HSC English Standard and Advanced – Texts and Human Experiences – Study Guide and Module Overview

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Introduction

The Texts and Human Experiences Common Module refers to the unit of study that has been prescribed by NESA to the English Standard, Advanced and Studies courses, hence the “commonality” of the topic. Broadly speaking, the role of the student is to analyse the ways in which human lives, struggles, joys and psyche have been portrayed in literature. While this may sound extremely vague and therefore quiet overwhelming, there are very specific elements that one should ensure is included in their response that the rubric covers.

In this study guide, we will deconstruct the key aspects of the Texts and Human Experiences rubric and how they should be engaged with in a response. Then, we will look at what to expect when sitting Paper 1, as well as a general guide to writing an essay for this module.

Prescribed texts

Approximately fifty per cent of your essay will comprise of your analysis of your related text—any text you deem appropriate to study under the Texts and Human Experiences module, you may choose as your related text. Your school will assign you ONE of the following prescribed texts to study, which will constitute the other half of your essay:

Prose fiction

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett

Poetry

  • Rosemary Dobson Collected by Rosemary Dobson
    • ‘Young Girl at a Window’, ‘Over the Hill’, ‘Summer’s End’, ‘The Conversation’, ‘Cock Crow’, ‘Amy Caroline’, ‘Canberra Morning’
  • Slessor, Kenneth, Selected Poems by Kenneth Slessor
    • ‘Wild Grapes’, ‘Gulliver’, ‘Out of Time’, ‘Vesper-Song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden’, ‘William Street’, ‘Beach Burial’

Drama/Shakespearean drama

  • Rainbow’s End by Jane Harrison
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Nonfiction

  • The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton
    • ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’, ‘Betsy’, ‘Twice on Sundays’, ‘The Wait and the Flow’, ‘In the Shadow of the Hospital’, ‘The Demon Shark’, ‘Barefoot in the Temple of Art’
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Film

  • Billy Elliot directed by Stephen Daldry

Media

  • Go Back to Where You Came From directed by Ivan O’Mahoney
    • Series 1, Episodes 1, 2 and 3 and The Response
  • Waste Land by Lucy Walker
    1. Initial considerations

No matter which text you are assigned as your prescribed text or you have chosen as your related text, they must be analysed in terms of the Texts and Human Experiences rubric. Some initial considerations you should deliberate before writing an essay in order to consolidate your understanding of the texts and the module include:

  • Exactly which “human experiences” are being portrayed in the text
  • The composer’s purpose in creating the text—is it to provide commentary on social issues, spark hope in humanity, present an honest depiction of our flaws or a culmination of all of the above?
  • The literary significance of the texts (awards, accolades, critical and commercial reception) suggesting a broader response to their cultural significance in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using them as mediums through which they can better understand the human condition
  • How form, structure, genre and style deeply influence the ways in which messages about the human experience are depicted by the composer and interpreted by the responder
  • Intertextuality and how texts influence other texts to create a more established view on universal human concerns

What are human experiences?

The term “human experiences” is indeed central to the module. However, it may initially seem very vague and confusing. Truthfully, human experiences can encompass an infinite amount of events, emotions and situations and are thus difficult to define.

Most broadly, it is the life encounters of an individual or a wider group that shapes the human psyche in one or more ways. Examples of “human experiences” include but are not limited to:

  • Life stages
    • Birth
    • Childhood
    • Adolescence
    • Adulthood
    • Old age
  • Key milestones
    • First day of school
    • Divorce
    • Death of a parent
    • Moving homes
    • Marriage
    • Discovering/rediscovering religion
    • Accepting a job promotion
  • Emotions and the complex ways that we process and accept them
    • Love
    • Anger
    • Grief
    • Depression
    • Happiness
    • Fear
  • Dealing with questions of existence
    • Nihilism
    • Religion
    • Understanding the connection between people and art
    • Anxiety about the future
    • Morality
  • Cultural/historical events
    • Earthquakes
    • Poverty
    • Discovery of gravity
    • War
    • Political movements
  • Mundane, everyday activities
    • Eating
    • Sleeping
    • Work
    • Daily commute
    • City vs. country life

