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Discussing Text Content

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    Aligning with or Going Beyond the Text

    In line with my framework, the first point I wanted students to engage with was the surface content of the text. My aim with this question was to elicit an awareness of the surface content, or ‘preferred reading’ of the text, what the text seemed to be about, at the first reading. Even though in my framework I had formulated other questions relating to content, particularly whether students recognized the theme of the topic and in what situations they might have heard or read about it, it turned out to be difficult to follow this format as the discussion tended to stray from the point at times.

    My own interpretation of the surface content of the article was guided by the introductory paragraph in the text, as well as by recognizing a particular rhetorical structure, often referred to in the Dutch mother tongue writing pedagogy as the ‘problem-solution’ structure (cf. Steehouder, 2006 (1979)). (We had discussed these rhetorical structures in texts a few weeks earlier.) Applying this structure to text, the ’problem’ would then relate to a ‘certain type’ of women (single successful career women between 35 and 54) whose ‘problem’ is that they are not capable of loving and lasting relationships and were thus lacking a partner to have a baby with.

    The question of what the text is about is of course very open and ambiguous. In effect, I am asking students to give a concise summary in one sentence. And as we had not at this stage looked at the text in terms of its textual structure, the students responded from first impressions. Moreover, as I explained in Chapter 3, readers bring their own experiences to bear upon interpreting text so a wide range of interpretations is to be expected. This highlights the issue that summarizing out of context – a standard pedagogical task in much of language teaching – is not a disinterested activity. We can only summarize a text if we know what the reason for the summary is and from which perspective we need to summarize.

    The students gave indeed a range of different answers:


    Eve: …dat dat soort vrouwen nu bestaan en een beetje gevaarlijk zijn voor mannen […] vrouwen die op jacht willen en jonge mannen willen pakken. […] ja niet gevaarlijk, maar hoe zeg je dat nou? opletten

    G: Ja een waarschuwing voor mannen.

    Eve: …that these kind of women now exist and are a bit dangerous for men […] women who want to hunt and catch/ grab young men […] well, not dangerous, but how do you say that: ‘take care’?

    G: Yes, a warning to men.


    Andy: Het gaat over dat sommige vrouwen nu een mannelijke identiteit hebben.

    G: Wat is het mannelijke daaraan? Wat is het mannelijke aan hun identiteit?

    Andy: Dat ze hard zijn geworden..

    Andy: It’s about the fact that some women now have a male identity.

    G: What is male about it? What is male about their identity?

    Andy: That they have become hard…


    Sarah: eh… ik vond het een beetje grappig. Het gaat over hoe mannen ook gebruikt kunnen worden.

    G: Als hoofdpunt of als bijpunt?

    Sarah: …. er zitten een heleboel tips in over hoe je deze situatie kunt vermijden.

    Sarah: I found it a bit amusing. It’s about how men also can be used

    G: As main point or as subsidiary point?

    Sarah: … there are lots of tips in the article about how to avoid this situation.


    Claire: Kijk voor mij is dit de ideale vrouw die de ideale man wilt.

    Claire: For me, it’s about the ideal woman who wants the ideal man.


    Emma: Ik denk dat het echt gaat om vrouwen die echt denken dat ze niet zonder een man kan; dat ze echt een man nodig hebben.

    Emma: I think it really is about women who really think they can’t live without a man, that they really need a man.

    The question of what the text was about was made even more difficult because of the range of conflicting discourses and the various textual elements in the text (e.g. the visual page layout of the text which included different headings, photographs, and various text boxes). The students’ interpretation of the text content showed that rather than trying to weigh up the different text elements together and to decide what the main thrust or point would be, they focused on only one aspect of the text. In doing so, students’ answers depended on what they had selected as a significant aspect of the article.

    Even though my question was intended to be one of surface content, students did go beyond that already, and tried to analyze the content in relation to an aim or an underlying meaning; they gave an ‘evaluation’ of the text, as Halliday (cf. 1985) calls it. Wallace (2003: 43), referring to Wells (1991), points out that it is inherent in readers, even very young ones, to discuss the implications of the text.

    All students presented their answer with a confident voice and took the question to be a standard pedagogical one needing a definite answer. They did not query the ambiguity of the question, nor the ambiguity of the article.

    Text Alignment: Discourse of Hard and Aggressive Women

    The aim of this first stage of reading the text had indeed been to ‘stay close to’ the surface content of the text, and not to query any of the underlying ideological assumptions or the truth claims made in the text. However, even if students stayed close to the text, there were still significant differences in their responses.

    Eve applied a common reading strategy to determine what the text was about. She looked at the first paragraph, where frequently the main point is introduced. In this introductory paragraph, the text explicitly addresses the presumed male audience and says: ‘take care: you’re being hunted’. In her interpretation Eve is aligning herself with the text’s presentation of what the main issue is; namely to say that ‘these’ women exist and men should be warned against them. She is interpreting what the text is about from a text functional perspective; the text aims to achieve something, and that aim is to warn men against these women. In seeing the content of the text as related to its function, she is in line with Hymes’ paradigm where text function or aim is one of the features guiding communication.

    However, in describing the women in the text as ‘scary’, Eve also evaluated the text. She presumably referred to the paragraph in which the women were described as enjoying ‘male-bashing’ when going out with friends in the evening. In focusing on this particular representation, rather than on any of the other various representations of women in the text, Eve saw the main point of the text as embodied in that particular discourse. Eve is confident in her interpretation of the text; she does not add qualifiers or modal particles.

