What do we do when we do English?
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Last year I started by asking each year group that I teach 'What do we do here in English?' (for Year 7s, I asked 'What do you think we'll do?'). The answers were various, but 'things with texts' was the most common (picking apart texts, doing 'text-y things', and 'more texts about unhappy people' were memorable variations).
Asked exactly what a text was, things became slightly more complex. How could we be doing 'things to texts' when we couldn't define the thing unto which we did these nefarious things? This is usually the bit where English teachers show off our dribs and drabs of Latin and explain the connection between the Latin verb textere, to weave, and the English term text, a construction of language (visual, verbal or other) which weaves together ... what, exactly? For all our 'picking apart' of the text into its warp and weft, what exactly are we looking for?
Most people would say 'meaning' and leave it at that, as if 'meaning' is some kind of mic-drop profundity beyond which the inquiry cannot go. This is certainly true in most of the syllabus descriptions of the subject: lots of gladsome-sounding words ending up with 'meaning'. Subject English is the search for meaning in texts - whether we believe that meaning rests with the author and we second-guess our way to it, or the trendier version of 'making meaning' by a process of splicing our lives into whatever we think the text is offering us.
The trouble comes when students haven't found meaning, but are examined on it anyway. This is when we see the really painful HSC essays, in which high-flown phrases from all kinds of places are woven together less successfully than Paris Hilton's hair extensions. Suddenly, the 'search for meaning in texts' is an unfulfilling way to think about what we do in English.
A Year 8 class which I taught a long time ago saw through this almost immediately. One small, sportily-inclined child put her head on the desk and said, 'I'd be happy if I could just read the text.' I realized that I feel let down and frustrated because I'm aiming for a very high and fuzzy hoop. 'Meaning' is vague. 'Learning to read' is not (not as vague, anyway). I can teach my students to read, and that is a good and worthwhile - and extremely understandable - process.
This is what I'll be telling new classes this year: In English we learn to read. Every year, all over again, with every new text. Texts are things that we read. When we read, we combine the symbols in front of us (the text) with one or more of the elements orbiting it - the context, metatext, pretext, paratext, subtext, and intertext. Through this combination we may arrive at a meaning. We may not.
Meaning is like those pictures we see when we spin a zoetrope: the sum of all the parts working together. Reading is spinning the zoetrope.
It's a much easier way to think about what I do, as we head into another year.
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