Tag Article List: pedagogy

Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era

Becca Cragin
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH, USA


With the rise of cultural studies, positivism and formalism fell out of favor. But in recent years, altered versions of these methodologies have been suggested as solutions to the deficiencies of the ideological approach dominating the field. Where the ideological approach looks at the content of texts to determine their meaning, the aesthetic approach adopted by media scholars in recent years returns to the close textual readings of formalism (while abandoning its assertion that meaning resides in the text alone). Similarly, where the ideological approach tends to use textual analysis devoid of sociological empiricism, the use of “big data” in the humanities enhances interpretation by using empirical data alongside it (while rejecting positivism’s assumption that measurable data alone is probative). This article draws both methodological strands together to propose an approach to media interpretation called “grounded aesthetics.” Grounded aesthetics involves correlating sociological data with close textual reading to argue for the likely social meaning of the text, given the techniques it uses and the social reality around it. Examples of classroom activities are used to show how the approach can address the “post-truth” perspective many students share: that analyses of representation are interchangeable opinions. Grounded aesthetics greatly improves students’ ability to create well-supported textual analyses and to evaluate the persuasiveness of others’ arguments. It also models critical thinking skills that are useful for dismantling attacks on reality in the “fake news” era, especially those that dismiss analyses of inequality as ideology.

Keywords: aesthetics, big data, class, cultural studies, empiricism, formalism, gender, inequality, media studies, pedagogy, post-truth, race

Author Bio

Becca Cragin is an Associate Professor of Popular Culture in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include gender, race, and sexuality in television and film, in comedy and crime genres.

Reference Citation

Cragin, B. (2018). Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

Cragin, Becca. “Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

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We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead

Elizabeth Gartley
South Portland, Maine, USA


A model can be useful when engaging secondary students in team-building by appreciating differing skills and identifying their own strengths. In this example, a model was provided that students to indulge in the transgression of popular culture and zombie media. Middle and high school students participated in a critical thinking and team-building unit which capitalized on student interest in zombie popular culture, particularly the AMC series The Walking Dead. Students engaged in cooperative activities with a “zombie apocalypse” theme. Activities included identifying roles for team members based on individual skill sets in order to strengthen to group as a whole. This approach allowed students to approach this unit as assembling a “zombie apocalypse team,” an idea borrowed from popular culture. The popular culture “zombie apocalypse team” shows that survival depends on building a cooperative team of individuals with disparate but complementary skills and approaches to problem solving. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can provide theoretical framework to examine how the group of survivors in The Walking Dead combine multiple intelligences, as represented by individual characters, to survive. This model can provide a more detailed context to allow students to their own strengths within a team.

Keywords: educational psychology, Howard Gardner, intelligence, Multiple Intelligences, psychology, The Walking Dead, pedagogy, team building, secondary education

Author Bio 

Elizabeth Gartley is a certified teacher librarian with a background in media studies. Her research interests include language and literacies in comics, critical media literacy and pedagogy, cross-cultural approaches to media studies.

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/egartley/

Reference Citation

Gartley, E. (2018). We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/ 

Gartley, Elizabeth. “We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol. 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/

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Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources

Kathryn N. McDaniel
Marietta College
Marietta, Ohio, USA



Teaching students to evaluate sources—for accuracy, bias, and agenda—and to use them effectively despite their weaknesses, presents a challenge, and yet is essential in today’s crowded media landscape. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time helping students develop a critical eye for documentary evidence. Using the fictional informational sources J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to understand Albus Dumbledore’s troubled youth can provide students the analytic skills they need through an entertaining exercise. The Harry Potter stories intrinsically value the past, though Rowling is not naïve about the difficulty of understanding the truth from flawed sources. Throughout the series, but particularly in the last book, characters must weigh evidence and gain important information from biased sources to help them determine their future actions. Conflicting views of Albus Dumbledore in The Daily Prophet, Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and Aberforth Dumbledore’s eyewitness testimony about his brother, raise questions about the Hogwarts headmaster’s motivations and moral integrity. Only by sorting through these contradictory accounts can Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. When muggle students sort through these fictional accounts from the wizarding world, they nevertheless gain experience needed for navigating real-world sources to determine their own future paths. As a result, this exercise allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and their sense of historical consciousness.

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Historical Consciousness, Source Evaluation, Analysis, Evidence, Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Pedagogy

With cries of “fake news” at every turn, the urgency for teaching critical reading skills has mounted in recent months. Teaching students to evaluate sources for quality and usable content remains a constant challenge at almost every educational level. Despite the topic’s relevance, students are likely to approach the material with either an indifferent shrug or rolling eyes, chin in palm. For historians, the ability to analyze sources of information about the past and to use them appropriately has always been a central requirement of the discipline. But any educated person must have these abilities. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time discussing how to regard documents and other evidence with a critical eye. Although today we find ourselves inundated with information, most of our sources are not vetted by experts, are partisan (with varying degrees of openness about their bias), or have entertainment instead of accuracy as the top priority. Given this crowded yet flawed information landscape, evaluation of the quality and content of source materials has become a more essential skill than ever before. Students will find even more valuable the knowledge of how to use inherently biased sources effectively as evidence.

Pop culture approaches to source materials can make this rather workmanlike topic more immediately interesting to students. A useful and suitably complex exercise asks students to evaluate sources within the wizarding world of Harry Potter, particularly focused on the topic of Albus Dumbledore’s uncertain past. It may seem counterintuitive to base an assignment about source accuracy on a fictional text—and fictional informational texts within it—but the key is the thinking process behind discerning source limitations and strengths. By developing the analytic skills to examine and effectively use documentary evidence about past events, even imaginary ones, students can apply this critical thinking to real-world situations. Developing critical evaluation in a relatively politically neutral subject area helps students and faculty focus on the skill itself instead of politicized content. J.K. Rowling possesses a surprisingly strong critical sensibility about historical (and other) sources, which makes her books ideal for this kind of exercise. Requiring thoughtful decision-making about what happened in Dumbledore’s youth, this assignment helps students develop the essential skills needed to assess the quality of sources, identify the role played by their own expectations and biases, and even determine how to use imperfect accounts by biased authors in nevertheless responsible ways.

J.K. Rowling’s Personal, Political Past

In the Harry Potter universe, the past is never far removed from present-day problems. Rowling builds into the fabric of her stories an urgent need to know what really happened in history. In “Hermione Raised Her Hand Again: Wizards Writing History,” Anne Rubenstein examines the way that socially accepted history (what historians call “social memory”) butts up against scholarly sources in the wizarding world, with very serious consequences. She notes, “A historian who asks just the right question and uncovers just the right evidence to answer the question and interprets the evidence in just the right way can end up challenging what everyone believed the story of the past to be. And once in a while, changing the official story of the past changes the present as well” (310-311). Rubenstein examines the variety of sources wizarding-world characters use to discover information about the past, including official ones and counter-cultural or hidden ones. Her most significant take-away is the value Rowling places on historical knowledge and the ability of her characters to sort through many different kinds of accounts of the past in order to solve current problems.

In underscoring the usefulness of the past to the present, Rowling acknowledges what scholars of history and pedagogy have learned in recent years: that people intuitively know that the past is relevant and useful to the present, but that their confidence about where to find accurate information is low. In The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Thalen explain the results of a survey of Americans about their sense of history’s relevance, and where they might find the most accurate sources. Their study revealed that Americans have a strong sense of the usefulness of the past to the present, but that they distrust both commercial sources of historical information and official ones (like textbooks and school teachers). Instead, they tended to value most the personal testimony of people who have lived through historical events. This connection people feel to the past (if not to historians or history books) is vital to human endeavors. Klas-Göran Karlsson refers to “historical consciousness” as “a time compass that assigns meaning to past events and directs us to future projects” (129-130). As such, it is an essential tool for all citizens to be able to use. Rowling’s depiction of a highly personal past demonstrates this same sensibility. In the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry uses his conclusions about Dumbledore’s youth as a “time compass,” pointing him to the next steps on his quest.

Harry’s detachment from his own roots makes his development of critical thinking about the past more difficult, yet also more necessary. His status as an orphan targeted by the evil Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters stems from a past of which he has no memory, his parents’ involvement in a conflict that continues from their generation to his, and living friends and foes among those who experienced the prior conflicts. As a result, Harry must become adept at uncovering valid sources of information about what occurred before he was born. His friends assist him in this regard. Ron Weasley, as a wizarding-world insider, inherits and absorbs common knowledge (social memory) about the past from his family. Hermione Granger is an outsider like Harry who learns of the past through authoritative sources like their history teacher Professor Binns and books, specifically Hogwarts: A History. 

Harry must also identify and exclude invalid sources of information. Some presumably authoritative sources, like the Daily Prophet, reveal how easily they may be manipulated by either government censorship or the desire to pander to a fearful paying customer. Hermione also becomes wise to the (to her, unforgiveable) omissions in Hogwarts: A History when she learns of the role house-elves’ unpaid labor played in the school’s history; she claims the book should be renamed A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School (Goblet of Fire 238). Harry’s very survival in the present depends on the ability to analyze sources of history. But, importantly, so does the ultimate victory of good over evil. For the most part, Harry gleans relevant details from conversation with adults who lived through past traumatic events (the favored historical source of respondents in Rosenzweig and Thalen’s study), Hermione’s research, and occasional magical intervention like the Pensieve, which recreates the historical memories of individuals.

A crucial conflict emerges, however, when Albus Dumbledore dies in the sixth book. Harry has lost one of his chief and most credible sources of information about the past, present, and future. Indeed, the end of every prior book in the Harry Potter series involved a usually lengthy commentary on past events and how they relate to the present, either by Dumbledore himself or facilitated by him (as with Barty Crouch, Jr.’s veritaserum revelations at the end of Book 4). Now that authority is silent. Harry will have to go forward with Dumbledore’s plans to defeat Voldemort without his mentor’s reassuring presence or valuable historical perspective. Harry will have to find his own perspective on the past in the last book in order to complete his quest.

Unfortunately, in the seventh book Harry discovers that perhaps Dumbledore was not the man he thought. He encounters sources about Dumbledore’s youth that seem to contradict Harry’s personal understanding and that consequently call into question his mission in the present to fulfill Dumbledore’s quest for the horcruxes. Harry will have to decide how to weigh these sources about the past in making his own decisions in the present. He will find truth in unexpected, undeniably biased sources, ones that contradict his personal understanding of Dumbledore’s role in wizard history. He will agonize over the idea that Dumbledore’s past was complex and perhaps tainted by impure motives and aims. The end of the last book will show Harry confronting his own memory of Dumbledore and coming to terms with his mentor’s uncertain past. In the process of revealing these personal struggles that will determine whether good triumphs over evil in the end, Rowling provides readers with an opportunity to consider how to evaluate a variety of sources about the past.

Dumbledore: The Histories

Dumbledore is mostly silent about his own past. What Harry knows about the Hogwarts headmaster he knows from other sources. His first knowledge comes from what we might call a pop culture source of history, Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card:

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling. (Sorcerer’s Stone 102-103)

Harry comes to accept uncritically what we might think of as the social memory of Dumbledore, based on his heroic defeat of Grindelwald, especially when it is confirmed by Dumbledore’s mission to defeat Voldemort in the present. Importantly, this understanding of the headmaster conforms to the image shared by the adults around Harry—Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and the other Hogwarts faculty, for example—and therefore preserves an uncomplicated, heroic image of his mentor.

But in Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, Harry encounters new sources of information that tell him unexpected, important details about his deceased mentor. One he is inclined to agree with: Elphias Doge’s starry-eyed eulogy appearing in the Daily Prophet, which Harry reads early in the book. The other comes from shady journalist Rita Skeeter: a salacious exposé entitled The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Harry hears unsavory rumors about Dumbledore’s past from Ron’s Aunt Muriel, and then reads Skeeter’s promotional interview in which she heavily criticizes Doge’s account. He reads an excerpt from the exposé much later that, despite its scandal-mongering, nevertheless throws into question everything that Harry thinks he knows about Dumbledore’s character and ambitions. Toward the end of the last novel, when the children meet up with Albus’s brother before the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry will hear Aberforth Dumbledore’s eye-witness testimony, another undeniably biased account that nevertheless contains important elements of truth.

Rowling presents these sources for her readers so that we are similarly drawn to question their accuracy as well as what we thought we knew about Albus Dumbledore. Each of these accounts describes occurrences at the Dumbledore household shortly after Albus’s completion of Hogwarts and in between the deaths of his mother and his sister Ariana. For this exercise in source evaluation, students should read the documentary source excerpts Rowling provides in the text of the seventh novel. The two main sources are published documents: the first, the Daily Prophet’s eulogy, and the second, an unauthorized (and, we are told, lengthy) biographical book.

  1. “Albus Dumbledore—Remembered”: Doge’s eulogy of his friend mostly confirms Harry’s perspective on Dumbledore’s life, but reveals that there were complexities in his youth of which Harry has been unaware. As a former schoolmate, Doge portrays Dumbledore as the heroic defender of muggle rights, the powerful victor over the dark wizard Grindelwald, and a modest man who remained active in the politics of the wizarding world without seeking its highest office, Minister of Magic (Deathly Hallows 16-20).
  2. “The Greater Good”: the chapter excerpt from Skeeter’s exposé, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, throws Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore into serious question. Students should read a little before the excerpt in order to see the note that accompanied this copy of the book, which Skeeter gave to Bathilda Bagshot as “thanks” for being interviewed (“You said everything, even if you don’t remember it” (Deathly Hallows 352)) as well as the caption for the picture of Dumbledore standing with “his friend” Gellert Grindelwald (353). This except dwells with malicious glee on Albus’s “missing year,” during which he befriended the young dark wizard and penned a letter (also excerpted) advocating for wizard dominance over muggles “FOR THE GREATER GOOD” (352-359).

Students will evaluate these two main sources for their quality and should compare them to see where they corroborate each other and where they disagree. To facilitate questions about bias, students should also examine “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?,” the Daily Prophet’s interview with Skeeter as a promotion of her soon-to-be published book (Deathly Hallows 22-28). This interview appears in The Deathly Hallows immediately after Doge’s eulogy, and allows us to see both Skeeter’s view of “Dodgy” Doge’s limitations as a judge of Dumbledore’s life and character, as well as her particular biases and quite unsavory journalistic methods.

Historic Detection: Finding Dumbledore’s Missing Year

On the basis of these three excerpts—all printed material available to a mass wizarding audience—students should determine the relative value of these sources and what might be useful about them despite their biases. Here’s an example of a homework assignment that may be used to prime the students for class discussion:

Based on these three readings, evaluate the quality and reliability of the two main sources (by Elphias Doge and by Rita Skeeter). What are their perspectives, what evidence do they have, how useful is that evidence, and how well do you think they represent the truth about Dumbledore’s past? Ultimately, explain what you think a person reading these two descriptions can know about Dumbledore’s youth. What does this tell us about historical biography in general?

A short assignment like this allows the students to wrestle with the material outside of class and bring their own impressions, supported by evidence, into the discussion. This exercise may, of course, be done entirely in class, with students given this charge individually or in groups. The benefit of coming in with prior preparation is that students will have considered the documents at more length and probably in a more deliberate fashion. The benefit of carrying out the whole assignment in class is that students who have not previously formed an opinion may be more open to persuasion by other points of view. Either way, students will grapple with the key questions of what makes a source useful and whether biased sources (which each of these obviously is) can provide “true” information.

Whether they have prepared in advance or not, students in discussion should consider some of the following questions.

  • Why did Doge and Skeeter write their accounts? How do their purposes affect the validity of their versions of Albus Dumbledore’s life?
  • What are Doge’s and Skeeter’s personal perspectives on Dumbledore, where do their perspectives come from, and how to do they show themselves in these documents?
  • Do these perspectives amount to a detrimental “bias”? Why or why not?
  • On what authority do Doge and Skeeter claim to know the truth about Albus Dumbledore? Are these believable claims? How might they be challenged?
  • What sources do Doge and Skeeter rely on? Which of these has the most authority as evidence? Which are, therefore, the most believable?
  • How do Skeeter’s methods of getting information affect the reliability of her evidence? Do you find Skeeter’s implication that she used veritaserum  believable and does this enhance her credibility or detract from it?
  • Based on this analysis, what can a savvy reader determine to be likely true from these accounts? How can we reconstruct at least parts of Albus’s “missing year”?
  • What questions remain that cannot be satisfactorily answered by these sources? Where might wizards look for answers to these?

Once students have evaluated these written sources, show them the “oral” testimony of Albus’s brother Aberforth Dumbledore for comparison (Deathly Hallows 563-567). Harry, Hermione, and Ron ask Aberforth about the events of that pivotal year and listen to his version of events. Bitterness toward his high-achieving older brother colors Aberforth’s description of Albus’s friendship with Grindelwald and treatment of their sister Ariana. Students should consider whether this eyewitness account constitutes a more authoritative source of information than Doge’s or Skeeter’s and evaluate Aberforth’s biases, some of which were pointed out in Skeeter’s interview and book. Aberforth’s motives for talking about these episodes—for the first time, we’re told—should be a part of the discussion, as well.

  • Does this testimony confirm or undermine the version of events we determined from the published accounts?
  • Do we see Aberforth as a better source, given that he was an eyewitness to many of the events discussed? Or do those standing at a remove from history have better access to “the facts”?
  • What does this tell us about who can speak authoritatively about historic events?
  • Does this show that we value oral testimony more or less than we should?
  • Do Harry, Ron, and Hermione consider this to be a definitive account? How does hearing from Aberforth affect their course of action?

Students who have read the Harry Potter series will have an advantage in some respects in this last part of the conversation, but their knowledge of the larger story may also play into their judgment on these accounts. In the last book, even after his death, Albus Dumbledore has laid out a course of action for Harry, Ron, and Hermione: for them to seek and destroy the horcruxes so that they may defeat the evil Voldemort. Dumbledore’s own youth, however, reveals that he, like Voldemort, searched for the Deathly Hallows instead—the elder wand, the resurrection stone, and the invisibility cloak, which together defeat death. Harry must decide whether to seek the hallows or the horcruxes, and his doubts about his mentor’s moral purity make him question Albus Dumbledore’s direction. Aberforth tells his version of events in order to discourage Harry, Ron, and Hermione from entering Hogwarts to seek the remaining horcruxes. The three protagonists will have to sort through the varied accounts of Dumbledore’s youth in order to decide their course to victory. Ultimately accepting a less-heroic image of the Hogwarts headmaster, the Trio will nevertheless pursue his path in seeking horcruxes instead of hallows. This does, indeed, lead to the victory of good over evil. Knowing this result in advance may cause students to look at the documents differently. It may be useful to ask students about whether they think their prior knowledge of the Harry Potter story influenced their decision-making in this exercise.

To cap off this exercise, students may be encouraged to read Harry’s conversation with the deceased Albus at King’s Cross station toward the end of the novel, in which they discuss his guilt and temptation by dark magic (707-723). This passage contains clues that this is not the actual Dumbledore, but rather represents Harry’s cohering understanding of this complex man (Perez). Students might consider the degree to which various sources influenced Harry’s perspective in the end, and whether they arrived at conclusions similar to Harry’s from a critical reading of all the available sources.

Toward a Useable (Muggle) Past

Although this exercise uses fictional sources in a fantasy universe, it can—paradoxically perhaps—help students find the unexpected relevance of sources about the past. Ask students who know the larger Harry Potter story how a different interpretation of Dumbledore’s past might have changed Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s actions, and thereby changed the story’s outcome. How are interpretations of the past in the present, muggle world affecting both personal and political decisions? Where do they see this in their own lives? Have they ever had the experience of learning something new about the past that shook their understanding of themselves in the world or their sense of what they should do in the future?

