I have a video to share with you:

[vimeo 58659769]

If you haven’t seen it, take the eight minutes to watch & enjoy. But there’s a good chance you’ve seen it, as it’s been viewed over 72,000 times (and counting) in the three days it’s been online. It’s been written about on BuzzfeedJezebelCBS NewsCBCYahoo!, Mashable, and many other blogs & Tumblrs, not to mention hundreds of Facebook shares. In short, it has become spreadable, the term that Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Joshua Green offer as an alternative, more active concept than “viral.”

My perspective on this video is unique, as it was made by my student Bianca Giaever as her final project at Middlebury before graduating last week, and I was the project’s adviser. Middlebury has a Winter Term every January where students enroll in a single intensive course or do an independent project, and Bianca approached me to make a video over the month. I’ve known Bianca for a few years, teaching her in class and helping to guide her independent-designed major in Narrative Studies, The bulk of her creative background was in audio production for radio, and oral storytelling in creating a Middlebury branch of The Moth live storytelling performances. In the fall semester, she made “Holy Cow Lisa,” an excellent project in her Video Production course that took an audio interview and “visualized” it through creative & playful video footage. She wanted to see if she could make another project in that vein as a kind-of “proof of concept” that illustrated audio stories could work as a format – the result was “The Scared Is Scared.” Consider the concept proven!

One of the very best parts of my job is helping facilitate my students’ creativity. Although I’m scholar by training and practice, Middlebury’s Film & Media Culture is a hybrid department mixing critical studies and hands-on creative work. I occasionally teach courses that are creative in focus, often mix creative projects into critical studies courses, and regularly advise students’ creative projects in video production, screenwriting, or other media. I love to listen to a student’s ideas, give them some feedback to push them forward or offer a critical perspective, and then get out of the way to let them create something.

In the case of “The Scared is Scared,” I feel particularly invested in the project because I saw it develop from nothing to a spreadable hit over the course of a single month. A project adviser’s role can be quite variable, but if things are working well, an adviser’s contributions are necessary but insufficient aspects of the final product – in this case, it was definitely true, as I introduced Bianca to Asa, the video’s storyteller and my son’s friend. Without that necessary introduction (as well as giving Bianca the water wings that Toby Mouse wears), the video would not be what it was – but obviously the journey from that introduction to the final work was all due to Bianca, Asa, and their many collaborators. Throughout the month, my role was primarily to assure Bianca that there was potential in her ideas and that the audio and video she was putting together was excellent – in fact, she quoted me saying “This might work” as the blurb for the video’s poster around campus!

So I’ve watched the video spread (up to 78,000 views in the time it took me to write this post!) and receive glowing acclaim with the pride of a coach & teacher (and a little bit of the ownership you feel at the wedding of two people you introduced!). I also watch it spread from the meta-perspective of a scholar of digital media, which raises numerous questions. What does it mean to traditional educational hierarchies to have a student’s work seen & enjoyed by thousands of people? Does spreadability matter when assessing and grading students’ work? Should we encourage students to seek spreadability as a goal, or just facilitate it as a potential byproduct of creative success? How do such accomplishments impact the reputation of the department and potentially benefit other students’ opportunities? And most immediately, how will this success help Bianca make a living after Middlebury? (Please contact her if you have any answers to the last one.) I have no answers to these questions yet, but they point to some of the new dimensions of teaching film and video that I would not have anticipated mattering when I arrived at Middlebury ten years ago.

But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy watching the video and its rippling wake, and relish in my own favorite moment: the way Asa says the word “merengues.”


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.”

Continue reading ‘Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive’

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.


Continue reading ‘Media violence and debating effects & influences’

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.

Continue reading ‘Homeland, Emotional Plausibility, and the Tethered Triangle’

Lately I’ve become more and more intrigued by Digital Humanities as a subfield/movement/trend/etc. within academia, in large part because the people who are actively driving much of DH are super engaging & welcoming via social networks like Twitter and various blogs. As I am committed to open access publishing, public-facing scholarship, and innovative modes of academic engagement, Digital Humanists feel like fellow travelers. But as someone who has been actively engaged with the study & use of digital media for over a decade, I’ve frequently wondered about the intersection between Digital Humanities, which tends to cluster in the fields of History and English, and Media Studies, where digital tools & objects of study have been commonplace but understood quite differently. This is actually the topic of a workshop that Miriam Posner & I put together for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March (the call for the workshop is here on Miriam’s blog, and the lineup of participants looks great), so I’ll leave these larger issues for then.

