Teaching Irony and The Office: A Reception Studies Approach

Last academic year, serving as a 2013-2014 HASTAC scholar, I began work on The Pedagogy Project (forthcoming). The HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) community asked fellow scholars to submit sample lesson plans or pedagogical strategies. I submitted a lesson that I use when I teach Twin Peaks, and I helped compile and organize the collection of over 80 submissions. It was very rewarding to participate in this project because it reminded me of the benefits of intellectually engaging with our peers about teaching and pedagogy. There is always room to grow, learn from others, and adapt our teaching personas and strategies. With that in mind, I wanted to encourage pedagogical collaboration on Metathesis and share this lesson that I use each semester in one form or another. No matter how it manifests, it proves incredibly successful, and I urge you to adapt it for your purposes and use it yourself.

In the first few weeks of class, I often subtly nudge my students into taking the discussion where I want it to go. Sometimes this succeeds and sometimes it fails, but I like to use what I tend to refer to as the “breadcrumb strategy” to guarantee that we will end our conversation in the general vicinity of where I want it to go. I try to plant intellectual breadcrumbs in order to lead them to the revelation that I want them to come to on their own. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to show them their own responses, and get them to think closely and critically about how they have reacted to a text.

For example, a couple of weeks ago in my Reading Popular Culture course, I taught a few episodes of The Office (S1E2: “Diversity Day,” S2E12: “The Injury,” S3E1: “Gay Witch Hunt,” S3E23: “Beach Games,” S5E13: “Prince Family Paper”) in order to get them to think about how popular culture constructs its spectators and encourages certain responses. We screened the episodes together at our evening screening and, unbeknownst to them, I took careful note of all of the times that they collectively laughed at the episodes.

In class two days later, I had them talk about why they thought the show was funny. Some of the students gave vague responses, some relied on previous conceptions of the show, and some had been too swayed by the essay we had read that day for class and had forgotten exactly how they originally felt. In order to get to more specific reactions, and in order for us to think critically about ironic humor, I put my collective laughter list on the overhead. Here’s a few examples of some of the times that they laughed during “Diversity Day”:

  • Michael: “Say a race you are attracted to sexually”
  • Mr. Brown when Michael doesn’t believe that’s his name: “That’s my name, not a test.”
  • Michael: “Abraham Lincoln once said if you’re a racist, I’ll attack you with the North”
  • Michael to Kelly: “If you leave, we will only have two left… Namaste”
  • Oscar: “Mexican isn’t offensive”
  • When it is revealed that Stanley must wear the card that says “black”

theoffice

This worked incredibly well because it jogged their memories. But, more importantly, I made them confront their own reactions to the text and asked them to give justifications for this reaction. This helped us probe the implicit racism in some of the ironic humor and also helped us to think about the ways that the show encourages us to read the humor ironically (aided in part by Eric Detweiler’s essay on irony and The Office). It’s often hard to rein in a conversation about a beloved TV show and return it back to specifics and it’s especially difficult to elicit specific examples and encourage close active reading. This activity, though, asks them to close read their own responses in a sort of self-enacted reception studies approach. Placing this activity so early in the semester primes them for further close reading exercises and also makes them hyper aware of their reactions.

While it’s easier to do this sort of activity when you have a collective group screening, this activity can be adapted to other contexts as well if you have students keep journals of his or her responses to certain texts. Ask them to take note of the points that they laughed, cried, gasped, etc. The only downside to this is that they are aware of the process when it’s happening which will slightly skew the results. But, in general, especially early on in the semester, any activity that makes them aware of their reading and watching practices is well worth it.

I encourage you to try this exercise or one similar and also share some of your ideas here–what types of things have worked extremely well in your classroom?

 


Staci Stutsman is a fourth year PhD student and teaching associate in the English department.  She will be taking her qualifying exam on film and television melodrama this fall.  She teaches introductory level film and popular culture courses and spends her free time binge watching TV, board gaming, and working out.

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