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From Text to Cultuurtekst: Different Ways of Being Critical

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    As I showed in Chapter 5, over the course of the two lessons students gradually moved from seeing the text as ‘text’ to seeing text as ‘cultuurtekst’. However, this progress was not neat and linear, and there were considerable differences between students. Understanding of the text at a cultuurtekst level seemed to be incidental - occasional nuggets of insights, which students would not necessarily build on later. It became clear that it is not easy to separate the different ways of reading as students move in and out of different positions towards the text. It also became clear that we cannot separate reading a text for its content, structure, and immediate context as a stable entity separate from cultuurtekst, because students invested the text with cultural and social meaning, even when reading the text at the textual level, as was the case in the first lesson. However, despite attributing meaning to the text, at the textual level of reading, students did so in the light of only one of the discourses reflected in the text. During these discussions, some students stayed close to the text and aligned themselves with the text or the author, but others went beyond the text and were indeed aware the text was showing representations, rather than facts. Moreover, in the first lesson, students talked in a very confident manner about their analyses, as they seemed to interpret the task to be one of a traditional language classroom: that of assuming a ‘correct answer’ was required.

    Discussing the text at cultuurtekst level in the second lesson, on the other hand, did seem to give students more insights; students became less confident in their voice as they interpreted the task as needing more careful consideration. It is the hesitancy with which students try out ideas as part of dialogic group discussions, which I considered to be important learning moments. Questions which assume a correct answer do not allow any space for dialogue, engaging with other ideas, or for reflection. In the lesson focusing on the text as cultuurtekst, there was more ‘discussion around the text’, and students used these discussions to re-interpret the text in the light of what had been said. Again there were considerable differences between students. There were occasions where students showed an intercultural stance in their attempts to understand the text from the inside, i.e. engaging with the cultural meaning of the text in relation to the context of text production as well as engaging with their own lived experiences. Interestingly, the deeper insights by students occurred when they moved away from the exercise of text analysis and made the discussion their own. The ‘talking around the text’ became the most dialogic, insightful and, even academic, discussions of the two lessons, where students critiqued the power structures embedded in the text, i.e. those that regulate women’s personal life choices in terms of career and motherhood. Moreover, by relating their experiences again to the texts, students were also becoming aware that the text was making ‘claims to truth’.


    Whilst tentative conclusions after the second lesson pointed to a deeper engagement with the discourses in the text, the interviews with the students showed that some of the learning of the cultuurtekst lesson had not necessarily been transferred. Claire, for instance, had shown the most understanding of and engagement with the discourses in the text during the lessons, including the conflicting ones, and had recognized these to be culturally significant. During one of her interviews, however, she took a different view; that these conflicting discourses showed a lack of clarity and poor argumentation. She showed her unease with the notion of cultuurtekst as she describes the process she followed in reading the text.

    First, she reads the text as a language learner making sure she has understood all of the vocabularies, then she reads it for content, critiquing both the stereotypical representations in the text as well as empathizing with the women in the text who are dumped by their lover for a younger woman, before addressing the text at cultuurtekst level:

    Claire: When I did the, well, what I tried to do was read it for the vocabulary so that I understood it fully because it was annoying to leave (…) and then read it again on the train without writing anything and without having read your [framework], and then it was that I started to see the kind of… I find it very patronizing, em, there are lots of sentences that I don’t like, the whole cliché, cliché thing, you know, oh her true lover left her for a younger woman. Well, you know, that’s quite a horrible thing to have to deal with, you know, you don’t have to be patronizing about it.

    But then, when I read it with, what I did was when I needed to write out the text that you wanted for the cultuurtekst question, I wrote down all the questions that were asked and then I read it each time so I went through it thinking, how are women portrayed here or how are the people in this story portrayed, and then kind of underlining a word and using some of the things that I saw, and the more I read it, the more I realized that it’s not a very, well, that the argument isn’t very good because it sort of skips from one thing to the other, and it never actually says anything, it kind of moves around and around this point but it never makes any statement about, you know, or conclusion.

