The Relevance Trap
It’s become the go-to question when English teachers are looking for new texts to teach: My students don’t read the books I used to assign. These old books don’t have anything to do with my students’ lives. They can’t see themselves in my usual texts. What new texts can I teach that are relevant to my students?
We all want our students to be engaged in our classes. We also want them to feel like their experiences are important and worthy of study, and teaching a range of diverse texts is undoubtedly an important part of showing them that this is the case.
However, especially as New Zealand looks set to require English classes to focus heavily, if not exclusively, on New Zealand literature, I can’t help but feel that it’s extremely limiting to suggest to our students that the only way to relate to a text is through characters that share our race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or other group membership. Those identities are hugely important to us, but they’re only a part of the total human experience. In addition, no one text is ever going to seem relevant to everyone – increasing the diversity of texts we teach should be as much about confronting students with different experiences as it is about validating their own.
That’s why, rather than choosing texts based on relevance and student interest, I think we should be designing our teaching to show students how a text can be relevant to them, and to teach students to seek out that relevance by consciously applying what they read to their own experience of the world. I’ve been trying to do this ever since I started teaching, but it’s really only been since I started experimenting with Essential Questions that I started to see students truly making those connections and taking ownership of the texts. And essential questions haven’t just increased engagement – they’ve also helped me guide students to some of the core knowledge at the heart of English.
The Theory Bit: Making the Subjective Objective
(This bit of the post digs into some of the academic theory behind why I think essential questions are such a powerful tool. If you want to get straight to the practical classroom application of these ideas, feel free to skip to the next section!)
There are plenty of arguments for the importance of knowledge in education, and about why the move away from knowledge has been so disastrous, especially for disadvantaged students. However, this has always posed a bit of a problem for me as an English teacher. While I find it relatively easy to point to the knowledge in science or history, in my own topic things seem a bit more nebulous. I’ve fallen back before on language techniques, and grammar, and knowing about major authors and texts, and I do believe that all of those pieces of knowledge are an important part of the picture, but I always felt like something was missing: understanding literature.
Responding to literature can, of course, be a very subjective thing, and so it can seem impossible to translate it into anything resembling objective knowledge. We can teach students the standard interpretations of a given text, of course, and I think that has huge value, especially when students are new to literary analysis. However, that probably doesn’t help so much with helping students appreciate how the texts can be important to them; for that, some kind of personal interpretation or response is necessary.
I had a revelation regarding this issue when I read the chapter on English in What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth, edited by Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish. The chapter, written by Cuthbert, argues that the importance of literature lies in its ability to make the subjective objective:
The universal in aesthetics, human experience and subjectivity can be made objective in the arts not by generalization at a conceptual level, but by attending to the particular aesthetic form of a particular work.Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 111)
In other words, literature takes the weird, subjective experiences that come with being a person, and puts them down on the page, effectively turning them into an ‘object’ which can be studied, analysed, and interpreted. Despite being subjective, people’s experiences are nonetheless very real, and are often also universal – think of every time you’ve felt strongly connected to a book, or a poem, or a song because it reflected something that you experienced yourself. When these subjective-but-universal experiences are put down on the page, we can gain some distance from them and scrutinize them differently from how we think about what’s going on in our own heads, while maintaining that connection to our own experiences.
How essential questions make the subjective objective
That’s all very well, but none of us want to stand up in front of year eleven and explain to them that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to be great for them because it will render their subjective experience in an objective form. Instead, this is where I bring in essential questions.
Essential questions are the ‘big questions’ that texts help us explore. They provide a perfect bridge between our students’ subjective experiences and the texts we want them to read. For example, when I teach Hamlet, these are the essential questions I use:
- How do we make difficult decisions?
- How do we balance thought and action?
- How do we find our true identities when we play so many different roles in our lives?
- How can we find or create meaning in our lives?
These are questions that Hamlet doesn’t answer, exactly, but that are certainly explored in the play. Because none of the questions are directly about text and can all be applied to real life, they make the real-world connections with the text more obvious to students, and open up possibilities for exploring students’ own subjective experiences of these questions along with the ways the questions are explored in the text.
Working with these essential questions alongside the text also creates a context for doing what Cuthbert refers to as “training the imagination.” While students should certainly develop their own answers to each of the essential questions, they should also be required to imagine what it would be like to be someone who answers them differently – how would Hamlet answer these questions? What about Horatio or Laertes? As students put themselves into the minds of others, they also see further possibilities for themselves, which is crucial if we’re teaching with any kind of social justice goal:
While there is an established literature in political philosophy that argues for the importance of reason and rational knowledge in democratic politics, it could be argued that the imagination is just as central for any progressive politics. Prior to organizing politically to change anything in the world, it is necessary to first imagine ourselves as subjectively intentional agents who are able to effect change in our social arrangements and relationships.Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 118)
Tips for using Essential Questions effectively
There are two main things to be wary of if you’re thinking of integrating essential questions into your next unit. First, it’s easy to tack these questions on to the beginning or the end of the unit without really making full use of them. Essential questions are most powerful when students return to them over and over again, developing their understanding of the questions and the texts as they go.
The second challenge is ensuring that students do plenty of work that requires them to engage with the question in terms of the text. While it’s certainly a good idea to create space for students to develop and share their own responses to the questions – I do this at the beginning of my courses, and again at the end to see how their thinking has changed – if students are to benefit from the objectification of subjective experiences that we find in texts, they need to, you know, actually think and write about the texts.
Speaking of which, it is important that students write about the essential questions as well as discussing them. Just as literature objectifies subjective experiences, writing about that literature allows students to “objectify their internal responses to the rich world of textual meanings” (Cuthbert, p. 116). In other words, in writing their ideas down, students are forced to solidify their ideas and make them into an object to which others can respond.
Students should write about their answers to the questions at multiple times throughout the unit, and from multiple perspectives. As I mentioned, I always start by having students respond in their own voice. Later, I might have them answer the questions again from the point of view of a character in the text. You can also go a bit more general – how would a Romantic respond to the question, and how would it be different from a Realist’s answer? It can also be extremely helpful to bring in sources from philosophy or other disciplines. A highlight of my last Hamlet course was the time we spent learning about how an existentialist might answer the essential question “how can we find or create meaning in our lives?”, after which the students wrote paragraphs about whether or not Hamlet is an existentialist. That assignment does have some issues with anachronism, of course, but it certainly got students thinking harder about both the text and the essential question.
Essential Questions transformed my most recent courses on both Hamlet and Frankenstein. The quality of discussion skyrocketed, and students were much more ready to see the relevance of these texts to their own experience – without me needing to change to more ‘relevant’ texts. The questions created the relevance for us and gave students a number of different ways to explore the text as they read.
Cuthbert, A. S. (2017). English literature. In A. Standish and A. S. Cuthbert (Eds.), What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (pp. 104-120). London: UCL Institute of Education Press.