Teaching Intertextuality

I use the following lessons to work through intertextuality with students. It can be a complex concept but one that I find useful for even introductory students for 2 main reasons:

  1. Intertextuality unites all the work we've been doing in class and shows the similarities in the types of writing we do inside and outside the university. 

  2. Intertextuality shows them how meaning is created. 

Lesson 1: Reading as an Intertexual Practice

To illustrate the dependence of our thinking on intertextual cues, a favorite assignment that I designed asks students to compose a narrative version of the “story” told through a series of checks, published without comment as “Ordeal by Cheque” in a 1932 issue of Vanity Fair.

As students work in groups, I ask them to consider a few questions:

  • How many people use the checkbook? 
  • How does handwriting affect your reading? 
  • Who is Tony Spagoni? 

I encourage them to work through all the checks and to do so by hitting major events instead of getting caught up in all the little details (which can delay the exercise). After students have compiled their version of the story, each groups talks it through for the class, and I chart the major events on the board, being sure to mark where stories coincide.

When the check writer Lawrence Exeter, Sr. pays out to the Military Academy and the local auto mechanic, students just know that his “spoiled” “rich kid” son has wrecked his car and reported to boarding school to “get his act together.” The purchase of flowers leads many to create a wife figure; the later purchase of lingerie implies for them a mistress. Tony Spagoni, to whom several checks are issued, inevitably becomes a mob boss, a hit man, or a bookie, making apparent the influence of Tony Soprano or Al Capone on Italian American stereotypes.

With no true “solution,” I explain the point of the story—our minds fill in the blanks. I show them optical illusions that do the same--three triangulated dots that our minds read as a triangle. As readers, we participate in the construction of meaning by drawing on familiar cultural connotations and genre conventions, which makes our knowledge mediated and intertextual.

Lesson 2: What is Intertextuality?

Lesson 3: Writing as an Intertextual Practice

All writing is inherently intertextual, and as the lecture slides demonstrated students engage in multiple forms of intertextuality. This lesson asks writers to directly consider what things they want to bring to the minds of the audience to influence and persuade them.

In one application of intertextuality, authors use a cultural touchstone or allusion to hit a note of familiarity with their audiences and to make dry material more interesting. Students can use an allusion to relate to their audience and to create a useful context for their points. For example, one might invoke a TV show, movie quote, song or popular music group, poem, play, literary work, speech, political event, or news story. I encourage students to research pop culture online for the activity.


"In 1964, just as the Beatles were launching their invasion of America’s airwaves, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man."
--Nicolas Carr, The Shallows

"Around the time that women were being penciled in to the equal employment act and Sandra Day O’Conner was being sworn into the Supreme Court, women across the Western world decided that they had the right to pain relief during childbirth." Newly included in women’s healthcare options was the epidural, an anesthesiologist administered placement of a catheter into the epidural space of a laboring woman’s spine where pain blocking anesthesia is injected into her body.
--Caranina Palomino, Tulane Award-Winning Student Essay "The Anti-Epidural Movement: Mommy-Bullying and Women’s Rights to Pain Management

However, it wasn’t until 1990, the same year that the movie Home Alone became a top seller, that cell phones became all the rage across America. Little did America know, twenty-two years down the road cell phones would literally and metaphorically make us “home alone.”
--Millie Blumka, Fall 2012 English Student

I have spent the last few years of my life teaching kids to swim. While Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps were winning medals across the pond in the 2012 London Olympics, it seemed that all of my students were striving to improve a little more each lesson.  My day was coming to an end and I only had one 6-year-old girl left who was actually a pretty talented swimmer for her age.  When I asked her to float on her back, she simply looked back at me and asked if she could get out to go play with her iPad. 
--Ethan Ader, Fall 2012 English Student

Intertextuality Multi-Media

"Curating the GOP Cultural Library" The Rachel Maddow Show, Nov. 17, 2011

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