The semester is done, and it’s a time of news & transitions. As this blog serves as a kind of public professional archive, I should mention that a couple of weeks ago, I officially was promoted to full professor, making my new title Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies. At Middlebury, the gap between Associate & Full is less significant than many other institutions, so it doesn’t quite feel momentous (and certainly far less pivotal than my promotion from Assistant to Associate) – but still it’s a very nice thing.
Even more tangibly, the final push is underway for the publication of How to Watch Television, the book Ethan Thompson & I co-edited, as we sent off the revised proofs & index yesterday. You can view the fabulous table of contents, pre-order the book on Amazon, and if you’re an instructor thinking about assigning it, preview the whole book online. More to come as the September publication date approaches.
One year ago, my family and I were wrapping up our final month of our year in Germany. Now we are preparing for a trip back starting Monday, combining business & pleasure to return to Germany and Holland for most of June. I will be giving four presentations this month, so if you happen to be in the region, perhaps I’ll see you there. First, I’m keynoting the Popular Seriality conference in my old Göttingen haunts on Thursday 6 June – the title of the lecture is “The Ends of Serial Criticism” and it will be wandering around the conclusion of Complex TV, which should be posted within the next month.
We then head to Berlin, where I’ll be giving a lecture on 12 June at 4pm, about transmedia storytelling & television paratexts at the JFK Institute (alas I don’t have a room number and cannot find an online reference to the talk). Then I’ll be attending the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image in Berlin, where I’ll be talking about narrative comprehension & serial television on Friday 14 June. Finally, after a brief beach vacation on the North Sea, we’ll go to Amsterdam, where I’ll be giving a talk about the core arguments in Complex TV on Friday 21 June.
And then the transition that feels most liberating: when I return to Middlebury in July, I’ll no longer be department chair. While I’m happy with what our department accomplished in the four years I was chair, I’m also ready to not be “nibbled to death by ducks.” I look forward to discovering what I’ll find to feel the free time after two books and department chairdom are taken off my schedule.
Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Media Studies, Middlebury, Sabbatical | 1 Comment
For those readers who have been following my book-in-progress Complex TV, you may have noticed a lengthy hiatus since I last posted a chapter. Not coincidentally, the last chapter I posted was in August 2012, shortly before returning to the classroom after my sabbatical. Since then, my writing process has stalled considerably, in large part due to the demands of teaching, serving as department chair, being back in the U.S. as a homeowner, etc. – not to mention my work on another book, How to Watch Television, which is due to be published in late-August (more on that soon!). But my writing problems were not just about time and focus, as I had two chapters left to write that were causing some issues.
One of those chapters is on Endings, and I wanted to leave that for last for both poetic and strategic reasons. The other one, which I’ve been struggling with for months, was the Genre chapter. In part this was due to my ambivalence of returning to the scene of my first book, Genre & Television, as I feel I’ve said most of what I need to say about television genre. But more than other chapters, I’ve had a difficult time structuring my arguments that I did want to make, so I’ve done a lot of starting and stopping in drafting this chapter. I also decided to cut the History chapter during this starting & stopping, incorporating some of that material in this chapter and recognizing that a history of television storytelling was far beyond the scope of a feasible chapter.
Although this delay was frustrating to me (and my publisher), it turns out to have been worthwhile. Since the time when I’d hoped to be done with the chapter, I’ve read a few new pieces of scholarship (both published and forthcoming) that allowed me to rethink much of what I wanted to say, especially Linda Williams’s work on The Wire and melodrama. Inspired by that work, I’ve changed both the name and focus of the chapter to be specifically about Serial Melodrama rather than Genre more broadly. I feel the resulting shift has led to a more coherent and appropriate addition to the book, and I must thank my colleague & friend Louisa Stein for her frank feedback on an earlier draft – but you can read it and be the judge!
Here’s the (revised) abstract that will be in the book’s introduction:
One of the central narrative drives found within complex television is serial melodrama. This chapter explores the role of melodrama within contemporary serial narratives, starting with the soap opera’s debatable connection this mode of storytelling. By separating out the narrative norms of soap operas from the emotional appeals of melodrama, I argue that soap’s storytelling form is less vital to primetime serials than the discursive history that has linked seriality to the soap genre for decades. Instead, I consider how the emotional responses triggered by serial melodrama help forge the mixed-gender appeal of narratively complex series, with programs like Lost, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, and The Wire playing with such conventions to complicate well-established assumptions about genre categories and their gendered appeals.
Some of these bits are recycled & adapted from blog posts, including two pieces on soap operas, and my discussion of Skyler White. And I have made the decision to leave the previous versions of chapters up on MediaCommons Press, even though they are now out-of-date (in referencing this as the Genre chapter rather than Serial Melodrama), figuring that an archive of the highly-contingent writing process might be of interest to some readers.
As always, feel free to leave comments on this chapter, or any of the others that you may not have gotten a chance to read yet. I hope the hiatus to the next chapter will be much shorter, and I’ll be poised to submit a revised manuscript to NYU Press later this summer!
Thanks in advance for comments!
