The Importance of Connecting Things in English

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher in possession of excellent subject knowledge, is the master of such knowledge because they are always seeking to expand upon it. I believe that, in English, excellent subject knowledge is not gained from reading more literature alone; it’s reading, writing, watching and listening to more, more, more! More of everything, across all disciplines. Strong subject knowledge is one thing. Strong subject knowledge plus the ability to connect your subject to other domains of knowledge, in order look at things differently and detect alterantive elements of significance, well that’s just about the best resource a teacher can have. IMHO.

I’ve never felt ‘smart’. I’ve always felt intimidated by the intellect of others, and these feelings did not disperse during, or after completing my degree. In fact, it probably worsened because I felt I should know and understand more. In reality, I was still scratching my head wondering if the USSR was a thing, an idea or a place. I guess I spent my education gathering lots of information about isolated texts, but was never trained to connect them and their ideas to anything bigger, due to never being presented with the historical or georgraphical knowledge to do so. I had the dots, but nothing, no background or wider knowledge, to join them up. English was a subject that I fell into, and I believe that’s because, fortunately, I’ve never really had a problem with understanding or producing language, which admittedly is a huge thing for which to be thankful. I am pleased to say that the demands of English in schools have increased significantly, and I love the historical content of the new courses; I believe they provide a much richer experience for students, if not ever so slightly too challenging for the time which we are given!
Since becoming a teacher, I have reflected upon the aforementioned insecurities a lot. I have concluded that the main problem with my education was a complete lack of chronological and geographical awareness. I was good at analysing texts in isolation, but really was quite clueless about the texts fit into their generic contexts; their social and historical contexts; how the texts were located in wider social or literary debates or artistic/social movements; why they would have been received and regarded in certain ways; and ultimately, what they really said about the world. But don’t you worry, I could definitely have told you why the writer chose to use a rhetorical question, and perhaps even the effect on an imperative!

In secondary school I remember wondering what came first, the the Tudors or Ancient Egypt. No joke. But when history isn’t a compulsory subject in secondary (it wasn’t when I was at school), and you’re taught great blocks of history at random in primary school, how are you supposed to realise that these periods are vast empires and continents apart? And even in University, I was still pretty vague on how we went from ancient civilizations in Europe, to peeing in the street again in the ‘dark ages’. In addition to this total lack of historical awareness, I also had no geographical sense. I think I can say with certainty, that I have spent more than half of my life believing that America is the biggest country in the world. Safe to say, with my complete lack of awareness of time/space, I am an excellent case in point for why students should not be given total autonomy over their option choices.

When I consider these gaping chasms in my knowledge, I am incredulous that I got so far in the study of literature. I think the only reason I scraped by was with a bit of historical knowledge gained in the English Language A-level. Now, I cannot imagine exploring a text without considering its relationship to context. I find I can only truly enjoy a text, if I know where it came from, why it was produced, the impact that it had on its society, and how it is reflects the period in which it is written, as well as other time periods.

Human history explores the symbiosis between how humanity has shaped the world and how it has shaped humanity. At its core, literature is about humanity trying to find itself in this strange, scary and wonderful world. To engage with the worlds constructed in literature, we must have an appreciation of the influences and forces that have shaped and reshaped the world, and our view of it, throughout time and space.

In order to ensure that my A-level students are prevented from suffering such woeful insecurities as mine, I am careful to provide them with a quick dose of European history, through the lens of social and artistic movements. Only when I planned to teach the Romantics, did I fully realise their significance in relation to Classical Antiquity, Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. At university, it was just Industrial Revolution. To me, the Industrial Revolution was why everything happened, ever. I am ardent in my belief that writers, and literature in general, cannot be understood without a broad knowledge of artistic and social movements over time, which have blended and culminated to set the climate for the text in question. Only with such geographical and historical awareness, can writers and their significance begin to be understood.

Below is a timeline that I use (recently amended a few sections, with thanks to @positivteacha and @prohistoricman), with various bits copied from a number of sources. I’m not pretending its perfect, in fact it is incredibly vague in relation to dates, and misses out an infinite amount more than it contains. It’s also generalisations central. However, I think it is valuable because it is a start. A means to connect things. It shows recurring trends, fashions and ideas across history. It bridges chunks of history, and gives an indication of the mood of each period, which is invaluable in discerning the meanings of texts. The aim isn’t for students to remember dates or specific events (although that would be fab.) It’s to get the students thinking changing cultures, emerging ideas, social movements, and how world views have been shaped and reshaped over time. It’s utterly fascinating to get students thinking about how and why we view events in history as we do due to how we have evolved.

The right hand side column also functions nicely as a wider reading/research list.

I’m happy to share – DM me if you would like a copy @Miss_E_Miller

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