Introducing Intertextuality

Intertextuality: connecting texts is one of three areas of exploration that provide a framework for the English A: Language and Literature course. Intertextuality is a complex and contested term. It was first used (in French) by Julia Kristeva in the 1960s, even if the notion, in some form, pre-existed Kristeva by centuries. The language of those literary theorists who write about intertextuality can seem frighteningly formidable, at least to this writer. Mention of intertextuality throws up a range of vexing questions: What, for example, is originality, and where does originality begin? Can meaning ever reside independently in a text, or is all meaning relational, intertextual, and thus always receding out of sight? And if all meaning is interdependent – text to text – can we say anything for certain about a text, or does anything go? Does it even make sense to refer to literary ‘works’ as unitary entries? The questions are worth exploring, and they take English Language and Literature into the realm of Theory of Knowledge (TOK), encouraging students to think hard and critically about language and meaning.

However, it is important to remember that the IB Diploma Programme is a pre-university course; it is not esoteric postgraduate study. On this page, then, we take a gentle introduction to intertextuality. The short activities that follow aim to help students recognise the relationships that exist within and between texts to enhance their enjoyment of both language and literature. To a considerable degree, students will already recognise intertextuality without labelling it as such, and the activities on this page simply turn a mirror on what they know, whilst also trying to make the familiar a little stranger (which is no bad thing if we wish to develop international mindedness). Later pages, for those who think it relevant to venture there, will turn to more epistemological issues, where intertextuality takes us into the realm of poststructuralism and the knowledge issues that follow. Activity 4 (below) is intended to provide a little flavour of this TOK inflection.

Activity 1: Introductory Discussion

Begin by asking students what they understand by the term ‘intertextuality’. Give students individual thinking time. Teachers may use sticky notes or an app such as Padlet for sharing initial ideas. Give students the chance to discuss their ideas in pairs or small groups. Finally, widen the discussion to the class as a whole. Students may already be familiar with the term ‘inteetextuality’. If they are not, the morphology certainly provides a clue. Teachers should ensure that students have some understanding before moving on.

Activity 2: Intertextuality in Popular Culture

Activity 2 prepares students for Activity 3 and anticipates Activity 4. Ask students to look at the following handout (below). Working in pairs and then as a whole class, ask students to explore the relationship between the texts (in the handout) and other texts they are familiar with. Ask students:

  1. How does meaning in the texts derive from and depend on (your) prior knowledge of other texts?
  2. Is it possible to create something that is genuinely original?
  3. If understanding texts is dependent on prior knowledge of other texts, what does this suggest about the claim made by some that we can ‘Google everything’ we do not know?

Activity 3: Intertextuality in Language and Literature

The next activity (below) builds on Activity 2 (above). Question prompts form part of the handout. The activities are not dissimilar to Activity 2. However, Activity 2 works with images that are – we hope – more or less familiar to students. By contrast, Activity 3 takes the focus on intertextuality into the realm of both literature and language study. Subsequently, in considering the, often assumed, commonplace toilet door signs (see the handout), we hope that students may experience some defamiliarization, and that this may challenge their ethnocentrically held perspectives.

Activity 4: Towards the Learner Portfolio and TOK: Intertextuality and the Implications for Education

Teachers should ask their students to read the following quotation (below). It is attributed to Steve Wheeler, a professor of education at the University of Plymouth in England. After an initial reading, ask students to share their initial thoughts; to what extent do they agree with Wheeler?

Occasionally I hear someone saying ‘I’m glad I took Latin at school’, and then arguing that it helped them to discover the name of a fish they caught whilst out angling on holiday. Well, knowing that thalassoma bifasciatum is a blue-headed wrasse may be wonderful for one’s self-esteem. It may impress your friends during a pub quiz, but it won’t get you a job… and was it really worth all those hours learning how to conjugate amo, amas, amat simply to be able to one day identify a strange fish, when all you need to do in the digital age is Google it?

The question is, how much do children need to learn in school that is knowledge based? Do children really need to know what a phrasal verb is, or that William Shakespeare died in 1616 when what they really need be able to do is write a coherent and convincing job application or construct a relevant CV? We call this type of learning declarative knowledge, because it is ‘knowing that’ – in other words, the learning of facts… Knowing how – or procedural knowledge – will be a greater asset for most young people.

After an initial reading, provide students with the following prompt (below). Teachers can then ask their students, for inclusion in their learner portfolio, to write a response to Professor Wheeler, expressing their view of his claim.

Professor Wheeler’s sentiment enjoys great currency in contemporary debates about education. However, we have seen in the examples we have studied that in order to understand one text we often need to have knowledge of other texts. It is in this sense, at least, that understanding texts is said to be ‘intertextual’. Where we lack this prior knowledge, it can be argued that our understanding of a text will be, at best, partial. Following from this, when we do not recognise intertextuality at work we cannot readily Google that which we do not know we do not know. With this in mind, to what extent do you agree with Professor Wheeler? Write a response to Wheeler for inclusion in your learner portfolio.

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