Filed under: Complex TV, Genre, MediaCommons, Narrative, Representations, Television, TV History, TV Shows | 3 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, friday night lights, Lost, melodrama, soap opera, the good wife, The Wire, Veronica Mars
Wednesday was one of the more interesting days on Twitter I’ve ever seen, from the snarking about the new Pope (same as the old Pope), to the anger over Google mothballing Reader, to the more local disappointment of Wes Welker signing with the Broncos. But nothing generated more interest, excitement, and conversation amongst the TVitterati in my feed than the Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars movie, which you’ve probably heard raised its goal of $2 million in 12 hours, and now stands at $3.3 million and more than 50,ooo backers (and counting). The tweeting turned into blogging, with pieces that celebrated the phenomenon and its success – my favorites being James Poniewozik’s early piece and Willa Paskin’s defense against the backlash – analyzed the finances of 50k reward packages, and critiqued Kickstarting a global media conglomerate. (And as always, News for TV Majors has curated a great selection of links.)
At first, I thought I didn’t have much more to say beyond what I said in my initial tweets: “I don’t see the downside of using Kickstarter for major studio projects. It helps support Kickstarter, which should help indies as well. As for fans as funders, we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” I still hold to that basic sentiment, which resonates with this great interview with VM creator Rob Thomas:
The nice thing is that we never wanted to be perceived as a charity. We always imagined that we’re putting up a Kickstarter page, and we’re selling real product at real prices to fans. It’s not like a pledge drive where you pledge 100 dollars and get a 4 dollar tote bag, where it’s done out of the goodness of your heart, and for charity. We wanted to created packages where people look at what they’re getting and think, ‘Wow, I got a script and a digital download and a t-shirt for $35. I would pay that!’ So all those people worrying that we’re asking for this money to make our movie, we’re selling you a product. Think of us as a store, not a charity.
Now I do understand that it gets slippery to use the same site as a “store” for a mass market project like Veronica Mars and a “charity” (or at least non-equity support) for fringe or special-interest projects that would struggle to raise 1/1000 of Thomas’s campaign, and there is a danger of co-opting the site for major projects. But I think there’s greater upside in thinking that many of those 50,000 supporters are new to Kickstarter, and might discover other, more indy projects on the site that interest them as well. Certainly my own experiences with Kickstarter include both established filmmakers (backing Hal Hartley’s newest project Meanwhile) and up-and-comers (like a documentary on the Wisconsin Uprising or my former student’s first feature Manchild), and I feel happy to have both types of project co-existing via the platform.
What inspired me to write this post was remembering the first thing I ever wrote about Veronica Mars – not my analysis of its perfect pilot, but a piece for Flow in 2005 called “Exchanges of Value.” That article was about my experience of watching the first season via BitTorrent, and how such illicit consumption arguably added more value to the franchise than the more conventional way I watched the next two seasons (recorded on my TiVo, skipping ads, and not counting in any metric of viewership). The Flow piece is a snapshot of its time when the industry was just experimenting with monetizing digital downloads (I note at the end that Apple just released a video iPod!), but it also calls attention to an unusual fact: despite being a big fan of the show and calling it one of the last decade’s best series, I have never spent any of my own money on Veronica Mars. I have generated income for the series indirectly: ordering the DVDs for our college library, and regularly teaching the pilot, which inspires many students to keep viewing the series on Netflix or other sources.
So the $50 I spent on Wednesday to get a copy of the film’s script, a digital download in release week, a DVD, and a T-shirt (what a bargain!) was the first time I actually spent money on one of my favorite media texts. So while on the one hand I was pre-buying access to the film, I was also finally paying for the many hours of pleasure that Veronica Mars has given me. This type of serial investment is hard to quantify, as I could have certainly continued to not pay for my enjoyment of the series (and clearly my investment was not what triggered the film’s greenlight), but I felt moved to buy a stake in its continuation in large part because I felt I owed the series something for that past pleasure.
And I am also buying a stake in another form of serial pleasure: “a ticket to the ride” that is Kickstarter, in the words of Ian Bogost:
We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.
For $50, I’m not only getting all that merchandise, I’m also getting regular emails from Rob Thomas updating me on the project, and a badge of honor for being a member of a growing tribe of supporters. I may have no equity stake in the project, but I do have an emotional one (which is arguably worth more than what my meager funds could purchase in profit sharing). So while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.
Filed under: Fandom, Film, Film Industry, New Media, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows, Viewers | 8 Comments
Tags: Kickstarter, Veronica Mars
I’m spending the next few days in Chicago at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, the annual gathering of scholars that I rarely miss (save for last year’s European stay). Below the fold is the paper I’m presenting Thursday on a panel about the state of television studies as a field – it’s a different type of presentation for me (more graphs!), but hopefully it’s useful.
First though, I want to link to a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about open access, MOOCs, and the like that is probably more broadly of interest. Read on if you’re interested in the inside-baseball arguments of television studies, or want to see a humanist playing around with numbers.
Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Media Studies, Publishing | Leave a Comment
In my 18 years in academia, I’ve never been to the MLA convention – until now. For those who don’t know, the Modern Language Association is the largest humanities organization, and their annual convention is an iconic event, known as a massive academic job meat market and an object of mockery in the press for dense theoretical jargon. For me, it’s never been a place I’ve felt a desire to attend, as the study of television is far from a concern for most literary and language scholars, but I’ve been drawn here this year because of the rise of Digital Humanities within the MLA and my recent connection with a number of DH-minded folks from Twitter (plus it’s in Boston, so an easy drive down).
