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(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate Our Understandings of What It Means to Learn and Teach

Kelli Bippert

Dennis Davis

Margaret Rose Hilburn

Jennifer D. Hooper

Deepti Kharod

Cinthia Rodriguez

Rebecca Stortz

San Antonio, Texas, USA
The University of Texas at San Antonio



This article utilizes sociocultural and socio-constructivist learning theories to analyze incidents of learning, and by extension teaching, in six different popular media selections. The authors describe their shared theoretical framework and the nature of the original analyses, which were completed as part of a doctoral course assignment. Each of the six excerpts is then described and discussed employing unique theoretical perspectives. The use of popular culture as the context for examining learning and teaching provides a space untethered from traditional notions of schooling through which typically accepted assumptions about pedagogy are revealed, re-examined, and reframed.



Sociocultural, Socio-constructivist, Learning, Teaching, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Pedagogy, Education, Communities of Practice

In this article, we describe an innovative pedagogy used in a higher education setting to facilitate reflection and unpacking of a complex construct that often goes unexamined in our field. We (the authors) are doctoral students and a faculty member in an interdisciplinary PhD program in learning and teaching, and we all identify as current and prospective teacher educators dedicated to the development of high quality and critically conscious PK-12 teachers. Our doctoral program intentionally highlights the importance of interdisciplinary inquiry as a stance and a methodology for approaching complex problems in educational scholarship (Repko, Klein). Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this program, our departmental membership represents a community of practice (Lave and Wenger) that intersects different educational and teaching backgrounds—art, literacy, early childhood, educational technology, mathematics, and science education—each with its own socio-historically developed commitments to different theories and perspectives on learning and teaching.

Given the variations across our individual perspectives and our goal of finding common understandings that transcend disciplinary boundaries, we have found it useful in our shared conversations about what it means to learn—and by extension, to teach—to identify common accounts of learning/teaching in popular media. Popular culture, including television, literature, and film media, often portrays a snapshot of our world through compelling fictional and historical characters (Storey). In this article, we leverage the potential of popular media to provide common spaces for counternarratives that problematize the givens of learning and teaching. 

Traditional accounts of learning/teaching are often corrupted by the assembly-line structures of contemporary schooling (Rogoff, Paradise, Arauz et al.; Sawyer) and the ideological perspectives built into standards and curriculum surrounding knowledge (Luke 13). In this article, we assume that examples of learning in popular media, particularly those that are untethered from traditional schooling, can be illustrative cases for re-conceptualizing what it means to learn and teach. Beyond providing entertainment, popular culture is a space in which our perceptions and taken-for-granted assumptions about the world are shaped (Grossberg 94). The pedagogy described in this article was designed to help us “[turn] a skeptical eye toward assumptions, ideas that have become ‘naturalized,’ notions that are no longer questioned” (Pennycook 7). This “problematization of the given” is an important part of our ongoing work to re-configure our own conceptualizations of learning/teaching so that we can be more effective and critically conscious in our work with prospective teachers. The analyses detailed here center on the following questions: In what ways do the fictional worlds within popular culture create a portal for analyzing the ways that learning and teaching occur in out-of-school contexts; and How might these analyses offer new understandings about learning/teaching that can enrich the way we model and discuss learning with future K-12 teachers in higher education?

The analyses detailed here began as part of a doctoral course, titled Socio-constructivist and Cognitivist Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, focused on socio-culturalist, socio-constructivist, and cognitivist theories as related to formal and informal learning and teaching. The primary assignment in this course was an ongoing inquiry in which we applied these theories to analyze learning and teaching events found in popular culture. Each student-author identified a “narrative of learning” in popular media, defined as an event or series of events in which someone is observed learning or changing, either incidentally or as a result of intentional teaching. Each individual student-author’s contribution featured different modes and theories that encompassed their learning and teaching event. The power of analyzing learning and teaching through six different socio-cultural lenses helped solidify these doctoral students’ understanding of how sociocultural learning and teaching occur in the everyday.

The analysis in this paper is undergirded by socio-cultural and socio-constructivist perspectives that establish learning as an interactive relationship between the individual and the social environment. Several general themes can be extracted from these two theories regarding learning and teaching. One claim is that all learning exists within the social setting and is internalized by the individual and then transmitted back to society (Vygotsky). A second notion is that learning requires the use of cultural tools (Vygotsky; Wertsch), both physical and abstract, which are inseparable from the individual. More so, in order for learning to occur, individuals must be active participants in their situated environment (Lave and Wenger).

Principally, learning is seen as an interactional process, where the learner is in a constant reciprocal relationship with the environment. These interactions cause the learner to act and react to socially-defined practices by adapting, engaging, contributing, and using past experiences (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds; Cobb). These actions change the learner and the community in various ways. First, the learner evolves, by developing past practices and making new contributions. Second, the transformation of the learner affects the situated setting, which can lead to changes in cultural norms, tools, and practices. Consequently, this interplay between learner and society causes learning shifts that are constantly impacting both the individual and their community (Lave and Wenger 51; Wenger 227). This leads to the notion that learning and teaching form a continuous and transformative cycle; “a process results in a product that in turn influences subsequent processes” (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 180).

However, these ideas produce only a general viewpoint of the learning and teaching process. Although there are many social learning theories that seek to further explain these elements, there is an ongoing debate about what learning is (Bruner; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds), how it develops (Greeno, Collins, and Resnik; John-Steiner and Mahn), and how varying perspectives on learning might inform the practice of teaching (Sawyer). Because social learning views argue that the learner is inseparable from the environment and cultural tools, examining novice learners in their authentic setting is critical. It is important to consider how new members experience their environment, interact with new cultural tools, and seek support from other community members. In this sense, popular culture provides a unique space to examine a range of diverse learning and teaching scenarios.

The Process

We engaged in a three-layered process that helped question, reframe, and clarify our understandings about social perspectives of learning and teaching. The process began with unpacking various theories in the context of a doctoral course, then using those understandings to undertake an individual analysis, and finally collaborating with our peers to uncover shared findings to write this article.

First, as authors of our individual analyses, we began with certain shared premises grounded in sociocultural theory. Learning and teaching were understood as mutually transformative practices situated in a common space (Lave and Wenger; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). The space provided opportunities for learning and feedback. The learning process also relied on the use of tools, both physical objects and strategies or practices. Finally, the learning resulted in mastery, making what was internal to the learner visible to the community.

From there, we employed unique lenses to view what was being learned, how it was learned and evidenced, and what was the role of explicit teaching in that process. Our experiences as classroom teachers in varied school settings informed these decisions, as did our different disciplines, and personal preferences regarding popular media.

Finally, the decision to collaborate in this joint analysis emerged from a shared value of interdisciplinarity. The process of reading each other’s original papers, exploring common findings, and appreciating varied viewpoints has uncovered understandings that run deeper than a typical co-authoring experience. We have gained insight as to how art, literacy, math, and science intersect with each other, and with early childhood, elementary, secondary, and undergraduate learning and teaching. These common grounds are not simply in the space of lessons or learning activities, but more fundamentally in terms of how we view our students, ourselves as students and teachers, and the very meanings of learning and teaching.

Findings from Individual Analyses

This study aims to analyze learning and teaching episodes found within popular media. Using excerpts from Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, Megamind, Sherlock, Exit Through the Giftshop, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the student-authors follow novice learners as they interact with their respective environments.

In the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black (, Piper Chapman, a co-owner of an artisanal soap-making business, is living in an upper-middle class neighborhood. In the initial episode, Chapman self-surrenders at Litchfield Women’s Prison due to an international drug smuggling crime she committed ten years prior. On her first day, Chapman accidentally insults Red, the veteran kitchen manager, and instantly loses her food privileges. Consequently, she begins a series of problem-solving events to amend her relationship with Red. In order to survive, Chapman has to learn the hidden rules, overcome obstacles, and earn a respected place in the prison community. The social learning concept articulated in Rom Harré’s Vygotsky Space model was utilized to understand Piper Chapman’s interactions as she learned to adapt, participate, and contribute in the established prison environment in the first episodes of the series.

The Vygotsky Space model explores how learners interact within their social environment, internalize learning, and create contributions. The theory states that the learner is always situated within two dimensions: the public/private and the individual/social. Furthermore, it claims that these two dimensions interact with each other to form four quadrants of learning (Gavelek and Raphael 187). As learners transition through the quadrants, they engage in the developmental activities of Appropriation, Transformation, Publication, and Conventionalization (see Table 1, adapted from Gavelek and Raphael).

Table 1 Dimensions of Learning


During Appropriation, knowledge is social and public, allowing the learner to acquire it. In the Transformation phase, the learner’s appropriated knowledge is transformed into his or her own, yielding changes in the individual. These changes allow the learner to make visible contributions to the environment in the form of Publications. The acceptance of these contributions by society is seen as Conventionalization. Thus, the product is an ongoing cycle where the learner interacts within various private and social sectors that ultimately alter the individual and social context.

The Vygotsky Space assists in understanding the process of learning by examining both individual and social changes that occur throughout the four quadrants. This theoretical lens was employed to examine the actions of Piper Chapman during her initial stay at Litchfield Women’s Prison. Several key findings emerged from the analysis.

First, it was evident that Chapman’s initial lack of social knowledge in the prison environment led to immediate mistakes that changed her course of action. This created a need for specific knowledge, which placed her in various developmental opportunities. These included learning the bartering system and understanding the prison’s social hierarchy in order to obtain and exchange goods. A second finding was that cultural tools restricted and supported the learner during Appropriation.When the learner encountered physical items, they initially posed obstacles because they were used differently in the prison setting. However, as Chapman practiced using the items through trial-and-error, the tools became supporting elements of learning. Lastly, the examination found that the Transformation and Publication of cultural tools by the new member were substantial in gaining confidence, power, and acceptance. By creating and introducing tools, Chapman showed the community that she had mastered useful practices. The prisoners acknowledged Chapman’s actions and accepted her Publications. An example was apparent when Chapman learned to use the bartering system and gathered items to create a therapeutic lotion that she presented to Red. As a result, Chapman regained her food privileges and the respect of the senior inmates.

From this analysis it is evident that the new learner’s lack of initial social knowledge placed her in specific developmental opportunities. These led to individual contributions in the form of publicized practices and newly created cultural tools, transforming both the individual and her social context.

The next analysis focuses on The Walking Dead (, the AMC television series about a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. The presence of the walkers, or zombies, is the driving force behind the group dynamics and the reason their society becomes focused on survival. This analysis examines the motivations between Shane, an established leader in the survivor community and Andrea, a member with less authority in the community with a sociocultural lens. Shane teaches Andrea through a scaffolding approach, enabling him to assess her learning and motivation. (See Neely for another analysis of this same event.

This analysis assumes that the standards and values that motivate individual learning are socially constructed (Hickey and Zuiker 288). Learning and behavior, as well as the society and culture in which they occur, are the forces that drive individual motivation. It is also understood that individuals have different motivations for learning. For example, Andrea is motivated to learn how to shoot so she can protect others and prove herself as a valued member of her new community; however, her ability to handle a gun has been questioned. Shane on the other hand has a different motivation. As one of the leaders, it benefits him to train others for two reasons: first, he does not have to work as hard shooting the walkers because others are helping him; and second, he does not have to continually watch over others while shooting the walkers.

This analysis focuses on three excerpts from Episode 6 in Season 2 that depict motivation through scaffolding. The intrinsic motivation felt by Andrea and Shane emphasizes the importance of learning; it also is essential to the human need for survival. Feedback is essential for one’s sense of control, is vital to intrinsic motivation, and improves learning. Unlike the others, Andrea bypasses the beginner tasks in her training and challenges herself to shoot at a harder target found in the “No Trespassing” sign. In response, Shane challenges her to the advanced class. This challenge to prove herself piques Andrea’s interest and increases her motivation. It also capitalizes on Shane’s motivation because he can nurture Andrea’s skills and help him reach his own goal of having more trained individuals in the community.

In this  particular scenario, Shane is badgering Andrea to shoot a moving target, trying to simulate a stressful interaction with a walker. After many failed attempts, her motivation begins to diminish. Illustrated by Madeline Hunter’s observation that degree of success is an important variable in motivation, Andrea’s low degree of success leads to low motivation. Eventually, as a result of her failure and Shane’s negative feedback, she quits and walks off.

By the end of the episode, Andrea’s and Shane’s different personal motivations intersect in pursuit of a common goal of survival. Thus, the urgency to shoot the walkers provides a common motivation for learning and teaching. As Yrjö Engeström explains from his situated learning perspective, the motivation to learn stems from participation in culturally valued, collaborated practices in which something useful is produced (141). Barohny Eun states that when you scaffold the learning process like Shane does, the learner (Andrea) needs to have each skill be both solid and well-embedded (410). It is these scaffolding situations that will help Andrea be able to utilize her gun, effectively utilizing the skills learned in prior situations. When faced with walkers, Andrea is able to apply her learning in a real life situation; she is more motivated and committed in her learning process.

The third individual analysis examines issues surrounding learner identity in the DreamWorks movie Megamind ( What forces shape a person into becoming a superhero? What forces shape others in becoming villains? The film Megamind acts as a social commentary, addressing the formation of identities by peer groups and the larger society. Through his experiences with society, the film’s protagonist, Megamind, learns as a child to accept villainy as his destiny, resolving to become the “baddest boy of them all.”

Two theories were addressed in the analysis of the opening scene: identity theory and positioning theory. According to James Paul Gee (“Identity as an Analytic Tool”), identity is described as the way a person is seen, a type of person, in society. A person’s nature-identity describes his or her physical traits and other aspects of the person that have been shaped by forces outside of the individual’s control. The institution-identity comprises the person’s official identity within society and his or her related powers and rights. Discourse-identity is shaped by the interactions that take place between the individual and others in the community. It reflects the individual’s relationship with others and is shaped by interactions within society. The fourth type of identity is the affinity-identity related to a person’s involvement in particular groups based on similar interests or activities. An individual’s position in society, and the power associated with it, is directly related to that person’s view of self (Davies and Harré 6). Of course, a person may choose to write his or her own “storyline,” pushing to increase rights and duties within the larger society. According to Rom Harré (“Positioning Theory” 3), positioning theory describes how rights and duties are distributed, change, and challenged over the course of a lifetime.

The film’s exposition was divided into four major parts, each occurring where the account of Megamind’s young life made major shifts. The exposition of the film Megamind was analyzed using discourse analysis (Gee, “How to do Discourse Analysis”). Each utterance within these parts was analyzed using Gee’s four types of learner identity (Gee, “Identity as an Analytic Tool” 100) and the expansion or retraction of rights and duty related to positioning (Harré, “Positioning Theory” 3).

Four patterns emerged based on the content of the exposition. In part one, the most commonly coded example of identity was nature-identity; at this point the exposition, which displayed Megamind’s earliest memories, showed very limited social interactions. In part two, institution-identity and reduction of rights were coded most frequently as he makes his home among prison inmates. In the third part, Megamind begins school and interacts with his teacher and classmates, and discourse-identity was coded more than in any other part of the transcription. The consequences of his perceived bad behavior result in his removal from much of the social interactions that occur in the classroom, limiting his rights and duties. Finally, part four of the exposition features the main character continuing the trend of negative discourse-identity formations and reduction of rights, as he chooses to push against social norms and positioning, creating his own storyline, starring Megamind as the “baddest boy of them all.”

By closely analyzing student, teacher, and peer interactions with at-risk children, we can gain better insights to reasons that many children push against norms set in the classroom. Megamind’s experiences in school could describe situations in which many marginalized children find themselves. Megamind, the protagonist in this film, is very much like many students who attempt to participate in school learning community, yet for various reasons fail to thrive as members of their learning environment. Be it intentional or not, the writers of the animated film Megamind described the very essence of how and why many children struggle in the traditional classroom.

The fourth vignette investigates identity formation in a different context. Over the course of the three seasons of BBC’s Sherlock (, John Watson develops from a damaged survivor of the Afghanistan war to a fully-realized, deductive-reasoning, consulting detective’s assistant. He forms and recognizes this new identity through his social interactions and experiences of working alongside Sherlock Holmes as they investigate and solve crimes at various locations within a period of three years. Watson’s cognitive, social, cultural, and psychological identities undergo a transformation that would be impossible without these social experiences. More than just the building of ideas from within the mind, learning for Watson must be analyzed from within the larger context of his place in society.

George Herbert Mead’s seminal work on identity formation stresses the impossibility of separating the self from the society in which it is formed. He further transfers the concept of communication between two or more people into an internal conversation within the individual. The person therefore becomes his own inner community. This concept, which he calls abstraction, cannot be the only interaction within a society, of course, but it helps to explain how identity formation becomes an internalized process, one that ultimately requires full participation of the individual.

Sheldon Stryker further explores the concept of identity theory by refining Mead’s work into a simple model explained as “society shapes self shapes social behavior” (Stryker 28). He likens identity to a mosaic, blending bits and pieces of social interaction to form a complete whole. It is relatively patterned, yet crosses new boundaries as new social interactions take place. Stryker finds that a shared meaning of a concept or idea provided the commonality to link identity and behavior (31). The practices within the identity and social community, and the common usage of the meaning, provide an extension of how identity is created.

In the beginning of the series, John Watson is a returning soldier and a doctor from the Afghanistan war, clearly affected by the violence and trauma of his experiences there. In therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his therapist has advised him to stay calm, get involved in “normal” society, and reintegrate himself with civilians and a quiet life. He has difficulty reckoning his inner desire to experience more danger and violence with the socially accepted reaction that he should be feeling. Scenes from the first season emphasize this dissonance, showcasing situations where Watson fluctuates between settling down in the life of a clinical doctor and relishing the high energy of detective work. His time is ripe for learning a new life, one where he is both in control and in enough danger to satisfy his needs. This new community Sherlock Holmes provides comes at the perfect time for Watson’s emerging identity.

By season three, Watson proves himself a fully-formed identity as an investigator. One key scene in the final episode depicts both his skill as an investigator and his mentor’s awareness of these skills. Holmes has been shot and has left clues for Watson to figure out the case, knowing that Watson will be able to separate his emotions from logic and connect the dots, realizing that his own wife is the person who has shot his best friend. If this identity as an investigator had not been fully formed, Watson’s denial of evidence would have hindered his conclusions. The clues he collects, and the conclusions he makes from them, are symbolic of the larger ability to think like an investigator. This ingrained methodology has become a natural practice, one in which Watson engages without conscious thought. Watson’s identity arc corresponds with the narrative arc of the show; while he will continue to grow and develop as an investigator, as all learning continues, he now has ownership of his identity. The social context in which Watson is placed at this time has shifted yet again. A married man, practicing doctor, part-time investigator, this Watson has finally claimed ownership of his new identity.

The next analysis centers on cultural tools and co-construction. The 2010 documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, examines Thierry Guerra’s induction to the secretive community of some of the world’s most famous street artists ( Initially, Guerra is allowed access to the exclusive group under the assumption that he is a documentary filmmaker. However, Guerra is not content with simply standing by as an observer, and through an unintentional apprenticeship, remakes himself into the street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. This analysis of Guerra’s transformation reveals insights about how cultural tools help to scaffold artistic meaning making.

From a social constructivist perspective, cultural products such as language and signs semiotics are considered to mediate our thoughts and mold our reality (Vygotsky). Sign mediated activities include “systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so on” (Vygotsky 137). These semiotic means are referred to as tools, and it is with the aid of these tools that we construct our knowledge. James Wertsch believes that these cultural tools manipulate human action within the mind and in the world. He emphasizes the importance between the relationship of external cultural tools and their influence of internal processes.

The concept that individuals employ internal cultural tools to make sense of the external world is referred to as co-construction. The mastery of a new concept, skill or tool is the process of internalization. Furthermore, a skill or tool can be appropriated, meaning that it has been used in a unique or individual way. It is through an internal conversation that individuals appropriate and reconstruct their understanding (Harré). Semiotic representations, shaped by and indistinguishable from culture, aid our processes of internalization. Ernest Gombrich (as cited in Cunliffe) situates works of art not only in the mind of the artist, but also within social and cultural contexts. He proposes that artistic ability is not simply a naturally inherited gift, but that symbolic cultural representations, in the form of tradition, influence the work of artists by providing visual cues and critical feedback.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, the degree to which graffiti culture influenced Guerra’s artistic decision making is extensive. Often, Guerra appropriates the images, style, and artistic approaches that he observed during his time among the street art community. Throughout the film Guerra is able to engage with and observe how expert artists test and refine their practices through the mechanism of corrective feedback. One such example occurs when graffiti artist Space Invader asks Guerra what he thinks of his mosaic, and then later when he seeks Guerra’s help in installing the mosaic on a building.

Though frequently unsuccessful in his initial attempts at art making, Guerra is able to appropriate the strategies of trial and error and corrective feedback to his eventual success. Guerra’s mastery of these tools is evidence of his internalization of the practices and tools of the street artist community. This internal conversation and transformation was instrumental in reconstructing Guerra’s identity from Guerra the documentary filmmaker to Mr. Brainwash, successful street artist.

