Category Archives: English studies

“Sylvia” (2004)


star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.

It would also perhaps be a good supplementary for “Belonging”.

Adapted from a post on my personal blog.


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On not seeing the wood for the trees – HSC Advanced 2009-12 Module C

People, I really have had a problem interpreting the rubric for Module C Elective 1.

This module requires students to explore various representations of events, personalities or situations. They evaluate how medium of production, textual form, perspective and choice of language influence meaning. The study develops students’ understanding of the relationships between representation and meaning…

In their responding and composing, students consider the ways in which conflicting perspectives on events, personalities or situations are represented in their prescribed text and other related texts of their own choosing. Students analyse and evaluate how acts of representation, such as the choice of textual forms, features and language, shape meaning and influence responses.

I even emailed an ex-student who is now a young (and thus up-to-date) English teacher in Sydney’s south-west.

A serious question, which I hope you respond to. I am at the moment tutoring 3 Advanced students and we have reached Module C, and I am having a problem getting my head around the implications of the rubric for "Changing Perspectives". I did not have a problem with the previous options on "Telling the Truth" and "Powerplay" — which are clearly thematic, making relevant issues and possiblities for supplementary texts straightforward enough . My life is further complicated by the fact each student has a different text: "Julius Caesar"; "Snow Falling on Cedars"; Ted Hughes.

I have seen what HSC Online offers. I have also in mind Janne Schill’s "Deconstructing Perspectives" (Sydney, Sapientia 2003) which is excellent in many ways but goes very deep into theory. (She is or was a teacher at Sydney Girls; maybe the text is in your school resources.)

Now in practice I will try to zero in on whatever approach my coachees’ teachers are taking…

But it helps if I have a clear view myself, and at the moment I don’t — at least not to my own satisfaction. (Secretly, or not so secretly, I curse the whole enterprise and wish we were just studying the texts for their own sakes; I would quite happily pursue all manner of contextual, thematic, structural and language issues then.)

Do you have any ideas? Are you doing this option? I would really like to know…

Unfortunately he isn’t currently doing this option, so I asked other practitioners and now I think I have my answer.

Two issues perplexed me:

  1. How deeply to go into the theory behind the concept of perspectives?
  2. Should “related texts of their own choosing” relate directly to the set text, or only to the concept of “conflicting perspectives”?

One Head of English saw the same problem and consulted the Board of Studies. The answer to (1) is to judge what elements of theory actually help students discuss “conflicting perspectives” but to beware of being led too far from specific, concrete discussion of text and how it works. The answer to (2) is that the additional texts do not have to relate directly to the set text.

I was also helped by the material on Mel McGuinness’s blog. Mel is “presently employed in Catholic Education as an English co-ordinator.”


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Someone has posted on Ted Hughes (HSC Module C)

And I am very grateful, for one. See Fulbright Scholars some notes. Thanks to Mel McGuinness, who has in turn kindly referred students to this blog for Frankenstein and Blade Runner.


I propose to say something about Module C myself shortly.

Update 24 June

Some references I have found.


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I’ve had a request I can’t really answer…

For starters, I can’t really offer advice online, except for general clues as in this post. The only ones I can directly help are those I see “live” and even there I never help with assessment tasks, except to help clarify the meaning of the task. That said, here is the request:

I’m a student doing my HSC now and read your blog on Frankenstein and Blade Runner and it was really good. I have an assessment on it, which is a visual representation, to compare how the two core texts treat similar content in different ways because of the context of their composition. I have to make 2 A3 posters and compare them with each other. I really have trouble with doing this and completely clueless on how to represent a concept in different contexts…

Well, I would go looking for images, poems, quotes on such things as what the environment was like at the time each text was composed. I’d also go looking for old pics of scientific experiments for Frankenstein, or for typical Romantic and Gothic paintings. For Blade Runner I might go looking for examples of genetic engineering or cloning gone wrong…

Here are some samples of what I found. The top one is an 18th century laboratory. The middle one is an industrial landscape. The bottom one is a still from the movie Koyaanisqatsi (1982). 




