Lost in the solitude of his immense power …

Tips and news about writing, and writing in education.

In a recent facebook post, a member of the ETAWA group posted the following question (30 May, 19:56):

In the composing section of the ETAWA exams, one of my Year 12s wrote a fantastic narrative for the question requiring an interpretive response. Would this be penalised in the final exams?

The range of responses from other members of the group to the question includes reference to the SCASA glossary of terms, notions of penalty for not responding with the instructed form, questions of whether it can (or should) be read in a particular way, and the plain simple fact that a narrative can serve as interpretive. While all responses are instructive, they also demonstrate the challenges of the language and metalanguage of the curriculum that students, along with their teachers, examiners and markers are required to grapple with.

This challenge of language and understanding will be one key area of focus of the Creative Writing Masterclass PD.

The ‘interpretive text’ question in the 2016 ATAR English exam is Question 14 on page 23 (PDF):

‘Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction.’
Compose an interpretive text that uses this quote at a key point in its structure.

There are a number of key concepts the student must recognise quickly, under the rigour of exam conditions, in order to compose a response:

  • What is the quote to be used, how is it signified? (Basic, yes, but it is worth pointing out that a passage contained within inverted commas is a quotation.)
  • The instruction to ‘use this quote’ means using it in its entirety, maintaining its tense and point of view.
  • Where does the quote come from? (Frankly, I think it’s poor question construction to place the reference for the origins of the quotation at the end of the paper and not immediately following the question, because, even though the question does not call for interpretation in context of its origins, the context could have an impact.)
  • What is considered an ‘interpretive text’?
  • What is meant by structure in this particular context?
  • What would a reader consider a key point in that structure?

And then, of course, there is extracting meaning and significance from the quotation itself — which, in the marking key, ‘the figure and idea implied in the quote are [said to be] important elements’ (see below).

The facebook question, however, was addressed mostly to the interpretation of what constitutes — and, of course by inference, what does not constitute — an interpretive text. I want to look both at ways we might define this, and the advice given in the marking key for that exam.

An interpretive text

The definition for an interpretive text given in the ATAR English syllabus glossary of terms is this:

Texts whose primary purpose is to explain and interpret personalities, events, ideas, representations or concepts. They include autobiography, biography, media feature articles, documentary film and other non-fiction texts. There is a focus on interpretive rather than informative texts in the senior years of schooling.

Setting aside the fact that the word interpret is used to to define interpretive in this definition, like most adjectives, the word interpretive is loaded with murky meanings, and much of what it comes to mean is situational: that is, its meaning can be derived from the circumstances of what noun it is modifying. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its current usage definition as ‘Having the character, quality, or function of interpreting; serving to set forth the meaning (of something); explanatory, expository.’ A key word in this definition, in respect of it being applied to ‘text’, is function: we can interpret its meaning as a text ‘having the function to set forth the meaning of something’. Meaning, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, so the meaning being set forth is that of the one doing the interpreting.

Text, too, is a loaded term. The word itself is not given a definition in the ATAR glossary, but ACARA uses the following:

A means for communication. Their forms and conventions have developed to help us communicate effectively with a variety of audiences for a range of purposes. Texts can be written, spoken or multimodal and in print or digital/online forms. Multimodal texts combine language with other systems for communication, such as print text, visual images, soundtrack and spoken word as in film or computer presentation media.

In Bodies of Speech, Gabriel Zoran says, ‘text is a definite utterance within language, whether a natural language or any other sign system, such as painting, cinema or theatre.’

The etymology of text sheds some light on how it has come to be used in today’s conventions of language. It comes into English from Old Northern French and its roots in Latin describe it as a tissue of a literary work; that which is woven (OED). We could say, then, that text is a weaving of a human thought endeavour into a wider human space, a blanket perhaps, or a shroud; a covering that supplies an aesthetic from which greater meaning might be derived. What is key to the notion of text, however, is that whatever medium is being considered in thought (visual, theatrical, multimedial), it is our rendering of that thought into words that generates its meaning as text — even if that rendering occurs and stays within our minds.

