Prior Perspectives: The Preconception Game

Quite early in the Language and Literature course, teachers will want to get their students to do some self-reflection, and ideas can be recorded in learner portfolios. Students, if they are going to recognize that meaning in texts is constructed, must understand the active role they play as readers or viewers. That is, students should come to appreciate their own enculturated ethnocentrism and homeblindness. Teachers may also like to include short readings that illustrate the apparent ethnocentrism of others. Three excellent readings, in no particular order, include Laura Bohannan's 'Shakespeare in the Bush', Richard B. Lee's 'Eating Christmas in the Kalahari', and Horace Miner's 'Body Ritual Among the Nacirema'. Teachers may also like to explore students' preconceptions in the activities  on our page Representing the Other: How to Write About Africa.

However, ultimately, teachers introduce the idea to students that they come to texts with (perhaps provisional) culturally learned preconceptions, it is an understanding that is essential for success on the course. The following activity - The Preconception Game - works to reveal the preconceived ideas we have about gender, and how this influences the ways in which we read and the understandings we reach. The idea comes from the book Literature and Gender (1996) by Lizbeth Goodman (ed.).

Whilst the activities on this page involves the reading of literary extracts, the relevance to any area of the course where teachers intend to put 'gender on the agenda', or for teaching through a range of conceptual lenses, including perspective and identity.

Possible Guiding Conceptual Questions

  • To what extent are our perspectives on gender a product of socialisation and enculturation?
  • To what extent do our gendered identites influence how we read texts and how we use language?

Preconceptions: Introductory Discussion

Initially, in the following discussion activity, students begin to contemplate how their preconceptions influence their thinking about the world, before reflecting on their preconceptions of 'gender'. Teachers may feel, depending on their students, that some pre-teaching of the concept 'gender' is useful, not least to ensure that students are aware of the conventional discrimination which often exists between the appellations 'gender' and 'sex'. The activity can be done in a range of ways; for example, teachers may wish to 'pair and share', or groups of students may be given discrete tasks, reporting back to the class. 

 Preconceptions: Introductory Activity

Before we play the preconception game, work with a partner, or in a group, and consider the following questions:

  • What is a ‘preconception’?
  • Where do preconceptions come from?
  • How easy or difficult is it to change your preconceptions?
  • What do we mean by ‘gender’?
  • How important is gender for how we think about and act in the world?
  • Would you be able to tell, just by the examining the first few lines of an anonymous novel, or poem, or play, whether the author is male or female?
  • How important is such information?
  • Which of the following positions do you most agree with? (i) The writer Virginia Woolf famously claimed that there exists a ‘feminine sentence’. That is, Woolf suggested that (if freely allowed to do so) the form and style of a writer’s work is strongly influenced by the psychology of the sex. In brief, men and women write differently. (ii) The Scottish literary critic, Isobel Murray, introducing a collection of short stories (Original Prints, 1985) claimed that ‘good fiction need not betray its author’s sex’.
  • Justify your position.

Now, play the Preconception Game. Read each of the following extracts (1 – 8) and decide which of the authors is female, and which of the authors is male. Justify your opinions and share them with your partner or in your group.

Playing the Preconception Game

In the Preconception Game, students read eight texts/text extracts. They attempt to identify if the writer of each text is male or female. Students must motivate their response. The game should be stimulating and fun. If teachers prefer, they can make it competitive for students; for example the game can be played 'females versus males'. Teachers may find some initial resistance to the idea of playing the game from students. However, teachers should persevere. Students do enjoy playing the game and, whether they intend to or not, reveal their stereotyped preconceptions.

 Extract 1

Though I haven’t ever been on the screen I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday – or so I was told. I put this down only to indicate that even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go round.

I was going to write my memoirs once, The Producer’s Daughter, but at eighteen you never quite get around to anything like that. It’s just as well – it would have been as flat as an old column of Lolly Parsons’. My father was in the picture business as another man might be in cotton or steel, and I took it tranquilly. At the worst I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house. I knew what you were supposed to think about it but I was obstinately unhorrified.

