Scholarly biography and interests

Richard Jacobs graduated from the University of Oxford and was Head of English at a sixth-form College in Horsham before joining the University of Brighton. He is Principal Lecturer in English Literature in the College of Arts & Humanities (School of Humanities, Falmer).

He was instrumental in developing English literature at the University from its earliest days and led the subject from 2003-2012; he has also received a number of awards for teaching excellence. This development of the discipline led to a rapid expansion in terms of student and staff numbers, as well as the number of courses across Schools and Faculties, including at University Centre Hastings. The launch of single-honours English Literature at the University of Brighton in 2009 marked the moment when literature student enrolments passed 300, a quadrupling of numbers since 2004.

Richard Jacobs' published work includes A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading: an Anthology of Literary Texts, London: Routledge, editions for Penguin Classics and book-chapters, alongside many articles on English literature and English in education.

Richard’s post-16 literature teaching pages on the influential ITE English website, written for PGCE secondary English course-leaders and their trainee-teachers, are cited and commended by the leading education adviser and ex-chief examiner Adrian Barlow as ‘particularly strong on contextual approaches, comparative study and critical reading’; he adds that they ‘should be much more widely known’ (World and Time, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p.291).

Richard is a reader for articles on post-16 and HE literature teaching submitted to the journal English in Education.

Specialist critical interests include: 

  • The impact of the myth of the Fall on literature and culture
  • Narrative and the novel
  • Pedagogies of literature teaching in tertiary and higher education

How I like to teach

A student award-nominator once wrote that she appreciated above all feeling that nothing she and her friends said in class would ever be looked on as ‘wrong’.

I like to teach literature in ways that place the text and the students’ responses to the text at the centre of everything I do, for there can be no successful teaching without engaged and energised students.

I like to teach in ways that leave students able to do it without me – where ‘it’ is the individually empowered reading of texts of all kinds because of the collective work of the classroom experience with the particular literary text.

So I like to teach towards making myself effectively redundant for each student.

Activating a process

My sense of how I like to teach literature, as that sense has developed over the last thirty-five years, is not one that feels like imparting a body of knowledge. It’s more about activating a process rather than delivering what the teacher or the course or the assessment system has pre-determined.

It’s not objectives-driven teaching.

Decades ago Lawrence Stenhouse noted that literature teaching, compared to the teaching of other subjects, allows us ‘to specify content, rather than objectives... the content being so structured and infused with criteria that, given good teaching, students' learning can be treated as outcomes, rather than made the subject of pre-specifications’. But if there is one objective that I have in mind it is this sense of students being able to ‘do it’ without me, to read the world and its texts for themselves.

This is critical literacy and each generation of students needs it more and more urgently. But it’s not a goal or objective that students reach having been through and left behind the process of working on the text; instead it’s that very process of working with texts ‘so structured and infused with criteria’ that materialises the critical literacy.

Virtuous triangle: student text and teacher

Stenhouse’s ‘given good teaching’ does of course beg many questions. And there are three aspects of what I think may together constitute the good teaching that I aim for in my work. These are the virtuous triangle between student, text and teacher; the dynamics of desire; and the roles of narrative – and the three are intimately connected.

A successful literature seminar feels like one where there’s been the maximum energy flowing between student, text, and teacher and flowing in all directions. (For my own part, I have an agenda for the seminar, shared with the students, but it’s more of a flexible group of signposts rather than a fixed march.) The process is active and alive, it is never fully finalised or closed, and if any one of the three sources of energy becomes passive, the process collapses.

To make the text active and alive (as opposed to a museum piece) means it needs to be materialised in the room and this may often mean the teacher making it, or a representative part of it, real by reading or performing, ‘being’ or ‘acting’ the text. And beyond the teaching and learning experience is the future where the teacher drops out of the triangle.

Teaching and reading

A model that has as this goal the dispensing of the teacher's role might be understood to be one in which teaching and reading are uniquely balanced or even synonymous.

Good teaching and good reading both ask questions that generate not answers (unlike perhaps at school where students expect readings to be answers provided by the teacher) but more and better questions.