As students navigate research projects of various kinds, they will need to be able to evaluate the quality and usefulness of their sources. More than that, they must be able to find what is useful even in problematic sources. Rare indeed are pure and unbiased sources of information. In their absence, we are all called upon to find what is true and important even in flawed materials. This exercise can help students to go even further than identifying bias; it can help them to determine how to use biased sources for valid research anyway. What could be more useful in our often unfair and unbalanced world today?

Works Cited

Karlsson, Klas-Göran. “Processing Time—On the Manifestations and Activations of Historical Consciousness.” Historicizing the Uses of the Past: Scandinavian Perspectives on History Culture, Historical Consciousness and Didactics of History Related to World War II. Eds. Helle Bjerg, Claudia Lenz, and Erik Thorstensen. Transaction Publishers. 2011. 129-144.

Perez, Jeanina. “Magical Rememory: How Memory and History Collide to Produce Social Change in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga.” Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference. Alburquerque, New Mexico. February, 2016. Presentation.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thalen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Columbia UP. 1998.

Rubenstein, Ann. “Hermione Raised her Wand Again: Wizards Writing History.” Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancy Reagan. John Wiley and Sons. 2011. 309-321.

Author Bio

Kathryn N. McDaniel is Andrew U. Thomas Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. Although her specialty is early modern British history, she teaches a wide variety of courses in world history, modern European history, feminism, history of science, and historiography, and is the editor of Virtual Dark Tourism: Ghost Roads. In addition to teaching a course on Harry Potter and the Liberal Arts, she has published several articles on Harry Potter scholarship and pedagogy, hosts the MuggleNet podcast “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” and is the co-editor of Harry Potter for Nerds II.

Reference Citation


McDaniel, Kathryn N. “Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no 1, 2018 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.


McDaniel, K. N. (2018). Dumbledore’s uncertain past: A Harry Potter approach to evaluating sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.

The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals

Tara Propper
University of Texas at Tyler
Tyler, Texas, USA



This article explores how we can use African American activist media to theorize the role of pedagogy in the public sphere. Focusing on how racial passing stories expose the limiting (and often tropic) binaries through which racial identity is deciphered, this analysis further highlights the extent to which these binary constructions of identity are learned through media narration..

Using the December, 1912, issue of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine as a touchstone for investigation, this analysis considers how pedagogy is taken up as both a theme and project in the magazine. Foregrounding the degree to which Crisis critiques and counternarrates the demeaning and derogatory portrayals of African American identity in early twentieth-century media, this article suggests that Du Bois’s magazine not only indicts dominant visual systems of seeing and evaluating African American identity but also reveals the extent to which such systems of seeing and interpreting blackness are learned and can be remediated through media intervention.

The ultimate aim of this article is to derive an interpretive framework that understands pedagogy as not simply a method for inscribing pre-existent dominant norms but rather as a means for intervening, questioning, and challenging dominant systems of representation and public articulation. Moreover, this analysis intends to reveal the hidden pedagogies within dominant cultural paraphernalia for the purposes of advancing an approach to media literacy that recognizes and endeavors to transform the tropes and archetypes applied to marginal and minority communities.

Keywords: Media Activism, Pedagogy, Public Sphere, Race, Giroux, Du Bois, African American, Print Culture

In a New York Times Magazine article chronicling the public shaming of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane Washington chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. who came under fire for allegedly “misrepresenting” herself as African American, author Daniel J. Sharfstein writes:

…Dolezal’s exposure comes at a time when racial categories have never seemed more salient. The same social media that is shaming Dolezal has also aggregated the distressingly numerous killings of African Americans by the police into a singular statement on racism and inequality. In this moment, when blackness means something very specific—asserting that black lives matter—it follows for many people that categorical clarity has to matter, too. (Sharfstein)

Asserting that Dolezal’s story is not as anomalous as mainstream media outlets have claimed, Sharfstein’s article, entitled “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual,” frames Dolezal’s case among countless historical incidents of passing.1 Citing genealogist Paul Heinegg, Sharfstein traces the phenomenon of passing to a 17th-century Virginia law that assigned racial classification based on the status of the mother. According to Heinegg, passing was initially a matter of deciphering the identity of mixed race individuals. In order for mixed race families to access the resources associated with white privilege, which included being kept out of bondage, white mothers were compelled to prove their whiteness through legal means. However, as racial categories and tensions became more stringent, passing garnered greater cultural attention in magazines and newspapers and came to be understood as a phenomenon in which individuals misrepresent their purported racial, ethnic, or gender identity for cultural, intellectual, material, or personal advancement. Yet what is especially noteworthy about Sharfstein’s genealogy of racial passing is his case for “categorical clarity,” which is symptomatic of a larger gesture by mainstream presses to evaluate and interpret blackness (and not whiteness) as an intuitive and fixed racial category.

We can see this trend in many of the headlines announcing and exposing Dolezal’s reverse passing. News about Dolezal treated the activist as either a punching bag, punchline, or both, placing an inordinate amount of attention on Dolezal’s physical appearance by focusing on her hair, nose, and lips. Gawker even published an article entitled, “Rachel Dolezal Identifies as Medium Spray,” which poked fun of Dolezal’s spray tanning habits. Other media outlets focused on the existential requirements of racial identification, as the Daily Mail ran an article entitled “Race Faker Rachel Dolezal Talks Racial Identity on Chat Show and Says She Ticks Both the Black AND White Box on Forms.” Less vitriolic media coverage tended to define authentic blackness through the lens of cultural and institutional marginalization and historical discrimination, experiences that Dolezal’s biography was ostensibly lacking (see The Guardian‘s “I Became a Black Woman in Spokane. But Rachel Dolezal, I Was a Black Girl First” by Alicia Walters; Salon‘s “What We Can’t Afford to Forget About Rachel Dolezal: A Master Class in White Victimology” by Chauncey Devega; and the New York Times‘s “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal” by Charles Blow).

The goal of this article, however, is not to answer these concerns about racial identity with a definitive framework through which to understand blackness and whiteness as either authentic or constructed subject positions. Instead, this analysis is framed with Dolezal’s example because it exposes the central role that media plays in teaching citizens what constitutes appropriate or “authentic” racial identity. While one might take issue with Sharfstein’s assumptions about the necessity to solidify racial boundaries, this analysis builds upon his genealogy of passing by considering how the phenomenon of passing is taken up by activist media for the purposes of challenging the institutional bodies that have traditionally defined racial performance. Focusing the analysis at the turn of the twentieth century—a moment in which categorical clarity retained particular import in determining who could inhabit certain public spaces—this article suggests that popular media outlets provide a consequential pedagogical arena for learning, interpreting, and evaluating race identity. Concentrating on three articles written for the December, 1912, issue of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine, the primary media organ of the N.A.A.C.P., this article suggests that stories of passing (which become visible through our media outlets) intuitively teach readers how to inhabit and perform racial identity, assigning what Sharfstein defines as “categorical clarity” to these purportedly different identity formations.

It is important to note that this analysis is not offering a comparative view of white versus black passing. Rather, this article addresses the role of activist media in calling attention to reductive characterizations of race identity and in revising (and counternarrating) how blackness comes into view within public forums. This analysis locates itself at the turn of the twentieth century for two reasons. First, the twenty-five years between 1890 and 1915 is especially fertile ground for examining the role of African American media activism. The commercialization of periodical literature and the growing popularity of monthly magazines in this period marked a sea change in American aesthetic values, political consciousness, and forms of public engagement, which stimulated conversations about social justice and marginal and minority activism. These conversations also inspired dialogue about and among marginal and minority activists. Second, studying how these cultural transitions offered space for marginal and minority bodies to theorize the terms on which one could engage and become visible within a public sphere of representation can help shape our own thinking about contemporary mass media technologies, including digital technology. Especially relevant to contemporary scholarship are concerns about how these technologies contour our notions of who gets to participate within a public sphere of representation, where we find and engage this space, and how to make this space more open and accessible to a wider range of readers and writers. Such questions were also taken up by African American activist presses nearly a century earlier as a result of the growing accessibility of print magazines and the increasing regularity of print advertising and half-tone printing technologies, which significantly altered not only who could access these texts but how these texts were consumed (see Anne Ardis and Patrick Collier’s Transatlantic Print Culture: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms and Amy Helene Kirschke’s Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory). Moreover, concerns surrounding the stakes of making oneself, one’s suffering, and one’s experience visible through public writing was highlighted by African American media in reaction to the increasing influence of visual imagery on print media, such as lynching photographs. It is therefore productive to turn to such texts in order to outline how African American media activism intervened in these consequential questions regarding race and public visibility.

Public Culture, Public Pedagogies, and Media as an Object of Analysis

Mainstream public culture, viewed through the lens of magazines, newspapers, and social networking sites, not only offers an arena for understanding how race identity comes into view (or is made viewable) through dominant systems of representation and articulation but also acts as an alternative pedagogical forum, one that grants access to the means of literary production and consumption outside of traditionally academic venues. Therefore, magazines and newspapers can be seen as pedagogical or “teaching” texts—that is, texts that either critique or instantiate structures of power by introducing and inculcating new, popular, or alternative habits of mind. Using Henry Giroux’s “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals” as a touchstone for unpacking the latent pedagogical functioning of public culture, this analysis suggests that activist periodicals both expose and reinscribe the pedagogical imperative of cultural paraphernalia through the production of counterdiscourses. These counterdiscourses help to construct new pathways for accessing educational resources beyond dominant and hegemonic institutions of knowledge.2

According to Giroux, public culture is a fluid and dynamic arena for understanding the performative dimensions of identity and agency, rendering visible the political forces influencing identity construction. In other words, public culture is a space for mediating, accommodating, and contesting dominant social hierarchies by highlighting the material relations informing and constructing a politics of representation. Framing this politics of representation through a discourse of pedagogy, Giroux’s “Cultural Studies” points to the hyper-fabricated nature of subject formation and, more specifically, citizen subjectivity. As Giroux notes, “the primacy of culture and power should be organized through an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical” (62). Thus, political agency necessitates a process of learning whereby individuals come to understand themselves in relation to cultural artifacts and institutions.3

Consequently, Giroux’s formulation attaches pedagogical significance to this process of subject formation.4 More pointedly for Giroux, the pedagogical encounter reveals the political forces influencing how individuals come to articulate themselves within cultural institutions by underlining the degree to which these systems of power are artificial and ideologically driven. Making explicit connections among public culture, pedagogy, and subject formation, such work highlights the centrality of pedagogy in understanding and revising systems of power.

Recognizing the pedagogical imperative underlying the circulation of print media allows print culture scholars to better account for the ideological function of such material, especially as such material engages in the work of narrating which bodies can and cannot retain and garner visibility within a public sphere of representation. In other words, paying attention to the ways in which print culture teaches its readers how to be in the world—particularly in terms of how to differentiate oneself from gendered, racialized, and ideological othersis a fundamental aspect of acquiring and advancing a progressive approach to media literacy. Primary, however, to these questions regarding identity formation, pedagogy, and public culture is how the asymmetrical deployment of political, cultural, and social power shapes the pedagogical encounter. Revealing this asymmetry and chronicling how activist campaigns offer alternative forums for enunciating identity formation and political agency is thus fundamental to countering dominant systems of power.

Turn-of-the-Century African American periodicals are especially useful sites for exposing asymmetrical deployments of cultural and political power, as such periodicals interrogated the deep racial divides buttressing public and social norms. A landscape in which news, advertisements, opinion pieces, political commentary, personal letters, and literary critique sat alongside and in conversation with one another, African American print media offers a particularly unique staging ground for historicizing and contextualizing the multi-voiced and inter/intratextual nature of modern mass media. As Anne Ardis posits in “Making Middle-Brow Culture,” turn-of-the-century African American magazines like W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis highlight “the complex relationships between printed artifacts, the dazzingly, distractingly visual cultures of modernity, and the world of things for purchase commercially in a modern consumer culture…” (21). Similarly, Anne Carroll’s “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts in Crisis” suggests that Crisis’s “large cultural presence in the early twentieth century was due, in part, to its multimedia format and layout, which has drawn scant scholarly attention” (89). This “multimedia format,” characterized by the intermingling of news, photographs, advertisements, and critical and opinion commentary (and which is akin to contemporary media layouts both online and in print), provided a forum for readers to experience and engage with different genres of writing. For example, the Table of Contents for the December, 1912, issue of Crisis Magazine lists the following four titles under its “Articles” section: “Emmy” (a short story by Redmon Fauset), “Sackcloth and Ashes” (an editorial detailing the trauma of lynching and mob violence), “The Club Movement in California” (featuring biographical sketches of members of the National Association of Colored Women’s California chapters), and “The Christmas Sermon” (a poem by Robert J. Laurence), in addition to its featured departments, including “Along the Color Line,” “Men of the Month,” “Opinion,” “Editorial,” and “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Such offerings represent a range of critical, literary, and journalistic prose, from poetry and short stories to investigative journalism and political commentary.

Readers of magazines like Crisis were therefore presented with various textual genres and images that required a multimodal literacy, one that took into consideration how the structural and design features of these periodicals coalesced to make meaning. Even print advertisements, which were reflective of a growing consumer culture, cultivated a style of reading and interpretation that compelled audiences to deduce meaning from an economy of words and images. This multimodal reading experience was shaped by the various linkages and relationships one might find between different media paraphernalia, as such relationships could be found between images and copy, or copy and advertisements, or advertisements and opinion commentary. Editors also took advantage of multimedia formatting by positing arguments based on the internal staging of different, sometimes competing, media paraphernalia.5 In short, African American newspapers and magazines advanced a multimedia format that privileged inter- and intra-textual dialogue, exposing the internal juxtapositions informing how we making meaning from a range of cultural and media artifacts. Additionally, African American newspapers and magazines offered an approach to literacy where readers were able to participate in, contribute to, and enact new outlets for democratic engagement.

Passing, A Pedagogy: Artificial versus Embodied Passing 

One of the more insightful observations made about the media flurry surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s public outing was by a columnist for The Guardian. In an article entitled “Rachel Dolezal Exposes our Delusional Constructions and Perceptions of Race,” Steven W. Thrasher suggests that Dolezal’s failed passing reveals the artificiality of binary constructions of whiteness and blackness. Thrasher notes that what makes Dolezal’s case so “fascinating” is its exposure of the “disquieting way that our race is performance — that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible” (Thrasher). Thrasher’s article presents two premises. Thrasher suggests that the ostensible intuitiveness with which we perceive racial characterization is learned. Thrasher additionally notes that we can learn to see and unsee these visual markers given our cultural and social training. In other words, although our racial constructs are arbitrary (as Thrasher points out), the features and categories that we associate with such constructs are learned and serve an ideological purpose, as such constructs are policed through legal legacy (Plessy v. Ferguson), social doctrine (de facto segregation), and institutional forums.

Historically, Crisis Magazine has played a role in narrating the linkages between artificial and embodied passing, enabling early twentieth-century readers to recognize the hidden pedagogies within dominant cultural paraphernalia. The editors of Crisis made revealing these “hidden pedagogies” a fundamental project of the magazine—a project that is productively illustrated in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s “Emmy.”

Arranged around two instances of passing—(1) Emmy, the protagonist, becoming “passable” as a black body within the protopublic sphere of the classroom; and (2) Archie, Emmy’s love interest, passing as someone of “Spanish decent” in order to excel in the field of engineering—Fauset’s story is largely a mediation on the role of public institutional settings in defining and standardizing blackness.6 Making visible the discriminatory and derogatory lens through which black identity was visualized in turn-of-the-century American culture, “Emmy” endeavors to “mend” these dominant and problematic ways of discerning black identity by calling attention to the arbitrary nature of such identity markers, foregrounding the role of pedagogy in inculcating these dominant modes of evaluation and interpretation. Passing is treated as a pedagogical practice, one that requires African American subjects to perform arbitrary racial markers for the purposes of attaining legibility within our public forums. Yet passing is cast from two differing vantage points, artificial and embodied passing. A comparative example between artificial and embodied passing, as each are noticed through Fauset’s Emmy and Archie, clarifies how Fauset, and in a larger sense the editors of Crisis Magazine as a whole, undertake the work of redefining passing as not simply a process of misrepresenting one’s race identity. Rather, passing in this context is defined as a cultural procedure in which black Americans acquire legibility within a larger public sphere of representation by performing “acceptable” racial characteristics (as defined and delimited by dominant visual and discursive systems).

Consumed with the stakes and consequences associated with disguising his racial identity, Archie’s narrative follows many of the tropes and themes associated with a traditional passing story, referred to in this analysis as “artificial passing.” Posing as white man in order to ascend the ranks in the field of engineering, Archie is plagued with interior deliberations about whether or not he wants to marry Emmy and “out” himself as an African American, thereby limiting his chances of professional fulfillment and wealth. It is not until Archie is met with the prospect of professional advancement at the expense of his romance with Emmy that he realizes success cannot be achieved without self-acceptance and race pride. Archie accomplishes these forms of acceptance when he exposes his “true” identity and comes out to his superiors, risking his career as an engineer for the interior reward of self-actualization.

Although Archie’s narrative aligns with standard passing stories, Emmy’s storyline extends the notion of passing to account for the process in which racialized bodies are taught and expected to disguise specific identity markers in order to pass through public space, even if they do not intend to pass as white. Thus, Emmy’s narrative explores passing-as-learned-identity as opposed to passing-as-deception. In drawing Emmy’s narrative, Fauset is perhaps more concerned with and critical of the white gazing subjects that delimit and authorize how racialized bodies can be seen or come into view within public spaces. Emmy’s story therefore serves to illuminate “embodied passing,” which is the primary focus of this article insofar as it underscores the material and cultural forces influencing subject formation.

For the purposes of this discussion, “embodied passing” denotes the physical experience of passing into and out of different public arenas as a racialized body, a term employed to underline the extent to which mainstream culture places specific conditions on how blackness can be seen and received within public spheres of representation. Black bodily presence is therefore mediated through certain assumptions about blackness; these assumptions dictate and discern how blackness can be performed in public space. Although embodied passing does not necessitate disguising one’s racial identity for the purposes of seeking professional or social advancement (artificial passing), it does suggest that in order to “pass” through different public venues unscathed (that is, without the chronic fear of bodily harm and harassment), racialized bodies must contend with and acquiesce to dominant visual systems for seeing and evaluating blackness. Such dominant and problematic systems of representation are made explicit in the story’s initial scenes, which are staged within the schoolhouse and revolve around the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student. In an assignment for class, Emmy is asked to name the world’s “five races” (Fauset 79). After naming the “white or Caucasian, the yellow or Mongolian, the red or Indian, the brown or Malay, and the black or Negro,” Emmy’s instructor, Mrs. Wenzel, demands that Emmy identify the race to which she belongs (79). This question, however, is harder for Emmy to navigate, “not because hers was the only dark face in the crowded schoolroom, but because she was visualizing the pictures with which the geography had illustrated its information” (79). Emmy deliberates that “she was not white, she knew that—nor had she almond eyes like the Chinese, nor the feathers which the Indian wore in his hair and which of course, were to Emmy a racial characteristic” (79). Finally, Emmy concludes that she “belongs to the black or Negro race,” much to her teachers “relief” (79). Emmy too is relieved, as “the Hottentot, chosen with careful nicety to represent the entire Negro race, had,” as Emmy notes, “on the whole a better appearance”(79).7

Visualizing iconic representations of racialized bodies, Emmy undertakes a process of logical deduction, reading her race identity in relation to these other representative identities. Although none of these iconic race representations adequately articulate her experience as a racialized body, Emmy chooses the least problematic minority appearance as her own. Emmy’s participation and legibility within the public institutional sphere of the classroom is predicated on these representative icons (for example, the Venus Hottentot). Thus, Emmy becomes intelligible and “passable” only when she complies with these racial representations. Moreover, passing within this context holds a double significance, since Emmy is both receiving a passing grade for Mrs. Wenzel’s assignment, as well as passable as a black body within a public institutional sphere. By introducing her story with a schoolhouse “lesson,” Fauset underlines the extent to which dominant visual systems are learned and artificial. Pedagogy therefore acts a medium through which dominant visual systems are articulated and enacted, as educators are the primary interlocutors for policing racial categories.