    Claire’s representation of her process of reading is significant for various reasons. Her reading at the content level is not just a ‘preferred reading’, looking at the position from which the text asks to be read (see Chapter 3), but her response to the text in this phase of reading was one of both critical and personal engagement. On the one hand, she critiques the stereotypical, patronizing, and mocking approach of the text. But at the same time, she responds from a personal perspective: she talks with a voice of empathy with the women who are being dumped by their lover for a younger woman. In my own framework of reading, I had not taken account of this personal engagement which was also a significant point to emerge from my classroom data. But whilst she is critical of the text in terms of its ideological stereotypical representations of women, her critique here occurs at the content and textual level of reading. She sees the final cultuurtekst level of reading as an academic exercise, answering the questions about representations. Rather than this resulting in a firming up of the critique of discourses, it led her to a more traditional perspective of reading: being critical of its poor argumentation.

    It seems then that her view of cultuurtekst carries within it a traditional view of text as containing stable meaning and text as a product. This dual view of text could be the result of giving students a framework which carries within it these two views. Critiquing representations is for Claire achieved through an engagement with the content from the perspective of people being represented in the text. She tries to inhabit the place of the ‘characters’, as it were, and to see the world momentarily through their eyes.

    However, later on in the interview, she comes back to the distinction between text and cultuurtekst more specifically and this time she relates the notion of personal experience and interest with the idea of cultuurtekst.

    Claire: […] because we talked about it as a cultuurtekst not just necessarily as an article, because as an article you can take it apart.

    G: Right

    Claire: You know, but as a cultuurtekst it’s very interesting, because it, you know, it talks about a cultural phenomenon, which you know, and I found the way it used, you know, because if you think, you know, I don’t read many things by men, so I think that’s quite interesting and, you know, yeah. No, I found it a very, I thought yesterday was really good fun, I really enjoyed it, because it was, you know, especially as you’re talking about something which is actually quite interesting for someone my age, you know, talking about politics or economics is something that is not so relevant to me now, em, but social values, sex, things like that, is quite a sort of, that is something I would realistically discuss with a friend, you know, you’re not kind of making a you know, fake situation.

    G: Well, it’s very much part of life and society.

    Claire: Exactly

    Claire sees text, or ‘article’ as she refers to it here, as a product you can analyse, ‘you can take it apart’. She juxtaposes this with reading or discussing the text as cultuurtekst, which she interprets now as ‘talking about a cultural phenomenon’ you can relate to and engage with as you would in your everyday life: ‘it’s something I would realistically discuss with a friend’.

    Whilst in the first fragment she indicates that the academic cultuurtekst exercise of looking at the way women were represented, made her realize the text was not a ‘good text’ in the traditional sense, Claire’s conception of reading as cultuurtekst is quite different. Here she relates cultuurtekst not as an academic exercise looking at representations, but as reading as a ‘communicative experience’, relating the text to one’s own (or other people’s) experiences. For Claire, this happened particularly when discussing the text in class. It was this communicative experience as dialogue which personalized the cultuurtekst phase of reading. Whilst Claire does not mention it in this fragment above, this experience becomes intercultural if the text is produced in an environment, and is about a social group, the reader is not familiar with. By relating the text to everyday lived experience and reflecting on that, Claire is reading, at least to some extent, as a text ethnographer. With Claire engaging with the text as a reader for her own interests, a topic she can relate to and would realistically discuss with friends, her description of the process of cultuurtekst seems to parallel the dialogic spaces which opened up in class when students engaged with the text by ‘talking around it’. Reading ‘as an experience’, and classroom discussion as a real-life activity, not a ‘fake situation’, as Claire called it, might then provide students with an opportunity to see things from different perspectives.