But for now, I’ve often wondered what some of the tools of Digital Humanities might look like applied to media objects rather than the literary texts or historical artifacts that they’ve tended to focus on. One such tool is the word cloud, measuring concordances within a text to seek patterns of frequently used words. Films and television programs feature words as well, and thus we might imagine looking at dialogue as a dataset to be analyzed and reconfigured using a tool like Wordle. Of course, the methods of scanning and digitizing books don’t work for moving images, but the other day it occurred to me that most DVDs already include digitized text of the dialogue, in the form of the subtitles and captions.

So I was happy to realize that there is already a tool available for extracting captions and turning them into a text file: ccextractor. Alas, this open-source application works best on Windows & I’m a diehard Mac user, so I had my colleague Ethan Murphy install it on a departmental PC and figure out how best to get it working. (The Mac version is command line, so you need to know what you’re doing more than I do to use it effectively.) The results are pretty impressive; this page details the process of decrypting a DVD (technically illegal, although I think this is clearly fair use & wouldn’t be an enforceable violation, as it fits with the spirit of the DMCA exemptions that have been established for educational use) and outputting the captions into a text file. This process took around 10 minutes for one DVD.

I test drove this process using the first episode of The Wire. Here’s what the famous first scene looks like extracted:

( police sirens wailing )
( police radio chattering )
( McNulty )
( man )
( man )
( dog barking )
( man chattering )

And here’s what the whole episode looks like when turned into a Wordle, graphically representing the program’s unique brand of profanity:

Wordle of dialogue for THE WIRE, "The Target"

Wordle of dialogue for THE WIRE, “The Target”

Now, there are some key tweaks that need to be made to accurately tabulate words within the dialogue. The captions include some sonic cues in parentheses — “( police sirens wailing )” — that shouldn’t be incorporated into the dialogue, and Wordle treats the all caps of the dialogue differently from these lowercase cues, thus both “MAN” and “man” appear separately. Additionally, the character names in parenthesis indicate when a character is speaking off-screen, so these are misleading cues as well. ccextractor can be set to change cases and maybe to filter out cues depending on how a given DVD encodes them, so there’s need for a bit of customization. And it’s essential to remember that this is a transcript, not a screenplay—not only are character names not indicated, but the screenplay form includes a performance and visual blueprint and sense of rhythm that this raw transcript neglects. (You can compare this scene with an early version of the pilot screenplay downloadable here.)

In surveying work in Digital Humanities, it may seem that the point of the field is developing and playing with such tools, but as with any method or model, the techniques only work when paired with a research question that is an appropriate match for the approach. So for what questions is such “caption mining” useful to answer? I had some ideas, but also asked people on Twitter and Facebook for their thoughts as well. Concordances and other quantitative measures can be useful to get a sense of the dialogue quirks and tendencies that comprise a given film or TV program’s verbal style. Such analyses are most productive comparatively, whether looking across a given writer’s work, comparing examples within a genre or across eras, or charting differences throughout the ongoing run of a series. Daniel Chamberlain, another scholar at the nexus of DH & Media Studies, offered the following suggestions: “There are probably some low-level arguments to be made by comparing this with literacy metrics (some shows use big words, some are aimed at less educated audiences), or using simple tools like voyant (Amy Sherman-Palladino packs more words into an episode than anyone else). You might be able to frame questions about the long run of a series (do the scripts “repeat” or get “stale” or do they continue to develop). You might be able to generate evidence making claims about what happens as showrunners or writers come and go. You could even look to make Zeitgeist arguments by comparing batches of shows from different years or eras. These are mostly about gathering familiar (if more robust) forms of textual evidence.” (And Miriam mentioned that the Zeitgeist question evokes Ben Schmidt’s work with TV anachronisms.)

