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Teaching Television

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After a few years of delivering papers on television and popular culture at conferences, I decided to offer a course on television. There were a number of reasons for this. I am interested in this stuff. I think that we are moving into an era of television where the programming has increasingly academic value and interest. I think that we are witnessing a transformation in preferred narrative form; just as in the 18th and 19th centuries poetry gave way to the novel, we are watching the novel give way to long form television narratives like The Sopranos, The Wire, LOST, and Battlestar Galactica.

We had been encouraged by our dean to offer big sections of courses, something that Literature classes don’t really lend itself to. The entire discipline has spent the last 40 years under the spell of Paolo Freire, and so long gone are the days of the English professor holding forth in a lecture. Small classes full of dynamic discussions are in vogue. Through a quirk of my undergraduate education, I have never taken a large class. I had never taught a class with more than 35 students. And so I was curious about two things: 1) How many people could I get to take a class in which we read television the same way we read novels? and 2) How many non-English majors could I attract?

We offered the class using our experimental number at both the lower-division and the upper-division. I capped each class at 75.

I chose the nerdiest shows I could think of, all designed to tap into cult interest: Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and LOST.

I got 75 students, total. Fewer than I’d wanted, but impressive nonetheless. Most of them were not English majors, and they had all enrolled in a class that would offer them no credits toward their graduation. They were absolutely chomping at the bit to talk about this stuff, to have their love for these shows validated by the institution, and to be amongst other people who felt as they do.

I began the course with a powerpoint presentation in which I argue that some television shows actually have literary pretensions. I explained that, yes, there are some shows that are pretty bad–just as there are novels at the airport that are awful, there are shows that are just the same. But some shows beg to be read intensely, to be pored over, to be subjected to serious analysis.

The class was an amazing experience. I radically altered the way I imagined assignments, allowing them to turn in projects and DVD commentary and giant mindmaps of relationships–all sorts of things. The things they turned in were amazing and clever and usually far better than anything I would have gotten had I simply asked them to write essays.

The class also taught me something very important: while I can tear through a novel pretty quickly, I cannot watch a 43-minute long episode of a television show in less than 43 minutes. But I’m not just watching. I’m viewing in Quicktime Pro, making clips of bits of the show that I want us to focus on, and making notes. Prep for a single class could take anywhere from one and a half to three or four hours, depending on how many episodes we were covering for that day. If there was DVD commentary or an official podcast, add another hour. And this is before I start poking around on the web to see what people have been saying.

The prep was grueling.

Despite this, it was an amazing experience for me–and for them, too, if my teaching evaluations are to be believed. I wound up discovering a group of students who I probably would have never met. And they wound up discovering each other.

I’m running the class again this semester and it’s the same story: I have a classroom full of students who are overjoyed both at finding their interests validated by the academy and at finding a group of people who, like them, value this stuff.


I thought it would be helpful, should anyone be interested, to provide a few technology tips for teaching a course like this. Here they are:

1) I use Handbrake to rip the DVDs into MPEG-4 video (sized for iPod, because it keeps the file size down). I have found that this works best in cross-platform environments (I work on a Mac; the classrooms have Windows machines).

2) On Saturdays, I use Quicktime Pro to watch all the episodes for the week and make clips. Once I’ve selected the material I want, I export as MPEG-4 using the “passthrough” settings for both audio and video. Basically, this means that I am not re-encoding the video (and thus losing quality).

3) I store all the clips on an 8GB flash drive formatted to work on Windows (Windows cannot read Mac-formatted volumes; the Mac can read and write to MS-DOS-formatted volumes).

4) For playback in the classroom, I use VLC, which is the most versatile video application on any platform. Usually, if VLC can’t play it, something is wrong with your file.

5) To control the PC in the classroom, I use Hipporemote, which turns the iPhone or iPod Touch into a trackpad.


Written by srogers

November 14, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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