Or how to study for Literature (2018 edition)
In this pre-June break, long overdue post, we outline some of the study strategies beyond the standard mantras of ‘I will read my text over the holidays’ and ‘I will commit the notes to memory’ that you can and should commit to in the weeks to come. Some of these suggestions will apply directly to questions from the 2018 JC1 H2 Mid-Year Examination, with the reference to the compulsory passage-based question on Measure for Measure and the single-text essay question options on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while most are generic enough for all revision from this point forward. If you would like to clarify the suggestions, or want tailored feedback on your notes, drop me an email at my school-based address!
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Know the Art
Before we even begin, it’s important that we set the foundation for all subsequent work right. Some of us have struggled quite badly with the three assignments thus far, and as much as it pains me to see the scores, I reckon you are more shaken than I would be. But we cannot deny the truth they reflect: the ‘fundamental’ skills and awareness of requirements were not shown in the work, and the work has to be graded accordingly.
Most of us, by my judgement, have gotten somewhere but may not be applying the skills consistently enough — many an essay I marked went from a thoroughly analytical paragraph to one without any analysis — and appropriately, where many CA3 responses to the Measure PBQ veered away from the passage to write generally about Angelo. Take the reminders below with you into the revision period, and bear them in mind as you read, think and write:
- Literature is the study of how writers create meaning. It is not about your knowledge of the plot or character traits alone; providing some context as to why characters say or do what they say or do helps, but anything more than two sentences would be considered narration. Your role is to understand the art behind the telling and illustrate it, evince it and elaborate on it in your writing.Imperative then is your analysis of evidence, methods and their effects on the reader (poetry, prose) or audience (drama). For the passage-based question in Paper 1, this means a close dissection of the given passage, and reference to the passage even when you are discussing your ideas. For essay questions (across both papers), your selection of evidence is of extreme importance: for instance, you had to provide quotations that illustrate a character’s destructive state of mind (i.e. their dialogue and actions) and not the results of their destructiveness, or the things they do that destroy themselves.
- Literature is about your interpretation – the meaning you make from the text. It is not about ‘proving’ facts or information. It is not about ‘arriving’ at basic statements (e.g. Angelo is an ascetic, Martha and George isolate each other from themselves). The objective really is to respond to a given passage or the text on larger ideas about the human condition, be it the importance of compassion, the application of the law, the fragility of the self, or the contradictory, sometimes self-destructive nature of the mind. Yes, these ideas are contentious, but that is why writers write — to get you, their reader, their audience, to think and start a conversation in your head.Retreating to the barest, safest assertions (e.g. Martha is therefore destructive!) shows us nothing. Think of the questions, including the ‘prompt quotations’, as a way to think about the text more deeply and critically comment on its ideas.
Review your three CAs and think deeply about where you are at in terms of the skills. If you are not aware of what you are good at and not yet good at, do not read beyond this sentence. Understand yourself first.
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Read Material Critically
Mr Tan’s notes on Measure for Measure and mine for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in fact model the writing we want to see in your essays. As you retread these notes, go beyond learning what to say and pick up how to write about the texts, including our sentence structures and phrases. Identify the various elements: evidence, methods and effects, our response to the text / ideas and concerns, or links between here and elsewhere. Here is a small slice of what each element looks like in both your Paper 1 and Paper 3 notes to facilitate your re-discovery:
- “The images employed by the Duke espouses a specific understanding of the function of the law as regulating and restraining human behaviour and desires. The harshness of statutes, aurally emphasized by the sharpness of assonance and consonance (‘strict’/’bits’, ‘statues’/’most biting’) is necessary as a ‘curb’ to ‘weeds’, which can destroy the community if left unchecked.” (Act 1 Scene 3)
“Martha’s description conjures a physical form, for he ‘walked evenly’ and holds ‘a hand out to each of us’ that can ‘protect us all’; the theatricality of Martha speaking ‘with great sadness’ and ‘spread[ing] her hands’ on stage makes the illusion all the more convincing.” (Paper 3 Lecture 5)
- “As with Angelo, Shakespeare wants the audience to question the consequences and ramifications of characters like Isabella who hold on to a firm and absolute moral position which allows no compromise.” (Act 1 Scene 4)
- “This narrative of the past provides Martha some respite from her dismal marriage, soothing her anger with attraction, her temper with tenderness”. Narratives in Albee’s play function as a means of escapism, which help bring his characters closer to the selves they perceive but are not allowed to realise in their respective realities. (Paper 3 Lecture 8)
Links between here and elsewhere (PBQ)
- “As opposed to his earlier doctrinal statements about the difference between temptation and sin, moral absolutes are crumbling away as Angelo thinks about degrees of sinfulness and culpability (‘the tempter or the tempted who sins most, ha?’).” (Act 2 Scene 2)
- “The contrast between the rigorous, austere Angelo and the passionate intemperance of youth like Claudio… prepares the audience for Angelo’s succumbing to his desires and his parallel with Claudio” later in the play. (Act 1 Scene 3)
Do the same for the essays and presentations shared with you. What is their personal response? Which parts of the text / passage have they selected to answer the question? How much have they quoted, and how much detail have they analysed? Where do they state the method and effect, if they do? What ideas are they discussing in each body paragraph, and how do they build up to the conclusion?
