Should We Study Current Events in Language and Literature? A Partial Reaction to the 2018 Subject Report
Thursday 25 October 2018
The subject report for the May 2018 examinations was recently released. I read it every year because it gives us insight into the course and it gives us insight into the examinations themselves. I like the tips and the pointers. They help remind me of things I must and should consider when teaching the course.
But I also have some real beef with this year’s report (found on MyIB). I am exaggerating my frustrations so that I can get a blog post out of this, but hear me out.
Very early in the report, the author(s) state this:
“…that there has been some shift away from issues, central to the programme, about how language is used, how it shapes our perceptions, how it may persuade, enlighten or entertain, etc. In some centres, it seems, the emphasis is being placed instead on recent events in the political sphere at a local or international level and, more generally on global issues such as environmental concerns and on debates about gender roles, etc” (2).
When Gap publishes an advertisement in 2016 that portrays little boys as “scholars” and little girls as “social butterflies,” you can bet your last buck that my students are going to be debating gender roles!
The author(s) continue this line of thought:
“While one can well understand how such topics [current events] are attractive for both teachers and students to work on, it is very important that the aims of the programme – and of the WT component in particular – should not be lost sight of, putting candidates at a disadvantage when it comes to assessment of their submissions” (2).
I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit about Asian representation in the media using resources around the film Crazy Rich Asians (a current event). I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit of study that unpacks the media around the referendum for the UK to leave the European Union (a current event). And I’m not putting my students at a disadvantage by creating a unit of study that asks students to critically think about the language we use to discuss migration and refugees (a current event).
This must be a serious concern though because the report keeps pointing it out:
“We must recall that this syllabus is not a study of politics or sociology or current events, but is a Language and Literature course, so that the central issues of how language is used, how it shapes our perceptions, how it may persuade, entertain or enlighten, should be kept to the forefront” (10).
I think I finally get it. We as teachers might be doing this wrong. Here’s what I mean by that: I think we have to deal with current events like #MeToo in the classroom. If it doesn’t happen in a Language and Literature class, I don’t know where it belongs. But we have to make sure we write and talk about it in a way that honors the aims of this course. How does the media present the #MeToo movement? What ideologies exist in news articles about #MeToo? What words and phrases are used in headlines about #MeToo? Why do newspapers frame the topic from a particular perspective? What effect does that have and why?
These are the hard questions we must ask students. These are the questions they must be tackling in their Written Tasks. And that’s where I have an issue with the subject report. I am keeping language at the center of the course!
I think what is being said is that too many students are submitting Written Tasks about a topic or current event instead of about how language is used to present it. That’s a real problem. Repeating that idea three times in the subject report means that I hear what the IB is saying loud and clear. It’s impossible to miss. They’ve provided very useful, practical, and necessary advice: make sure that language is at the forefront of all we do. Students need to remember that when submitting their Written Tasks for example.
I also know that I teach teenagers, not graduate students. If your students are anything like my students, they do what the IB says not to do all the time!
That’s where I come in. I tell them no and I tell them no very early in the process. I do this often. No. No. No. No. No. I tell them to re-think ideas without hesitating. I tell them their idea won’t work when they propose something for a Written Task or a Further Oral Activity. I do this because I know they are talking about a current event and not analyzing the language and images used to present it. It isn’t an author focused argument connected to audience and purpose, style and structure.
Of course, once I’ve said no, I support and guide them to where they need to get to, asking them questions or encouraging them to provide me with a new plan that takes my feedback into account. Revision is an important part of the writing process and revision occurs early and often in my class.
When done well, Written Task(s) tackling current events can turn into amazingly creative and thoughtful pieces of writing. They have real voice and purpose because students care about the subject matter. But they also analyze and interpret the language and images used in connection to representation or gender or identity or any number of things that the IB might deem a current issue. Yes, some fail at it, or do it with much less sophistication, and that’s okay too.
So, although the subject report says I shouldn’t work with current events, I’m going to deliberately ignore them. We can’t not talk about race, war, gender, migration, class, fake news and more. I want to give my students the place and the space to discuss, analyze, and be critical of the language and images the media uses when presenting these topics. I see it as my very small contribution to the IB mission, to hopefully “help to create a better and more peaceful world” and to help students “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”
There are other (sometimes great) recommendations for the IOC, Paper 1, and Paper 2 in the subject report. I encourage you to read it to get those tips and ideas. But just as we teach our students to be critical consumers of texts, we should be too, even if the text is from the IB.