Integrating Media Literacy into the Study of World Literature

Hobbs, Renee

In the book, The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes recommends a major overhaul in the teaching of English by replacing the canon of literary texts with a canon of concepts, precepts and practices for investigating the meaning-making process. He suggests that restoring the medieval trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric as the center posts in English education will help students "situate themselves in their own culture [. . .] and make the basic processes of language itself intelligible and fully available for use" (119).

Scholes urges English educators to reconstruct the discipline of English to become not a discipline of canonical texts, but a discipline of textuality. He emphasizes the need to prioritize the teaching of three interrelated skills: how to situate a text in historical context, how to read critically and how to compose. Scholes rejects placing literature at the center of English education and rejects placing literary theory there as well. Scholes urges that English education emphasize the development of a set of intellectual tools, incorporating a wide range of ‘texts’ including film, television, advertising, the Internet and popular media. He invites teachers to develop new kinds of courses and explore a new relation between reading and writing in the courses being taught. He writes of the need to help students understand the process by which authors convey meaning about experience, noting that the media does not offer transparent reflections of events or people, but interpretations, presented with varying degrees of reliability and power. He writes:

The point is not to pretend to offer students some magic talisman that will enable them to tell truth from falsehood in the media, but rather help them understand ‘mediation’ (the pouring of raw data through the sieve of any particular media) as a textual process that requires interpretation. (140)

Often called ‘media literacy’ or ‘media education,’ this approach to education seeks to expand the concept of literacy to emphasize the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in a wide variety of forms (Firestone, 1994). Drawing upon the rich tradition underway in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia for the past 15 years (see Alvarado and Boyd-Barrett, 1992 for review), there has been substantial progress in the U.S. as a coalition of educators have formed a national association and held annual conferences (Rogow, 2001). And while the field is diverse and fragmented, with a number of debates ongoing about the practices, pedagogies, and politics embedded in media literacy (Hobbs, 1998), an approach which emphasizes constructivist, interdisciplinary, collaborative, non-hierarchical, and inquiry-based processes of learning is emerging as a dominant paradigm (Buckingham, 1991; Considine and Haley, 1993; Hobbs, 1996; Masterman, 1985; Watts Pailliotet, 1999).

According to Kathleen Tyner (1998), as students practice questioning media and other information, they begin to internally question information every time it appears in the environment, without prompting from the teacher. She writes, "It is the hope of critical pedagogists that this habit [. . .] will create critically autonomous citizens, who question information and authority as a matter of course" (199).

Media literacy also emphasizes student creative production, in formats including school newspapers, video yearbooks, public service announcements, narrative films, music videos, film scripts, advertising, song lyrics, magazine articles, web sites and more. Because of the lowering cost and increasing availability of electronic technologies, there has been an explosive growth in such instructional practices, as teachers are more likely to give students the opportunity to create messages in non-print forms when the tools for creating these forms are available in the home. However, as Len Masterman (1985) notes, "Practical activity does not, in itself, constitute media education" (26). He warns about the technicist trap, the tendency to see media education as a series of purely technical operations, that can lead to student media production functioning as "busywork, and in its more advanced manifestations, a form of cultural reproduction in which dominant practices become naturalized" (27). Other scholars and educators agree that classroom opportunities for student creative expression have inherent value only as they connect to the larger enterprise of education. Sholle and Denski (1994), echoing the sentiments of John Dewey, emphasize that students’ creative expression, using video, photography, computers or print are most relevant when they provide "the opportunity for people to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire knowledge, skills and ethical responsibility necessary for reasoned participation in democratically organized publics" (89-90).

Positioning Media Literacy within the Secondary English Language Arts Curriculum

While there has been significant growth in interest among English teachers about incorporating media analysis and media production activities into the secondary curriculum, there is some reluctance to make the kinds of substantial changes to curriculum in the ways that Scholes recommends. To some secondary English teachers, any emphasis on popular media and contemporary culture seems not to fit within the context of existing course structures which emphasize reading in world literature, poetry, British or American literature. Where is the time to teach analysis of film narrative, advertising, documentaries or journalism when there are eight classic literary works to be read?