    In summary, in her retrospective engagement with the text in the two sets of data above, Claire employed various positions of criticality. She had critiqued the text from a liberal humanist conception of critical thinking. From this perspective, the text did not stand up to scrutiny as a ‘good text’. She also employed ideology critique. From this perspective, the text consisted of stereotypical representations. And furthermore, Claire employed also a personal level of critique; she critiqued the text, as it were for its misrepresentations and mocking approach, as if the women in the text were characters of flesh and blood with whom she could empathize. Through inhabiting the represented characters, she saw the world temporarily from their perspective. An approach in reading which is not unlike the idea of sympathetic imagination with is afforded in literature.

    Sarah on the other hand, read the text in a very different way, one which is more distant and from a liberal humanist perspective. However, as we will see below, personal engagement also played a role for her, but in quite a different way from the way that Claire engaged with the text.


    Sarah rejected the notion of cultuurtekst quite strongly and she had not engaged with the idea of discourses. It must be remembered, however, she had not taken part in the second class where we discussed the text at a cultuurtekst level. In one of her interviews, when I ask Sarah what the notion ‘cultuurtekst’ means for her she says she feels it is to do with lifestyle. She distances herself from this particular genre, or ‘cultuurteksts’ as she perceives them because they are ‘manipulated’ and written for specific audiences.

    Sarah: So I don’t, so for me it’s em it’s quite clear when I read an article in a newspaper or a or a em whatever piece in a lifestyle magazine, that it’s that it’s just em that it’s quite, well, manipulated for a particular audience to try and appeal to a certain type of em frame of mind.

    G: Mm.

    Sarah: And I don’t, I don’t like the idea of em of em being so manipulated, so I’d rather not read them.

    Sarah thoroughly dislikes the idea of being manipulated through language. As she had said to me at the start of the course, she had previously always thought that people were ‘honest’ in their communicative behaviours and stayed true to themselves by speaking the same way regardless of who one spoke to or what one wanted to achieve.

    With relating cultuurtekst particularly to the genre of lifestyle texts, Sarah may think of cultuurtekst as linked to ‘low’ culture; the popular mass media, which may contradict Sarah’s own sense of culture and identity. Later in the interview when asked what kinds of texts she does read, she says that she prefers to read books, ‘founts of knowledge’, and would much rather learn about topics in class that are personally interesting to her, such as, for instance, Erasmus, rather than ‘these cultuurteksts’.

    What is interesting is that Sarah considers lifestyle publication as the same genre as newspapers. Her dislike of texts being manipulated is less geared to critiquing ideology, it would seem, then to an ‘ideal’ view of communication, as she makes clear below.

    But the process of having discussed texts in class according to the questions in my framework for analysis, had led her to reflect deeply on the nature of communication. Her resistance to the course was not only caused by the fact that the texts seemed to be manipulated, or by her sense of identity as a reader who wants to read texts of a certain academic, or perhaps literary, standing, she also worried about how as readers you can interpret texts ‘correctly’. For her the issues of ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’ emerge. As a reader you not only need to be able to trust a writer not to manipulate you, conversely when you write you need to trust your readers to interpret your text the way you intended:

    Sarah: So you can, so you can, not only does the writer make choices and so structure a text that it says what he wants to say, but also a reader by interpreting it in different ways understands it differently, so that’s why the whole idea of, that’s why I think you get lost, anything you read or you listen to or anything, any kind of communication, there’s such a lot of room for error, just because em if you are going to interpret it one way or another and you mean it one way or another.

    G: Yeah yeah.

    Sarah: There’s so much potential to em confusion.

    G: Yeah.

    Sarah: Despite it being what you might call a better communication, it doesn’t mean, I don’t know a good communication has got to do with listeners as well as speakers or readers as well as writers.

    G: Yes, yeah.

    Sarah: And you can’t, and so to, so you have to rely on your audience and so that’s why if you’re going to, if you think you can manipulate them, well if they can’t rely on you, em I suppose (…) so I think the whole trust thing is that you read a, it would be nice to be able to read a text and em for them not to be playing with you and it depends on genre so if you, I don’t know, if you’re like criticizing things and don’t mind reading crap then you can quite happily read different things that I wouldn’t be able to read because I, I don’t know, I don’t like that so…

    G: Right, okay.