So I’m presenting a paper here (on the conference’s only panel dealing with television) that I’m sharing for feedback – I hope to expand and publish the essay, so please offer thoughts on where I might extend the ideas. [Update: the revised essay has been published in Cinephile, available for your perusal.] The title explains the topic – the argument unfolds beneath the fold.
“Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive.”
Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Film, Narrative, Not Quite TV, Television | 4 Comments
Tags: David Lynch, MLA, MLA13, Mulholland Drive, seriality
Like most people I know, I’m sad, angry, and numb in reaction to the massacre of children and their teachers on Friday. While I feel helpless to affect change in a meaningful way, I do what I can via the small contributions to organizations like the Sandy Hook School Support Fund and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and writing letters to my Federal and State representatives arguing for increased gun control and funding for mental health initiatives. I keep reading as much as I can bear about the events and analyses of what might be done, sharing particularly good pieces (such as this post from my friend Michael Kackman about gun culture and the gun lobby).
I have no personal expertise in understanding gun violence, trauma, or mental illness, but I do hopefully have something to offer as the blame game shifts around to question the media’s role in our overly violent country. Personally, I have little tolerance for the way our television news media covers such tragedies, as they fill the 24-hour cycle with unfounded speculation, ill-informed opinions, and most of all undiluted emotional manipulation. But my own distaste is not the same as claiming that a key cause of such inexplicable violence is to be found in the media’s coverage of shootings (as was inexplicably misattributed to Morgan Freeman in a widely-circulated Facebook post), or in media violence more broadly. I do believe that as media citizens, we should ask ourselves what type of violence we want to see on our screens, and that families should make informed, conscious choices for their children. But blaming the media for violence like the Newtown massacre is simply wrong.
There may be some correlation between violent behavior and particular media consumption practices, and in some instances, violent media might be a contributing factor to inspire particular violent actions, but such linkages are so much lower than other factors (like poverty, drug/alcohol use, patterns of physical & emotional abuse, and access to weapons) that suggestions to curb violence by changing media are simply an impractical, ineffectual distraction. If violent media were such a major cause of violent behavior, then Japan, whose media are as violent as or more than ours, would likely match or exceed America’s violent crime rates, rather than trailing the U.S. by a huge gap in nearly every category. If violent media were the triggers that caused such violent outbursts, then millions of viewers & gamers would be committing daily acts of murder. This holds true for all media, including videogames that take the brunt of the blame today.
I have not done primary scholarship on the topic of media violence, but as part of my textbook, Television & American Culture, I reviewed the literature and tried to offer a measured account of how scholars tackle these issues. I’ve decided to share that portion of the book here to hopefully offer a bit of clarity to such conversations that often embrace broad generalizations and sweeping claims. In the name of instructors using the book being able to emphasize their own perspectives, I probably cut the media effects tradition a little more slack than it deserves – for a much more pointed takedown, see David Gauntlett’s work. If you’ve studied media studies, there’s probably little new here (and it was written four years ago, so there might be some updated scholarship that I haven’t taken account of), but if you see someone spouting off on how the media is to blame – especially if they are quoting Morgan Freeman – send them here for a little lesson in Media Studies 101.
Filed under: Academia, Media Politics, Media Studies, Television, TV Textbook, Videogames, Viewers | 12 Comments
Tags: cultural studies, media effects, media violence, violence
My favorite show currently airing is Homeland, which I have found far less problematic in its second season than many critics seem to. [Note: I’ll be vague & unspoilerly for the first part of this post, clearly marking when I dive into specific plot points at length beneath the fold.] Part of my reaction is because I’ve watched it at the same time as rewatching season 1 as part of the screening for my Television & American Culture course (and as an aside, it’s worked wonderfully for teaching!). Watching the two seasons in parallel creates all sorts of resonances & layers, making it feel more coherent and consistent than many seem to find it, especially concerning the relationship between Carrie & Brody, which I’ll unpack below the spoiler fold.
Last night’s episode seems to be particularly divisive, as some major things happened that set-off many folks’ plausibility meters. I agree with Todd VanDerWerff’s take wholeheartedly that “plausibility” is a red herring for much of serial TV, and if you’ve seen “Broken Hearts,” you should read it now, as it’s a great review/essay. If not, Todd’s essential spoiler-redacted argument is this:
Watching TV for plot is a fool’s game, and it’s just going to end with you being disappointed. But watching TV for long-term character arcs can be very rewarding, particularly if you’re in the hands of writers who keep an eye on the characters in a way that keeps them more or less consistent. It’s all but impossible to blow through plot at the level Homeland does without running out of room…, but it is possible to keep the big character moments coming, and the show has done an excellent job of that this season.
What’s more, I find character stuff more emotionally satisfying, generally. What I admire most about this season of Homeland is the way that it dropped a bombshell… then played out fairly logically how all of the other characters in the show’s orbit would react to that happening…. I’ve more or less bought everything that’s happened since on that level of the characters behaving rationally. That seems to be the modus operandi of this season: Something big and occasionally ridiculous happens, and then the show goes out of its way to examine just how the characters would react to said ridiculous happening. I suspect if you’re someone who watches for plot, primarily, you get stuck on the big thing happening…. But for character watchers, the real meat comes after the inciting incident.
