Thursday, January 13, 2011

Teaching and Learning from The Simpsons

Well, classes started today, which meant I did not sleep last night. There are so many worries to keep me up when facing the prospect of teaching (and taking) a new class. Mainly the worries involve not getting ready for class on time for reasons ranging from an inability to find appropriate clothing to the right number of jokes to tell (and when) to a suddenly discovered lapse in my syllabus. Also there are strange little dawn-mares, like today's, which featured Hank Hill gleefully adding on to his and Peggy's apartment following the eviction of a Chinese couple who were operating a laundromat in the upstairs, only to find that a church had prior claim to the land, leaving him screaming a trademark "Aaaaaaaaagh!" in the For Sale-sign section of the local hardware outlet.

Things resolved positively. I think a friend of my family owned the church. Set him right.

Anyway, getting painfully nervous on the eve of teaching tends to imply, for me, an overall painful nervousness that an ambitious course won't succeed. And that's precisely where I am, looking at a semester of teaching second-level rhetoric and composition with a unifying theme of The Simpsons. Reading about The Simpsons, writing about The Simpsons, and of course, watching episodes of The Simpsons in my glorious hour-twenty-five of Tuesday-Thursday time. I got to select the episodes. That much I think I've done a good job of, thus far.

I should be enjoying it. I should, right? It is The Simpsons, and The Simpsons is my favorite show since I've been born. (Seasons 12 through infinity excepted.) It helps, too, that the subtitle of the course is "Representations of Home and Family," and so I get to talk about The Simpsons as incarnations of and alternatives to "the American family," which is a subject of almost endless interest to me, seeing as how I grew up in one of those. Plus, The Simpsons is properly viewed, I am convinced, as a family show. Not a cartoon for adults (a la Family Guy, Robot Chicken, The Venture Bros.), and not a kid's show with some mature jokes thrown as a bone (everything Pixar makes). A show that lets children be involved, fully (and often smartly), from beginning to end, and that also appeals to and brings good storytelling to adults. To put it another way, I started laughing at The Simpsons because my older brother did, but I continued laughing because I learned what I (at all of 6 years old, seriously) was laughing at, which was the depiction of a family not very much like mine, but with a lot of the same motivations, needs, and knowledge of each other.

Of course, I was close with my family. It'll be interesting to me to see what students have to say about how The Simpsons does or doesn't reflect their own families, and how exactly it entertained them as individuals without, maybe, hearkening to the same family touchstones.

One answer, of course, is that the jokes have been honed like crazy, so that they end up just perfectly pitched to catch a wide base, and we're spending some time talking about that--how the creators concocted and revised the series, and how they acted as rhetors to figure out what their audience would want, what would get a laugh and what wouldn't, what was worth risking the censors for and what was worth risking sentimentality for. We're going to talk about how the show has adapted to the audience over time while also challenging and alienating certain parts of that audience; we'll talk about how it has conversed with other families, other cartoons, and other cartoon families, while still maintaining some pretty strict world-rules of its own as far as cartoonishness, absurdity, etc., and we'll talk about what that might mean about our national perception of "the American family." We're going to talk about the almost math that most humor uses by setting up a familiar equation but changing the result. (Using funny, super-old philosophy such as Henri Bergson's here.) In short, we're talking about the show from several rhetorical perspectives, and in the process I'm hoping concepts of audience, idea genesis, positionality, intertextuality, and revision will become clear.

But we're also going to talk about influences--influences on the show's creators and influences on our perceptions of and approaches to reading and viewing. I've been challenged in the past by the general reluctance of my students to read carefully or critically, of the gulf they seem to place between any kind of printed writing--even little stuff like AP articles and Wikipedia entries--and their own. And I've been surprised by the downright animosity some of them bear toward being asked to read at all. Instead of being frustrated by it, I want to use the class to get to the heart of it and start prying some of those formed assumptions about reading up. So I'm asking them to examine their influences (and perhaps biases) when it comes to reading, to think about the things they've read that have moved something in them, and to imagine what that quality would look like translated to different sources and styles of writing. I've been immensely happier as a writer and reader since I realized, sometime in the middle of undergrad (where most of them are now), that I can find something to hinge my own interest on in almost anything I read--more often, in fact, in academic texts than in fiction--and that this isn't just a coping strategy for poor or reluctant readers; it's the difference between someone who gets anything out of reading at all, ever, and someone who doesn't. I'm trying to use the class as an opportunity to show them, too, that writing is a chance to create a thing you'd want to read. The Simpsons doesn't exist because Matt Groening and Sam Simon and all these people felt the absence of the Flintstones or the Jetsons and wanted to bring that family back again. It happened because there was no show that had the qualities they wanted, so they made it. And eventually--not at first, but eventually--it was The Simpsons that they made.

The connection between The Simpsons and writing seems, to many in my department, tenuous. I got laughed at when I introduced myself and my course at the departmental workshop this semester. A teacher in front of me who'd been saying "Fantastic" after all the women teacher's introductions and humming lots of little academic approvals at classes including the words "identity" or "gazes" scoffed (literally scoffed!) and said "Fun!" when I introduced mine. (She did the same when I introduced my class on robots, too--it's primarily a personal problem of hers, though I do think faculty tend to sneer a bit, unfairly, at the "fun" classes.) Here's the thing, though: I don't think of The Simpsons as being a subject that is fun for me. I think of it as a supreme challenge to balance a genuine love for the show, which many of the students share with me, with a critical and interrogative eye for how the show has been shaped over the years, for the choices it's made, and the choices it's turned down. I think of teaching The Simpsons as a way to uncover and work to remedy things I find contradictory and troubling--social biases, behaviors, attitudes, toward home and family--in characters I've tended to uncritically love.

To be totally honest, I think of this as the only type of academic inquiry worth doing. If, by teaching rhetoric, we're trying to inoculate against things we already avoid and know we hate (preconceived notions, hasty generalizations, pathetic fallacies, logical leaps) and not trying to get to the bottom of something that we love but don't yet understand, then what are we engaging students in the study of? I'm not sure this constitutes learning much at all, and I'm curious about how it might affect the quality of students' reading and writing. After all, it's hard to do something with a particular reading--to write about it, especially--if there's no reason for different individuals to be reading it, internalizing it, having independent thoughts about it. I'm not suggesting there's not a fixed body of information in a particular textbook reading for them to get--just that I imagine it's difficult for a student to perceive that there's anything, even comprehension-level stuff, to be gained by reading if the idea of the course is that they need to theorize about identity and gazes instead of uncovering them for themselves in places that matter. In places they want to make better.

Many of the best instructors I know articulate a similar vision, and struggle with a similar nervousness about their classes before they teach. Less a nervousness that students will like them, or that the copier won't be broken, or that the computer will work, than a nervousness that students will learn, think, be improved, be well served. So, "Eat my shorts!" to the people who laughed at my teaching The Simpsons. I lost sleep over this class. Did you?


  1. I'd be curious to know what the scoffer teaches. Anyway, I like your course idea here--your students will surely get more out of critical engagement with something they're familiar with and which they've probably for the most part taken as just entertainment than with something more sterile.

  2. It really was! There was a lot of building in it. I think it was a metaphor my brain found for what it was doing to keep me awake.

    The scoffer has taught, among other things, a class about documentary film, during which I understand she mainly showed films about a particular group of Native Americans whose tribal art had recently been returned, and whose reservation she has once visited. In other words, it was a fine idea for a class but turned out to be pretty narrow and scripted. People usually write great proposals and then proceed to derail from the class goals, which is definitely one thing I worry about myself. I feel like I could talk about The Simpsons forever without connecting them to writing.