What students need to know and do
First year students need to be able to demonstrate some understanding of the role that context – different places and historical periods, different audiences – plays in the writing and reading of literature. They should explore the relationships between the literary text and its context, which may include the race, class, gender etc. of the writer.
Student barriers to learning
Students come to university with different degrees of cultural capital and many may not have the historical, economic or sociological background to understand the literature in context. Students may find the idea of context difficult and this may need to be unpacked for them. They may also struggle with the complexity or length of some texts from some historical periods.
Our teaching strategies
We need to introduce the idea of context explicitly and discuss with students why it might matter. We may provide some information about particular contexts, but we should emphasise that nobody ‘just knows’ about all possible social/historical/geographical contexts – research is necessary and we can model this research using critical sources, historical documents or literature databases.
It should then be possible to explore the relationships between the text and its historical, social, political, and economic contexts. We can consider the personal circumstances of a writer and how these factors might influence their writing, although we should not imply that a literary text can be read as a projection of the writer’s life in any simple way. We can also discuss how we might read a given text differently from its first or intended readers.
It may be useful to choose texts that speak to contemporary trends and currents. For example, capitalising on the current popular culture representations of Sherlock Holmes, students could be encouraged to explore the historical context of the original Sherlock Holmes, and how late nineteenth-century English values might be reflected in Conan Doyle’s character. They could then be asked to do an assessment task in which they contrast Conan Doyle’s Sherlock with the television Sherlock portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, and consider what the latter might reflect of contemporary values.
Another strategy could be to explore texts produced for different audiences. Examining in class a Shakespeare play, or even just some scenes, and comparing it with a version intended for children, can help students understand the role of intended audience as an element of context.
It is productive also to read several texts from a single era and consider what the texts collectively suggest about that era. For example, in a class exercise, students could explore some poems of Oodgeroo and Judith Wright from the 1970s and identify shared concerns. As an assessment task, they could then be asked to find some poems by another Australian poet of the 1970s and relate the concerns the poems evince to either Oodgeroo or Wright, or both.
As a class exercise, students might be asked to compare versions of particular folk tales across a range of periods. They could then be given an assessment task – this works well as a confidence-building early low stakes assessment – to compare two versions of a particular tale from different periods.