“Miss, since Sophocles wrote Antigone over 2,000 years ago, how do we know what we’re reading is actually what he wrote?”
My first thought: that’s a good question. My second: what a fantastic theory of knowledge (TOK) opportunity.
TOK is the part of the International Baccalaureate that lots of colleagues struggle to include or worry about including in their literature lessons. This is often down to fear that they might get it wrong. Simply put, I don’t think that you can.
I have found the simplest approaches work best. Here are some that link nicely to the areas of exploration in the new IB specification:
International Baccalaureate: Are the arts considered a system of knowledge?
Let’s get back to my student’s question on Sophocles: texts in translation are perfect for a TOK starter. We covered the problem with the translation process as a means of knowledge. Our example was "thalamos", the ancient Greek for "bridal bed".
What has been lost or gained by not having a direct translation in English? Time is also a big factor – how distant is Sophocles from us?
Another classic example is Kafka’s use, in The Metamorphosis, of “ungeziefer”, which literally means “unclean beast not suited for sacrifice”.
Give students various translations of the opening sentence and ask them which are the most interesting or vivid meanings for them. Ultimately, how has the meaning been lost or changed?
What is the relationship between the artist and the work?
The relationship between the writer and the text lends itself perfectly to TOK. Let’s return to Kafka. Students need to know about his feelings of alienation in 20th-century Czechoslovakia from his Jewish faith and also about his aversion to physical touch.
Asking the question “How do we know?” is simple but effective here; and so is a group or paired research project presentation or an interactive oral, for that matter.
Writing the context as a mystery with a prompt, such as, “If you were a social worker, how would you help this person?” can also work well.
Is the aesthetic value of artwork purely a subjective matter?
A simple way to highlight the importance of subjectivity is to carry out a pre-mortem of students’ knowledge, followed by a post-mortem on how their knowledge has changed once you have looked at how it came to be written. Discuss the differences and how subjectivity plays a vital role.
A good example for this is Wilfred Owen’s drafts for Anthem for Doomed Youth, where the suggestions made by Siegfried Sassoon can be seen alongside Owen’s own revisions.
Students in role as Owen can think about why he made these decisions and then how our reaction and knowledge of the poem is altered as a result. Why is the poem considered good? Has students’ knowledge been enhanced after looking at the mechanism of the piece?
Art as a social critique
This is possibly the easiest to cover and is governed by text choices. The Handmaid’s Tale is perfect: not only does Margaret Atwood refer to it as “speculative fiction” but there are links to historical totalitarian regimes aplenty as well as current global issues, which are perfect for the new individual presentation.
How has this piece of imaginative art illustrated a current issue? How is it a warning? How has it changed students’ perception of the world?
In one lesson, my class researched all of the legislation repealed or denied since Donald Trump’s investiture and then found key links to the text with quotations. It ended up being a sobering double lesson where we all learned that art can imitate life.
TOK in literature should not be a chore. With a few tweaks and, perhaps, brave moments that go off the lesson plan, it evolves almost naturally. Keep it simple, with a starter, a plenary or homework. Just get them thinking.
Victoria Crisp is an English teacher and departmental key stage 5 coordinator at Guernsey Grammar School and Sixth Form Centre