Taken in context
In this life we want nothing but Contextualisation, sir; nothing but Contextualisation!" So cries our new-age Gradgrind, alias QCA - and now we have an excellent new series, Cambridge Contexts in Literature, edited by Adrian Barlow, chairman of examiners for OCR, to demonstrate the new assessment objectives.
Each book is arranged in clear and reader-friendly sections with plenty of headings and bullet points. The first two sections focus on putting the texts into their social, historical and literary contexts. The coverage is wide ranging, and although restricted length makes for some superficiality it does stimulate students to research further. The Gothic Tradition, for example, includes the political and spiritual context of the Gothic between 1750 and 1820 as well as Gothic cinema, which takes in the 1931 version of Frankenstein and the 1992 Edward Scissorhands.
American Drama 1900-1990 provides less of an overview, but gives students a great deal of useful information and background to a wide range of dramatists, their themes and aims.
The sections of Extracts make valuable anthologies for comparative study and wider reading as well as including some unusual and stimulating pieces. D H Lawrence's insightful essay from The Manchester Guardian in August 1914, "With the Guns", where he sees the soldier as a "fragment of a mass" without glamour or glory, is an interestin point of reference in The Great War in British Literature; while in American Prose and Poetry in the 20th Century there are a number of unfamiliar poems, such as George Bilgere's At the Vietnam Memorial 1995, understated and powerful, and the punchy 10 lines of Lucille Clifton's Richard Penniman 1972.
In the "How to write about it" sections, the focus again is on establishing the contexts of the texts and giving students a sense of their genre.
Advice is also given on how to use critical sources, and warning given against using biography as a "window on the written work" - useful for students who are frequently overwhelmed by the current availability of guides and internet support, and write biography in place of analysis.
The suggested assignments are for group and individual work, requiring students to consider wider issues, for instance inviting them to consider why the Great War continues to occupy a more important role in British literature and culture than it does in other countries, as well as directing them to close textual analysis, for instance asking them in American Prose and Poetry in the 20th Century to show how religion, class, race and gender are revealed through word choice and sentence structure in particular texts.
The chronologies and websites in the resources are helpful too. By April next year, this series will have 10 titles. Judging by these four, it will provide valuable background and guidance to sixth-formers and students working on their own for exams and coursework for all awarding bodies, not just OCR.
Rachel Redford is moderator for Edexcel AS and AL English and principal examiner for AQA GCSE English