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!

One of the most circulated and discussed articles in online academic circles last week was Bruce Henderson’s Chronicle piece arguing for the importance of acknowledging reading as a key part of our scholarly labor. I really liked this article, less for his coining of the awkward neologism “consumatory scholarship” to describe the practice of academic reading, but more for his reminder that discussions of professional activity and labor needs to highlight that reading new (or new to you) scholarship is a vital aspect of academia. Sometimes such reading gets folded into measures of more typical measured productivity—reading can end up as citations in your own writing, hopefully augmenting and refining your ideas. Or new reading can be featured on a course syllabus, strengthening your teaching and perhaps leading to avenues for a new class. Or in a few instances, reading can be an officially endorsed end itself, as with faculty reading groups sponsored by administrations or programs to encourage collaboration or new avenues of interdisciplinary development.

But what of “useless reading,” by which I mean reading with no immediate purpose except to expand our intellectual horizons? Such work might eventually end up inflecting our own writing and teaching, but is not motivated immediately by that end. Without such useless—or better, unmotivated—reading, scholarly discovery would be meager, as it is usually through horizon-expanding exposure to something new and unexpected that we develop truly forward-looking ideas and perspectives. Additionally, without unmotivated reading to discover new ideas and fields, all of the books and articles that we are professionally encouraged/required to write would sit unread except by the few insular experts who are already invested in what we are saying (and probably already know what we think, reading only to root out their own citations to prove that they too are being read, or at least cited), rather than encouraging an expansion of knowledge and understanding that I think most academics hope to accomplish through our writing on our best days.

As Henderson and many commenters on his article attest, such unmotivated reading is rarely rewarded by academic administrations, and in the temporal juggle to prioritize how to spend our time, such work nearly always falls below the immediate demands to teach, attend meetings, grade, prepare classes, answer emails, attend conferences, do your own research, write your own essays and books, and review manuscripts for presses (your order of prioritization may vary!). This last item comes closest to unmotivated reading, as we read work that is motivated not by personal use value (for teaching or research), but because an editor asks us to. And this type of reading is on my mind a lot lately as I’m asking the entire internet to review my own manuscript (Complex TV – check it out!), and not surprisingly, most people aren’t taking the time to do so! (Of course, many people are, and I offer my sincere gratitude for those who have, or plan to do so.)

Last week I posted a survey about this open review process, and while there’s still time to fill it out, one partial result stands out: in the question about why people may not have read more of the manuscript, the option of “I have not had time to dedicate to reading” has received 100% agreement! A clarifying comment from one respondent expands this rationale:

With so many texts clamoring for my attention, I must be highly selective with my reading time. Consequently, I mostly read material that relates directly to a current project, whether that be a book, a journal article, a reading list for a course, etc…. Since we are all pressed to maximize the efficacy of our research time, how do we justify peer reviewing an in-progress manuscript? Where does that fit on the annual report many of us are required to submit to our academic deans? Reviewing a proposed manuscript for an academic press is considered academic service (labor), which my university rewards. How do I get my dean to recognize the legitimacy of academic labor on MediaCommons?

I have many thoughts in relation to this comment still to come, as I think it strikes at the heart of the conundrum that shapes the limits of experimentation in scholarly publishing: to get new things to count and matter, we have to invest ourselves into things that don’t count and don’t matter, at least under current systems of evaluation and labor legitimacy. But one key innovation of the open peer review process that we’re doing at MediaCommons is that it is open—if you read my book or other work, you can make your engagement public by leaving a trace of your labor through the breadcrumbs of comments. You can send your dean a link to your comments done for a publisher in the open, rather than just the line on your C.V. saying that you read an anonymous manuscript anonymously. You can converse with other reviewers in the comments, building scholarly networks and associations that might lead to something more traditionally “valued.” While such public reading will certainly be seen as unusual at first, if more of us embrace it in various forms, hopefully institutions will start to recognize what is lost when we’re not reading, or only reading behind closed doors.