The teaching of a text is a reading of the text in an active and transactional process with the student gaining the power to read by questioning in the same way. The reader (student and teacher) acts on the text rather than being passively positioned by it, or by the teacher. The seminar room is like a ‘safe place’, informed crucially by mutual respect and tolerance, where students can feel that everything they say will be valued and acted on, taken up and developed, recognised as provisional and unfinished, as all readings of texts should be. A student award-nominator once wrote that she appreciated above all feeling that nothing she and her friends said in class would ever be looked on as ‘wrong’.

The dynamics of desire

This leads to my second point about the dynamics of desire. Rene Girard argued that desire is imitative and that processes of identification precede desire. As with the virtuous triangle, an activation of desire may be vital for literature teaching to thrive.

Texts desire to be read, the teacher desires the text, the students identify with and become affected by that desire (award-nominators regularly write of the infectiousness of the teacher’s passion for the text), and that in turn re-energises the teacher’s response to the text.

Peter Brooks’ influential Reading for the Plot provides a useful model. He noted that novels begin with the activation of the protagonist’s desire (Freud’s pleasure principle) which is duplicated or mapped onto the reader’s desire to read on. This process is enacted in successful teaching.

Narrative and teaching

Brooks’ argument can be developed for the third of my points, the importance of narrative as a model for the teaching of literature. We could think of a dynamic process in three parts, beginning in the personal (the student reading the text in advance), moving to a communal experience shared in the lecture and seminar, and ultimately returning, with new insight, to the text. These correspond to Brooks’ notion of how we negotiate plot as we read novels, the middle sections of which are where the pleasure principle totalises the divagations and digressions that mediate between the linear beginnings and eventually endings where the death instinct as well as the pleasure principle is gratified.

If the experience of the literature lecture and seminar can be seen, taken together, as analogous to the desire involved in reading the extended 'middle' of novels, then we can also chart the lecture and seminar, seen separately, as a narrative beginning, middle and end. The (largely) uni-vocal and linear lecture gives way to the populated field of the communally voiced seminar where ‘plot’ diverges and dilates, and then both student and teacher are returned to linearity – another book, better reading, better teaching.

Richard Jacobs is the author of A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading: an Anthology of Literary Texts, Routledge 2001 and a regular contributor to the knowledge base on teaching literature at 16+. See Literature Study Post-16, ITE English

The following thread appeared in the Guardian in response to the article "Waiting for Godot taught me the difference between being smart and being intellectual" by Nicholas Lezard, mentioning Richard Jacobs' inspirational teaching:

"As I discovered more of Beckett – both through my own efforts and those of the kind of inspirational, sympathetic English teacher you used to get so often (hello, Richard Jacobs, if you’re out there) – I followed him through his own journey, and by the time I was writing about him at university I was reading the texts... as they were published"

I enjoyed the privilege of being taught Endgame by Richard Jacobs a year (or two) afterwards, interspersed with readings from Murphy, Watt, and Molloy. One autumn morning we left the school & marched down the Embankment to look at Francis Bacon paintings in the Tate (his point being the affinity between Beckett & Bacon's vision). No surprise that each class remains etched in the memory. I don't think Richard had ever thought of a 'Learning Outcome' it was more the handing on of a torch. & it worked.

I don't think Richard had ever thought of a 'Learning Outcome' it was more the handing on of a torch. & it worked.
Guardian Pick

Yes! He got me on to Bacon as well. A chaotic teacher if you're going by charts and points, and with a complete and unstudied indifference to school regulations; which made his enthusiasm all the more effective. A superb writer, too, judging at least by his intro to Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago. (Which I reviewed here, can't remember whether I declared an interest or not.)

I'm about to start an MA in Lit with Richard at Brighton University, and had the pleasure of experiencing his teaching for 3 years as an undergraduate. It's just phenomenal the way he can mesmerise an entire class for an hour and a half, reading from two or three notes he made on the back of a scrap envelope. His enthusiasm is so infectious. He introduced me to Emily Dickinson, and Nabokov, and I genuinely don't know where I'd be without them. I shall e-mail this to him, he'd love to read it if he hasn't already :)

Guardian Pick

Do so! Glad to hear he's doing well. I shall also drop him a line.

Guardian Pick

Richard's A Beginner's Guide to Critical Reading came out in 2001 which confirmed the impact of Critical Theory on his reading (& I assume his teaching). I completely agree with emmalouise - mesmeric is right. Generations of his students fell under the spell. It's good to hear he's still working the magic in 2014.