I’m not trying to say watching TV for plot is wrong. It certainly isn’t, and there are certainly shows that have been able to deftly weave rocket-paced plots that nonetheless provide room for character introspection in the moment. But at the same time, every story contains its plausibility concerns, and if you poke at them hard enough (or come at them from the right point-of-view), you’ll find them. (See Film Crit Hulk on this issue.) I certainly find watching TV more rewarding when watched from a character or thematic or emotional or structural basis, but I’m not here to tell you how to watch TV and, instead, to defend mostly enjoying this episode when I see the haters are already out in force for it. But the way I’ve always seen TV is heavily influenced by something our own Scott Tobias said in the wake of XXX on Friday Night Lights: Serialized storytelling is often about throwing ridiculous plot points at already established characters and seeing how they react to them. More and more, I’m convinced the “problem” with this season of Homeland many of you are having has less to do with the ridiculousness of the plot points and more to do with how the show didn’t exactly scale its way up to them but, instead, just jumped right to them.
Truth. (Although, ridiculousness has always been in Homeland‘s DNA, as aptly summed up by James Poniewozik on Twitter: “Man, this show about the brainwashed POW coming home to become a terrorist congressman is suddenly getting totally implausible.”)
So in this light, Homeland‘s chief narrative enigma isn’t about terrorist plots, CIA moles, or political maneuvers. It’s about how do Carrie and Brody really feel about each other. The series’s writers have often said that Homeland‘s magic ingredient is the chemistry between Claire Danes & Damien Lewis, and how it infuses all of the espionage plots with emotional stakes. That emotional depth is what elevates Homeland over 24, and why plot plausibility doesn’t really matter – but emotional character plausibility does.
Which raises the question: were the events of “Broken Hearts” plausible to the characters and storyworld as the program has established them? My answers – and many plot spoilers – beneath the fold.
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 9 Comments
For anyone keeping track, this blog’s hiatus is a sad signal that it’s been a busy couple of months for me re-entering to real life in Vermont, what with teaching, chairing my department, taking care of lots of personal projects, and obsessing over the election. (And thankfully, Super Storm Sandy had little personal impact on us here, and my family & friends seem to be in fine shape.)
I wanted to break blog silence by posting my position paper that I’ll be presenting on Friday at the Flow Conference in Austin. For those who don’t know the unique format of Flow, it’s structured as much more conversational than presentational, with topical roundtables focused on a specific topic and set of questions, and 5-8 participants each contributing to the discussion. We each write short position papers and post them online at the conference website ahead of time, and then engage in vibrant conversation at the conference. The roundtable I’m contributing to is about Teaching TV, and my co-panelists are raising a number of great points around incorporating TV into courses across the humanities, collaborating with industry people in courses, teaching with empathy, and selecting productive screenings. My contribution focuses on the use of textbooks, written from the perspective of a textbook author. It’s posted below – if you’re coming to Flow, I hope to engage the conversation in person, but if not, leave thoughts and comments here and I’ll try to weave them into the discussion Friday morning!
Please Criticize My Textbook
I never set out to write a textbook, as I have generally found the format to be less of a pedagogical aid than an impediment—textbooks typically aim to (over)simplify, focusing on consensus rather than debate, and stripping out the elements of academic inquiry that scholars find most exciting in the name of presenting information in an accessible and easy-to-digest form. That is not how I view teaching, a practice that I believe should strive to excite students through complexities and nuance, debate and dialogue, and working toward discoveries rather than repeating established knowledge. For my annual introductory course, Television & American Culture, I had given up on finding a textbook that would teach up to students rather than teach down to them, that would span across television’s industrial, cultural, and social practices, and that would actually present ideas and arguments rather than just facts and definitions. It was only through a conversation with an editor that I realized that there was a niche to be filled and that other faculty might have use for a book that treats both the topic of television and the genre of textbook differently. I wrote the book with the goal of modeling my pedagogical style, both in approaching television as a multifaceted cultural form, and including academic argument and debate within the often sterile realm of the introductory textbook.
Now that Television & American Culture is written, published, and circulating in some classrooms, I want to reflect a bit on how I see such a book functioning within the television studies course. For me, a successful use of the book can inspire students to push back against its claims and examples, asking “why doesn’t it doesn’t it discuss X?” or “how can Mittell claim Y?” Often, faculty will need to model such pushback, as students are conditioned to treat a textbook as a repository of knowledge to be mined rather than a set of claims to be debated, so I hope that faculty treat the book as a launching pad for conversation, critique, and inquiry, rather than something to be digested and absorbed—which is one reason I have resisted offering exam questions or lecture outlines as supplemental material. When I find syllabi teaching the book, I am gratified when I see the chapters reordered or recontextualized, or paired with another reading that I know will dispute claims I make in the book. One of my most gratifying pedagogical experiences came two years ago, when a student in my course approached me after reading the “Representing Identity” chapter, and asked why I didn’t include a section discussing disability on television. After some initial hemming and hawing about the topic being underrepresented in television studies, and acknowledging that no book could do it all, I finally frankly said it was an issue that I just hadn’t thought much about. I’ve now added it to my to-do list for a revision, and included a reading about Glee’s representations of disability in my syllabus. My student demonstrated that she was getting the deeper lesson I hoped to teach about questioning representations and omissions in a television program by applying that level of inquiry to the textbook—and the textbook’s author—itself.