Throughout “Emmy,” Fauset is concerned with how racially marked bodies come to know, see, and value themselves within and in relation to dominant visual systems, as the story reaches its climax when Emmy and Archie learn to reject the racial hierarchies and stereotypes that define blackness in order to realize and fully recuperate their love for one another. Each character undergoes a process of becoming intelligible both within and against these dominant characterizations of blackness. One reviewer, Claire Oberon Garcia, describes the story as “permeated by problematic tropes of recognition in the verbal and visual arts” (Garcia 101). This chronic and consistent squaring of embodied identity with dominant standards for seeing blackness is further explicated in the illustration of a young African American woman gazing at her reflection in a vanity mirror, which momentarily interrupts Fauset’s text and works to create a collage effect in the layout of the page. This juxtaposition of image and text underlines the visual qualities implicit within the process of imagining identity: identity, through this discursive and visual vantage point, is contingent upon and pivots from the image. In other words, the visual field through which bodies become viewable works to determine one’s access to and acceptance within public culture. As a consequence, racial icons such as the Venus Hottentot—a public identity singularly circumscribed by the visual field—set certain and specific limitations on how blackness could be seen, received, and responded to within mainstream culture and its publics. In Fauset’s fictional account of passing, the image works to police, circumscribe, and substantiate racial identity. Race is treated as an aestheticized object of public consumption, interpretation, and analysis, and racial articulation is mediated by public figures, specifically educators. Furthermore, racial iconicization in “Emmy” works to reify binary constructions of race, asserting categorical clarity through the visual field, through artificial enactments and visual presentations of race.

The primacy of the image in discerning racial identity finds further elucidation in an editorial preceding Fauset’s “Emmy,” entitled “The Black Mother” (TBM). Reporting on legislation to erect a mammy monument in the National Mall, “TBM” complicates the legacy of the mammy figure, which at the turn of the century derived particular cultural currency as a happy and benign relic of the “Old South.”8 Noting that such iconography “existed under a false social system that deprived [real black mothers] of husband and child,” “TBM” suggests that such caricatures dehumanize and negate the subjective experience of Black mothers—as the mammy figure signifies a moment in African American history when Black women were deprived of interiority and barred from cultivating a private life outside of white supremacist systems of servitude and surveillance (“TBM” 78).

“TBM” also points to the degree to which our public memorials are spaces of learning, as public memorials both instruct citizens what our nation’s values are and which citizens (and civic actions) are valuable. Erecting a mammy statue in the National Mall would therefore teach African American women that their value as citizens stems from their capacity to identify with and live into these demeaning tropes of representation. In both “Emmy” and “TBM,” dominant pedagogies (such as those that happen in the schoolhouse and those that are derived through public memorialization) are associated with submission. That is, Emmy must submit to her teacher’s reading of race in order to pass through and become legible within the classroom space. Likewise, public memorialization of mammy works to instruct white and black citizen subjects how to read and evaluate African American identity through the lens of submission, as the legacy of the mammy is one of servitude and submission. However, the editors of Crisis challenge these dominant pedagogical practices by teaching readers how to recognize and depart from these systems of seeing and evaluating blackness.

Critiquing the extent to which black bodies were encouraged, expected, and to some degree even required to identify with and through these iconic and hypervisible racial caricatures, the editorial describes the mammy figure as a “perversion of motherhood” and compels “present-day mammies [to] suckle their own children…walk in the sunshine with their own toddling boys and girls and put their own sleepy little brothers and sisters to bed” (“TBM” 78). Compelling African American women to contest the cultural legacy of these hyperbolic and problematic tropes of representation, “TBM” asserts that the mammy caricature (probably one of the more iconic and visually pointed images of black iconography) works to abstract and erase the embodied and felt experiences of black women.

Particularly noteworthy is the article’s positioning. Directly preceding Fauset’s story about passing, “TBM” contextualizes the drama of “Emmy” with real-world prefatory material, drawing connections between passing and racial caricatures. By juxtaposing Fauset’s fictive story of passing (which emphasizes the primacy of the image in objectifying and aestheticizing racial identity) with a critique of the hypervisible legacy of the mammy figure, the December, 1912, layout of Crisis links the phenomenon of passing to an oversimplification and caricaturization of racial subjectivity. Passing is therefore associated not with the breakdown of racial categories but with the solidification of racial boundary lines—lines that, regardless of the racial identity performing the passing, associate racial identification with phenotypic categorization.

Scholar Baz Dreisinger, who has written prolifically on the phenomenon of passing, suggests that passing privileges and reiterates the presence of the white gazing subject. In an interview for the Atlantic Monthly, Dreisinger suggests that the phenomenon of passing underlines the white gazing subject’s “long legacy of fetishizing blackness” (Dreisinger). Such fetishistic imagery is “based upon caricatures, and not characters…on idealized or cartoonish notions of what blackness is” (Dreisinger). These cartoonish portrayals of blackness work to obfuscate the interiority of racialized subjects. Although traditional stories of passing tend to emphasize the psychological consequences of performing whiteness (notably the pain associated with breaking familial ties for the purposes of social or professional advancement), both “Emmy” and “TBM” highlight the extent to which passing as black within a white public sphere of representation is equally risky. In other words, passing takes on a dual context: passing is treated as both a phenomenon in which individuals transition from one race identity to another and a process through which African Americans learn how to see, identify, and contend with dominant visual systems. Consequently, the editors at Crisis sought to re-define passing as a social and psychological process of erasing embodied experience and aestheticizing racial identity. The metaphoric erasure of subjectivity that becomes visible through the fetishizing imagery of the mammy figure is made literal and explicit in the article directly succeeding “Emmy,” which chronicles the lynching of Zackaria Walker.

Walker’s identity, as well as his purported crime, is not specified in the report. Instead, the article, entitled “Sackcloth and Ashes,” vaguely notes: “On August 18, 1911, a black man was burned to death by a mob in Coatesville, Pa” (“Sackcloth” 87). From here, the editorial details a speech by John Jay Chapman to a prayer gathering in Coatesville. In his speech, Chapman interprets a newspaper account of Walker’s death:

…I read in the newspapers of August 14…about the burning alive of a human being—and of how a few desperate fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, which around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone calls…hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness. (“Sackcloth” 87)

Making many references to sight and seeing, Chapman describes his personal reaction to the violent scene reported in the paper: “I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom-revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal […] What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth” (“Sackcloth” 87). The “truth” that Chapman gleans from this tableau is the commonness of racial violence in American public culture. For Chapman, the black body comes into view publicly through the frame of the lynching spectacle. Signifying the erasure of black bodily presence, the lynching spectacle (circulated through lynching photographs and media depictions) works to further abstract black subjective experience. Like “Emmy” and “TBM,” “Sackcloth and Ashes” examines the role of dominant visual systems in narrating and filling in black identity. “Sackcloth and Ashes” does not describe the lynching spectacle firsthand; rather, the lynching spectacle comes into view through media narration and visual language.

By appropriating how lynching was narrated and depicted in popular media, the editors of Crisis perhaps hoped to disrupt popular depictions of lynching as either a “just” response to black criminality or a benign enactment of popular sovereignty. Furthermore, lynching reporting and imagery within mainstream presses was implicitly pedagogical; that is, such coverage acted as a grotesque and deeply problematic mode of teaching white and black readerships the risks associated with black public visibility. The circulation of lynching imagery in Southern States made explicit the consequences of questioning or challenging segregationist policies. However, in Crisis, the circulation of lynching stories (and photographs) inverted this pedagogical initiative.

Drawing connections between artificial representations of racial performance (vis-a-vis passing and racial iconography) and the erasure of black subjectivity, Crisis Magazine (as observed through its intratextual linkages) brings to light the extent to which our modes of seeing, understanding, and evaluating blackness is learned. Furthermore, the aestheticization of racial identity (as is noticed in passing narratives, as well as in racial caricatures) directly informs—and is in dialogue with—the most extreme examples of black erasure. That is, the erasure of black subjective identity exemplified in the popularity of iconic caricatures such as the Venus Hottentot (“Emmy”) and mammy (“TBM”) finds its most disgusting manifestation in the wholesale erasure of black subjectivity in the lynching spectacle. Thus, the lynching spectacle, as Chapman notes, offers a harrowing insight into the political and social pulse of the country.


This analysis has touched on the relationship between passing and pedagogy by discussing the central role popular media plays in the construction of public identities. Considering how binary constructions of race rely on and privilege phenotypic identification, this article historicized the ways in which the phenomenon of passing is interpreted and re-defined by activist media. By highlighting intratextual linkages, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine takes up the pedagogical incentive to teach readers our own cultural biases and assumptions regarding racial identity, underscoring the extent to which such biases and assumptions are learned and can be re-learned for the purposes of pursuing a more progressive agenda towards race, racial performance, and racial legislation. What “Emmy,” “The Black Mother,” and “Sackcloth and Ashes” clarify is the primacy of the image in envisioning and legislating identity. Of course, this brief analysis of Fauset’s story and the two editorials bordering her work cannot fully articulate the extent to which questions of citizenship are built into this collective imagining of how to see and receive blackness within public institutional spaces. However, this analysis begins to identify the ways in which black citizenship comes into view both within and against these dominant visual systems. These dominant visual systems are taught and learned through popular media in stories of passing, which expose the artificial boundaries defining and circumscribing who and how we see. Each of the articles chronicles the contours of these systems of seeing black identity while at the same time aiming to respond back to the white gazing subject through whom these depictions are authored and authorized.

What turn-of-the-century activist periodicals can teach—or at least model—for us today is the pedagogical nature of these media representations. Periodicals such as Crisis call attention to the pedagogical imperative to write and legislate identity. Mainstream pedagogies of representation can work to foreclose the potential for new citizen subjects and subjectivities to emerge. Yet, the texts referenced in this article offer an historical framework for understanding how media invention and intervention by marginal and minority communities works to re-shape the borders and boundary lines characterizing dominant discursive and visual fields of representation.

Although this article focused on historical accounts of periodical activism, such work opens up new avenues for discussing media literacy, defined here as identifying, critiquing, and even modifying the pedagogical dimensions underpinning popular culture. By considering what media landscapes make visible (or not visible) in terms of racial subjectivity, gender expression, and citizenship, such work uses a discourse of pedagogy as a lens for understanding the various popular forums where teaching happens. Making racial passing stories a focal point, this article suggests that such narratives expose the many ways in which different forms of social representation are learned through public culture and public media and the extent to which media landscapes “teach” us normalized identity categories. Such categories have the potential to influence not only how we visualize blackness, but the ways in which blackness is legislated in public spaces, as stories of passing tend to derive specific cultural currency in moments of social and cultural upheaval (moments in which the policing of racial identities in public space is particularly incisive).

While it is important to be sensitive to the cultural particularities and nuances surrounding the policing of black bodies today, the antecedents of such skepticism towards “foreignness” and “otherness” within public forums can be traced to segregationist legislation and deeply-rooted anxieties about modernity at the century’s turn. Furthermore, these anxieties can be connected to current fears surrounding globalization and immigration, which have manifested in the rise of nativist populist rhetoric. Thus, it is no surprise that questions of “categorical clarity” with respect to racial identity were re-introduced alongside of nativist concerns about “shoring up our borders” and surveilling foreign others. Conversations about the pedagogy and politics of racial passing are therefore not divorced from more modern concerns regarding how popular media narrates difference and which counternarratives derive media currency.

This article proposes the following three questions for further research seeking to use a discourse of pedagogy for the purposes of better understanding the critical and cultural relevance of examining popular media and media activism: How can a discourse of pedagogy that does not singularly privilege traditional classroom settings and practices further highlight the political dimensions associated with reading and interpreting media texts, texts that explicitly and implicitly teach us the degrees of visibility available to marginal and minority communities in the face of dominant or hegemonic structures? How might this expanded view of pedagogy allow us to balance political concerns with an aesthetic and literary experience of Otherness and passing? How might we use different forms of media expression as a means for intervening in this process of visibility—or changing and counternarrating dominant media tropes?


Works Cited

Appelbaum, Yoni. “Rachel Dolezal and the History of Passing for Black.” The Atlantic Monthly, 15 June 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/rachel-dolezal-and-the-history-of-passing-for-black/395882/.

Ardis, Ann L. “Making Middlebrow Culture, Making Middlebrow Literary Texts Matter: The Crisis, Easter 1912.” Modernist Cultures vol. 6, no. 1, 2011, pp. 19-36.

—and Patrick C. Collier, eds. Transatlantic Print Culture 1880-1940: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Blow, Charles. “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal.” The New York Times, 17 June 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/opinion/charles-blow-the-delusions-of-dolezal.html.

Caroll, Anne Elizabeth. “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts in the Crisis.” American Literature vol. 76 no. 1, March 2004, pp. 89-116.

Castronovo, Russ. Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era. The U of Chicago P, 2007.

Devega, Chauncey. “What We Can’t Afford to Forget About Rachel Dolezal: A Master Class in White Victimology.” Salon, 22 June 2015. http://www.salon.com/2015/06/22/what_we_cant_afford_to_forget_about_rachel_dolezal_a_master_class_in_white_victimology/.

Eberly, Rosa A. Citizen Critic: Literary Public Spheres. U of Illinois P, 2000.

Fauset, Jessie R. “Emmy.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 79-87.Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>.

Garcia, Claire Oberon .“Jessie Redmon Fauset Reconsidered.” The Harlem Renaissance Revisited. Edited by Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar. Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.

Giroux, Henry A. “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Communication and Critical Cultural Studies vol. 1, no. 1, 2004, pp. 59-79.

Graham, Regina F., and Khaleda Rahman. “Race Faker Rachel Dolezal Talks Racial Identity on Chat Show and Says She Ticks Both the Black AND White Box on Forms.” The Daily Mail, 30 October 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3297068/Rachel-Dolezal-talks-racial-identity-guest-The-Real.html.

Jones, Allie. “Rachel Dolezal Identifies as Medium Spray.” Gawker, 17 June 2015. http://gawker.com/rachel-dolezal-identifies-as-medium-spray-tan-1711927604.

Kirschke, Amy H. Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Indiana UP, 2007.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Rowman and Littlefield, 2011.

Sharfstein, Daniel J. “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual.” The New York Times Magazine, 15 June 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/magazine/rachel-dolezals-passing-isnt-so-unusual.html.

Thrasher, Steven W. “Rachel Dolezal Exposes our Delusional Constructions and Perceptions of Race.” The Guardian, 12 June 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-delusional-construction-perception-of-race>.

Walters, Alicia. “I Became a Black Woman in Spokane. But Rachel Dolezal, I Was a Black Girl First.” The Guardian, 15 June 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/14/became-a-black-woman-spokane-rachel-dolezal-black-girl.

“The Black Mother.” The Crisis Magazine: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 78. Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>.

“Sackcloth and Ashes.” The Crisis Magazine: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 87-88. Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>


End Notes

1 Sharfstein’s article primarily focuses on reverse passing cases, such as those of Rachel Dolezal, Dan Burros, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan whose family identified as Jewish and who was considered a “star bar mitzvah student,” and Forest Carter, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for George Wallace who authored a Native American “memoir” under the penname Asa Earl Carter (Sharstein). Although Burros and Carter’s cases derived some media attention, the purpose of this article is to unpack how the phenomenon of passing exposes larger cultural assumptions about racial identity, particularly the extent to which we rely on aesthetic or phenotypic markers as a means for interpreting racial identity.

2 My use of the term “counterdiscourse” borrows from Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” “Subaltern counterpublics,” according to Fraser, are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (Fraser 67). In this context, counterdiscourses are simply discourses that offer “oppositional interpretations of marginal identity, interests, and needs.” Seeing as turn-of-the-century African American periodicals offered alternative portrayals of blackness that countered the often-derogatory stereotypes found within mainstream media in this period, I argue that these periodicals are counterdiscursive.

3 Without veering too far from my central argument, we can see the stakes inherent in Giroux’s ideas in our current socio-political climate. That is to say, concerns over immigration and what constitutes American assimilation reveals the ways in which popular media (from all ends of the political spectrum) have a direct hand in shaping the types of identities that are visible or are not visible within a social sphere by teaching a media-consuming public normalized identity formations. For example, viewing an immigrant as either a foreign other to be feared, maligned, and banned from American participatory democracy or a “raw material” to be shaped and molded into a model for American exceptionalism or progressivism are archetypes that derive consistent media currency in our contemporary moment.

4 In this article, I am suggesting that subject formation is tied to one’s capacity to become visible within a public sphere of representation. Here, I am gesturing toward the work of Jeffery Nealon and Susan Giroux. In The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nealon and Giroux define subjectivity as a collection of discursive and physical actions that allow for individualized identities to develop and become culturally visible. Subjectivity happens at the intersection of individual agency and larger cultural values. The larger cultural values that help dictate and discern racial subjectivities, for instance, are explicitly tied to political forces. Therefore, political agency is the medium through which new racial subjects can emerge, develop, and become visible within mainstream culture and within wider public spheres of influence and representation.

5 In “Beauty Along the Color Line: Lynching, Aesthetics and the ‘Crisis,’” Russ Castronovo argues that Crisis‘s multimedia format was used deliberately by editors to build connections between politics and aesthetics. Castronovo’s work focuses specifically on how the internal staging of lynching photographs alongside of literary articles worked to renegotiate both the standards on which art was evaluated and the conditions on which bodies came into and out of view (and the extent to which these bodies were considered beautiful).

6 I borrow this term from Rosa E. Eberly. Eberly refers to school spaces as protopublic spheres where students can practice participatory democracy within a low-stakes learning environment. Eberly notes that these “protopublic spaces…[allow] students to form and enter literary public spheres and choose whether to join wider public spheres”  (162). For a more detailed account of the relationship between classroom spaces and public spaces, see Christian Weisser’s Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere.

7 The Hottentot Venus was the stage name assigned to Saartjie Baartmann (also referred to as Sara Baartman), a South African slave who was sold to a Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop. Dunlop compelled Baartman to perform in carnival slideshows throughout Europe. Considered a major “attraction” in Britain and France between 1810 and 1815, Baartman would draw large crowds interested in her “exotic” anatomy. Baartman was also used as an object of scientific examination both during her life and after her death by Georges Cuvier, a professor of anatomy at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. After Baartman’s death in 1815, Cuvier dissected her body and displayed her remains, including her brain, skeleton, and genitalia in Paris’s Museum of Man. Fauset uses the legacy of Baartman in order to highlight the extent to which blackness was treated as an object of public scrutiny and scientific examination, and to further elucidate the degree to which black public presence was marked by an erasure of subjective identity.

