Don’t tell me what I can’t do
At one of the many preschools that my children have attended, there’s a sign that serves as one of the key rules: “You can’t say that you can’t play.” At its core is the basic message that if somebody wants to join in, you’ve got to let them.
As you climb the educational ladder, this motto becomes more and more irrelevant – and in fact, being “highly selective” (and thus telling lots of people they can’t play) becomes an asset for colleges, for graduate programs, and for academic journals. There is a lot of value created through exclusion, and I understand that one of the chief functions of the academic apparatus is to create norms and review scholarship to ensure that it meets those standards – having your work judged and criticized (probably unfairly) is an inevitable part of the academic scene.
However, lately I’ve noticed a type of scholarly discourse that irks me and upsets my inner preschooler quite a bit – and thus prompts this bit of a rant. This spring I’ve either been at, or seen reported on Twitter and blogs, at least four presentations from scholars whom I quite respect that, at least in part, share a common message: “scholars shouldn’t be studying X.” This negative form of academic argument always turns me off – it’s much easier to poke holes in people’s work rather than offer something else in its stead. The few times I have written pieces that specifically argue against other scholarship, as with my work on genre theory or pieces about evaluative criticism, I try to follow up these critiques with an alternative model of my own. Maybe I’ve embraced another child-oriented mantra – always model good behavior – but I have little patience for scholars smacking each other down.
These recent examples have bothered me, not surprisingly, by hitting close to home. While none have directly called me out by name, their shared object of critique is the textual study of “narratively complex” primetime “quality television” programs like Lost and The Wire. While I don’t want to caricature all of these critiques, from what I’ve gathered, here are the basic arguments against the type of analysis that I’ve been focused on for the past few years:
- “These fringe programs are not watched by the majority of viewers.”
- “Paying attention to these programs distracts us from studying other more important things.”
- “Focusing on television texts and narrative neglects other aspects of television.”
- “These programs are just not that good or interesting.”
Any of these counter-arguments might be true (well, not the last one concerning The Wire!). And I respect the right of any scholar to say that a certain type or object of scholarship doesn’t interest them – there’s a lot of media scholarship that I find uninteresting and rarely read (but I don’t advertise those tastes). But do we really think there’s only room for one method and object of scholarship? Is any type of work so hegemonic that it crowds out every other approach and topic? If so, I don’t think it’s textual analysis of serial television, as I haven’t seen enough written to feel like the norm for the field.
There is an almost infinite amount of television to write about, especially in a global context. Television is a multi-faceted field that allows people to study industries, texts, audiences, technologies, regulations, historical movements, cultural discourses, and any potential intersection between these and other elements. If you dislike a trend in the field, don’t follow it and chart your own course. When I started writing about television narrative, it was because I noticed something that seemed significant that nobody had really addressed. I didn’t start by condemning all who hadn’t addressed it, but rather tried to model the type of scholarship that I thought would help advance the field.
Scholarship should be selective, hopefully primarily on the grounds of quality of execution, rather than just because it fits or breaks with trends. But we shouldn’t prescribe what should be fair game for future study, unless its through a clear argument against the validity of a particular approach or method, not just concerns that it’s not the most interesting topic. The majority of scholarship on any subject won’t be very good, but I don’t think such poor quality is generally because a topic or approach is so inherently flawed as to be deemed off-limits – it usually just takes stronger execution and argumentation. And if the work on a topic seems flawed, write something better that makes people reconsider an approach or topic, rather than just griping about the flaws in other work.
Ultimately I simply don’t see the benefit of saying it’s not okay to play. Model good behavior, and demonstrate how the field can better fit the ideals of scholarship you see lacking in other work. I end my rant with John Locke’s tagline, and my only prescription for scholarly discourse – make whatever arguments you want to make, but don’t tell me what I (or anyone else) can’t do.
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies | 10 Comments