For those who do use my book, I hope you treat it as a resource to teach both from and against, rather than just something to teach to—by modeling the critical use of a textbook (even if you agree with it), we can help instill an attitude of critical engagement with all sorts of texts and practices as a core tenet of media studies. I hope such an attitude can extend to any assigned textbook, using an inquisitive pedagogical style to model critical engagement toward authoritative sources of knowledge. In the discussion at Flow, I hope we can discuss the various contexts and constraints that might facilitate or limit such critical pedagogy, such as differences in student bodies, teaching loads, departmental curricula, methodological adherences, or
pedagogical freedom—as well as modeling some criticism of teaching with textbooks.
Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Media Studies, Teaching, Television, TV Textbook | 2 Comments
Tags: Flow Conference
Summer is over (even though it remains in the 80s in Vermont this week), which means my sabbatical is completely over. It was a great one, with a wonderful fellowship in Germany, a lot of writing, travel for lectures & conferences, and lots of quality family time. But yesterday, I returned to the Middlebury classroom for the first time in 16 months, officially marking the return to normal professional life (and a reminder of how exhausting a day of teaching can be!).
As I always do, I want to share the syllabi for my classes publicly – the two courses I’m teaching this semester are “classics” from my teaching repertoire. I’ve taught Television & American Culture every one of the 10 years I’ve been at Middlebury (excepting sabbaticals), and it formed the basis for my textbook of the same name. Most of the changes for this time involve updating readings & examples throughout, although for the first time I’m serializing a single season throughout the semester. This is something that many colleagues at Middlebury and elsewhere have tried in other courses to great success, as it builds strong semester throughlines and students hopefully get invested in the series collectively. I’ve never found a series to use for this course, as the range of topics are hard to connect to one fictional program. But this year I’m going with the first season of Homeland, not only because I think it was a great stretch of television, but because it speaks to issues of citizenship, democracy, and television coverage of politics much better than other series I’ve considered using, plus we can talk about the significance of President Obama being a fan when we discuss television consumption!
The other change this semester is that I’m incorporating one of the research projects that I worked on during my sabbatical – together with Ethan Thompson, I coedited a book called How to Watch TV that is forthcoming from NYU Press (hopefully to be released next spring in time for Fall 2013 teaching). I’ll have more to say about the book in future posts & will release some excerpts pre-publication, but the premise is that it offers 40(!) new essays from a great lineup of media scholars, each offering an analysis of a single television program from a particular critical perspective. The essays are shorter than journal articles (around 3,500 words), and designed as models for the best type of writing we might hope that our students will produce. The topics are wide-ranging – my own contribution is on Phineas & Ferb and how it offers narrative complexity for kids – and hopefully speak both to student and faculty interests. Although the book’s not available yet, I’m exercising editor privilege and assigning eight of the essays in manuscript form.
My other course is Storytelling in Film & Media, an advanced class on narrative theory as applied to film, television, and videogames. The big addition is that I’m having students read the manuscript-in-progress of Complex TV, working through my ideas about television storytelling (and getting another source of feedback on the project). I’m also trying a new screening, watching both the film and TV miniseries versions of Mildred Pierce, while bringing David Bordwell to campus in November to lecture about the film and its relationship to classical Hollywood storytelling. I always love to teach this course, and this version is particularly exciting to me.
Add my continued duties as department chair, my attempts to finish writing Complex TV, and the regular demands and joys of family, and it’s looking like an extremely busy, but fun, semester. Hopefully I’ll have a few chances to write some blog posts and watch new TV!
Filed under: Academia, Books, Complex TV, Film, Media Studies, Middlebury, Narrative, Teaching, Television, TV Shows | Leave a Comment
Tags: Homeland, How to Watch TV, Mildred Pierce, Phineas & Ferb, syllabi
Recently, my friend Annie Petersen took advantage of one of Twitter’s best functions for academics: crowdsourcing syllabus recommendations. Annie was looking for readings that provide a good introduction to semiotics, but are not impenetrable to novice students. I recommended this online visual essay by Tom Streeter (another friend of mine), which I’ve found quite useful for introducing students to key ideas and terms while remaining accessible and clear. In our brief exchange, Annie mentioned that she was entering this “vast uncharted space” in teaching theory at her new job at Whitman College, both for the students because the curriculum is more focused on history and criticism, and for her because she’s never taught a theory-centered course before.
This made me realize that I started at Middlebury exactly 10 years ago, and like Annie, found myself teaching my first theory course within a department that had not covered much theory before. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to (and how not to) teach theory to undergraduate students since then, and Twitter was inadequate to share some of those experiences with Annie, so I figured I’d broaden the audience to the blog and prattle on way beyond 140 characters. While my experiences are centered around teaching theory to undergraduates within the realm of media & cultural studies, I think the advice is broadly applicable to courses in a wide range of humanities & social science disciplines. As always, I encourage discussion & feedback in the comments.