8 This notion of the “Old South” is firmly connected to Lost Cause Mythology, a nostalgic misreading of plantation life prior to the Civil War. In the half century after the Civil War, Lost Cause sentiment grew in popularity. Rooted in plantation literature (including The Leopard’s Spots in 1902, The Clansman in 1905, and The Traitor in 1907), Lost Cause mythology romanticized Southern paternalism, uplifting the plantation as a utopian space in which racial binaries were fixed and natural. The mammy figure played a central role in clarifying such binaries.


Author Bio 

Tara Propper received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas at Tyler. Her research focuses on the relationship between literacy and identity, specifically the ways in which the production and consumption of newspapers and magazines in the long nineteenth century allowed marginal and minority voices to participate within a public sphere of representation. This research applies a historic framework to investigate the concept of “the public” and what it means to write into or outside of this sphere.


Reference Citation


Propper, Tara. “The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1the-pedagogy-and-politics-of-racial-passing-examining-media-literacy-in-turn-of-the-century-activist-periodicals


Propper, T. (2017). The pedagogy and politics of racial passing: Examining media literacy in turn-of-the-century activist periodicals. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 4(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1the-pedagogy-and-politics-of-racial-passing-examining-media-literacy-in-turn-of-the-century-activist-periodicals.

From the Vertical to the Horizontal: Introducing Mikhail Epstein’s Transculture to Perplexed Educators1

Sheldon S. Kohn
Zayed University
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates



A shift in focus from supporting or opposing vertical, grand narratives to the horizontal, the ordinary and the everyday, can lead educators to transformative developments. Educators find themselves in a false dichotomy of being restricted to supporting or opposing competing vertical utopian visions of education. Mikhail Epstein’s ideas about transculture can help perplexed educators make a shift from the vertical to the horizontal, focusing their praxis and pedagogy on the ordinary and the everyday, including objects and artifacts of popular culture. In a radical move, Epstein argues that commodification represents resistance to totalitarian controls and impulses; he urges educators to embrace commodification as a strategy for regaining some of what has been lost to corporatist influence in education. When educators shift their focus and perspective from the vertical to the horizontal, they create a space for interference, which involves using difference creatively and can lead to the creation of entirely new culture. Many ideas can be viewed profitably from a transcultural point-of-view, including Alison Cook-Sather’s ideas about metaphor in education and Henry Jenkin’s exploration of the emerging media culture. In the classroom, educators can undertake qualitative experimentation to develop and apply transcultural pedagogy; there is no underlying defined epistemology of education to accompany such work. The current situation in education, and the larger culture, may thus be seen as proto-, i.e., an exciting future that is not predefined and foreclosed. Transculture offers educators a maybe world that allows exploration of the lacunae and lack in every field.


Epstein Mikhail, Transculture, Pedagogy, Commodification, Interference, Proto- Mode, Corporatist Education, Vertical Culture, Horizontal Culture, Creation of Culture


Many educators today are perplexed. They know, or at least think they know, what education ought to be, how exciting and wonderful it is to learn and teach. Many of them do not understand the baffling present moment in education, with its competing claims and counterclaims, its ceaseless calls for reform that are thinly veiled attacks on their professionalism and integrity from people with questionable motives. They also know that today’s certainty may change or disappear before tomorrow. Where education is going and what it will become, the after, remains frustratingly opaque: out of their control and beyond their understanding.2 In this time of constant change and uncertainty, education has become increasingly problematic and confusing for everyone involved in teaching and learning on any level. All too often, educators voices are not heard. Their professional choices seem limited to supporting or opposing someone else’s ideological vision of what education is, and what it should become.

Educators could develop an experimental pedagogy for these new times by shifting their perspectives and efforts from struggling for or against the vertical, grand narratives and strategies designed to transform society, to focusing on the horizontal, the ordinary and everyday, including objects and artifacts of popular culture. Mikhail Epstein’s theory of transculture supports such a shift.  The basic structure of transculture is elegant in its simplicity: picture a common x-y axis (see Figure 1).


Figure One: The Vertical and the Horizontal in Culture

The north-south lines on this axis represent vertical forces with the power and the money to force educational change along lines that support their interests and ideology, often in the name of “reform.” The vertical supports and encourages grand ideas and narratives; this is the space where people literally try to force the world to change in accord with their ideological definitions of how things are or should be. Socialism and capitalism, modernism and postmodernism, represent vertical movements of the twentieth-century. There is often, if not always, a utopian strain in vertical ideas, initiatives, and promises. In contrast, the horizontal east-west axis represents the ordinary and the everyday, the realm where most educators live and work. Classroom dynamics occur on the horizontal level, as does the busyness of everyday life. To claim the horizontal as ordinary and everyday is not to deny its power: quite the contrary. Educators who shift their attention and effort from supporting or opposing vertical movements to the ordinary and the everyday of the horizontal can help their students learn how to create new culture. Individual creativity and freedom reside in the horizontal.

Since the early 2000s, moneyed interests and their conservative allies have been pursuing a quest for a vertical transformation of all levels of education by calling for “reform.” As Diane Ravitch explains,

For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves “reformers” to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to “reform”? These days, those who call themselves “education reformers” are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators.

This movement might well be referred to as “corporatism” and its adherents and champions as “corporatists.” For example, after experimenting in the K-12 educational sector, often with very little success, Bill Gates, through his foundation, now “wants nothing less than to overhaul higher education, changing how it is delivered, financed, and regulated” (Parry). In Gates’ utopian educational vision, utilitarian education aligned with corporate goals and ideology will be delivered to students through “a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology” (Parry), a system with many benefits for Microsoft. At a meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in 2012, Gates said, “The education we’re currently providing, or the way we’re providing it, just isn’t sustainable” (qtd. in Parry). He insists that educators ask, “How can we use technology as a tool to recreate the entire college experience? How can we provide a better education to more people for less money?” (qtd. in Parry). Such a corporatist view of education now seems so widespread and accepted that in The Chronicle of Higher Education, critics of corporatist goals for education fear to speak because they do not “want to scotch their chances of winning Gates grants” (Parry). The grand vertical vision driving Gates and his allies seems to be creating a system of education in which educators are no longer necessary; the provision of job-related credentials useful to corporatists is to become the sole purpose and function of education. Paul J. LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University and recipient of funding from the Gates Foundation, explains that education is to be delivered free of educators: “The notion of the faculty member as the deliverer of learning—that’s the piece that we pull out” (qtd. in Parry).

Corporatists powerful or influential enough to support and push vertical agendas for education typically do so without consulting educators or asking for their input, and educators’ reflexive response often becomes adopting instinctive active opposition to any such ideas or programs. Fredric Jameson’s writing, for all its brilliance and influence, illustrates the promises, processes, and perils of embracing a reactively oppositional stance. Jameson offers opposition as the sole legitimate response to market-driven ideology while offering his own vertical prescription for curing our ailing culture and society: “critiques of consumption and commodification can only be truly radical when they specifically include reflection, not merely on the problem of the market itself but, above all, on the nature of socialism as an alternative system” (207). Jameson’s utopian socialism consists of enlightened people joining together in committed opposition to market ideology: in this world, vertical utopian socialist political ideals and projects, which are the only right ones, still offer a vision of a glorious possible future. He goes so far as to claim that “Anti-Utopian thought . . . is flawed” (225).  Jameson’s purpose is clearly vertical in its scope and process: “to put an end to metaphysics, and to project the first elements of a vision of some achieved ‘human age,’ in which the ‘hidden hand’ of god, nature, the market, traditional hierarchy, and charismatic leadership will definitely have been disposed of” (336). All that remains is for educators to join others working to implement this utopian vision while waiting patiently, and with apologies to Francis Fukiyama, for the end of history. Jameson always remains convinced that in the battle of utopian visions, socialism will defeat capitalism, and all shall be well. It is profitable, however, to explore what might occur if educators were to embrace and explore a pedagogical approach based in a shift away from grand narratives and vertical domination of culture, from both the right and the left, to the creation of new culture through a focus on the ordinary and the everyday.

As Glenn Altschuler’s study of the history of rock’n’roll illustrates, the creation of culture can have widespread implications for all parts of a society: “Although rock’n’roll was a commodity, produced and distributed by a profit-making industry, and therefore subject to co-optation by the dominant culture, it continued to resist and unsettle ‘mainstream’ values” (34). Rock’n’roll music operated in a space where before there was lack, and it interfered with a wide variety of vertical control strategies and mechanisms of the then-dominant culture: “Rock’n’roll deepened the divide between the generations, helped teenagers differentiate themselves from others, transformed popular culture in the United States, and rattled the reticent by pushing sexuality into the public arena” (34). Those involved in the early days of this creation of new culture had no vertical ambitions whatsoever. They simply wanted to sell as many records as possible. Bill Haley, whose “Rock Around the Clock” became a huge hit, “did not quite know what had hit him” (33). Those in positions of power and control tried to eliminate this new, dangerous commodity while the youth kept listening to, dancing to, and buying it. Rock’n’roll interfered with the dominant hegemonic cultural narrative of the 1950s so the young “could examine and contest the meaning adults ascribed to family, sexuality, and race” (8). Even the term rock’n’roll arose from the position of lack, for there was no name for this new sound: “rock’n’roll was a social construction and not a musical conception. It was, by and large, what DJs and record producers and performers said it was” (23). However much rock’n’roll created new culture from the horizontal, no matter the extent to which social protest, experimentation, and change became linked with rock’n’roll, it remained a commodity. During the 1950s, “record sales nearly tripled, from $213 million in 1954 to $613 million in 1959” (131). The vertical corporate forces in control of popular music at the time opposed rock’n’roll with “a fight against ‘low quality’ music, race music, sexual license, and juvenile delinquency” (134). Industry associations approached Congress to point “to the popularity of rock’n’roll as evidence of a clear and present danger to the American public” (135). No less a diehard reactionary than Barry Goldwater proclaimed that “the airwaves of this country have been flooded with bad music” (qtd. on p. 135). Defenders of rock’n’roll eagerly emphasized its commodity nature and “wrapped themselves in the ideology of free market capitalism, consumer choice, and opposition to censorship” (138). Thus it is that, sometimes, the embrace of commodity choice on the horizontal can rise to the creation of entirely new culture, influencing an entire society and introducing an entirely new world view.

Mikhail Epstein’s ideas about transculture offer a path for educators, and others, to seek freedom even in the face of totalizing vertical demands for intellectual conformity to any ideology. Epstein is a philosopher and cultural theorist who was educated and came of age in the late period of the Soviet Union. Even before the Soviet Union fell, he had begun to look beyond socialism in an effort to imagine what might come next. Educators might follow his lead as they try to imagine what future education might evolve out of the present climate. Given the power, influence, and reach of those promulgating vertical corporatist visions of education, there may seem little left to contest. The future path of education may seem utterly out of educators’ control. There may seem to be no mechanism to halt commodification of who educators are and what they do. However, in what implies a truly radical shift in perspective, Epstein suggests that educators embrace commodification and focus entirely on the agency available in the ordinary and the everyday.

Through his qualitative experimentation, Epstein discovered that a focus on the horizontal, the ordinary and the everyday, can lead educators, and others, to interesting new places, even to the creation of entirely new culture. His experimental work forms the base for what he has developed as the “transcultural movement” (Transcultural 100). Eschewing any temptation to offer an abstract model describing utopian society or to propose grand vertical utopian solutions, Epstein keeps his focus on remaining always “deeply connected with everyday life” (Transcultural 110).

Epstein’s approach to commodification exemplifies how transcultural thinking challenges, engages, and subverts much of what Western cultural studies teaches about the relations of power and culture. He finds freedom in the horizontal, not in the vertical, though much energy is expended to make us believe otherwise. While educators may feel powerless in the face of the corporatist movement in education, on the horizontal level, transculture offers a stance to promote individual freedom through even such simple acts as choice in commodity culture.

Development and application of a pedagogy rooted in transculture would replace any focus on grand narratives or overarching vertical strategies developed to guide and mold an entire society along ideological grounds to the horizontal vision guiding an individual who must develop agency in things as they are. The utopian strain in transculture is individual, not collective: “the resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer as a social project with claims of transforming the world, but as a new intensity of intellectual vision and a broader horizon for the individual” (Transcultural 100). While living and working in a totalitarian society, Epstein searched for methodology to move his focus in cultural theory from the vertical, which was carefully guarded by the vast apparatus of the Soviet state, to the horizontal, which everywhere and always accommodates individual variation. The impetus for his development of transculture was “to activate the transsocial potentials inherent in human individuals rather than those oppositional or revolutionary elements pertaining to specific social groups” (Transcultural 102). Educators may easily find sympathy with the idea of eschewing reactive resistance to the empowered collective, in their case corporatism and market ideology in education, in favor of individual agency, discovery, and freedom for both themselves and their students.

In a certain sense, after embracing the shift from the vertical to the horizontal, educators would continue as if nothing had changed. However, everything would have changed, for transculture opens the path to create culture, even when educators are commodified. The shift from supporting or opposing competing vertical movements to seeking agency in the horizontal represents a fundamental shift in stance that allows for individual variation and unpredictability in education. At the time Epstein first began to look for what might follow the Soviet state, one could have concluded that such efforts were futile; now they can be seen as prescient. Educators making the same shift from the vertical to the horizontal enter what has shown itself to be a fertile area for qualitative experimentation. This change in stance, this shift in attitude, is not intended to challenge directly corporatist control of educators’ professional lives and work, but it forms a critical part of the process of seeking the “after” that seems elusive in the current educational milieu.

In the realm of vertical utopianism, individual choice remains limited only to embracing or opposing commodification, which is separated from culture. Epstein insists that commodification is not foreign to culture: “commodification seems to be built into the very enterprise of culture as one of its (self-) transcending dimensions” (Transcultural 107). From a transcultural view, any insistence that educators must reactively oppose or thoughtlessly embrace commodification rests on a vertical foundation as shaky as corporatists’ insistence that totalizing market control must now define education. Culture without commodification, such as that practiced in the late Soviet Union, speaks to no one:

Culture stopped being what people want to read, view, and listen to, and for which they are ready to pay. It became what people are obliged to read, view, and listen to in order to think and feel in the way that the state wants them to. The Soviet system struggled with the exteriorization of the internal life, the process that at a certain point generates art as commodity. What the Soviet system required was, on the contrary, the interiorization of social life, of the officially approved artistic works, mythological schemes, philosophical concepts, and political imperatives that the state imposed on people. (Transcultural 108, italics added)

Western educators may become uncomfortable with the implications of Epstein’s further claim that commodification “can be regarded as a grass-roots challenge to all kinds of totalitarian uses and abuses of culture” (Transcultural 108). Totalitarian ideologies, including corporatism, seek to control how questions can be framed and do not accept individual responses as cogent analyses. Without a shift to the horizontal, personal responses to vertical claims and strictures may become definitional for individuals, leaving little room for alternate approaches or new choices within predefined utopian totalities. Transculture offers the shift in individual perspective and effort towards the horizontal, the ordinary and the everyday, as transformative and resistant to all totalitarian impulses and programs. Though it seems the polar opposite of what many Westerners have been taught and come to believe, creative commodification allows educators to regain some of what has been lost. Commodification as resistance offers a welcome tactic to perplexed educators after they understand the necessary shift from the vertical to the horizontal.

Anyone schooled in Western cultural studies may well be shocked when first encountering Epstein’s claim that the “status of the commodity secures freedom in the relationship between those who produce and those who consume” (Transcultural 109). Although such a claim seems to embrace totalizing market ideology, which many educators would be loathe to do, Soviet socialist culture taught Epstein that when “culture is decommodified it becomes subject to exploitation by the power that is indifferent to what people want to receive and are able to produce” (Transcultural 109). The decommodified culture Epstein knew consisted of “ungifted producers offer[ing] unwanted products to uninterested consumers” (Transcultural 108).

Few educators would embrace decommodified culture in practice. Although educators on all levels may cringe, for good reason, when they consider the baleful impacts consumer commodity culture has made on their students’ intellectual and emotional growth and development, they cannot claim that commodity products are unwanted or that consumers are uninterested. Much effort goes into making people care whether, for example, they prefer Coke or Pepsi. American commodity culture may be regrettable in almost every way, but bad taste can be an expression of freedom.3 Commodification, in addition to its numerous flaws, shortcomings, and betrayals, offers choice, including the individual’s choice to choose something better, which is a nice spot for educators and students to explore. Individual choice in commodity culture, when multiplied over many individuals, can make a large impact on what gets offered. Educators’ agency, no matter the impositions and strictures of vertical culture, presupposes their ability to guide students as they make the choices necessary to navigate through commodity culture. To put it another way, although educators focused on the ordinary and the everyday may not change the World, they may well change many worlds.

Consumer commodities offer the worst of culture, simultaneously wasteful and frivolous; they seem to provide an illusion of meaningful choice. Yet, these same products once “served as signs of liberation for the Soviet people, and also as signs of culture because culture is everything that is beyond permission, that transcends the boundaries of the allowable” (Transcultural 109). Toothpaste and deodorant may seem a poor substitute for revolutionary protest against corporatist thinking, yet, as Epstein writes, “challenge to the structures of power is what the greatest creations of art share with the most trivial products of commodity culture” (Transcultural 110).

Epstein knows well “the bitterness which those of us working in the humanities feel when witnessing the lack of demand for our expertise, our vocation, and when we observe an arrogant contempt towards that which we consider the focus of our life” (Transformative 1). Educators join many who hold serious and legitimate concerns about sustainability and equity in what seems a static society creative only in pursuit of profit and puerile in pursuit of everything else. While Epstein rejoices in the freedom that lies in commodities, educators long for freedom from commodification. Educators have learned to live and work in the shadow of overwhelming vertical demands for conformity; their first impulse may be reactive opposition to Epstein’s views, along the lines that Jameson would encourage. However, the transcultural practice of interference offers a way for those holding radically divergent views to influence each other in the lack and lacunae beyond difference. Vertical movements isolate and exacerbate difference, forcing educators to choose one of only two views. They offer “no space for difference as a category that is itself different from both identity and opposition” (Transcultural 92). Transculture locates difference at the point where contrasting, even conflicting, views begin to operate on each other, not as the end of engagement. Vertical ideology “renders people only schematic illustrations of some abstract principles: ‘good and bad,’ ‘rich and poor,’ ‘oppressors and revolutionaries,’” allowing only two positions: “opposition and unity” (Transcultural 95). In contrast, interference creates productive difference through non-dialectical discourse: “‘Interference’ is not taken here to mean an intrusion or intervention, but, in line with its definition in physics, [interference] denotes the mutual action of two or more waves of sound or light. Such an effect is found, for instance, in the butterfly’s colorful markings” (Transformative 60). From a transcultural view, rather than creating dualities leading to false, forced choices, differences “strengthen our need for each other” (Transcultural 99). Though contrasting views inevitably differ in vital, fundamental ways, interference places each as open to interaction with the other so that something new can be created: “Transculture is an experience of dwelling in the neutral spaces and lacunas between cultural demarcations. Transculture is not simply a mode of integrating cultural differences but a mode of creating something different from difference itself” (Transcultural 112).