An increasing number of schools believe they have taken a step toward solving this problem by establishing elective courses in media literacy. These courses are often developed as a result of a teachers’ special interest or expertise in some aspect of media studies, perhaps in film studies; the examination of media and gender, race or cultural identity; the role of media in influencing the behavior and attitudes of children and youth; or as a result of a teacher’s professional training or experience in journalism, public relations, or video production. The decision to incorporate media literacy into the secondary curriculum as an elective course has a number of advantages, since students with special interest self-select the course, the teacher has time to explore a number of topics in some depth, and the teacher is motivated to develop special expertise.

Elective courses in media literacy, however, have some significant disadvantages. From the perspective of language arts educators who seek to expand the concept of literacy to include a wide range of message types and forms, electives in media literacy reach only a limited number of students who receive instruction in how to critically analyze media messages. The presence of elective courses in a high school curriculum can give other teachers a compelling reason for not incorporating non-print media into their classes. "Since the teacher down the hall teaches that media literacy elective," goes the argument, "I can focus exclusively on literature."

Another disadvantage of including media literacy electives is that in some schools, such courses may be viewed by guidance counselors as particularly appropriate for underachieving students. In their eyes, reluctant readers or students with emotional or behavioral problems are a perfect target audience for the media literacy course. This can create the unfortunate impression that classes in media literacy are less rigorous and less challenging than other elective language arts courses (Buckingham, 1991).

Instead of (or sometimes in addition to) the implementation of elective courses, there is an approach designed to integrate media literacy concepts and activities within the full range of existing English language arts classes, including advanced level courses. The Pacesetter AP curriculum, developed by the College Board, is a useful example. Designed as a capstone course in English, the course aims to increase the textual power of the students who take it, helping them to learn to read and to write in the fullest sense of those words, with emphasis on exploring ‘culture’ and ‘voices’ through an examination of film, print and television journalism, in addition to poetry, novels, and short stories.

The incorporation of media texts and media analysis and production activities into existing courses is an alternative to the stand-alone elective model, especially for school districts attempting to improve the overall quality and relevance of classroom instruction. The primary advantages of an integrated approach include the ability of all teachers to use high-interest media topics and media texts to inspire and motivate students’ interest in existing course material. Another advantage comes from the instructional value of helping students make connections between and across print and non-print media forms, which allows media literacy concepts to support and extend print literacy skills (Hobbs, 2001). An integrated approach also may displace some longstanding abuses of media in the classroom, like passive viewing activities or the use of video for classroom entertainment. Finally, at a pragmatic level, an integrated approach reaches greater numbers of students to provide them with media analysis and creative expression skills.

Of course, the integrated approach has some disadvantages. Many more teachers need opportunities for staff development and training under this approach. In addition, some teachers may be less skilled in implementing an integrated approach, and curriculum mapping or coordination is necessary to guard against repetition or overcoverage across subjects and grade levels. Overall, despite its limitations, an integrated approach to media literacy across the curriculum fits within a vision of media literacy as an expanded conceptualization of literacy (Hobbs, 1998).

Media Literacy and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

In order to better illustrate an instructional approach to embed media literacy in secondary World Literature or British Literature, this paper describes a number of classroom activities which use visual, electronic and contemporary non-fiction texts in the context of exploring colonialism in Africa while reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. [1] Using Sizer’s (1997) emphasis on identifying the "essential questions" that drive inquiry in the learning process, this unit explores the following essential questions:

  • How do different representations of history shape our understanding of the past, the present, and the future?
  • What role do journalists and activists play in identifying social problems and what role does the public play in helping to solve these problems?
  • How has racism affected our understanding of social, historical, and political issues in Africa? What role does the mass media play in reflecting and/or shaping such attitudes?

The curriculum described in this paper demonstrates two concepts that are especially valuable to designing curriculum that incorporate the analysis of media texts alongside works of literature: hybridity and intertextuality (New London Group, 1996). Hybridity refers to the mechanisms of creativity and recombination that encourage the creation of new message forms. Intertextuality is concerned with two different processes; first, its emphasis on the ways in which meaning is shaped in relationship to other texts, and secondly, its examination of how authors use references to other texts as a kind of shorthand to communicate meaning. Including a wider range of non-fiction and visual texts in relation to Conrad’s novel invites learners to see new relations between linguistic meanings and visual meanings, between elite culture and popular culture, and between journalism, non-fiction, and fiction. The activities described in this paper particularly emphasize the hybridity evident in contemporary interpretations of Conrad in documentaries and films, as well as the use of current non-fiction, fiction and journalism to explore intertextual connections between modern and 19th century world history and world literature.

