Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What I learned from (teaching) Television

Last semester, I made a conscious decision to teach television as primary text for unpacking in my analysis classes. It was an experiment, practically, but a pedagogically sound one. I intended to follow up with what texts I taught and how they were received by students. So, lo these months later, here are the five key results.
Students LOVED talking about and watching television. Because they were enthusiastic about it, and because the text wasn't threatening to them (everybody, after all, is an expert at watching television), they seemed to put good effort into the experience of viewing and discussing the shows we watched.
Students are savvy watchers of satire, but have little experience explaining how it works. I was prepared for students to struggle with some of the more political critiques offered, or to need considerable context in order for some more obscure jokes and references to land. In reality, many of the jokes landed resoundingly well, suggesting a level of sophistication to their collective sense of humor that I may not always give them credit for. BUT, when pressed to discuss it, most found it very difficult to express why it was funny, or what ideas were being sent up in any particular section. A lot of our efforts went to acquiring that language.

Their Netflix and other streaming history puts us on surprisingly even footing. Now that I'm approaching forty, I'm used to my cultural references having drifted somewhat from theirs. After all, there is now a generation between us. However, in the last few years, I've noticed that we're coming back together again in our reference points via the internet. That was never more pronounced than during a semester in which we spent a lot of time discussing television watching habits and content. Binge watching and the instant availability of older shows mean that we're still sharing viewing experiences, but in new ways. Also, a show about which they may have known nothing at the start, they would sometimes then binge watch after seeing an episode or two in class.

The analysis papers were every bit as sophisticated, well-developed, and insightful as papers about more traditional narratives. This wasn't surprising, really, as I have read a lot of smart analysis about television in both popular and academic venues. But, it was validating as to the value of television as a text-producing medium for the classroom. Also, I got more surprising observations about television than I tend to get about books or other traditional written texts. I don't know if it's their familiarity with the medium, the wealth of information available to them on the web about these texts, or some other factor, but they had some things to say.

Comedies worked better than dramas, overall
. They each wrote one paper on an episode of a half hour comedy, and an episode of a  hour-long drama. I got strong papers on each, and at least one strong paper about each single episode, but overall the comedy papers were better. I suspect it has to do with the tremendously fast pace of joke content in contemporary sit-coms. There so much to unpack there that it's easy to find enough to say. Also, the dramas tended to require more context in order to make sense, which was a limiting factor for some
  • Best episode for class discussion, comedy "Return of the King," The Boondocks
  • Best episode for class discussion, drama: "Man on the Street", Dollhouse
  • Strongest overall papers: "Diversity Hire", Archer and "Jaynestown", Firefly
  • Wouldn't teach again: "The Pain in the Heart", Bones
  • Surprised it still works: "Cherokee Hair Tampons," South Park

For my next TV challenge, this semester I will be teaching Season 4 of Jersey Shore, in which the cast goes to Florence, Italy. We will watch and analyze a full season, rather than individual episodes from multiple shows. My own students are travelling to Florence, so it's relatable. It's relatively recent, but also fading from the cultural awareness quickly, as tends to happen with reality television. Most importantly, it affords a great opportunity to examine identity construction (with the cast self-identifying with the "Guido" sub-culture, and many of the cast members espousing strong but mixed ethnic identities), the editorial process and narrative framing, and cultural dislocation. In December, I'll update with how it went. 

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