Essentially, it is the culmination of all things that happen to humanity, whether on a small or larger scale. Note that not every human experience that occurs has to be immediately life-changing—much of existence is quite mundane and subdued. Indeed, most engaging texts explore the human reaction to more challenging or dramatic events. It is in making this response realistic and insightful about the human condition they are worth analysing. It is also worth understanding that such experiences can and do hold varying impacts on people. Part of the appeal of texts that portray significant experiences is their illustration of how one situation can breed a multitude of responses that are all plausible, showing the inherent conflict that defines humanity.

Indeed, the most significant aspect of human experiences is that it involves some sense of progress or change in both the world of the text and the world of the composer–it is for this reason that all “good” stories encompass some sort of change, whether for the characters or the world, whether for the better or worse, whether physical or mental. Hence, it is imperative that you understand precisely what “human experiences” are, as well as reflect upon their implications for the individual and society.

Deconstructing the rubric

As with any module, we must first look to the Texts and Human Experiences rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between your texts and the major points in the Texts and Human Experiences rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct what the statement actually means and, most importantly, how you can apply it to your essay.

Individual and collective human experiences

  • Potential question: Human experiences can be both unique and universal. How does studying your prescribed text and ONE other related text deepen your understanding of this notion?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.”

Any engaging story should have the ability to explore timeless concerns that humanity has always faced yet still illustrate unique perspectives of the individual characters. This is essentially the dichotomy that is presented in this rubric statement—that it should be distinguished as best as possible the experiences of the individual and the experiences of a wider group (for example, a neighbourhood, nation or a cultural group such as the LGBT+ community).

That is, while every human has their own upbringing in different environments with different people, some aspects of our lives transcend such borders. The universal themes presented in the texts (for example, love, family, freedom and anxiety) are ones that are only enhanced by the specific experiences of the characters as it allows for a more engaging depiction of such concerns. That is, as responders, we still seem to relate to many of the emotions evoked or concerns explored in these texts despite it not being entirely reflective of our own lives.

Human qualities and emotions

  • Potential question: To what extent are texts culturally significant due to their explorations of the complex emotions and qualities that define humanity?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences.”

A major part of “human experiences” is not simply the event itself, but our emotional response to such situations. As such, it is imperative that we use art to more deeply comprehend the feelings that define our existence and experiences, providing a masterfully crafted depiction of what it is that makes us human.

Less ambiguously are the human qualities this rubric statement dwells on. These are relatively easier to define in evaluating individuals—think, traits such as being confident, a hopeless romantic, a perfectionist or a slob and how endearing they are to examine from an external perspective. Or, perhaps, this significant part of our human experience is being put under scrutiny by such composers who wish to teach a moral lesson to their audiences.

Language and form

  • Potential question: Explain the significance of form in expressing and evaluating what it means to be human in your prescribed text and ONE other text of your own choosing.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and value the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.”

Form plays one of the most integral factors into what makes a text valuable or worth analysing. In fact, the form of the text itself can be an important commentary on the human experience—consider one of the set texts, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and how its metatheatricality allows the playwright to bid farewell to his audience, as well as explore the “magic” of the theatrical form.

Discussing form in an answer is certainly ideal, but not essential unless the question specifically asks for it. Even still, it should always be considered whilst undertaking a study of the texts and explored whenever possible. The following are examples, but certainly not a complete or even extensive list, of common features or tropes that can be found in familiar text types:

Prose fiction

  • Nature of language used
    • Is it sparse, eloquent and flowery, colloquial or meant to reflect a certain dialect/accent? Why would the author choose to write the voice way?
  • Linear/non-linear structure
    • Flashbacks

Film and media

  • Camera angles
  • Lighting as a means to create mood
  • Taking advantage of the multimedia form—using music, visual techniques and dialogue/text to portray their message instead of simply written language as prose fiction would do