The unit begins by examining the take-over of the Congo in 1890 by Leopold II of Belgium--the historic event that stands behind Conrad’s (1899) novel, Heart of Darkness. This short novel is often used in secondary English courses, and has been acclaimed as one of the finest works of psychological fiction in the English language. It is often critically approached as an indictment of colonialism, a symbolic journey into the unconscious, an ironic quest story, or as a modernist work built around sophisticated narrative techniques and symbolism (Kimbrough, 1988). It is a work examining the darkness of the human heart, and many teachers who teach this novel search for fresh approaches to move into, through, and beyond the darkness and evil of the narrative. This instructional unit does so by exploring both the brutal actuality of King Leopold’s take-over of the Congo and the real-life heroism of Edmund D. Morel, the British accountant who uncovered the use of slave labor in the Congo Free State and became the world’s first journalist-turned-human-rights-activist.

Few curriculum resources for teaching Conrad make substantial use of hybridity and intertextuality. Instructional materials at the high school level often devote primary energy to a close reading of the text, looking at narrative structure, symbolism and metaphor, comparing and contrasting characters, and studying vocabulary. This type of instructional focus fixes exclusively on the literary text (and never strays far from it). For example, in some English classes, while students may be invited to read T.S. Eliot’s "The Hollow Men," there is likely to be no reference to contemporary fiction or non-fiction (apart from the occasional nod to the Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now). In study guides on the novel, references to media, while listed, are presented as ancillary to the learning process, with no activities on how to use a film or visual text in the classroom. For example, in the Glencoe study guide on the novel, the ‘viewing and representing’ activity instructs, "Have volunteers bring in pictures (of, if possible, scale models) of a yawl or another ship that has masts and sails" (Glencoe, 2001). Such tenuous ‘connections’ profoundly misrepresent and trivialize the concept of ‘viewing and representing,’ reinforcing the dominant paradigm in English education that visual materials are decorative or enriching, but not central to the acquisition of literacy skills.

In the activities described in this paper, hybridity and intertextuality are emphasized as tools for generating fresh, contemporary understandings of Conrad’s novella. By exploring a variety of different genres and forms of expression and communication, including investigative journalism, contemporary fiction and non-fiction, interview transcripts, book reviews, a television documentary and a made-for-TV film, students learn about the real-world people and events that frame Conrad’s short novel, Heart of Darkness. They explore how writers of fiction and non-fiction shape our perception and understanding of the past. Students examine the role of investigative journalists and activists in writing the "first draft of history." Students also learn about the role of casting directors, budgets and persuasive writing in the film production process. They study a film treatment for a documentary about Joseph Conrad’s famous novel. The culminating activity is to write a treatment for a film based on an actual event from history.

The three foundational and interrelated skills that Scholes suggests as central priorities for the discipline of textuality help frame all of the various instructional activities described below: situating a text in historical context, reading critically, and composing. Due to space limitations, only a few explicit connections between these activities and Conrad’s text are described. However, a skillful teacher will see many opportunities to support and enhance the reading of the Conrad novel by using these or similar activities to explore hybridity and intertextuality in relation to contemporary media culture, journalism, scholarly non-fiction, and film.

Exploring Hybridity

With its roots in biology, the term hybridity is a concept that is becoming increasingly central to work in media education. Scholars are interested in documenting the "cultural conditions of creativity" when exploring how different media technologies, forms and genres re-invent narratives from diverse cultures, past and present. According to this view, hybridity occurs as a response to the rapid transformations in social and expressive life resulting from conditions of diaspora, colonialism, and market trade. Hybridization has become an analytic category that helps situate and define the shifting boundaries and affiliations among scholars of popular media, semiotics and literature (Chandler, 2001). The four classroom activities described below provide opportunities for students reading Heart of Darkness to examine how different forms and genres (TV documentary, narrative film, book review, non-fiction book, film treatment, film budget) articulate and re-interpret the context of Marlow’s river journey across different time periods, with different genres and for different purposes and audiences.