Finally, although educators frequently conceptualize learning as an intentional product of teaching, an analysis of J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, reveals many layers of learning occurring simultaneously, often in the absence of purposeful teaching, and exposes issues of periphery and power ( As a new student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry happens upon the magical Mirror of Erised. His initial interactions are directly with the Mirror, but Harry also learns about its powers from his mentor, Headmaster Dumbledore, before encountering it again in a high-stakes duel with Professor Quirrell (possessed by the evil Voldemort’s spirit).

In their definition of learning, Patricia Alexander, Diane Schallert, and Ralph Reynolds describe it as both “conscious and intentional,” and “tacit and incidental” (178), so learning is continuous (Matusov 338), inevitable (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 178), and multifunctional (Davis 105). Teachers and students constantly (but not always consciously) send and receive messages about expectations, socialization, power, and other cultural norms of their community. So, within a single activity, a learner typically experiences several types, or layers, of learning simultaneously. This study analyzes Harry’s learning by what he learns (tool, environment, and identity) and how he learns (incidental or intentional, guided by teacher or learner).

Layers of learning across the what categories is evident when the Mirror drops the Sorcerer’s Stone into Harry’s pocket. Harry gains new understandings about a magical tool (the Mirror), norms of the wizarding world (the Stone’s reflection materializes in his pocket), and his changing identity (from loser in his uncle’s household to hero at Hogwarts). Through this single event, Harry experiences three layers of learning.

Harry also experiences multiple layers in terms of how he learns: intentionally through Dumbledore’s explanation (teacher) and Harry’s following his advice (learner), and incidentally when he experiences the Mirror’s magic. Rowling describes Harry’s reflection twice as changing from “pale and scared-looking” to smiling (208, 292). The first time is when Harry originally encounters the Mirror and sees his reflection surrounded by family; the next is when he encounters the Mirror during his final confrontation with Quirrell/ Voldemort. After the first incident, Prof. Dumbledore suggests that Harry avoid losing himself in the fantasies the Mirror shows him, and Harry decides to do so. Finally, the incidental learning occurs in that Harry accidentally encounters the Mirror in the storeroom before he faces it in a high-stakes situation (assuming that Dumbledore did not mastermind the coincidence).

Power is inherent in educational relationships, with the expectation that a learner’s power increases with greater experience, knowledge, and mastery of craft and culture. Although institutional power rests with teachers (compared to students), Jean Lave and EtienneWenger note that the periphery offers a position of power, too (36). Harry’s mastery of certain spells and tools is not valued or even permitted in his classrooms; however, it is invaluable in actual practice. He remains an outsider, even as a hero, because of his unfamiliarity with wizarding culture as well as his own personality and choices. The Mirror episodes afford opportunities to reframe learning, from a planned activity to a continuous, multi-layered experience. Harry’s experiences also highlight the power that a peripheral position can confer in a community of practice.

Uncovering the Givens and Identifying Tensions

While each of these examinations uses a distinct lens in addition to the shared social learning theories, looking across these six vignettes brings further insight regarding teaching and learning.

Through our reflections on the process of examining cases of learning/teaching in popular media, we have identified two broad implications of this work: 1) helping us see learning/teaching more clearly, around the boundaries of what we were accustomed to seeing; and 2) identifying dialectic tensions that expand the complexity of our thinking about learning.

As an example of the “givens” in the field of education that we were able to examine more deeply as a result of our analyses of out-of-school learning as represented in popular media, we offer the following list of assumptions, developed through our class discussions, that are often played out in typical classroom practice in K-12 settings and required of beginning teachers in a typical education program as evidence of readiness for leading a classroom:

  • Assumption of designed intentionality: there has to be an observable, measurable objective, written with a clear verb and statement of evidence
  • Assumption of observable and instant mastery: the lesson is successful if all (or most) students at the end of the lesson have “mastered” the objective
  • Assumption of tangible evidence: Mastery is almost always documented through the creation of tangible artifacts (writing), even to the point where some things are written (or copied) simply for the purpose of creating this artifact when they could be more efficiently and authentically accomplished through talk or other intangible practices
  • Assumption of active engagement: the lesson is successful if all students look busy
  • Assumption of structure: there is an expected architecture to the lesson sequence and the lesson is successful if all components are performed for the appropriate amount of time in the appropriate order
  • Assumption of tidiness: the lesson is successful if it is tidy and compliant such that disruptions or meanderings from the architecture are discouraged and instances of dissonance or conceptual struggle are deemed indicators of bad teaching

It is certainly beyond the scope of this article to argue that these normalized practices are universally incorrect or ineffective, and we do not claim to dispute accumulated evidence for the need for these and other features of standards-based and data-driven instruction. Our point is simply that part of our work as interdisciplinary scholars who hope to extend our quality as teacher educators is to engage in thoughtful critique of these and other givens of learning/teaching that are rarely questioned or even noticed because they are assumed to be true and natural. Each of these ritualized practices rests on assumptions about how learning occurs and what is worth learning. Our cases of learning in popular media give us a shared context for examining learning in a way that is less corrupted by these practices so that we can engage in what Gee calls critical learning: learning to notice, critique, rearrange the design features built into a semiotic domain (Video Games 25).

Our reflection on these cases also helped us develop a list of tensions or dialectics—two seemingly opposing states that cannot be easily collapsed into each other or resolved—related to learning that expand the way we now talk about learning with colleagues and students. These four tensions are summarized below.

Coercion/volition is the first tension we identified. Our cases show examples of learners learning through participation in communities they have chosen to affiliate with (or have allowed themselves to be recruited into). At the same time, though, the learners are compelled or coerced to follow accepted pathways of access and to learn a prescribed sequence of practices. There are both individual agency and external authority driving their participation in these communities.

The second tension we identified is labeled replication/innovation. Learners who gain exclusive levels of centrality in their communities do so through the appropriation of tools and practices. which allows them to push the limits of how these tools/practices can be used (Lave and Wenger; Wertsch). Members do not just replicate the conventionalized practices of a community (Gavelek and Raphael). They actually “own” them and transform them, spitting back the transformed forms into the community so that others can also internalize the novelties they have helped build. It is important to point out, though, that replication is not totally removed from the process. There is some degree of absorption of pre-existing practices, things that make the community a community. A learner has to enter into social contracts with other members of the community, and some of these contracts involve the adoption of cultural models, tools, practices, and so forth that bind the community together.

Our cases also reveal a whole/part tension. Most of our cases center on individuals who are recruited into the practices they are hoping to learn in such a way that they are able to experience (at the very least, observe) the whole practice from the very beginning of their community affiliation. Their immersion in the whole practice is what makes their learning possible; it allows them to imagine a possible future in which they are doing all the parts of the process (Gee, Video Games; Lave and Wenger). At the same time, though, a new member in a community cannot do all the parts of the practice instantly (not well, at least). There is a partitioning or sequestration of the content that happens (sometimes incidentally, and sometimes in institutionalized ways). The learner gets access to the whole thing but also works through parts of the whole thing in the sequence that has been deemed acceptable by old-timers in the community (Lave and Wenger).

The final tension exposed in our analysis, intentional/inevitable, reflects our understanding that learning can be launched by an intentional act of teaching or can happen incidentally through interactions or experiences in which there is no nameable agent who purposely fills a teacher role. Furthermore, even when there is intentional teaching, there is always (inevitably) some learning that occurs that is not intended (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). This can be the result of intentional resistance on the part of the learner(s). But even without active resistance, when teachers launch a learning event, they are launching (or better stated, reconstituting) a community of practice, which calls forth a set of norms, practices, discourses, identities (etc.) associated with the particular community. In addition to (or instead of) the intended content of the learning, the learners will inevitably gain facility with their own ways of “doing” this practice: they will learn the rules, how to follow them, how to subvert them, how to use sanctioned aspects of the social language to gain authority in conversation, and much more.

In conclusion, the use of popular culture as a resource in the higher education community can provide a counternarrative to the traditional pedagogical practices usually accepted in academia. We found the common space of popular culture accessible and relatable to all of us, regardless of background or focus. In higher education classrooms, educators often struggle with finding ways to encourage learner agency, authenticity in class work, and a learner-focused curriculum. We contend that the process of examining representations in popular media described in this article helped us accomplish this goal while also informing our understanding of important content that influences our future work as teacher educators.

Through the close examination of our individual popular culture events, we were able to uncover the convergences in our meaning-making, finding ways to assemble the fractured conceptualizations of learning/teaching into a cohesive whole. This pedagogy affords us the opportunity to relearn how we view learning, delving deeper into our beliefs and limitations of the various processes we value in education. We are able to see what is there, not just what we have been taught to see or what we expect to find. Working together to construct our understandings through this process, we step through the popular culture portal into a new area of education. We encourage others in education and related field to engage in similar examinations as a way of developing shared understandings of important concepts in the field, particularly in programs that are interdisciplinary in nature.


Works Cited

Alexander, Patricia A, Diane L. Schallert, and Ralph E. Reynolds. “What is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered.” Educational Psychologist 44.3 (2009): 176-192. Print.

Bruner, Jerome. “A Short History of Psychological Theories of Learning.” Daedalus 133 (2004): 13-20. Print.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. Paranoid Productions, 2010. DVD.

Greeno, James G, Allan M. Collins, and Lauren B. Resnick. Cognition and Learning. Handbook of Educational Psychology 15-46. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996. Print.

Cobb, Paul. “Where is the Mind? Constructivist and Sociocultural Perspectives on Mathematical Development.” Educational Researcher 23.7 (1994): 13-20. Print.

Cunliffe, Leslie. “Gombrich on Art: A Social-Constructivist Interpretation of His Work and Its Relevance to Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 32.4 (1998): 61-77. Print.

Davies, Bronwyn, and Rom Harré. “Positioning: The discursive production of selves.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 20.1 (1990): 43-63. Print.

Davis, Dennis S. “Internalization and Participation as Metaphors of Strategic Reading Development.” Theory Into Practice 50.2 (2011): 100-106. Print.

Engestrom, Yrjö. “Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization.” Journal of Education and Work 14.1 (2010): 133-156. Print.

Eun, Barohny. “From Learning to Development: A Sociocultural Approach to Instruction.” Cambridge Journal of Education 40.4 (2010): 401-418. Print.

Gavelek, James R., and Taffy E. Raphael. “Changing Talk About Text: New Roles for Teachers and Students.” Language Arts 73.3 (1996): 182-192. Print.

Gee, James Paul. How to Do Discourse Analysis. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print

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John-Steiner, Vera, and Holbrook Mahn. “Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework.” Educational Psychologist 31.3-4 (1996): 191-206. Print.

Harré, Rom. Personal Being: A Theory for Individual Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.

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Hickey, Daniel, and Steven Zuiker. “Engaged Participation: A Sociocultural Model of Motivation with Implications for Educational Assessment.” Educational Assessment 10.3 (2005): 277-305. Print.

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Jengi, Kohan. Orange is the New Black. Prod. Tilted Productions. Netflix, 2014. Web.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Luke, Alan. “Documenting Reproduction and Inequality: Revisiting Jean Anyon’s ‘Social Class and School Knowledge.’” Curriculum Inquiry 40.1 (2010): 167-182. Print.

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Moffat, Stephen, and Mark Gatiss. Sherlock. BBC One. Netflix, 2014. Web.

Neely, Anthony. “Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web.  4 Nov. 2008

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Stryker, Sheldon. “The Interplay of Affect and Identity: Exploring the Relationships of Social Structure, Social Interaction, Self, and Emotion.” Identity, Self, and Social Movement. Ed. Sheldon Stryker, Timothy Joseph Owens, and Robert W. White, Minneapolis, MN: University of MN Press, 2000: 21-40. Print.

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Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.” Organization 7.2 (2000): 225-246. Print.

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Author Bios:

Kelli Bippert is a third year doctoral fellow at The University of Texas at San Antonio in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching. Her research interests include digital literacy, adolescent struggling readers, and integrating student interests in literacy learning to motivate learners.

Dennis S. Davis is an assistant professor of literacy education at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his PhD in Teaching, Learning, and Diversity from Vanderbilt University. He is a former fourth- and fifth-grade teacher whose research focuses on literacy in elementary and middle school contexts. His bio can be found at

Margaret Rose Hilburn is a practicing artist and educator. She holds a BFA and MAE from Texas Tech University. Hilburn is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is currently working as a doctoral fellow, and her research interests include curriculum theory, visual culture, and art education.

Jennifer D. Hooper is a third year doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interest focuses on the achievement gap between boys and girls in science courses. Upon graduating with her PhD, she plans to swim with great white sharks and seek employment in higher education.

Deepti Kharod is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her experiences as a journalist, mother, and elementary teacher inform her current work as an educator. Her research focuses on environmental education, preservice teachers, and elementary students.

Cinthia Rodriguez is an elementary math specialist at Northside Independent School District and a doctoral student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include effective teaching practices for diverse populations in the elementary school setting.

Rebecca Stortz is an educator and Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. An avid reader and writer, she strives to incorporate technology and multiliteracies into her classroom experiences. Her research interests include literacy identities, poetry, writing instruction, and teacher education.


Reference Citation:


Bippert, Kelli, Davis, Dennis, Hilburn, Margaret Rose, Hooper, Jennifer D., Kharod, Deepti, Rodriguez, Cinthia, and Stortz, Rebecca.“(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate our Understandings of what it Means to Learn and Teach.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.



Bippert, K., Davis, D., Hilburn, M. R., Hooper, J. D., Kharod, D., Rodriguez, C., and Stortz, R. (2016). (Re)learning about learning: Using cases from popular media to extend and complicate our understandings of what it means to learn and teach. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1).

Book Review: M. J. Trow. A Brief History of Vampires.

Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2010. xv, 368 pp. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-7624-3988-1.

Myha Do
University of California, Davis
Davis, California, USA


From the works of Anne Rice and Stephen King to films on vampires and the walking dead, the appeal of vampirism has become a cultural phenomenon in the United States, especially to young people. In the modern era where the typical American family is broken and where marriages can last a few days to weeks, troubled maturing young people find little comfort in a society that represents separation. In contrast, vampires, as the living undead, provide stability and lasting relationships, because they live forever and thus their love is consequentially eternal. A Brief History of Vampires is an inspiring book that attempts to explain this resurgent phenomenon as M.J. Trow links fictional Gothic beings to actual people.

M. J. Trow presents a brief but strong overview of the recent resurgence of vampires and zombies in twenty-first century literature and media by examining a number of recent films and television series such as the Twilight (2008-2012) and the True Blood (2008-2014) sagas. The book brings together an impressive description of reasons why modern Americans cannot satiate their fear and love of vampires, with a particular focus on modern cinema and the biography of the Romanian Vlad III from the Draculesti clan, better known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes). Trow introduces how literature has a profound influence on people and how actual lives are depicted best by linking real vampiric people with literary undead beings. With this, Trow’s premise of “Dracula was real” and “Dracula was there” (p. xii) bespeaks of the need to interpret and consider both fictional and realistic representations of vampires. Indeed, we cannot truly know the fictional Dracula if we do not understand the real Dracul.

While this book is a must for people interested in vampires as a twenty-first century cultural phenomenon, it should also gain the attention of scholars on contemporary Gothic or vampirism. The book is comprised of sixteen chapters organized and separated into two parts: celluloid versions of vampires to explain the current vampiric craze and the life of Vlad Tepes. The first half provides observations of the vampire craze in contemporary U.S. and very briefly details different folklore vampires and other cinematic undead from various parts of the world; yet the second half weighs too heavily on the detailed life of Vlad Tepes. Part 1, the section on cinematic effects, discusses vampires in the twenty-first century and their influence on cultural development, on teenagers (chap.1), on “Twilight Moms,” and on vampire cinema (chap. 2). The following chapters describe Bram Stoker’s Dracula (chap. 3), the impacts of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (chap. 4), Eastern folklore influences (chap. 5), and vampires in European folk traditions (chap.6).

From observing the influence of literature to the impact of vampiric visual mediums, the book’s emphasis begins to shift to Vlad Tepes and how his actual lifestyle turned him into a prototypical figure that later writers used for vampiric Counts. Part 2 expands on this mutual effect of bloodthirsty people and literary characters by detailing chapters on the Draculesti clan: the rise of Vlad Dracul, the voilvod prince (chap. 7), historical sources on Dracul’s reign (chaps. 8 and 9), historical background and the childhood and life of Vlad Tepes (chaps. 10-13), accounts of Vlad Tepes’s death and resting place (chap. 4), and the reception of Vlad Tepes and modern vampiric practices (chaps. 15 and 16). The end of Part 2 expands on vampires as cataclysms for a transnational frame by situating a number of recent films, television shows, and cinematic representations such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) with other world-wide vampire traditions in order to show how people’s belief in horror and romance persists today.

Trow reads troubled youths and middle-aged mothers together and argues that both parties develop a sense of lack and thus search for completeness: teenagers feel loss because they live in a broken-up world and middle-aged mothers have life crises because their bodies are deteriorating. Vampires offer everlasting love, youth and completeness – qualities that many teenagers desire. In addition, few young people feel safe and complete living in fast-paced societies where cars and computer brands lose their value within a year. As a result, these youths become outcasts of societies, as portrayed in the media. Trow proposes that the murderous crimes of isolated and misunderstood adolescences are committed out of frustration or for attention. In other words, if murder translates into some level of control, then it follows that vampires who grow increasingly strong through murder embody a sense of limitless power; they derive a sense of self and reassurance from other people’s loss of capability.

Aging mothers likewise find reassurance in vampires. In societies that value youth, aging can be an unforgiving and sometimes terrible thing. Many people in Hollywood, for example, have cosmetic surgery to retain a youthful appearance. Therefore, Trow believes that middle-aged mothers find their heroes in ageless vampires: beings that recapture and immortalize youth. For lost young adults and conflicted middle-aged women, vampirism offers consolation and self-confidence because it provides a type of community based on each individual, even though it is an exclusive community built on the practice of blood sucking.

Whether it is teenagers lusting after power or moms trying to regain youth, Trow details this mix of attraction in the combination of the real and fictional vampire. He provides, for example, the case of vampire Edward Cullen from Stephenie Meyer’s vampire saga, Twilight, as his starting point. Trow perceives that fans have a difficult time of separating their love of Edward Cullen, the moody vampire, and their love of the alluring Robert Pattison (4). In other words, by stating that their craze for Edward Cullen is the craze for Robert Pattison and vice versa, Trow explicitly highlights the connection between the fictional vampire and the real person. Which vampire fans favor – real or imagined – matters little, for what is more important are the values and fantasies vampires fulfill.

Part 2 covers the life of Vlad Tepes and the crimes he committed in Romania. Trow thoroughly describes the life and death of the Draculesti clan, even detailing how they were dressed for burial as inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad Tepes was a ruthless ruler who was exiled for twelve years and who returned to his country as if from the dead. He was equally known for his infamous ways of torture: he would attack and impale people at night and drive stakes into corpses. Despite people’s fear of the Impaler, Trow writes that the forever-ness of the vampire continues to exist in the twenty-first century where people have the “Dracula Syndrome” because they are attracted to powerful beings. Modern day Tepes is just the unsatisfied, brutal man who deals with the world with his own personality and temperament.

Trow’s foremost contribution to the increasing scholarship on vampires and on the supernatural, specifically on Stoker studies, is his insistence on matters of vampiric people in relation to literary art and cinema. He argues in the introductory chapter that we cannot fully understand vampires and their effects if we do not consider Vlad Tepes, the living vampire, because merely utilizing a fictitious reading disregards 300 years of the belief in true vampires that was written down as folklore after the death of Vlad III. We can better understand the resurgent craze for vampirism by looking at the literary alongside realistic representations of vampires. Indeed, if fans are unable to separate their love of Edward and Robert, then as Trow notes, it is impossible for us to separate Dracula and Dracul. He writes,

Very few people accept the real link between the Count of fiction and the real Vlad Tepes. The only connection, they will tell you, is that Bram Stoker rather liked the name and that there are no contemporary references to the Impaler as a vampire . . . The Saxons, who may not have believed in the undead anyway, branded him a homicidal tyrant; the Russians were impressed by his power; his native Romanians believed him a hero. There was no place for a revenant in any of that. And I believe that the intriguing parallels between the man of fiction and the man of substance – the undead and the living – cannot be merely coincidental.  (329)

Trow effectively demonstrates the linkage between reality and literary portrayals and helps us see the intricate effects that literature has on its readers and how life is depicted best in representative arts. Despite the fact that Trow’s argument about the effects of Vlad Tepes’s reception establishes a broad overview of vampires, it falls slightly short with his substantial focus on the Draculesti clan. However, the wide compass of A Brief History of Vampires admirably showcases Trow’s effective demonstration of the constitutive elements that connect people with vampiric actions and vampiric literature and cinema. Even though the book seems unequally proportioned, we cannot help but agree with Trow’s defense that vampires have been and will always be a part of us: their timeless wings constantly offer us fear and comfort in their forever-ness.


