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.

10 Responses to “Don’t tell me what I can’t do”

  1. 1 Tara

    hi jason,

    i suspect this may be in response to my plenary presentation today at Console-ing Passions. first, please know that i believe anyone can do whatever work they feel moved to do. second, i don’t think the twitter stream accurately captured what i (at least intended) to say today. it wasn’t “dont’ study lost. of tv. or narrative.” but, instead, “electronic/digital media also requires a study of codes/systems/networks and that i fear that our academic silos replay the modularity that code embraces.” it was a polemic and it was meant to do a particular work in a particular zone. that said, i still write about tv and narrative. in print even. but i meant to suggest that our collective endeavors must necessarily be broader and that we must engage the materiality of digital machines. i consider you a fellow traveler there. witness this space. happy to talk more.

  2. Tara is correct. Her argument was under-represented on Twitter, which really irked me personally. Having sympathies with ludology, Tara, I would like to see a hybrid method of analysis for certain new media “texts” that engage in the the code/design/structure but also take into account the representation present.

    I really enjoyed Tara’s talk, but I felt few engaged with it critically and even fewer probably really understood the first half of her argument. Perhaps they did, and that’s why it was not discussed. If that’s the case, I am alone in my fascination with the argument as a whole. Tara, I would love to have a discussion before Console-ing Passions wraps up.

  3. Tara – ’tis true that the Twit-coverage of your talk was a catalyst to post, but like I said this is a refrain that I’ve heard a number of times recently. I’d love to see/hear/read the whole talk, as I can’t imagine that you would simply be saying “Don’t study Lost.” And the earlier tweets about digital scholarship and the need for senior colleagues to lead innovation certainly echoes with my own interests and sympathies.

    But I do think the way that the Twitosphere (which is a tiny sample size) echoed that one comment positively & negatively is important. As we well know, once a bit of communication is expressed, it takes on its own cultural life – clearly that line resonated with some and irked others (near & far!), and alas it has been demarcated as the 140 character takeaway from the talk. I hope you leverage other ways to publish your polemic in longer form, as I’d love to engage more in depth with the main idea.

    And I wish we could be having this conversation over a beer in Eugene! Enjoy the rest of the conference…

  4. 4 Tara

    Hi Jason,

    The talk was not even about TV but about the early histories of computer code and the degree to which those histories now overdetermine the very structures of our academic departments making it hard to do interdisciplinary work and non-traditional scholarship. It was meant to circulate as a challenge at CP — a challenge to expand our critical toolboxes at the moment that we most need. That a random line from Q + A (tweeted w/o context, as is the nature of twitter) has so taken up its own life seems to suggest that my comments about our academic silos are pretty accurate.

    I think the following heavily tweeted line might be a more accurate refraction of the talk:
    “We black box our scholarly engagement in narrow silos. We must break out of field shaped boxes.”

    At any rate, glad the talk simulated some conversation. Hope to have that beer together soon!

    • Tara – the decontextualization of Twitter is key. Not realizing that the comment about Lost and textual analysis with part of Q&A, it seemed like a hairpin turn within the talk from afar! Makes much more sense as a conversational fragment, not a thesis statement…

  5. 6 Joel Burges

    Hi Jason, This is crazy–absolutely wack! I’ve been teaching a fiction across media course this term–actually, in which students really took to two of your articles such that your terms ended up finding their way into discussions and essays–and the whole concept of fiction got opened up so much by looking at it as a transmedia phenomenon, including watching the entire first season of Deadwood. While Tara’s observations seem to a different and better order of things, the notion that we ought not to play with TV or particular shows in our classes and writing–both of them domains of scholarly productivity–is not only fallacious, but a call for our own obsolescence as well. I’ve been very struck by how much the transmedia dimension of my current class has enlivened students, tapping into their knowledge in a way that dovetails with the humanities very, very well. So I say keep on keepin’ on. Joel

  6. I’d like to add a hearty “hear, hear” to your post, Jason.

    The scholars I admire the most are the ones that can advance their own work without feeling the need to tear down others.

    As you may have seen in my recent SCMSTV post, I’m working on a chapter surveying TV studies currently and I’ve been ruminating on whether such a survey needs to begin by stating, “Well… TV critical studies is different from that nasty ol’ numerically based mass-comm research of television and here’s how.” 25 years ago I might have felt the need to attack MC research as a way to establish critical studies, but TV studies has evolved to the point that it can hold its own now. It need not be defined as counter-to-MC studies.

    Plus, as you well know, much of the empirical basis of MC research has blended with critical studies in various ethnographic approaches. The distinctions between the two approaches are no longer as sharp as they seemed to be in the mid-1980s.

    Now, I personally don’t feel impelled to do ethnographic fieldwork, but I certainly wouldn’t disparage those who do. There’s room for everyone under the TV studies umbrella.

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  3. 3 Legitimating Television: An Unofficial Book Review « Just TV

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