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NSW Module A English HSC Advanced: on not seeing the wood for the trees…

01 Nov

My coachee was unfamiliar with the expression “can’t see the wood for the trees”, so I explained that it means losing sight of the whole pattern because details grow and grow at an alarming rate. This is a state many HSC students find themselves in. So how to guard against it?

darlingharbour 025

Photo by Neil Whitfield 2008: artificial forest at the Sydney Chinese Garden

Make sure you read and understand the course description. My coachee and I are working on the Frankenstein and Blade Runner pair. The first thing to note is that the module is called TEXTS IN TIME: TEXTS AND CONTEXTS. That is the wood.

This module requires students to COMPARE TEXTS in order to EXPLORE THEM IN RELATION TO THEIR CONTEXTS. It develops students’ understanding of THE EFFECTS OF CONTEXT and QUESTIONS OF VALUE…

Students examine ways in which social, cultural and historical context influences aspects of texts, or the ways in which changes of context lead to changed values being reflected in texts. This includes study and use of the language of texts, consideration of purposes and audiences, and analysis of the content values and attitudes being conveyed…

OK, that means:

1. You need to know what issues or themes of interest each text embodies. In our two, for example, one can think of: the moral/ethical issues in science and technology; the need for companionship or love; what it is to be human; what is “natural”… And so on. It does not greatly matter what the issues are, so long as they are important ones and are major issues in both Frankenstein and Blade Runner. Your teacher and your class will no doubt determine perhaps two or three big ideas to hang your readings on.

2. You need to appreciate what was being thought, said and done around the time each text was composed: 1818 in one case, and 1982 in the other. Consider also where each text was composed. How does what you discover about this explain why each text may have been composed? Be careful here. It can be tempting to write history or philosophy and forget about the actual texts. Not a good idea.

3. Having found an issue, explore where and how it is presented in each text. Don’t forget to be specific rather than general. Find key passages or scenes. Look closely at the techniques used in their making. Then ask “Why is this passage/scene like this?” What in the context may have shaped the way it has been done? What in the context made this issue of sufficient interest to the composer and his/her readers and viewers? Where does the composer stand on it? What does the composer regard as important, or troubling, or worth arguing for or against on this issue? Now you will be exploring values and attitudes.

4. There are also genre issues to think about: The Gothic, science fiction, dystopias, film noir… Why have these genres thrived at various points in history? Why have they persisted? What is the relation of our two texts to these genres?

It really is hard to coordinate all this thinking. Anyone who tells you the HSC has been dumbed down is just plain dumb! I know that I never had to do anything half as difficult in my final year of high school in 1959! The good thing is that the issues raised in these texts really are interesting – and important!

So, good luck. Also, any suggestions about how to organise the material in an exam-friendly way will no doubt be appreciated by others. You may use the comment space here for that, if you care to.

The truth is out there

Yes, you are also lucky. There is so much good material to explore, some of it suggested on my previous post on this.

Here’s another, and very recent. This week an article appeared in The Times in London: Lynda Pratt, “Who wrote the original Frankenstein?”

Frankenstein – that most resonant and enduring of early nineteenth-century fictions – was born in the febrile atmosphere of the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. Bored by the unseasonably cold, wet weather, the Villa’s residents, Byron, John Polidori, Percy Shelley and the eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin, amused themselves by writing ghost stories. The other female member of the party – the pregnant Claire Clairmont – did not take part. Surrounded by three competitive males to whose conversations on “the nature of the principle of life” she was a “devout but nearly silent listener”, frustrated by her inability to “think of a story” (and perhaps also by her future husband’s determination that she should “obtain literary reputation”), one night Mary had a dreadful “waking dream”…

As Marilyn Butler so acutely observed, Frankenstein is “famously reinterpretable. It can be a late version of the Faust myth, or an early version of the modern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the rampage, the proletariat running amok, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman”.

Yet the very familiarity of Frankenstein means that its complex pre- and post-publication textual history is often overlooked, and the actual process of composition of a fiction so centrally concerned with creation ignored. The novel’s textual instability is explored in the impressive introduction to Charles Robinson’s new edition. His honourable aim is not to give us another text of the novel we know – or think we know – but to strip away nearly two centuries of revision and appropriation in order to return to what he describes as the “original” Frankenstein. Or rather, since the “transcript of grim terrors” and the short versions of July and August 1816 do not survive, to reinstate the earliest recoverable version of the novel: the manuscript first draft composed between autumn 1816 and March-April 1817, which is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Robinson’s volume is the first ever edition of this manuscript (a facsimile, by the same editor, was published in 1996)…

The image, vividly evoked in Robinson’s introduction, of Mary and Percy passing the manuscript draft between them, each responding to the ideas of the other, is a powerful reminder that the popular myth of the Romantic author as an isolated, creative genius is just that – a myth. The Shelleys were part of a complex cultural network, involved in literary collaborations and (as the connections between Frankenstein and early nineteenth-century scientific debates illustrate) responsive to contemporary issues.

Frankenstein – in whatever form we choose to encounter it – is not alone in this. Other works central to British Romanticism, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (also first published anonymously), were brought into being by the creative interactions of their authors both with one another and with the political and intellectual climate of their age….

My next HSC post will introduce the concept of BELONGING and make a few suggestions…

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2 responses to “NSW Module A English HSC Advanced: on not seeing the wood for the trees…

  1. Lyn

    November 8, 2008 at 8:31 am

    Thanks Neil for a succinct approach to thinking about the new list and the module rubrics. I’m working on Richard III and Looking for Richard today so I found your comments timely and useful. I too sometimes feel that I ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’!

     
  2. Louisa

    January 29, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Your resources are a great help to me, as a year 12 student who doesn’t have the most fantastic teacher. Your links to other sites, save a lot of time and seem to be spot on to what I need for assessment and an overall understanding. I will keep looking through all your stuff. Thankyou!

     

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