This is easy to say, but harder to make people understand. When I was at Bennington some of the English teachers who pretended an indifference to Hollywood or its products, really hated it. Hated it way deep down as a threat to their existence. Even before that, when I was in a convent, a sweet little nun asked me to get her a script of a screen play so she could ‘teach her class about movie writing’ as she had taught them about the essay and the short story. I got the script for her, and I suppose she puzzled over it, but it was never mentioned in class, and she gave it back to me with an air of offended surprise and not a single comment. That’s what I half expect to happen to this story.

 Extract 2

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In the land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was such feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land or origins.

There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.

 Extract 3

The waitresses are basking in the sun like a herd of skinned seals, their pinky-brown bodies shining with oil. They have their bathing suits on because it's the afternoon. In the early dawn and the dusk they sometimes go skinny-dipping, which makes this itchy crouching in the mosquito-infested bushes across from their small private dock a great deal more worthwhile. 

Donny has the binoculars, which are not his own but Monty's. Monty's dad gave them to him for bird-watching but Monty isn't interested in birds. He's found a better use for the binoculars: he rents them out to the other boys, five minutes maximum, a nickel a look or else a chocolate bar from the tuck shop, though he prefers the money. He doesn't eat the chocolate bars; he resells them, black market, for twice their original price; but the total supply on the island is limited, so he can get away with it.

Donny has already seen everything worth seeing, but he lingers on with the binoculars anyway, despite the hoarse whispers and the proddings from those next in line. He wants to get his money's worth.

'Would you look at that', he says, in what he hopes is a tantalizing voice. 'Slobber, slobber.' There's a stick poking into his stomach, right on a fresh mosquito bite, but he can't move it without taking one hand off the binoculars. He knows about flank attacks.

'Lessee,' says Ritchie, tugging at his elbow.

 Extract 4

Lou Witt had had her own way so long, that by the age of twenty-five she didn't know where she was. Having one's own way landed one completely at sea.

To be sure for a while she had failed in her grand love affair with Rico. And then she had had something really to despair about. But even that had worked out as she wanted. Rico had come back to her and was dutifully married to her. And now, when she was twenty-five and he was three months older they were a charming married couple. He flirted with other women still, to be sure. He wouldn't be the handsome Rico if he didn't. But she had 'got' him. Oh yes! You had only to see the uneasy backward glance at her, from his big blue eyes: just like a horse that is edging away from its master: to know how completely he was mastered. 

She, with her odd little museau, not exactly pretty, but very attractive; and her quaint air of playing at being well-bred, in a sort of charade game; and her queer familiarity with foreign cities and foreign languages; and the lurking sense of being an outsider everywhere, like a sort of gypsy, who is at home anywhere and nowhere: all this made up her charm and her failure. She didn't quite belong.

 Extract 5

The black bull bellowed before the sea.

The sea, till that day orderly,

Hove up against Bendylaw.

The queen in the mulberry arbour stared

Stiff as a queen on a playing card.

The king fingered his beard.

A blue sea, four horny full-feet,

A bull-snouted sea that wouldn’t stay put,

Bucked at the garden gate.

Along box-lined walks in the florid sun

Towards the rowdy bellow and back again

The lords and ladies ran.

The great bronze gate began to crack,

The sea broke in at every crack,

Pellmell, blueblack.

The bull surged up, the bull surged down,

Not to be stayed by a daisy Chain

Nor by any learned man.

O the king’s tidy acre is under the sea,

And the royal rose in the bull’s belly,

And the bull is on the king’s highway.

 Extract 6

Strings in the earth and air,

Make music sweet:

Strings by the river where

The willows meet.

There’s music along the river

For Love wanders there,

Pale flowers on his mantle,

Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing

With head to the music bent,

And fingers straying

Upon an instrument.

 Extract 7

Act 1, Scene 1

Robert’s bedroom. The curtain goes up on almost complete darkness. Then a door opens at the back and a dim and indirect light is thrown from the corridor. MARION, in her late thirties, brisk, dark-haired, wearing a business suit, stands a moment, nervous, awed, in the doorway. She moves into the room which you can just detect is dominated by a large double bed, in which a man is lying covered with a sheet reaching up over his face. MARION stops a moment by the bed, looking down. She then turns to go back towards the door.

ISOBEL Marion?