Author Bio:

Myha T. Do is a PhD candidate of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis. She earned her MA in Comparative Literature (University of California, Davis 2013), her MA in English Literature (Mills College 2011), her MFA in Creative Writing (St. Mary’s College 2009), and her BA in English and Comparative Literature (University of California, Berkeley 2007). Her research reexamines the ghost stories of the Chinese writer Pu Songling and the Anglo-Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu from a feminist Bakhtinian perspective.

Reference Citation:

Do, Myha. “Book Review: M.J. Trow. A Brief History of Vampires. 2010.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web and Print.

Do, M. (2015). Book review: M.J. Trow. A brief history of vampires. 2010. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

Reflection: The Twenty-Line Trap? Shakespeare Enacted by Young Women

Shannon Reed
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA



Professional actors assemble a toolkit of monologues with an obligatory “Shakespearean monologue” of around 20 lines. But female actors are at a disadvantage, with less than 150 women in a repertoire of over 1100 characters in Shakespeare’s 37 or more plays. Young female1 actors are even more at a loss, if the powerful and complex older female roles are removed, leaving only a few dozen appropriate speeches. What effect does this limited canon have on such actors? Here, I reflect upon my own participant observer experience as a young woman actor, who received the bulk of my early training as a student in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre: Acting and Directing program at an American university in the 1990’s. I also present research, accomplished through interviews with two other women who also played Shakespeare’s young female characters, in which they reflect on their casting, rehearsal and production experiences in the roles, as well as how their subsequent choices of theatrical work were influenced by such formative experiences. Their words point to the dual, contradictory nature of this limited canon, proving both its limitations and opportunities. Findings explore what these experiences suggest for pedagogical changes in teaching Shakespeare.


Keywords: Theater, Shakespeare, Feminism, Academic Theatre Training, Girls, Girl Actors, British Theatre, American Theatre, Renaissance Theatre, Pedagogy

Professional actors put together a toolkit of monologues they can perform at auditions, with often at least one obligatory Shakespearean monologue. There’s no way around Shakespeare for most professional actors: there are over 65 festivals dedicated to his work in the United States and his plays are performed far more frequently in college theatre, summer stock, community theatre and regional theatre than any other playwright. For good reason, of course; Shakespeare’s work is widely agreed to be beautifully written and dramatically compelling, fun for audiences and fulfilling for actors and directors.

Or, to be more precise, the plays are fulfilling for male actors, who are given a multitude of casting opportunities in any Shakespearean play. Female actors are at a disadvantage, with fewer than 150 women in Shakespeare’s repertoire of over 1,100 characters, unless they choose (or are chosen) to perform a male role. For young female actors, the choices are further limited, with the powerful and complex older female roles removed, leaving only a few dozen appropriate speeches that are long enough, at twenty lines or so, to serve as an audition monologue.

I call this the twenty-line trap, a problem often faced by young female actors just as they begin their professional training. What effect does this trap have on them? What effect did it have on me as a young female actor? Here, I reflect on my own experience as well as that of Willow and Eileen2, both women, like me, in their 40’s, who shared through ethnographic interviews their thoughts about their struggles with the twenty-line trap. They reflected back on their experiences twenty years ago when in academic acting training programs.

In approaching this work, I kept in mind the responsibility feminist scholar Lynn Walter assigns to such research. Although I do not identify as a feminist anthropologist, I am in sympathy with how the field-specific point she makes here applies to broader scholarship:

As a field of study, feminist anthropology should ask questions about how differences in power and knowledge have been constructed over time as gender differences, how people recreate and resist these gender differences in everyday life, and how they are occasionally able to change them. (272)

Using Walter’s view allows for the validity of localized experiences, such as my own, Eileen and Willow’s, as a lens for questioning the construction of gender differences. Small, considered fragments of our lives cannot constitute a definitive statement about the role Shakespearean drama ought to play in theatre that seeks to be inclusive to young women. Instead, I hope these shared experiences reveal the possibilities of small-scale change that may prove effective in eventually creating a larger-scale adaptation to new norms all the while keeping in mind that the individual experiences recounted here cannot represent the whole of female actors’ experience.  As Walter points out, “No anthropologist has enough experience…to [fully] represent others” (247).

My Experience 

As a white, middle-class, young woman residing in the suburbs of a small city in Pennsylvania in the 1990’s, I had access to after-school activities that spurred my love of acting. Getting cast was never an issue for me: I always got a plum part in the drama club productions (which were chosen with the student participants in mind) or accepted that I was not suited for musical productions (I cannot sing!). Until my college experience introduced me to the fierce competition for parts among the young women in the theatre department of my small Midwestern university, I never sensed that being female would pose challenges to me in my acting career. Suddenly, acting was not about portraying a role I was interested in or felt drawn to.

Instead, acting was a contest in which a large number of young actors competed for a small number of main-stage parts. Those uncast worked on crews or did not participate in the productions.

It was in this atmosphere that I became aware of the problem of the twenty-line trap. It began when I had to choose a Shakespearean monologue. At 20 years old, my choices were limited; the powerful and complex older women’s roles—Gertrude, Lady MacBeth—might have posed an enticing acting challenge but would do me good in competing for the ingénue roles for which I would most likely audition. I was left with only a few dozen speeches from the girl roles. This was a secret canon of twenty-line monologues, known to every young female actor, of which Juliet’s speech in Act 2, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, begins, “The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse…”. Whether we liked it or not, it seemed that young female actors were trapped into a very limited selection and had to hope we suited something from it.

Our training program at that time slotted us into a class in Shakespearean acting during our junior year. I was assigned a scene from As You Like It, playing Rosalind, as well as Lady Anne’s monologue from Richard III. Of course, I was thrilled to attempt such challenging roles and barely noticed as my female colleagues, generally physically smaller and prettier than me, struggled through their own assignments. Looking back now, I can see that, in keeping with Walter’s view that people may “ask about gendered symbolic and material structures without necessarily asking how such structures are constructed and contested,” at the time I was concerned more with the roles I had been assigned than with asking why so few roles were available to so many young women (275).

Meanwhile, my classmates were struggling to apply the craft of acting techniques they’d learned to the small roles available to them. It turned out that such tasks as constructing a character biography were much easier to do with larger, more complex roles than we had been assigned.  “Yes, but what does she want?” one classmate complained about Miranda from The Tempest. Another, assigned to play Ophelia in a scene, joked that she barely had anything to memorize, so long as she could “run around and look scared.” They were beginning to realize what actor Fiona Shaw has pointed out about some of Shakespeare’s female characters: “I’m dying to put up a fight but look at the text – it ain’t there!” 3

It was not until we had to choose our own monologue to work on that I fell into the trap. We were encouraged to be conservative in our choosing and find a role that we might conceivably be cast in after college. Our male classmates had dozens of young male roles to choose from; meanwhile, we young women tried to find some appropriate monologue that was not already taken by a classmate. Some gave up and simply worked on one of the standards.

I did not really understand what was being asked of me, it seemed, since I asked if I could work on a young man’s monologue, perhaps one of Prince Hal’s from either of the Henry IVs. Much like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wanted to play all the roles. Also like Bottom, I was firmly told whom I must play—and it was not Prince Hal. Finally, I coaxed the professor to let me attempt the gender-less Prologue from Henry V, which would go on to serve as my Shakespearean audition piece for the few years until I left acting for playwriting, where I was (finally) able to play all the parts.

In the years since, I have occasionally thought about the twenty-line trap. Although I was principally angry with my professor at the time, I see now that the trap is contained within Shakespeare’s plays themselves, with their staggering reliance on male characters over female. The structure that I might have contested was not only that of my college’s theatre department but also that of the Shakespearean canon itself. The plays are inherently male, deliberately outside of the world of young women. In Clamorous Voices, Carol Rutter quotes the actor Juliet Stevenson who said, “If you are playing one of Shakespeare’s women, you are by definition in a supporting role. You appear in relationship to the man—as wife, daughter, mother, lover” (xxiv).

Given the prohibition against female actors taking the stage during his lifetime, as well as the all-male composition of his troupe, Shakespeare chose to create many more male roles than female. The women characters of Shakespeare, young and old, were played by men, so it is not surprising that the female roles were far fewer in proportion and often smaller in speech length and time on stage. All of the young female roles I was allowed to consider had been played by young men (called “boy actors”) in Shakespeare’s troupe.

Today, we may find it curious, as Carol Rutter notes, “to think that as a modern actress my opportunities in Shakespearean repertoire have been determined by the limitations or excellences of two or three generations of Elizabethan boy players” (xxiv). While Shakespeare could only work within his era, we are not of that time. The theatre community—particularly the academic theatre community—might question its general lack of awareness about or action to fix the inherent issues for young women arising from the seemingly perpetual performance of Shakespeare, performances that often take place without the investigation of insightful ways to combat gender-determined casting.4

I do not want to argue against the perennial performances of Shakespeare’s plays but instead to closely examine the experiences of two other female actors to ponder the impact of their experiences; to understand what each woman learned about theatre and Shakespeare, and, as Lynn Walter suggests, to ask questions about the possible limitations of both; and to anticipate ways to change the trap I have identified.

Eileen’s Experience 

Eileen holds a Bachelor of Arts from a large University in the Southern United States in English and Theatre, a Master of Arts in Teaching from the same school in Theatre, and a PhD in Educational Theatre from a large Mid-Atlantic university. We spoke in 2014 specifically about her time as an undergrad 20 years before, where she first faced the twenty-line trap in preparing for an audition. She said, “It was hard to find a Shakespearean monologue that was age appropriate. [I turned to] Juliet almost as a default setting.”5 But when the department decided to stage Romeo & Juliet, Eileen realized she would have to compete with 100 other young women for three roles. She decided to present the Jailer’s Daughter’s monologue from Two Noble Kinsmen at her audition because she was worried that “the director might feel there was a ‘right’ way to play Juliet et al. but if I busted out something he didn’t know I’d have a better shot.” The role went to someone else, and she says she was not surprised, since she knew subconsciously that the role was preconceived for someone of a different type. The woman who was cast was “very petite,” she says, “and I’m very tall.” Because there were so many talented and skilled young women to choose from, the director could insist on a particular physical type. Eileen had the instinct to change something about the audition process but did not consider trying to resist or adapt the structure and tradition that informed it.

Her university presented a Shakespearean play every year, Eileen noted. Women in the department grumbled about how few female roles there were in these plays, but there “was also a sense of ‘this is the way it is,’” Eileen said. These are the “‘important’ plays so in order to get a proper theatre education these are the ones we have to study or perform or so on.” It meant that young men in the undergraduate acting program often were cast more often than women in the MFA program, but that was accepted as necessary because the classics had to be performed.

The department was what Walter refers to as an “oppressive structure” (273) that many wanted to challenge, but challenging the structure in order to create change was difficult. I asked Eileen if she had ever considered auditioning for a male role. She said, I definitely thought about it–and was fascinated by the women who played breeches roles. I remember having to learn a Hamlet monologue in English class in high school, essentially as a memorization exercise, really. And I felt a much stronger interest in Henry V than I remember feeling in most other Shakespearean roles. I had a much stronger desire to say those lines than anything Juliet utters.

But, in the end, her professors were not interested in cross-gender casting since there were many young men available to play the roles.

Looking back now, Eileen felt that was disappointing. She says, “I would have found it extremely empowering to have been encouraged to look at male roles. The message that [came through to me was] there are limited ways of being female but a multitude of ways to be male.” Further, she notes, “I think that enabling students to seek the words that call to them—like the visceral pull of Henry V [for me]—would yield far greater rewards in both artistry and academia than the ‘traditional’ way of doing things.”

Eileen was captivated by some of Shakespeare’s work and interested in exploring it, but the option of doing so was cut off by her department’s rigorous adherence to established gender roles, a structure that had been in place for many decades. She sought to be empowered and intellectually energized by the complexity of Shakespeare, but the way the department sought to teach Shakespeare did not allow her to be so, as she was forced to try to find a role within a structure quietly oppressive to young women. In fact, what she learned was that girls should not seek complexity but be satisfied to fulfill a type; that there are set limits on what females can be and do; and that the important work fell disproportionally to the men in her program. These lessons may have been tacit, but they were clear.

Willow’s Experience

Willow earned a diploma in theatre arts and then an advanced certificate in dramatic art from a prestigious university in the United Kingdom. We spoke in 2014 specifically about her time at that school in the mid-1990’s where she played Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Miranda from The Tempest in repertory during her first year. As in many British drama schools, students were allowed to specify what kind of role they would like to play in the final shows of their time at the school. These requests were made before the specific productions were announced, so, for example, while a students might specify wanting to play a male lead in a musical, he wouldn’t know what part he was assigned in which musical until some time later. Willow asked for the lead female role in the school’s next Shakespeare production. When it was announced, she learned that, as she said,  “[Troilus and Cressida] was our final college production and as I’d asked for the [female] lead role in the Shakespeare, I got [Cressida].”

Although the part met the guidelines she had been allowed to specify, Willow explained that she was not happy. She had hoped for a large, exciting role such as Rosalind from As You Like It or a similarly more complex part. “Cressida is a bit of a sap,” she says. Worse, the director chose to cast other women from her department in roles that were traditionally male. Thus, playing the “female lead” actually turned to be a smaller, less rewarding part than many of the women onstage got to play. As Willow said, “The women playing the men were obviously women playing men, but . . . it didn’t really matter. [Cressida] is abused by pretty much everyone she encounters.” Although the director pursued a production that was untraditional in gender roles, the main female character remained written in a way that Willow found to be disempowering to play, the very opposite of the experience she wished to have before graduating. She should not have been surprised, she says now: “In fact, most of Shakespeare’s girls have that same pathetic, put upon . . . start off excited, end up abused crap.”

Asked to compare playing Cressida to Miranda, whom she had played the year before, Willow pointed out that Miranda “ . . . actually had a bit of kick to her . . . At least I don’t recall her wailing as much as Cressida.” Also, Willow was alternating playing Miranda with Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made it more “challenging.” “The ingénue was never for me,” she said, and playing Titania, a role often cast with an actress past girlhood, allowed her to see that there was more to Shakespeare than “playing boring little girls.” She wanted to do more than “Stand there. Look pretty. Wail a bit.”

While Eileen and I struggled with the oppressive structure of our respective academic environments and with Shakespeare’s plays, Willow’s difficulties were grounded solely in the latter. As David Mann notes in Shakespeare’s Women:

In Elizabethan plays, whilst female characters are often the fulcrum of the action in some moral crisis or transgression, it is almost always one which relates to male sexuality, and the actual focus of their contribution to the plot; hence, their frequent relationship to the principal male character as wife, mother, or daughter. (124)
For Willow, the lack of agency was harrowing, especially coming so fast upon the heels of feeling that she had some say in choosing her part.

Willow said that she wished she had realized as a girl that for her, comedy was much more rewarding to both play and watch. Her favorite Shakespearean roles, even then, were the comedic older women’s roles: the Nurse, Mistress Quickly, and so on. Even though she sensed this, she did not feel empowered to do more than ask for a role in a Shakespearean piece. She said it would not have occurred to her to request a specific play or demand to try out for a male part, having been given the plum role of the female lead.

Ultimately, as much as she loved Shakespeare, she feels that “in training [young women] to be actors there are probably better, more challenging roles to learn your craft with” than Shakespeare’s girls. But this insight arrived with maturity; in her student years, Willow did not attempt to question the structure around her, nor, as with Eileen and me, try to change it.

What to Do?

As young women, Eileen and Willow, like me, found part of the process of acting Shakespeare disempowering. Instead of having opportunities to carefully research and prepare a role that would push us to our limits in the intelligent choices, emotional depth and technical craft required for Shakespeare’s finest roles, we were all left with the understanding that our other, usually physical, qualities had more value for our professors and directors. We absorbed the message that acting Shakespeare was for other people—either those older than us, or male, or more of the physical type of the director’s preference. Simultaneously, we were told, both implicitly and directly, that Shakespeare’s genius made his work accessible and appropriate for all and that the proper course of actor training included the ability to study and enact his works.

With an emphasis on physical appearance and one’s ability to match expected norms, acting is admittedly often a disempowering profession. Our professors did their best to prepare us for a difficult career. As Willow noted, “Acting as a profession rarely has gender blind casting, so I’m guessing that in order to prepare young female actors [professors and directors] should let them know what they’re in for. Ingénue-ity.”

However, it’s also important to note that all three of us were intrigued by the possibilities of Shakespeare and wanted opportunities to explore his work through our chosen craft of acting. Outside of any private effort we put forth, though, we were not able to do so: the classic twenty-line trap.6 Because agreeability is a characteristic that directors sought, we did not want to “resist” the gender differences we saw and therefore lose roles (Walter 273). We did not understand that resisting had the potential to change more than our own casting fates, that it might help to change the values of the structure we were enmeshed in.

What can be done now? Cutting Shakespeare out of the college theatre department repertoire seems as unlikely as it is foolish, removing the valuable educational and artistic opportunities presented by his work. But there must be some middle ground between a Shakespeare-less season and one in which 90 young women compete for one part. Eileen, Willow and I all have had different subsequent experiences that may serve as a guide for a way forward.

After earning a doctorate in educational theatre, Eileen taught high school theatre in South Carolina for several years. “I think the limitations I experienced as an actor did to some extent inform my choices later,” she said. It was important to her to find a way to incorporate Shakespeare into her curriculum in a way that welcomed all of her students because she felt his work was necessary: “It was rewarding . . . to work to understand the language choices and appreciate the poetry. Shakespeare is so much in our culture that any firsthand experience would enrich other encounters.” For her drama club’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, she found a way to have 70 students in the play, most with at least a few lines. She cast to talent and work ethic, not gender, finding it very easy to justify doing so in an educational institution. The play went so well that she continued a policy of gender-blind casting for the rest of her directing career. Her choice is to change the structure of how theatre works in order to accommodate the best actors for each part.

Willow continued as an actor and recently performed in an all-female Julius Caesar that played at Donmar Warehouse in London and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. This opportunity to be part of largely female cast is rare; to be in an all-female production of Shakespeare seemed like improbable good fortune. She said that the experience was liberating but reminded her of the limitations of Shakespeare’s women and girls. As the director of the production said to her, “Men in Shakespeare talk about really big subjects, life, the universe, feelings . . . women talk about being women or being next to their man . . . Even the women playing men talk about the men they love.”7 This was apparent in rehearsal as some women had large parts with big themes to play and others played the wife. The relative skimpiness of Shakespeare’s female characters remains and cannot be changed; the casting and production of his plays, however, can be.

Willow noted that at least in England the show, which was heavily covered in the media, seems to have had an impact: “I think that production has spawned many others—so the generations [of girls] to come might get a better crack at the whip.” She added: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if young women had to play the young male roles in college training programs so as to be ready for the myriad of roles they might be offered upon leaving school and taking up acting as a profession? And what about the young men who want to take a crack at playing Miranda?” Willow’s frustration with the oppressive structure of Shakespeare’s plays is somewhat supplanted by an excitement over how this structure might change for women.

As for me, I played Shakespeare just one time after graduating with my BFA in Acting and Directing in 1992. I was cast as Lennox in 2003 in a production of MacBeth that ran at the Edinburgh Fringe. My casting was a matter of expediency, as I was really there to play female roles in the other, non-Shakespearean plays we were running in rep with the Scottish play. Without much directorial guidance, I chose to play Lennox as clearly female but in a man’s garb. No one, audience or cast, seemed to mind. The entire proceeding was so unremarkable that I found myself reflecting on my college experience all over again, wondering what possible harm there was in allowing women to audition for and play any of the roles in MacBeth. Theatre is entirely a façade anyway, so why is ignoring gender a step further than ignoring all of the other realities in front of the audience for the sake of the production?

In Elaine Aston’s 1999 text on feminist theatre, she seeks to help feminist theatre companies to create new productions of Shakespeare’s plays with all female or mostly female casts. Aston was at work around the same time that I earned my BFA, and her text wasn’t published until after I’d graduated. Thus, expecting my professors to be familiar with her ideas is too much of a demand on them. Still, I find myself wishing that my professors (and perhaps Eileen’s and Willow’s, too) had been able to know her work and follow her advice: “Don’t be conditioned by dominant images” (94). She urges directors to allow their actors to follow their interests and enthusiasms in choosing parts to play, much as Eileen and I had longed for, and Willow had tried to achieve. Aston’s ideas seem to be not just good feminist theatre practice but of pedagogical importance too. Teachers who allow their students to follow their interests are generally more helpful to those students.

More recently, I saw Willow’s production of the all-female Julius Caesar in Brooklyn. The experience for me was similar to seeing an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin a few years ago: a little strange at first, but in the end, the production rose and fell on the directorial and design choices as well as the skill—not gender—of the actors. Some of the women in the play were young enough to be cast in a role like the wimpy, wailing Cressida, so I found myself feeling happy that they had found the Caesar roles which offered them far more to do while learning the craft of acting. I began to think that the trap was not in the girl roles at all but in the idea that such roles were all that young women were allowed to play8. Few young men thrill at the thought of playing a thankless role like Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, but they know that Hamlet might be next. For young women, the trap is that after Ophelia, there’s more of the same—at least until they age considerably. The actor Harriet Walters (who later played Brutus in Willow’s Julius Caesar) told Carol Rutter: “There are plenty of middle-aged parts for men, but not for women. We can play Juliet in our teens and Margaret in our seventies, and all the great female roles in our thirties, but not much… in our own middle age” (xxv).

