On Intertextuality

Thursday 21 February 2019

I first read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier at the age of nineteen. I had read Orwell at school, but not Wigan Pier. Schools don’t teach Wigan Pier (be swift to get in touch if I’m wrong). Wigan Pier had an immense impact on me, and I read it three times. One. Two. Three. Just like that. Afterwards, I read all of Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Then Burmese Days. Then the rest of his oeuvre.

Ten or so years passed and, following a visit to a favourite second-hand bookshop – you’d miss it if you didn’t know it was there – I found myself revisiting Down and Out in Paris in London. Whilst I didn’t hate it, I could no longer locate the magic enjoyed by my more youthful self.

A further ten years passed, and I selected Orwell’s short stories as a text that my students would use in their Individual Oral Commentaries (IOCs). I reckoned that whilst my, by now, middle-aged perspective on Orwell and his work had developed some nuance, youngsters would be as readily enchanted as I had once been. But the kids didn’t fall in love with George. Most were indifferent. Those who opened the Orwell envelopes before their IOC were deflated. I chose not to see. I struggled on like a myopic, rabid dog running against an Atlantic westerly in a January blizzard. Then, one day, many failures hence, the classroom discussion was demotic language in Shooting an Elephant. The lesson, despite the topic, had that buoyancy that the last lesson on a Friday brings (in a society where Friday is the last school day). There were only ten minutes left when a student (a fine young man, his name sadly forgotten) asked, “so, um, why is this good at all? What is literary about this?” I fluffed a response, believing not a word, and the student smiled, adding a polite but incredulous nod. The bell went, and it signalled the last time I taught Orwell’s short stories.

I do cognitive dissonance well. I excel. In training IB teachers, I used to come to workshops with a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) type lesson. The lesson was good. I still think so. Many teachers thought so too. A few didn’t. That’s okay; other people with their differences may also be right. As you know. Like my long enduring attachment to Orwell, it took me some time to acknowledge that there may be better ways of bringing TOK into teacher training workshops. Having grudgingly put my hubris aside, I started to develop what I decided to call ‘TOK Moments’  – 15 minutes of TOK engagement dropped into the workshop here and there. If it isn’t perfect, it has been an improvement, and fewer teachers have made the mistake of suggesting that TOK has nothing to do with them.

Below, I have published one of these TOK moments. It’s on the subject of intertextuality, one of the three areas of exploration that inform the revised Language and Literature course for first assessment in 2021. It’s designed for you, IB teachers. Call it ‘food for thought’. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a range of materials for working with intertextuality in the classroom.


Teaching at Utopia International School, near the beginning of your language and literature course, you are introducing your students to what you have decided to call a ‘dialogic model of reading’. Students are intellectually curious and genuinely want to ‘suck the marrow’ of your intellect and subject knowledge. One or two are a touch precocious…

You decide to go ‘in at the deep end’, and, in your state of the art classroom, you project the following for your class to read:

The idea that when we read a work of literature we are seeking to find a meaning which lies inside the work seems completely commonsensical. Literary texts possess meaning; readers extract that meaning from them. We call the process of extracting meaning from texts reading or interpretation. Despite their apparent obviousness, such ideas have been radically challenged in contemporary literary and cultural theory. Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature. The systems, codes and traditions of other art forms and of culture in general are also crucial to the meaning of a work of literature. Texts, whether they be literary or non-literary, are viewed by modern theorists as lacking in any kind of independent meaning. They are what theorists now call intertextual. The act of reading, theorists claim, plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace those relations. Reading thus becomes a process of reading between texts. Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations. The text becomes the intertext.

Allen, G. (2011). Intertextuality.

You gaze up at your class, and there is silence (for even the precocious require thinking time).

Then, a hesitant voice - John at the back of your class you think - says “so, reading literature is different from understanding Morse Code? And traffic lights?”

Someone else chips in: “Fake news!”

Annie, with a developing feminist tendency, asks “Where does this leave us?”

Julie, the science geek, and a voice of reason, snorts “pretentious, relativistic gobbledygook!”

Under pressure Andy pleads with you: “Just tell me the answer! I need 45 points!”

You are in danger that your lesson is spiralling out of control. How will you explain intertextuality to your students in a way that will serve them well, promoting critical thinking and sensitivity to other voices, whilst avoiding the advocacy of an ‘anything goes’ approach to reading and interpretation?



To post comments you need to log in. If it is your first time you will need to subscribe.