Last week, my friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick came to Göttingen to give a typically great lecture on her work on open peer review and academic publishing. In the discussion, we turned to this topic of academic labor and the challenges of getting people to spend time reading new work, especially in an untested open review format. One of the members of the audience was a colleague of mine here at Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Göttingen—Wouter Hanegraaff, a Dutch scholar of religion and “Western esotericism”—who productively engaged in the conversation. He wrote to me this weekend announcing that in reaction to this conversation, he started a new blog called Creative Reading. Wouter’s epigraph is particularly fitting:

“As academics we are expected to write and publish, but we are not supposed to waste our time reading”. This remark by a colleague – as absurd as it is true – inspired me to start this blog. Yes: as an academic in the field of the Humanities I spend much of my time reading, and on this blog you can see how that works. If scholarly writing has any value at all, then the reading that precedes it deserves respect as an integral part of the creative process that leads to knowledge and understanding.

While the type of things Wouter reads about and researches are far from my field, I’m excited to read about his reading, learning from both what he is learning and how he is learning. I hope such endeavors can help fuel a trend of using the new tools of digital writing to make our old practices of reading more visible and valued. In that spirit, I have added a new category to this blog, Reading. I’ll use it to post my thoughts about what I have read, and hopefully encourage myself to prioritize unmotivated reading by shining a light on it.

Appropriately, my first bit of semi-motivated reading to highlight is the just-published draft of “Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices,” drafted by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo as part of a study group on open review that has been meeting for the past year. If you’re at all interested in academic publishing and/or digital scholarship, it offers the best overview of the practices, possibilities, and pitfalls of new models of open peer review as I’m practicing with Complex TV. I spent my morning reading it and offering feedback, and it was time well spent. Please read it (publicly) and join me in the comment threads!

As regular readers know, I’ve been serializing my new book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, in a pre-publication draft at MediaCommons. One of the goals of publishing the manuscript online like this is to challenge some of the norms of academic publishing and peer review, as advocated & modelled by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her similarly pre-published book Planned Obsolescence.

Kathleen discusses in the revised publication of her book (both print and eBook) that comments dwindled moving deeper into the book, leading her to ask if such long-form publication would be best served through serial release. Thus my choice to serialize my book was partly an experiment in response to her work, as well as the nice form/content synergy by writing serially about serial storytelling. But thus far, the same pattern has manifested itself: the earlier chapters have gotten many more comments than later ones, and overall the amount of conversation is lower than I would have expected (although quality of comments has been great!).

Given that I’m working with MediaCommons to test drive possible models, we figured a bit of “market research” would be useful at this midway point in the book’s release. So below is a short anonymous survey to try to understand how people are reading and engaging with the book. I would appreciate everyone who has read or thought about reading any of Complex TV to answer these questions to help us get a better sense of who is out there, and how we can better engage readers. Feel free to fill it out below (remembering to hit the Submit button at the bottom of the post), or go directly to the survey’s own page. Thanks in advance – and if the results are interesting & useful, I’ll follow up with some aggregated info & responses!

A couple of quick updates. First, my article that I published previously to the blog, “Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises” has been published in a revised version in the journal Eludamus: Journal for Computer Game Culture.

Second, I’ve been playing with the metrics I discussed in my post earlier this week about “scenic rhythms,” and added a number of other episodes to my list. After much tinkering with various spreadsheets and finally finding success with Open Office, I figured out how to put those data into a chart to visualize the different patterns. Again, the two variables are Scenes per Hour and Foci (essentially meaning how many storylines are threaded throughout the episode). Here’s the chart:

My choice of programs was very much based on whatever was handy for me to tabulate. I added a few single camera sitcoms to see how they compare—not surprisingly, the shorter 20-25 minute length and quick comic pacing leads to high SpH. Cougar Town was highest, with a scene per minute, a number boosted by the comic device of the smash cut to another time and/or place for a joke. I also think it’s interesting what a gap there is in number of foci between The WireGame of Thrones at 12, and everything else that falls in the 3-7 range. That might be selection bias, so I need to think of other programs that are likely to have more than 7 foci (beyond Treme) – maybe Deadwood?