So let’s set the stage. You’ve gotten a Ph.D., spending your most recent stretch of academia immersed with a cohort of like-minded intellectuals who get off from debating the subtleties of the most difficult things you can read. You’ve spent years in courses where the goal is to rip apart complex works, highlighting the flaws and inconsistencies in monographs written by people whose jobs you aspire to have. You’re surrounded by people who love this stuff—there’s probably some densely-packed theorist that you treat like airplane reading (mine was Foucault).
Now you’re on the other side of the seminar table, leading the discussion and crafting the reading list. The bulk of your teaching might be intro courses with predetermined textbooks or syllabi, or history/criticism/topics courses whose goals and scope are seemingly straightforward. But just maybe, one of the courses you get to teach is designed as a “theory course” – mine was initially awkwardly named “American Cultural Studies,” but has evolved into “Theories of Popular Culture,” the recent version of which is online here. While the temptation is to emulate the graduate seminars that may have provided years of intellectual rush, the undergraduate students in your theory course aren’t there (yet). So here are some lessons I learned through years of getting things wrong:
Explain what you mean by “theory.” Your average undergraduate, even the very smart ones I get to teach at Middlebury, probably don’t think of “theory” the same way that faculty and graduate students do. Theory might evoke something in math, or the “theory of evolution,” but it seems for most undergrads, theory implies a tentative hypothesis that has yet to be proven—more than a hunch, but less than a fact. So it’s important to explain what we mean by theory in the humanities: a framework or set of ideas that transcends the individual example, but that cannot be proven.
I find this lack of “provability” to be particularly irksome to some students. Undergraduates, especially the well-prepared & bright students I teach, like to learn the right answers. The American secondary school system puts a lot of emphasis on learning things that can be tested, so they try to figure out what is correct and how to follow the lead of such proven lessons. One of the main challenges to teaching theory to undergrads is getting them to understand that it’s not about coming up with the “right answer,” but rather exploring how any given theory helps provide insights and new ways of understanding. So it’s crucial define what “theory” means in your disciplinary context so students have a way to make sense of it & calibrate their expectations.
Theories are in dialogue with each other, and often contradict. Much of what I know about teaching theory I learned in graduate school from one of my mentors, John Fiske – I discuss that experience more here. One of John’s gifts was the ability to make theoretical paradigms and frameworks fit into a longer intellectual history, framing each new theory as an ongoing dialogue between theorists. I’ve tried to ape that approach in teaching cultural theory, meaning that I always contextualize where the main authors are coming from, what influences they were reacting to, and how they changed the way a school of thought worked. Providing such contexts helps students understand any theory as part of an ongoing process of discovery, not an absolute progression toward truth. I don’t treat these contexts as a bunch of facts that students need to learn in mastering a field’s intellectual history, but as part of a story, with characters who are products of their experiences and influences—I’ve found students enjoy thinking about these theorists talking to one another more than just as dead, dense words on a page. It’s particularly helpful to find a book that narrates such contexts for students—I particularly like John Storey’s Cultural Theory & Popular Culture books, in large part because his voice and approach reminds me a lot of Fiske (and when I met Storey a few years ago and told him this, he said he was honored by the comparison).
Another key part of this dialogue is conveying the contradictions between schools of thought. I’ll often draw charts or tables on the whiteboard to map how different theorists might respond to a similar issue or text, providing comparisons and contrasts. In doing so, for instance between theories of culture industry, ideology, and hegemony, I’m not trying to argue that one of these is inherently more “right” than another, but that each provide different ways of thinking about a cultural object. Students want to be able to figure out what’s the correct or more valued approach, but I try to present each theory on its own terms in the best light, and then allow them to figure out what works best for them—and, most importantly, which theories are best suited to tackling a particular text, object, or cultural formation.
Theories are meant to be applied. My graduate program and background emphasized theory as a tool to be put into practice, not an object of study on its own. I remember taking a Comparative Literature course that treated theoretical writings as aesthetic objects to be admired and studied, where my attempts to actually “do something” with a theorist was skeptically regarded as not being “true” to the theory. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that undergrads respond much better to applying theoretical writings than trying to appreciate them on their own terms. So when I teach a given theory, I always try to assign a three-part combination: an overview reading that summarizes & contextualizes the theory (like Storey’s volume), some excerpt of the theoretical writings from the big-name theorists themselves, and an example of the theory as applied to an accessible cultural object. In class, I ping-pong between laying out the contexts & the ideas of the theory, and applying them to a new example where we can collectively make sense of a video or image in the style of today’s theorist. A class meeting where we’re not using a theory to make sense of a cultural object is usually an unsuccessful day.
Likewise, my assignments are always about applying the theory more than recapping or summarizing it. In fact, I strongly discourage students from quoting from theory—a strong essay explains the relevant aspects of a theory in the student’s own words and through their analysis, not by retyping the words of a great theorist. (And if you read my own academic writing, you might notice that it’s far less quote-heavy from other academics than most, as I try to model this approach and would much rather read work without wading through other people’s greatest hits.) In crafting assignments, I always give students free choice in what they analyze, because I want them to be inspired to rethink cultural objects that interest them through the lens of the theories we’ve read—it’s hard enough to digest and apply dense theory that they should have the comfort of writing about their own preferred topics. Because of this, I’ve gotten to read analyses of a huge range of popular culture, thus expanding my own knowledge of eclectic topics like sneaker collectors, jam bands, and the “Will It Blend?” videos.
