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The Importance of Applying Context to Your Studies

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By Anne Kennedy, PhD
Fulltime Faculty, English and Literature at American Public University

In my English and Humanities classes I ask students to take nothing for granted and to explore various points of view. Students will apply this skill at their workplace as they evolve into curious researchers who understand diversity and difference.  As such, a background in the humanities will lead to students becoming thoughtful and engaged twenty-first century citizens. One of the most powerful ways that we can achieve this goal is by teaching students about the importance of context.

My background is in cultural studies, literature, film and law. With my cultural studies hat on, I teach the importance of placing material into a cultural context. For example, if a first year student wants to write an essay evaluating a car, he or she might describe the facts and stats; the engine and the sound system. In this case, I would ask them to provide some background research about cars or this model. The student could investigate the American love affair with cars; the history of American cars (as part of the American dream) and the way that we find cultural evidence of that love affair. The student might research song lyrics: “Born to Run,” “American Pie,” one of the many Route 66 songs, and films: (Gone In Sixty Seconds, Toy Story, Grease, American Graffiti, On the Road, etc.). The resulting essay, which might refer to a few of these examples, will bring those other specs and facts to life, and bring a sense of pride and achievement to the writer who learns that this car (or cars in general) had a purpose, and did not arrive out of the blue, from a factory onto the road. The writer might also ask questions like: Who built the car? What was life like for workers in the early factories? What has gone wrong with car culture and why? Everything has a behind the scenes story or stories, a context, and these stories are always worth investigating. There is never enough time to share the entire story, but through inquiry and research the writer will learn to select a few of the gems from it, or to highlight other, less often (or perhaps rarely) told competing stories.

In my course, LITR337 (Women Writers), we examine a diverse range of texts, including graphic novels from the Middle East, and a coming-of-age novel from Africa, with Louisa May Alcott’s unladylike “blood-and-thunder” books (written under pseudonym) thrown in for good measure.  We also refer to The Hunger Games and other contemporary texts. I am a fan of using visual and digital material.  Apart from examining graphic material, students also enjoy discussing cultural ideas about femininity, for example, by comparing videos of Miss Piggy and Marilyn Monroe.  In these scenarios and discussions, students learn that Western ideas about femininity have backstories and should not be taken for granted.

Ultimately, interested students (intrigued by these contexts and behind-the-scenes stories) produce fascinating work. They become interested in the processes involved in going beyond the surface. My job is to try to make the work compelling and meaningful by encouraging students to explore such cultural stories and contexts. However, once I show students these ideas, it is also their responsibility to dig into their own topics and interests once they leave my class. Students who understand this idea will find further context (and success) in work and life. Their understanding and interest in the value of exploring diverse contexts will enrich their lives in meaningful ways.

 

About the Author:

Anne received her Ph.D in Cultural Studies–with concentrations in literature and pop culture– from Bowling Green State University, Ohio and her LLB (Bachelors in Law) from The University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has taught media and film in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Waikato University in New Zealand, and media and media law at Hawaii Pacific University, Hawaii. Anne’s particular academic interest in new media and new media law led her into online teaching and APUS.

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