When Fiona Shaw played Richard II at the National Theatre in 1995, the Guardian called her casting choice “the sort of thing you might expect to see at the end of term in a boarding school” (Rutter 314). The critic is implying that casting a woman in a male role would only be done in a setting—such as an all-girl’s boarding school—which did not allow for the casting of men. Leaving aside the merits of that particular production, as well as the condescension that is intended, this quote reminds me that it is often true that our schools can, if they choose, be more daring than our established theatres. Eileen’s and my experiences (and to some extent, Willow’s) do not show much in the way of such innovation by our departments, and sadly, not much has changed in how Shakespeare is produced on college stages since the mid-1990’s. But the potential is still there.

Professors and directors who wish to produce a Shakespearean play in an academic theatre venue might consider several questions carefully, in sequence. First, why produce the particular play in question, aside from such sentiments as “We always do a Shakespearean play” or other tradition-based impetuous? Second, how can this play be liberated from the existent tradition of casting women in female parts and men in male parts in order to provide a richer, less biased educational opportunity for all involved? Third, how can the female parts in this play be best portrayed, including a careful consideration of what cuts are often made and whether they are the best choice for this production? Finally, how can the young women participating in this play be heard as needed and valued voices in the production regardless of the size of their role?

As Aston reminds readers who might wish to mount a feminist production of Shakespeare, “Aim to keep hold of a resistant voice” (100). And, of course, Walter reminds us that feminist anthropologists “are occasionally able to change” the gender differences they see around them (273). Theatre departments and motivated directors within them have the opportunity to create such change.

I was reminded of this recently, when I served as a judge of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s annual Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest for middle and high school students. I sat in a dark theatre and watched student after student present, including several teenage boys who sped through the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V as if the French Army was in the back of the auditorium.  One of the last performers that I saw was a 6th grader. She could not have been five feet tall, and the plastic sword she had as a prop dragged on the ground as she mounted the steps. Then she faced us, and said, “I’m Katie,9 and I will be playing Henry V.” No one much responded; certainly there were no snorts or laughs of derision. The audience just waited to see what she might be able to do. The St. Crispin’s Day speech poured out of her tiny frame, loud and clear, with enough emotion that it was clear that she knew what she was saying. She was easily the best of the Henrys we saw. Katie’s performance gives me hope that she, and many other young women, will escape the twenty-line trap.


[1] Here, I define “young female” as aged 18 – 22, the most common age of college students in  America. A few of Shakespeare’s “girl” roles are generally agreed to be younger in age (e.g. Juliet). In keeping with academic theatrical practice of the early to mid-1990’s, I have chosen to use the words “female” and “women” interchangeably, although we understand them to mean different concepts today.

[2] Names provided are pseudonyms.

[3] See Aston, Elaine, 94. Shaw was speaking specifically about Kate from The Taming of the Shrew.

[4] It is interesting to note that Elizabethan theatre, in allowing men or boys to play female roles, actually practiced less rigidity than many mainstream theatres today, which insist that women play female roles and men play male roles (and defines those gender roles rigidly).

[5] All quotations from Eileen and Willow are from personal interviews conducted by the author.

[6] Even if one of our programs had presented a play with some of Shakespeare’s more intriguing girl roles, As You Like It, perhaps, or Twelfth Night, the experience of playing those roles would have gone to one or two women in the department, while the men of the department would still have had 15 roles or more to be sorted into.

[7] This is Willow’s recounting of the director’s statement.

[8] As the director Leigh Adcock-Starr points out, many presented versions of Shakespeare’s plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have a long tradition of extensively cutting many of the female characters’ lines, removing much of their dramatic arc.

[9] A pseudonym.

Works Cited

Aston, Elaine. Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Currier, Willow. Personal Interview. 5 Feb. 2014.

Duke, Eileen. Personal Interview. 26 Jan. 2014.

Mann, David. Shakespeare’s Women: Performance and Conception. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Fiona Shaw’s Richard II: The Girl as Player King as Comic.” Shakespeare Quarterly Autumn 1997: 314-324. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Rutter, Carol. Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today. London: The Women’s Press, 1989. Print.

Walter, Lynn. “Feminist Anthropology.” Gender & Society 9.3 1995: 272 – 288. Print.


Author Bio:

Shannon Reed is finishing her MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches writing. She holds an M.A. in Educational Theatre from New York University and a BFA in Theatre: Acting and Directing from Otterbein University. As an essayist, Shannon has recently contributed to Narratively, Vela Magazine and The Billfold. Her fiction had recently been published in the Mud Season Review, Kweli Journal and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Links to these and others of her works can be found at her website,

Social Media:

Twitter: @SReed151

Reference Citation:

Reed, Shannon. “Reflection: The Twenty-Line Trap? Shakespeare Enacted by Young Women.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web and Print.

Reed, S. (2015). Reflection: The twenty-line trap? Shakespeare enacted by young women. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

Learning about People, Places and Spaces of the World through Informal Pedagogy:
Socio-(inter)cultural Constructions and Connections to Popular Culture

Shelbee R. Nguyen
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, Georgia, USA



This article explores how adult and higher education (AHE) learners utilize popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource when learning about different cultures and preparing for international learning abroad or study abroad. Specifically, this case study research is concerned with what particular sources of popular culture serve as informal pedagogy and how these shape AHE learners’ cultural perceptions about study abroad to a specific international destination. A review of current literature at the intersection of popular culture and study abroad identifies both the need to include adult and higher education learners as well as the ubiquitous nature of learning through popular culture outside the classroom. Popular culture’s function as a source of informal pedagogy and how informal learning relates to AHE learning are synthesized in the literature. The theoretical frame from which this research was undertaken is provided to highlight the innately social process of popular media consumption. The researcher offers methodological considerations about participants, data collection and analysis with findings from two different embedded cases to reveal ways AHE learners use and are influenced by popular culture characters, plot and themes. Additional discussion about cultural understandings and motivations to participate in international education or study is also highlighted throughout the findings. AHE learners’ personal hobbies and interests as well as personal goals play an important role in shaping the type of experience desired. Implications and directions for future research underscore the complex and multifaceted nature of popular culture and media to generate support in this research area for educators, scholars and practitioners in the field of international education.

Keywords: Informal learning, Popular Culture, Adult and Higher Education, Study Abroad, Perception, Motivation, International Education, Culture and Language Exchange, Business Education, Multicultural Education, Sociocultural Learning

“Well, I’m not going to lie… I’m a big fan of Jersday” 

In 2010, a group of New Jersey lawmakers made headlines in a highly-publicized move against Viacom’s MTV hit reality television series, Jersey Shore (State Legislatures 7). The New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus (NJIALC) reportedly insisted the reality television show be cancelled due to “untrue” and “offensive” portrayals, which encouraged negative and pejorative “ethnic stereotypes” of Italian Americans (State Legislatures 7). Unfortunately for the NJIALC, Jersey Shore went on to air six highly-viewed seasons, resulting in the popular phrase, Jersday, signifying the show’s long-time run on Thursday evenings (Purdon 33). While the NJIALC may have not been successful in their efforts to thwart production of the hit series (and subsequent spin-offs), their concern about how popular culture shapes perceptions about cultural groups/subgroups is a powerful topic warranting further discussion.

Higher education across the United States (US) is comprised of over 17.5 million undergraduate learners with roughly a third of those individuals being characterized as non-traditional adults, 25 years of age or older (National Center for Education Statistics). According to scholars of adult education, age is not the salient or most critical determining factor in categorizing adults and traditional-aged learners, 24 years and younger (Knowles, “Modern Practice” 25; Sandlin, Wright and Clark 4). Malcolm Knowles summarizes that both traditional and non-traditional-aged students can be characterized as adults based on intrinsic motivations to learn, life roles and responsibilities assumed by the learner and the learning dynamic (“Adult Learner” 40). Further, Knowles states that the most pressing matter in differentiating adult education from transactional, teacher-centered instruction is the emphasis placed on the learner. Thus, employing the term adult and higher education (AHE) learners is optimal for examining ways individual learners use popular culture as an educational resource when learning about cultures of the world. This article addresses how adult and higher education (AHE) learners utilize popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource when learning about different cultures and preparing for international learning abroad or study abroad. More specifically, this research is concerned with how particular popular culture artifacts (e.g., TV shows) serve as informal pedagogy, shaping AHE learners’ cultural perceptions about a specific international destination.

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory explains how AHE learners form perceptions about race, class and cultural ideas through the various mediums of popular culture (9). Sociocultural theory suggests knowledge begins or originates from society or culture and is modified or reordered based on continued engagement within dimensions of social interaction. Because popular culture serves as a socially pervasive and powerful presence in the lives of AHE learners, it becomes important to assess the sort of identifications made when connecting meaning to their own lives. Assumptions critical to understanding learning occurring through social interactions are 1) individuals often construct their own knowledge about the world, 2) the development of cognitions and knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which they exist, 3) learning occurring in context can lead to new growth/new insights, and lastly, 4) the symbols and exchange of communication through language play a role in the evolution of the mind (Woolfolk 3). To understand how AHE learners use popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource, the scope of examination is focused on the individual and the popular culture he/she accesses within the context of his/her own life outside of the educational institution.

While popular culture in an increasingly globalized, technological and interconnected world is virtually inescapable for AHE learners, identifying, defining and mapping functions of it outside of the classroom can be both attractive and also elusive. The ways students make meaning from popular culture is receiving increasingly more attention in AHE research as the pervasiveness of popular culture becomes more powerful. Messages or artifacts within popular culture can be seen as negotiations between preservation of current dominant practices/ideals and resistance, or transformations into new cultural practices/values (Stuart Hall 59). Ernest Morrell’s work encourages learners to think about popular culture as the “struggles between the subordinate and dominant groups” (78). Collectively, researchers agree on contentiousness inherent in popular culture. Additionally, the meaning derived from popular culture by AHE learners about their own culture and about other cultural groups can be multifaceted (Guy 16). Scholars in the field of AHE focus on the pedagogical power of popular culture, underscoring its function as a “site of education beyond formal schooling” (Sandlin, O’Malley and Burdick 1). Henry Giroux’s work emphasizes increasing awareness about “student experiences and their relationship to popular culture” rather than defaulting to dismissive attitudes about mere entertainment value (66). Although it appears quite obvious that learners would have some sort of interaction with popular culture prior to a trip abroad, a more critical perspective could be more helpful to understand individual student experiences within a recent, culturally relevant frame. Exploring learners’ individual relationship with popular culture can provide educators and practitioners with specific resources, which can then be targeted as a point of critical inquiry. An interdisciplinary foundation composed of cultural theorists, feminists, critical media scholars, psychologists, sociologists, educational researchers and humanists unanimously places a high value on the teaching mechanisms inherent in the Internet, movies and television. Collectively, these outlets teach individuals about the world and its cultures (Sandlin, Wright and Clark 5; Guy 17).

Most recently propagated by the work of cultural theorist Henry Giroux, the term public pedagogy addresses Carmen Luke’s research, which “ . . . refers to various forms, processes, and sites of education and learning that occur beyond the realm of formal educational institutions—including popular culture (i.e., movies, television, the Internet, magazines, shopping malls” (Sandlin, Wright and Clark 4). For example, Talmadge Guy’s central argument explains how learning that occurs outside of formal institutions teaches viewers what it means to be ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘straight,’ ‘gay,’ ‘middle-class,’ ‘poor,’ ‘wealthy,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Muslim,’ ‘American’ and so on” and that it is mass mediated through music, television, cinema, radio and advertising (18). Oprah and Gayle’s Big Yosemite Camping Adventure illustrated this idea in a two-part episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that aired in late October of 2010. This episode set out to “change perceptions about camping for African-Americans” (“Oprah and Gayle”). The trip was reportedly in response to Park Ranger Shelton Johnson’s letter to Oprah where he explained that only 1% of the 280 million tourists who visit the national parks each year are African-American. Oprah shared her desire to alter the thinking “about the kind of people who go camping,” extending Guy’s position about how race and class-based identities are formed and how this serves to limit perceptions about cultural groups (“Oprah and Gayle”). Both agents within popular culture, like Oprah and Gayle, and scholars (e.g., Talmadge Guy and Henry Giroux) concerned with the problematizing of popular culture recognize innate social construction within and throughout popular culture.

Patricia Duff’s research indicates that limited knowledge about a particular destination or culture can encourage a student to access multiple formal and informal learning resources, including popular culture, when forming opinions and perceptions (482). For example, Stuart Hall discusses the ways in which learners connect popular television networks like The History Channel to concepts and ideas from their coursework (297). Scholars further note that popular culture serves as a critical resource of informal learning or learning occurring “outside the curricula offered by formal and non-formal learning activities, self-directed . . . [which] can happen anywhere, and can occur at any point from birth to old age” (Schugurensky 2). Encountering a new culture in a foreign or international destination via study-abroad is a major academic and life event for most AHE learners (Dolby 151). When a student makes a decision to participate in international study abroad, any number of resources can be considered in offering new insight, learning and understanding about the destination and culture of interest (Simon and Ainsworth 2). To investigate how AHE learners use popular culture when forming perceptions and ideas about international education or study abroad, individuals were recruited from two faculty-led study abroad courses set to depart in the spring and summer semesters of 2012.

The two faculty-led study abroad courses available for recruitment were an Italian Language and Culture course (IL&C), taking place in Italy, and an International Marketing and Business Course (IM&B), taking place in one of seven different destinations (Chile, Argentina, United Arab Emirates, Finland, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore). Because informal lessons from popular culture are inherently (AHE) learner centered, intimate and highly individualized (Giroux 68), learners are likely to consume pieces of popular culture that connect to their immediate life circumstances. Further, the Internet, television and movies actively and passively “teach us about race, class, gender and other forms of socially significant difference” (Guy 16).

In the selection of participants from faculty-led study abroad programs, criteria were 1) adult or higher education learner status and 2) a commitment to departure classified as the explicit decision to participate in the study abroad program and having enrolled in the course. This offered the researcher opportunity to identify specific sources of popular culture and how they contributed to cultural understandings or perceptions of their destination of interest. A total number of 15 participants (n=15) were recruited for this study, eight females and seven males. Participants ranged from 19-54 years of age with a mean age of 26. Students were from a variety of majors including business, international business, marketing, English literature, British literature, political science, history, educational psychology and engineering. Participants self-identified their ethnic backgrounds and listed Caucasian, Japanese-Caucasian, Native-American and Hispanic.

Three data collection techniques were employed to assess how AHE learners use popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource: focus group interviews (Appendix A), individual reflection within the group interview, and follow-up interviews were used to assess how AHE learners connected to various mediums of popular culture in forming perceptions about the culture they would be immersed in and their destination of interest. Focus groups of six-to-eight interviewees and telephone interviews were utilized with “generally open-ended questions . . . few in number and intended to elicit views and opinions from the participants” (Creswell 181). The focus group interviews were conducted for each embedded case with nine participants in the IL&C course and six participants in the IM&B course. Note cards offered private space to reflect on specific questions about the culture and destination in addition to demographic information. Follow up telephone interviews (Appendix B) aimed to extend understanding of particular participant answers from the focus group interview and private reflections. All interviews and private reflections were recorded and transcribed for analysis.

AHE learners across both cases took part in the construction/modification of their own identity and the identity of others when they connected to multiple interfaces of popular culture. As social constructions of identity and difference are constantly changing, it becomes important to gauge how AHE learners utilize popular culture to make meaning about their world and its cultures in the 21st century dynamic. To account for these nuances, the interview protocols were developed with a loose structure so that AHE learners could discuss meaningful places and spaces of popular culture that added to their understanding of the culture and values they would soon be encountering. John Creswell’s process for analyzing qualitative research was used to organize, prepare, read, make sense and interpret the data within a coding process that uses actual participant responses to “organize the material” into categories and common themes to transform data into findings (Creswell 186). Emerging codes were identified from participant responses and were compared to other responses both within and across the embedded cases.

Case One: Italian Language and Culture

To begin discussions about how popular culture influenced thinking about a particular culture or destination, participants were asked to reflect privately on “What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about your study abroad course and media?” One participant noted “Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Food Network,” while another offered “Letters to Juliet (the movie).” Other students mentioned specific identifications to the destination or cultural artifacts like “Discovery Channel and any food network show taking place in or around Italy, specifically Rome” and “Jersey Shore and the Statue of David.” For some participants, “media” translated to popular television and/or film specifically, and for others, it translated to web sources and other media outlets available via the Internet. However, two participants within this case shared a resistance to popular culture outlets; for example, one shared: “I do not watch TV, but media for me is Google and of course Facebook and all of the social media components . . . especially blogs and forums. I feel like you learn a lot from personal testimonies where people don’t get paid, rather than TV shows pushing some agenda.” Responses varied in degrees of trust and distrust of popular culture and media. Sociocultural theory explains learning happens when individuals interact in the context and society of lived experience. Thus, sociocultural theory may serve an explanatory value in the sense that students were possibly more receptive to learning and knowledge co-constructed in personalized Internet social networking than in more overt mediums like popular film and television. Most importantly, there seemed to be a distinction between the credibility of Internet testimony and those prevalent on popular television networks.

Although some participants had prior exposure and knowledge about Italy, their responses highlighted a choice to learn new things about their personal interests like “Italian culinary traditions” and “Shakespeare romanticism.” Other learners more generally shared: “Honestly, I don’t even know what initially made Italy stand out over study abroad options, it’s just . . . especially in the last few years . . . with so much about Italy in movies, television and a lot of other stuff, it’s always fresh on my mind.” Another stated: “Well, I’m not going to lie . . . I’m a big fan of Jerzday (sic) so really when I found out about this trip, I found myself paying way more attention to the interactions between the cast and Italian people.” Participant responses place importance on popular culture as a “go-to” resource when thinking about their study abroad destination and forming perceptions about Italian people and their cultural interactions with Americans. Adult and higher education learners within the embedded case did not report especially critical views about ways that media sources like Google, television networks, popular movies and reality television tacitly construct and encourage positive perceptions and romanticized ideals.

Many connections made between Italy and popular culture were highly personalized and revealed identifications with characters and even romantic ideals. For example, one learner reported on the “magical and historical context of Italy” and how it contributed to some of the “everlasting . . . living literature and the period of re-birth” still present in many popular stories. Rather than feeling compelled to live the lives of these characters, this particular person felt a relationship to the author and was inspired to write similar stories or “ to do something like that.” Similarly another participant shared her passion for creative writing and expressed motivations to “Write main characters that have a real sense of themselves, and they try do what’s right for them no matter what other people say . . . it is also about identity, and getting to be in the context of where those identities were formed . . . I feel like Italy could really shape my identity in the same way, plus I would like to see like Juliet’s house and all that stuff.” Both examples paint a captivating picture of the way characters in television, movies and literature speak to both personal interests and personal identity. Participants alluded to how stories and characters, at least in part, provided a preview into what Italian living and culture would be like. Additionally, both participants suggested that context was important to character development and internalized the idea their identity, too, could be enriched abroad.

Other participants mentioned more general character and identity associations about the kinds of experiences they connected with from popular shows on the Travel and Cooking Channel.No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain” portrays “a pioneer” who “has no fear.” One learner suggested “that is something I wish I had and hopefully something I can work on (abroad).” Another participant similarly stated a “no fear” mentality was a powerful connection for her as well. She noted, “watching Rachel Ray, . . . she just seems so confident and has so much fun with it when she travels.” This participant continued, “that is something that has always made me want to learn more, to have that confidence. . . .” Participants valued courage, confidence, risk-taking and strength cultivated in experiences abroad to Italy, isolating these as experiences they wanted to have for themselves. Moreover, AHE learners alluded to an inherent fear that exists when interacting with people from a different culture in an international setting. While learners were quick to identify the kinds of experiences they wanted to have, using popular culture as an illustrative resource, it is not clear whether or not fear was also cultivated from media messages. Ultimately, learners relied on popular culture to alleviate fears and uncertainties and form ideas about the world and its cultures. So, it could be suggested that popular culture contributed, in part, to those initial fears and uncertainties.

Case Two: International Media & Business

For participants in embedded case two, media translated to television shows, television networks, online sources and magazines. When talking more fully about study abroad and popular culture, one participant suggested watching shows on the Travel Channel “gives me a better idea of how I think my experience abroad will be like.” Participants enrolled in the IM&B course placed importance on cultural understandings as a core component of modern-day business practice. Learners suggested that popular culture prepared them for what cross-cultural business would be like in specific destinations. Shows like House Hunters International, Samantha Who?, and NatGeo Explorer were some of the specific places learners identified how “Chileans network” or “outsiders engage local Australians.”