So the student is being asked to compose a piece that functions to set forth the meaning that an utterance by another writer produces in her/his mind, in particular explaining personalities, events, ideas, representations or concepts that are generated.

The function is the preeminent aspect. The form of the composition must follow. It seems, and this is likely because the study of English is based on the interpretation and analysis of texts, that we look to form as a way of generating responses, and then attempt to fit the function into the form, whereas in composing practice, as it is in design, the inverse is required.

The function of the response to the question is to invoke aspects of ‘personality, events, ideas, representations or concepts’ that arise from the images the quoted passage might produce, and then apply it at a critical juncture of the writing. The question of form is a matter of how the writer might best address the requirements to enact an interpretation that informs the reader of the meaning the writer brings to it.

Decisions of form

The definition supplied by the syllabus glossary suggests that such texts take the form of  ‘autobiography, biography, media feature articles, documentary film and other non-fiction texts’. Although, surely, ficto-critical responses should also be considered. And why not social media style responses such as a string of 140 character tweets in series. Is there any reason why poetry ought not be considered as a means of setting forth a meaning? Or a short drama? In Studies in Senior English, RC Bentley suggests forms of essay should include narrative, descriptive, character, discussion and argument’.

The point is, virtually any formal structure of writing can address the requirements of an interpretive text.

However, narrative non-fiction is the one most readily considered. And while a departure from it should not discriminate against the candidate, there is possibly sound reasoning behind the use of a genre that includes articles (magazine, news, web-based), documentary and biographies. The fact that they are structured in a story form does not detract from their legitimacy — which of course makes a narrative form a perfectly legitimate way of answering the question. But there is no reason why an interpretive piece could not be made from a character analysis of a mythological figure — Wonder Woman springs to mind — or even a real life figure. One could quite easily interpret the character of, say, Donald Trump in this way, or even look at Trump and Australia’s Tony Abbott in a comparative piece that Bentley would possibly describe as a discussion piece.

Locating the quote at a key point in the structure might be placing it at the beginning, the ending, a situational crisis, a turning point, an inciting incident. What is needed is a conscious decision by the student to make that placement, and use the placement to enhance the meaning they are setting forth in the piece as a whole.

The marking key

The ratified marking key for the 2016 ATAR markers has specific instructions for each question, as well as a number of generic instructions for the composition section.

Markers are reminded that an interpretive text is defined as one ‘whose primary purpose is to explain and interpret personalities, events, ideas, representations or concepts’.  A critical point in answering the question posed in the facebook group is the following:

Candidates could respond in autobiographical or biographical form, feature article or discursive essay. Other forms are also possible such as a documentary scene, interview transcript, etc.

I interpret this to mean, as I implied above, any text form that effectively serves the function, and addresses the aspects to ‘explain or interpret’ will be judged acceptable (‘etc.’ is something of a loaded term in itself). This next point, though, is the one to which the markers are asked to pay most critical attention:

The phrase ‘at a key point in its structure’ requires the candidate to shape their text using structural and stylistic elements to make evident a key, climactic or important point within their chosen text type. The effectiveness of the creation of this point will be a discerning factor between candidates.

The candidates are required to use the quote in its entirety at this key point.

Two final points are made in the specific guidelines:

The figure and idea implied in the quote are important elements of the candidate’s response. This might be in terms of structure (narrative, argument, etc.) or central to a character’s construction, etc.

Candidates could engage with the gendered aspect of this quote. This might be considering power as a gendered concept, or considering the flaw of this statement as one belonging to men. It is, however, not necessary for the idea of gender to be as aspect of the answer.

I hope we can unpack discussions like this in the forthcoming PD events, hopefully, in a way that any comments that might emerge following the two days do not suggest that, ‘Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction.’ That would be disastrous.

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