Stanley Fish reported an experience that could be viewed in terms of interference. Distressed by the inability of graduate students, who are also instructors of English composition, to write literate sentences, Fish “came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.” Fish reports being “slightly uncomfortable” at finding support for his conclusion in a white paper from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization “[f]ounded by Lynne Cheney and Jerry Martin in 1995.” While he finds agreement with the organization’s insistence that composition courses focus exclusively on developing students’ writing skills, he also recognizes that Cheney and Martin have a political goal of “reconfiguring the academy according to conservative ideas and agendas” which he does not support. In accord with the transcultural practice of interference, Fish explores the space between the lacunas where lack exists. Even if reluctantly, he is influenced in his effort to influence, and he creates something different from difference.

For interference to become an essential process for educators, they need to develop some new habits and eschew as mere distraction any practice of reacting reflexively in opposition to vertical forces, such as corporatism in education. It is not an overstatement to place the transcultural shift from the vertical to the horizontal as “the next step in the ongoing human quest for freedom, in this case the liberation from the prison-house of language and a variety of artificial, self-imposed, and self-deifying cultural identities” (Epstein, Transformative 60).

If Epstein’s ideas about transculture describe existing educational culture, one expects to find ideas from other scholars that may be viewed productively from the transcultural perspective. Alison Cook-Sather, for example, objects to “orthodox pedagogies—scripted approaches to teaching and learning—that teachers in public schools are pressured to embrace” (“Change” 345). Her ideas support empowering teachers and students to “learn to resist the imposition of oppressive, disempowering, and commonly accepted educational practices” (“Change” 346). Through a pedagogy that incorporates a focus on the ordinary and the everyday, Cook-Sather hopes to provoke “an interaction with metaphors presented by popular culture and a choice to take them on in an active and critical way” (“Movements” 947). In line with the transcultural idea of creative commodification, Cook-Sather notes, “We can deliberately choose other ways of thinking, naming, and being, even as the dominant models of schooling and many of the people who function within them are trying to keep us contained and controlled” (“Movements” 948-949). She identifies the two dominant metaphors of education (production and cure) as vertical control mechanisms, though she does not use the terminology of transculture: “Because metaphors not only foreground certain qualities but also obscure and eliminate others, they can lead people to assume or accept that one particular way of thinking is the only way to think and one set of particular practices the only possible set” (“Movements” 950). Further, Cook-Sather proposes that education “must be guided by metaphors that unsettle, that expect students to seek, find, and invent what we do not know, that lead us not only to imagine but also to create other possible worlds” (“Movements” 959), a goal much in tune with Epstein’s ideas about transculture. The particular metaphor Cook-Sather prefers is “translation”: “It casts students as active agents engaged in an ongoing, interactive, and reflective process of making new versions of themselves—versions that are at once duplications, revisions, and recreations, with meaning lost, preserved, and created anew with different textures, boundaries, and resonances” (“Movements” 961). Metaphors, not methods, drive the possibilities arising in Cook-Sather’s twenty-first century pedagogy: “When the school becomes a space within which students can actively compose and re-constitute themselves, the school can become a revolutionary site that can open up more diverse ways for students to understand and participate in the world” (“Movements” 962).

Cook-Sather’s translation framework, like that of transculture, focuses on educational process over product: “These processes are never finished; they are always open to further revision and always lead to further re-renderings” (“Translation” 219). The obsession with data and measurement in education has created a situation of “fixed ness [sic] in the production and finishedness as an outcome of that education: educational contexts are structured toward achieving finishedness, and success is evaluated in terms of finishedness” (“Translation” 230). She argues that the “generative work of meaning making unfolds in the spaces between people and ideas,” which Epstein identifies as the lack or lacuna where interference is possible (Education 25). When a metaphor becomes imposed as a controlling vision, rather than a symbolic statement of possibility, the linking verb transforms to the imperative mode, and the subjunctive mode of suggestion disappears in favor of command and control. Metaphors conceptualizing vertical definitions of educational possibility become totalitarian threats resisted through an educator’s embrace of creative commodification in the horizontal.

In media studies, Henry Jenkins revels in the nature of emerging culture, which he sees as developing unpredictably. He finds a strong disconnect between the conception of literacy operating in formal education and what students want and need to know, understand, and be able to do. Average teenagers worldwide, so long as they are on the privileged side of the digital divide, routinely far exceed any existing curricular standards for media literacy: “A teenager doing homework may juggle four or five windows, scan the Web, listen to and download MP3 files, chat with friends, word-process a paper, and respond to e-mail, shifting rapidly among tasks” (17). Emerging artistic and literary forms and media cannot be categorized and contained through existing academic rules and boundaries. The Matrix film series offers an exemplar of “transmedia storytelling”: “A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” (95-96). Such storytelling interferes with the archetype, beloved of many educators, of the solitary creative genius isolated from everyone else: “storytellers are developing a more collaborative model of authorship, co-creating content with artists with different visions and experiences” (96). Narratives developed collaboratively lead to new places not confined to traditional forms or media. They cannot be examined within traditional academic boundaries: “storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium” (114). Epstein would add that we cannot begin to imagine where such developments of narrative will lead: “In terms of literature, we live in the epoch of Beowulf and medieval epic songs. An abysmal gap separates us from the future Tolstoys and Joyces, whom we are unable even to predict” (Transformative 33).

In emerging culture, the collaborative, yet commodified, nature of the Internet challenges assumptions and rules about what constitutes good and useful criticism. Vertical strictures and controls limit educators to rules of criticism based on forms, patterns, and assumptions that no longer apply: “Criticism may once have been a meeting of two minds—the critic and the author—but now there are multiple authors and multiple critics” (Jenkins 128). Students who operate in collaborative intellectual communities and create works with many hands and eyes seem unwelcome in many educational institutions: “Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in . . . knowledge communities, but popular culture may be doing so” (129). Play, and not schooling, popular culture, and not education, now provide students with entry points into exciting new worlds full of possibility.

The constricting, restricting nature of teaching and learning in our corporatized era limits both students’ and educators’ possibilities: “educators are coming to value the learning that occurs in . . . informal and recreational spaces, especially as they confront the constraints imposed on learning via educational policies that seemingly value only what can be counted on a standardized test” (Jenkins 177). Students may well be learning what they really need to know outside of schooling through activities such as participating in online communities: “literacy experts are recognizing that enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from preexisting stories is a valuable and organic part of the process by which children develop cultural literacy” (Jenkins 177).

An educator interested in exploring the pedagogical implications arising from transculture can pursue qualitative experimentation: “an experiment in culture has no reference point for verification, no means of being tested objectively in relation to external reality. It neither confirms nor rejects any preliminary postulate but aims to multiply and disseminate new forms of expression or new paradigms of knowledge” (Epstein, Transcultural 6). An experiment in transculture “problematize[s] a particular cultural symbol or system, to potentiate a series of alternative symbols rather than to solve a problem or to actualize a specific potential” (Epstein, Transcultural 7). Such goals are fully in accord with the deepest nature of education as “one of the most mysterious and intimate moments in life” (Epstein, Transformative 291).

Adam Lefstein’s 2005 analysis of deep divisions in Western culture could be read as transcultural experimentation; fully in the horizontal mode of interference, he advises readers to “judge the extent to which the competing visions resonate with their own thinking about the issues” (335). In a statement that could have been written explicitly from a transcultural point-of-view, Lefstein argues that teaching materials and curriculum guides should by design create space for interference:

[Their] message could be reinforced by casting the ideas in a less confident and authoritative tone, for example, transforming the imperative ‘pose the following question’ to the subjunctive ‘one possibility is to explore with the pupils the following question’. This stylistic shift would imply that instead of representing rules with which teachers must comply, the guidance is a collection of resources and ideas from which teachers may draw. (349-350)

Movement from the vertical imperative to the horizontal subjunctive mode empowers educators to make the same shift with their students. Although perhaps subtle, a permissive stance, instead of a commanding tone, could make all the difference in what students are taught about what education really means. Transculture concedes grand narratives and overarching utopian claims and theories to the vertical in favor of horizontal transcendence grounded in the ordinary and everyday work of educators in their classrooms.

The horizontal shift Epstein proposes becomes clearer when one considers what might follow transcultural experimentation in a classroom. An educator’s move towards applying transculture, or searching for an experimental pedagogy, could begin with a focus on self and a commitment to becoming experimental in intention and design, in a shift from the vertical imperative mode (“Do this!”) to the horizontal subjunctive mode (“Consider this as one choice.”). Movement towards horizontal transcendence evolves unexpectedly and unpredictably, creating culture, not spinning utopian educational narratives. Rather than imperatively insisting that educators accept uncritically yet one more epistemology of teaching, transculture subjunctively invites them to experiment. Transcultural experimentation “develops a subjunctive modality . . . , attempting to broaden the range of possibilities and to transfer the status of experimentation from certainty to uncertainty, from ‘result’ to ‘draft’” (Epstein, Transcultural 7). Educators are invited to move from the isolation, obedience, and allegiance corporatist education demands toward interference, where “differences no longer isolate . . . but rather open . . . perspectives of both self-differentiation and mutual involvement” (Epstein, Transcultural 9).

Educators who base their work in opposition to corporatist vertical strictures, as Jameson insists they must, remain stuck in a countercultural echo chamber more than forty years old; it is a deterministic world that neither surprises nor delights. The stance these educators take concedes the battle before the fight even begins because there is nothing productive or dynamic in such an approach. Transculture’s focus on horizontal transcendence “by acceptance and understanding” teaches the teacher how “to embrace and encircle” rather than how “to define, analyze, and oppose” (Epstein, Transcultural 45). Transculture moves educators towards a necessary rethinking of academic subjects and a deliberate move away from enforced and artificial curricular boundaries that, for example, claim to assess students’ writing skills through standardized testing requiring no writing. Transculture’s experimental curriculum’s “subject matter . . . [is] ‘everything’ and its methodological criteria ‘all’” (Epstein, Transcultural 46). Transculture allows for creation of new culture, embracing all that could imply for educators’ pedagogy and students’ creativity.

In transcultural experimentation, educators forsake the approach to culture they have applied, as well as methods and practices they have used for many seasons. The shift to transculture reveals and uncovers “culture after culture as there is life after life in other transcendent dimensions” (Epstein, Transcultural 65). Many educators working in today’s corporatist-collectivist, data-driven authoritarian educational market culture will find themselves much in sympathy with Epstein’s intention to interfere, never to blend.

Transculture offers educators “a radical transition from finality to initiation as a mode of thinking” (Epstein, After 332). Nowhere does this become clearer than in Epstein’s conception of the “proto-.” As the idea of “post” (as in postmodernism) dominated the intellectual culture in the latter part of the twentieth century, Epstein argues that the “present era . . . needs to be redefined, probably in terms of ‘proto-’ rather than ‘post-’” (After 280). Proto- manifests itself in uncertainty and lack of specificity: “A beginning . . . understood as leading to an open future and manifesting possibilities for continuation and an impossibility of ending can be designated as ‘proto’” (Epstein, After 331). Proto- cannot be defined or otherwise restricted: “Proto-, as it is emerging on the boundary of post-, is not proto-something, it is proto in itself” (Epstein, After 334). It expresses the transcultural mindset:

Proto- signals a humble awareness of the fact that we live in the earliest stage of an unknown civilization; that we have tapped into some secret source of power and knowledge that can eventually destroy us; that all of our glorious achievements to this point are only pale prototypes of what the coming bio- and info- technologies promise to bring. (Epstein, Transformative 32)

For educators restricted and bound by competing vertical utopian claims and counterclaims, “proto” offers “a state of promise, . . . expectation without determination” (Epstein, After 335). Educators can again approach the future in a state of excitement, in spite of all vertical attempts to define and control it or them in the form of standards, curriculum, testing, bureaucracy, control, and surveillance. As the living, breathing, undefined future, students now are efficiently ignored, predefined, sorted, and foreclosed. If educators do not want, for themselves or their students, what Epstein refers to as the “dead, objectified future . . . that we now find ourselves living” (After 335), they might begin creating new culture by attending to the ordinary and the everyday, privileging the horizontal not the vertical.

Although education is often the focus, one is tempted to say “the victim,” of massive vertical forces—true education ever resists control and standardization. Education is a process well suited to the horizontal focus Epstein urges: “Education is an improvisational activity that exercises the human capacity for wonder and unpredictability. Education is not just talking about what we already know; it initiates a social event of creative co-thinking, where what is unknown is revealed to us only in the presence of others” (Epstein, Transformative 292). Through a dynamic that Faulkner would appreciate, the past once again becomes part of every person’s present and his or her future: “The postmodern addiction to citations and intertextuality brought the past to the brink of extinction through the expanding dialogue with the present. The electronic web in particular brings the past preserved in texts to the fingertips of our contemporaries who cut, copy, and paste the past according to their own projects and constructive needs” (Epstein, Transcultural 153).

Student writing offers a promising area for transcultural experimentation. In their schooling, students often learn that academic writing is a solitary, isolating, task-driven activity that rarely requires creativity, and, seldom, if ever, results in joy. Epstein invites educators to consider what might happen were students free to write on the utterly commonplace, for example, on garbage, fences, or a favorite song or movie from their popular culture. Likewise, we might ponder what would happen were a group of educators to come together and write collectively on a topic they all chose, for example, “teacher and disciple” or “Myth and tolerance,” maybe “Money” (Epstein, Transcultural 41). At the very least, both educators and students might find that they have something interesting to say, after all.

Schooling as presently constituted routinely fails to meet the needs of creative and passionate students: “someone who has just published her first online novel finds it disappointing to return to the classroom where her work is going to be read only by the teacher and feedback may be very limited” (Jenkins 184). Such students find themselves in the paradoxical position of having to “wait for the school bell to ring so they can focus on their writing” (Jenkins 184). Educators may well object that such writing is undisciplined apprentice work that lacks rigor and is of low quality. Even were this absolutely the case, students who cannot wait to go home and write “are passionate about writing because they are passionate about what they are writing about” (Jenkins 185), which is not how many students feel about and approach typical academic writing assignments. Transcultural pedagogy could bring the fervor of haphazard creativity back into the classroom. Leveraging the skills in collaboration and technology students have already mastered, educators may begin to expect, and receive, interesting, perhaps even amazing, writing on topics never explored before in schooling because they were never before admitted to an academic context.

Transculture remains passionately nondeterministic; there can be no one model for transcultural pedagogy. It is subjunctive and horizontal in both conception and practice:

Practice creates something new altogether that was not contained in the object previously explored or explained by theory. . . . Thus practice, even when it is based on a particular theory, cannot simply be reduced to that theory. It creates a possibility for new theories that in turn create possibilities for new practices. (Epstein, Transformative 58)

Educators will develop unique transcultural pedagogies and practices based on the results of their individual qualitative experiments, and all results remain drafts, starting points for further experimentation. Transcultural pedagogy invites educators to focus on the ordinary and the everyday, to transform what often seems to students, and to their teachers, a series of lifeless and pointless tasks and assessments into an exciting craft. Students may begin acting creatively in ways that their educators never imagined possible. In contrast to the certainties of corporatist education, transculture offers a maybe world; it is a first draft of a culture we cannot yet imagine. No matter what the vertical pressures and demands of the moment, educators remain the people, perhaps the only people, who can show their students how commodification can serve the cause of freedom, though it seems that does not; what it means to live in the proto-, as we do; and where to seek the lack and lacuna to set forth on explorations that lead to the creation of new culture.


[1] I would like to thank my colleague Ximena Cordova for her very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[2] It is interesting to note titles of some recent books in this regard: Terry Eagleton wrote After Theory Valentine Cunningham wrote Reading after Theory; and Mikhail Epstein wrote After the Future. After seems to be an important contemporary intellectual trope.

[3] John Waters, for example, created an aesthetic based on bad taste. His autobiography is Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste. One wonders if a decommodified culture could hold space for his work.

 Works Cited

Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock’n’Roll Changed America. Oxford UP, 2003.

Cook-Sather, Alison. “Change Based on What the Students Say: Preparing Teachers for a Paradoxical Model of Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006, pp. 345-358.

—. Education is Translation: A Metaphor for Change in Learning and Teaching. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

—. “Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-Imagining Education.” Teachers College Record, vol. 105, no. 6, 2003, pp. 946-977.

—. “Translation: An Alternative Framework for Conceptualizing and Supporting School Reform Efforts.” Educational Theory, vol. 59, no. 2, 2009, pp. 217-231.

Cunningham, Valentine. Reading after Theory. Blackwell, 2002.

Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. Basic Books, 2003.

Epstein, Mikhail. After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture. University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

—. and Ellen Berry. Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. St. Martin’s, 1999.

—. Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. Bloomsbury, 2012.

Fish, Stanley. “What Should Colleges Teach?” Think Again Blog. The New York Times Company, 24 August 2009, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/?_r=0 Accessed 18 November 2016.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, 2006.

Lefstein, Adam. “Thinking about the Technical and the Personal in Teaching.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 35, no. 3, 2005, pp. 333-356.

Parry, Marc, Kelly Field, and Beckie Supiano. “The Gates Effect.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 July 2013, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Gates-Effect/140323/. Accessed 18 November 2016.

Ravitch, Diane. “When Public Goes Private, as Trump Wants: What Happens?” New York Review of Books, 8 December 2016, www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/when-public-goes-private-as-trump-wants-what-happens/. Accessed 18 November 2016.

Waters, John. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. New York: Avalon, 1981.


Author Bio

While working as an English Teacher in secondary education from 2001-2009, Sheldon Kohn began to explore ways to negotiate freedom as an educator while being subject to commodification, marketplace ideology, and the tyranny of standardized tests. The philosophy of Mikhail Epstein spoke to him from the first time he read it, and he immediately saw its applicability to education. Since 2010, he has lived and worked in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where he serves as Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University. His department includes professors and instructors in science, information technology, and social science who teach courses in the General Education curriculum. His current projects include an exploration of how a culturally sensitive focus on the ordinary and the everyday could help L2 college students improve their written work in English. He is an active member of PCA/ACA and has a page available on academia.edu.

Reference Citation

Karshner, Edward. “The Diyinii of NaachidDiné Rhetoric as Ritual.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-diyinii-of-naachid-dine1-rhetoric-as-ritual/.

Kohn, S. (2016). From the vertical to the horizontal: Introducing Mikhail Epstein’s transculture to perplexed educators. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/from-the-vertical-to-the-horizontal-introducing-mikhail-epsteins-transculture-to-perplexed-educators/

A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy

Jordan M. McClain
Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA



This article discusses the use of popular music videos as a tool for teaching media literacy. First, the article addresses the importance of music videos as popular culture, what other music video research has examined, and what features make music videos a good fit for in-class work investigating media and popular culture. Then the article details a single-class activity for introducing and teaching media literacy through the use of music videos. To achieve this objective, the article also proposes a set of original music video-specific discussion questions. Finally, a particular music video is considered to illustrate possible results of this activity and the broader issues that may arise from class discussion.



Communication, Media, Media Studies, Popular Culture, Pedagogy, New Media, Digital Media, Media Literacy, Media Education, Music Videos


Although popular music videos have long been criticized for their superficiality, fast edits, and sensational content, features like these help make the videos an excellent teaching tool, effective for getting students’ attention and exploring broad issues. Many educators may be skeptical about or may have never thought about the benefits of using music videos in the classroom—thus the shortage of research on this approach. Cayari wrote about students creating music videos in order to learn music and technology skills.  Maskell discussed the use of music videos for teaching English, saying the content has “huge potential for use across the entire English curriculum” (54). There is still, however, much to uncover about the myriad possible uses of music videos as a pedagogical instrument.