Interestingly, participants suggested because international experiences are becoming an essential component of business, “more and more people are realizing that it’s possible to travel without being rich.” Participants in embedded case two were eager to offer input and discuss popular culture’s role in shaping their perceptions about other cultures, affordability of studying in that country, as well as what the destination in general could offer. Participants identified connections to informal learning resources because they served to paint a picture or illustrated something that was of personal interest. Similar to embedded case one, interest played an important prerequisite function, indicating the more interest one has in a particular program/movie/television show, the more likely they would be to internalize information from that program/movie/television show. Additionally, this finding suggested that pictures and visual media become important for all of the participants who have limited knowledge or experience of any given culture and destination.

In following up on these responses, participants revealed that particular television shows influenced how they perceived or pictured other countries and cultures. More specifically, informal learning via television shaped the kind of experience that each of those students wanted to have for themselves. For instance, one participant explained how impactful it was to see television programs with “a normal person, not some travel guru, going to a foreign country or a foreign city and not really going to the touristy places, but going to the places that all the Australian locals go to. She encourages other people to venture off the path . . . so they can also continue that on, and share with other people who may not know about it.” This participant also introduced the idea of “paying it forward,” by sharing new knowledge gained about less popularized destinations and cultures with others. Emphasis here can be placed on uncovering and discovering new places and sharing personal stories as an educational experience. Her idea of a “normal” person having these experiences was particular noteworthy. She suggested that the “Samantha Who” character was someone with whom she could relate to personally, rather than an expert or aficionado who may have professional experience with travel. Identifications with themes and characters in foreign destinations also occurred when the individual shared similar thinking and cognitive process. For example, American students identified with the American characters and revealed feeling like the “outsider.” Television networks, blogs, Facebook pictures, narratives and movies supported identifications by creating an “outside looking in” dynamic told from the experiences of someone who has limited knowledge about the place of interest.

Participants touched on their desires to be a source of knowledge on new cultures and people of the world. Respondents internalized a need to play an ambassadorial role and express motivation to model some of the same themes or plot lines from the messages they consumed. Through popular culture, learners identified and mirrored the plot and characters of individuals they connected to and use these individuals to map out the kind of experiences that they wanted to have. Emphasis on discovering “something new . . . something not everyone would have the chance or opportunity to do” was especially important.

Many of the participant responses throughout the study emphasized how popular culture and media, in various forms, shaped students’ perceptions of other cultures and can shape the kind of experiences sought after by AHE learners. While these findings can appear fairly obvious or can be taken for granted, it remains important to underscore that popular culture is a powerful pedagogical resource utilized by students. Scholars concerned with study abroad participation have yet to direct much attention to how popular culture functions in shaping perceptions in the most critical time when students have made the commitment to study abroad (Jackson 16). Students may have learned a great deal about how interactions occur with foreigners and locals in such places as Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Chile, Argentina, Finland and Australia, but this knowledge is specific to the programming, message and independent motives of the creators and directors of that media. For several networks, including the Travel Channel, Cooking Channel and Food Network, the goal is to encourage tourism and market international travel as a consumer commodity. The veracity of content and reality of how these experiences compare to study abroad or international learning for AHE learners is fairly unexplored. However, given that an AHE learner studying abroad is not a popular narrative across main-stream media, students supplemented knowledge from sources they perceive to be comparable in nature. This is especially important to consider from a scholarly and cultural perspective.

Data from this study demonstrated popular culture plays a powerful and recursive role in forming new ideas and understanding about cultures of the world. Cultural and media scholars like Henry Giroux suggest popular culture has the strength and ability to teach and educate its audiences (58). Giroux identified popular culture as a site of public pedagogy or place of powerful learning outside of a classroom, with drastic implications for its viewers. As stated earlier, much of the research concerned with the relationship between popular culture and study abroad places importance on barriers to participation, underscoring an exclusionary perspective for minority students. Marilyn Jackson’s research further identifies that associations between media and its viewers are made possible to affluent Caucasian females but do not offer minority students and males the same chances to form identifications with messages and narratives within the media (17). Jackson’s work echoes the research in the present article in that popular culture messages have power in shaping cultural understandings about others, in addition to shaping one’s own cultural understanding of self.

Individuals available for participation in this study mirrored the plot and characters reflected in the media and popular culture they consumed. Individuals have the ability to identify markers of social status, encouraging associations with characters’ products, dilemmas, houses, celebrations, experiences and overall life situations in order to model and replicate these in terms of their own lives. Nearly ten years ago now, the conversations surrounding the intersection between popular culture and study abroad were characterized by deficits and privilege. Pat Burr’s research revealed minority students felt like study abroad and international education was not something applicable to their lives or identities (36). However, AHE learners are now recognizing, both through formal and informal learning spaces like popular culture, the growing importance of international experiences in an increasingly global and competitive business market.

Students reported an awareness of the changing nature of why a student engages in international education and identified places in popular culture that have contributed to these changes in thinking. This is especially important when thinking about the national participation rates for AHE learners across the US. Practitioners and educators must recognize the importance of showcasing these messages within the classroom to encourage direct engagement and breakdown preconceptions, should they exist. These messages then become popular culturally relevant curricula and are offered a certain level of credibility as course material, holding potential to be even more impactful for AHE learners. Further, instructors across AHE may find practical use in critically analyzing popular culture messages in the classroom even if the major aim and focus is not study abroad. Findings from this study lend importance to the fundamental relationship between intercultural perceptions and popular culture’s influence. Instructors at the undergraduate level could find value in isolated sources of popular culture, identified by participants in this study, which also resonate with modern-day AHE learners in their classes.

Adult higher education learners reported a “demystified” understanding about what interactions across two different cultures would be like in a foreign locale. Popular culture offers a window into the other countries around the world, but because of the volume of messages accessed, learners end up paying particular attention to the plots, characters and themes that are most directly related to their own personal interests. Participants indicated that popular culture was commonly used as a resource when seeking information about their personal interests in other cultures’ cooking, baking, wine, travel and people. The reciprocal nature the role of interest plays can be both satisfied by and originate from popular culture sources. Scholars and educators, including practitioners and cultural theorists, encouraging global and cross cultural understandings must remain conscious and aware of how personal interests and incidental learning serve as a baseline or foundation of knowledge about other cultural groups. In bell hooks’ research, a similar contention further illustrates that popular culture has the ability not just to shape audience members’ cognitions but also has the potential to stay with that individual over a long period of time (3). Long held interests in particular hobbies, stories, subject matter or pastimes fuel motivation to live and be a part of those experiences in the context that they authentically happen. Conversely, reality television and commercially dramatized interpretations seeking to exploit and reify cultural stereotypes and stigmas may also need to be approached and accounted for by faculty and international education staff when a student is thinking about study abroad.

For participants in embedded case two, popular shows, channels, social media, networks and movies were often accessed to get a sense of a specific cultural practice and travel in general. Participants noted seeing an “average/normal” person immersed in a lesser-known foreign locale as encouraging. Connections were made readily because the individual was coming from a similar place of limited understanding about the country and its people. Adult higher education learners expressed a desire to foster similar experiences and emulate the very same goal and themes depicted in the popular culture they consumed. As such, learners expressed motivations to be ambassadors of cultural understanding for places and people across the world that are less known to the general public and are not commonly depicted in popular culture.

Popular culture undoubtedly plays a powerful and pervasive role in the lives of 21st century learners. The seamless way story, characters, themes and plot interweave within and throughout AHE learners’ cognitive processes are extremely complex. To advance this and previous research at the intersection of popular culture and international learning, it becomes important to map out the current dominant practices/ideals across time in order to gauge where preservation and transformation has occurred (Stuart Hall 59). International learning or study abroad has yet to be the norm for each AHE learners’ undergraduate experience, but it is clear that students across AHE in this study saw the importance and necessity of establishing global and cultural understandings. The consumption of popular culture and media will exponentially continue to increase, and as such, understanding about how it shapes AHE learners becomes not just important, but necessary.

Works Cited

Bennett, Tony. “Popular Culture: A Teaching Object.” Screen Education 34 (1980): 18. Print.

Burr, Pat L. “Building Study Abroad Acceptance Among Hispanic Students: The Value of Talking to the Hispanic Family.” IIE Networker Fall 2005: 36-40. Print.

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Creswell, John W. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009. Print.

Dolby, Nadine. “Encountering an American Self: Study abroad and National Identity.” Comparative Education Review 48.2 (2004): 150-173. Print.

Duff, Patricia A. “Pop Culture and ESL Students: Intertextuality, Identity, and Participation in Classroom Discussions.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45.6 (2002): 482-487. Print.

Giroux, Henry H. “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.”
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Guy, Talmadge. “Learning Who We (and They) Are: Popular Culture as Pedagogy.” Popular Culture and Entertainment Media an Adult Education New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Eds. Elizabeth Tisdell and Patricia Thomspon. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2007. 15-23. Print.

Hall, Leigh A. “How Popular Culture Texts Inform and Shape Students’ Discussion of Social Studies Texts.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 55.4 (2012): 296-305. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.” Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980): 57–72. Print.

hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Jackson, Marilyn. “Study Abroad for Students of Color.” IIE Networker Fall 2005: 16-20. Print.

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“Oprah and Gayle Set up Camp.” 1 Nov. 2010. YouTube. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

Parker, Holt N. “Toward A Definition of Popular Culture.” History & Theory 50.2 (2011): 147-170. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

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Simon, Jennifer, and James W. Ainsworth. “Race and Socioeconomic Status Differences in Study Abroad Participation: The Role of Habitus, Social Networks, and Cultural Capital.” International Scholarly Research (2012): 1-22. Print.

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Appendix A

Focus Group Protocol for Faculty-led Study Abroad Participants

Legend: SN—Question gauging social network, as public pedagogy, influences

PC—Question gauging popular culture, as public pedagogy, influences

1. Nominal Data: “Can we briefly go around the group and identify age, what year of study,
academic interest (for example I am 25, I am a sophomore, I’m an education major).” To be
completed on the Note Card

(SN/PC) 2. Let’s talk about the beginning of your interest in study abroad?: “Can you remember the first
time that studying abroad became of interest to you? When was the first time you thought
about being in a study abroad? End quote?

(SN) 3. Who in your lives has provided support to your upcoming trip abroad to DESTINATION X
(destination to be inserted, depending on specific faculty-led program)?:
“What do you know
about the place you are going? What do you not know, or want to know? Where do you feel this
information comes from?”

(SN) 4. Can you tell me about any individual in your life (parent, teacher, advisor, friends, classmates,
peers) that may have influenced you in making the decision to participate in a study abroad?:
“What sort of messages were conveyed about study abroad? (what sorts of things do they talk
about in terms of what study abroad would do for you as an individual)”

(SN) 5. What do your family and friends say about you upcoming study abroad trip?: “Do you feel like

you are encouraged to go abroad by your family and friends? Do you feel discouraged by your
family and friends to go abroad? How does this encouragement or discouragement get
communicated? Have you shared your upcoming trip ‘news’ with all of your friends and family?”

(SN/PC) 6. Are there still things you feel like you want to know about where you are going? Or uncertainty
that exists?:
Where would you seek out this information? What kind of information is it?”

(SN) 7. What sort of messages do you see conveyed from individuals in your life (parent, teacher,
advisor, faculty or friends) about their own study abroad experiences?:
“What sorts of artifacts
or mementos have they used to talk about their experience (could be pictures, souvenirs,
personal stories or narratives)? Do you think that these showed or illustrated what it means to
study abroad for you?”

(PC) 8. Can you think of a movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song that comes
to mind when I say DESTINATION X?:
“Is there a particular show, channel, movie that may
have reminded you of destination X? Is there any particular movie/tv show/book/radio show/
pod cast/musical, or song that made you more interested in destination X? Can you think of
a story (movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song) that served to inspire your
own interest to study abroad?”

(PC) 9. If you asked you to think of a recent example of something that you saw on TV that influenced
what you thought about DESTINATION X what would it be?
“Do you think that there characters
in Pop culture that have influenced how you perceive the people of culture of DESTINATION X?”

(SN/PC) 10. What is the first word that comes to mind when I mention DESTINATION X? “What do you
feel that this word is informed by or where does this word come from?”

(PC) 11. Is there any particular informative channel on television that offers you insight into DESTINATION X? 

(PC) 12. Is there any particular movie that offers you insight into DESTINATION X? 

Appendix B

Follow-up Interview Protocol for Faculty-led Study Abroad Participants

1. Can you elaborate more on the individuals who encouraged study abroad experiences? What made these
messages meaningful?

2. Can you elaborate more on a movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song that gave you
insight about study abroad or destination X?

3. Can you give more detail on _______________?

4. Can you tell me what you meant by ______________?

5. Since we last spoke, is there anything else about your influences and motivations to study abroad that you
thought of that you’d like to talk with me about


Author Bio:

Shelbee R. Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Education at Kennesaw State University in the Department of First-Year and Transition Studies. She has taught in six different international locales, including two years spent in Dubai exploring intercultural and international experiential education. Central to her core research is academic and social adjustment within multicultural contexts. Her particular research interests place importance on sociocultural influences to the learning environment, study abroad participation and the practice of adult learning theory. Recently her research has underscored critical reflection and transformational learning for Veteran and Hispanic learners transitioning into the higher education environment.


Reference Citation:

Nguygen, Shelbee. “Learning about People, Places and Spaces of the World through Informal Pedagogy: Socio-(inter)cultural Constructions and Connections to Popular Culture.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web and Print.

Nguygen, S. (2015). Learning about people, places and spaces of the world through informal pedagogy: Socio-(inter)cultural constructions and connections to popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

The Gentle Tongue: How Language Affected the World of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Louisa Danielson
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA



Although new episodes of the program ceased to be recorded in 2004, the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood show is still recalled by many today as an iconic childhood staple—the right show to watch if you are a young child or a parent looking for something wholesome to view on television. This is as Fred Rogers, the creator of the program, wished, but what exactly were the goals behind the Mister Rogers’ program? What were the shaping forces that inspired Rogers’ theory for children’s educational television? These are questions explored in “The Gentle Tongue: How Language Affected the World of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Research for this article is compiled from Rogers’ book on parenting philosophies, dialogue excerpts from the television program, and published interviews with Rogers. Comparative information has also been provided by research from humor development, childhood imagination development, and popular television studies. Thoughtful exploration of this data can explain how and why Fred Rogers was inspired to create a program that demonstrated love and care towards television’s youngest viewers. Although Mister Rogers may be leaving the airwaves, its effects can still be seen in today’s modern television programming.

Key Words: Adult, Child, Television, Language, Make-Believe, Play, Responsibility, Care, Puppets, Humor

In his earliest years as a working adult, Fred Rogers was a floor manager for NBC studios in New York City. One of the programs on which he worked was The Gabby Hayes Show, which starred a cowboy who had good rapport with children. Rogers asked the old cowhand, “Mr. Hayes, what do you think about when you look in the camera and know that there are thousands of people looking at you?” Hayes responded, “Freddy, I think of one little buckaroo.”1 Later, when he began his own television program, Rogers channeled that idea from Hayes. In his book for parents, Rogers states: “That’s what I’ve been doing ever since on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—imagining that I’m talking with one ‘television friend.’”2

In today’s world of cartoons and comedy entertainment for kids, this sensitive approach is unique. It leads one to want to better understand Rogers’ purpose behind the program, to dive deeper into the philosophy of the show. What better way to research a program than to explore the words used on it—i.e. the dialogue? This researcher is led to ask the following questions: What was the dialogue that Rogers used to communicate with his “television friend?” Did his words vary among its intended audiences? Would young viewers be addressed in a different way from adult audiences? What were some possible reasons behind the language choices that Rogers made? What examples might demonstrate Rogers’ background and focus for the MRN television show?

To answer these questions, I viewed twenty-five episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (abbreviated MRN). These episodes were randomly selected to include shows spanning the broadcast history of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, so the evolution of his word choices could be examined over its multi-decade recording period. I also investigated other sources, including essays and articles about language, children’s television and Fred Rogers; a parenting book by Rogers; a collection of reminiscences about MRN; a reflective book on Rogers’ faith; and books about television literacy and child development. After analyzing these sources, it became evident that Rogers had in mind specific roles for each character to play. The careful direction that each character takes with his or her words indicates that there is some greater purpose—or, philosophy—driving the composition of Rogers’ seemingly simple programming for the young viewer.

Proof for this can be seen immediately after viewing any of Rogers’ MRN programs. Rogers draws a definite line, via words, between the responsibilities of adults and those of juveniles. It is as though he creates a definite role for each age category. Throughout the show, adults and adult-role puppets play responsible parts. The grown-ups perform adult tasks like fixing broken machines or buying items at the grocery store. Occasionally, Rogers refers to something being an “adult job,” like using a wrench to repair the faucet. While children are welcome to observe these adult actions on the show, Rogers explains that there are things that are not safe for young viewers to do. A major part of adult work, as demonstrated by Rogers, is to take time to care for people. Adults use words to inform, comfort, and discover facts.

Juvenile characters, on the other hand, hold different responsibilities. Children and child-like puppets of the program use words to demonstrate dependency. Young characters are never disparaged for their youth: instead, they learn from their adult counterparts. Young characters receive help and instructions. They learn how to do practical things—like make a sandwich. Young characters on MRN are encouraged to explore and expand their horizons in a safe way and they are applauded for their efforts.3 Child characters of the program, as a result of the MRN environment, use their words to learn, to explain, and to ask for help.

Sometimes, the characters of children and adults trade places. Typically, an adult character only acts in a childish way if humor is being added. But child-like speakers on the MRN show can also assume adult “responsible” roles: for example, occasionally, a young character offers comfort or ideas to an adult. This occurs especially in the world of Make-Believe, where the majority of juvenile-adult interaction happens. A clear example of the division between adult and child word choice comes from MRN episode 1528, when Rogers gives a clear example of the “taking care of you” role played by adults. In this show, the people of Make-Believe start to dig a hole for a new pool. Everything is going well until Daniel Striped Tiger (puppet) starts chatting with Lady Aberlin (human adult). The dialogue begins at 15:18:

Lady Aberlin: Hi Daniel

Daniel: Oh, hi, Lady Aberlin

LA: It’s almost time. Are you ready?

Daniel: Well, I thought, maybe I’d work on my boat. It really needs help.

LA: But Daniel, you offered to help us dig out the hole, remember?

Daniel: Yes, I remember.

LA: Is something bothering you, Daniel?

Daniel: I guess so.

LA: We could talk about it, if you’d like.

Daniel: Everybody’s all excited about digging this hole, Lady Aberlin, but I’m not.

LA: That’s okay, Daniel. Work doesn’t always have to be fun and exciting. Sometimes, its just plain hard and tiresome and that’s that.

Daniel: Do you think its going to be fun?

LA: Well, it’s going to be very different for me, so I think I’m going to like it a lot.

Daniel: Well, I’ll do it. But I think it’s just going to be hard – and what was the other word you said?

LA: Tiresome.

Daniel: Hard and tiresome. And dark.

LA: Oh. Oh, well, it can get dark, down in the hole. But that’s why we’re going to be wearing these hats with flashlights on them, see?

Daniel: Oh. Then it won’t be all dark down there in the hole.

LA: No – not if we use our flashlights.

Daniel: Oh!

LA: Here’s yours.

Daniel: And will you keep your light on?

LA: As soon as it gets the least bit dark.

Daniel: Oh good!

Here, Lady Aberlin takes an adult role in Make-Believe. She first informs Daniel that it is time to help dig the pool. Daniel, as a child puppet, hints that he is not comfortable with the idea. Lady Aberlin starts to ask questions to discover why Daniel is worried. Daniel explains his fears about the dark. Lady Aberlin then becomes a comforter, demonstrating the flashlights and offering to stay close by so that Daniel will not be frightened. This is typical of the role-playing word usage Rogers demonstrates in MRN: Adults take care of children.

However, at times in the MRN show, there are no child-figures present. This happens usually in the reality segments, during events like field trips. In these sections, Rogers emulates the role of a child, asking questions and seeking information or asking for help. The adult models genuine child-like behavior. In one episode, Rogers visits the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute (MRN episode 1482). Bay Judson is the tour guide who shows Rogers the different paintings. Here’s Rogers’ childlike dialogue, starting at 5:45:

Rogers: Ah—let’s go over to this one! This looks familiar, Bay.

Bay: That’s a portrait, Fred, of Homer St. Goddens …

Rogers: Is this his mother, back here?

Bay: That’s his mother, and she’s reading out loud to him. He had to sit for a real long time for that portrait and she was trying to keep him amused.

Rogers: Oh, you mean the painter would have been out here, actually painting both of them like that?

Bay: For hours and hours. And he just had to sit, still as a statue.

Rogers: He looks a little bored, doesn’t he?

Bay: I think he wants to go outside and play with his friends.

In the museum, Rogers is demonstrating language that requests information. He asks to see a particular painting; he learns about how the painting was made and why the mother is in the picture. Rogers explains his thoughts about the boy in the painting—the boy looks “bored.” The language Rogers uses relates in a very understandable way to a child who has waited to get his or her picture taken.