Cross Media Comparison. English teachers are most familiar with these sorts of media literacy activities, often described simply by students as, "read the book, watch the movie." Nearly all high school English teachers report that they use videos in the classroom to strengthen students’ contextual knowledge of an author’s culture, background or life experiences. [2] However, such activities, in and of themselves, do not support media literacy skill development. To build viewing and critical analysis skills, cross-media comparison activities must transform the viewing experience from passive to active. In this activity, segments from two different television programs about Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, are compared and contrasted, adapted from the five critical questions developed by Hobbs (1998). Worksheet 1 (PDF format; 79k) displays these questions. Segments approximately three minutes in length are shown from the Great Books series episode on "Heart of Darkness" (The Learning Channel, 1997) and the film, Heart of Darkness (Turner Network Television, 1997). When responding to the five critical questions, students explore the different authors’ purpose and point of view. For example, students recognize that identification of the genres of documentary and drama helps a viewer to guess the different purposes of the two works. They recognize specific techniques used to attract and hold viewer attention, ie., the TLC scene uses a map, dramatic statistics and facts, black-and-white images of colonial activities, and an interview with an author. By contrast, the dramatic scene from the TNT film shows an ambiguous relationship between two white men, loud explosions, and dramatic images of Africans who seem to be chained slaves.

When comparing the film with the novel, students will point out that the filmmaker evokes a specific emotional response by showing an African elder, clearly exhausted and missing an arm, taking a drink of water. Students can compare the imagery used in this short scene with the passage, early in the novella, where Marlow first encounters Africans exhausted and spent by slave labor:

Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effased within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die. (17)

When students engage in careful cross-media comparison, they recognize strategies used by filmmakers to capture Conrad’s emotional tone. In this case, the filmmaker preserves the use of explosions in the scene but adds the detail of the one-armed man, a strategy that students recognize makes concrete the "attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair" that Conrad presents. This activity introduces the process of "asking questions about what you watch, see and read," and demonstrates the use of a film excerpt as a stimulus for building skills of close reading and analysis. Such an approach is likely to be unfamiliar to students used to watching films in class for entertainment or enrichment. In analyzing the media texts in ways that parallel how literary texts are analyzed, students explore how inference-making is part of the meaning making process and identify how an author’s purpose and choice of genre shape their choices in storytelling. The five critical questions provide a framework for analyzing messages that can be applied to a wide range of message forms to strengthen students’ critical analysis skills (Brunner and Tally, 1998).

Compare and Contrast Non-Fiction Book Reviews. Non-fiction is likely to be an ancillary genre in most high school literature classes, with the exception of the (often cursory) treatment of biography. Few English teachers explore the industry of contemporary book publishing, marketing or distribution with students. But contemporary non-fiction book reviews are a worthy genre for exploration in the classroom. Not only do they inspire students’ curiosity about reading and help students learn about new topics and issues, book reviews can also be a springboard to discussing the economics of publishing, the complex business of marketing and promoting books. Analyzing book reviews of a contemporary non-fiction book about the Congo Free State from 1880 through 1907 provides valuable opportunities to situate Conrad’s novella in historical context as well as examine intertextual connections between Conrad and contemporary non-fiction. Significant opportunities also exist to examine how book reviewers, under pressures of journalistic concision, construct their articles to attract and hold reader attention.

Worksheet 2 (PDF format; 110k) shows opening paragraphs from four different books reviews of King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s non-fiction book about the turn-of-the-century Congo. The following page of the worksheet includes some analysis activities that are designed for partners or small teams of students. These activities involve identification of various literary techniques, assessments of target audience, and understanding the use of language to achieve an emotional impact. This activity builds critical reading skills while exploring a particular print genre--book reviews--which are often neglected in the study of literature. Such comparison and contrast of print media helps students better understand concepts including target audience, tone, and point of view.

