of this. Ramsey McGlazer's piece "Melancholy Margery" ponders the (precarious) feelings that teaching can provoke. Describing the experience of teaching and recalling the teaching of Robert Glück's Margery Kempe, McGlazer explores, paratactically, what is produced, affectively and politically, from the neoliberal classroom. Janine Bradbury, meanwhile, in "Notes From the Edge: Reflections on Black Literature, Feeling, and Teaching," proposes the concept of "edge work" inherent with precarity, excess, and marginality as way of critically engaging with the practice of teaching Black Literature. 

Elsewhere, contributors explore the political potential to be found from this precarious position from the classroom. In "Bodies' Return to Physical Books: Teaching Through and Alongside BookTok and Bookstagram," Clare Mullaney speaks of the pedagogical gains to be had from drawing on practices developed outside the classroom in this case digital articulations of physical reading practices, by readers whose disabilities have long positioned them as precarious within the capitalist worker contract.

The essays clustered here are attempts. Several of the contributors spoke to me about the vulnerability they felt in writing these piecesthe precarity entailed in writing from the classroom. It's a feeling I share, but also one that gets me thinking about what the de facto writing position is, or rather where it is (strangely everywhere but the classroom), and why this writing feels so uncomfortable. As much as this cluster is interested in contemporary literature from the classroom, it is also a meditation on the people inhabiting those spaces, physically and textually, today.

Rebecca Roach is Associate Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham, UK. She has written widely on literary media, institutions, and practicesincluding monograph projects on interviews, programmed literature, and talking machines. Current collaborations (new participants always welcome!) include work around Stuart Hall's (Digital) Archive ( and Academic Forms in the Humanities (


  1. Roly Keating, "Knowledge under attack," Knowledge Matters Blog, British Library, 15 December 2023.[]
  2. Matthew Kirschenbaum, "Prepare for the Textpocalypse," The Atlantic, 8 March 2023; Sophy Kohler, "Death knells and dead ends: Latent futurity in Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive and Mohale Mashigo's 'Ghost Strain N,'" in Precarity in Contemporary Literature and Culture, edited by Emily J. Hogg and Peter Simonsen (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 119.[]
  3. Laura Heffernan and Rachel Sagner Buurma, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).[]
  4. Robert Eaglestone, "Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto," Textual Practice 27, no. 7 (2013): 1089-1101.[]
  5. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).[]
  6. MLA-CCCC Joint Task Force on Writing and AI, "MLA-CCCC Joint Task Force on Writing and AI Working Paper: Overview of the Issues, Statement of Principles, and Recommendations," July 2023, 6.[]
  7. Hugh Kenner, "Automated Out?" National Review, 10 October 1959, 389-90, 389.[]

Past clusters