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This report is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.

Letter from the Classroom M.C. Caseley

The importance of context is a theme I often discuss in the classroom with my Sixth-formers. The recent editorial in PNR 137 also seems to be about this, painting as it does a gloomy picture of students taught to understand the works of writers such as Angela Carter in a vacuum, with no real knowledge or appreciation of those on whose shoulders she stands.

This example is part of a recurring trend: when I taught Carter's novel Wise Children recently, one particularly vexing problem was how much time to spend exploring the importance of twins and familial relations in the comedies of Shakespeare. Without the barest glance at this, many of Carter's allusions, phrases and whole facets of character become inexplicable and lack a dimension. Similarly, I have found that The Waste Land rests on foundations which are now viewed, like crop marks in fields, from a great height - Auden's 'hawk's eye or helmeted airman' might be able to read such hieroglyphs, but the modern student lacks the basic intertextual vocabulary. This ignorance proceeds not only from an inability to recognise quotations: in the case of Eliot, rhythmic and tonal inferences are also crucial.

These gaps are not necessarily the fault of the student. They stem, in many ways, from a pedagogic problem which itself arises from a theoretical mismatch over the need to fake some kind of canonic centrality. Postmodern texts assume a wide field of debate with 'authors' in discussion across the ...


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