(MARION lets out a scream, not having realized that ISOBEL was sitting in a chair at the end of the bed.)

MARION My God!

ISOBEL I’m sorry.

MARION You startled me.

ISOBEL Don’t turn the main light on.

(MARION goes to the bed and turns on a small bedside lamp.)

I needed some peace.

(ISOBEL is younger than MARION and blonder. She is in her early thirties, and casually dressed in a shirt and blue jeans. She is sitting at the end of the bed, facing us, not moving. The room is seen now to be panelled, gloomy, dark, old-fashioned. It is absolutely tidy, hairbrushes in place, the body quite still beneath the shroud.)

I decided this would be the only place. For some quiet. There’s so much screaming downstairs.

(MARION moves gingerly towards the bed. She looks a moment.)

MARION So you were with him?

ISOBEL There’s actually a moment when you see the spirit depart from the body. I’ve always been told about it. And it’s true. (She is very quiet and still.) Like a bird.

(MARION looks across, nervous.)

MARION Did he…?

ISOBEL What?

MARION No, I wondered… who dressed him?

ISOBEL Dressed him?

MARION Yes. Is he in a suit?

ISOBEL I did it. And there was a nurse.

 Extract 8

Scene 1

A restaurant. JENNIFER and RON, and TREVOR and ROWENA are dancing. YVONNE sits at the table. Male monologue in three parts: all played by the actor who plays CLIVE.

The sound of Concord landing. The dancers freeze. Light on the BARON.

When I was at university, my one aim in life was to go into business and get rich quick. I was extremely ambitious and not about to wait around for middle-aged spread to set in before I made it. My enterprise, enthusiasm and hard work paid off. In the last few years the tax man has gleaned over two million pounds from me. I have always kept on the right side of the law and when I was first called a purveyor of filth, it upset my mother a lot, but ours is a perfectly normal profession run by ordinary nice people, not gangsters or kinky dwarfs in soiled raincoats. That is a ludicrous myth perpetuated by the media.

We do sometimes lose stock in police raids, but we allow for the costs when building our stocks so, sadly, the consumer ends up paying more than he should.

Profit margins are high. Our trade makes more money than the film and record business put together. It will be the growth industry of the eighties. Just as betting shops were in the sixties and casinos in the seventies. I sincerely believe, had it not been for the present repressive climate, I’d have received the Queen’s Award for Industry long ago. My mother? Well, she stopped crying when I bought her a luxury house in the country.

Answers

Here are the answers:

 Answers

Extract

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon
  2. Ben Okri, The Famished Road
  3. Margaret Atwood, ‘True Trash’ in Wilderness Tips
  4. D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr
  5. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Bull of Bendylaw’ in Collected Poems
  6. James Joyce, ‘Chamber Music’
  7. David Hare, The Secret Rapture
  8. Sarah Daniels, Masterpieces

Reflection

Students are asked to reflect on the decisions they made, and the preconceptions that may underpin decisions. This is probably best done as a whole class activity. Teachers may like to use this discussion as the basis for a short reflective writing activity. Responses can be collated in learner portfolios.

 Reflection

Following the game, your teacher will provide you with the answers. How many correct answers did you get?

Reflect on your reasons for the choices you made. Does it matter? What does it reveal about you? To what extent do your preconceptions influence how you think about literature and other texts?

Towards Assessment

The Preconception Game has a particular relevance to the study of literary works. However, the general understanding - the meaning of texts is not fixed; meaning is constructed, and readers have a crucial role in determining meaning - has general applicability accross the course. Students, therefore, should aim to embed this awareness in every assessment component where it is appropriate. Where student do this well, exam marks improve.

Links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

 

The understandings which emerge from The Preconception Game have many potential links to TOK. Students should recognise at the conclusion of this activity that their understanding of gender is, in large part, a product of socialised learning. Students may claim that their knowledge about gender - the 'typical' traits of males and females - is intuitive; however, it may be better to suggest that bias is learned through processes of enculturation. And, the risk of suggesting that something is 'intuitively obvious' seems to suggest the potential problem of rationalisation or confirmation bias. That is, given pre-existing prejudice (about men and women), students (and others) may simply look for behaviours and traits that confirm this, rejecting contrary evidence.

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