Analyzing a Film Treatment. This activity serves to introduce students to the literary form of the treatment, a written work ubiquitous in the world of commercial and non-commercial television and film. The treatment is a tool that helps a producer generate funding to begin the pre-production process. A treatment is a persuasive document that outlines the ideas or plot of a film or TV show. The treatment is given to the network, studio, or other funding source and is used to get a visual impression of the program’s content and format. Since the purpose of a treatment is to sell an idea to a film company or TV network, a treatment must be written in a way that will engage the network or studio executives into investing large amounts of money into the project. By critically analyzing the content and structural form of a treatment, students are preparing to write their own treatment.

One of the major attractions of this activity is the opportunity to read the "behind-the-scenes" writing of media professionals. Students are often amazed to see how much research and writing occurs before someone on a film or television project even gets funding. In this case, the treatment provided embodies the concept of hybridity, as Worksheet 5 (PDF format; 112k) shows an actual treatment for a documentary about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, produced in 1999 as part of the Great Books series for The Learning Channel (TLC). Questions in the margins invite students to notice the construction of the document and to analyze the choices made by the writer to accomplish his persuasive goal. Students may answer the questions in the margins as an in-class writing or explore these questions through small-group or whole-class discussion. For example, questions invite students to analyze the writer’s use of quotes from Heart of Darkness, which are used in the text as structural markers to delineate the major "acts" of the documentary.

Reading a Budget. At a number of schools, whole-school mandates from the superintendent or principal sometimes emphasize the need to reinforce math skills across the curriculum. While English teachers may grumble, there are opportunities to introduce rich discussion and analysis (in addition to strengthening computational skills) through explorations of the economics of creating a media message.

Worksheet 6 (PDF format; 158k) provides the actual budget for the documentary episode on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that was produced by the Cronkite-Ward production company for The Learning Channel. As when examining the treatment for the show, students experience a genuine thrill when working with actual documents like this. Teachers may ask students to work individually or with a partner to complete this work. Besides supporting basic math skills, the worksheet provides a number of opportunities for classroom discussion about media economics. For example, students can discuss why a voiceover for a one-hour documentary would cost $19,000, recognizing that there are "star voices" that can greatly enhance the credibility of a media message. They may be unfamiliar with how advertisers buy audiences "per thousand," and this activity provokes discussion about how advertising subsidizes entertainment media and how all television programs--even documentaries--- are created to suit the needs of advertisers to reach particular demographic groups. Given the centrality of economics to the creative production and dissemination of literary and other messages in contemporary culture, English teachers should feel obliged to introduce some discussions of media economics in literature classes to help students understand the realities of how authors’ voices reach their readers, listeners and viewers.

Exploring Intertextuality

The notion of intertextuality has been used in different ways by scholars to refer to the interplay of meaning between and among various texts in both the reading and writing processes. Coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the concept refers, first, to the reader’s meaning making process as one of interdependence, since an individual’s interpretation of a literary text exists in relation to other texts. Secondly, the concept refers to the writer’s intentional use of language and imagery to echo, expand upon, subvert or pay homage to other works of literature (Chandler, 2001). As Roland Barthes has written, "A text is. . . a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash" (1977, 146). The four activities below provide opportunities for students, as writers, to read materials with rich intertextual connections to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to create a variety of texts (letter, research brief, and film treatment) that explore these connections.

Spin and Counterspin. While Heart of Darkness is presented as fiction, Conrad’s real-life experiences aboard a steamship in the Congo served as the basis for his writing (Kimbrough, 1988). Students’ engagement with Conrad is enhanced when they have the opportunity to learn about the real-world context in which he wrote by examining an activity that introduces students to Edmund D. Morel, the investigative journalist who revealed to the world the horrible atrocities happening in the Congo in the same years in which Conrad wrote and published Darkness.

This activity invites students to explore intertextuality by considering the similarities and differences between Morel and Conrad, who, each in different ways, exposed Victorian readers to the brutal actualities of colonial abuses of power in the Congo. Students’ interpretations of Conrad’s narrative may be reframed by their reading about Edmund Morel, especially considering his historic significance as spearheading the first modern human rights movement of the 20th century. The reading comes from an interview with author Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, conducted by staff from the organization, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). See the reading and discussion questions on Worksheet 3 (PDF format; 124k).

