But, what does the text do?

Yesterday, I posted this on Twitter and was surprised (but very happy) at the positive reaction it received:

This has been one of the biggest, and I think most positive, changes I’ve made to my own way of thinking about authorial intent in recent years. The question stops being what might the author have meant or thought, which can often descend into a kind of psychological profile, and instead becomes about what the text does. What are the potential and probable impacts that it had, now and when written? How does it change things? What does it contribute?

The text is no longer viewed as a container for a single author’s personal views (of course almost always speculative, anyway), but instead as an object in its own right; an artefact capable of doing something, both when published originally and when read now.

As such, our thinking, and that of our students, shifts from ‘Priestley meant’ or ‘Priestley thought’ to ‘An Inspector Calls subverts’ or ‘An Inspector Calls dismantles’. This is a subtle, but powerful shift. Our thinking might begin with the author, but it continues with the text. We might even continue using the author’s name (such as ‘Priestley dismantles’), but even here the focus is still fixed on what the text does.

In order to prompt and cue this kind of thinking, it is useful to scaffold such an approach by providing students with the necessary vocabulary. Here, then, are some of the words that we might use.

What does the text do…? Perhaps it:

  • Dismantles
  • Challenges
  • Questions
  • Explores
  • Problematises
  • Upholds
  • Subverts
  • Complicates
  • Warns
  • Ridiclues
  • Critiques
  • Attacks
  • Upturns
  • Celebrates
  • Insinuates
  • Destabilises
  • Commemorates
  • Memorialises
  • Censures
  • Castigates
  • Condemns
  • Rebukes
  • Satirises
  • Unsettles
  • Weakens
  • Interrogates
  • Deconstructs

Embedding these into the teaching and discussion of the texts might be as simple as routinely returning to these ideas, leaning on the same cluster of words throughout teaching. Perhaps this might mean asking the following as a Big Question that is woven throughout study: ‘What does [insert text] do?’ or ‘In which ways does [insert text] warn about…?’

It might also be useful to create, say, a scaffold strip that is tagged into student books which includes the most appropriate terms and can be used when writing essay, as below:

Or, even setting aside a lesson or two to take one of the words and consider all the possible ways in which the text might, for example, warn or dismantle:

The debate stops being about what the author wanted to show and instead more about the powerful impact a text can have; the way it is shaped but also shapes the environment in which it circulates.

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