If I were you… tackling the social, historical and cultural context. [VCE English]

Ah, the old “understanding of the social, historical and cultural context” criterion. Everyone’s favourite. I think I’ve received more questions about this point and how to include it in essays than questions about anything else in my teaching career.

And that’s because it is tricky. It’s a fine line to walk between showing you know the social, historical and cultural context of a text and accidentally changing your wonderful English essay into a historical or sociological exposition. Despite being a history teacher, I also never really enjoyed teaching this bit because I often found that I wasn’t able to go into enough depth and students would rarely do their own extra research to come to a thorough understanding of the time of place that the text was both set and produced in.

Thankfully, VCAA seems to agree and have since REMOVED this pesky requirement from the VCE English and EAL curriculum.

*cue celebration*

HOWEVER…!

Even though it’s no longer explicit part of the criteria it’s still 100% necessary to think about the time and place the text is set and produced in because of a new part of the KEY KNOWLEDGE and SKILLS for the Reading and Creating AOS and the Reading and Comparing AOS.

In these two AOS’s you are required to show an understanding of the audience, purpose and context of different texts and how these three things influence an author.

To address these aspects of the criteria and show an understanding of how they are affected by each other, and how they affect other components of the text, you still need to know those historical, social and cultural components of the text itself and when it was released.

Why?

For the following reasons:

  • To address how the audience comprehends and understands the purpose of a text, you must first know the context of that audience.
  • If a film was written/released during the Cold War, it will have very different influences to a remake of the same film filmed today. This results in different themes coming through to the audience and also, the different author/director will have a different purpose, in part, because their audience is different.

It may have similar ideas or themes, it may have similar character, quotes, shots etc but it WILL be responding to a different audience and have a different purpose. Consider the horrific remake Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher in comparison with the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Same basic story, vastly different purposes, vastly different audiences, vastly different worlds.

BUT, the fact remains that you need to know how to include this stuff in your essays and the KEY word in this whole messy equation is

PURPOSE.

As I’ve said many times before, you need to be aware of the authorial intent and this needs to shape your piece of work. Authorial intent should be an element of your contention and THIS is where your understanding of the audience, purpose and context can come into play.

So, if we’re wanting to be able to develop contentions with true authorial intent in mind, we need to know the context they’re writing in and for and why they’ve chosen the context they’ve set their work in to achieve their purpose.

It’s also important to know this so we can develop alternate perspectives. To a 1950s housewife, All About Eve is probably extremely feminist and counter cultural. To our eyes now, while it has feminist points and some extremely strong female leads, the final outcome for Margo suggests that the intent of Mankiewicz is not as “girl power” as we may originally think.

BUT AMY, HOW DO I ACTUALLY INCLUDE THIS STUFF IN MY ESSAYS?

Well, lovely student, you will pleased to know that if you go with the idea of the context informing the authorial intent which you are already including in your content, you’re already doing it.

Every time you infer that Perkins is presenting Mabo as a flawed by powerful leader who needs the support of those around him, in order not to glorify the man but instead, the movement you are acknowledging that in her context of 2012, Rachel Perkins is encouraging her audience to step up and be a part of said movement. You’re recognising that this film could be as much about her own father as it is about Eddie Mabo. You’re acknowledging that while Mabo is an Indigenous hero, this film is for a mainly white, middle class, reasonably well educated audience who has the power to change.

And you could include this contextual information explicitly in your introduction as the starting point (instead of starting with something that makes me want to die like “In Rachel Perkins’ 2012 biopic Mabo…”) or as a way to enter into that deeper interpretation. You should also be able to incorporate into your conclusion as you finalise your answer and broaden it out to wider significance.

Throughout your body paragraphs consider using language which leads to contextual inclusion. “Despite audience expectations of women…” “Although the film is set in the 18th century, the authorial context of Cold War paranoia…” “The original audience of the film…” “The contrast between the ancient setting and the modern audience…” “The text, while unfamiliar to a modern audience, explores universal themes- a fact made more obvious through the directors use of modern music and shooting techniques.” This technique will also help you tick the metalanguage box. Two in one! Yessss.

Remember that your essay is ultimately an answer to a question and to truly answer that question, you need to know what has shaped your evidence and answer. If you don’t, it would be like using a scientific study to prove your point about hair removal creams being ineffective without knowing that this scientific study was performed using gorillas as test subjects.

Remember, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat VCE!

Or something like that.

Happy writing!

Amy xx

If I were you… | Where to begin?

Looking back at both my years of teaching and my years as a student, the question I either got asked the most, asked the most myself or heard the most from my peers was the question of “how do you start?”.

It’s tricky, because everyone writes in a different style, everyone has a different approach and what works brilliantly for one person could be a dismal failure for another.

That said, there are some tips which should help everyone as they come to start any essay, oral, reflective piece, short story… whatever it is that you’re writing.

The first tip is the one most people ignore and the one which makes the biggest difference between the people who do ignore it and those who don’t. You all know what it is:

PLANNING

When you go on a holiday, you don’t just jump in your car and drive aimlessly until you run out of petrol- and if you do, you’re an idiot and will one day wind up on Highway Patrol or worse still, the news when some John Jarrett lookalike finds and kills your dehydrated, petrol-less, plan-less self.

