Good evening, everyone!
I trust that you’ve all had a relaxing weekend. I personally spent mine in Philadelphia doing the Grim Philly Serial Killers & Cemeteries walking tour, which was both super interesting and a ton of fun. While the tour isn’t recommended for children due to the grisly subject matter, I did learn related “normal” historical facts about the city that I can now cite and use later for my students, which is always a plus!
I want to kick off this week’s post with a reference to the first serial killer we learned about on the tour: H. H. Holmes (1861-1896). Don’t worry – I promise there’s a direction here! For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Holmes is an American serial killer who confessed to more than 27 murders, many of which he claimed to commit in his infamous “murder hotel” during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. While Holmes himself was not born in Philadelphia, he was eventually imprisoned and hanged there, leading many serial killer fanatics in the city to claim him as a Philadelphian.
However, the real reason why the information on Holmes was added to this tour in particular is because Adam Seltzer’s 2017 biography on Holmes, H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, generated a wave of interest since it added new information to Erik Larson’s 2003 historical non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Seltzer spent years researching Larson’s sources and information, taking careful time to separate facts, circumstantial claims, and plain fiction in order to give his readers a more comprehensive view of Holmes and his crimes. Much of this new evidence includes primary sources (like newspaper articles and court ledgers) that had never been seen before, not even by Larson.
But what do Seltzer, Larson, and H. H. Holmes have to do with teaching? It’s simple; Seltzer building off of and investigating Larson’s original claims is a perfect example of what Kevin Roozen calls intertextuality. He argues, “rather than existing as autonomous documents, texts always refer to other texts and rely heavily on those texts to make meaning. Although we commonly refer to a text or the text, texts are profoundly intertextual in that they draw meaning from a network of other texts” (44). No matter what text we’re reading, there will always be references to other texts within that text. Thus, while Seltzer uncovered his own new information, he also built off of the fountain of information on Holmes that came before him to do so; the next person to write about Holmes will undoubtedly build off of Seltzer’s work as well. So, the meaning of a text will always incorporate the past, present, and future because the writer references other texts and will be referenced by other writers in turn; and even if we’re only talking about one work in particular, that particular work still possesses intertextuality because of its connections to other texts either directly (through citation) or indirectly (similar ideas).
We can see this type of intertextuality in our own works if we go back and analyze them. For example, for my ENG 599 Independent Study in Japanese Literature this semester, I am watching the 2012 anime series Psycho-Pass. The show references other texts directly, like when it quotes lines from Titus Andronicus or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. These intertextual influences from the past make it easier for the viewer to make meaning of the anime series, as each reference has very particular connotations associated with it that can be used to glean the antagonist’s motives. In addition, I plan to write a paper for publication about the series in the future as part of my final project, in which I will use research and more intertextuality to make my own argument (and hopefully, students in the future will use my paper in their arguments too).
Another way in which a work can be intertextual is through what Roozen calls the utilization of “a range of nonwritten texts” (45). The first type of nonwritten text is visual imagery; for example, Psycho-Pass references films like Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) through its incorporation of cyberpunk and post-modern elements in a visibly dystopian Tokyo. The setting itself, especially its neon lights, holo-technology, and cyborgs, speaks volumes about the society and era in which the characters live simply because viewers are familiar with it through other dystopian films. Thus, the visual associations with landmark films of the past helps viewers make meaning of the setting so they can begin solving crimes alongside the Inspectors and Enforcers.
The second type of nonwritten text is speech, which is crucial to the recognition of Indigenous and non-Western oral traditions. These traditions and storytellers are too often written off as not credible simply because they do not fit the traditional mold of the Western author. However, they are still methods of making meaning, and many of these traditions possess their own form of intertextuality because the stories grow and change as they get passed down from generation to generation. Does anyone else think that it’s ironic and totally colonialist that academia formed out of art of oration and rhetoric, but now mocks it in non-Western cultures? Yes? Okay, great. Let’s add it to the list of things to change as we teach our students to be better than ourselves.
So, why is it important that we teach students about intertextuality? Well, dear readers, teaching them about intertextuality and its many different forms will help them learn how to think critically about the materials they’re working with, as well as encourage them to research the other texts in those materials. We have to teach students how to think for themselves, and one of the best ways we can do that is to give them the tools to form their own unique questions, research the answers to those questions, and then help them process that research so they can formulate their own arguments instead of just regurgitating information.
How do we help them do this, you ask? Walker, Sheehan, and Biondi suggest both digital and face-to-face peer reviews, various think-aloud sessions for paper organization, and the introduction of counterclaims to the classroom in The Art of Digital Literacy as a solution (166). Each method encourages that the teacher serves as a model to help their students better understand the assignment, as the teacher creating his/her own argument gives the students a concrete example that they can work alongside as they process and organize their own thoughts and materials.
I personally love their suggestion, as my Latin class in my senior year of high school incorporated this method as part of our final project. Our professor gave us a bunch of primary materials, grouped us into two sides, and then had us hold debates on the topics she gave; it not only helped us learn about the intertextuality of oral rhetoric (which we had previously only seen in writing), but also about how to form counterarguments, how to hold your own against those counterarguments, and how to effectively work with your peers to fact check, organize information, and revise your argument to be stronger and more effective. This one Latin project completely changed the way I thought about doing research, and from then on, I was much more open to collaboration with others and having my friends peer review my papers.
I’m sure we all know by now that collaboration and peer review are important tools for helping students become better writers by walking them through the process, and they’ll become even better writers by becoming better researchers and readers. So, when we’re able to reframe the “research process as a thinking process… [we] step toward fostering a culture of reflection and voice in the classroom and beyond” (Walker et. al. 169). So, dear teacher, if even the notorious serial killers from my walking tour could collaborate with each other to think about how to build murder hotels and where to hide bodies, it goes without saying that we should be able to collaborate with our students and with each other to dismantle the stuffy idea of the classic research paper and reframe it into a process that is more reflective and helpful to our students.
Until next time.