Teaching Ideas

Wordy-rapping hood; talking down techniques

Two things. First, I’ve blogged about the atrophy of moving image in English studies here; recently, I read another superb blog about how we’re becoming obsessed with techniques here,  putting the cart before the horse. As I reach the end of my second decade of teaching, and having marked year 10 exams in which students have once again grasped that cart with both hands, I am becoming increasingly frustrated by an obsession with techniques.

Now I like techniques: I use them all the time; I’ve already used an extended metaphor and a short sentence for effect amongst others in this blog so far, and I will continue to use more. But to what extent does trying to spot techniques – never mind analyse their effect in an exam answer – inhibit students’ abilities to express their views of a text? Does it unlock the text for them? Or does the need to find techniques form a barrier to the text, a sort of culturally exclusive code which, if not mastered, will prevent them access to the inner circle of understanding? Already, KS3 and KS4 teachers spend sleepless nights worrying about how they are going to ‘build on’ the grammatical knowledge with which their year 6s are armed as they arrive at secondary school. Their nightmares are populated with terrifying scenarios in which a year 6 pupil is disgusted by their teacher’s inability to explain what a fronted adverbial is, never mind what it does.

And how important is the ability to spot techniques? As an exam marker, I am met with script after script which places its fragile faith in the understanding of acronyms – DAFOREST, IMAFOREST (can you guess what the ‘M’ means? I do – only because I saw it on the student’s script). ‘The writer uses a fact’ … they give me the fact. And then, I get this image of a candidate sitting in the middle of the exam hall thinking – ‘Now what?’ Some of the best answers that I mark come from candidates who have decided to leave the technique well alone, treat is as the imposter it can be; these students take a word or a phrase and unpack its meaning in a myriad of layers, explain how its very presence wakes the reader from their torpor.

The biggest technique in the writer’s armoury is the word. William Burroughs threatened to unlock his word horde (although he then confuses us for the rest of The Naked Lunch), and this is the rub. I’m not saying that techniques don’t matter. However, if teachers rely too much on polishing the cart before feeding the horse, then we are left with students who look but do not see.

So is it about effects? In film studies, there is a great tip for students embarking on their micro-analysis coursework, and it is this:

“What does this sequence make me feel about characters or situations? What is happening to me as I watch this?”

What this means is: does it excite me? Does it make me feel sad, happy? Does it make me feel angry towards a particular character or situation? Does it show that a character is cruel or kind? Does it make me apprehensive? Does it make me laugh? I suppose this is our first reaction to a scene; it’s only on reflection that we start to think “how did the film make me feel this?” Once they’ve ascertained these EFFECTS, then students would start to look at how the film achieved these effects, and it was then that we could start to look closely at the rhythms, the movements, the internal structure of a scene, the way the characters acted, what happens in the frame to make us feel these emotions. I remember working with a student who was analysing the closing sequence of Inception; we watched it a couple of times and we both looked at each other and said that we felt a sense of loss, an intense feeling of sorrow. Why was this? We talked about it for a little, rewound the clip and talked some more. Was it the music? Hans Zimmer’s great score that pulsated in uncanny, swirling ripples beneath the extended shots of Di Caprio as he made his way through the airport; or was it the fact that we understood that, despite the tragedy of what had gone before and the deep sense of unease, we realised that there was some sense of redemption? Or was it a dream? Only then did we discuss how the film made us feel this way. Was it the close-ups, the eye-line matches to Cobb’s colleagues etc…

In other words, our emotional reactions to a scene are affected and influenced by (a) the narrative impetus – dramatic shifts in the film’s storyline for example; (b) the external influences – our own moods, what we expected from a film etc. But it can also depend on the moment in our lives that we see the film. I remember as a younger man watching Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and being horrified by the ending; later on, as the father of two beautiful girls, it is the opening that disturbs me. Only once we have discovered what the film does to us should we start to concern ourself with the way the film is put together – structural features, micro elements such as music, editing, shot type etc. Yes, students need to know about the techniques – especially in film studies which prides itself on a deep understanding of the machinations of the film-making process; there is a place for techniques – but it’s not at the head of the table. Perhaps in the end we need to start with effects.