With a focus on popular music videos, this essay discusses their importance, describes an activity using them to teach media literacy skills, offers some new music video-specific ideas for introductory media literacy exercises, and shares example results of the activity. This information may appeal to a wide range of educators, especially media and popular culture scholars teaching undergraduate college courses such as Media and Society, Media Literacy, or Introduction to Popular Culture.

Although the pedagogical value of music videos remains formally under-recognized, many have thoroughly established why music videos are an important and potent way to learn about life around the globe. “Music television deserves serious attention from students of popular culture” (Goodwin and Grossberg ix), proclaimed the introduction of Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the influential collection edited by Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg. Supporting this call to study music videos, Austerlitz saw them as a “fascinating oddity” (1) and a “compelling marker of cultural history” (1). He concluded that the music video’s “triumphs render it a subject worthy of deeper study and attention” (1). In summarizing the state of music video research and demonstrating why they are more than just entertainment, Straw wrote, “music videos are increasingly seen as elements within complex assemblages of image and sound that circulate the world and are recombined within a variety of diasporic media, from satellite television networks through DVD and Internet video clip sites” (3176).

Consideration of certain music video research trends indicates their diverse potential. One major trend adopts a media effects perspective and examines how music videos influence the ways audiences think and behave, especially younger groups like adolescents, teens, or college students. Studies have looked at music video effects in terms of sex, such as how kids imitate the content (Ey and Cupit), how they sext (Van Ouytsel, Ponnet, and Walrave), and what their attitudes are toward sex (Aubrey, Hopper, and Mbure; Beentjes and Konig; Kistler and Lee; Zhang, Miller, and Harrison). Others have researched music videos’ effects on perceptions of rape (Burgess and Burpo; Sprankle, End, and Bretz). There is also much work on the influence of music videos on how people think about gender-specific ideas related to misogyny (van Oosten, Peter, and Valkenburg) or bodily self-perception (Mischner et al.).

Overlapping with work that emphasizes effects, there is a trend of research interested in representational patterns in music videos. Gender often emerges as a main focal point, such as Wallis’s content analysis of differences in gender displays. Many have also tied race to genre, with rap being a dominant line of inquiry (Balaji; Conrad, Dixon, and  Zhang; Zhang, Dixon, and Conrad). Overall, work on representation has spanned topics like sexual objectification (Aubrey and Frisby; Frisby and Aubrey), sexuality (Turner), and violence (Aikat; Smith and Boyson; Thaller and Messing).

Such trends show the utility of music videos in media research, popular culture studies, and beyond. In addition, music videos are characterized by a combination of features that make them an ideal fit for in-class activities about media and popular culture:

  1. They are conventionally short, compared to a full movie or television episode.
  2. They are often familiar, which benefits group discussion because many students bring background knowledge.
  3. They are common online, which makes it simple for instructors to find multiple good examples.
  4. They are easy to access, such as the free official content available on video-sharing sites like YouTube or hosting services like Vevo.
  5. They are often controversial, working as a compelling catalyst for critical discussion and thus able to help students identify important issues, then articulate their views on social or political matters.
  6. They are commonly imitated on the Web, as evidenced by remakes, parodies, satires, and mash-ups that have become a common way for lovers and haters—including amateurs, professionals, and people in between—to express themselves online.1
  7. They are popular culture, as a collective form and as individual artifacts, which gives them instant student appeal and significance as a teaching tool. 

Activity: Popular Music Videos and Media Literacy

The following activity is a productive way to use music videos to introduce and teach media literacy. This exercise is intended to occur in class and requires the instructor’s use of an Internet-connected device that can play music videos viewable by the whole class at once (e.g., via projector or on a large monitor). Objectives include these:

  1. The exercise will (A) strategically use music videos as a teaching tool, (B) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about music videos, and (C) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about popular culture.
  2. Students will (A) strengthen media literacy skills and (B) increase comprehension of popular music videos as a significant form of entertainment media. 

Preparation: Prior to class, carefully select a popular music video accessible online and useful as a teaching tool. Billboard charts and YouTube’s “Popular on YouTube” section are helpful starting points. The instructor should select something that will resonate with students; this can be based on recency or the interests and personalities of the class. I suggest watching the video many times before class. It is also essential to research the video’s production background and popular reception. Immediately before class begins, it is smart to prepare the music video for easy start-up and test all necessary technology—video connection, audio levels, video start function, video end point.

Execution: Once class begins, start the activity by announcing its order (i.e., discuss media literacy, watch music video, analyze video alone and then together) and expected outcomes (i.e., enhance media literacy comprehension and skills).

Part 1: Introduce Media Literacy and Music Video-Specific Follow-Up Questions

First, I explain media literacy and the following five key questions of media literacy, using visual aids like PowerPoint slides and the Center for Media Literacy’s website, medialit.org:

  1. Authorship: “Who created this message?”
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”

As justified in the rationale above, we then briefly discuss why music videos are media content worthy of critical thought.

Next, to successfully analyze popular music videos and expand on the preexisting five key questions of media literacy, I propose the following set of original follow-up questions that are music video-specific—four follow-ups for each of the main questions—to help prompt critical thought and advance media literacy about popular music videos:

  1.  Authorship: “Who created this message?”
    1. Who is explicitly identified as a creator?
    2. Who created the song?
    3. Who created the music video?
    4. What are some major components of the music video that people created?
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
    1. What techniques are used in the music?
    2. What techniques are used in the music video?
    3. How does this music video seem influenced by popular culture?
    4. How has this music video seemingly influenced popular culture?
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
    1. Who do you think are some target audiences for this music video?
    2. What components of the music video indicate its target audience?
    3. What parts of the music video seem open to interpretation?
    4. What parts of the music video seem controversial? To whom?
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
    1. How does the music video convey this?
    2. How do you think this relates to the music video’s creators?
    3. How do you think this relates to the music video’s target audience?
    4. What may have caused these representations and omissions?
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”
    1. Why was this music created?
    2. Why was the music video created?
    3. Why was the music video created for this format? (I.e., cable television, the Web, DVD, etc.)
    4. Who would benefit from the music video’s popularity? 

Part 2: Watch a Music Video

After focusing on media literacy questions, introduce the music video by identifying the song and performer. I find it useful to informally survey how many students know the song or artist and how many like the song or artist. It is crucial to establish the significance of studying this artifact. For instance, instructors should cite facts about awards the artist or song has won, sales information like albums or singles sold, rankings from Billboard/Nielsen chart data, concert grosses, YouTube views, and social media metrics (e.g., how many likes or followers an artist has online). It is best also to show students visuals like a Twitter feed or Billboard.com article to support those claims. This will help students recognize the significance of putting popular culture under the microscope—this is not just a song but a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied, and the class is learning a system for accomplishing that.

Here it is helpful to notify students that after watching the video once, they will need to answer and discuss the five media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups. Thus, as they watch, students should think about answers to the questions, which they may wish to quickly review before watching the video at this point.

Part 3: Practice Media Literacy Skills by Discussing the Music Video

Solo: After watching the video, students should individually write answers to each media literacy question and the follow-ups. When dealing with time constraints for this in-class activity, I advise students to focus on answers that come easiest, instead of straining to complete all questions (i.e., quality over quantity). This is a good time to encourage optional Internet use for those with enabled devices. Answers are possible with only a pencil and paper, but Web-based research will probably strengthen responses.

Small groups: After the solo work, students form pairs or triads and share their findings with each other. They should consider what they learned from peers to expand their answer list and prepare for a full-class discussion.

As a class: After the small group work, reconvene as a class and watch the video for a second and final time. This provides a chance to see more, helps solidify what students learned so far, and refreshes memories for the following discussion.

I then lead a Q&A through each of the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups. Instructors should seek many answers to each question, solicit like and unlike observations across the group, and play devil’s advocate to help students form their opinions.

Activity Results

This activity results in valuable dialogues, which will vary based on the video(s) examined. One highly recommended music video to choose for this activity is Katy Perry’s 2013 hit, “Roar” (Lipshutz; Perry, “Katy Perry – Roar”) 2. Using this video would give the instructor a chance to talk about Perry’s many Grammy nominations, MTV Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and Guinness World Records. The instructor could also discuss her remarkable billion-plus views that place this song in the top ten most-viewed YouTube and Vevo videos (Jang; Lane; “Vevo Top Videos”) and made Perry “the first artist to ever have two videos with over 1 Billion [sic] views” (“Katy Perry – Vevo”; “Roar10xCertified”). Students respond well to these kinds of arguments for a video’s significance and facts like Perry’s status as the most-followed Twitter user—with over 75 million followers, she ranks above people like Justin Bieber and President Obama (Perry, “Tweets”; “Twitter Top 100”).

Discussing Perry’s “Roar” video would likely cause students to answer the media literacy questions and follow-ups in ways that lead to fascinating conversations about the major media literacy concepts. “Authorship” would relate to the song being co-written by a team of professional hit makers including Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Bonnie McKee (Hampp; Seabrook). “Format” would connect to sexualization, familiar pop song ingredients, and the use of visual effects. “Audience” would lead to concerns about young fans, PETA’s objections to the video’s use of animals (Boardman; Palmer), or the video’s twist ending. “Content” would tie to portrayals of selfies, makeup use, and heterosexuality or sexual orientation. “Purpose” would relate to product sales, promotional culture, the modern music industry, free YouTube content, conspicuous use of Nokia merchandise, and celebrity branding.

This kind of popular music video analysis, based on the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups, enables discussion of many broad issues. In particular, this includes:

  1. How race, class, age, and ability are represented in music videos.
  2. How gender, sex, sexuality, and sexism are treated in music videos.
  3. How beauty norms are reflected in music videos; how this impacts body image, self-esteem, or eating disorders outside music videos.
  4. How celebrities appear in music videos; how musicians are positioned as celebrities in music videos.
  5. What music videos tell us about censorship, evolving moral standards, political correctness, and cultural taboos.
  6. How product placement shapes music videos.
  7. How genre affects music videos.
  8. How new and digital media impact music videos.

By using this activity, I have found that students thoroughly enjoy practicing and developing critical thinking skills through the study of everyday media and popular culture. The classroom becomes a space where fun and learning can logically and productively intersect. Students become more consistently engaged with class topics and discussions, searching for such intersection. Their media literacy skills improve—instantly and long-term—through the type of practice and collaborative critique that this exercise facilitates. As a result, students are more sensitive, informed, and skilled critical consumers of entertainment media.

This essay expands on general media literacy principles and produces original music video-specific questions, enabling systematic use of music videos as effective resources for teaching media literacy and critical thinking about media and popular culture. The five key media literacy questions are a valuable framework for studying popular music videos and exploring the broader issues they raise. Without the media literacy framework, this exercise might allow only surface-level scrutiny. Using the media literacy foundation strengthens, deepens, and formalizes this learning process, enhancing student comprehension, analysis, and evaluation of popular music videos as important media content.

The in-class activity described in this essay is ideal for undergraduate courses, but can be adapted by prefacing the work with level-appropriate lectures about media and popular culture for a variety of potential student audiences, such as tweens, pre-college teens, or graduate students. One alternative to the in-class activity is to remake it as a written test, which would benefit from a rubric used to grade answers. For example, instructors may choose to teach the five key media literacy questions first, then, on the same or a different day, show a music video and require students to answer the five questions and music video-specific follow-ups as a test of knowledge and skills. Other possibilities include a student presentation (individuals or groups pick a modern video, argue for its significance, analyze its content using the music video-specific follow-ups, and consider the implications); a reflection paper (students address the extent to which media literacy about music videos will impact how they think about such entertainment); or a self-produced video essay (students use the media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups as prompts for a prepared, recorded oral critique of a popular music video; bonus points to those who share their video essay on YouTube).

Popular music videos have many educational uses, which span disciplines. These videos are excellent instruments, effective for getting students’ attention, and helpful for teaching about many complex and meaningful concepts. Educators should therefore embrace and experiment with music videos as a powerful teaching tool.


1. By way of illustration, consider the many humorous takeoffs on The Black Eyed Peas song, “My Humps,” which inspired popular online videos by alt-rock celebrity Alanis Morissette, gender-role-defying electronic musician Peaches, and pre-teen remix video YouTube-star MattyBRaps.

2. Here are some other recommended popular music videos that work well for this activity: Michael Jackson, “Thriller”; Madonna, “Erotica”; Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”; One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”; Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”; Pharrell Williams, “Happy”; Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”; Drake, “Hotline Bling.”

Works Cited

Aikat, Debashis. “Streaming Violent Genres Online: Visual Images in Music Videos on BET.com, Country.com, MTV.com, and VH1.com.” Popular Music and Society 27.2 (2004): 221-240. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, and Cynthia M. Frisby. “Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre.” Mass Communication and Society 14.4 (2011): 475-501. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, K. Megan Hopper, and Wanjiru G. Mbure. “Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 360-79. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Austerlitz, Saul. Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video, from the Beatles to the White Stripes. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Balaji, Murali. “Owning Black Masculinity: The Intersection of Cultural Commodification and Self-Construction in Rap Music Videos.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2.1 (2009): 21-38. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Beentjes, Johannes W. J., and Ruben P. Konig. “Does Exposure to Music Videos Predict Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes?” European Scientific Journal 9.14 (2013): 1-20. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Boardman, Madeline. “PETA: Katy Perry’s ‘Roar” Music Video is Cruel to Animals.” HuffingtonPost.com. The Huffington Post, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Burgess, Melinda C. R., and Sandra Burpo. “The Effect of Music Videos on College Students’ Perceptions of Rape.” College Student Journal 46.4 (2012): 748-763. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Cayari, Christopher. “Using Informal Education Through Music Video Creation.” General Music Today 27.3 (2014): 17-22. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Center for Media Literacy. “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry: Keywords and Guiding Questions Help Build Habits of Critical Thinking.” MediaLit.org. Center for Media Literacy, n.d.: Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Conrad, Kate, Travis L. Dixon, and Yuanyuan Zhang. “Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 53.1 (2009): 134-56. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Ey, Lesley-Anne, and C. Glenn Cupit. “Primary School Children’s Imitation of Sexualised Music Videos and Artists.” Children Australia 38.3 (2013): 115-123. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Frisby, Cynthia M., and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey. “Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists’ Music Videos.” Howard Journal of Communications 23.1 (2012): 66-87. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Goodwin, Andrew, and Lawrence Grossberg. Introduction. Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. Ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg. New York: Routledge, 1993. ix-xi. Print.

Hampp, Andrew. “Katy Perry, ‘Roar’: Track Review.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Jang, Meena. “YouTube’s 10th Anniversary: Watch the Top 10 Most Viewed Videos to Date.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Katy Perry – Vevo Certified Artist.” Vevo.com. Vevo, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Kistler, Michelle E., and Moon J. Lee. “Does Exposure to Sexual Hip-Hop Music Videos Influence the Sexual Attitudes of College Students?” Mass Communication and Society 13.1 (2009): 67-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Lane, Laura. “These Are the Most-Watched YouTube Videos Ever – Have You Seen Them All?” People.com. Time Inc., 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Lipshutz, Jason. “Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ Music Video: Watch the Singer’s Jungle Adventure.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Maskell, Hayden. “Using Music Videos.” English in Aotearoa 74 (2011): 54-57. Print.

Mischner, Isabelle H. S., Hein T. Van Schie, Daniël H. J. Wigboldus, Rick B. Van Baaren, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. “Thinking Big: The Effect of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on Bodily Self-Perception in Young Women.” Body Image 10.1 (2013): 26-34. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Palmer, Chris. “Katy Roars, Elephant Whimpers.” Peta.org. PETA, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy (katyperry). “Tweets.” Twitter account. Twitter.com. Twitter, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy. “Katy Perry – Roar (Official).” Video file. KatyPerryVEVO. YouTube.com. YouTube, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Roar10xCertified.” KatyPerry.com. Capitol Records, 6 July 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Seabrook, John. “The Doctor Is In: A Technique for Producing No. 1 Songs.” NewYorker.com. Conde Nast, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Smith, Stacy L., and Aaron R. Boyson. “Violence in Music Videos: Examining the Prevalence and Context of Physical Aggression.” Journal of Communication 52.1 (2002): 61-83. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Sprankle, Eric L., Christian M. End, and Miranda N. Bretz. “Sexually Degrading Music Videos and Lyrics: Their Effects on Males’ Aggression and Endorsement of Rape Myths and Sexual Stereotypes.” Journal of Media Psychology 24.1 (2012): 31-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Straw, Will. “Music videos.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed. W. Donsbach. 2008. Print.

Thaller, Jonel, and Jill Theresa Messing. “(Mis)Perceptions Around Intimate Partner Violence in the Music Video and Lyrics for ‘Love the Way You Lie’.” Feminist Media Studies 14.4 (2014): 623-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Turner, Jacob S. “Sex and the Spectacle of Music Videos: An Examination of the Portrayal of Race and Sexuality in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 173-91. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Twitter top 100 most followers.” Twittercounter.com. Twitter, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Van Oosten, Johanna M. F., Jochen Peter, and Patti M. Valkenburg. “The Influence of Sexual Music Videos on Adolescents’ Misogynistic Beliefs: The Role of Video Content, Gender, and Affective Engagement.” Communication Research 42.7 (2015): 986-1008. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Van Ouytsel, Joris, Koen Ponnet, and Michel Walrave. “The Associations Between Adolescents’ Consumption of Pornography and Music Videos and Their Sexting Behavior.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 17.12 (2014): 772-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Vevo Top Videos Most Viewed All Time.” Vevo.com. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.


Wallis, Cara. “Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 160-72. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Laura E. Miller, and Kristen Harrison. “The Relationship Between Exposure to Sexual Music Videos and Young Adults’ Sexual Attitudes.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.3 (2008): 368-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Travis L. Dixon, and Kate Conrad. “Rap Music Videos and African American Women’s Body Image: The Moderating Role of Ethnic Identity.” Journal of Communication 59.2 (2009): 262-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.


Author Bio:

Dr. Jordan M. McClain is Assistant Teaching Professor of Communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He enjoys researching and teaching about framing in music journalism, celebrity, the intersection of television and music culture, and consumer culture. For the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) he serves on the executive board,  as Music area co-chair,  and as Journalism and News Media area chair. For the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA), he chairs the Professional Development area.

Social media:

Academia.edu: https://drexel.academia.edu/JordanMcClain
LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-m-mcclain-72304163
Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_mcclain


Reference Citation:


McClain, Jordan M. “A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print. 


McClain, J. M. (2016).  A framework for using popular music videos to teach media literacy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/a-framework-for-using-popular-music-videos-to-teach-media-literacy/ 

Reflections on Building a Popular Writing Course

Emily Howson

Chris Massenburg

Cecilia Shelton

Saint Augustine’s University
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA



Composition pedagogy has typically employed traditional academic texts in the instruction of first-year writing courses. In this article, three first-year writing instructors reflect on their experiences employing popular culture artifacts in lieu of more traditional academic texts in writing classrooms at a small, private, historically black institution (HBCU). By retrospectively analyzing the intersections between theory and practice, the instructors’ autoethnographic reflections explore the utility of popular culture artifacts as tools for teaching and learning writing, with an emphasis on rhetorical knowledge and transfer. Though preliminary, their conclusions point to the potential of popular culture for integration into traditional best practices in first-year writing pedagogy.