The reading and discussion activity introduces students to a number of concepts in media studies and journalism, including concepts like ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ press. The article describes how missionaries were ineffective in publicizing the atrocities they witnessed in the Congo because they published in missionary journals and did not use the mainstream press. Missionaries’ journals were not necessarily unpopular but had a very limited niche audience and therefore a story published in them did not reach a larger population.

The article describes Morel’s work as a kind of media activism, since he succeeded in getting and disseminating evidence about King Leopold’s use of slave labor on the front pages of mainstream press. Of course, Morel also relied on other media forms, including letters and pamphlets. Students may enjoy doing the math to calculate how many letters he wrote each day to manage to compose and mail 7,000 letters in a year! Many students can connect with the discussion about Morel’s "media savvy," the skills of knowing how to work with the media, not just to get a story published, but published with a particular slant or ‘spin.’ They may be able to describe other celebrities, athletes, or even local politicians who have this skill.

Finally, when Hochschild says that "the conquerors wrote the schoolbooks," this point may also resonate with students’ understanding of contemporary events and recent history. In the Congo, the conquerors kept their subjects illiterate in order to control them; they literally wrote the history books, slanting history favorably toward their own interests. In reflecting on how the news we receive often carries the point of view of the conquerors, students may be curious to learn about contemporary investigative journalism. Students can research the work of investigative journalists today by exploring work listed in Project Censored (Jensen, 1996), an annual acknowledgement of top news and investigative stories that did not receive media attention in the mainstream press.

While Morel’s aims were to organize the data of brutality into a "counterspin" that would motivate British politicians and world leaders to put an end to King Leopold’s oppression, Conrad the novelist was trying to capture the fantastic complexity of his experience in the Congo, recognizing that the world as we experience it cannot be reduced to a set of clear, explicit scientific, moral or philosophical abstractions. The truths of the psyche, of the human mind and soul, of experience itself, are messy, vague, irrational, suggestive, and dark-- and it is these kinds of truths, says Conrad, that art, and art alone, can convey to us (Dintenfass, 1996). As Conrad explains in the novel:

Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is the very essence of dream . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone. (57)

Instructional approaches can provide rich intertextual connections to explore how fiction writers and journalists differently approach the task of conveying the darkest underside of human brutality, helping students to value more highly the particular contributions of the literary imagination.

Casting Characters for a Film. One of the major contributions of media literacy to English education is in the opportunity to make use of a variety of considerably wider variety of formats and genres for writing activities, an activity that invites students to explore how intertextuality is embedded in the processes of reading and writing (Scholes, 1998). This activity employs elements of both hybridity and intertextuality by involving students in an ironic simulation of a "real-world" writing activity: writing a casting memo for a Hollywood fiction film based on the real lives of the men who exposed the Congo atrocities to the world.

Media scholars and specialists in adolescent development have commented on challenges of growing up in a world of "unreal realities," where fiction and actuality are skillfully blended in an increasingly complex number of ways. For example, Neal Gabler (1999) traces the convergence of entertainment and reality to the tabloids of the last century, when the news was shaped according to the hoariest conventions of melodrama. Film and television further blurred any borders between reality and fantasy, between politics and entertainment. According to Gabler, film and television are now the primary means by which people learn about the world around them, but because of the economic context in which these media operate, they often reduce the reality it portrays -- war, famine, crime, politics -- to entertainment. As T. S. Eliot once wrote: "Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality" (Four Quartets I, 44-45). Out of this existential condition, humans created art and culture as ways to help us comprehend our condition and make it intelligible. In other words, we assume a linkage between art, reality and truth (Hobbs, 2001).

Many students can best approach some of these ideas when wrestling with them in a less abstract, more practical context. Faced with the challenge of casting a fiction Hollywood film based on an actual event, students may know that casting directors are involved in selecting the actors to play the various roles in a film, play, or television program. They may not realize how much attention is paid to match contemporary actors to specific physical and psychological qualities of the historic figures they are to play. In this activity, students take on the role of casting director to write a memo describing the physical and psychological qualities of the characters. In addition, students suggest the names of specific actors they might want to play the roles of the three men who exposed the horrors of the Congo to the world. In writing the casting call for a Hollywood movie based on the historical event, students study the real-life description of characters, and look at old photos of the three men. Students recognize that, for a film to be financially successful, some combination of "star power" and "fresh faces" is important.