This approach can also target specific key words—for instance, on Twitter a colleague mentioned she’d be interested in looking at how often the world “torture” is used within various series she is analyzing to supplement her study of narrative representations of torture. If we had a particularly large corpus of series, we could chart the shifting use of profanity or other culturally-charged terms surrounding identity or politics. Probably for such a project to work, we’d need to develop a huge database of transcripts along the lines of the massive literary databases of scanned books like Google’s ngrams, an endeavor complicated by copyright issues (as I assume HBO would balk at an open database of the entire Wire dialogue!) and high labor costs—if we could overcome the copyright issues, perhaps we could agree on standard forms and upload self-extracted transcripts to a site like how Cinemetrics crowdsources editing data for films and television?

Another potential use for these transcripts is as a guide for navigating a video, especially for the vast body of a serial. When working on a program, I’ve often struggled to remember precisely where a scene might fall in a series—video is impractical to search, but having a full transcript would make that process much simpler for teaching and analysis (at least if the scene’s memorable feature is tied to dialogue, not visuals). ccextractor allows for the transcript to include timecode, making this navigation process quite easy—especially if you’re working on a video essay or remix (which I see as fertile ground to connect DH and Media Studies), where a transcript can facilitate creating a useful editing log.

There are lots of possibilities for making discoveries about the language of a film or television text, but this tool raises one large caution flag: we cannot mistakenly reduce a moving image work to its dialogue. There is a long tradition of scholars trained to study language & literature treating film texts just as they consider printed work, focusing on narrative structures, verbal style, metaphors, etc., but paying scant attention to visual style, music, performance, temporal systems, or other formal elements that make film essentially than literature. But with that caution in mind, we shouldn’t ignore a moving image text’s dialogue and verbal systems, and I hope that ccextractor offers a useful tool to provide some new access to these elements.

So I end this brainstorming post with a question: what would you use this tool to discover about a film or television program?

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.

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!

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?

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…)

Continue reading ‘Tarantula Boy and Surprise Memory’

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.]

Continue reading ‘Skyler’s Story’

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 GalacticaDexter, 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!

Like millions of others, I’ve had the Olympics on quite often over the past few days and will continue to care about sports that I know little about for another 11 days. And like thousands of others, I’ve enjoyed making fun of NBC’s erratic coverage, tape-delays, ethnocentrism, weak commentary, and inexplicable employment of Ryan Seacrest using the Twitter hashtag #NBCFail. But I agree with TV critic Jaime Weinman that “NBC did not fail,” at least given its goals of attracting massive audiences to television.

My one addendum to Weinman’s analysis is that I think much of the controversy over NBC’s primetime coverage involves a genre misunderstanding of what the evening broadcasts are trying to offer. To get what NBC is doing, we need to understand that the nightly programs are not sportscasting as we typically think of it. Instead, it’s better thought of as a nightly magazine program recapping the day’s events through a combination of replays, feature stories, travelogues, interviews, and inexplicable appearances by Ryan Seacrest. A good parallel is the difference between USA Today‘s daily sports page, and the weekly Sports Illustrated magazine. NBC’s primetime Olympics show is a sports magazine, in the model of Today as a news magazine – notably, it is produced by Today‘s production team.

I’m not a fan of this approach to covering the Olympics, as I want to watch the events live and with minimal interruptions, and without the formulaic human interest features. But clearly many viewers enjoy this magazine style blending extended highlight reels with personal profiles. So if I could change anything about NBC’s coverage, I’d make this genre label more explicit, calling the primetime show Olympics Today and clearly embracing its magazine format. Then show all of the major events live on the various NBCU channels as actual sportscasts, even if they’ll be repeated in primetime. (Yes, they are streaming everything online, but I’ve had a hard time getting decent quality without major buffering lags & skips.)

And, of course, get rid of Ryan Seacrest.

UPDATE: As some excellent after-the-fact evidence for this analysis, see Joe Posnanski’s interview with NBC legend Dick Ebersol, where he highlights that the Olympics are a television event, not a sporting event.

It’s been a quiet month on the blogging and writing front, as I’ve taken a break from Complex TV to undertake the big move from Germany back to Vermont, and take some time for family vacation. But I hope to return to the book later this week to respond to comments, post new chapters, and finish writing the manuscript over the rest of the summer before the pressures of teaching & chairing (and the continual parenting priorities) take over my time. So stay tuned on the book’s site, and please catch-up & leave feedback on the chapters already posted!