For your reading to be productive, you want to be hyper-aware of all these elements, so that you can re-organise, re-synthesise and apply them to the question you are attempting. All of these long essays and notes can be overwhelming, so you may want to digest them in your own way. Read the next section!
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Create Your Own Notes
I remember my own JC revision as an endless series of copying and re-copying of notes – “remembering by writing” as my teachers would call it. Gone are, as should be the case, the days of mindless scribbling on foolscap whatever one sees on screen.
Much of the A-level syllabi involves application and synthesis of knowledge, transcending the rote learning from the past. Organising the information you have been given, and translating that into a form – whether they be in bullet points, tables, mind maps – you can understand and extract from easily is essential. Here are a few suggestions tailored to the two predominant question types you will face in the JC1 Mid-Year and Promotional Examinations.
Passage-Based Question (Paper 1 Only)
- Identify important passages in the play that could be set as likely PBQs. You can begin with your CA3 passage from 2.1 as a means of reviewing your work.
- For each passage, create a table with a column for “ideas / links” and a column for “methods / evidence”.
- Use Mr Tan’s notes as a base. Extract the ideas and try to explain them in your own words as far as possible in the left column. In the same column, consider how these ideas were developed earlier in the play or will be developed later in the play.
- On the right column, identify patterns of evidence that supports these ideas. Analyse them briefly for methods (e.g. animal imagery, coin metaphor, anaphora) and tone / effects.
- You can do a similar ideas+methods / evidence table for essay questions for both Paper 3 (MYE/Promo) and Paper 1 (Promo onwards). These can be set up around characters (e.g. Angelo, Isabella, George, Martha) or concerns / themes (e.g. justice in Measure, truth and illusion in Woolf).
- As the scope is obviously a lot broader than for the passage-based question, you can aim for a breadth of relevant examples / episodes from the text rather than depth of analysis, which can come when you actually write an essay / outline.
- For the upcoming Mid-Year Examination, you can use the overview of episodes in Paper 3 Lecture 12 to study for Woolf. You can base your study tables around the seven responses. Get together with a group of friends, and distribute the work: you can maybe cover three episodes on Response 1, and identify the key ideas, methods and evidence from there, while your friends make notes on other episodes relevant to Response 1. Do the same for Responses 2/3, 4/5 and 6/7.
- You should have noticed that the Reading Task I set you to do in Term 2 resembles much of what I’m recommending, except that it mainly revolves around methods (e.g. references to the title, abusive language, references to the son-myth). Do not abandon the good work that has been done — use this to re-familiarise yourself with some of the key episodes and methods in the play.
Sample revision tables are available on Google Classroom for your reference and use.
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Annotate Your Set Texts
This cannot be reiterated often enough. It is an open-book examination. Maximise the resources you are given. Going into the examination with an “empty” text makes little sense, when you need one hour to annotate your text to a satisfactory level. Be smart. You do not want to spend your “exam time” flipping and flipping, or deliberating over which lines are the best fit for which ideas.
Highlighting and underlining your text will help you retrieve the methods / evidence for these ideas quickly. I would recommend that you complete this step only after familiarising yourself with the prescribed notes and your own notes; you can opt to read and highlight/underline concurrently too.
The annotation guide contains a few suggestions on how to colour code your text based on concerns/themes and characters. Use that or develop your own system.
I generally recommend that students highlight important parts of the text, and underline key words that you are likely to close-read / analyse in detail. This allows you to “pre-analyse” the text, especially for passage-based questions and key episodes (e.g. ‘total war’ scene, Martha’s monologue, various narratives, closing scene of Woolf) in the texts.
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Practise Thinking and Writing
Nothing beats practice. In a gruelling three-hour examination, time management is key. Attempt the JC1 Mid-Year Examination Practice Paper Mr Tan and I have set you.
“Reading” and “memorising” don’t help you as much as you’d think. My junior-college self was certainly over-confident about this. The “thinking” – about what the question is asking for, what ideas are relevant, what is my personal response, which episodes are most relevant, the methods used to express the ideas – is what matters.
Alternatively, you can practice writing outlines to the above questions, or to rewrite / redraft your CA2 and CA3 essays. It’s about building skills and attaining mastery through practice.
You can submit some of your work to us, and we will try to give you some feedback along the way. We’re here for you, so do not hesitate to ask us for help when you need it. Better that you clarify now than try to squeeze in “at the last minute”.
Your growth begins now. Go learn and we both can’t wait to be impressed by you 🙂