Teaching, Pedagogy, Culture, Writing, Transfer, Learning, Inquiry, Analysis, Popular, Composition


A typical class of Critical Writing Seminar: Concepts in Popular Culture does not look much like a typical writing class. Walk past and you may catch a glimpse of students engaged in discussion of Beyonce’s “Partition” or the “first Ebola victim” viral hoax photo. Or, they might be writing about Sweet Brown “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for Dat” memes, car commercials, political cartoons, documentaries, Disney movies, or remixes of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Upon first glance—as students scroll Instagram during class (as research), sing along to Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” or debate the difference between protests and riots based on videos of Ferguson, MO—it may seem as though some of the more traditional rules of classroom etiquette have been tossed out the window. However, inside the classroom, the students are engaged. They are attentive to the subject matter, critical in their thinking, and passionate in their writing; they can carry on a discussion for twenty minutes at a stretch without much instructor input.

This level of classroom engagement was exactly what was envisioned when the Critical Writing Seminar was developed in 2012. The course took its shape—structured, but with protean edges—primarily as a result of an imagined ideal (of students, excited about writing) rather than applications of theory. The curricular need at our small, private, historically black university (HBCU) was clear: students, many of whom were already “behind” upon arrival, were not necessarily “catching up” adequately under the existing curriculum. After completing the required sequence of composition courses (two semesters worth), students were advancing into disciplinary courses that demanded a level of writing for which they were still largely underprepared. They needed more practice. While the need was clear, the path toward a useful response was more nebulous. How could another writing course be different from—and still successfully build upon—the existing set of Composition I and II writing courses? How could another course emphasize rhetorical skills in a way that would help students transfer their first-year writing experiences beyond the traditional composition classroom?

Administrators turned to the people “on the ground,” the writing instructors, for guidance in designing a new course. While, in an ideal world, such a curricular development would be the work of long planning, backed heavily by theory, the reality owed more to the necessities: a narrow window of opportunity and the need for input from instructors who had plenty of observations born of teaching but few spare hours in which to theorize. We asked ourselves a question similar to the one Cary Moskivitz asks in The Duke Reader Project: “If we had the opportunity to design an ideal writing in the disciplines [WID] program unencumbered by the assumptions and conventions of normative practice, what might we do differently?” (48). Our institution does not have a writing program (WID or otherwise) but aspires to one. Even in the absence of a formal program, we still needed a “stepping stone” course that would help us develop a more robust sequence of writing courses (with the idea of a fully-developed writing program down the road), and we also needed a way to engage students in learning concepts that could help them transfer their writing knowledge and practice as they matriculated and took on more advanced, discipline-specific writing tasks. Following our instincts, we took our observations about what worked to get students excited, the learning outcomes we wanted them to achieve, and we designed a writing course.

If we are to be honest, we must admit: it is only now that we are connecting our teaching practices to theory. We do so now to reflect on its successes and failures in light of current writing theories and pedagogies and to contribute to emergent popular culture pedagogy.

Critical Writing Seminar: Concepts in Popular Culture is explicit in its aim to present “a variety of cultural texts in an effort to broaden [students’] frame of reference for academic inquiry and thereby facilitate their ability to transfer the reading, writing and thinking skills that they acquire” (“Critical Writing Seminar Syllabus” 1). Its instructors use artifacts of popular culture as course content and ask students to engage their critical inquiry, thinking, and writing skills in responding to those artifacts. The expanded notions of text in this course were intended to act as a kind of catalyst, challenging students to adapt their understanding of writing with the understanding (or perhaps, the hope) that such an adapted understanding would prove useful later on as students worked to respond to the extensive array of genres, subjects, and conventions they collectively encounter in their disciplinary coursework. By interpreting “expanded notions of text” to mean popular culture artifacts, specifically, this course offers instructors a unique, timely, and appropriate tool for teaching rhetorical skills and concepts that encourage transfer. It seeks to meet and engage students where they are and both broaden and deepen their experience with writing in an academic context.

Bruce Cohen’s Being Cultural helped us delineate the relationship between artifact and text: “In cultural studies, ‘text’ is not only books or magazines, but all cultural artefacts (including, for example, works of art, YouTube clips, adverts, items of clothing, iPods, posters, television programmes, the haka, podcasts, SNS sites, frozen food, football, and soon)” (7). In designing the course, we drew our definition of popular culture from Deana Sellnow’s The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture. “Popular culture,” she writes, “is comprised of the everyday objects, actions, and events that influence people to believe and behave in certain ways” (3). We have seen the growth of popular culture’s influence and importance in society today. In Signs of Life in the USA, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon argue that “pop culture has virtually become our culture, permeating almost everything we do. So if we wish to understand ourselves, we must learn to think critically about the vast panoply of what was once condescendingly referred to as ‘mass culture’” (v). Popular culture artifacts allow students to engage with content that is familiar and recognizable to them (“permeating almost everything we do”), while also allowing instructors to introduce concepts and questions that are new to the students: in effect, using familiar things to introduce unfamiliar ideas. Students are asked to take the world around them—the popular world they have long been living and believing in and negotiating with—and to merge it with the world of the academy, in which they have only recently arrived and which they are only beginning to learn how to navigate.

In fact, part of the value in using popular culture artifacts as texts to be analyzed and responded to is that doing so can—somewhat paradoxically—convince students to attribute greater value to the artifacts of high culture that they are often introduced to while in college, the canonical great works that Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” (as quoted in Ousborne 1). Over the length of the course, students are challenged to see the similarities and connections between artifacts of high and popular culture, between the texts discussed in this course and the traditional academic texts and art forms used as content in most other courses. The use of popular culture as text also gives instructors an opportunity to present course content that is highly situated and contextualized. In the same way that textbooks are chosen for their suitability for particular programs, in particular schools, with particular students, cultural artifacts can be tailored to fit and respond to a specific institutional culture and student population. Cultural artifacts also allow for a course that is highly pliant and relevant; textbooks can be updated each semester, but new cultural texts can be chosen each week, practically overnight, in response to current events and unfolding discussions in the larger culture.

Using popular culture in a first-year writing course has also helped us to mediate (read: bypass) our students’ preconceived ideas about academic texts. Among those preconceived ideas is a sense that they do not know enough about an essay by Frederick Douglass, or a chapter on child psychology, or a biology lab report to adequately discuss them (much less, be critical of them). Students look to the teacher for the “right” answer or the “correct” opinion when it comes to these texts, which carry with them assumptions of expertise and educational achievement. But few people feel unequipped to have an opinion on Kim Kardashian’s fashion choices. In our popular culture writing classrooms, we try to encourage students to feel that they have just as much of a stake in the conversation as the next person (even when that next person is the instructor). Popular culture democratizes the weight of opinions in a way that helps students to learn to reason confidently, to express critical ideas with clarity and precision, without the intimidation factor involved when the content consists of staunchly academic texts. Yet, building the capacity to analyze and respond to popular culture texts may prepare students for performing similar activities on more advanced-level disciplinary academic texts. As students decode cultural texts, they are invited to think about academic discourse in a broader sense—less strictly tied to content and more bound up in methodology, in ways of thinking and inquiring. In this way, the course builds on the foundational rhetorical skills that students develop in the traditional composition course sequence.

In teaching the course, instructors must confront the fact that the analysis of cultural artifacts is not an exercise intended to only engage the students. We are all impacted by culture. Instructors are asked to not only lead the students in discovery and inquiry but also to be active participants in those activities themselves. A mutually inclusive space for learning can be created by acknowledging the influence of cultural relativism, which posits that individuals must be examined through the lens of their own culture. Deep discourse in the classroom is created when all members understand that each individual responds to and participates in culture in ways influenced by his/her unique background. Beginning the course with this understanding means that the instructor can help students suspend bias in order to gain a deeper critical insight and can also use students’ own backgrounds to help broaden and deepen the conversation and analysis. This negotiation and interplay is not about moral decision-making. It is about creating bridges that both students and faculty can use to enhance learning, curriculum development, and scholarship.

One of the aims of the popular culture writing classroom we have developed is to create a reciprocal learning environment. Students should be encouraged to not just actively participate in the course, but, as they come to understand the nature of the course, to contribute to its direction. This opens up opportunity for the students to introduce their cultural understandings, their vernacular, and their interests to their peers and the instructor. The instructor provides the connection and context. The students apply their nascent rhetorical and creative tools in response to a variety of topics. The course becomes an incubator for interdisciplinary learning, multimodal composition, and participatory analysis. The discussions are made relevant and tangible by the cultural artifacts. Students come to understand the value in academic, professional, and public genres of writing.

Up to this point, we have been focusing on the ways in which popular culture content and pedagogy operate in Critical Writing Seminar, but it is first and foremost a writing course. It is important to discuss how writing pedagogy operates in the course. The course is influenced by both popular culture studies and writing studies, and its pedagogy emerges in conference with the two. As mentioned earlier, the course was designed with an eye toward eventually developing a writing program. However, that writing program does not (yet) exist, and so the course currently functions outside of the composition sequence (though it was designed with the outcomes of those courses firmly in mind). Given our specific institutional context and also given the direction in which more and more English departments and writing program administrators (WPAs) are taking first-year writing courses, we propose that popular culture constitutes a fitting and appropriate form of alternative content for an additional first-year writing course.

The “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (v3.0),” last updated in July 2014, establishes the current position of writing studies regarding the expected outcomes of first-year writing programs. It categorizes those outcomes according to four primary principles: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and composing; processes; and knowledge of conventions (1-2). These areas of focus reflect the degree to which first-year writing has moved away from a heavy concentration on literature-based essays and the remediation of inadequate grammatical and mechanical skills. Instead, many first-year writing programs have shifted (or are shifting) focus toward what David Smit, in The End of Composition Studies, calls “the heart of the matter in learning to write”: transfer (119). Increasingly, instructors and scholars are working to prioritize what students can learn to do in writing classes that can transfer across different contexts (Carter, Diller and Oates, Petraglia), trying to discover what writing strategies (if any) can “travel” effectively to new tasks and discourse communities. Some scholars have explicitly designed Teaching for Transfer (TFT) courses to support students’ ability to develop writing knowledge and practices that can be repurposed and adapted to new settings (Yancey, Robertson, Taczak). Others, like Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs, have designed Writing About Writing (WAW) courses that “present the subject of composition, discourse, and literacy as [their] content” (Writing About Writing v). More broadly, most composition courses now emphasize (at least to some degree) the connections between what students have learned already and what they will need to write in a new genre or context by centering on rhetorical concepts themselves, such as “purpose, audience, context, and conventions” (Council of Writing Program Administrators 1).

Wardle and Downs have identified “several important misconceptions about writing and writing skills transfer” that they sought to resist in their courses, including “that academic writing is generally universal, that writing is a basic skill independent of content or context, and that writing abilities automatically transfer from FYC to other courses and contexts” (“Teaching about Writing” 554). Speaking frankly about the lack of scholarship regarding transfer in writing studies, they acknowledged: “Our field does not know what genres and tasks will help students in the myriad writing situations they will later find themselves… We do not know which genres or rhetorical strategies truly are universal in the academy, nor how to help FYC students recognize such universality” (557). However, while specific and transferable genres and tasks have not been clearly identified, the general conditions that promote transfer have been. David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon found that students need to reflect and be mindful of their own actions and environments and they also need “thorough and diverse practice . . . of the performance in question.” It has been our experience that popular culture as course content lends itself to creating these conditions in a course, allowing instructors to challenge students to analyze a wide range of audiences and purposes, genres and conventions (providing that “diverse practice”) as well as to reflect on themselves as consumers/creators of popular culture and leave the classroom with a greater sense of themselves as active, mindful participants in that culture.

Another educational theory that has had a major impact on first-year writing is the notion of “threshold concepts,” described by Jan Meyer and Ray Land in the introduction of Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding, which posits that there are specific ideas, situated in specific disciplines/epistemic communities, that function as thresholds—portals through which learners must travel and “without which the learner cannot progress” (1). In other words, there are certain concepts or ideas that students must master in order to advance to more sophisticated or complex ways of thinking and writing. Threshold concepts “open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking” and “represent a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something” (Meyer and Land 1). Threshold concepts also challenge the learner to reflect on tacit knowledge of which she is “only peripherally aware or entirely unconscious” (Perkins 40).

In first-year writing classes, threshold concepts have little to do with hard-and-fast rules of formatting, grammar, or how-many-sentences-go-in-a-paragraph. Instead, they are connected to students’ beliefs about the nature and function of writing, their abilities to understand “composing” in an expanded way (beyond the flatly alphabetical “words on paper” sense), and their knowledge of the way in which writing adapts to the demands of audience, purpose, context, and conventions of genre. In “Threshold Concepts for Writing Classes,” Wardle and Downs offered a tentative list of threshold concepts that reflect this shift in pedagogical emphasis in first-year writing. They list the following:

  • Conceptions of writing matter, come from somewhere, and various conceptions of writing are more or less accurate and helpful.
  • Text [sic] mediate human activity; people don’t write in a vacuum. People use texts in order to mediate meaningful activity. There are some lenses that can better help us understand how this happens.
  • Texts make meaning in context. People interpret texts in ways that depend on their own histories and contexts.
  • People create texts using a variety of processes; these processes change depending on the context, audience, and purpose, and some processes are more or less effective than others. In addition, these processes start long before words are put on a page.
  • “Composing” goes far beyond our usual conceptions of it as related to alphabetic/print-based writing. What counts as composing changes as our world and technologies change.

The above list of concepts does not necessitate that the texts that students encounter while learning be traditionally academic. In fact, we have found that popular culture artifacts can be used to impart/model these concepts with ease and clarity. The rhetorical diversity of popular culture alone—its many shapes and modes and purposes—makes its use a compelling example of the expanded notion of “composing.” Furthermore, students’ familiarity with the context in which popular culture is created and received (i.e., the context in which they already are comfortable and familiar, because it is one in which we all already participate to some degree) puts that particular concept—“texts making meaning in context”—in closer reach through popular culture than it might otherwise be for texts that operate in unfamiliar contexts (like an annotated bibliography).

Below, we take an opportunity to reflect individually on assignments we have used in Critical Writing Seminar: Concepts in Popular Culture, in order to showcase our experiences and the ways in which popular culture combines in our classes with writing pedagogy to meet important student learning outcomes and threshold concepts.

Sampling History: Strange Fruit – Cecilia Shelton

Like many teachers, I create my most interesting assignments in response to that frustrating moment when I just can’t seem to convey a concept or skill to my students in a way that is meaningful or relevant to them. I would venture to say that almost any writing teacher can relate to the disappointment that follows a class session about using and documenting sources responsibly. As much as we want to convey the importance of the mechanical details of the practice—commas go here, this in italics, that in quotation marks—we are even more invested in students’ ability to understand how texts interface with one another. We want them to understand intertextuality—the idea that integrating sources into your own writing is more than borrowing words; it is borrowing meaning, and context, and subtext. For these reasons, sources should be chosen carefully, quoted thoughtfully, and integrated meaningfully. We’ve all experienced that moment at the end of such a rousing lecture, when a lone student raises her hand and asks, “So, exactly how many quotes do we need to have?” as all the other students nod and pick up their pencils for the first time in the whole class session.

“Yes! That’s what I was going for—the exact same prescribed number of those careful, thoughtful, meaningful interactions between texts—for everyone,” said no (writing) teacher, ever.

After one too many classes like this, I decided that my sources and documentation activities should follow a writing assignment, where I might first work to convey the significance of meaning that travels across and between texts. It occurred to me that my students were much more familiar with the “borrowing” of meaning in the context of music. Who doesn’t love a good remix?

And so, I created an assignment called “Sampling History?: Appropriation(s) of Cultural Artifacts.” The overview on my assignment sheet reads as follows:

In class, students will analyze two related cultural artifacts: the lyrics of the poem turned protest song, “Strange Fruit,” famously performed by Billie Holiday, and Without Sanctuary, a photo documentary of American lynching (to be used as an illustration of social context that inspired the song). After their analysis, students will consider the ways that the original text of “Strange Fruit” has been re-purposed through various musical (re)appropriations (covers of Billie Holiday’s rendition) which recontextualize the lyrics and their message again and again. Students should comment on the impact that these “revisions” have on the significance of the original text in a critical response essay.

My background research about Strange Fruit graduated this assignment from a simple, theme-related, in-class reflection activity to a full-blown writing assignment. Of course, my class prep included listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” and the easiest method of access was YouTube. A quick search revealed a multitude of covers and samples of her rendition of the song—I was blown away. I thought it curious that such a somber and haunting (though beautiful) song was being so heavily sampled by artists in a variety of genres. It was a perfect opportunity to talk about what was happening to the original meaning of those lyrics as it travels through those samples and covers.

In class, we spent one class period discussing the social context of the two cultural artifacts. I asked them to come to class ready to report their own research about the inspiration for the lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” knowing that a quick internet search would reveal Abel Meerpol, a white, Jewish, high school teacher from the Bronx as the original composer of the lyrics in the form of a poem. His intention was to express his horror at the lynching of black Americans during the Jim Crow period in which he was living. He published the poem in 1937 and later set it to music. It gained popularity in and around New York and eventually, Billie Holiday recorded it as a song in 1939.

My students fell along a fairly broad spectrum of awareness of those details, and eventually we were able to piece the story together. Next, I worked with great care and sensitivity to connect the lyrics to the images that inspired them for Meerpol. Without Sanctuary is a musarium, which features a collection of postcard photographs of American lynching. Many of the photographs are accompanied by notes that allude, or sometimes speak more directly, to the racist state of mind that was prevalent at this time. Their initial reaction was one of awe, disbelief, and eventually reverence for the significance of the song and the circumstances of its composition. I am certain that they were all prepared to write very poignant essays about the historical significance of Abel Meerpol’s lyrics and Billie Holiday’s song. I instructed them to suspend their ideas, while they completed a homework assignment, and we would regroup during our next class period.

Their homework assignment was to listen to five covers/samples of “Strange Fruit,” recorded by the following artists: Common, featuring John Legend, Tori Amos, UB40, Jeff Buckley, and Kanye West. They were required to listen to the covers on YouTube via links I provided and then to review the comments section for each song. They were clearly intrigued about why I was asking them to take this step before writing—I didn’t assign any formal response to be submitted for the homework. They were simply asked to come to class prepared to talk.

And talk we did. The students made some quick and unanimous observations during our next class meeting. First, the covers sound completely and totally different—different from the original and from one another. We all lacked music expertise but shared interest. I stepped into this space to invite that reciprocal learning environment and level with my students as fans of music. We agreed that a good portion of the differences could be attributed to genre; still, we had already identified the music to which Meerpol’s lyrics were set in Holiday’s rendition as complementary to the meaning. Changing the music mattered, we agreed, but we couldn’t come to a consensus on how it mattered, in what ways. Knowing what the lyrics were about and debating the degree to which the covers match or deviate from the tone of the original song was a great opportunity to talk about how the meaning of the song was located in the layers of the songs—not solely in the lyrics, or the music, or the arrangements.

My students and I also discussed the comments that users left for each of the songs. Those comments revealed that most of the people listening to the covers seemed to be listening because they were fans of the artist and had no awareness of the original context of the lyrics. We agreed that it was fair for people not to know about the origins of the sample; most people listen to music as fans of artists and don’t do research about samples and covers to understand them. The students had made these inferences about the background knowledge of listeners because of the disruption that occurred when a commenter contributed to the discussion to reveal the source of the sample and its significance. When someone would “educate” the YouTube commenters in this way, heated arguments would ensue about race, lyrics, significance, and interpretation of meaning.

