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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

Pitching the conversation concept

In this term's opening lesson on Module A: Textual Conversations, one student said 'Don't conversations involve both people taking turns? This isn't a conversation - the earlier text says something and then the later text does the rest of the talking. It's like the 'conversation' my parents have when they want to tell me off.'

The idea behind Module A: Textual Conversations is a fantastic one, but often feels both hard to articulate and nebulous to write about. The whole concept of a conversation between texts, rather than a simple 'original' and 'version' pairing, is difficult to communicate even to tertiary students, perhaps because most students haven't had much experience in 'writing back' to texts themselves.

Certainly, my much-badgered student was absolutely right about turn-taking: the traditional model of a conversation doesn't really apply to this module. But it is helpful to do a bit of theorizing in the early lessons about how exactly some conversations can go.

Appropriation and variation

One way to communicate the idea is to play a musical remix where a text is appropriated and reworked as part of a newer composition. Examples include the many remixes of Carmina Burana (itself composed in 1937 using a twelfth-century manuscript for lyrics) or King Britt presents Sister Gertrude Morgan, 'New World in My View' (

Prompt and extended response

Another strategy is to watch a short interview by someone like Michael Parkinson. Parkinson was a masterly interviewer of hundreds of famous people, because he was a very unintrusive interlocutor. He would offer a prompt question or statement, and then allow the subject to respond in their own characteristic way, as this 4-minute clip of his interview with Dolly Parton shows (

Genre and medium

Biblical stories like David and Goliath have been reinterpreted in different visual media and genres - compare Titian's David and Goliath ( and

The hyper-modern sculpture by Antoni Llena from 1942 ( Both work with the same narrative, but respond to it in entirely different ways.

Theories of influence

Arguably the most famous theorist of literary influence is Harold Bloom. His 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence set out a really interesting framework for how writers take literary models and 'originals' and respond to them in an attempt to break away and finally become their own master. You may not agree with his six 'revisionary ratios', but it's an interesting way to think about the relationship between the two texts in this model. The wikipedia summary ( of Bloom's theory is a simplification, but more searching students can read further.

Of course, the most direct way to get students thinking of how the 'conversation' between authors happens is to ask them to strike up a conversation of their own. They can take a text which they find particularly provoking (I gave my class the freedom to choose, but when I did the exercise myself, I chose Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty', which I find really, really annoying) and have them respond to it in a new form.

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