“I don’t see how it helps us to know a set of dates by heart or to be able to recite the plays of Shakespeare,” an agitated student tells his teacher in Stella Kon’s short story, The Scholarship. This describes a common scenario in Singapore schools, where students question the practicality of studying English Literature everyday.
Why should we study Literature? How is it useful in everyday life? In response, teachers cite reasons such as how Literature teaches us to be more human, and how it helps us to appreciate the English language better. While these reasons may be noble, they often sound abstract and at odds with the pragmatic mindset of our Singaporean students.
Literature is also perceived as a difficult subject to score in, compared to the other humanities, and many students base their decision to take the subject on whether they think they can do well in it. It is no surprise, then, that the number of students choosing to take Literature for the GCE O- and N-level examination has been steadily declining.
Consequently, Literature teachers today have a responsibility not only to teach the subject well, but also to make it relevant to their students’ lives.
Media studies in the literature classroom
One way to engage students in the study of Literature is through the use of media texts. These include films, photographs, and even abstract art pieces.
The media can be used as a bridge to acquiring skills in literary analysis. While some educators may insist that the Literature classroom should remain “untainted” in its teaching of classical works, we will probably find that our students will inherently show more interest in media texts than in literary texts. After all, students today are exposed to more texts in the form of images than any other generation. Teachers can take advantage of this by using the media to engage students and help them better appreciate literature. For example, film can be utilised as a tool to help students understand how literary devices are used in prose, as explained in the next section.
The media are also effective as a platform for the application of literary skills. Literature has long been associated with passive appreciation, as students are tasked to produce critical essays on works of literature, rather than active production of literature. Teachers can use media to add a practical component to the curriculum. For example, students can apply their knowledge of metaphors and symbols by constructing an advertisement. They can also apply plot sequencing and narrative techniques in the production of a short film. By including the production of media in the syllabus, teachers can connect the knowledge learnt in the Literature classroom to the media-saturated world of their students.
A suggested approach
When incorporating media into the Literature curriculum, it is important to provide a scaffold which allows students to understand the various components that contribute to the film’s meaning. A typical car-chase scene alone, for example, includes the character’s emotions and facial expressions, the dialogue, sound, lighting, and other special effects. By plunging immediately into an analysis of a film, students may not know what to focus on.
A good scaffold should involve three stages of analysis: a realistic still-image (photograph), an abstract still-image (abstract art), and a moving image (film) which combines the realistic and the abstract. At each stage, teachers could emphasise how the techniques used to create the visual or media work are actually similar to those employed in the literary text (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: A scaffold for connecting visual/media techniques to literary techniques
Although there are many other techniques for linking visual/media techniques with literary techniques, the ability to identify and analyse the six components of literary text (theme, mood, symbolism, opposition, plot structure, and narrative point of view) will help students gain a broad understanding of the work. This is especially helpful for students who are not motivated to read the text beyond its superficial meaning, and students who find difficulty in comprehending the text.
The following are some questions teachers may use to draw connections between the visual/media text and the literary text.
Stages of visual analysis
Connecting visual image and to literature
Questions to ask students
Focusing on a particular person or place while ignoring others.
|Look at a series of pictures and identify their main focus.Why do you think the other objects were excluded?Analyse the beginning segment of a literature passage. Does it have a main focus? What was excluded?|
Using a specific type of lighting to describe a certain feeling.
|How would you describe the lighting in the photograph? Is it hard, soft, natural or dark?After reading a literary text, think of the lighting and tone that best fits the mental image in your mind. What words would best describe this mood?|
|Abstract still-image(abstract art)||Representation-symbolism
Using objects to represent an idea.
|Look at the artwork and examine which objects stand out in the foreground and background. What could they represent?Now read the literary text and identify portions of the text where the writer describes an object in detail. How is this symbolic of a larger idea or truth?|
|Abstract still-image(abstract art)||Contrast-opposition
Structuring an artist’s work using contrast
|Examine the artwork and think about how the artist used contrast in colour and arrangement.Now read the literary text. Analyse the writer’s use of character contrast (character foil) and word opposition (antithesis and oxymoron).|
|Moving-image(film)||Image sequencing-plot structure||Compare and contrast the literary text with a film adaptation. How is the story ordered in both texts?Evaluate the writer and director’s choice of employing flashback, flash-forward or a time lapse in telling the story.|
|Moving-image(film)||Camera perspective-point of view
Using the camera to inform the viewer of the perspective which the story is told.
|There are 3 perspectives that correspond to points of view in literature: 1) the camera follows the eye (the first person); 2) all characters are seen from a distance (third person omniscient); 3) the camera shows other characters but tends to focus on one character (third person partial omniscient).Identify the point of view of the literary text and compare this with the film version.|
At the end of these three stages, students could analyse how all six components combine and interact in a lengthier portion of a film. They can then examine how these techniques are also employed in the literary text. This process can help students learn to appreciate the constructed nature of both literary and media texts.
Alvermann, D., Moon, J., & Hagood, M. (1999). Popular culture in the classroom: Teaching and researching critical media literacy. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Helmers, M. (2006). The elements of visual analysis. New York: Pearson Education.
Muller, V. (2006). Film as film: Using movies to help students visualize literary theory. English Journal, 95(3), 32-38.