The perfect object of analysis can make the theory work. I sometimes think 90% of getting a class meeting to work is finding the right object of analysis to use to apply a given theory, and thus it is important to always be on the hunt for examples to pull into class (being a voracious consumer of pop culture helps!). Sometimes these objects are simply perfect to illustrate a theory—in the early 2000s, I was looking for a video I could bring into a class where I was teaching Adorno & Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry, so I set my VCR(!) to tape a showing of MTV’s TRL, thinking it would illustrate how the media packages & sells musical artists. By pure happenstance, the episode featured two videos that encapsulate the theory perfectly: N’Sync’s It’s Gonna Be Me, with the band literally seen as plastic figures to be bought & sold, and Eminem’s The Way I Am, a rant against being packaged and sold by radio & MTV. Not only were the videos perfect, but the way TRL frames them and portrays fan affections & passions provides a comprehensive illustration of so many concepts from this essay: standardization, pseudo-individuality, predigested consumption, popular culture as social cement. It’s so perfect that I’ve been using it for 10 years, and will probably keep using it long after students can remember TRL or either artist. [Update: I uploaded this TRL clip to Critical Commons – feel free to use it for your own teaching and/or pleasure.]
Another important use of examples is as a thread running throughout a semester. In my Theories of Popular Culture course, I start the semester by screening the film High Fidelity. We come back to it throughout the semester, thinking about how a wide range of theories might help us understand it, both as a work of popular culture and as a representation of people’s relationship to popular culture. I hope that by the end of the semester, students understand that since no single theory can explain everything about this film, what critics need is a range of theoretical tools and approaches to be able to answer specific questions and address particular issues, rather than treating theory as dogma in which we’re all seeking a single belief system to apply universally.
Don’t worry about the theoretical nuances. It’s vital to remember the goals for such a class versus the goals for a graduate theory course. In my undergraduate courses, I’m not training academics to be able to write publishable scholarship—although that sometimes happens, as with my former student Ioana Literat’s recently published piece on Trapped in the Closet that first emerged as a term paper in my narrative theory course. I see an undergraduate theory course as having two main goals. First, I want to introduce students to the range of theoretical thinking within the field, offering a sampling plate of tastes to get a sense of what might fall under the umbrella of cultural theory and potentially stoking their interest for further study. More importantly, I want students understand what it is to do theoretically-informed analysis, making the connection between broader frameworks and specific criticism. Most of my students will not go onto grad school in the humanities, so I don’t expect them to become expert practitioners of theory or criticism, but I do hope they come away from my class with more awareness about their own underlying frameworks and assumptions that they use when they consume (and produce) culture. Even if they never actively “use” the theories we read, whenever a former student watches a film and thinks about how it is ideologically addressing him/her, or skeptically questions assumptions about passive viewers absorbing a television program’s messages, that is an indication of pedagogical success.
These goals require very different choices than a graduate theory course. Most importantly, it necessitates simplifying complex theoretical ideas to make them accessible for undergrads, an approach that may be particularly galling to newly minted Ph.Ds who have spent recent years focused on the complexities and nuances of theories. I try not to “dumb-down” theories, but rather emphasize the core concepts and arguments over the more advanced nuances and subtleties that typically thrive in advanced seminar discussions—I think Streeter’s online essay is a model for such distillation and exploration. I’ll happily discuss such nuances with students who care about them, but I try to avoid delving too deep into the weeds in a full-class discussion. It’s more important that all of my students come away with the central nuggets of a given theory than that the small minority who care about theoretical subtleties emerge as fully engaged with any theory’s complexities and nuances. A student who has the passion for theory will find a way to dig deeper on their own or in future studies, but my courses strive to be a place where everyone gets a solid foundation without being alienated from the conversation by getting too deep into nuance.
Share your passion for theory without making them feel bad for not getting it. If you’re teaching a theory course, you probably love talking and thinking about theory—that passion and excitement is your secret weapon in such a course. Most students will be resistant to theory at first, as it’s hard to read, often seems pointless, and can challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. Your job as a theory professor is to convey your passion without dismissing the students’ skepticism and resistance. You’re a tour guide to very foreign lands with passengers who’d rather be home in their comfort zones. So you need to show them how exciting theoretical ideas can be, especially when applied to cultural objects they care about. I often geek out on theories as I’m teaching them, showing my excitement about how a concept like the arbitrary relationship between signified and signifier changes how I see the world—I think (some) students find that excitement a bit contagious, and want to work through the readings in order to find similar passions of their own. I remember my own lightbulb moment when I first studied semiotics as an undergraduate and realized this is was a conversation I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life, and I aim to help my students experience similar revelations (even if they don’t end up going down the professional academic route).