Finally, there is the occasional moment when a young character comforts or cares for the needs of an adult. Roles are reversed and the caregiver becomes the recipient of care. Here is the dialogue from MRN show 1529. In this particular excerpt, the pool project that the neighbors are working on has been cancelled, since a water main broke during the digging. Plumbers are summoned and the price of fixing the Neighborhood pipes is steep. Lady Aberlin and Neighbor Aber visit the School at Someplace Else to see if the students have some ideas for solutions to the situation. The excerpt begins at 20:11:

Lady Aberlin: We’re here to try to be helpful to (King Friday).

Neighbor Aber: Yes, we’ve come to ask your advice.

Daniel: Oh – you want our advice?

LA: Yes, we do. And Uncle Friday does, too.

Daniel: Oh.

Prince Tuesday: What for?

LA: Well, as you know, we had to turn off the water when the main pipes broke.

Daniel: And there isn’t any water to drink or shower in, or anything!

LA: That’s right.

NA: And the reason we need your advice is that we must find some money to get new pipes. Otherwise, we won’t have any water– ever!

Prince: Have you thought of using straws? You could put a whole lot of straws together for the pipes.

Ana: I think straws might break after a little while, Tuesday . . .

Daniel: How much money do we need for the pipes?

LA: Three thousand.

All the children: Three thousand!

LA: Yes, I know that’s a lot!

Daniel: Well, how much money do we have for the swimming pool?

LA: Three thousand.

Daniel: Well?

Ana: See what Daniel means?

Prince: Give up the swimming pool money to get new pipes?

NA: That would be a way to do it.

LA: It certainly would!

Ana: But we wouldn’t have any swimming pool!

Daniel: Well, Ana, it wouldn’t be any good without water in it, anyway.

All of the students in the class are children (puppets), but the children ask the adults (humans) for information. The adults ask for help. The children listen to the problem, then make suggestions. Although Ana Platypus and Prince Tuesday are reluctant to give up the pool, Daniel remarks sensibly, “It wouldn’t be any good without water in it, anyway.” Here the children and adults have reversed their roles. While children are usually the ones who need answers and comfort, here they are the providers of those emotional staples. The adults learn from the children’s feedback.

Multi-Generational Appeal and the Language of Rogers

At times, the clear divide between “child” and “adult” language is blurred by Rogers’ word selections. Of the twenty-five episodes explored for this paper, the use of humor by Rogers (who wrote the majority of the programs4) is never the main emphasis of the show5. Most of the spoken work is direct, with no jokes between young and adult dialogue. But unexpected dialogue sometimes can entertain the adults who would watch the program with children, especially when an adult actor behaved like a child—in a not-so-serious way. To highlight that dialogue, a few episodes must be mentioned. In one early show, an adult actor tries to install a punch clock for his adult puppet friend. The puppet takes a (purportedly) juvenile view of the clock. Here’s the excerpt, from episode 4, starting at 16:01: (Note: the puppet, Grandpierre likes to speak in French.)

Grandpierre: What does it mean? Qu’ès que savetier punch?

Handyman Negri: Uh, a punch, Grandpierre, a punch—you know like that! (he swings his fist) Compère? . . . This is a punch clock.

Grandpierre: An’ you punch the clock?

HN: That’s right—you punch the clock when you come in, and you punch the clock when you go out.

Grandpierre: Oh, très bien! . . . Let me try it! (He gives it a solid whack and knocks it sideways.) . . .

HN: Oh, Grandpierre! You’ll break it like that! No, no, no no– piano! Uh, piano. Easy!

Grandpierre: Oh—easy! Oh, très bien! . . . (he practices punching the clock, still knocking it over with relish.)

HN: Just a minute–I want to be sure it’s still working—yes, it’s still working.

Grandpierre: Très bien. And you will be there, each time when I’m punching the clock—to pick it up?

HN: No, Grandpierre, I will not be there each time. I am going to place it right here on the Eiffel Tower, and then you can punch it whenever you leave and whenever you come home.

Grandpierre: Ah, bon. And I will pick it up.

HN: Yes, and you will pick it up yourself.

A child would love to punch things. Probably, the majority of adults would appreciate Grandpeirre’s attitude to the punch clock. Note how Grandpierre requests information, in the vein of juvenile dialogue. Negri plays the adult, giving an explanation first of what a punch is and then of how the punch clock works. Young viewers enjoy the scenario because of the physical comedy and the misunderstanding. Older viewers enjoy the suggestion that punch clocks can be despised6.

A paradox can also be found when an adult puppet is sincere in its adult behavior but also presents irony to the viewer. For example, Negri again plays the adult when, in episode 1526, he stops by puppet Lady Elaine’s Museum Go Round, to give her the annual tax report. This report, he tells Elaine, demonstrates how the kingdom has used tax money for the past year. Lady Elaine hears the word taxes and at 19:13 says: “Well, you’ll probably want more money. Well I don’t have any more—I’m cleaned out!” Now, Lady Elaine is playing the grumpy adult because she just spent all her money on paint and forgot to get brushes. She is also playing the part of a child: she is explaining why she doesn’t want to hear about taxes. She is “cleaned out.” Again, the line between the adult character and juvenile role is blurred by an adult acting as a child. A child viewer would probably take the whole dialogue seriously; the adult viewer would appreciate the slang and the unwillingness to pay more taxes.

What happens if the adult characters don’t use any childlike language yet still invoke humor? Sometimes, Rogers liked to create a gentle parody of popular culture. Adult viewers would probably pick up on it—while the satire of the situation would sail over a young viewer’s head. For example, look at episode 1475, the Windstorm in Bubbleland Opera. The completely adult-spoken dialogue exemplifies Rogers’ mild satire at 1:35:

News Anchor: “Hello, I’m Robert Redgate, bringing you this O’clock edition of

Bubblewitness News: all the news that’s fit to speak, all the news that’s fit to hear, all the news to bring you cheer right here, in Bubbleland.”

(Anchorman Redgate sings the latest news. His notices include the following song.)

There’s never, never, never, never, never
Any trouble here in Bubbleland, Bubbleland, Bubbleland,
There’s never, never, never, never anything but joy,
Right here in Bubbleland, Bubbleland, Bubbleland!
Our bubbles make us happy, they are with us night and day.
We know that they are so important
They must never blow away.
Of course, they never would.

(Then the song repeats with slight modifications . . . )

(Then follows an announcement of the very good news.)

Redgate beams at the camera:

“The National Bubble Chemical Company has today announced its newest, environmentally safe, propellant product: Spray Sweater – the ultimate protection for your precious bubbles. Until today, we’ve always had to knit or to buy old-fashioned, regular sweaters to protect our bubbles. But now, Spray Sweater makes it easy for everyone. All you have to do is put those spray sweaters around your favorite bubbles and they’ll be safe. Spray Sweater: the absolute ultimate in bubble protection.

Betty: It’s a fraud! It’s a fraud! There’s nothing in this can but just plain air! There’s no way that a sweater could ever come from there! It’s a fraud–I tell you, it’s a fraud!

Redgate: What’s going on?

Betty: The chemical folk pulled the wool over you! Let me show you – you see? You see?

Redgate: This is highly irregular!

Betty: Oh–I’m the, um, manager of Betty’s Better Sweater Company. I have a right to check the competition.

Redgate: Heh—ladies and gentlemen, we’ll have an in-depth report about sweaters on Bubblewitness News tomorrow. But now for the weather! Here’s Friendly Frank, your weather porpoise, the porpoise with a purpose!

This dialogue is tongue in cheek. There is information: “never any trouble,” “environmentally safe propellant product,” “fraud” and “competition.” But what is the viewer learning from this dialogue? On one level, the viewer sees a news program and Spray Sweater, the top story. Then the viewer sees that Betty, of Betty’s Better Sweaters, is upset by the competition to her hand-knit products.

But there is the double-speak which is also going on. The mature viewer is alerted by the “all the news that’s fit to speak,” opening, having only good and very good news—only in the land of Make-Believe could that occur! The advertisement for Spray Sweater is a bit like an infomercial, but the adult viewer would understand the promotion, since the National Bubble Chemical Company is a major sponsor for Bubblewitness News. However, how many viewers would catch Betty’s comment, “I have a right to check the competition?” Again, only in Make-Believe could a manufacturer interrupt a live news broadcast to air her grievances about a competitor’s product. Children might pick up the physical cues that Betty gives when she makes thumbs up and thumbs down motions towards her sweater and the Spray Sweater can. But mature viewers probably will pick up much more.

This presents the viewer with a great divide. Would the target-age, MRN-viewing child understand the thought behind the complex humor Rogers presented? Probably not. But this is why the Mister Rogers program appeals to the entire family and has had a lasting impact on children’s television programming—as witnessed by the dialogue used in the Bubbleland opera, there is no real age limit to the viewership7. The wit of each quote depends on what McGhee refers to as “expectancy violations.”8 In the tax scenario, Lady Elaine surprises the viewer with slang. The anchor of Bubblevision News tells good news and very good news. Grandpierre socks the punch clock until it breaks. Southam suggests that, for this type of humor, the audience would need to have more advanced comprehension than the projected 2-4 year-old audience member.

This, then, is the great divide of the MRN program: while most word usage on the show can be understood by young viewers, there is some which only applies to more mature viewers. From the observations completed for this article, the majority of the dialogue used is applicable to both children and adults, but when one of the adult characters crosses the line and starts behaving in a childish way (i.e., using childish language where it is not expected), the show appeals to its more mentally-developed viewer and not to the young child. Therefore, the MRN show is able to reach beyond the preschool age bracket, and this is why it became a staple for family television time.

Purpose Behind the Rogers Program

What motivated the language choices that Rogers made for his program? Research provides the following suggestions. Close to the time that Rogers received his undergraduate degree from Rollins College, he saw television for the first time and was disgusted by characters who threw pies at one another9. The violence and senseless slapstick inspired Rogers to strive to create wholesome, nurturing programming for children, where young viewers wouldn’t be bombarded with potentially traumatic images and actions. He began working with NBC studios. By the mid-1960s, Rogers was starting work on his own American program, Misterrogers’ Neighborhood. The title of the show was later changed to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “out of a concern for viewers who were learning to read,” Rogers notes10. (He was worried that spelling his name and title as one word without proper capitalization, spacing and spelling would confuse fledgling readers.) To emphasize his goals when creating programming for children, Rogers writes:

The roots of a child’s ability to cope and thrive, regardless of circumstance, lie in that child’s having had at least a small, safe place … in which, in the companionship of a loving person, that child could discover that he or she was lovable and capable of loving in return. If a child finds this during the first years of life, he or she can grow up to be a competent, healthy person . . .11

In discussing television and its role in helping a child prepare for life, Rogers also says: “those of us who make television programs . . . have a responsibility to do our work with the greatest of care.” Why was Rogers compelled to create characters that were responsible—and characters that needed responsibility in order to thrive? For the purposes of this research, three primary concepts are outlined as being the basic propellants for the Rogers character/language roles. They are as follows:

Theological: Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His specific instruction, when he was ordained, was “to minister to children and their families through television.”12 While Rogers did not use many direct references to theology, there was an undercurrent of spiritual thought that seemed to support the goals of the program.

Educational: The Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program included field trips to the crayon factory, discussions about plumbing and recipes for making simple foods, to name a few activities that were filmed. Rogers seemed to have a specific focus on learning because it helped children become more understanding individuals.

Social: the MRN program was filmed over the course of four decades. Although he maintained a static time frame for the “real” neighborhood and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Rogers helped young viewers deal with current events.

Evidence for each of these three concepts is bountiful, both in the television programs and in the literature written about and by Rogers. By combining all three concepts, it is possible to piece together purpose influencing the style or format of thought behind the characters Rogers brought to life. The characters’ language/word usage is symbolic of these ideas that founded and sustained Rogers’ legacy of nurturing children’s programming.

To lay some groundwork for the theological perspective of Rogers’ language on the MRN show, it should be stated that he was a 1962 graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary13. His commission, to minister to “children and their families through television,” was something Rogers took seriously. Ministering took place outside of the pulpit, as Rogers demonstrated through his program. Look at the MRN program 1484, in which two characters in the neighborhood of Make-Believe lose a football game. The losers are quite disappointed. But there is an element of comfort (or ministering), that King Friday is able to extend to the losers. The dialogue begins at 18:02:

King Friday: But you players seemed sad . . .

Bob Dog: Oh, yes—we, we were.

Lynn Swann: We lost our game today, King Friday.

King Friday: Oh, uh, did you do your best, Mr. Swann?

Lynn Swann: I think we did. Don’t you, Bob Dog?

Bob Dog: Yeah, I guess so.

King Friday: Well, then, you won. All you need to do is your best and you’ve won, in my book.

Considering the fact that Lynn Swann was a real-life professional football star when the episode show was taped, Bob Dog’s disappointment at their loss is doubly painful. When King Friday hears that both of the players did their best, he comforts the losers, ministering to the needs of his people. Friday is also demonstrating the adult role that the MRN program models constantly: the adult comforts (or ministers to) those around him.

Rogers directly mentions theological topics infrequently. Only once during the twenty-five shows watched for this program does Rogers talk about God. When Rogers addresses religion, he does so sensitively. In episode 5, Rogers sings the lullaby titled “Good Night, God.” The lyrics begin at 25:47 and are as follows:

Good night God, and thank you for this very lovely day.
Thank you too, for helping us at work, and at our play,
Thank you for our families, for each and every friend,
Forgive us, please, for anything, we’ve done, that might offend.
Keep us safe and faithful God, tell us what to do.
Good night, God,
And thank you God, for letting us love you.

The song is a simple statement of care. Rogers is careful to note that, “We have a song, in our house, not everybody sings this song, but we do—just before we go to sleep; called “Good Night God.” Even if some of the viewers’ families do not sing this particular lullaby, Rogers wants to let his viewers know that each person is loved and that he or she can love in return. Words like “thank you,” “faithful,” “forgive,” “friend” and “letting” are important to the message of the song, as they make the listener think that someone is concerned about the viewer’s welfare.

Years after singing Good Night, God, Rogers was interviewed by Amy Hollingsworth, who worked for eight years with the 700 Club, which promoted Christian television. Hollingsworth had several meetings with Rogers and explored the ways in which his Christian faith impacted his television work.14 As a part of their final in-person interview, Hollingsworth asked Rogers, “If you had one final broadcast, one final opportunity to address your television neighbors, and you could tell them the single most important lesson of your life, what would you say?” (Emphasis added by Hollingsworth.)

Rogers responds:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be.

And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way.

If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes, they could look with those eyes on their neighbor and realize, “My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor and there never will be.” If they could value that person—if they could love that person—in ways that we know that the Eternal loves us, then I would be very grateful.15

Clearly, Rogers’ goal of ministering to children and their families through the television waves was not diminished by his long tenure on the air. His language stands out in the interview: he uses words like “unique value,” “love” and an emphasis on the care that people show each other—because they are loved by a “Person.” Subtly, Rogers is maintaining his goal of ministering. He is still helping individuals know that they are acceptable and lovable as they are. Even though his commission came years before the interview, he still serves as a minister to his audience.

But what about the educational aspect of the MRN show? Although he was not officially a teacher, Rogers’ programs constantly encourage children to learn. Following a visit from the singer Ella Jenkins, Rogers tells his television neighbor, “I like to learn things, don’t you? And there’s so much in this world we can learn, no matter how young or how old we are” (episode 1548, 8:11). More concrete evidence of Rogers’ didactic purpose can be found in looking at how he planned a weeklong series of television episodes—for example, the “Bubbleland” opera. On Day 1 (episode 1471), Rogers brings an electric synthesizer to his living room and plays it. He demonstrates how the synthesizer could copy the sounds of other musical instruments. On Day 2, Rogers shows a video of people making machine-knit sweaters (episode 1472), and he visits Robert Trowe’s workshop, where Trowe is repairing a knitting machine. On Day 3, Rogers takes his television neighbor on a visit to Brockett’s Bakery, where he learns how to make a snack and a drink from bananas (episode 1473). Finally on Day 4, Rogers takes a field trip to a weather station, where he helps launch a weather balloon, looks at radar, and explores different ways of measuring the forces of nature (episode 1474). By the last episode (1475), it is time to perform the opera. Production of the opera includes synthesizer music, a sweater-based economy, a banana crate wall, and a windstorm.

A more graphic example of Rogers’ didactic bent is the School at Someplace Else in the land of Make-Believe. The students are taught by Harriet Elizabeth Cow. Here’s an example of the language that the school members use from episode 1481, when King Friday has Miss Paulificate telephone Harriet Cow to ask her to come to the castle. The dialogue starts at 16:36:

Cow: Now then, what can I help you with, dear?”

Paulificate: Oh, King Friday would like you to come over to the castle right away. He has a wonderful idea… (Harriet Cow refuses to leave the school at first, Paulificate negotiates between King and Cow)

Paulificate: Well I could ask. Ah, Harriet, could I be the teacher’s helper?

Cow: Well of course, dear! Come right over—you can teach about Telephones . . .

(in the school, Paulificate discusses telephone etiquette)

Daniel: So if somebody calls, and it’s the wrong number, you say you’re sorry?

Paulificate: That’s right, Daniel.

Daniel: But why do you say you’re sorry if it’s not your fault?

Paulificate: Oh you know, I really don’t know. Does anyone have an idea?

Tuesday: Maybe you’re sorry for yourself because you had to answer the phone and you were playing!

Ana: Or maybe you are wishing that somebody special would call, and then it wasn’t your friend, after all!

The teacher, Miss Cow, demonstrates her adult language by implying that she cannot leave the classroom because she is teaching and she does not have a “teacher’s helper.” Language that targets the education goal is the use of “why,” “does anyone have an idea,” and “that’s right.” Paulificate guides student awareness, helping them (and the viewer) become proficient in telephone etiquette.

Educational goals in the MRN program, although not as deliberately advertised as they are in other children’s programs, are still evident. Rogers finds opportunities to make learning a part of daily life, something that viewers can absorb without having to consciously contemplate the effort of accepting the ideas presented.

A final facet of examination must come from examining the socially-aware information Rogers uses to address current events and emotional reactions to those events. While current events from the news are never specifically mentioned in the episodes viewed for this article, the earliest week of the MRN show that was viewed for this project wanders perilously close to the military conflict of the late 1960s. After that set of programs, Rogers’ other episodes focus more on the feelings people might have, rather than the news that causes those feelings. This is not to say that Rogers completely ignored social events. For example, shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, Rogers filmed the pilot for what would become the Mister Rogers Talks to Parents series. The original program was filmed and aired to help adults deal with the questions that children might have—following widespread television coverage of the assassination—“I plead for your protection and support of your child. There is just so much that children can take without it being overwhelming,” Rogers states.16 His reaction to this widely-publicized violence was to present parents and caregivers with some guidelines that could help explain and limit the graphic information that children were consuming. Later episodes of the parent-focused television series discuss child-care, superheroes, and other popular culture concepts. The goals of these special shows are to explain and prepare for the concerns or confusion children might have when faced with a real-life situation that is unfamiliar. While these shows incorporate the Make-Believe puppets, the goal is to reach parents and help them understand ways to help children, rather than to reach children directly. Rogers states:

Helping children learn to separate fantasy from reality is a most important task of early childhood and one with which children need adult help. In my livingroom and in other places in our television neighborhood, real things happen and we show them and talk about them as realistically as we can. In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, we can make up anything we like and pretend anything we like and feel safe about it because it is only pretend.17

In the MRN show, the “real thing” that happens in the black-and-white episodes (broadcast in 1968) is King Friday’s martial law. Friday is upset that his scenery has been re-arranged. The King declares martial law in order to prevent Change. The neighborhood folk dress in helmets and place wire fencing around the castle. Betty Aberlin comes to visit Mister Rogers in his reality studio and they discuss the confusion in Make-Believe in episode 3, 8:23:

Rogers: Have you been in touch with (King Friday?)

Aberlin: No, not in a while.

Rogers: Well, uh, he isn’t the happiest Great-Uncle Friday that you’ve seen in a long time.

Aberlin: Oh – what’s wrong?’

Rogers: Lady Elaine has been up to her tricks again, and she’s moved the Eiffel Tower on the wrong side of the castle, and the tree has gone way from over here to the middle, and the clock is over there, and the fountain—well, it’s just all mixed around.

Aberlin: He must be really upset!

Rogers: He’s furious about it. And he has established border guards.

Aberlin: In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe?

Rogers: Edgar, poor thing—he has to walk, back and forth, and be sure that no one will come in.

Aberlin: That sounds like a war!

Rogers: It certainly does—but at least there isn’t any shooting, yet.

Aberlin: Well, do you think that I should take a make-believe gun or something?

Rogers: Oh, I don’t know that you’ll need that. ‘Course you could always use your finger, or, if you do that. (Makes a pretend gun.) But how about this? Would you like this cape?

Aberlin: Oh, yes!

Rogers: I just made it. Burlap bag and a safety pin.