Poetry

  • Symbolism
  • Structuring of the stanzas
  • Persona
  • Musicality
    • Remember that poetry is meant to be heard, and not simply read. There is careful section made by poets as to the actual sounds of the words or phrasing they adopt as to aurally accentuate certain features

Theatre

  • Metatheatricality
    • Direct engagement with the audience works best in forms such as theatre due to the immediate presence of the audience in front of the stage
  • Stage effects
  • Staging and set design
    • What directions does the playwright give in the script? Why do they add these details (or, conversely, choose to leave it vague enough for the production’s director/actors to interpret it themselves)?

Speeches

  • Rhetorical questioning
    • Similar to theatre, live speeches are often given in the immediate presence of an audience, meaning good speeches must be able to directly engage with the responder
  • Anecdotes

Genre

  • Romance
  • Tragedy
  • Black humour
  • Absurdism
  • Dystopian fiction
  • Historical monograph

Contextual movements

  • Modernism
  • Feminist
  • Regency era

It is not enough to simply state these aspects of the text’s form. Depending on the texts you are studying, analyse its genre and context and understand how every sequence of the work is a deliberate choice made to contribute to these features (or, perhaps, challenge or pioneer them). Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as deliberate choices made in order to most effectively tell the story they needed to tell in the text—they aid composers in exploring human experiences as a medium through which they can communicate with the responder.

Anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies

  • Potential question: Explore how texts illuminate the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations.”

To expand on the previous rubric statement, perhaps one of the defining qualities or features of humanity is that we simply cannot be confined it a single label. Even in situations where we are expected to react a certain way, people will always surprise us by doing the opposite. It is this notion of the inherent conflict between people, cultures and even within ourselves, that the idea of “anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistences” arises from.

Consider how the following and its examples may be of relevance to your text:

  • Harbouring conflicted emotions about a situation
    • Feeling bittersweet about the sadness of losing an old life/self but hope towards the chance of a new start
  • Failed expectations
    • Inability of family members or people in authority to act in the protagonists’ interest
  • The human experience itself being a constant, tumultuous fusion of beauty, grief, excitement and mundanity
  • Clashing ideologies
    • Communism vs. capitalism during the Cold War
    • Atheism vs Christianity
  • The act of lying and deceit
  • How we change and progress as individuals and as a society, hence becoming “inconsistent”

If we return to the initial, proposed question of “how texts shape the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human,” any of the above points mentioned (or one you have thought of yourself) would be appropriate to use in your responses. You must make clear the fundamental thesis that our behaviour is often erratic because of our intrinsic chaotic nature—that is largely what it means to be human, and by representing this in such evocative ways, the texts you encounter in this module (and any text, really) allows us to more deeply understand that.

Challenging assumptions

  • Potential question: The most important texts are ones that invite the responder to see the world differently. To what extent is this true of your prescribed text and one text of your own choosing?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students explore how texts [invite] the reader to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.”

Think of what aspects of the text have forced you to reflect personally on your life and experience. Which parts of it surprised you the most? What made you think about, say, certain political stances or the nature of familial relationships differently?

These are the inferred questions that the rubric and the HSC examination questions are ultimately asking you. As a student, it is your responsibility to explain precisely what it is that makes the text special and unique, differentiating it from other works of similar genres or styles. Perhaps, there is a rebellious character that brings valuable insight about new social or political perspectives, or a world created by the composer that relies on fantasy, magic and surrealism as a means to illustrate the human experience differently.

Do not be afraid to deconstruct this part of the syllabus beyond the narrative and in-universe themes of the text. It is also important to consider these works of art in the larger fabric of texts—this means discussing how the composers are being innovative through form and overall message. If they are considered a pioneer of a certain style or genre of prose, poetry or cinematography, they are, in many ways, challenging responder’s perceptions about the precepts of art. Above all, you should understand that challenging readers’ assumptions is a fundamental purpose of all texts, as part of the human experience deals with our ability to be challenged in order to grow.