Even the most relaxed/disorganised travellers know their destination- even if it’s vague. They may not know exactly where they will sleep but they know that they want to end up in Byron Bay by the end of the week. And so, they know what roads they’ll travel down, they know what exits they will take, they know how far they should travel in day. They know they’ll get there and they know how they’ll get there. And so they will- because they have a plan.

Just like Mr Relaxed, you also need to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be immensely detailed (although this may be helpful the first few times you do it and is especially useful and I would argue essential for any creative piece) but it should include the following:

  • Starting point
  • Destination
  • Pathways
    • Important landmarks

Let’s unpack this extended metaphor, shall we?

Starting Point

Your starting point is the task at hand- the question which you’re answering or the idea you’re addressing. It might be the essay question or it might be the stimulus for the story you’re writing. If the starting point is not clear in your mind then you can’t be sure you’re actually addressing and developing it as you go about getting to your destination.

I would recommend deconstructing your starting point before doing anything else. Read the question through at least 3 times, taking note of the

  • instructive words (analyse, discuss, compare, outline, create, etc)
  • key terms (words which will form the basis of your response. Contentious descriptors which could be up for debate or discussion. Words which suggest the author’s intent about plot, character, theme, etc)
  • Characters, titles, quotes, key themes (if you don’t discuss these textual aspects in your response, you’re likely to be missing the fundamental point of the question)

and annotating said components, what they mean and what they mean for your upcoming writing.

Destination

Your destination will differ according to your form. If you’re writing a creative piece, it should be your ending and how you want your audience to feel by then. If you’re writing a persuasive piece, it should be what response you want your audience to have when they’ve finished reading your piece and what you want to persuade them of.

If it’s an analytical piece (which is the focus of this post), your destination should be your answer to the question (with a potential “and why?” added onto it)- that is, your contention.

It’s especially important that you know your contention before you start planning your points because if you don’t know your contention- your overall argument, your ultimate interpretation of the author’s purpose in writing this piece- then it may happen that your just write a list of relevant but unrelated topic sentences which all answer the question in slightly different ways- which makes your conclusion a massive pain to write.

The fact that you know your contention will mean that you will be able to ensure that each of your points will point to said contention, which will then be well backed up by evidence and explanation and will mean that everything you write will be relevant to the question at hand, not just retelling the story, and not completely off track.

Pathways and Landmarks

When you know where you’re headed, you can decide how you’re going to get there- that is, how to prove that your contention is correct. This is where you consider your points.

After you have decided upon your contention, consider all the different ways your chosen text can support that contention- how did you come to it? After all, if you think it’s correct, then you think that for a reason- what influenced that reason?

These are your pathways. For each point you come up with, write a topic sentence which links that point to your contention- how does this point demonstrate that you are correct?

Next, comes your landmarks- these are the things on your journey that prove you’re on the right track. It’s like when you think you’ve missed your turn and are totally lost but then you see the Giant Watermelon that Mick-at-the-pub said you should go right at and suddenly all is well. Your landmarks are your pieces of evidence. Quotes, film techniques, language and structural techniques; all of these things can be a landmark to demonstrate that you know where you’re headed and your backed up by good quality textual proof- you’re not just making stuff up.

This is the same for persuasive pieces- consider your contention and how you want your audience to respond- both emotionally and actively- and then consider the points which made you come to that same response. You will need to think beyond yourself, however- think about who your audience is and what needs you must therefore cater to so that they reach the same point you do. Your landmarks- proof- are even more important here, so be very aware of how you use them and where this proof is coming from.

For creative pieces, it’s a little different, but you still need to develop pathways which lead to your final destination, considering the aspects you include which will elicit the desired response from your audience while also ensuring you’re ticking all the boxes you identified in the “Starting Point” section.

~

If you create a plan, you know where it is that your heading. It may seem time consuming and annoying to do but if you don’t plan then it may be that you end up just rambling on about irrelevant and secondary information without linking it back to any overarching point. Then when you read it back, you realise you’ve totally missed the point of the task and have gone on a random tangent. You cross it all out and start over… again, without a destination in sight.

Now, that’s a waste of time.

Basically, what I’m saying is:

PLAN.

Use the roadmaps method if you want to. I find it helpful because I would NEVER go on a trip without planning and so the metaphor works for me.

Even if you don’t use it though, planning is super helpful because it forces you to consider your ideas and flesh them out prior to writing and the more practice you get planning the quicker and easier it will come to you. Likewise, the quicker and easier the ideas and contentions will come to you, because you’ve already used similar ones in other plans.

If you’re in year 12, I would aim to plan out at least one essay a week through the year- whatever type you’re focusing on in class, unless it’s the creative SAC- just use the text your focusing on and write analytically. Every two-three weeks, write an essay based on one of these plans.

When it comes to SAC time, try doing a plan a night, minimising the amount of time spent on the plan each night.

Exam season (as soon as coursework is complete): A plan a night, 3 essays a week (one of each type). Try doing one timed, two untimed/two timed, one untimed/all timed. Try doing a full practice exam at least twice before your exam, in addition to whatever school provides for you.

I hope this was helpful!!

Happy planning!

Amy xx