But I wanted to break blog silence to post a link to a new essay in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum’s long piece on the history of the cliffhanger. Emily is a friend in the contemporary digital sense—we’ve never met in person, but have many mutual friends (both having graduated from Oberlin, but never overlapped there) and chat in the same online networks on Twitter and Facebook. I’d enjoyed her television criticism & journalism for years when she wrote for New York Magazine, and was thrilled when she got hired as The New Yorker‘s television critic, as it brings a more television-centric perspective to a magazine whose brow often scoffs at popular media. She’s one of my favorite people to offer “expert quotes” to, both because she uses them very well in her writing and she’s so fun to chat with.

I wanted to call attention to this piece on cliffhangers, not just because it’s a great essay, but since it speaks to one of the great benefits of open access academic publishing and the online pre-publication process I’m using for Complex TV. When Emily contacted me about this topic, I was able to not only Skype with her to discuss these ideas, but also send her links to chapters of my book that seemed relevant to the topic. She could then quote from the book, despite it not being “published” in any conventional sense (although the magazine’s fact checker was a bit mystified on how best to reference the book, eventually settling on saying that it was forthcoming). I was also able to recommend my friend Scott Higgins as a expert source for the study of film serials, sending her a link to his research project that has not been published anywhere except his blog. Such online publishing upends the normal timeframe of academic/journalistic influence, as the press can now read & reference academic work before it’s locked down to the slow timeframe and closed access of academic publishing. It highlights how the concept of “publicity” is built on the root of being “public,” a facet of scholarship underserved by conventional publishing.

And one last note about this piece: The New Yorker has diligent and hard-working fact-checkers, which is seems quite uncommon in this era of downsized journalism. In talking with them, it made me appreciate what they add to the process so much that I decided to subscribe to the magazine for the first time. (As a native Bostonian, The New Yorker always felt like it wasn’t speaking to me, except in doctor waiting rooms…) So kudos to the fact checkers!

In my pre-Germany post, I mentioned that one of the goals of the year was to provide some “productive disorientation” on the aspects of life I take for granted back in Vermont. Now that I am in my last week in Germany, I can see it has certainly achieved that goal in a wide range of ways, both personal and professional. Within the academic context, getting an insider glimpse into the German academic system has highlighted how many things in the American system are not “natural” or universal, but rather highly specific and determined by our educational histories and cultural priorities.

In talking with colleagues both in Europe and from the U.S., it became clear how little most of us know about how other systems work, so I decided to write an account of what I have seen of German academia (primarily within the Humanities and mostly at University of Göttingen) from the perspective of an American abroad. This is offered as description more than analysis—I have not done the type of research necessary to really assess why things work how they do, or to evaluate successes or failures of the two systems. But hopefully for my American (and elsewhere) readers, providing a glimpse into another system will help make your own familiar systems seem a bit stranger, and make the strange outsider perspectives a bit more familiar. For my German readers (as well as those in other countries), I certainly welcome clarifications, corrections and contestations of my insights, which I offer as broad generalities based on limited information, but hopefully useful nonetheless. (And special thanks to my colleague and friend Frank Kelleter who corrected my misconceptions and added useful insight.) Continue reading ‘An Outsider’s Look at German Academia’

My time in Germany is almost up, as we return to Vermont in early July. It’s been a productive writing year, with around 80% of Complex TV completed and a few other projects underway. Here is the last chapter of Complex TV to be posted from Germany, with the remaining chapters emerging over the Vermont summer.

This one is a long chapter, focused on the topic of television characters. It may be long because the topic is comparatively underexplored within media studies – or perhaps because I simply had too much to say about Breaking Bad. I particularly welcome any thoughts you might have about cutting down the length – I might be publishing the Breaking Bad case study as a book chapter, so I’m curious how much of it could be shifted to that chapter and cut from this one. Here’s the abstract:

This chapter considers how serial characters work within the constraints of the television medium and the limits of presenting character change over time, considering how programs like The SopranosAngelLost, Game of Thrones, and Dexter create compelling complex characters. Many complex serials have embraced antiheroes as lead characters, using the long-form narrative structure to layer psychological traits and key elements of backstory. This chapter uses the case study of Breaking Bad and its antihero protagonist to explore how serial dramas construct characters with different approaches to relationships, flashbacks, memory, narration, and performance.

As always, I invite feedback on this chapter or anything else posted on the Complex TV site. I also encourage anyone interested in the book who hasn’t filled out this survey about readership to do so. Thanks in advance!


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