Our most interesting conversation happened with the students’ responses to Kanye West’s sample of “Strange Fruit” in his song “Blood on the Leaves” which was newly released at the time. At first, their interest seemed to be related to their relationship to the artist. They were fans of Kanye—at least, more than they were fans of the other artists. They listened to that sample in the same way that other fans listened to the other covers and samples we’d discussed. But the room was split regarding the location of meaning associated with Kanye’s sample. His song, titled “Blood on the Leaves” samples “Strange Fruit”in the middle of an auto-tuned, hip-hop record that recounts the challenges of fame, drug (molly) use, and an adulterous hook-up with painful consequences. Some students felt that the music most closely resembled the tone of the original work and that Kanye was using the sample with intention, though they couldn’t initially comment on how this was happening (these students went on to find sources that supported this theory). Other students felt strongly that the juxtaposition of West’s profane lyrical content with Holliday’s rendition of Meerpol’s sacred lyrics was offensive (these students found support for this theory too).

This in-class debate about meaning and where it was and how it moved between these songs actually was exactly what I was going for with this assignment. At this point, after two full class discussions, I distributed my essay assignment sheet, which included the overview above and links to all of the songs we’d discussed as sources for further consultation. Students responded to the following prompt: “Choose one sample or cover of ‘Strange Fruit’ and discuss how the new song borrows from or departs from the meaning of the original song. Discuss the significance you see in this choice.”

Students followed these instructions and came to different conclusions in their critical response essays. Still, in retrospect, I see clearly that those responses demonstrated my newfound understanding of one of writing’s threshold concepts: “Texts make meaning in context. People interpret texts in ways that depend on their own histories and contexts.” They were a bit better prepared to absorb that lecture on using and documenting sources responsibly than the class before them had been. And I was happy with that.

The New Network Assignment – Christopher Massenburg

I discovered Lisa Barone’s article for Outspoken Media.com entitled, “Creating Your Own Brand Network Like Oprah Winfrey” that discussed Oprah and the development of her television network, OWN, as a model for personal branding. I immediately saw an opportunity to develop a unique assignment for my students. My goal was to talk about branding, to have the students envision the responsibility that comes with delivering a message to a group of people, to involve a presentation tool (without using Microsoft’s PowerPoint), and to challenge students to practice their presentation skills. I developed an assignment that I hoped would push my students to consider the rhetorical situations and textual conventions needed to develop an effective argument. I wanted to emphasize visual design through the use of Piktochart, an online infographic design application, so I asked students to develop a Piktochart presentation for a new network that they would create and then pitch to the class.

The students had lots of questions. They weren’t familiar with Piktochart and wanted to know why they had to use it. I explained that it was another means of composition and that the templates provided would make it easier to add visual appeal to their presentations. We looked at various examples of the use of infographics and discussed the effectiveness of infographics as both an expressive and a persuasive tool. I told them that it would take a few minutes to get used to developing the infographic, but that their final results would look better than their initial attempts. I wanted the relationship of the concept they were developing and the visual aid they would be creating to be different so that they would have to think more about how they would put it together.

In keeping with the assignment’s focus on visual design, I instructed students to dress according to their proposed network. I wanted them to really consider what a consistency between the design of their infographic and their personal appearance might mean. What type of dress would be appropriate? Why would it matter? They asked for clarity quite a few times. They were used to just being told to dress professionally. I wanted them to see their dress as part of the visual design of their presentation and to recognize that there are a number ways to dress professionally, just as there are various modes of composition. They hadn’t been made to think about the variety of ways professionalism could manifest or that the “text” being read by their audience might even include them.

The learning curve for the Piktochart infographic took longer than I anticipated. I had to help them understand how to manipulate the templates. They wanted more direction on what the presentation should include. I told them to base the network off of something that mattered to them, using their own interests to guide the development of the network and their decisions about their target audience. Soon they were able to grasp the concept and started putting their infographics together.

After that, I had to tackle their concern over the oral presentation. I gave them tips for getting over the anxiety of presenting in front of people. I kept the time length of the presentations short so that it wouldn’t seem too overwhelming. In an effort to give value to their perspectives and their ability to articulate their interests, I let them know that their familiarity with the network was the most important element of the presentation.

Many aspects of the assignment went well. The students enjoyed developing the infographic, choosing themes for their networks that reflected their interests, identities, and aspirations. Some based their presentations on future careers, some on their involvement in athletics, and some on practical skills that might be needed to navigate adulthood. Each person felt good about the theme he/she selected and the contents of the infographic. Often, they used models of networks with which they were familiar, and which they had researched in order to develop creative names and slogans for their own networks. I had them create drafts and submit them to me so I could give feedback before they presented the final versions. Most were able to highlight the value of the network and the type of programming. They also were able to recognize the impact of social media in connecting with people, articulating which social media sites they would use and how. The one detail that many students failed to identify in the infographic was the specific location where the network would appear. I assumed they would choose a location based on their home service and selection of channels, yet that didn’t happen.

They had greater difficulty with the pitch. Even though they had created these networks, each with their own unique identity and value, they weren’t confident in explaining their creations to the audience. While they did reasonably well in deciding on a mode of persuasion (ethos, logos, or pathos) to use in the pitch for their networks, they struggled to apply that mode comfortably and convincingly. Many even chose to dress just as they would for other school presentations, no matter how distinct their network was (i.e. sports or entertainment); in doing so, they missed the opportunity to use another visual appeal to pitch their network. I wanted each student to see his/her presentation as a chance to sell what he or she knew in a unique way, determined by their own strategy rather than the traditional rules for presentations, but not every student saw it that way. Many students couldn’t escape the feeling that there was a particular standard for how to make a class presentation and that if they couldn’t fit their presentation into that standard their grade would suffer. So what I ended up with were some amazing ideas and some not so good sales pitches. To me, this assignment further affirmed the need for this course, which provides students with experiences outside of standard conventions, but within solid pedagogical frameworks. This type of writing course could help students to trust their own evaluative instincts and value their own cultural understandings.

Confused Cats Against Feminism – Emily Howson

In class, we’d just finished watching Jean Kilbourne’s documentary, Killing Us Softly 4, about the advertising industry’s depictions of women’s bodies. I’d themed and centered the semester around sex and gender roles in American society and the documentary had presented students with an argument to consider: images of women in advertising are a toxic influence on and contribute to gender inequality and stereotyping. Eventually, students would be completing a more traditional, formal essay assignment in response to that argument, but before we got there, I felt that I needed to provide some smaller, lower-stakes scaffolding assignments to help them develop and deepen their thinking. While our discussions about Kilbourne’s premise had been impassioned—some students agreed with her, some disagreed, but just about everyone felt strongly either way—I wanted a chance to challenge and complicate the responses I was hearing, and to do so in a way that blended our rhetorical analysis with more “nuts and bolts” writing skills and practice.

Blending those two facets of the course together—the critical thinking and the critical writing—is consistently a struggle of mine in teaching. For me, the opportunities to invite critical thinking overflow; I can scarcely check my Facebook feed anymore without coming across a new magazine article or YouTube video that would prove highly applicable and interesting to analyze in class. My ability to come up with creative ways to work through the more practical elements of writing is considerably less generative. While students are active and participating when watching Key and Peele’s “I Said Bitch” skit, analyzing its constructions of femininity and masculinity, and debating the difference between public and private performances of gender, they are considerably less enthused when we shift to writing about it. Should we transition to a more traditional classroom practice—say, generating thesis statements based on their conclusions about the ideal audience for the skit, and discussing factors that contribute to stronger or weaker theses—the students’ engagement begins to wane. To prepare for the larger essay students would write in response to Kilbourne’s documentary, I wanted to reinforce the building blocks of well-defended argument—claims (arguable and specific), evidence/reasoning (concrete and compelling), and warrants (the explanations and interpretations that connect evidences to claims)—but I didn’t want to lose the students, and I didn’t want these ideas to separate from the questions we were considering with regard to Killing Us Softly.

This is where the elasticity and responsiveness of pop culture as a teaching tool really shines through. In our discussions of the documentary, a few trends had emerged and one of them centered around a lack of consensus regarding the definition of “feminism;” students were using the term in all kinds of ways, applying many different meanings and connotations, bringing their unique backgrounds and perspectives to bear. The resulting confusion was revealing to me but mostly, well, confusing to the students. We needed some common ground so we could more clearly contextualize our differences. The next class, we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk, “We should all be feminists,” as a way to launch our inquiry into the term “feminism.” We also read and compared two different editorial-style articles—one from the right-wing Fox News, the other from the left-wing The New Republic—that reported on Beyonce’s 2014 VMA performance (in which she stood in front of a huge “FEMINIST” sign, all lit up). Adichie’s talk gave us a shared foundation and vocabulary, and we made some real strides with the articles. Many of the students had little trouble identifying claims and evidence made by each of the writers and in making some assertions about the success or failure of those claim-evidence pairs. What the students struggled with was the concept of warrants. Because warrants—the logical connections between ideas—can function implicitly and go unspoken, students had a harder time pinpointing their use in the articles.

At the same time, I was noticing a refrain in our discussions that I wanted us to investigate further. The refrain positioned the concepts we were examining as largely external to the students’ lives—as something above or outside their experiences, something that affected (and was affected by) the famous and talented Beyonce and Jay Z, or the scholarly and accomplished Adichie, but not them. I wanted to push them to consider what impact these ideas circulating in our culture had on them, and also what impact they might have on these ideas. In addition, I wanted to consider the ways in which warrants manifest outside of straightforward article writing. I turned to Tumblr.

On the “Who Needs Feminism?” page, users upload photos of themselves holding signs, usually handwritten, that follow a general template: “I need feminism because [fill in the blank].” Sometimes the photos include the authors’ faces; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they include more than one “because;” sometimes they include just one. We scrolled through examples, with students exclaiming over or commenting on submissions that stood out in particular ways. Then, we switched over to a different Tumblr, this one called “Women Against Feminism.” On this site, users upload photos of themselves holding signs that follow the opposite template: “I don’t need feminism because [fill in the blank]” (emphasis mine). We scrolled examples of these also, pausing and examining submissions that caught students’ eyes. On both sites, students found reasons to be confused and dissatisfied. “I don’t need feminism because I love my boyfriend?” read one student aloud, eyes narrowed. “What’s loving her boyfriend got to do with it?” Another photo, which read, “I need feminism because a friend of mine says feminism is pointless,” left students scratching their heads (metaphorically speaking), thinking in circles, and eventually concluding that it “just doesn’t make any sense.”

Both Tumblr blogs gave us rich ground to cover, both in considering what the pages were doing as a whole—what individual people, often young people just like the students, were doing to participate in a broader social conversation—and in considering how each individual photo worked rhetorically. What the Tumblr pages also offered was a powerful encounter with arguments that possessed both claims (I need feminism or I don’t need feminism) and evidence/reasoning (because x, y, and z), but that lacked warrants. On both sites, we found plenty of examples where unspoken assumptions and explanations left holes in arguments and diminished their effectiveness. We agreed that in the boyfriend example above, for instance, the author was working off a definition of feminism that assumed feminists are women who do not love men/boyfriends, or don’t have significant others, and that for her argument to be effective, she’d have to first prove why that is true.

When we transitioned over to the third and final Tumblr, “Confused Cats Against Feminism,” students were already halfway in on the joke. This blog parodies “Women Against Feminism” by hosting photos of cats posing with signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I need tuna. Where is the tuna?” and “I don’t need feminism because what I need is to bite you.” Students were laughing or smirking as we scrolled through. I asked them to ruin the joke by explaining why it’s funny. Stumbling at first, but eventually gaining traction, students were more or less able to articulate the ways in which the cats had provided reasons that had nothing to do with feminism, and how this mocked the “Women Against Feminism” page by suggesting that those reasons also had little to do with feminism, or were based on misunderstandings of feminism.

For homework, the students were to make their own photo contributions and submit them to me via email. They could choose which claim they wanted to make (needing feminism or not), and provide whatever reason they wanted, but they would need to be prepared to discuss the image in class and unpack the underlying warrants. I also emphasized the ways in which students would need to think carefully about their composing choices, and that those choices extended beyond the words they put on their signs. I asked them to pay attention to how other elements of the photo impacted their message, to consider if they wanted their face or body in the picture, what they might wear, whether the photo would be in black and white or color, and so on. As expert Instagrammers and selfie-takers, many of the students responded to this element of the assignment with a comfortable fluency. They were already practiced in the art of curating their own image; what they hadn’t yet done was connect their own activities on a conceptual level with those depictions in advertising that we had just finished discussing.

Responses poured in on both “sides” of the debate (some students even sent two or three photos, having come up with more than one idea and wanting to share them all). We could have probably spent the rest of the semester discussing some of the ideas and rhetorical appeals contained within their images, for they were both broadly ranging and complex. I compiled all the images and we went through them one by one, focusing our discussion on a brief analysis of the rhetorical “moves” made by the author and on the missing or hidden warrant implicated in his/her argument.

When students began work on their formal essay, responding to Kilbourne’s documentary and the relationship of image and advertising to constructions of gender, they still struggled to connect claims and evidence in clear and precise ways, but there was a notable increase in the attention paid to the logical connections between ideas. The ratio in the previous essay between claims (of which there were many), and evidence and warrants (of which there were fewer) became less dramatically uneven. So, the students’ writing did suggest that they were slowing down, trying to make their interpretations of their evidence clear to the reader. And perhaps more importantly, a surprising number of the essays concluded on an optimistic note, sounding a little more confident that there was something to do be done—something they could do—to influence advertising one way or the other.

Our first two years of implementation of Critical Writing Seminar have been characterized by experiences like the ones outlined above—propelled forward by a productive tension between instinct and experimentation. Our distinct narratives collectively demonstrate how teaching this course can be fraught with challenges, but pregnant with potential. We have learned that pop culture is a uniquely effective tool for applying writing pedagogies and theories in the classroom.

We acknowledge that our comments thus far have significant limitations—most notably, the absence of empirical evidence. There is work to be done to verify that our students’ increased engagement, enthusiasm, and responsiveness translates meaningfully into increased rhetorical dexterity. We readily acknowledge that we have not proven concretely, in what ways (if any) that Prof. Massenburg’s students understand composing more broadly, or Prof. Shelton’s students understand intertextuality in a way that they can apply to other papers, or Prof. Howson’s students can articulate warrants more clearly. But, as we alluded to earlier, we are not the only writing teachers grappling for answers to questions of transfer. Examining the genres, tasks, texts, strategies, and conditions that actually facilitate transfer has become a mainstream research topic in the field of writing studies. Scholars are still theorizing about how students develop rhetorical skills across assignments and courses and throughout their matriculation.

We recognize that our reflections are purely anecdotal, and therefore, perhaps still at the margins of the empirical work being done on this topic in writing studies. While we cannot offer data that responds to these inquiries definitively, our narratives can help writing scholars consider the complex dimensions of the research questions that drive their inquiry. Our reflections also offer the emergent dialogue regarding popular culture pedagogy a courage-bolstering set of experiences to confirm that the risk of bucking tradition and resisting the rigidity of the academy is worthwhile—that popular culture can be integrated into traditional best practices in service of disciplinary theories and pedagogies.


Works Cited

Carter, Duncan. “Critical Thinking for Writers: Transferable Skills or Discipline-Specific Strategies?” Composition Studies/Freshman English News 21.1 (1993): 86-93.

Cohen, Bruce, ed. Being Cultural. New Zealand: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Critical Writing Seminar:Concepts in Popular Culture Syllabus. 2014. English Department, Saint Augustine’s University, Raleigh, NC. Microsoft Word file.

Croteau, David, and William Hoynes. Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2003. Print.

Diller, Christopher, and Scott Oates. “Infusing Disciplinary Rhetoric into Liberal Education: A Cautionary Tale.” Rhetoric Review 21 (2002): 53-61. Web. 11 November 2014.

Maasik, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. “Preface for Instructors.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. v-xii. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land, eds. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Meyer, Jan H.F., and Ray Land. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction.” Meyer and Land 3-18.

Michigan State University. “First-Year Writing.” Writing Rhetoric and American Cultures, 2015. Web. 11 November 2014. Retrieved from http://wrac.msu.edu/first-year-writing/

Ousborne, Jeff. “Introduction: Analyzing Popular Cutlure.” Reading Pop Culture: A Portable Anthology. Ed. J. Ousborne. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.

Perkins, David. ”Constructivism and Troublesome Knowledge.” Meyer and Land. 33-47. Print.

Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education, Second Edition. Ed. T. Husén and T. N. Postlethwaite. Oxford: Pergamon, 1992. Web. 23 March 2014. Retrieved from http:// learnweb.harvard.edu/alps/thinking/ docs/traencyn.htm.

Petraglia, Joseph. “Introduction: General Writing Skills Instructions and Its Discontents.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1995. xi-xvii. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth, and Douglass Downs. “Threshold Concepts for Writing Classes.” Write On: Notes on Teaching Writing about Writing. Bedford Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition (Bedford/St. Martin’s), 25 July 2012. Web. 11 November 2014.

Wardle, Elizabeth, and Douglass Downs. Writing About Writing: A College Reader. 2nd Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.

Moskovitz, Cary. “The Duke Reader Project: Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction.” Liberal Education 97.3 (2011): 48-53. Print

Sellnow, Deana D. The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2009. Print.

Council of Writing Program Administrators. “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (3.0), Approved July 17, 2014.” WPA 38.1 (2014): 129-143. Print.

Smit, David W. The End of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014. Print.


Author Bios:

Emily E. Howson, Lecturer, Writing Center Liason, has taught at Saint Augustine’s University since 2013. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University in 2012 and a B.A. in English and Psychology from University of Dayton in 2009. Currently, she teaches writing courses for the university, serves as the coordinator for the Critical Writing Seminar and Composition courses, and helps to administer the SAU Writing Center.

Christopher D. Massenburg, 2015-2016 Nasir Jones Fellow at the Hip Hop Archive & Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University. Former Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing, Saint Augustine’s University. He earned a B.S. in Organizational Management from Saint Augustine’s University and an M.L.S. in Art & Culture with a concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Better known in the art world as Dasan Ahanu, he is a poet, performance artist, lecturer, workshop facilitator, songwriter, recording artist, freelance writer and playwright. Twitter: www.twitter.com/dasanahanu Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dasanahanu

Cecilia D. Shelton, PhD Student at East Carolina University in the Rhetoric, Writing and Professional Communication program. Former Director of the University Writing Center, Saint Augustine’s University. She earned an M.A. in English with a concentration in sociolinguistics from North Carolina State University in 2007. She earned a B.A. in English from Winston-Salem State University in 2005. Her doctoral research interests include dialect variation in the writing classroom, critical writing pedagogies, and writing program/writing center administration.

Reference Citation:


Howson, Emily E., Massenburg, Christopher, D., and Shelton, Cecilia D. “Building a Popular Culture Course.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.



Howson, E. E., Massenburg, C. D., and Shelton, C. D. (2016). Building a popular culture course. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/reflections-on-building-a-popular-writing-course/

(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 (http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/70242311), 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 (http://www.amctv.com/shows/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 (http://www.megamind.com/). 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 (http://www.bbcamerica.com/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 (http://www.banksyfilm.com). 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 (http://harrypotter.scholastic.com). 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

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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.

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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 http://education.utsa.edu/faculty/profile/dennis.davis@utsa.edu.

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). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/relearning-about-learning-using-cases-from-popular-media-to-extend-and-complicate-our-understandings-of-what-it-means-to-learn-and-teach/

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, www.shannonreed.org.

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). http://journaldialogue.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/S-Reed.pdf