Worksheet 4 (PDF format; 113k) displays the assignment, which includes a chart that introduces students to three individuals who played a role in exposing the exploitation of the Congo: William Sheppard and George Washington Williams, both African-American missionaries; and Edmund Dean Morel, a shipping clerk and writer, father of the first international human rights movement. The chart also illustrates how a writer reconstructs history, beginning with a historical figure, researching his or her life history, and selecting details to create anecdotes. In writing the casting call, students must imagine the relationships between and among the three characters. The process of writing a casting call creates opportunities to discuss the paradoxes and contradictions of the interplay of fiction and actuality, which not only arrive naturally from the writing process, but from the casting process as well. The self-conscious interplay of fiction, history and entertainment values is inevitable in the process of most contemporary forms of self-expression and communication (Gabler, 1999).

Web Quest. Research papers are often designed to explore a relatively narrow band of intertextual connections. Here’s a typical assignment: "Analyze and critique the author's treatment of some literary aspect of the story in light of what literary critics have written about this same element. Ground your argument in the text, not in topics peripheral to the text. Include quotes from the text in your argument and cite at least two different journal articles and two different literary critical books." Who can be surprised when much of the writing that results is unimaginative and superficial? By contrast, the Web Quest worksheet (PDF formate; 66k) widens the lens on intertextual meaning making by helping students strengthen their cross-disciplinary understanding of how a wide range of writers, journalists and historians have tried to capture the complex legacy of colonial racism.

Students are invited to learn more about Mark Twain’s interest in the Congo, Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling fiction about a Congo missionary family, the recent genocide in Rwanda, the role of the CIA in the Congo, and more. Not only do students discover the wealth of resource materials available on the Internet, they can use the five critical questions about their web sources to make use of their critical reading skills in assessing the quality and relevance of the materials they encounter. After investigating these topics, students come to a discussion of Conrad’s novella with more nuanced and diverse understandings of the Congo as a setting, and why we are all stakeholders, of sorts, in its past, present and future.

Write a Film Treatment. Contemporary approaches to writing may valorize literacy as a social practice, with an emphasis on empowering students to make meaning in important, culturally-determined ways (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993). Practitioners applying this framework have placed more emphasis on non-narrative writing, but they generally employ a limited range of genres, with little to no attention to non-print genres (Robinson and Ellis, 2000). Authentic learning is one approach to teaching and learning that has students work on realistic problems to gain new knowledge and skills in context. Writing a film treatment is one example of such a project. Of course, the concept of authentic learning is relative; nothing is completely authentic or totally divorced from reality. But rather than memorize vast amounts of information to be reproduced on tests, students construct their own meanings from their work and produce products and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school. Authentic learning promotes higher-order thinking and the integration of knowledge; it rewards depth of knowledge rather than surface knowledge. And it encourages students, working alone or in a collegial team, to explore how ideas are connected to each other and the real world (Lebow and Wager, 1994).

As a culminating activity, students select a historic event and write a film treatment. Students may choose to write a treatment for a documentary or a feature film adaptation. Previous activities have provided models of the research and pre-writing stages as well as a model of an actual treatment. A list of suggested pre-writing steps is included in Worksheet 7 (PDF format; 100k), which provides a step-by-step structured process that models the research and writing process. An additional page provides a rubric for evaluating student writing.

Since writing a treatment is likely to be a new experience, it is important to stress that the target audience for the treatment is the funder--the individuals who work for a film production company or network who will take a risk with their money in producing this film, documentary, or TV show. The treatment will need to help the reader visualize the experience of viewing a film or television program, as well as motivate the reader to provide financial support.

For teachers looking to cultivate students’ ability to imaginatively weave together their emerging understandings of present and past, fiction and non-fiction, this activity is a unique approach to the writing process. It legitimately taps into students’ extensive repertoire of stories from film and television and gives them a chance to experiment with one of the basic genres used in professional writing for film, television and multimedia. By creating a hybrid text based on their reading of other texts from diverse sources, students use written language to describe the visual language of film, plus they use a persuasive written genre to describe a message whose purpose is likely to inform, to entertain, and for self-expression. In other words, it is an assignment that reflects the real-world sorts of hybridity and intertextuality so ubiquitous in contemporary society.