    Sarah: Does that make any sense?

    Sarah is clearly trying to make sense of very complex ideas about communication which the course has made her think about. Firstly, she is very much aware of the complexity of the process of a communicative event and the important role the reader has in interpreting a text. Secondly, she contrasts what she knows is happening in communicative events with what she feels ought to happen.

    To start with the first point, Sarah realizes that in communicating, not only does the writer need to make linguistic choices, the reader also has to be able to decode those. Whereas in earlier comments, Sarah seemed to hold on to a view of text as stable and universal, here she is introducing the importance of the reader’s interpretation. However, Sarah sees the reader’s role as a potential problem, since there is such a large potential for error and misunderstanding. Sarah assumes that the writer has a particular meaning which the reader must interpret ‘correctly’. This fits with Sarah’s interpretation of the Men’s Health text in class, where she tried to align herself with the author (as I described in Chapter 5). Sarah’s view of communication accords with that of the structuralist model - a view of communication which many students hold subconsciously, that in sending a message in a communicative event the message has to arrive exactly as the sender had intended it.

    Sarah sees the relationship between the audience and the writer or speaker as one of trust. As the reader, you need to be able to trust the writer that he is not going to manipulate you. Sarah seems to hold to a view of ‘ideal communication’ which is similar to one of the maxims of Grice’s cooperative principles: that of being truthful. Sarah’s view of reading is one of text as ‘text’ and not as ‘cultuurtekst’. Her criticality is rooted in the liberal humanist view of ‘critical thinking’, rather than seeing text in relation to contexts.

    Whereas we saw that for Claire discourse critique was achieved through relating the text at a personal level and looking through the perspective of the women who were represented, seeing them as real characters as it were, for Sarah it worked the other way. She resisted the course, precisely because of the effect. She felt uncomfortable because discussing texts brought to the fore the different personalities and backgrounds of students in the class:

    Sarah: But I realize that, well, it’s a course with a clear aim and a clear method to follow up, but at first I found it difficult because I don’t like, I don’t like it.

    G: Right, well tell me a bit more about…

    Sarah: So if you read the specific, anything, any kind of specific text we looked at, em, say, I don’t know, it maybe depends on generation or em background or anything, like, so different people will read the same text in a different way. It could be a way of finding out about the person I suppose by their interpretation of it, I suppose you can’t really get away from that can you?

    G: Yeah, no.

    Sarah: So em unless it’s a subject that really doesn’t affect you personally, then you can’t really leave your own background or ideas behind. And so although you, although you’re just discussing one text, if you read it with different people like we did, you’ll see that it meant different things to different people, say em that text about [London] or something, em, we did quite near the end […]

    G: Oh right, yes.

    Sarah: Yes, so that said something different to, I suppose we looked at it all in different ways, Andy, Emma, and I suppose our class was quite good because, for this course, because you couldn’t get probably six more different people, all next to each other in the same class.

    G: Did you find that useful? Did you feel that em there was a dialogue going on between you as a class, and was that beneficial?

    Sarah: Well, I did think that em it’s quite interesting because if you just forget the texts but look at the class, I think that em for whatever reasons, in the end, people identified with each other differently than at the beginning.

    G: Was that with one another or with the texts?

    Sarah: Yeah, with one another, and I actually think it might have to do with probably to do with the course because it was so much based on discussion and interpretation […]

    Sarah’s experience in class of discussing texts with the other students showed her that the texts meant different things to different people. We saw earlier that Sarah has a strong notion of correct interpretation. But what Sarah finds significant here is not whether people’s different interpretations are valid, but that people’s interpretations say something about who they are. The way you interpret the text says something about your identity. Sarah turns it around: not only does your experience, your lifeworld knowledge inform your interpretations, it also reveals who you are.