Do people have ideas for other programs or episodes to include here? I don’t know if I’m ready to launch a full-fledged database of SpH yet like Cinemetrics, but a bit of crowd-sourced brainstorming could be helpful, as I’m thinking of writing an essay on this topic. Some thoughts I have are: to look at some pilot episodes to see how their rhythms might differ from typical episodes; to look at more network dramas, including serialized shows (Revenge and Good Wife are soon to come) and procedurals; to consider multicamera sitcoms in the mix; and maybe spanning back into other eras. There are also some data variables that I need to think about, including defining foci a bit more clearly and also being able to account for the variability of the counts – in some instances, a “focal thread” might only consist of one scene (a serialized “runner”) while another might take up more than half the episode, and likewise a single scene of 10 minutes might skew an episode’s measurement quite a bit – thus Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have similar SpH, but Breaking Bad features a wider range of scene lengths, while GoT is much more consistently paced throughout.

It feels like this is potentially an interesting tool to provide a clear basis for comparison across genres and production modes, but like any measure it is only useful for particular questions and parameters. So any feedback is much appreciated!

It’s time for another chapter of Complex TV – this one focuses on questions of evaluation in television scholarship. Here’s the abstract:

Television studies, as forged by the influence of cultural studies, has been loath to include critical evaluation in its toolbox, as television’s own spot on the receiving end of numerous aesthetic condemnations has pushed evaluative criticism off the field’s agenda. In this chapter, I explore a model of contextualized evaluation that does not recreate universal aesthetic values, but rather looks at how a series can define its own terms and parameters of evaluation, and how television scholars might productively engage with questions of value. Using the examples of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, all of which have been hailed by critics as among the greatest television series in the medium’s history, I discuss how we can enter into medium-specific debates over value without recreating a canon or exclusionary critical practice, considering how complexity can function as an aesthetic asset in multiple ways.

This chapter draws from, adapts, and repurposes a number of pieces that I’ve published here, including my somewhat infamous Mad Men essay, my presentation from Hannover on this topic, and my discussion of Legitimating Television. But it’s all reframed and presented in what I hope is the clearest and most convincing articulation of a line of argument that’s not always gone over that well. I guess I keep trying…

I look forward to discussing these ideas in the margins of the MediaCommons site for this and the other chapters that await your feedback!

I finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones last night, which I enjoyed, but liked less than the first season (no spoilers forthcoming if you’re not caught up yet). I think a large part of that distinction came from how I watched them – like many, I came to season one late, bingeing on the entire 10-episode run in about a week. I had been spoiled on the season’s main death, but still very much enjoyed the narrative momentum and world-building. The second season had a lot of really great bits – like everyone, everything with Arya or Tyrion sparkles, and the “Blackwater” episode was an impressive set piece. But I had trouble tapping into the season’s rhythms and momentum watching in weekly installments.

One of my favorite critics, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote an interesting piece about the program’s narrative structure over at The A.V. Club, comparing it both to daytime soap operas and The Wire in terms of how it ranges from place to place, scene to scene over the course of an episode (see also a good post from a couple years ago about the issue of primetime versus daytime episodic structure from Jaime Weinman). I think that the structure of episodes is a huge and understudied factor in establishing a program’s rhythm and tone, and it’s something I’ve been able to touch on only briefly in my new book, Complex TV – mostly in the first main chapter, in comparing The Sopranos and The Wire‘s approaches to serial form. But I think Game of Thrones is an interesting contrast to such examples that points to the importance of scenic rhythms, which in turn helps explain how watching in weekly installments can differ from watching in a compressed binge.