Aberlin: That should keep me very safe, then.

Rogers: Sure.

Aberlin: Oh, I feel better already.

Rogers: I hope so. I hope you’ll be brave and strong as you go off to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Aberlin: I will, Mister Rogers. Good bye. (She marches off, singing “Be Brave, and Then Be Strong.”)

Notice the charged language. “Border guards,” “war,” “shooting” and “gun” hint at the Vietnam conflict, which would have been discussed on other television programs of the time. Rogers gives Aberlin the cape to keep her feeling “safe.” He tells her to “be brave and strong” on her way to the pretend conflict. By the end of the week, Daniel Striped Tiger launches a plan to send balloons with peaceful messages to the castle. Here is the dialogue from Episode 5, 21:39:

Edgar Cook: What is it? What is it? What are these things? What—oh, I must tell

King Friday, I must tell King Friday.

Friday: Fire the cannon! Fire the cannon! Fire the cannon—man your stations! Fire the cannon!

Negri: What is it, King Friday, Edgar?

Friday: Paratroopers!

Negri: Edgar–man the cannon—Edgar! Edgar!

Friday: Paratroopers!

Aberlin: No, no no—just read the bottoms of them before you start shooting!

Nergri: Read the bottom? Hold it–hold it Edgar! Hold it, King Friday!

Friday: What is your name, rank and serial number, Lady?

Aberlin: Oh, Great Uncle Friday, you know my name! It’s Lady Aberlin! Just, just read the bottom of the signs, won’t you?

Friday: Oh, of course.

Negri: Look at this, King Friday–

Friday: What is it?

Negri: These aren’t paratroopers—they’re messages of peace. Look at this! Tenderness!

Friday: Messages of peace?

Negri: Peaceful coexistence! Well, isn’t that marvelous? They’re peaceful messages, Sir. Peaceful coexistence!

Friday: Stop all fighting. Stop all fighting.

Negri: Hold your fire—hold your fire.

Friday: Oh, my, this is such a surprise!

The language again suggests current events. “Paratroopers,” “cannons” “messages of peace” and “peaceful coexistence”—what would a child notice? This is probably Rogers’ answer to the blare of television news. To repeat the quote mentioned earlier, Rogers felt that “In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, we can make up anything we like and pretend anything we like and feel safe about it because it is only pretend.” This scheme of balloons and peaceful messages is certainly a sample of make-believe in action. As history has demonstrated, this is not the way the Vietnam conflict was resolved, but to a young viewer, this solution could make some sense. The danger is never too terrible to handle, (after all, the conflict was only over stopping the Changers!) and the resolution is simple, something that a child could understand and perform. A message of peace and tenderness might not solve a war, but it could make a child feel better because it would give him or her a sense of resolution—the feeling that somehow, the situation could be concluded happily.

This is Rogers’ way of caring for the emotional needs of a child in response to frightening television. He demonstrates a situation where trouble could occur, then shows a method for coping with that struggle. It empowers viewers to take control of their feelings, even if the cannot completely control the events that have affected them. In a different program, Rogers becomes angry. The dialogue below opens in the middle of a phone call with deliveryman Mr. McFeeley, who could not come right over to Mister Rogers’ place, in episode 1485, 4:01:

Rogers: Okay, nothing seems to be working out right today. All right, well, I’ll see you a little later then. Thanks anyway. (He hangs up the phone and begins to sing:)

What do you do with the mad that you feel,
when you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh,
so wrong and nothing you do seems very right,
What do you do, do you punch a bag,
do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag,
and see how fast you go? . . .

Rogers finds a giant tablet of paper and a box of crayons and draws vigorously. Rogers, through his song, suggests what to do with “the mad that you feel.” Obviously, Rogers cannot control Mr. McFeeley or the other events that have added up to the sense behind “nothing seems to be working out right today.” But Rogers reacts constructively: he wants viewers to work through their emotions in ways that are not dangerous to themselves or others. Besides demonstrating his own methods, Rogers explores the ways other people express their feelings. In his visit with the cellist Yo Yo Ma, Rogers asks (episode 1547, 16:17):

Rogers: Well when you play, I’m sure you have a lot of different feelings. And as you played as a child, did you ever play happy things, or sad things or angry things, just ‘cause you wanted to?

Ma: Oh, sure. I mean, there would be times . . . if I was happy, I’d do something like this (plays a Bach dance) . . . One of my favorites was “The Swan” (he plays) . . . you could imagine the swan… and I loved to play

That . . . This was obviously a very peaceful, tranquil mood.

Rogers: Did you ever play when you were really angry?

Ma: Sure. And there’s one piece I know that I love to get into (he saws on the cello with temper.) It just goes on and on and on, and you’re just digging in with all your strength, and . . . just got rid of a lot of frustrations.

Rogers: That’s how you feel, afterwards—relieved?

Ma: Relieved. Absolutely relieved. And just, after having given all this burst of energy, it felt good.

Whether it happens in Make-Believe, to Rogers himself, or to a television neighbor on camera, Rogers demonstrates ways to cope. Rogers’ theory respects these models for their healthy emotional release: “We . . . try to show models for coping with [anxiety] as well as models of trustworthy, caring, and available adults,” he writes.18 Through his language, and the lyrics of his songs, Rogers implements a system of emotional survival. He shows his viewers how to understand themselves, and from his position as the chief adult in the show, Rogers yet again fulfills the grown-up role of informing and comforting his audience in the mores of emotional responsibility.

The initial goal of this paper was to investigate the word usage of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program. As a result of this research, it is evident that both the language and the message of the MRN show were intended to make a positive impact. According to Rogers’ pastoral commission, his job was to help “children and their families.” But perhaps Rogers’ influence reached further than that. As David Bianculli notes in “The Myth, the Man the Legend,”19 “ . . . Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood remains one of the first, best and safest programs through which preschoolers should be introduced to the medium of television.” Bianculli reinforces this reasoning in a separate book: “Television is our most common language, our most popular pastime, our basic point of reference; it’s also where most of our children are first exposed to allusion, satire, and other ‘literary’ concepts.”20 If television is truly the literacy medium of our modern society, then Bianculli is in tune with Rogers’ MRN programming goals. Rogers wanted television to be a positive force in the lives of children. Using the MRN program to positively prepare children for other programs, as Bianculli suggests, is something of which Rogers would approve.

Has anything changed on the young people’s television scene since Rogers was first exposed (and disgusted by) television? Evidence exists to say yes—as stated in a Newsweek article, written by David McGinn. His piece, “Guilt Free TV,” includes a list of children’s television programs and information about how television can be a helpful tool for parents to use in raising children. Although he admits that some parents have serious misgivings about children watching television, McGinn states, “Now that PBS, which invented the good-for-kids genre, has new competition from Nickelodeon and Disney, there are more quality choices for preschoolers than ever.” While these shows are “stiff competition” to the MRN show, McGinn quotes Rogers as saying, “I’m just glad that more producers and purveyors of television have signed the pledge to protect childhood[.]” Notice how Rogers emphasizes that this new television programming “protect(s) childhood.” This would indicate that Rogers believes that his original goal—to create and promote programming that nurtured childhood—was achieved.

This attitude towards wholesome childhood development is echoed by psychiatrists Dorothy and Jerome Singer, who discuss imagination and successful ways of helping children understand that they are loved and accepted: “There must be a key person in a child’s life who inspires and sanctions play and accepts the child’s inventions with respect and delight.” 21 In their careful documentation of child’s play, the Singers demonstrate that children must use their imaginations in order to grow—starting as young as infant “play” and interaction with caregivers: “Whatever babies may bring with them at birth will be molded and tempered by the behavior of those entrusted with their welfare . . . when children can play openly and freely, they become good learners, developing their cognitive skills through the stepping-stones of play.”22 Although the Singers’ research was published in 1990, years after the start of the MRN program, it is plain that Rogers was following a similar philosophy. He allows children to use their imaginations in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe but Rogers also feeds the intellectual side by going on field trips and doing practical activities. Rogers and his program are something that parents can “trust with [a viewing child’s] welfare,” to paraphrase the Singers. As a role model for children, Rogers wanted to make sure that his show gave children a time to learn to trust and believe in something positive—a time when they could grow up straight and true inside.

To achieve this goal, Rogers notes, “I think play is an expression of our creativity; and creativity, I believe, is at the very root of our ability to learn, to cope, and to become whatever we may be.”23 Play, on the MRN show, while it could be demonstrated through physical actions and pictures, is also exemplified through the verbal interactions of the puppets, the actors, and the figure of Rogers himself. The Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program vocalizes methods of creativity, coping, and responsibility in order to help children gain life skills. Today, there are a number of children’s television programs dedicated to developing those same skills, but they have been influenced no doubt, by the words of Mister Rogers.


[1] Kimmel and Collins The Wonder of It All 18, quoting an interview of Rogers with Karen Herman.

See also Rogers and Head 9.

[2] Rogers and Head 9.

[3] See MRN episode 1546, 8:32. When Nicki, (age six and a half) is brought to Rogers’ studio, the boy plays a piece on the piano and speaks candidly about music and how much work practicing is. “Everybody has to practice, before they can learn something,” Niki says. “And it’s okay, even when you make mistakes,” Rogers replies.

[4] See Owen.

[5] Rogers admits, later in life, to using a “punch line” for the final episode of the last week-long sequence of programs.  Owen’s article refers to end of the final series of MRN shows that Rogers filmed before his retirement. Rogers discusses his final series, stating “I can’t tell you the punch line of it all because it’s just too wonderful . . . ”

[6] Southam gives a more complete discussion on how young children enjoy physical comedy while more mature viewers understand wordplay.

[7] Daniel McGinn’s article, “Guilt Free TV,” goes so far as to discuss one mother who installed a television in the kitchen, so the children could learn from a variety of PBS shows while eating. “They learn so much,” says the mother, whose children were ages 2 and 7 at the time of the article’s writing. Since McGinn’s article was published in 2002, it is assumed that Rogers’ program (which began more than 30 years before) created momentum for multi-generationally appealing PBS programming.

[8] See McGhee 125.

[9] See Kimmel and Collins i, Hollingsworth xx and 124. (As Hollingsworth notes, this pie-throwing act might have struck an internal sore spot with Rogers, who was bullied as a child.)

[10] Rogers and Head 163.

[11] See Rogers and Head 11-12.

[12] Kimmel and Collins 13.

[13] Rogers and Head 163.

[14] Hollingsworth xix, and back cover flyleaf.

[15] Hollingsworth 160-161.

[16] Galinsky 165.

[17] Rogers and Head 65.

[18] Rogers and Head 167.

[19] Collins and Kimmel, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers 43.

[20] Bianculli 5.

[21] Singer 3-4.

[22] Singer 62-63.

[23] Rogers and Head 93.

Works Cited

Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. New York: Continuum, 1992. Print.

Bianculli, David. “The Myth, the Man, the Legend.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers. Eds. Margaret Kimmel and Mark Collins. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1996. 37-49. Print.

Galinsky, Ellen. “Mister Rogers Speaks to Parents.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers. Eds. Margaret Kimmel and Mark Collins. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1996. 163–172. Print.

Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor. Nashville: Integrity, 2005. Print.

Kimmel, Margaret Mary, and Mark Collins. The Wonder of It All: Fred Rogers and the Story of an Icon. Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College, 2008. PDF file.

McGhee, Paul E. “Cognitive Development and Children’s Comprehension of Humor.” Child Development 42.1 (1971): 123–138. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

McGinn, Daniel. “Guilt Free TV.” Newsweek. 11 Nov. 2002: Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

Owen, Rob. “There Goes the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers Will Make Last Episodes of Show in December.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12 Nov 2000: TV and Radio. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

Rice, Mabel L., and Patti L. Haight. “‘Motherese’ of Mr. Rogers: A Description of the Dialogue of Educational Television Programs.” Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 51:3 (1986): 282–287. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

Rogers, Fred, and Barry Head. Mister Rogers Talks with Parents. Pittsburgh: Family Communication Inc., 1983. Print.

Singer, Dorothy, and Jerome Singer. The House of Make-Believe: Play and the Developing Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1990. Print.

Southam, Marti. “Humor Development: an Important Cognitive and Social Skill in the Growing Child.” Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics 25:1 (2005): 105–117. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Episode List

“Competition: episode 1481.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Competition: episode 1482.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Competition: episode 1483.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Competition: episode 1484.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Competition: episode 1485.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“The First Week: episode 0001.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“The First Week: episode 0002.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“The First Week: episode 0003.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“The First Week: episode 0004.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“The First Week: episode 0005.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making Music: episode 1546.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making Music: episode 1547.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making Music: episode 1548.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making Music: episode 1549.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making Music: episode 1550.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making an Opera: episode 1471.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making an Opera: episode 1472.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making an Opera: episode 1473.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making an Opera: episode 1474.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Making an Opera: episode 1475.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Work: episode 1526.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Work: episode 1527.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Work: episode 1528.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Work: episode 1529.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.

“Work: episode 1530.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amazon Instant Video, 2011. Amazon Download.


Author Bio:

Louisa Danielson, BA, MA English (Indiana University – Fort Wayne) is a limited-term-lecturer at Indiana University, Fort Wayne, where she teaches introductory and intermediate expository writing. Her piece, “Teaching from the Sidelines: Using Marginalia to Encourage Good Writing” was published by the Journal of South Texas English Studies (2013).

Reference Citation:

Danielson, Louisa. “The Gentle Tongue: How Language Affected the World of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web and Print.

Danielson, L. (2015). The gentle tongue: How language affected the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).

Applications in the Classroom: Hardly Elementary—Frontiers for Freshman Composition with Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet

Kate M. Donley
Norwich University
Northfield, Vermont, USA



Three recent television and film adaptations testify to the continuing popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. The fast-paced novella that introduces detective duo Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet involves some astonishing elements, and not just in the plot. With just a little probing, collegiate readers may wonder whether Conan Doyle plagiarized his most famous character, invented forensic science, despised Mormons, and accidentally wrote a Western.

The novel was adapted as A Study in Pink, the first episode of the BBC’s series Sherlock created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Their vision of Holmes set in present-day London will thrill students and also leave them wondering what happened to the second half of the novel. Beyond the predictable (yet exciting) classroom discussion topic of adaptation, A Study in Scarlet presents a rich context for research and discussion by challenging students’ modern-day notions of genre, historical truth, political correctness, and academic credibility. Although this novel is well-suited for high-level secondary or freshman composition classes, advanced students of English literature will find much to explore. This book analysis contains a summary of A Study in Scarlet with explication of its literary features and associated pedagogical issues for the freshman composition class. Topics for more advanced students are also identified. Instructors can make a free virtual casebook of ancillary readings with the Internet links provided.


Keywords: college composition, first-year writing, freshman composition, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, detective fiction, adaptation, pseudo-scholarship, fanfiction

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A Field Guide to Teaching Agency and Ethics: The West Wing and American Foreign Policy

Kayce Mobley
University of Georgia
Athens, GA, USA

Sarah Fisher
University of Georgia
Athens, GA, USA



Though political science undergraduate courses reflect a rich theoretical tradition, they typically lack opportunities for students to express intangible concepts through the interpretation of creative works, a standard exercise of critical analysis. Educators can address this dearth in many ways, such as through utilization of popular culture texts. We employ the television series The West Wing to ground debates in American politics, specifically American foreign policy. Although this show has been off air since 2006, Netflix and Amazon have recently released the entire series for streaming, significantly reducing the hassle and monetary cost of using this source in the classroom. Using The West Wing as our guide, we enhance political science pedagogy using agency, structure, and ethics as our guiding concepts.


Keywords: politics, television, The West Wing, foreign policy, decision making, agency, structure, ethics, critical analysis, United States

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Editorial: Examining Perspectives and Applications

A class of freshman composition students were recently asked to consider the multitude of reality programs on network and cable television and to offer an explanation for the popularity of reality shows. They pondered all manner of reality shows, including competitions like Top Chef, The Voice, Biggest Loser, and The Bachelor, among others; reality dramas, shows which follow individuals as they live, work, and play, such as Gold Rush, Appalachian Outlaws, Amish Mafia, and the various Real Housewives; and “informative” reality shows, including Pawn Stars, Antiques Roadshow, and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Having contemplated the situation, my students cited viewer curiosity and superiority, and belief in the American Dream as potential contributors to the preponderance of these shows. They may well be correct.

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Editor’s Note: Volume 2, Issue 1 Preview

Dialogue is pleased to release its Volume 2, Issue 1 Preview, in advance of the February, 2015 issue (Volume 2, Issue 1). This sneak peek brings you three articles and one review:

  • Anthony Neely’s “Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead”
  • Amy Fatzinger’s “’Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?’: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie”
  • May Friedman’s “Survivor Skills: Why I Want to Teach Reality TV” and
  • Peter Kay’s review “‘Indy Classical Innovation: yMusic‘ at USC’s Southern Exposure New Music Series”

These articles highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the Journal, with contributions addressing literature, television and film; history and the post-apocalypse; adaptation and “reality”; live performances and studio recordings.

As we look towards the Spring 2015 issue, we encourage you to join us in celebrating the range of popular culture topics, approaches, and time periods.

Lynnea Chapman King
Editor in Chief


Anna CohenMiller
Managing Editor


Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV

May Friedman
Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the phenomenon of reality television by exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. The course I would like to teach would also consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.

I see the creation of a post-secondary class on reality TV as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my undergraduate students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


Reality Television, Engaged Pedagogy, Popular Culture, Representation, Authenticity, Neoliberalism, Social Work, Critical Discourse Analysis


As an avid consumer of popular culture and a teacher of critical social work, I am always on the lookout for how these two domains overlap. Yet the overlaps should, in fact, be fairly obvious. In teaching my students how to “do” social work, I do my best to help them deconstruct their lives and their worlds. Yet one of the single biggest impacts on the public imaginary of my students, popular culture, is often curiously absent from social work education. An examination of popular culture gives a particular lens to understanding the specific interests and structural factors that aid in the creation of their surroundings. As always, however, the pedagogical lesson begins with personal moments and experiences.

Many years ago I went to school to achieve a Master’s in Social Work. Our cohort, like many before us, bonded through the frustrations of graduate school and the often-difficult emotional work of confronting our own biases and specific life circumstances in order to become qualified and self-reflexive social work practitioners. We found a unique way of blowing off steam at the end of the day. While we heard that the law students would gather round the TV to watch Law and Order and assumed that the med and nursing school pupils had a weekly date to watch ER, the social work students in my cohort would group together to witness a strange new phenomenon: reality TV, in particular the spectacle of the show Survivor. In watching the specific interpersonal challenges of groups of people uniquely selected for their capacity to engender conflict and be subjected to contrived situations of privation and stress, we laughed, analyzed, and shouted at the TV every Thursday night.

When I look back at that period of my life, there are tangible lessons I can remember from being in the classroom and powerful insights I can draw from my experiences in the field. At the same time, I recall less specific moments of learning that resonated with me and that changed my approach in both my private and professional life. Those Thursday nights have stayed in my memory as a particular way that my fellow students and I could take our formal learning and apply it to an analysis of popular culture, specifically to reality television. Our watching allowed us to simultaneously assess the same artifact and learn, to our alarm and delight, that we were often experiencing the “same” moments very differently. It allowed us to discuss human emotions and stressors very specifically in ways that our student placements—each at different agencies, and bound by both laws and ethical constraints of confidentiality—could not. Yet our analysis went further: those Thursday night goof-off sessions allowed us to see dominant discourses of racism and whiteness, of gender and sexuality, and of the ways that stereotypes are easily embedded in neo-liberal notions of individual agency. Those Thursdays remain an example of some of the most critical and delightful learning I have undergone. As I grow as an educator, and as I now observe my own students in social work classrooms and field placements, I wonder if there is a way to harness the magical critique of those early heady days of reality TV and apply them to the glut of reality television that has followed since the millennial days when Survivor was a strange and new media artifact.

My analysis of reality TV as a teaching tool thus draws from my own experiences as a student and educator, but it is disingenuous to suggest that my desire to bring this aspect of popular culture into the classroom is borne exclusively of thoughtful pedagogical analysis. Rather, my leisure time continues to be spent in part as a viewer of reality television in many different forms and contexts. On the one hand, my love of reality TV is my dirty little secret, the low culture hiding in my web browser’s history, silently standing alongside the scholarly texts that grace my bookshelf. On the other hand, I continue to observe the ways that viewing reality TV hones my critical lens, allowing me to consider the dominant discourses that shape my world as well as the commerce that foregrounds certain discourses while muting others. It gives me an entry, albeit one that is heavily mediated, into worlds that I could not otherwise see. Reality TV, like my other passions – memoir and blogs – gives me access to raw emotion and takes me beyond my own neighborhood and experiences. I have found that reality TV provides me with tremendous opportunities to apply the analyses contained in those scholarly tomes, to apply the critical theories that I hold so dear.

This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the popular culture phenomenon of reality TV, suggesting that “reality shows can be seen as significant cultural objects whose production and consumption reflect and reveal norms and ideologies of contemporary culture” (Montemurro 84). I will explore the possibilities – and some pitfalls – of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. To argue that reality TV provides a useful site of theoretical analysis, however, requires an examination of some of the key themes. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. Finally, the course I would like to teach would consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.


Even a facile engagement with reality TV elicits discussion about issues of representation. If reality TV is meant to showcase reality, I would like my students to consider whose reality is being put forth and through which epistemology such a reality is constructed. Reality TV obviously perpetuates stereotypes and still skews toward the same normative tropes that exist in other sites of popular culture but, alarmingly, it does so under the guise of presenting the truth. Williams suggests that “the line between news and entertainment, documentary and reality TV is constantly blurred and shifting” (550). For many viewers, the clearly mediated “truths” of reality TV may provide as much information about communities and systems as more traditional news media and other expert discourses. For example, Morris and McInerney suggest that seventy-two percent of survey respondents who were pregnant for the first time saw popular pregnancy and delivery shows such as A Baby Story and Birth Day as important sources of information (134). As the authors go on to show in detail, these shows present a great deal of misinformation and may perpetuate myths about pregnancy and childbirth.

Likewise, dating shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette suggest that fairy tale love is largely restricted to white middle-class couples (Dubrofsky and Hardy); Montemurro shows that, “among the women contestants, whiteness was privileged and racial others were either exoticized or assimilated, depending on what seemed to best serve the storyline” (96). Reality shows that center on tropes of personal transformation, such as The Swan, deliberately seek less normative participants at the outset but with the explicit motive of achieving normativity as the desired outcome. As Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer note:

Plastic surgery shows often select as their subjects a “certain class” of woman, which translates frequently into working-class women. The selection of working-class subjects contributes to the seemingly inexhaustible ideology of the American dream where those of a lower socio-economic class can succeed at becoming middle-class subjects, and the media audience participates in this transformation by tuning in to watch. (266)

This affiliation may be particularly keen for viewers who do not see themselves reflected elsewhere in popular culture. Skeggs and Wood suggest that working-class viewers may find the unpretentiousness of participants “like them” appealing in the absence of many other sites of representation (“Labour of Transformation” 567). Finally, popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and Big Brother purport to pick diverse contestants but generally only manage to achieve “overplayed typecasting … with their ever present Gay Man, Wild Woman, Single Mom, Yuppie, Everybody’s Friend, Redneck, Slacker, Victim …” (Kerrigan 22).

Given the tenacity of both the stereotypical permissible diversities of much reality TV as well as the very explicit exclusions on many shows, how can these shows serve as a useful pedagogical tool? Leaving aside for the moment issues of authenticity, how can the deliberate selection of specific bodies over others, the deliberate creation, through editing, of specific “characters” associated with stereotypes, provide a launching point for analysis in the classroom? Is there anything to say about reality TV beyond a critique of its obvious limitations?

Using reality TV allows students to consider that “television talk is always a part of the broader conversational culture” (Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness” 62). While it is certainly alarming to consider the implications of paternalistic shows such as A Baby Story standing in for empowered feminist obstetric knowledge, these shows did not single-handedly create the culture they reflect. Rather, expert-driven and reductionist approaches to information (about childbirth and beyond) are the norm. By amplifying some of the tropes of dominant discourses into sensationalized formats, reality TV may provide a point of entry for students to consider the failings of representation more broadly. As a result, they may develop a critical lens that extends beyond their analysis of these leisure-time shows toward sites that are more concretely presented as truth: an analysis of reality TV may engender a degree of skepticism about reality. Likewise, an analysis of who is missing from many of these shows may allow for a conversation to develop about which bodies are rendered invisible in the public sphere, or only visible in particularly virulent and narrow ways. For example, an analysis of The Biggest Loser may allow students to embark upon a more ambitious conversation about size acceptance and the scope of both the ignoring of fat bodies and the ways they can only be seen in the context of transformation (Cooper 35; Murray 155).

If there are lessons to be learned by an examination of the specificity with which particular bodies are represented, there is also pedagogical value in an analysis of people who are presented as simultaneously ordinary and bizarre. The subtype of reality TV shows that purport to provide a documentary lens on ordinary, unusual people has gained great traction over the last decade and provides a paradoxical story. On the one hand, people like JimBob and Michelle Dugger, with their nineteen children (and counting!), “little people” Matt and Amy Roloff and their family, or Alana “Honey BooBoo” Thompson are presented as people “just like us,” suggesting that difference is illusory or only in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, such shows present a latter-day freak show wherein audiences eagerly consume the mundane details of non-normative lives. Andrejevic’s assertion that, “by democratizing celebrity, such programs help reinforce the notion that a surveillance-based society can overcome the hierarchies of mass society” (“The Kinder, Gentler Gaze” 253) resonates here in its presumption that, by learning about difference, we may lose sight of our limitations and biases. Thus, an examination of the ways that non-normativity is specifically taken up in reality TV in deliberate ways may be productive for students grappling with both the limitations of their own experiences of difference and their own titillation by the gentle sensationalizing that occurs in these shows.

Reality TV may be taken up as a useful site of analysis on the basis of race, and significant scholarship has considered the ways that reality TV continues to maintain a commonsense and unyielding whiteness. Bell-Jordan suggests that “race continues to be constructed in superficial, reductive, and often hegemonic ways—and this process has increasingly come to define the genre” (369), while Dubrofsky and Hardy argue that these shows are “recentering Whiteness without calling explicit attention to this fact” (376). There is no question that the performance of race on reality TV is deeply flawed. In examining these flaws, however, many of the abiding archetypes of race (such as Hill Collins’s analysis of the Mammy, Jezebel and the Matriarch [69]) are so amplified that skeptical students may finally have a context in which to understand what many racialized students may have known, implicitly and explicitly in their bodies all along. It becomes harder to deny or minimize racism when its machinations are so explicitly exposed.

While an analysis of race reveals the dominant discourse of whiteness that invades nearly all reality TV, there is nonetheless a valuable lesson to be gained on the topic of agency and specificity in these shows. Shows that deliberately seek out ethnically or racially specific participants (such as Flavor of Love [Dubrofsky and Hardy], the Finnish show Extreme Escapades [Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness”] or the Canadian version of The Bachelor) present their own deep flaws in maintaining stereotypical tropes about the populations they present. At the same time, an analysis of the specifics of these sites opens conversations about insider and outsider presentations, nationalism and globalization, and the ways that the colonizing influence of reality TV is nonetheless mediated through the specifics of particular populations. Dubrofsky and Hardy highlight this by examining the ways that participants on Flavor of Love were held to a very different standard than participants on the “mainstream” romance show The Bachelor, arguing that while The Bachelor was centered on hegemonic and unselfconscious whiteness, Flavor of Love promoted an almost ironic hyper-performance of Blackness. While maintaining an awareness of the limitations of these performances, students may benefit from delving into a more nuanced analysis of dominant discourse and reality TV that complicates a discussion of representation and thus interrupts the idea that all non-normative performers are naïve dupes. Likewise, an analysis of sexual and gender orientations and disability could be usefully undertaken by considering both the agency of particular actors/subjects and the constraints within which such performances occur.


Despite the generic moniker of “reality” in reality TV, at this stage of its development, it is arguable that few viewers would perceive such offerings as genuinely presenting reality. Indeed, as the prior analysis of representation suggests, much of the offering of reality TV is neatly packaged in response to concerns about production and commerce, leaving “reality” far, far behind. Yet such an analysis relies on positivist notions of reality and does not extend to a more nuanced analysis of authenticity and emotionality as key characteristics that are exemplified in reality TV. As Kavka argues, “reality TV relishes contradictions. It shamelessly mixes the generic attributes of fact and fiction” (179). In so doing, a collective analysis of reality TV begs interesting questions about truth, fiction, performance, and our own assertions of what constitutes the real.

For example, one assumes that critical viewers might see the lives portrayed on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom as inaccurate and heavy-handed representations of the lives of young mothers and the particularities of their experiences (for example, see Guglielmo). While we are critical of the ways that young motherhood is packaged on these shows, we may nonetheless see through the moralizing discourses to view the real structural challenges experienced by younger mothers. Furthermore, the capacity to unpack the grey area between fact and fiction in a classroom context takes postmodernist and poststructuralist concepts of truth out of the realm of inaccessible theory and instead asks students to consider which truth they would accept as authentic, which story they would deem an adequate representation. In this context, the course might usefully be bolstered by contrasting viewings of documentary films (including those with a reality bent, such as the 7-Up series) and considering the limitations of subjectivity.

Fundamentally, such an analysis allows students to call their own performances into question. If, as Dubrofsky and Hardy argue, “participants on reality TV shows perform for the camera, either unwittingly or explicitly, just as people perform in their daily lives to suit the imperatives of a given situation” (375), a shared viewing of reality TV guided by critical pedagogy would allow students to tease out their own unwitting and/or explicit performances. This is of obvious value to me in teaching social work students who are not only grappling with more obvious sites of performance such as professionalism but also negotiating with the many performances (e.g., race, gender, and ability) that may be beyond their control. Thus, while students may begin their analysis by taking for granted reality TV as inauthentic, our shared viewing may evolve into a more nuanced reckoning with the notion of authenticity itself. This follows Kavka’s assertion that “discursively, reality TV makes claims about ordinariness, authenticity and the social value of accessing private lives” (179).

If reality TV can be seen as an obvious contrivance of fact, what are we to make, as viewers, of the presentation of emotion on these shows? Can the rage, heartbreak, and passion presented in this context yield further lessons about authenticity of emotion, even as the machinations of editing and production suggest that such raw emotions are slickly incorporated into a discrete message? Skeggs and Wood suggest that “[w]hilst the staging of events on ‘reality’ television complicates any ontological claim to the ‘real,’ it can make a claim to the ‘actual’—the camera tells us this ‘actually’ happened as a response to an unscripted, if contrived, actual situation” (“Labour of Transformation” 559). Kavka extends this in arguing that “authenticity is confirmed by the … emotional intensity of the participants’ interactions” (181). In this respect, reality TV presents an interesting blurring of the public and private in presenting emotions (and, indeed, seeking out these high emotions through inevitably “shocking” twists and turns) that were, prior to the rise of this genre, largely inaccessible in the realm of mass media. Aslama and Pantti suggest that reality TV has resurrected the theatrical monologue, in which a lone character shares her or his thoughts with the audience privately (“Talking Alone” 178). At the same time, they note the inherent contradiction in this style of conversation: “The paradox of an individualized society is that while one is talking alone about one’s deepest emotions, at the same time one is selling one’s authenticity to viewers” (“Talking Alone” 181). Skeggs and Wood argue that this blurring of the public and private has implications for an analysis of traditional gender roles, suggesting that “‘[r]eality’ television, by sensationalizing women’s domestic labour and emotional management of relationships, displays the new ways in which capital extends into the ‘private,’ in which capital is engaged in the socialization of affective capacities ” (“Labour of Transformation” 560) and that “[t]he space and practice of intimacy becomes like other social goods and exchange-values that are socially distributed and allocated” (562).

Students may benefit from having to grapple with both their own reactions to the strong emotions foregrounded in the viewing and with the ways that particular emotions are routinely assigned to particular bodies. Both Pozner and Dubrofsky and Hardy suggest that the aggressive and larger-than-life personalities often assigned to racialized bodies may lead to the inability of such participants enjoying any longevity on such shows. Referring to a feisty racialized contestant on the show Road Rules, Andrejevic and Colby argue that “the reason she had to leave was the reason for her being recruited to the show in the first place” (207). In other words, stereotypical racially or culturally ascribed characteristics may bring often-ignored bodies to the fore, but they do so at the price of maintaining stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding. As Aslama and Pantti suggest, “This dilemma of managed and unmanaged feelings can be seen at the core of reality television. However without doubt it also celebrates the loss of emotional control, emotional conflicts and the very emotions that are considered inappropriate in society at large” (“Talking Alone” 171). Arguably, the explicit portrayal of emotion is rarely available for analysis in the classroom, positioned as an unemotional and academic milieu. Yet it is also arguable that viewing a variety of strong emotions, perhaps particularly those that are garnered through contrivance and intersected with dominant discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and so on, is of great academic interest. Certainly, such an analysis would allow our classrooms to evolve beyond a vague analysis of, for example, how service workers may behave, to a tangible discussion of the limits of what we feel comfortable accepting and why. This exercise would remind us that “television participants and audiences are located within extended ‘circuits of value,’ helping us to see why it is that vitriolic reactions ‘stick’ where they do, and why certain figures and bodies are loaded with more invective than others” (Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television 9). These moments may tease out our students’ (and our own) deeply held notions of where lines rest between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in both public and private contexts in meaningful and dramatic ways.

Critical Discourse Analysis and the Impact of Audience

Students may benefit from examining reality TV as a microcosm of broader cultural discourses. An examination of reality television programming, however, may also expand students’ capacity to undertake discourse analyses. While the underlying goal of critical and transformative pedagogy is always the growth of strong analytical skills, the specific practice of closely examining elements of discourse may sometimes be given only brief space in methodology courses. As a result, students may view their critical research skills as distinct from their capacity to critically engage with their surroundings. By creating a classroom that can act as a discourse analysis laboratory, students could be encouraged, through both teaching and assignments, to formalize their critical analytic skills. To achieve its transformative potential, however, such a class would need to move toward critical discourse analysis (CDA), which considers both the broader political contexts in which discourses are created and offered and the power relationships between discourse and people’s lived experiences: it is, van Dijk argues, “discourse analysis, ‘with an attitude’” (96). Furthermore, a true reckoning with critical discourse analysis would empower students to truly consider the ways that discourse is dialogically undertaken. Instead of solely poring over transcripts of programs, thus reducing television to a flat medium, students would be encouraged to consider the implications of audience and the ways that audience reactions are mediated across time and space, and through axes of difference.

There are a number of pedagogical implications in pulling back the camera further and allowing for an analysis of audience and reception. While students, particularly those in critically reflexive disciplines such as women’s studies and social work may be familiar with the exercise of implicating themselves in the consumption of media and discourse, a class on reality TV would take the contrivances of this genre and explore the peculiar alchemy that occurs between the producer’s intention and the audience’s reaction. Montemurro suggests that “[g]iven the popularity of reality television … the study of how these programs are consumed is essential” (98), yet it may be tempting to begin an analysis of these programs, as indeed, I have done, based on what “they” “say” or, at most, how we, as individuals, react. As an alternative, a course on reality TV would allow students to explore the dynamism between objects of cultural production and their consumption, to consider how “viewers make sense of these shows” (Williams 541). An exploration of intertextuality would consider the ways that individuals encounter culture, suggesting that “when individuals encounter media texts, rather than comprehending them in isolation, they position these representations in relation to other texts and cultural knowledge” (Williams 543). This would be well accomplished through access to scholarly texts that increasingly consider the implications of audience reaction (for example, Skeggs and Wood, “Labour of Transformation” and Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television) but also through the tangible exercise of viewing cultural products in the classroom. As students grapple with the nuances of unique programs, the surface themes of representation and authenticity within these programs become complicated, and the deviations between the different ways the programs are offered and experienced may emerge. Skeggs and Wood discerned such differences in their analyses of focus groups of viewers grouped by distinctions of class and ethnicity. Their work suggests that television provides unique opportunities for interactive analyses, “demonstrat[ing] a complex interaction between television texts and subjectivity which was more dynamic than the relationship implied through the analogy of text-reader relations” (“Labour of Transformation” 562). By analyzing interactions together in the classroom, we may evolve beyond generalized discussions to a more targeted analysis of specific moments that may encourage reflexivity on the basis of populations, rather than merely individuals. At the same time, Skeggs and Wood caution us to ensure that an analysis of audience does not devolve into an undermining of the real concerns about oppressive representations within reality TV. They argue that “a great deal more serious attention needs paying to exactly how reality television works not only with audiences but with evaluating personhood more generally” (Reacting to Reality Television 233). By engaging in a politically accountable response of the complications of reality TV and the ways in which this genre interacts with systems of capitalism, judgment, and personal value, students may begin to explore the strengths of a critically discursive methodology and the implications of audience and reception.


If, as Kavka asserts, “reality TV is a genre in flux” (182), is there truly value in constructing an academic context for its consumption and analysis? Is such a course merely a means of pandering to students by allowing entertainment to masquerade as education? Ironically, such an argument betrays some of the same political ideologies as reality television itself, suggesting that educational models should emphasize measurability, empirical knowledge, and individual hard work over sites of non-standard, messy, and (heaven forbid!) enjoyable learning. The same ideology that presents a wearying slog as the only valuable form of education is likewise amply exposed in much reality TV: the ascendant and inexorable tropes of neo-liberalism.

The problematic representations explored above are of concern not only because of their overreliance on stereotypical notions of difference but also because they maintain the expectations that communities are, fundamentally, merely groups of individuals “surviving” for individual gain. The laughably popular insistence of reality TV participants that they do not join programs “to make friends” ensures that any collegiality is overlooked in favor of a race to the fittest. Deery surmises that commerce underpins this foregrounding of solo struggle, suggesting that “an individualistic Darwinian struggle produces better drama—and therefore higher ratings and therefore more revenue—than, say, utopian harmony and cooperation” (12). I would suggest, however, that the foregrounding of capital as the primary motivator is itself a value of neo-liberalism. In the world of reality TV, production is pursued to a means of maximum capital, but likewise, in the context of popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and The Amazing Race, monetary reward is what engenders the suspense and narrative push that allows for high ratings (and thus corporate financial gain). This capital spiral rests on another powerful “truth” of neo-liberalism—the notion of a level playing field: “These programs are a retelling, in other words, of the American dream wherein any individual can make it big—which usually translates as rich—never mind their initial circumstances. In tune with this ideology, we notice that these shows assiduously avoid raising any larger sociopolitical issues and instead focus on the personal and individual” (Couldry 13).

Beyond the level playing field, neo-liberalism emphasizes what Skeggs and Wood identify in reality TV contexts as a spirit of indefatigability (“Labour of Transformation” 565). Not only will hard work yield individual reward but also individuals will be praised for the hard work of endlessly aspiring toward the mean, thus negating any critical politics of difference. Pozner identifies this trend in America’s Next Top Model in which the narrow beauty myths used to evaluate participants provide limited and inconsequential responses to ethnic and racial diversity (196). Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, in looking at makeover shows, expose a more explicit race toward normativity: “… using a reframed rhetoric of individual choice, technological transformation, and celebration of the body, the individual women featured claim to be freeing themselves of their earlier lives. In fact, what is happening is a more intense policing of the body, a body that is ever more docile as it is literally reshaped according to a set of dominant norms” (263).

While an exploration of the prevalence of neo-liberal themes in reality TV is beyond the scope of this article (and has been well undertaken by Couldry), a viewing of reality TV as an accessible site of exposure of these themes is of great pedagogical importance. By positioning the problematics of representation and authenticity within an analysis of neo-liberalism, students may be challenged to unpack difficult ideologies that inform their lives and social contexts. The rhetorics of neo-liberalism have become so commonplace that they can be as difficult to expose as the air we breathe; arguably, this may be heightened for students in institutions of higher learning that may be even more steeped in neo-liberalism’s mores than the society at large. An examination of reality television thus allows students to begin to view the overarching framework that governs the discursive structures informing everyday life. In other words: though I talk about neo-liberalism and I teach about neo-liberalism, an examination of reality television allows me to stand before my students and say “That is neo-liberalism,” not in the context of the difficult-to-understand welfare state or in the realm of social policy, but in the framework of the “mindless” indulgence of last night’s viewing.

While a pedagogical analysis of reality TV may meet students “where they are at” and encourage the development of a critical lens that extends even to leisure activities, I concur with Pozner who suggests that, “… becoming critical media consumers isn’t enough. We can’t afford to see media literacy as the means to an intellectual end. Instead, let’s use it to prepare us to take on Goliath .… Structural changes are needed to achieve the creative, diverse, challenging media we all deserve, and we’re going to have to fight for such shifts” (325–26). Pozner follows her argument with a list of tangible suggestions for how to respond to the limitations and discriminations present in much reality TV. She also actively encourages the practice of culture jamming, in which a reclamation of primary discourses of entertainment and information is taken up as a form of activism. I see the provision of a course on reality TV as a fun way of being deeply critical, of holding up a magnifying glass to one’s distorted reflection of the broader society, while at the same time holding ourselves accountable for what we see. I would love to see students take up a critical autoethnography of their engagement with reality TV, such as that undertaken by Boylorn, as a final assignment, and would love, in provoking students toward Pozner’s suggestions for culture jamming as transformative change, to “jam” both culture and academy. I see the creation of a class like this as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


Works Cited

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—-. Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

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May Friedman lives and works in downtown Toronto. A faculty member in Social Work and Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, May looks at the intersections of non-normative identities, especially in relation to popular culture. Much of May’s research focuses on maternity, inspired in part by her three children.

Social Media:

Twitter: @drtiredmama

Reference Citation:

Friedman, May. “Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Friedman, M. (2014). Survivor skills: Authenticity, representation and why I want to teach reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1).