Soft City

Analysing complex prose, teaching basic writing skills

This is one of my most successful texts ever. By 'successful' I mean that it engages the students' attention, and they get the point. I have used it with able Pre-IB students - and with really rather weak SL students towards the end of the two years (a struggle, but they did get the core points). The reason that it works across the ability range is that it starts from very basic, common human experience, expressed in very simple words (I have never met a student whose vocabulary did not cover 'soft', 'city' and 'hard') - but reaches out to complex ideas expressed in sophisticated ways.

This combination of simplicity (in some respects) and challenging complexity (in other ways) is what makes this a good English B text - almost all students will be able to get a basic grasp of the text, but they will have to work to really understand it. And when you have helped them to get a reasonable grasp of at least some of the complexities, they appreciate ... they have experienced ... that (a) texts can have multiple levels of meaning, and (b) they are capable dealing with such complexity and understanding it.

Jonathan Raban is an English writer, who has produced some excellent, deeply perceptive travel books, and some not quite so interesting novels. This text consists of the first page and a half of Soft City (1972), where Raban directly introduces the central thesis of the book concerning the psychology of living in cities. Here it is :-

I come out of the formica kebab-house alone after lunch, my head pricky with retsina. The air outside is a sunny swirl of exhaust fumes; that faint, smoky-turquoise big city colour. I stand on the pavement waiting to cross at the lights. Suddenly I know that I don’t know the direction of the traffic. Do cars here drive on the left or the right hand side of the road ? A cluster of Italian au pair girls, their voices mellow and labial, like a chorus escaped from an opera, pass me; I hear, in the crowd, an adenoidal Nebraskan contralto, twangy as a jew’s- harp. Turned to a dizzied tourist myself, forgetful and jet-shocked, I have to hunt in my head for the language spoken here.

But this is where you live; it's your city - London, or New York, or wherever - and its language is the language you've always known, the language from which being you, being me, are inseparable. In those dazed moments at stop-lights, it's possible to be a stranger to yourself, to be so doubtful as to who you are that you have to check on things like the placards round the news-vendors' kiosks or the uniforms of the traffic policemen. You’re a balloonist adrift, and you need anchors to tether you down.

A sociologist, I suppose, would see these as classic symptoms of alienation, more evidence to add to the already fat dossier on the evils of urban life. I feel more hospitable towards them. For at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed like a position on a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images : they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.

Yet the hard facts of cities tend to be large, clear and brutal. A hundred years ago they were the facts of appalling poverty, grimly documented by outside observers like Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, and, a little later in America, Jacob Riis. Today the overwhelming fact of life in New York, if not in London is the violence brewing in its streets. Indeed, poverty and violence are clearly related : both are primarily dependent on the attitudes people hold towards strangers. The indifference that generates the one, and the hatred that animates the other, stem from the same root feeling. If a city can estrange you from yourself, how much more powerfully can it detach you from the lives of other people, and how deeply immersed you may become in the inaccessible private community of your own head.

Handout

Soft City with detailed worksheet

Exploitation

I use the text to make 3 crucial teaching points ('The Core'), and then exploit any of the range of interesting avenues of thought ('Peripheral Ideas') that the text can suggest to any group of students not clinically comatose.

The Core

* Four paragraphs, four modes Raban changes style in each paragraph. This is obvious even to students with a fairly weak grasp of the language - they certainly won't understand every word, but they can grasp that 'what is going on' in Para 1 is different from 'what is going on' in Para 4. Once they admit that, ask students "How do you know? What exactly is different?" Aim to elicit :-

  • Para 1 is ... first person experience, full of physical description, very concrete, describes a specific moment
  • Para 4 is ... impersonal statement, little physical description, essentially abstract, is concerned with general theory

Having established that basic difference, what happens in the other two paragraphs? Of course, they are different too :-

  • Para 2 is ... personal address to the reader, less specific description but evoking the reader's general experience, concerned with generalising from that experience
  • Para 3 is ... agreement between author and reader ('we'), using metaphor to combine the concrete and the abstract, stimulating an imaginative understanding of a general idea

* Use of pronouns Direct students' attention to the fact the dominant pronoun is different in each of the four paragraphs - 'I' in paragraph 1, 'you' in paragraph 2, 'we' in paragraph 3, and there is no dominant pronoun in paragraph 4. "So what?" you ask. Well, those tiny basic pronouns change the 'address' of the text - the relationship between author and reader.