Rhythm is a hard thing to analyze and measure, but one idea I’ve been toying with involves a little quantification: Scenes per Hour (SpH). Essentially, count the number of distinct scenes (which I’d roughly define as a continuous presentation of action in a single time and space), and then prorate them to arrive at how many scenes there would be in exactly 60 minutes of storytelling (not counting credits & recaps) – and I’ll count a montage sequence as a single scene, even though it contains numerous places and times. We can also compare the number of scenes to the number of discrete storylines or character combinations, or what I’ll call “foci,” highlighting the differences between following a small number of people/places over time versus cutting widely to cover a larger story scope. I’ve been logging a few examples of programs for awhile that will provide comparison for Game of Thrones:

Breaking Bad, “Grilled” – 15 SpH, 3 foci
This episode, where Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse, is one of the more claustrophobic episodes of the show, with only a bit more range than “The Fly” or “Four Days Out.” When we think of intense, slowburn storytelling, this is what we mean: long scenes, limited intercutting between stories (that disappears altogether in the final 1/3), tight narrative focus.

Mad Men, “The Suitcase” – 27 SpH, 3 foci
More like Breaking Bad in its tight focus – and really the final 2/3 only has one main focus in an atypical pattern – but shorter scenes to chop up an all-nighter into 45 minutes of screen time.

Lost, “Walkabout” – 48 SpH, 5 foci
A classic episode that doesn’t feel rushed or action-packed, but there’s a lot of interplay here between multiple story beats, presented in very short scenes (just over a minute on average). The way the scenes add up, with some action and twisty storytelling propulses the storytelling.

The Wire, “Refugees” – 41 SpH, 10+ foci
A season four episode chosen essentially at random, with many short scenes, spread out over very many plotlines – it’s hard to figure out precisely where a focus begins or ends on The Wire, as they interweave and overlap a lot. This is quite typical of The Wire, which juggles many plots by dropping into moments throughout an episode and cutting back and forth quickly. This leads to constant forward momentum (even when not much happens in a scene), and helps keep all of the stories fresh in mind.

Days of Our Lives, episode from 21 January, 2011 (chosen at random because it was online) – 55 SpH, 5 foci
A great comparison to The Wire, as the scenes are even shorter (34 in 37 minutes!), but spread out only among 5 storylines. The pattern is typical of most soaps, rotating through 4-6 storylines per episodes, with 5-6 scenes per story spread out over the running time. Not much action happens in each scene, with internal redundancy and the paradigmatic pleasures of hearing characters talk about each other and react to narrative information. (See this post for more of my thoughts on soaps’ questionable influence on primetime serials.)

Game of Thrones, “Valar Morghulis” – 16 SpH, 12 foci.
I am stunned by these numbers, which demonstrate how radically different Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are from the comparison point of soap operas or other primetime serials like The Wire. The long scene lengths and number of scenes rival the slowburn of Breaking Bad, but they are spread out over a Wire-like number of storylines, characters, and locations. Only three storylines get more than one scene in this finale (Tyrion, Robb, Danys), with most characters getting between 3 to 5 minutes to provide a last taste of narrative before going into hiatus for a long interseason gap.

This comparison points to why I find Game of Thrones to have problems of narrative momentum that are partly compensated by binge-watching. With only one or two scenes per most episodes, storylines have rarely feel propulsive, suspenseful, or otherwise engaging. They fall out of our active memory from week-to-week, and when we do hook onto a character or plot, they disappear for too long to be satisfying. When we binge, this is overcome as we treat multiple episodes more like the intercutting between stories more typical to television.

Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are far different from other serial television programs, whether daytime or primetime, and I think that’s in keeping with its source material of novels, where long scenes and sequences, intercut and distributed among chapters, work better due to the ability to read in more self-controlling timing. I wonder whether the novels of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read) would be enjoyable if you had to wait a week between chunks of 50 pages? My guess is probably not, which speaks to the show’s problematic scenic rhythms that are poorly suited for weekly television. And thus I’ll be waiting even longer to binge on subsequent seasons.

