Should we study literature ‘in context’? Some Year 10 students respond…

If you teach the IB’s Middle Years Programme you will be familiar with the Global Contexts. These used to be referred to as lenses through which difficult subjects can be viewed more meaningfully, or with greater context, in the ‘real world’, with all the interconnectedness that implies. You can find out more about them here.

There is an ongoing debate among English Literature teachers I know about how necessary ‘context’ is in analysing a text. Does it help if we know more about Shakespeare’s life and times as we study, say, ‘Hamlet’? Do we need to know that Dylan Thomas was an alcoholic? Do we have a better understanding of Ezra Pound’s poetry if we know he was a fascist sympathiser? What does it add? And what does it take away?

I remember talking to a very well-renowned writer, whose novels are studied at A level, and he said:

‘You don’t need to know anything about me if you study my books. Nothing. All that is an unnecessary distraction’.

This made my next questions – about how his background influences his work – awkward.

How much should we respect his position? Do we better understand the value of a work of art if we emphasise its political, social, historical, and biographical contexts? Or should it be studied in isolation? Should we focus on the language only?

I thought I would ask my Year 10 MYP students to answer this.

I set them up with a small project, and the aim was to give brief presentations answering this question:

To what extent is our understanding of literature deepened by greater contextualisation?

I asked them to analyse ‘Points of View’ by Lucinda Roy and ‘Water’ by Philip Larkin.

Here is the Google Doc I shared with them to establish the nature of the tasks. You can see that I provided some context for the Roy poem (but left out any biographical details). I deliberately told them nothing about Larkin.
We had one lesson to read the poems, and one homework period to prepare for the presentations.

Their conclusions were interesting, and are ongoing. For some, it is clear that the Global Contexts provided by the IB offered a framework through which they could better make sense of the poem. Not only were they able to approach the text in a structured way, but they were also able to see it from different (pre-determined) points of view. One student – James – was not alone in thinking that ‘contextualisation can greatly organise and therefore deepen our understanding of the poem’.

Some of the students I teach – at all levels – struggle to analyse an ‘unseen’ poem because the first stage – the annotation (or mark up) – is too undefined a process. Others see it for what it is: namely, a creative act, a process of engaging with the author. Anything which gives some students a structure (even if it’s a basic mnemonic such as SCASI, which stands for Setting, Characterisation, Action, Style, Ideas) is a help.

Here you can see some marked-up slides from one group: it was clear from looking at these that this would be a presentation focusing very much on the language, rather than the context. I like seeing this sort of work: it is dense, involved, a map of raw thought. This group’s presentation conceded that context helped to gain different perspectives: they looked at the poem as a feminist text, but concluded that all final responses begin and end with the personal, not the purely political. Another student – Finlay – commented that:

‘Without any knowledge of the background of the writer we were able to enjoy the poem and decipher many ideas and concepts that may have been in it; but had we known her intentions for the piece as we researched it we would have been biased and perhaps not explored other possible themes, such as if she was a feminist we may not have looked at the political side of the piece.’

I found this an interesting response: for some students context hinders meaningful, personal exploration. It gets in the way of reading the text as it ought to be read. It is the same position as that held by the famous novelist I referred to above.

For Tom, the more meaningful analysis came not through contexts, but simply by focusing on the language (something which most English teachers insist on above and beyond everything else). He wrote in his final remarks that:

‘Roy’s poem is convoluted, but deeply philosophical. The confusion of the imagery and metaphor complements the fact that problem with water is multilayered. This is why contextualisation is vital in understanding all aspects of the language in this piece.’

This is a sophisticated analysis, and it, again, puts the analysis of language at the core of his emerging argument. I found myself asking: is it the case that for a Year 10 student a more original, nuanced and sophisticated response is always going to be centred on the language, rather than the political and sociological contexts that might, outwardly at least, support another student in their analysis? Or is that a reductive position to take?

Such discussions have real implications for teachers and students. For example, AQA’s new English Literature A level course clearly foregrounds an historicist approach to studying literature. This is the opening to that specification:

English Literature A’s historicist approach to the study of literature rests upon reading texts within a shared context. Working from the belief that no text exists in isolation but is the product of the time in which it was produced, English Literature A encourages students to explore the relationships that exist between texts and the contexts within which they are written, received and understood. Studying texts within a shared context enables students to investigate and connect them, drawing out patterns of similarity and difference using a variety of reading strategies and perspectives. English Literature A privileges the process of making autonomous meaning, encouraging students to debate and challenge the interpretations of other readers as they develop their own informed personal responses. The historicist method of studying texts diachronically (across a very broad time period) is at the centre of the specification.

I imagine such a statement would put off as many English teachers as it attracts.

We didn’t have time to discuss ‘Water’ by Larkin in any real depth, although one student – Johann – when asked to consider which poem they felt was the more original and interesting, wrote that:

‘Water is the better poem. This is because the meaning behind ‘Water’ is thoughtful. It surprises me that there is not a religion praising water because water is the source of life.’

When I read Johann’s comments I thought to myself: would he have thought differently if I had told him that Larkin was an atheist who had no time for organised religion (‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade’), or for cults or followings? Would that have enlightened him, or provided a new insight? Perhaps not. Perhaps context comes after the first, refreshing draught of pure insight is taken to quench our curiosity. For a student that initial, sometimes electrifying connection with a great work of art, should come as something personal, intimate, and profound. Context, sometimes, isn’t always all.


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