    Andy, similarly to Eve, feels the text is about a certain ‘type’ of women, but he pinpoints a different representation as the main point. By saying that they have a male identity, Andy may be referring to the part of the article which is written in a therapeutic discourse, where the male characteristics that women have taken on are explained as a response to their perceived lack of paternal contact. Andy does not elaborate on this, nor does he say the article represents the women as having a male identity. Instead, he states that the text is about the fact that some women have a male identity. And as such he is staying with the thrust of the article. He says this in a seemingly objective voice by presenting his view as factual statements and by not adding a qualifier such as: ‘according to me’. The meta-communication that Andy uses is in line with traditional educational discourse where the teacher asks questions and the student responds. A qualifier in such cases is not necessarily a convention that needs to be followed.

    Sarah’s answer is interesting because on the one hand, she seems to align herself with the text position, yet on the other hand she is looking outside the text to interpret the main issue of the article. Sarah, like Eve and Andy, also uses a confident voice and uses no qualifiers such as ‘I think’, so she seems to be confident about her interpretation. However, she is also explicit about her own response to the article: she thought it was a bit amusing. Sarah is also evaluating the text; she is assigning meaning to it. Like Eve, she also sees the article in terms of its discourse of women who are ‘dangerous’ for men, but Sarah transforms that discourse into one of ‘exploitation’; the text is about the fact that men can also be ‘used’. So, Sarah sees the main focus of the article not so much in terms of ‘the fact’ that ‘these kinds of women’ exist, but instead, she focuses on the effect these women have on men. Whereas Eve and Andy saw the article in the light of women, Sarah is seeing the text in relation to men.

    However, Sarah also evokes her knowledge of society to attribute meaning to the text. By using the modifier ‘ook’ (also) Sarah transposes the issue of women being used (by men) to men being put in the same role. Being used is not just happening to women, Sarah seems to be saying. Moreover, Sarah, like Eve also assigns a functional meaning to the text. By stating that ‘there are lots of tips in the article about how to avoid this situation’ (of being used by women), Sarah sees the aim of the text also as informative for men, which could have a real impact on the readers’ lives (avoiding a particular situation).

    Even though the three students above, Eve, Sarah, and Andy all hinted at the particular discourse of ‘aggressive women’, their answers still showed considerable differences, showing the complexity and ambiguity of the question of what the text is about. Eve stayed closest to the text by focusing specifically on the introductory paragraph, whereas Andy and Sarah were already ‘evaluating’ the text. In mentioning the amusing aspect of the article, Sarah pointed to the ‘preferred reading’ of the text. All three students had interpreted the task as a traditional language classroom task and followed the academic discourse for that. They gave their answers in a seemingly objective voice. They also stayed on task in seeing text in relation to the immediate context.

    Going Beyond the Text: Different Discourses

    Two other students, Emma and Claire, did not just stay close to the text position of the discourse of ‘hard’ women, as Eve, Andy and Sarah had done. They both allowed a greater role for cultural context in their interpretations. But each of them drew on a different discourse in the article. Claire took on a position of critique from the start. By saying that the text was about the ideal woman wanting the ideal man in the set of data above, Claire is not only evaluating the text, in relation to its immediate context, she is relating it already to a context of culture. It is not clear how she has come to this interpretation, or indeed what she means by ‘ideal’, although in making this statement, Claire is, like Sarah, clearly referring to the text-producing environment and indeed discursive formations. She comes back to this interpretation later on in the lesson when she seems to refer to the pressure women are under to conform to certain lifestyle characteristics (e.g. have a great body, wear great clothes, have a great car etc.). In making this connection, she is also evoking her life experience and knowledge of media discourses by seeing the text in the light of these previously encountered discourses. She comes back to this text fragment several times in the lesson. In contrast to the other students, Claire makes clear that she is not just stating what the content of the article is, but what she thinks the text is about; Kijk voor mij is dit… [Look for me this is about…]

    Emma has yet another response to the question of what the text is about. Like Claire, she is not aligning herself with the position of the hard and aggressive women, and she brings her own evaluation and interpretation to bear on the text. She, like Claire, is explicit in stating she is giving her own interpretation (ik denk dat het echt gaat om…, I think that it is really about…). Her interpretation centres on one of the aspects of the article which focuses on women who are unsuccessful in their relationships, as represented through the therapeutic discourse of women who go into therapy to help them to have ‘stable and mature’ relationships. That she feels strongly about her interpretation is shown by the fact that she used and repeated the word ‘echt’ (really) several times. She did not explain her interpretation nor why she specifically focused on only this particular discourse. Both Claire and Emma were already engaged in ‘discourse mapping’, even if they did not do this explicitly.

    In summary, in the individual answers as to what the text is about, students focused on the various content aspects of the text, which represented a range of discourses; aggressive women (who are ‘bad’ for men), women who have a male identity, pressures on women to be perfect, and women who feel they are incomplete without a man.

    In doing so, they discuss the text at a range of levels: functional, cultural (identity and representations) and intertextual (implicit references to other media representations). So even if the question of content was intended to focus students’ awareness on the superficial text level, students interpreted the task as an invitation to go beyond the text, to evaluate the text and critique the ideas and truth claims implicit in it. Even in the answers which stayed closest to the text, and indeed the intended task, students inscribed their own meaning onto the text and evaluated it in relation to what could lie behind this text.

    However, the contrast in these representations, the aggressive woman versus the image of fulfilled motherhood, was not seized upon by any of the students at this stage, and in fact never became a point of focus in either of the two lessons, despite my efforts to draw students’ attention to it. Each student saw the text-only in the light of one discourse, i.e. single-voiced discourse, whether about ‘aggressive women’ or about ‘women as mothers’.

    This page titled Discussing Text Content is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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