Literary texts and pop culture references

At my current school, we decided a few years ago to consciously cross-reference the literary texts in our curriculum to achieve continuity across the grade levels and year groups.

For example, when discussing the concept of Othello as the ‘tragic hero' and the structure of tragedy in my Grade 11 class, I can encourage students to draw similarities with Macbeth and I can refer to Oedipus. I am confident students will understand the references because they have studied both texts in Grade 10, regardless of their previous teacher.

In this way, teachers are laying the foundations of a literary landscape in which students can make their own connections. We are making references and using examples which lie within and not beyond our students' spheres of literary experiences.

I've found that one positive side effect of this is most students seem more likely to actively engage in classroom discussion because they are being reminded of and rewarded for what they do know, rather than being confronted with what they don't know.

An image of a book page from the play Macbeth

[Cross-referencing texts can help students make connections. Image: ©Shutterstock/Jon Naustdalslid]

Referencing popular culture

However, this departmental strategy only goes so far in a teacher's efforts to actively engage students. When I plan English units relating to Mass Media, Film, and Language in addition to Literature, at a classroom-level I frequently find myself making references to popular culture rather than literary allusions. For example, by drawing parallels between Othello's choices and those of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars films.

Some die-hard traditional teachers of literature might question such a strategy as ‘dumbing down' English Literature, but it's worth noting the following points: firstly, most teachers of English probably teach it as their subject of choice because, aside from presumably having a degree in it, this was their strongest subject at school. This is not the case for all of the students we teach and they do not always share our enthusiasm for English Literature. Secondly, graphic novels are now considered legitimate texts when planning Literature courses – for example IB (International Baccalaureate) A1 English Literature – and their characters are a part of many students' body of knowledge.

The problem with pop culture references is that, as a high school teacher, I need to keep my references up to date; there is a gap that needs to be bridged and each year it gets wider. It seems as though I get older while my students never age and this is a result of teaching the same age group for 16 years. For example, last year in a lesson about stereotypes I referred to the character of Giles, the mild-mannered British librarian who always wore a tweed jacket and spectacles in the US TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My students looked at me blankly. They had never heard of the series and I realised my reference was a decade out of date. I changed the example: ‘Um-okay, like Doc Brown as the eccentric professor in Back to the Future'. Despite the example being 30 years old, there came a general murmur of acknowledgement accompanied with smiles of recognition and since then I've learned that certain films, despite their age, have achieved cult status among a teenage audience.

This is unsurprising when considering Joseph Campbell's academic text The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which was referred to by filmmaker George Lucas in his creation of Luke Skywalker. Like Back to the Future, Star Wars inevitably resonates with adolescents regardless of their cultural background because the theme of impending adulthood is fundamental to the human condition: a young person sets out on a physical and/or spiritual journey to find himself and prove himself while being guided or befriended by a mentor figure. As a part of this journey he/she finds him/herself having to resolve situations that he/she doesn't understand and/or cannot fully control.

Returning to a basic analytical framework

At the beginning of an English Language and Literature course students can struggle with the distinction between text-types and what is ‘literary' or ‘non-literary'. I make the point that, in reality, the distinction can be blurred. For example, magazines include advertorials, email scams can be made to look official and legitimate, and TV ads can use features and devices such as metaphor, allusion, parody and narrative to provide cultural reference points for the audience.

When facilitating analysis of text types, I refer students to the following basic analytical framework:

  • Writer (who wrote or made the text?);
  • Purpose (why?);
  • Audience (who is it intended for? e.g. gender, age group, interests, income, social status);
  • Presentational/literary features (e.g. use of images, font styles and sizes, bullet points);
  • Use of language (e.g. imperative tone, sentences such as exclamatory, questions, statements); and,
  • Overall meaning (how do the aspects referred to above combine to create overall meaning?)

My point being that if English is the study of texts, then an essential starting point is to question the intention and purpose of the writer and how they use devices and features to achieve it. These basic questions are the cornerstone of any English course.

This author's school cross-references the literary texts in its curriculum to provide continuity across the age range. How often do you refer to texts that students have worked with in previous years? How could this approach benefit students?

Look at the units you'll be delivering in the remainder of the year? Are there opportunities to use references and examples from popular culture?