[Update: I posted a follow-up piece thinking more about SpH as data, including charting a number of other programs as well. If you’re quantitatively open-minded, check it out!]

One of the reasons I most enjoy studying the fan culture side of media studies is that fans can come up with some fascinating stuff, a boggling array of creativity discovered through the contraints provided by the source texts. I document some of the most interesting examples I’ve found in my chapter on “Orienting Paratexts,” ranging from The Tommy Westphall Universe Theory to The Wire‘s D&D alignment chart. I’m always on the lookout for the type of creativity that only exists in intertextual relationship with another pre-existing text, like the legendary play (and underrated film) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead or brilliant television series Slings & Arrows, both of which write in the margins of Shakespeare to redefine our notions of “originality.”

Yesterday, a friend tweeted a link to a fascinating example of such an original intertext: And The Man Next To You. While the source material is not quite Shakespeare, the project has a similar investment in intertextual playfulness – as the site’s subtitle aptly explains, “The Tragic Backstory of Everyone Killed in Under Siege.” The Tumblr-hosted site is a serialized slow-motion walkthrough of the fairly forgettable Steven Seagal movie, freeze-framing each death and offering a brief account of each victim’s pitiable fate, as with this entry from 70 minutes into the film:

His parents worshipped at the church of ‘no’. He heard the word so often he mistook it for his name. Banned TV and confiscated music and friends he wasn’t allowed to see were supposed proof of their love for him, and the weight of their disappointment kept him pinned down in his bedroom until he was sixteen. Then he stole everything in the house that’d fit through the door and never looked back. His first ‘yes’ was to a tattoo, small at first, but he soon gave more and more of himself over to it. Back, ribs, shoulders, and heart. Now he just regrets not dying in a knife fight with his shirt hanging off him in ribbons. He wishes everyone could see what he’s become.

The concept seems like a clever idea on its own, kind of a McSweeney’s style high-concept experiment that you could imagine spending ten minutes reading. But it goes on and on as a piece of experimental fiction, accumulating bodies for months. It just struck me as both oddly fabulous and fabulously odd, achieving weight as it piles up. So I wanted to know who was behind it – and was happily surprised to discover that the author was actually my friend who tweeted it: Martyn Pedler, an Australian writer, screenwriter, and media scholar whom I know from conferences & the internets. I couldn’t resist digging into the site, and Martyn agreed to engage in a brief conversation to try to figure out what exactly this site is all about. I hope you enjoy reading both Martyn’s accounts of these tragic deaths, and what made Martyn discover more about the victims.

Continue reading ‘Behind the Scenes of a Serialized Intertext’

It’s time for another chapter of Complex TV to go live on MediaCommons Press—this time, the topic is Transmedia Storytelling. It builds on work I have done in recent years about how television narratives expand into other media, especially around Lost and its ARGs, but very few of the chapter’s ideas have been published elsewhere. As always, the chapters are designed to stand on their own, so don’t feel you need to have read any of the other ones to dive in here. Here’s the abstract:

As television series have become more complex in their narrative strategies, television itself has expanded its scope across a number of screens and platforms, complicating notions of medium-specificity at the very same time that television seems to have a clearer sense of distinct narrative form. This chapter explores how television narratives are expanded and complicated through transmedia extensions, including video games, novelizations, websites, online video, and alternate reality games. With specific analyses of transmedia strategies for Lost and Breaking Bad, I consider how television’s transmedia storytelling is grappling with issues of canonicity and audience segmentation, how transmedia reframes viewer expectations for the core television serial, and what transmedia possibilities might look like going forward.

I’ve been a bit disappointed that very few people have offered feedback in the comments at the MediaCommons Press site. I know that a number of American academic readers have been waiting until the spring semester finishes, and I’ve heard from a few other people that they’re reading but not commenting. If you have any thoughts about ways to improve participation, please let me know.

And for bonus content, check out the video for one of the Breaking Bad transmedia extensions I discuss, Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E.!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,620 other followers

%d bloggers like this: