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Review of Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens

Debbie Olson, PhD
Missouri Valley College
Marshall, MO
olsond@moval.edu

Pimpare, Stephen. Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens: Down and Out on the Silver Screen. Oxford University Press, 2017. 376 pgs., $34.95.

Stephen Pimpare’s Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens is a unique jaunt through Hollywood films that feature society’s most marginalized and maligned, the homeless and the poor. Pimpare, PhD, is a senior Lecturer in American politics and public policy at the University of New Hampshire and has authored two previous books on poverty and political policy. And while Pimpare carefully acknowledges he is not a film scholar, his insightful examination of the way film (re)presents the poor and homeless is a valuable addition to both political science and cinema scholarship. Overall, Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens is a perceptive look at the intersections of popular imagery and public policy. Continue Reading →

Groupthink in the Cave: A New Perspective on The Matrix

Kelly Salsbery
Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches TX USA
ksalsbery@sfasu.edu

Anne Collins Smith
Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches TX USA
acsmith@sfasu.edu

Abstract

While analyses of the movie The Matrix abound, the authors propose a new perspective, particularly useful in the current polarized political milieu in the US. The Matrix provides an excellent example of the phenomenon known as “groupthink,” and a pedagogically helpful way to address it. It is especially significant that the hero of the movie, with whom students identify, has to struggle to overcome groupthink within himself.

Keywords: The Matrix, The Wachowskis, groupthink, Plato, Manuel Velasquez, Irving Janis

Continue Reading →

Engaging Interdisciplinary Conversations

Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN, USA
nshpylov@iu.edu

Timothy D. Saeed
Northern Vermont University
Lyndon, VT, USA
timothy.saeed@northernvermont.edu

Petermann, Emily. The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction. Camden House, 2014. $85.   

The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction was first published in 2014 by Camden House. This year the book appears in its paperback edition, with Boydell & Brewer. As its author Emily Petermann notes elsewhere, the new edition contains no drastic changes: a paperback version of the book seems to be an opportunity to remind the audience of the acuteness of interdisciplinary links that literature may inspire and strengthen. However, it responds to the changes of the environment shaped by interdisciplinary dialogues. Conflating at least two fields—literature and music—The Musical Novelpotentially contributes to the ongoing conversation regarding teaching across disciplines. Continue Reading →

Connecting the Disconnected: Pedagogy Goes Digital Native

Kurt Depner
New Mexico State University – Dona Ana
Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA
kudepner@nmsu.edu

 

I remember the first time I encountered Twitter–everyone’s favorite, love-it-or-hate-it microblogging miasma. I dismissed it as many do; it was too callous, too “mainstream,” too much about #twerking and not enough about #OnlineLearning.  Then a few years back, I was teaching a composition course when word came in that a tornado had just swept through Joplin, Missouri, where many of my spouse’s family lived.  Immediately, we stopped class to pause and reflect, looking for any sources that could give us information about loved ones.  The traditional narratives of local news and The Weather Channel told us nothing.  Then some students pointed out that people living there were #LiveTweeting video of the tornado’s destructive path, complete with videos of what used to be the south side of the city, now a stream of rubble and destruction.  In this brief and sobering moment, my students and I collectively realized that online education, even through the seeming banality of Twitter, was real and profound.  And like all tools, Twitter was more than a steady stream of Miley’s latest shenanigans; it had powerful pedagogical implications as well.

The reality is this: we must redefine online pedagogy as here to stay.   Is it any wonder that popular culture pedagogy is moving more from a focus on liberation pedagogy to a commodity based one?  While traditional “brick and mortar” course enrollment has flattened or even dropped recently, online courses continue to see increased enrollments.  In the case of the university system I’m in, we’ve seen an overall drop in enrollment of 10-15% since 2010 but an increase in online sections of over 30%, and we know the reason, in most cases: as tuition increases and salaries remain flat, more students are forced into full-time work, relegating their degree programs to the virtual realm.  In addition, the bulk of our students are now digital natives, at least as comfortable with online interactions as they are with face-to-face ones.  It’s no surprise then that their preferred method of learning is an asynchronous, virtual one.

The challenge is for us to reflect on better ways to adapt our courses to meet the needs of our students, ourselves becoming members of the Digital Communities.  This may seem foreign to GenX and Baby Boom professors, who still look at email as a modern mode of communication and Facebook as our primary digital connection to the world.  Our pedagogical challenge then is to speak the language of the #DigitalNative, to overcome what Prensky calls our “accents” as digital immigrants and still be able to operate with authority.  Social media can play no small part in this, as can allowing the use of smart devices in the classroom, something many of us have been reticent to do.

So as we continue to reflect on #BestPractices and #LifelongLearning, the challenge is to question our assumptions about what makes for effective learning environments for our current students.  As a “digital immigrant” myself, I find myself chaffing at the thought of students punching away on their iOS device as I am conducting a lecture, until I realize they are #tweeting key points or taking notes in #GoogleDocs.  Each generation of educator must learn to adapt to our upcoming learners to help ensure #lifelonglearning happens for teacher and student.

As popular culture scholars already know, there is a growing intersection of popular culture and the global classroom, helping teachers ground content in the relevant and topical and thus making materials more relatable and accessible to students.  This need is even more important in online pedagogy, when disengagement is the biggest complaint that students have about the virtual environment.  As an educator, I can think of no greater challenge than to connect the disconnected, as Prensky puts it, and popular culture is one of the finest ways to do that.  Of course, that means to retrain ourselves, especially in the #flippedclassroom or #onlinelearning environment, where educators themselves may perceive themselves to be educationally challenged.  Perhaps the best way to look at this is through the lens of #gameculture, whereby we attempt to #gamify our classroom in a way suited to our video culture learners.   Who wouldn’t want to learn English, Sociology or Math if they are presented in the context of the Lannister Vs. Stark struggles of #gameofthrones?  Or perhaps science would become more accessible if #sheldoncooper was our avatar for learning physics or chemistry?

If we can engage in our subject through contemporary topics that invigorate and excite our students and ourselves, that’s half the battle right there, tornados or not.

Author Bio:

Kurt Depner is an Associate Professor of English at New Mexico State University – Dona Ana, where he spends his time teaching his students about social media and zombies. He also works with his schools cultural diversity committee to expose his community to cellos, drumming, drag culture, ska, and the world outside own yards

 

Reference Citation:

MLA:
Depner, Kurt. “Connecting the Disconnected: Pedagogy Goes Digital Native.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.

 

APA:
Depner, K. (2016). Connecting the disconnected: Pedagogy goes digital native. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/connecting-the-disconnected-pedagogy-goes-digital-native/

Film Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing: Whedon, Branagh, and the Anxiety of Influence

Jessica Maerz
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona, USA
jmaerz@email.arizona.edu

Long before he was the internationally famous head of a major Hollywood superhero franchise, Joss Whedon was a beloved writer/director of cult TV shows, boasting a dedicated following of fanatics who parsed his every quirky turn of phrase.  In the 1990s, when Whedon was building his fanbase with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kenneth Branagh was at the height of his dominance as a mainstream interpreter of screen Shakespeare, thanks to the series of adaptations that he inaugurated with 1989’s Henry V.  While Shakespeare plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth have received multiple big-screen adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing has received only two: Kenneth Branagh’s own in 1993, and Joss Whedon’s, exactly twenty years later.  This essay examines Whedon’s adaptation through the lens of Branagh’s, noting the many conceptual, stylistic, and industrial similarities that unite them—for despite Whedon’s insistence that Branagh’s Much Ado did not provide him with an adaptational roadmap, the films demonstrate striking similarities in context and content that can’t be simply explained by their shared source text.

Indeed, Whedon takes pains to distance his own version of Much Ado from Branagh’s.  Whedon refers to the 1993 film only occasionally in interviews (and generally has to be prompted by his interviewers to mention it at all); clearly he prefers to avoid the issue of comparison.  In the introduction that prefaces the published screenplay for Whedon’s film (in itself a structural precedent set by each of Branagh’s own published screenplays), Whedon’s disavowal of the earlier film is much stronger:  “I didn’t want to try to make what Branagh had already made,” he asserts (Screenplay 24). In describing the tonal differences between his and Branagh’s film, Whedon rather dismissively references what he calls a “Branagh-like experience” in working with his own cast, surrounded by “sun-dappled vines and a general air of joy and kind of sunny good times and when I looked at the movie as a movie, I realized that that wasn’t the sort of overriding emotion that I was trying to evoke” (Screenplay 21). While Whedon expressly denies having used the ealier film as a model for his own, the new Much Ado bears unmistakeable marks of Branagh’s influence.

One style trait often associated with Kenneth Branagh is his use of a core group of collaborators; screening a Branagh Shakespeare film is, at points, much like watching a polished  repertory company.  Branagh’s Much Ado features cast staples like Richard Briers (Leonato), Richard Clifford (Conrade), Jimmy Yuill (Friar), and Brian Blessed (Antonio).  Behind the camera, Branagh relies on collaborators like production designer Tim Harvey, cinematographer Roger Lanser, and composer Patrick Doyle (who often appears in character in Branagh films, as he does here, as a provider of diegetic music).  In this way, Branagh’s film preserves the “company” aesthetic that characterizes much of his filmed Shakespeare work.  Alongside core cast and crew members, the presence of American film stars like Denzel Washington (Don Pedro),  Keanu Reeves (Don John), and Michael Keaton (Dogberry) testifies to Branagh’s desire not only to mix accents, but to combine American box office weight with classically trained British Shakespeare savvy.

As regarding his own casting practices, Whedon expresses a similar commitment to allowing his actors to perform without dialect, claiming that “[t]he thing about Shakespeare is that he works in any voice” (Screenplay 28-29).  He refers to his cast as his “troupe,” and indeed, nearly every actor in the film is familiar to Whedon’s fanbase. Core collaborators like Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry) are fixtures in Whedon-helmed projects, and most of the performers in Much Ado list multiple Whedon productions on their resumes. Actors who work with Joss Whedon become famously, fiercely loyal to him: for instance, Tom Lenk, who plays Verges in this film, and who also appeared in Whedon’s film Cabin in the Woods as well as in a recurring role on Buffy and Angel, has claimed that he’d do “performance art in a water fountain” if Whedon asked (Screenplay 31).  (Fortunately, he needn’t bother; Branagh himself took care of this in his own Much Ado.) Such intense personal loyalty allows Whedon to staff boutique projects like this film and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog; further, this company aesthetic, much like the one facilitated by Branagh, helps to create the very convincing sense of family and intimacy in the Whedon film.

Another point of similarity between the films concerns the locations upon which they were shot. Surrounding its original release, promotional literature for Branagh’s film made “much ado” of the fact that its setting is Mona Lisa’s country home, the Villa Vignamaggio.  This inspires in Branagh a visual style that is suitably pictorialist; note, for instance, the sweeping crane shot that marks the film’s conclusion,  the self-conscious artifice of the montage sequence that intercuts the nighttime revels at the heart of his film, and the lovingly photographed villa and gardens.  The principal set of Whedon’s film, famously, is his own house: designed by Whedon’s architect spouse, the home and its grounds provide a casually elegant and convincing setting for the “house-party” action of the plot.

Whedon’s decision to use his own home as the principal shooting location for his film is motivated less by his palpable love for the property and more by the film’s own unique budgetary concerns and conditions of production. Filmed in a super-secret, twelve-day shoot and financed by Whedon’s Bellwether production company on a bare-bones budget, Much Ado was conceived as a small project, a palate-cleanser of sorts, to be enjoyed between obligations to the massive Marvel Avengers franchise.  (Notably, Branagh himself directed an early iteration in the franchise, 2011’s Thor.)

The two Much Ados share striking similarities in content that do not necessarily proceed from their shared source text.  For example, both films choose to dramatize the play’s central trick—the “window scene,” or Borachio’s seduction of Margaret in Hero’s clothing. Indeed, windows are as persistent a motif in Branagh’s film as mirrors are in Whedon’s. Throughout Branagh’s Much Ado, characters (most often Hero and Beatrice) are shown “framed” in a window, shot from the apparent point-of-view of an admiring onlooker. The frequency of this motif serves to highlight the film’s focus on overhearing and appearances, while at the same time foreshadowing the fact that the film’s main conflict revolves around a woman in a window.  In Shakespeare’s text, the “proof” of Hero’s disloyalty is rendered verbally; the event occurs offstage and is entirely constructed through the dialogue of other characters.  Branagh, like Whedon, chooses to make this incident part of the onscreen action.  The final lines of Shakespeare’s 3.2, Don John’s goading of Claudio and the Prince, provoke an ellipsis in Branagh’s film: suddenly, the evening has arrived, and the three men are gazing up at Hero’s window. The deception is made complete by Borachio’s slightly slurred delivery of the words “here…oh,” which is naturally interpreted as “Hero” by the men gathered below.

The dramatic necessity of this scene is clear: it is certainly more effective for a screen audience to see the event played out, rather than to reconstruct it from dialogue alone.  Further, the scene helps to align viewer sympathies with Claudio, as the audience laments both the dangerous betrayal (Borachio and Margaret’s, not Hero’s) and Claudio’s unbelievable naiveté, which has not been corrected nearly as much as Branagh expects: even backlit, in silhouette, Kate Beckinsale’s Hero and Imelda Staunton’s Margaret bear little resemblance.  On this point, Whedon’s film is more convincing, as is his treatment of Margaret throughout.

While Branagh re-orders Shakespeare’s text in order to present the window scene in its real-time flow, Whedon instead makes this a flashback and allows Borachio to narrate the action in voiceover. One fascinating and powerful character moment emerges from this flashback scene, as we see Margaret’s obvious discomfort with being asked to wear Hero’s clothing for Borachio’s benefit: it has become clear by this point that Borachio’s motivation is his own obsession with Hero. This character moment pays off for Whedon later on, when Margaret tries to convince Hero to select a different dress for her wedding ceremony.

Another element of Whedon’s film that seems to find its generative force in Branagh’s involves the relationship between Don John and Conrade in the “plain-dealing villain” scene.  Both films sexualize the relationship between the characters, connoting Don John’s lechery while adding action to an otherwise expository scene. Branagh films Keanu Reeves’s Don John receiving a torchlit oil massage from Conrade as he delivers his speech, a choice potentially engineered to capitalize on Reeves’s chief strength in 1993—his appearance—and to downplay the actor’s obvious lack of facility with the text.  Whedon stages the same scene as a chatty sex romp between Don John and his girfriend—not servant—Conrade. By the time Borachio enters the scene in Whedon’s verson, and John can’t be bothered to stop “handling” Conrade, the scene recalls a similar moment in Branagh’s Hamlet, when  Reynaldo relays the results of his surveillance of Laertes to Polonius, who’s actively occupied with a prostitute. 

Finally, I’d like to consider the way in which each director treats the flow of Act 5, for I’ve long noted that Branagh’s scene transpositions seem to scramble the narrative logic of the text.  Branagh’s film essentially “flips” scene 5.2 (which begins with Benedick composing a love song to Beatrice) with 5.3 (Claudio’s penance at the tomb of Hero); rather than occur on the same day, these events in the film take place in an evening and on the subsequent day.  In the source text, the events of Act 5 play out as follows:  in 5.1, Leonato and Antonio confront Don Pedro and Claudio, Benedick challenges Claudio, Don John and Borachio’s plot is revealed and Claudio’s penance is set; in 5.2,  Benedick tries to compose a poem for Beatrice, who meets him to find out if he has issued his challenge to Claudio, and Ursula relays the news about Don John’s plot and Hero’s innocence; in 5.3, Claudio performs his penance at the tomb that evening; and the “real,” second wedding takes place the next day.  In Branagh’s film, Claudio’s penance occurs the night before the film’s equivalent of 5.2, thus straining credibility by asking us to believe that Beatrice, Benedick, and the rest of Leonato’s house do not hear about Borachio’s confession until the day after it is revealed to the other central characters.  Whedon’s film version replicates this same scrambled flow, rendering Beatrice’s 5.2 conversation with Benedick even more baffling: we saw her watch Claudio’s procession with Hero, and therefore we are confused to hear her checking in on Benedick’s challenge and reacting with surprise to the news of the confession.  Even more curiously, the published screenplay of Whedon’s film renders Act 5 in its textual, non-scrambled flow, which seems to suggest that the flipped timeline was a late revision, and which leaves Branagh’s film as a fairly obvious precedent.

When asked how his version of Much Ado distinguishes itself, Whedon responds with the familiar postmodernist’s lament: “[E]verything you could ever say or do somebody’s said or done,” he sighs, “Usually by Shakespeare, and usually better” (Screenplay 18).  Here, without naming names, Whedon is surely referencing the “anxiety of influence” that must come hand-in-hand with essentially rebooting a fairly popular Shakespeare adaptation for a new generation. Frankly, Branagh’s stamp is all over this film, and while Whedon claims to want the play to speak for itself, the voice it uses sounds suspiciously like Branagh’s.

Works Cited

Branagh, Kenneth.  Dir. Much Ado About Nothing. Goldwyn. 1993. DVD.

Whedon, Joss. Dir.  Much Ado About Nothing.  Lionsgate, 2013. DVD.

—.  Much Ado About Nothing Screenplay. London: Titan, 2013. Print.

 

Author Bio:

Jessica M. Maerz is an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies and head of the MFA in Generative Dramaturgy at the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film, and Television. Her primary research interests lie in the film adaptation of classical stage drama. She has published and presented her work at venues such as Literature/Film Quarterly and the Literature/Film Association, the Shakespeare Association of the Americas, and the Popular Culture/American Culture Association. She currently serves as Chair of the SWPACA’s Shakespeare in Popular Culture area.

 

Reference Citation:

 MLA

Maerz, Jessica. “Film Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing: Whedon, Branagh, and the Anxiety of Influence.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.

APA

Maerz, J. (2016). Film review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing: Whedon, Branagh, and the anxiety of influence. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/film-review-joss-whedons-much-ado-about-nothing-whedon-branagh-and-the-anxiety-of-influence/

A Pedagogical Journey: Albuquerque 2015

Laurence Raw
Baskent University
Ankara, Turkey
l_rawjalaurence@yahoo.com

 

The subject of pedagogy and popular culture has assumed increasing significance in academic circles, especially since the publication of Phil Benson’s and Alice Chik’s anthology Popular Culture, Pedagogy and Teacher Education (2014), a series of interventions discussing how popular culture can be implemented in a variety of teaching situations across the globe. The book offers valuable insights into how popular culture can inspire learners through materials drawn from everyday life but tends to avoid essential questions such as what constitutes popular cultural material (and how it differs from other textual forms) and what learning outcomes might be accomplished through its deployment in the secondary or tertiary classroom (Benson and Chik). Such questions are intrinsic to all efforts to improve pedagogical standards.

In February 2015, I attended several panels in the “Pedagogy and Popular Culture Section” of the 36th Annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA) Conference in Albuquerque, with the intention of discovering some possible answers, as well as finding out more about the latest thinking on the topic. In the following paragraphs I offer brief summaries of the papers I found most exciting and how they cumulatively represented a quest for the pedagogical Holy Grail of what should be taught in the classroom and why. Based on the evidence of what I heard, I conclude by offering a brief theoretical framework focusing on how and why popular culture offers unique opportunities for educators and learners alike to experiment with alternative forms of learning.

In a panel on “Teaching with Film and Television,” the independent scholar Bryanna Bynum offered some thoughts as to how Downton Abbey might help introduce lower level undergraduates to other cultures past and present. Although the series is in itself an historical (re-)construction, with its origins in earlier period dramas such as Upstairs Downstairs, it provides the impetus for a variety of activities designed to promote empathy: learners can rewrite the plots, undertake prediction exercises, or even role-play (if educators are brave enough to tolerate it!). Through such activities they develop abilities such as group negotiation and collaboration. Bynum’s presentation seemed plausible enough but left me wondering whether such objectives could be fulfilled with other materials. Learners could equally well empathize with Shakespeare as Downton Abbey. With a neat sense of timing, Tiffany Scarola (Northwestern Oklahoma State University) offered a series of what she termed “unusual” approaches to pedagogy using The Daily Show and different social media.  She could not have known that regular presenter Jon Stewart would have announced his retirement from the show the day before her presentation; the news rendered her arguments all the more up-to-the-minute, proving unquestionably that popular culture possesses a contemporaneity that is denied to other forms of material and hence exerts an immediate appeal for learners.

After one panel, one of my questions had been partially answered: popular culture’s sheer ordinariness renders it superficially attractive, especially for educators faced with the prospect of working with large classes and limited preparation time. Yet still Scarola’s presentation left me with lingering questions; how can we create a “true scholarly environment,” as she put it, using material which to the majority of educators might seem profoundly unscholarly?  Do educators need to rethink their roles in the learning process?  Jennifer Bankard (University of Southern California) tried to answer this question by drawing a distinction between different types of responses to popular cultural texts. Learners tended to react “personally” to a text on first viewing; it was only after educators had provided vital input that they could formulate a “truthful” response integrating theoretical concepts with informed analysis. Bankard asserted that the process of transformation from “personal” to “truthful” responses could only be accomplished through collaboration, but I was not so sure. Three days previously I had taught to a group of learners in a Texas institution, the majority of whom experienced difficulty in comprehending auteur theory and how (or whether) it should apply to their lives outside the academy. Although their educator had assigned them several basic texts, they admitted that such texts appeared “highbrow,” in complete contrast to their quotidian way of speaking. Their “personal” response (that the texts were difficult) seemed irreconcilable with the “truthful” response expected from them by the educator.  Bankard attributed this problem to some of the long-standing binaries (educator/ learner, theory/ practice, highbrow/ popular) that stand in the way of accomplishing successful learning outcomes.

Yet such comments do not offer much of a way forward for anyone interested in creating effective popular culture pedagogies. Perhaps we need to set aside the notion of a “proper scholarly environment” (whatever that means), and rather work towards a learning environment in which everyone – educators and learners alike – are treated as equals.  Another panel on “The First-Year College Experience” offered various accounts of how educators addressed this issue. Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University) proposed a series of extracurricular activities such as walking trips as well as in-class activities designed to forge classroom unity.  Kate Huber (University of Central Oklahoma) advocated the introduction of classic satire (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example) alongside popular cultural material to stimulate critical thinking and thereby transform learners from passive into active participants in the classroom event. Miriam Kushkaki (Arizona State University) begged to differ; she believed that learners could only refine their judgments through popular cultural texts – a point reiterated by Margaret Wintersole (Laredo Community College), who believed that the fear of failure needed to be overcome before an effective learning environment could be established. This, she believed, could be best accomplished through collaboration, giving learners the freedom to construct their own syllabi (in collaboration with educators).

All four presenters offered plausible accounts of their pedagogic experience, but overlooked the essential point of any learning exchange: what do those involved actually get out of it?  It’s all very well to claim that popular culture is accessible to learners’ (and early career academics’) daily lives, but that advantage does not really provide a justification for using this type of material in the classroom. Negotiation and collaboration are significant components of any learning experience, but they are not exclusive to popular culture pedagogy. They form a basic part of my junior year courses in “Introduction to English Literature” in the Department of Education at Başkent University, Ankara, Turkey. The term “critical thinking” is frequently cited as one of the major advantages of any form of humanities education, but I find it highly imprecise (critical thinking about what?). Perhaps the roundtable on “Popular Culture and Media” led by seven representatives of the University of Texas at San Antonio would offer answers to my questions. Drawing on a variety of sources such as The Walking Dead and Megamind, the presenters explained how popular cultures could be used to explore notions of postcolonialism, identity and participation, and thereby help learners acquire the kind of citizenship abilities intrinsic to their lives outside the educational institution. I was encouraged by the way this panel drew a connection between popular cultural texts and tolerance, while claiming that learning takes place throughout one’s life, not just in the academy. Even while watching a movie or chatting online, individuals might experience an “aha” moment.  Popular culture pedagogy dissolves the (culturally constructed) boundaries between work and play, school and home, and thereby stimulates learners to become more mindful of themselves and their potential for intellectual development.

In the panel “Multimodality and Maker Culture” Vittorio Marone (also of the University of Texas at San Antonio) argued that we all experience moments of “silent-being,” as we step out of our socially-constructed roles as educators, learners, parents, or siblings and reflect on our past as it shapes the present and future. Such reflections are most intense once we are exposed to popular cultural products: while taking a vicarious pleasure in their “popularity” (as compared to the more refined pleasures of high cultural products), we lay ourselves more open to being influenced by them. This helps to explain why certain musical styles and their stars are transformed into global phenomena. Marone argued that by drawing upon our “silent-being” we can establish alternative modes of learning extending beyond the classroom into every aspect of our daily lives. This model offers fruitful areas of research designed to answer such questions as can we stimulate learners to make sense of their “silent-being,” not only in class but through social media? What potential might there be for creating virtual discussion-groups to develop this facility through exposure to popular cultural texts? At last I was beginning to find answers to my previous question about how popular culture pedagogy might differ from other pedagogical forms; perhaps educators do not have to proclaim the fact that they are using “popular culture” but rather establish a collaborative, non-judgmental approach to learning extending beyond the classroom in which everyone has sufficient time and space to savor moments of “silent-being” and share them with others.  These points underpinned the talk given by Tiffany Bourelle (University of New Mexico) on twenty-first century literacies, as she referred to the importance of continuous learning geared towards personal growth.  Maggie Melo and Anushka Peres (University of Arizona) offered a case study of how this objective might be implemented, as they recounted a unit of work wherein learners had to script, research and evaluate short films of their own, as well as integrating their prior knowledge of film studies with new insights gained as part of the filmmaking process. Melo and Peres took into account the fact that unlike previous generations, twenty-first century learners possess a quite astonishingly sophisticated visual literacy.  It is incumbent on every educator to draw upon as well as refine that literacy, and perhaps the most accessible means to achieve this is through popular cultural texts.

The truth of this notion was admirably reiterated in a panel led by Moorea Coker and Jared Bolin, both graduates of Texas A&M University – Commerce who are currently teaching English and composition at high schools in the same state. With the participation of several of their learners (Zachary Alan Leonard, Hannah McKeon, Emily Alavarenga, Jennifer Velazquez, and Pascal Ibe), they offered a case study of a scheme of work introducing film and popular culture as modes of learning. The subject matter might have been familiar; the style of delivery certainly wasn’t. Coker and Bolin had given their learners the freedom to develop their own ideas, and the learners had responded with a quite alarming degree of critical and intellectual sophistication. In their short presentations as part of the panel, they revealed a facility with certain concepts (e.g. Foucauldian constructions of power) that would flummox many an under- or postgraduate learner in different contexts. Inspired by such concepts, they arrived at nuanced appreciations of popular culture and its essential role in promoting dissident viewpoints. The learners spoke with rare passion; the assignments they discussed were not just designed to be graded and forgotten about but represented genuine attempts to forge a community of practice involving themselves and their educators.  The age gap separating Coker and Bolin from their learners had been seamlessly negotiated; everyone developed their visual literacy through a series of learner-generated activities and used that experience to develop transferable abilities such as negotiation and listening.

As I listened to the high school learners and marveled at the facility with which they set forth their ideas (with a fluency that would put many academics to shame), I began to see how my experience witnessing different interventions in the “Pedagogy and Popular Culture” area might help me formulate a basic theory of pedagogy and popular culture that differs from other pedagogic forms. The high school learners’ panel emphasized the importance of working from the bottom-up rather than top-down. It is not necessary to forge “a proper scholarly environment,” as Jennifer Bankard suggests; rather educators and learners should develop material of their own. The University of Texas San Antonio roundtable helped me understand the significance of setting aside culturally-relative distinctions between school, home, work and leisure, and regarding every experience as a potential learning experience, to be shared virtually as well as face-to-face. Marone’s analysis of “silent-being” draws our attention to the importance of being non-judgmental and thereby creating spaces for everyone to cultivate their own perspectives. This seems to me a far more suggestive and liberating than the overused term “critical thinking,” that might require a degree of scholarly sophistication that seems antithetical to popular culture’s essential attraction. Through exposure to familiar and accessible material, learners can not only cultivate their visual literacy but look into themselves, thereby developing a reflective capacity that recognizes the presence of unknowable aspects of our own (as well as others’) personalities. Learning should transform the unknowable into the knowable and thereby expand our awareness of the world we inhabit.

Choosing the texts for learning can be accomplished through various means. We can follow Bynum’s suggestion and place the responsibility in educators’ hands, or we can take the path trodden by the Texas high school learners and forge a collaborative approach.  What matters more in popular culture pedagogy is the methods by which such texts are exploited, with the emphasis placed on discovery learning designed to bridge the generation gap between educators and learners as well as promoting cross-cultural awareness. This is something both inter- and intracultural; as education becomes more globalized as well as multicultural in scope, we have to develop more openness to alternative points of view, a willingness to negotiate and a toleration of difference. This requires a high level of understanding on the part of learners and educators alike; what is not is said is often more significant that what is overtly stated.

What the panels helped me understand is that popular culture pedagogy is difficult, despite all appearances to the contrary.  While the texts employed might be more accessible than other types of writing, learners and educators have to make a considerable ideological shift so that they can work effectively with such texts. In place of critical thinking, they have to acquire a facility to really listen to one another and use that experience to forge a genuinely cooperative atmosphere wherein learners can trust themselves and not feel the need to seek validation from their educators. Modes of assessment have to be rethought with the emphasis placed on visual literacy-based assignments rather than the more familiar research paper and/or written exam. I am not saying these last-named activities should be dispensed with, but rather that they should be a constituent part of a menu of assessments encompassing visual, spoken and writing abilities. We have to understand how the term “knowledge” in the Victorian sense has become obsolete now; what matters more is the development of transferable abilities that not only contribute to career development but prove beyond doubt the intrinsic place of the humanities within any curriculum, irrespective of the institution, It is this potential that renders popular pedagogy significant, and I pay tribute to all the presenters, as well as the panel chairs Kurt Depner and Erik Walker for organizing such a series of inspirational sessions.

 

Works Cited

Bankard, Jennifer.  “Teaching with Film and Television: Traversing the Spectator/Writer Border.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Benson, Phil, and Alice Chik, ed.  Popular Culture, Pedagogy and Teacher Education.  New York: Routledge, 2014.  Print.

Bourelle, Tiffany.  “Exploring Multimodality through Film and Textual Analysis.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  13 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Bynum, Bryanna.  “Pedagogical Practices Using Television.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Coker, Moorea, Jarrod Bolin, Zachary Alan Leonard, Hannah McKeon, Emily Alavarenga, Jennifer Velazquez, and Pascal Ibe.  “How Pop Culture Eliminates Borders in Secondary Classrooms.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  13 Feb. 2015.  Roundtable.

The Daily Show.  Dir. Chuck O’Neil et. al.  Perf.  Jon Stewart.  Comedy Central, 1996-.  TV Series.

Deepti, Kharod, Cinthia Rodriguez, Rebecca Stortz, Margaret Hilburn-Arnold, Kelli Bippert, Jennifer Hooper, and Dennis Davis.  “Zombies, Jailbirds, Detectives, Villains, Wizards, and Graffiti Artists: An Analysis of Learning and Teaching Through Popular Culture and Media.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Roundtable.

Downton Abbey.  Dir. Brian Percival et. al.  Perf. Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern.  Carnival Film and Television/ Masterpiece Theatre, 2010-.  TV Series.

Huber, Kate.  “Why Not #CancelSwift?: Popular Satire and Race in the First-Year Writing Classroom.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Kushkaki, Miriam.  “’Why Are You Buying Comics for Class?’: A Pop Culture Curriculum for First-Year Composition.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Larsen, Kristine.  “Walkers Ate My Science Homework: A First-Year Student Seminar Course on Science and The Walking Dead.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Marone, Vittorio.  “New Literacies and Youth Cultures in the Classroom.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  13 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Melo, Maggie, and Anushka Peres.  “Making Sense: An Exploration of Making Culture in the Composition Classroom.”   Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  13 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Scarola, Tiffany.  “Unusual Approaches to Composition Pedagogy through Blind Assessment, Unusual Examples, and The Daily Show.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

Wintersole, Margaret.  “Catching Borderline Comp Students and Transporting them to Safety: The Three Pigs, Pygmalion, Eliza and Sherlock.”  Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Albuquerque.  12 Feb. 2015.  Conference Paper.

 

Reference Citation:

MLA

Raw, Laurence. “A Pedagogical Journey: Albuquerque 2015.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.

APA

Raw, L. (2016). A pedagogical journey: Albuquerque 2015. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/a-pedagogical-journey-albuquerque-2015/