Scholarly activity

Repository holdings 

Number of items: 14.

Jacobs, Richard (2014) A Handful of Dust: Realism: Modernism/Irony: Sympathy In: Allen, N. and Simmons, D., eds. Reassessing the Twentieth-Century Canon: From Joseph Conrad to Zadie Smith. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, pp. 75-90. ISBN 9781137366009

Jacobs, Richard (2010) Republicanism, regicide and "The Musgrave Ritual" Victorians (118). pp. 54-65. ISSN 0042-5192

Jacobs, Richard (2010) Teaching literature post-16 in ITE English ITE, Online.

Jacobs, Richard (2010) Literature study post-16 Initial Teacher Education English website.

Jacobs, Richard (2003) Transformed by Godot emagazine [English and Media Centre].

Jacobs, Richard (2001) Blanche's story emagazine [English and Media Centre].

Jacobs, Richard (2001) The sunne rising emagazine [English and Media Centre].

Jacobs, Richard (2001) A beginner's guide to critical reading: an anthology of literary texts Routledge, London. ISBN 0415234689

Jacobs, Richard (2000) 'Will the real poem please stand up?': Wyatt's 'they flee from me' In: Bleiman, Barbara, ed. Text, reader, critic. English and Media Centre, London. ISBN 0907016693

Jacobs, Richard (1999) The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece [Scholarly edition]

Jacobs, Richard (1996) Vile bodies [Scholarly edition]

Jacobs, Richard (1994) The novel in the 1930s and 1940s In: Martin, Dodsworth, ed. The twentieth century. Penguin, pp. 225-266.

Jacobs, Richard (1981) The lyricism of Beckett's plays Agenda.

Jacobs, Richard (1980) Sex and money: Hamlet Shakespeare quarterly.

This list was generated on Fri Aug 19 19:30:16 2016 BST.

Conference papers


  • Narrative and the teaching of literature: Storyville, exploring narratives of learning and teaching, HEA conference, Brighton 


  • Pullman, Lewis and Critical Literacy: Oxford University Department of Educational Studies, International English in Education Conference


  • Teaching Texts in Contexts: University of Strathclyde, NATE UK Englishes Conference


  • Curriculum 2000 Literature: English Association Spring 2001 Conference


Reviews for A Beginner's Guide to Critical Reading: An Anthology of Literary Texts

This book, popular on undergraduate courses, is also one of five which students have to study for the critical comment and analysis paper in the English literature specifications for the Cambridge Pre-U, a well-regarded alternative to A-level.

"What a pleasure it was to have this book for review!... One wishes [it] a wide circulation and extensive use… Jacobs shows unanswerably how literary study is inseparably bound up with moral issues, and he is particularly illuminating on how the act of reading, the collaborative process of making meaning, often raises moral issues in acute form… There is a humanitarian passion at work in the book, standing up for people “marginalised in traditional literary and political culture”, which influences his choice of texts in interesting ways… As an anthologist Richard Jacobs offers the beginning reader, at advanced or adult level, or simply any reader wanting to broaden horizons, samples of the best that literature in English can do. Engaging with them is thrilling, moving, disturbing, unsettling, and his commentaries bring that out… Let’s hope this book sells well and wins readers for its absorbing range of texts."
(Martin Hayden, Use of English)

"All teachers of A-level and undergraduate English courses, and their students, will find something of interest in this book. It is a hopeful signpost towards the future of post-16 English Studies."

"Richard Jacobs' anthology is one of the most refreshing and lively collections I have read in a long time. He has a direct (and often humorous) way of addressing his readers, by inviting them to taste both the literature and the critical approaches, to share in his delight at the feast laid before them with no risk of forcefeeding. Everybody will find something to delight them in this book."
(Carol Fox, The Times Educational Supplement (Book of the Week)

"This book is essential reading: it takes an exciting journey through the history of English Literature. Richard Jacobs has selected juicy morsels then added significant commentary. Its 481 pages have already become part of my life. This book is highly recommended."
(Trevor Lockwood,

"An interesting and challenging resource for teachers and enthusiastic students."
(The English and Media Magazine)

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