Cultural identity in literary response: Studying a political poem in different territories

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This paper presents research examining the cultural knowledge students draw on when they discuss literary texts. The data suggests the significance of literary study and literary classrooms as spaces where cultural identities are articulated and explored, and that manifestation of cultural knowledge is an essential part of collective literary study.
The research project involves senior students (16-18) in schools in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The research used the poem ‘Easter, 1916’ by W.B.Yeats as a focus for classroom discussions. The poem is studied in each of the three territories, though each has its own curriculum and its own relationship with the Irish Easter Rising. The theoretical model that has dominated literary study in England for several decades is strongly influenced by I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism [1]. In practice, this has led to teaching and assessment that diminish reference to the context of a text’s production or to the cultural context of the students considering it. A poem such as ‘Easter, 1916’ highlights the limitations of such a model. The transcripts in this study point to the fallacy of decontextualized literary response, showing where and how cultural knowledge informs students’ responses and when teachers choose to activate it.
The paper introduces a project still in progress, presenting data from its first stage conducted in Northern Ireland. It presents transcripts arising from sixth-form (age range 16-18) classroom discussions of the poem drawn from two schools. The transcripts allow consideration of what students say but also how they build responses and interpretation collectively, and with their teacher. The poem’s detail is highly specific to Irish history. Questions relevant to the data include: What part, if any, does the tacit cultural knowledge of students play in their initial engagement with the poem? What do students already know and bring to the discussions? How do teachers guide and develop students’ responses, and when do they deem it necessary to supply contextualising detail? To what extent are national perspectives apparent and to what extent do they shape interpretation?
The methods described in the paper continue the author’s innovative application of Conversation Analysis to classroom study of literature, which has focussed on the structure of students’ discussions and the ways in which they construct interpretations of texts collectively [2,3]. In particular, the transcripts afford examination of how the presentation of a poem influences students’ responses. A new area of interest arising from this study concerns the strategies teachers use to activate and organise the cultural knowledge of students relative to the text. What techniques do teachers use to elicit students’ cultural knowledge? Once that knowledge is articulated how do teachers use it to develop the responses of students across the whole class? The transcripts indicate that teachers’ deploy a mixture of strategies. These include direct questioning, overt presentation of contextual information, humour and parody, use of multimodal texts and management of remarks offered by different students. Conversation Analysis supports examination of how these strategies work in combination, and how they are tailored to the specific requirements of the immediate text for study – in this case ‘Easter, 1916’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationICERI2015 Proceedings
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)978-84-608-2657-6, 2340-1095
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Event8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation - Seville, Spain
Duration: 18 Nov 201520 Nov 2015


Conference8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation

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