- Using 'I' involves ... a sense of the the author's direct voice, of listening to someone speaking intimately and personally. There is a sense, surely, of direct speech, of having a conversation with a real person - and in some sense we react accordingly.

- Using 'you' involves ... direct connection between the author and the reader. The reader becomes involved in what the author is saying ... or possibly, is invited to agree or disagree. The reader ceases to be neutral, and is invited to respond. (There is also the possible usage of 'you' as 'one' - but the effect is much the same.)

- Using 'we' involves ... the author making statements which apply to both author and reader - 'we' means 'we human beings'. So the author is also writing directly about his (unknown) reader.

- Using no pronoun involves ... 'authority' - these statements are The Truth, since they are not personal to either the reader or the author ... (they are, of course - discuss the question of whether 'impersonal, authoritative' writing is not actually a con).


* Metaphor The most striking feature of the text is the use of the metaphorical phrase 'soft city' - it is the title, and it dominates the third paragraph. But what does it actually mean? Unravelling this creates an opportunity to examine the concept of metaphor closely, and teach how metaphors work.

1. Ask students to identify where the title of the passage first appears in the third paragraph (l.17).

2. Between l.17 and l.23, how many words and phrases can they find which are related to the idea of 'soft' ? (There are lots - the metaphor is extended, elaborately.)

3. Can they find a phrase which is the opposite of 'soft city'?

4. With all of that in mind, what does the phrase 'soft city' really mean?

[** This may be an excellent point to do work on metaphors in general ... refer to Handling metaphors 1 ]

Peripheral Ideas 

Use of the senses All five senses are referred to in the first paragraph. Ask students to scan for and find words which relate to each sense. [There's more on the effect of the senses in Bullfight afternoon ]

What is the effect of presenting experience in such a comprehensive, rounded way? Which leads us on to ...

Evocation versus explanation The first paragraph aims to evoke - to make the reader feel what it was like to be there in that moment. The second paragraph aims to explain - which is a simpler, clearer (but not as vivid) way of getting the reader to share the moment. Compare the whole first paragraph with the sentence in the second paragraph "In those dazed moments at stop-lights, it's possible to be a stranger to yourself, to be so doubtful as to who you are that you have to check on things like the placards round the news-vendors' kiosks or the uniforms of the traffic policemen" - the paragraph sets out to transmit complex experience, while the sentence sets out to transmit basic knowledge. How is knowledge different from experience?

[ This may be a good moment to connect with the text types Description and Description have a look at the Approaches to teaching Description and Explanation ]

The students' own experience Have they ever found themselves feeling confused in a city? If so, where? What happened? Why the confusion?

The sense of place Talk to the students about whichever city both you and they know - "Is your (Oxford) the same as my (Oxford)?" The answer will be, infallibly, 'no' - because they are young people, and you are ... er ... far older, even ancient, and so have different interests. [A true story - TOK session on Geography ... students asked to draw sketch maps of Oxford ... all have the same cruciform shape of main streets, with similar key locations (bus-station, shopping centre, MacDonalds, etc) ... but one has a big circle drawn round the tips of the cross ... Why? ... because she was the only one in the class who was doing driving lessons and so knew that Oxford has a ringroad ...]

Vocabulary difficulties Ask students which paragraph has the most difficult vocabulary - or simply note which paragraph elicits most questions about what words mean - and it will usually be apparent that paragraph 1 (the physical description) is the most difficult, and paragraph 4 (the impersonal exposition) is the easiest. Why should this be?

The Bloody Obvious The metaphorical phrase 'soft city' ought to be the most striking feature, but if you simply ask "What strikes you most about the text?" most students, even able ones, will look confused and worried. This is interesting - because after discussion, it will turn out that of course they knew that the 'soft city' idea was central to the whole meaning of the text ... but they weren't sure that this was the 'right' answer, or they thought that the 'right' answer had to be more difficult. We all, not just students, have a tendency to by-pass or ignore the Bloody Obvious - why?

Writing

The passage gives models for four modes of writing. How can we exploit this to give students practical experience in using those modes?

To be continued ...


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