The role of storytelling in reflecting lives and cultures

  • Potential question: How do texts reflect particular lives and cultures, and what does this tell us about the relationship between storytelling and humans? In your response, make close reference to your prescribed text and one other related text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.”

Here’s a question anyone should be able to contribute some sort of answer to—why do you love reading, watching a film or a television show, viewing a painting, listening to music?

Perhaps, the most obvious answer would be that it is entertaining and enjoyable, and, indeed, it is a perfectly acceptable one. Sometimes, the role of storytelling is simply to allow the audience to move beyond the confines of reality or the limitations placed on them by society and experience a whole other world with interesting, quirky characters and stories. Viewing a text, specifically one in the genre of comedy, can certainly make us laugh and feel good about life for a few, precious moments. Alternatively, it can be incredibly cathartic to experience a text that deals with issues of grief, loneliness, sadness and loss as a way to process our own emotions.

Hence, the role of storytelling in our lives is not simply to entertain us, but to help us understand our struggles by creating worlds and characters that are awfully relatable. By seeing a similar plight being artfully illustrated in a short story or a musical, we consequently feel less isolated in our troubles. Composers may even choose to portray these negative aspects of the human experience in a broader way by making social commentary on contextual concerns about the changing political or social climate. Consider a text like Nineteen-Eighty Four, which was hailed for its ability to capture the zeitgeist of the era—a society of people fearing the loss of all freedom from totalitarian governments all whilst seemingly and actively participating events that could catalyse this occurrence. Consider a play like The Crucible, which made sense of the ever-growing paranoia bred by the McCarthy-led Red Scare by recontextualising it in a different historical era. In a sense, these concerns become easier to cope with—or, at the very least, easier to understand—because of our relationship to art and storytelling.

One possible answer you may have given to the question of the role of storytelling is its ability to reflect certain cultures or experiences. This is a direct point made by the rubric, and an extremely important one at that. Texts are always a product of their time and of the composer’s contexts and by, say, reading a novel written by a person living in Zimbabwe, responders inevitably feel a greater sense of connection or understanding to that particular culture. It is important to note that, while not every experience in every text has to be immediately relatable to the audience—in fact, texts that present unique, rare situations in a realistic way can often be even more engaging—it is the fundamental themes or principles that allow the composer to relate to the responder nonetheless. In this way, the role of storytelling is both to reflect certain cultures and unite all of us by showing how humanity at its core can find harmony with one another despite our varied experiences.

Above all, and perhaps this is truly the point of the module, the role of storytelling is to help responders understand what it really means to be human. To take pain, happiness, sorrow or surprising experiences and turn it into a piece of art that can be shared endlessly, effectively immortalising the composer’s name in a way that defies our physical limitations. We are opened to new perspectives, are told stories that may resonate with us due to our personal memories and see the vast and colourful diversity of experiences that people have to offer.

Whatever your answer is, it is very clear that storytelling does play a major, if not integral, role to the human experience. Many say, without art, there would be no point to existence. Hence, it is imperative that you consider how your text has affected you or may have affected others in your essay.

Writing a Texts and Human Experiences essay

What to expect from Paper 1

Now that you have familiarised yourself with precisely what NESA is asking of you in this module, you should begin to understand what you should expect from Paper 1. The following is a summary of key points you should know long before going in to the exam:

  • Paper 1 consists of two sections
    • Section 1 – unseen texts/short answer
    • Section 2 – essay
  • It will be 1 hour and 30 minutes of writing time, with an additional 10 minutes reading time (you will not be able to mark your page in any way during this time)
    • This means you should be devoting approximately 45 minutes to each section. While you don’t have to evenly divide time between the two parts, we recommend that you stick to this guideline as much as possible
  • Both parts are out of 20 marks each
  • You must only write in blue or black pen

Section 1, your short answer section, consists of approximately 4 – 5 unseen texts (this varies every year, and may even be less than 4 or more than 5) that you must read in the 10 minutes reading time you are given and respond to the related questions given. These texts are most often fiction/non-fiction extracts, poems and an artwork. However, you must familiarise yourself with all types of texts, as the exam can (and has!) ask you to analyse website extracts, songs and other types of media. Every question will ask you how the text depicts different aspects of the human experience, though some questions may combine two texts or ask you to compare between texts, and will be weighted differently. There will be a maximum of 7 marks allocated to the question.

