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How are cultures produced and encountered, and why does it matter? These questions are examined in this module through the key themes of place, power, literary ‘classics’, and journeys. You'll learn about contemporary cultures and relationships between cultures throughout history, discover how and why cultural identities emerge, and explore how they are expressed using texts, images and objects. After exploring a range of case studies from classical studies, art history, English literature, and creative writing, you'll investigate these themes with specific reference to your choice of one of these subject areas.

What you will study

This module asks two key questions:

  • How are cultures produced and encountered?
  • Why do cultures matter?

You'll be encouraged to think about how the ideas, behaviours, and customs of diverse groups of people, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary world, have emerged, been shared, and might continue to be meaningfully encountered today. More specifically, it invites you to investigate the role played by texts, images and objects in these different cultures, discovering what these can tell us about the shared ideas or identities of particular communities and historical groups.

Your study of cultures will be structured around four key themes: Place, Power, Literary classics, and Journeys. Over the course of the module, you'll learn about:

Placing ancient cultures  Why do places matter to cultures?
In this first block, you'll learn about three places of central importance for ancient cultures: Athens, Rome, and Delphi. Studying the evidence for these very different ancient places will reveal what was important to the people of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as why these places continued to have cultural relevance in later centuries. You will also explore examples of art and literature which show how later visitors were inspired by ancient places, including people who encountered them as part of The Grand Tour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Art and power  Why do certain works of art demand our attention through the centuries?
In this block, you'll analyse portraits of Elizabeth I and Beyoncé, ambassadors and emperors, from Renaissance Italy to the Mughal Empire in India in order to answer questions about how works of art have been used to represent power as well as to challenge it. What techniques have artists used to show individual, political or dynastic power? You’ll also explore how country houses, from Hardwick Hall to the ‘real’ Downton Abbey, were designed to represent power in the past and in today’s world. You'll find out how artists such as Goya and Picasso drew on satire and propaganda to mobilise their art against war and against fascism, challenging power. Finally, you’ll discover how character portraits can be brought to life by ancient rulers, in literature, and through the practice of creative writing.

Literary classics  What is at stake when we label something as ‘a classic’?
In this block, you'll learn how to analyse two texts which began as ‘popular’ works but which have come to be regarded as ‘classics’ of English literature: Twelfth Night, a Renaissance comedy by William Shakespeare, and Jane Eyre, a nineteenth-century novel by Charlotte Brontë. You'll be introduced to the idea that although these texts are deeply rooted within the cultural contexts in which they were written, they still have much to say to us today. You'll also find out why both works are considered to be classics before investigating how a similar status might be achieved for works in the context of classical studies (Virgil’s Aeneid) and art history (the Mona Lisa) and how the classics of the future are produced by contemporary creative writers.

Cultural journeys – How do cultural encounters affect the creative process of writing?
This block will invite you to participate in the creation of cultural forms by introducing you to some of the principal skills of creative writing, including how to read as a writer and the essentials of structure, character construction, language, and setting. You will explore how writing involves a journey of discovery, as well as how contemporary writers have used their experiences of real-life journeys to evoke a sense of place and to write about home. The question of what happens when people and ideas travel and inevitably encounter one another is also relevant to other subject areas, so you will have the chance to examine what the cultural impacts of this might be for cultural identities, the visual arts, and texts from the ancient and contemporary world.

Investigating cultures
The final block is dedicated to studying cultures with reference to your own choice of one of the module’s four subject areas: art history, classical studies, creative writing, or English literature. You'll explore in greater depth the sort of material that is of particular interest to you and further develop the skills to support your future study plans. You'll be closely supported as you develop your ability to study the arts and humanities with greater independence and to exercise some personal choice. 

Entry requirements

OU level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning to help you progress to modules at OU level 2. This module builds on the skills and understanding of relevant arts and humanities subjects developed through the study of Discovering the arts and humanities (A111). We strongly advise you to take A111 first unless you have already completed The arts past and present (AA100), now discontinued.

Successful completion of this module will equip you for more specialised OU level 2 arts and humanities modules. This module focuses on the subject areas of Art History, Classical Studies, Creative Writing, and English Literature and may therefore be of particular relevance if you intend to study any of these subjects at OU level 2 or beyond.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

The module is presented through a blend of printed and online material. You’ll be provided with two printed module books and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video recordings
  • interactive content
  • an assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Bronte, C.: Smith, M. (ed.) Jane Eyre Oxford World's Classics £5.99 - ISBN 9780198804970
  • Shakespeare, W.: Warren, R. & Wells, S. (eds) Twelfth Night: The Oxford Shakespeare Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199536092
  • Dickens, C.: Cardwell, M. (ed.) Great Expectations * Oxford World's Classics £5.99 - ISBN 9780199219766 This book is one of two options for students who choose to study the English Literature option EMA.
  • Shakespeare, W.: Holland, P. (ed.) A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Oxford Shakespeare * Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199535866 This book is one of two options for students who choose to study the English Literature option EMA.

Note: All students should purchase 'Jane Eyre' and 'Twelfth Night: The Oxford Shakespeare'. Students only need to purchase one of the two books marked with an * if they choose to study the English Literature option EMA.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study materials and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. Your tutor will also support you with the independent study aspects of the module. Tuition will take place through tutorials and forums. Your tutor will also keep in contact by phone.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A112 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Cultures starts twice a year – in February and October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 and February 2025. We expect it to start for the last time in February 2028.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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