    As Sarah makes this point in the context of citing an example of what she did not like about the course, we can surmise that Sarah feels uncomfortable about the idea of revealing something about herself. Reading a text the way we did in class, has a challenging aspect because it forces students to engage and show something of their personality and experience with other people. Sarah may be worried about giving too much of herself away by interpreting a text.

    An interesting notion emerges from this. Whereas the previous set of data pointed towards the fact Sarah holds a stable view of communication, in the data above, by making a link between interpreting a text and what it reveals about someone’s personality, Sarah comes closer to a social view of language and communication. She acknowledges that there are multiple interpretations of a text, depending one’s experiences and even personality. Even if Sarah deploys the notion of personality and identity as unchanging, by seeing a strong correlation between interpretation and who you are, in this set of data she is holding an almost dialogic view of text.

    Even though the lessons stopped short of making a more explicit link between students’ interpretations and their experiences and lifeworld knowledge, including discourses they have been familiarized with, Sarah already made this link. Although for Sarah this link was less in terms of social knowledge, but rather related to a stable individual identity.

    In the next set of data, Sarah makes the link between personal experiences and communication more explicit. Whereas in earlier data she may have felt uncomfortable about unintentionally revealing things about herself, below she states quite explicitly the connection between individual personalities and communication:

    Sarah: But we’re talking about communication, communication is (…) so you could say it’s endless, so yes, it’s endless because em em there’s superficial communication and there’s all different types going on at the same time and so if you’re talking about communication, to really talk about communication, you do have to ask all those big questions so and we haven’t done that, so that’s why well…

    G: Ah okay, so you feel that’s what you would’ve liked to address more.

    Sarah: I suppose, okay I suppose, it didn’t occur to me before but now we’re talking, I suppose, there are other aspects of communication, em, that we haven’t talked about at all, so…


    G: And what sort of questions are they? What sort of questions would you have liked to have addressed?

    Sarah: Well. I suppose em if you’re talking about communication, then yes, ways, genres are quite safe em types of text where you look at em a text and say where’s it from and what is it called and all the, that’s kind of safe, and when you go down into and then you can, then the problem is that that’s when it gets personal and so if that hasn’t occurred to other people then fine, so then if you really wanted to know about what somebody is writing and why, and then you’d have to go sort of it would also become em em, it would have to do with individual personality and em yeah, I don’t know.

    Sarah feels the course should have gone deeper and further in addressing the ‘big questions’. The course had stayed at a safe level, talking about ‘superficial communication’ and genres and ways of writing. These big questions, Sarah suggests, relate to the individual; they are about finding out what somebody is writing and why. Whereas I had designed the course to address those questions about what is communicated, how and why at a social, political, and cultural level, Sarah felt these questions should be explored at a psychological level: what influences an individual to communicate in a particular way and to what degree this is related to personality. Rooted in a view of language as stable and communication as expressing individual thought, Sarah’s view contrasts with my aim to look at language at a social level. Nevertheless, my intention as I set out in the first chapter had been to rearticulate aspects of the liberal humanist paradigm, particularly the idea of expressing thought. Even though in Sarah’s experience these views clashed, it is precisely in the dialogic space in the classroom, where students were expressing thought both as a collaborative social activity and conceptually in relating language to its cultural discursive contexts. Whilst Sarah was worried about revealing too much of herself, it would precisely by trusting the communicative other which would make dialogic relations possible.

    So for Sarah, the personal was an extra analytical layer to lead to insights into why we as individuals communicate the way we do. For Claire the personal helped her to be critical of the text partly as a responsibility to the women represented in the text: she spoke with a voice of empathy. For Claire, the personal also had an ethical perspective: during class, she had also shown concerns with the injustice of stereotyping and gender inequality.

    Sarah also showed an ethical stance but for her, that was located in the use of language: not obfuscating arguments and making sure that readers could interpret correctly what you as a writer wanted to convey.

    This page titled From Text to Cultuurtekst: Different Ways of Being Critical is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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