Section 2 is much more straightforward in that you are given one question only and are expected to write a full essay with an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The question will draw from any aspect of the Texts and Human Experiences rubric (including specifying form!), though it may sometimes include quotes and extracts or rewrite statements from the rubric in a different way. You must come prepared having studied your prescribed text and at least one related text.

Constructing an essay

In any English essay, the following structure should generally be followed.

  • Introduction: 6 sentences maximum, approximately 150 words
    • General statement about the module (e.g. “Intrinsic to the human condition is our desire to share such experiences through art and literature.”)
    • Thesis statement that defines key terms of the question and makes a judgement on the question asked
    • Introduction of texts
      • Title, composer, date of publication and form
    • Conclude using an evaluative adverb to demonstrate you will develop an evaluative response
  • 3 – 4 body paragraphs: 200 – 250 words
    • Topic sentence: explicitly reference language from the question, restate your thesis in terms of your theme
    • Context/elaborate sentence(s): emphasise more specifically what you mean by the topic sentence, especially in terms of what happens in the text. Two sentences maximum
    • Analysis: using evidence to support your topic and elaboration sentences—there must be a direct link or progression of logic made between the analysis and the argument. Deconstruct approximately two quotes, but ensure that you are focused on quality over quantity
    • Concluding sentence: use an evaluative adverb such as purposefully, cleverly, insightfully (e.g. Significantly, both texts project the necessity of … ) in order to assess the question and your argument as a whole
  • Conclusion
    • Re-address main ideas/topic sentences of body paragraphs
    • Make an overall judgement about the texts in terms of the question
    • Optional: finish with an insightful afterthought about the role of texts in the human experience

Of course, this is only a general guide to writing a sound essay. As frustrating as it can be to hear, there is simply no single scaffold you can follow to impress a marker, as each module will have different requirements, every student’s writing style will differ, and markers will have different tastes.

The most important advice to keep in mind when writing an essay is to have a strong thesis.Learn to define the question in your own terms
—this is what your thesis is, not simply a restatement of the question. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text. If you state this thesis at throughout your body paragraphs (not simply the topic and concluding sentences), your essay will have a strong argument and persuade the marker that you are confident in your case.

This also extends to the short answer section of Paper 1, though your answers will certainly be much more condensed. All questions except for the last (usually 6 – 7 marks) will not require a formal introduction or conclusion. However, the point still stands that you must make extremely clear how you interpret the question asked and, hence, why your answer is legitimate.

Conclusion

The Texts and Human Experiences module can certainly seem extremely overwhelming at times. There are as many aspects of the rubric to familiarise yourself with as there are experiences in life itself—that is, after all, the overarching purpose of this module. It seeks to encourage you to understand precisely why humans have such a strong connection to storytelling and art, and how, in turn, it helps us to comprehend our desires, motivations, shortcomings and beauty in big or small moments.

Final tips

  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • Themes and rubric statements can and do mix. For example, the rubric notions of “challenging assumptions” and “paradoxes” often intertwine. This is because texts are not produced against and life is not experienced through such distinct lines or categories. They are only here to provide basic structure to your essay so that you and the marker can better understand the point you are trying to make
  • Try to incorporate all of the above information and ideas into how you argue your related text—it does make up half of your essay, after all, and markers will notice when the quality of your analysis of one text is substantially worse than the other
    • It is also ideal to choose your related text based on how applicable they are to the rubric statements above, as you should always consider how diversely it can be used in an unseen question situation
    • Refrain from choosing a related text that is the same form as your prescribed text, just to show the marker that you have a versatile understanding of Texts and Human Experiences
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the texts could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts and human experiences
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