You also need to acknowledge how difficult it can be as an undergrad to make productive sense of this stuff on the first read-through, and reiterate that difficulty throughout the semester. Usually I have a couple of theory jocks in every class, and it’s important to avoid turning into each meeting into a conversation between me and those students who are really into it, making the students who don’t get it feel lost and dumb for not being able to engage at that level. So I make sure that everyone is participating in the conversation, celebrating seemingly “stupid questions” that help ensure all the students are getting the basic ideas, and trying to shut-down the more advanced conversations. I explicitly tell students that it’s okay to read a theoretical piece and feel like you have no clue what it’s about, as we’ll work through it in class to unpack the argument. Online discussion forums are useful for getting broad engagement, as they can discuss the readings amongst themselves and give me a sense of who is getting it and where we need to clarify in class. Few things are more gratifying as a teacher than to see a student who started as resistant to and lost in theory find a foothold and get excited about a particular concept or approach—that’s the joy of intellectual discovery that teaching undergrads facilitates, and what keeps me going through the grading and busywork.
OK, that was clearly way more than 140 characters! I’d love to hear from other people’s experiences, whether from the prospective of faculty teaching theory to undergrads, or your own experiences as an undergraduate learning theory. What works and what doesn’t, and what frameworks can we detach from our own personal experiences to make such courses succeed?
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Middlebury, Not Quite TV, Teaching | 12 Comments
Tags: cultural studies, pedagogy, theory
Last night’s Breaking Bad episode, “Dead Freight,” offers an interesting example of a phenomenon I’ve termed “surprise memory,” or the narrative effect of being surprised by something you know but have forgotten (or more accurately, allowed to be archived from your working memory). I discuss it in the latest chapter of Complex TV about Comprehension – here’s a direct link to the section where I use Battlestar Galactica and Lost as examples of surprise memory. (Please read & offer feedback if you’ve got time!) While those two cases involve serialized memory, where long-term memory allows us to forget narrative details from weeks & months earlier, the Breaking Bad example is self-contained, inviting us to forget something from the beginning of the episode to payoff the final sequence. (Spoilery details to follow…)
Filed under: Complex TV, Narrative, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 7 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, narrative comprehension, surprise
One part of Breaking Bad‘s new season 5 that I’m finding most impressive is Skyler’s development. This is by no means a consensus opinion, as Skyler has long been the target of many Breaking Bad fans’ ire. TV critic Alyssa Rosenberg has pushed back against this hatred of antihero wives, and highlighted how Walter White is an abuser, both to his wife and surrogate son. Some of the most virulent Skyler hating runs through the misogynist hotbed of internet comment threads, but I know a number of thoughtful, feminist viewers who also hate Skyler. The latest episode, “51,” is a Skyler showcase, as Anna Gunn delivers a jaw-dropping performance as the abused spouse of our sociopathic protagonist who finally dares to speak her mind – and at least for TV blogger/critic/friend Noel Kirkpatrick, it made him reconsider his lack of empathy for her.
I must admit I don’t really understand the anti-Skyler vitriol, as I’ve always found her to be an interesting character who both provides a compelling dramatic foil for protagonist Walt and has developed her own intriguing arc of moral boundary-pushing. One thing that remains unclear to me is how much people dislike Skyler White the fictional person (finding her annoying, unsympathetic, or otherwise doing things that stand in the way of characters we like more) versus Skyler White the character (finding her unrealistic, poorly acted, or out-of-place in the storytelling) – do any articulate Skyler-haters want to clarify in the comments? (And I talk some about this distinction between character and person in Complex TV.)
[Spoilers through the fourth episode of season 5 below the fold.]
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 29 Comments
Tags: breaking bad, character
It’s been a dormant month of July on the book-writing/publishing front, as I’ve been busy returning from my year abroad in Germany, settling back in Vermont, and having some family vacation time. I do hope to resume writing and pre-publication, as I have only a few more chapters left to go before I’ve got a full draft of Complex TV ready to submit to NYU Press. So I’ll start out August by posting the next chapter, focused on issues of narrative comprehension. As described in the book’s introduction:
One of the challenges of a long-form serial narrative is maintaining viewer comprehension throughout a variety of viewing practices, whether it is weekly and seasonal installments through broadcast schedules, or the more variable patterns afforded by DVDs, online viewing, and DVRs. This chapter builds on cognitive theories of narrative comprehension to consider how television serials have created methods to both maximize understanding and play with knowledge differentials between characters and viewers. I focus on issues of viewer memory as addressed both within the core narrative text and associated paratexts (like recaps and DVD extras), considering the varying ways programs trigger memories and exploit viewer’s fading memories to create unusual surprises in programs like Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, and Lost. The chapter also analyzes different approaches to suspense, surprise, anticipation, and curiosity that have emerged for long-form serial television, and how viewers thwart such narrative pleasures through spoilers. Finally, it concludes with a detailed account of the serial viewer’s activity in watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Much of the chapter is either brand new writing (including over 4,000 words about the brilliant Curb episode “Vehicular Fellatio”!), or major reworkings of past pieces. These include a condensed account of the essay on Lost spoiler fans that I co-wrote with Jonathan Gray and discussed more here on the blog, and a reworking of my essay on the mechanics of memory on serial television, as well as poaching from this post as well. It represents an attempt to merge cognitive poetics with more typical cultural studies accounts of television consumption – hopefully it’s a feasible marriage!
As always, I welcome and encourage feedback on this chapter, as well as the others that remain online for your reading and commenting pleasure. Thanks!
Filed under: Complex TV, MediaCommons, Narrative, Spoilers, Television, TV Shows, Viewers | 5 Comments
Tags: Battlestar, cognition, curb your enthusiasm, dexter, Lost, memory, Veronica Mars