Skip to main content

Philosophy and Literature


This workshop has been integrated as an induction into the first year Phil-lit degree, planned collaboratively by Jonathan Heron from the OSL project and Dr Eileen John from Philosophy. It took for its subject matter a key text -this year it was Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’- and sought to offer an embodied means of close reading. The learning objective was stated as follows: to make the interpretive and creative decisions made by participants relevant to conceptual understanding, reasoning, and critical engagement with texts. This extends the premise of the Phil-Lit degree that texts can be productively read in more than one academic idiom – the literary and the philosophical– to the idioms of physical movement and visual representation.



Although Philosophy and Literature is already interdisciplinary, and several of the students were on record as having had some experience of drama, there was still some apprehension about what an OSL workshop would entail.


Student A: I thought there was a possibility it was going to be really good, but also a possibility it was going to be awkward and terrible.


Student B: I hate drama, I feel so self-conscious… So it was quite, like, when you talk about a play that’s interactive you sort of assume you’re gonna be acting out and reading out loud… it was exciting though, I think, yeah, I liked the idea of it.


This apprehension is not subject specific. In fact it presents a typical challenge for the practice of OSL: how to help students distinguish the physical and performative aspects of the workshop from negative stereotypes about acting and drama (that is it expressive but anti-intellectual), whilst at the same time encouraging them to move beyond their comfort zones. It is clear from the student feedback that the importance of the primary text to this negotiation should not be underestimated: the success of the workshop from their perspective was judged specifically on the extent to which it engaged with the text. The text served both to provide intellectual content and anchor their expectations for the session.

The workshop was formed around several text-based exercises, including selecting passages, creating thematic tableaux in pairs or in groups and then organizing tableaux into a chronology or plot. The session built towards this chronology as a collaborative performance piece, and in the process demanded that the students make a series of strategic choices. Within the process of selecting passages and constructing images the students were given several opportunities to reflect vocally on their decisions.

In the feedback several students suggested that the workshop had brought them closer to the text on the level of recognition and memory. Similar associations between physical movement, visual stimulus and memory have been made by students across the disciplines.


I did enjoy [the text], but I forgot it quite quickly, and having it acted out, and gone through, and going over all the different parts and dynamics and then seeing how they linked up chronologically, you get a much better idea of the text, because you see it sort of in action, almost.”

“I find that with most things if there’s some sort of visual attachment […] it’s gonna help me remember stuff, […] so acting the whole thing out – I think it makes it more memorable.”


This mnemonic function does not only serve to aid future recall of the text, it also expresses the impressions left by the workshop; and in this respect it is inextricable from the complex processes of literary interpretation which created those impressions. As one lead learner observes:

“One advantage of the workshop over a traditional seminar would be this visualizing of the text, which seemed to make it easier for the students to remember the plot and the sentiments that are expressed at different points. For me, it’s more than just this. True – seeing something out of the ordinary makes us more likely to remember it and whatever is “attached” to it, in this case the text. However, when we saw the text “in action”, as Student B put it, we weren’t simply seeing an unusual image which had some sort of link to the text so that we might remember it better – we were experiencing a physical embodiment of some of the ideas of the text, so that we might understand it better. I believe this idea of experiential learning over the memorizing of information is a key component of OSL…” Sean Hudson

Sean Hudson, Lead learner: Full report



The claim is that the OSL workshop does not simply reinforce an interpretation the student has already formed but prompts the student to form new interpretations. This seems to be supported by the student feedback.

“Basically, there was this flow throughout the workshop, you started where you made a tableaux of the scene, and then you kind of went off and developed it, and then we lined them all up chronologically in terms of plot, and then each of us thought of a word that related to that emotional point in the story, and went along [the line] and said all the words, and I just thought getting to that point was quite – exhilarating.”

“In such a short space of time, going through every word, you think “Oh my god, that’s all the emotional changes [the protagonist] goes through,” which you don’t notice necessarily if you read it over a few hours.”

“Actually when we were asked to interpret the play, we were asked to act out certain parts and you could interpret the text, and basically take it wherever you wanted. You’re actually contributing something, which always feels like you’re not wasting your time, you’re sort of making an effort. That’s part of the problem with lectures, you sort of just sit there, there’s no participation, really, you just have to listen to what it is, and with that workshop it really helps you get involved, and it gave you the opportunity to understand it more.”

As a follow up to the workshop the students were able to watch a theatrical adaptation of Gogol’s text ‘Diary of a Madman’ by Fail Better Productions.