Atomic Essay #6 - context in one question, then a million more

For me, when I'm thinking about context, I start by asking myself a question: How will this help to probe the meanings in the text, and how will it help me and my students make meaning?

Atomic Essay #6 - context in one question, then a million more
Photo by Matt Artz / Unsplash

This morning, Jennifer Webb tweeted this:

which, in turn, was picked up by Gaurav Dubay:

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Both threads got me – and lots of others – thinking about what context we include when we're teaching literary texts, and where we put it. Of particular note, two contributions (though there were many excellent others), stood out: Andy (@_codexterous) shared an excellent thread here on the concept of the 'first reader' and Diane Leedham (@dileed) shared her map of the three contexts, after Bakhtin: creation, reproduction and reception, here. I've been thinking a lot about the latter three recently, and I'll doubtless have things to say in due course.

For me, when I'm thinking about context, I start by asking myself a question:

How will this help to probe the meanings in the text, and how will it help me and my students make meaning?
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I've started to call this type of context 'key context', because it helps me differentiate between information that surrounds the text and information that, if not taught or explored, might impede textual discovery and discussion of meaning.

It must, however, be guided by what you're looking for. This is why teachers must interrogate their own subject knowledge, evaluate their own biases, assumptions and preferences in regard to disciplinary English, and have conversations with and about literature. Because then we, as educator-critics, can consider what conversations we want to have in our classrooms. The responsibility of the teacher here, when framed like this, is very significant. We can't know what context we should be including or exploring unless we keep doing that ourselves.

If you're a new teacher, and this sounds awfully intimidating, it doesn't need to. For me, ignorant as I am, questions are my starting point.

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Let's suppose I'm looking at the presentation of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. If I want to decide what context to include, and when to include it within the narrative of a sequence of lessons, I could ask questions like this:

  • Why is Blanche framed as object in this text? Why not Stella? Why not any other character? What about Williams, the USA, the 40s or any other factor precipitated or influenced this framing? Is questioning worth doing? Why?
  • Is the marginalisation of non-white characters problematic? Why so? Does this damage the text's reputation, ideas or 'worthiness'?
  • While we're at it, why do we consider textual reputation? Should we?
  • What attitudes to women and / or mental health shaped the text? How were / are these attitudes presented and received? Why is this?

These are merely a few questions I'd ask myself. The answers to them help me begin to decide not just what context to include, or where to include it, but how inclusion of that context might help create, interrogate or communicate meanings.

With more answers come more questions.

Keep them coming.