Those are just starters. Keep looking and thinking! 🙂


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Good academic writing source for seniors and university students

In answering a recent comment I found the following site from Monash University. It is very good.



Reading “Jane Eyre”

For someone I am helping I found these:

On this site this post on Wuthering Heights gives some ideas on genre and background. There is heaps on The Victorian Web. See also this City University of New York site – it includes a chapter by chapter analysis.

Do you have doubts about Mr Rochester? See this insightful and amusing hating Rochester post: A Monster is Born by Moira Briggs.

…When she finally accepted that no-one was going to touch The Professor with the proverbial barge pole, Charlotte tried again. This time she resurrected her favourite character from her Angrian stories – the arrogant, brutally handsome (yawn, yawn) Zamorna – and cross-fertilized him with her idealized mental portrait of Constantin Heger.

In the process, she created a monster.

She created Edward Fairfax Rochester.

I can’t remember when, exactly, it dawned on me that Rochester was odious, but I presume it was probably in my 30s, by which age my ‘slimeball detector’ was fully developed…



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Looking at a visual text

This is something I prepared to help a student in Year 11 ESL, but I find it is also helpful for others. I am indebted to Paul Grover’s excellent Visual Texts (2004), part of the Australian Heinemann English Project.



Writing about a text

An old way is to ask: WHO is saying WHAT to/for WHOM, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW?

Here is a different version of that.

1. WHAT? – content, text type. You should mention the composer too.

2. WHO? (Could be different from the composer)

3. HOW?

4. To or for WHOM? WHY? WHEN? WHERE? – questions about the composer and responder relationship, and purpose and context.

5. AND SO…? Interpretation and evaluation.

Example: Leunig cartoon on bullying

The text is a cartoon by Michael Leunig. At the top are four lines of text in handwriting. The bottom half of the cartoon has two people. One is at a desk and the other is standing. The seated person is identified as a school principal. The other person is an angry parent.

The speaker in the cartoon is the person standing on the right. We know this because he is drawn with his mouth open and his finger pointing at the principal on the left.

The words spoken are centred at the top of the cartoon. This makes sure readers begin with the words, because the whole point of the cartoon is in these words. The speaker is using bullying language which is unlikely for a parent talking to a principal: “I’m going to drag your fat, stupid backside into court…” People are usually polite and respectful when they talk to a principal. It is ironic that someone complaining about bullying is being a bully himself.

The drawing underlines the dialogue. The principal is drawn seated behind his desk. Leunig usually suggests people’s age and job or status by caricature, and the principal is drawn with glasses and a bald head. His suit and tie are neat. The parent is drawn leaning forward with his finger jabbing. The movement of the finger is represented by a couple of curved lines. His eyes seem angry and his coat and tie are untidy.

This cartoon would not really interest children. It is for adults, possibly around the same age as the people in the drawing. A responder needs to have cultural knowledge about the way people usually behave when a parent speaks to a school principal. The humour comes because what we see is not what we usually expect in this situation. It is possible the cartoon appeared at a time when problems of school bullying were in the news.

The cartoon is about two things. First it is about bullying. It seems to be saying that adults who are themselves bullies set an example which school bullies follow. Second, it is about power relations. Usually it is the principal who has power in situations like this, and the parent who is requesting something. In both cases the role reversal shown in the cartoon makes the message humorously rather than heavily, but because the cartoon is making a serious point about a social problem it could be called a satirical cartoon. Making us smile may be a more effective way of getting us to think about the problem.

Typical HSC questions

For the Year 11 ESL course I have imagined an area study on POWER.

ESL Paper 1 Question 1 example 1

1. What is the purpose of this text? (1 mark)

2. Describe TWO techniques used to achieve that purpose? (2 marks)

ESL Paper 1 Question 1 example 2

1. Explain ONE idea about power in this cartoon? (1 mark)

2. How do visual features and dialogue create humour in the cartoon? (2 marks)