Premise: Today's youth are culturally illiterate and cannot identify literary allusions.
This question is aimed at teachers in particular. How do you teach students to identify allusions when they have very little or no background in mythology, history, or literature?
All the buzz these days in state departments of education is about curriculum standards. Students must show mastery of these standards in order to earn their graduation diplomas. One of the standards within 9-12 language arts in Tennessee is the ability to identify and analyze allusions. How do they identify an allusion if they don't know mythology, history, or literature?
Oh sure, if a question includes a reference to Chiron's hooves, a student is going to know that that must be an allusion to something. So identifying an allusion within a sentence is not that difficult. But can that student analyze the allusion? These days, students are more apt to say that Chiron is a counselor at Camp Half Breed who disquises himself as a man in a wheelchair.
What are your thoughts on teaching allusions? I'm interested in reading them.
9 Answers | Add Yours
This problem may diminish as better and more heavily annotated texts become available, perhaps especially in electronic form. It's very easy now, especially in works that are out of copyright, to produce well-edited texts that call attention to allusions without filling a printed page with footnotes. Better-edited texts, then, may help, but only if students are themselves motivated to take advantage of such texts.
Certainly, the recognition of the allusions enriches the reading and adds insight to the understanding of what has been said. The key does lie in helping the students to recognize that the reference to the allusion is there. As previous posts have said, for too many of today's students, the awareness of the reference is not noted, which means the allusion is missed altogether. Class discussions sometimes allow the student who does pick up on the allusion to bring it to the attention of classmates; at other times, the teacher may need to "direct" the discussion so as to bring the allusion to light for consideration.
I don't like to generalize, but I feel comfortable saying that most students will skip over anything they don't understand and just keep going--to get to the end of the reading because they are interested or because they just want to be done with it. It is a very curious student who asks about an allusion not understood. Lit anthologies used to identify important allusions and explain them in footnotes. Some of my high school students read the footnotes independently; most did not. In discussing a piece of writing, I would point out each allusion and ask students to explain the reference. If no one knew, I would explain it and follow up by asking them to explain what the allusion added to the writing. They were usually able to do that. I encouraged them to be on the lookout for allusions to enrich their understanding, rather than letting them go right over their heads. I always made the point that the more you know, the more things make sense--in literature and in life.
Sometimes, an allusion is made without the reader having the knowledge to understand the allusion being made. The texts which make these allusions typically were written a "long time ago" (according to my students). Anything past 2000 is a long time I guess.
I think that if allusions made would reference something known to them, say the destruction of the towers or Gaga's meat-dress, they would get it.
Horrible thought, I know, but I am sure that allusion would be picked up upon.
An issue with learning allusions is that many students are moment-oriented. If the topic doesn't hold interest, who cares that it references something else? I've always found allusions in my own extended reading, almost never by someone else teaching me about them. One idea might be to assign shorter works with more obvious allusions instead of picking obscure ones out of massive tomes; students who are not readers are much more likely to actually finish shorter works than to reread larger ones to find specific points.
The students have to be familiar with the stories first. Usually I find that by opening it up to the class, there is someone who has found the allusion. Most go way over the heads of the rest of the students. Teaching them that allusions are there, and to recognize them, is the first step. Then they can at least look for them!
I haven't cross-referenced this idea with Wikipedia, so forgive me if I'm wrong about the thought that the Bible is one of, if not the most alluded to works of literature in literature.
Even in a public school (albeit in the south) I've found that students are more aware of Biblical allusions than any other. When I teach The Scarlet Letter, I actually pull out the Old Testament and read to them from the story of Daniel to show the allusion in the tapestry. Most kids are fascinated and think of the allusions as little "Where's Waldo's" in the books we read. Once interested, it is much easier to make them more aware of others in other texts.
And, like other posters said, I send them on Internet scavenger hunts to look up the source and get more details.
(Sidenote: I happen to be working on a Bible curriculum for the Old and New Testaments right now, and have found the historical allusions in the book of Revelation to be as interesting as they are insightful. For a text that is almost wholly metaphoric and symbollic, understanding the historical context of each of the seven churches makes the symbolism and language so much more alive. I think it is when we facilitate students in the understanding of the full context of a story that they learn to more fully appreciate literature.)
I think allusions are a really important way for students to become better read and more aware of the richness of the texts they're studying. I agree with bullgatortail that Wikipedia (and other online resources) should be used when students don't understand an allusion. They don't need to fluent in literary classics, or classical literature to use a reference source to better educate themselves. That research time might be a valuable use of their time as it stimulates the mind to understand the connections between various works and eras.
Can you say Wikipedia? If you can get your students to take a few moments to do a bit of historical research, they might be able to better understand allusions. When I run across an allusion in a story of which I am not completely familiar, I always head to Wikipedia. I know it's not always the most accurate source available, but kids love it and I rarely have to look elsewhere if it's just basic info I'm looking for.
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