What’s this got to do with English? Are we getting to a stage that whenever we read a text with our students the first thing that they should do is play spot the simile, metaphor, three part list and so on? Are we giving them the time to emotionally engage with their own feelings about a text? Are we are too keen to get them to look at methods, thinking that being able to spot the metaphor or verb will open up the text and its possibilities to the reader as if by magic?

This approach to teaching language can sometimes be like asking someone whilst they’re watching a film to witter on about close-ups, edits, non-diegetic sound etc BEFORE actually thinking – “how does this make me feel?” No-one (except maybe film studies teachers like me) does this – it makes the exploration of a film sterile, almost meaningless, focussing on form over content rather than trying to understand how content is shaped by form. Instead, we have a response and if we reflect on our response, we can then think about those formal properties such as cinematography, editing, lighting etc.

Very often we read something and have an initial response, but too often this response is still-born by the intervention of the technique monster who demands that the reader find the simile or the tricolon and explain why the writer has used this. We need to give our readers time to breathe, to fashion their own responses, to feel comfortable in making inferences that might not be the received ones but are theirs nevertheless. T.S. Eliot’s great maxim, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” can also mean that texts can be felt before they are understood; the effect comes way before the dissection. And this seems more relevant than ever in these days of technique spotting.

One of my favourite passages in the whole of literaturedom comes from Great Expectations – it is when Pip reveals the absolute depth of his love for Estella.

“You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.”

What does this make me feel? I am sad for Pip, sad that he has deluded himself for so long in the novel and has finally realised that he has become a mere pawn in Miss Havisham’s plot to wreak havoc on all men; I feel his sense of pain – that apocalyptic moment when it is clear that one’s love will never be returned by the object of one’s obsession; I feel the passage of time, the pain of nostalgia. But is it through techniques that Dickens achieves this? Of course, he uses repetition, anaphora, parallel clauses, etc. But do we need to know these techniques? I remember reading this as a young boy and being moved by it then, and I certainly didn’t know ‘the techniques’. So how did this communicate itself to me? It must be in the words and the combination of those words in sentences which have the power to move. To say that someone has ‘been in every line I have ever read’ shows us that their very being populates our imagination; that word ‘ever’ implies a sense of enormity which, coupled with the word ‘read’ suggests for Pip, Estella’s existence can be equated with a fantasy, and perhaps this has been his downfall. He has seen her only in words, as a symbol of something rather than something for itself. This idea is reinforced by the fact that he sees her in the ‘stones of the … London buildings’, or those other objects that he lists (yes I know list is a technique, but it is also a thing of the world that students will know about). Do I need to know that ‘ever’ is an adverb? Does this add to my understanding of the text? I remember reading Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head. It is a forensic description of every Beatles’ song, a minute dissection of each arpeggio, glissando, paradiddle and diminuendo across the whole of their oeuvre. But even before reading McDonald’s observations, I felt a deep sense of loss when listening to Eleanor Rigby. His clever exegesis was interesting and engaging, but not having his microscopic knowledge of the song’s structure didn’t prevent me from experiencing the intense physical pleasure I feel when I listen to the song.

Before you think that I’m depriving my students of the basics of English, rest assured that I do teach techniques. But I’ve put words at the top of the list. Words, followed by what the writer focuses on. Then there’s the Famous Five – adverbs, adjectives, similes,metaphors, personification. After that? Well, it’s a free for all. (See here for me talking about techniques in a more positive manner).

I’ve decided that when my students come back in September, I’m going to have a lesson where I ban them from referring to techniques. Instead, I want them to focus on words, on the meanings of words, on the synonymising of words, on the effects of words. On what words make us feel; on how the word makes us contemplate what’s going on in the text; on what the word tells us about a character’s feelings, thoughts. Words. They don’t come easy. I want them to send those pesky techniques to the dark cupboard at the back of the classroom, and only call them out when we are sure that we understand what the words are doing to us.

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