Learning, Teaching and Textuality

The activities described in this paper invite teachers to widen the study of literature to include voices of different types of communicators who have shared their understandings of the tragic horrors of racism in the Congo-- people who, in different ways, used the power of public communication and the mass media to expose the brutal practices of slave labor that operated in central Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. The activities provide students with an opportunity to learn more about the power of authors, who, in the sharing of meaning through a variety of genres, enable readers to escape from the limitations of the ‘self’ and the ‘present’ and enter into deeper understandings of the complex lived experience of others.

Conrad’s novel invites us to look into the darkness of brutal violence and unspeakable inhumanity, to reflect on the ways that evil is manifest in others, in ourselves, and in our social organizations. Based on his four-month stint as a steamboat captain on the Congo River, Conrad’s authenticity and immediacy moved F.R. Leavis to write, "The details and circumstances of the voyage and up the Congo are present to us as if we were making the journey ourselves." (quoted in Kimbrough, 1988). In order to connect with Conrad’s experience, students must find points of entry, to begin to identify with the narrative presented on the page and understand it in relation to the lived experience of Conrad himself. They need opportunities to connect Conrad’s vision to the contemporary crises of violence, poverty, war, exploitation, and civil disorder that both reflect and embody the worst aspects of our humanity. For students, learning about the heroism of Edmund Morel, reading an interview or a film treatment, creating a casting memo or viewing a film can whet the appetite of students and motivate their interest in literature.

Some readers may worry that the transcendent quality of literature may be diminished by positioning literary works within an instructional context that includes such prosaic classroom activities as casting a film, discussing an interview transcript, or analyzing book reviews, which are not the same as deep discussions about plot, character and symbolism in literature. What about the special status of literature and the universality of verbal art? But Scholes (1998) cautions us of the dangers of this outdated romanticism when he writes, "I cannot accept uncritically the idea of literature as a uniquely privileged form of transcendental textuality" (151). Noting Walter Benjamin’s observation that literature has lost its aura, he writes:

We can pretend, ostrichwise, that this has not happened, or decide what to do about it. . .This is the chance, this is the moment, to change reading from a passive to an active process. This is the moment to replace priestly exegesis and passive coverage with attention to reading as a process. (164)

Those who imagine expanding the concept of literacy generally identify one primary rationale: to ensure that "all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life" (New London Group, 1996). Broadening the concept of literacy must account for the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity and the role of globalization in contemporary life. By focusing on modes of representation much broader than literature and language alone, students gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the meaning-making processes, as media and technologies change the way we understand all aspects of expression and communication.


[1] Assignment: Media Literacy is a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that provides teachers with concrete tools to help students explore the impact of media and technology in our society. Designed in alignment with State of Maryland curriculum frameworks, Assignment: Media Literacy embeds media literacy skills into the subject areas of language arts, social studies, science, math, health education and the fine and performing arts. It is the product of a partnership between the Maryland State Board of Education and Discovery Communications, Inc. Divided into three levels (elementary, middle, high), each kit contains a curriculum resource book with six instructional units, videotapes with clips keyed to lessons. In addition, the kit contains either a book for young adult readers, Media Wizards (Gourley, 1999) or a manipulable resource for use with younger students, SNAPS: PhotoCards for Media Literacy (Hobbs, 1999). Assignment: Media Literacy contains over 100 complete lesson plans which can be flexibly used by teachers in all subject areas. As of May 2001, more than 1,400 Maryland school personnel have received training and kits for their use in the classroom. Any school district in Maryland can receive the kits, along with a day-long program of staff development for their faculty by contacting the Maryland State Department of Education. The full collection of print curriculum materials (but without videos or other support materials) is available. online at

[2] Based on the author’s experience in conducting workshops for high school English teachers, nearly all acknowledge using "read the book, watch the movie" activities. Based on data informally collected by the author, among high school faculty, fewer than 20% study advertising, propaganda or persuasion, and only 1 in 10 explores news, journalism or non-fiction (not including biography).

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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