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.
You can read all of Staci’s collected posts below. To comment on individual posts, please visit them at the links below:
Teaching Irony and The Office: A Reception studies Approach (26 September 2014)
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”
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?
An Ambivalent “Fat Girl”: Weight Loss and Identity Categories that Don’t Quite “Fit” (19 September 2014)
We are finally exiting beach season, which fortunately means that celebrities looking hot or not-so-hot in bikinis will stop being news-worthy events. Unfortunately, who lost the baby weight, who gained ten pounds since the last Emmys, and who wore it best are year-round concerns. This fixation on celebrity fitness produces an interest in the infamous before-and-after photos. Think of the multiple photos of the newly slimmed Jennifer Hudson or Jessica Simpson or the before-and-after-and-before-and-after cycle of Oprah Winfrey or Kirstie Alley photos. These pictures always cause me a degree of discomfort because they attempt, through their highlighting of difference, to create binarized categories of “normal” and “abnormal”—which tend to be equated with “thin” and “fat.”
As a girl and a woman who was considered obese for most of my adolescence and early adult life, I tend to have strong yet conflicting feelings about weight loss. While my weight vacillated quite a bit, I weighed 225 pounds when I began my weight loss journey six years ago. My decision to eat healthier and begin to work out regularly was partially born out of a desire to live a more well-rounded life, but my true motivation derived from a place of deep shame created by my own self-doubt about my worth, a culture which tends to defined beauty in narrow (and thin) terms, and a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. I am very proud of my 80 pound weight loss: I love the invigorating feeling that comes from a brisk fall run, and am increasingly pleased to discover the active things that my body can now physically do. Though that is true, with time and distance, I have also grown to be proud of the woman I was before. Simultaneously feeling proud of my “new” body and learning not to hate my “old” body makes me ambivalent when it comes to thinking about debates around weight loss. Do I believe that weight loss is necessary if one medically registers as overweight? How does this relate to dominant ideologies of beauty? Am I reinforcing these ideologies by feeling pride in my own weight loss? How do my feminist politics complicate this?
My ambivalence derives from the fact that I don’t necessarily see myself fitting into a pre-defined identity category such as “overweight, “obese,” “fat” “formerly fat,” or “thin.” These categories seem to have a universalizing effect and potentially speak for experiences that are not mine. There’s no such thing as the experience of the fat girl. I can only tell you about my experience, an experience that is bound up with conflicting feelings of guilt, shame, and pride.
It feels scary to feel ambivalent about any topic in a field that relies on making strongly argued and well-supported claims. Though that is true, I think that this ambivalence is important because it gives one the chance to parse out the complexities of experience as it relates to actual bodies. We interact with texts and theoretical ideas, but it’s important to remember that what we write and what we theorize have the potential to affect discourses and the ways actual bodies experience the world. My body, like countless others, is one that resists universalizing and needs to be thought of in terms that transcend categories that, like my old blue jeans, don’t quite fit.
Editor’s note: Because this post is framed with a consideration of the ideological implications of before and after photos, the author has elected not to link to outside websites containing before or after photos or to include her own.
The House Wife and The Good Wife (12 September 2014)
In a compelling and rich analysis of serial melodrama, Jason Mittell offers up a reading of the series in his new book on complex television. He claims that the series “complicates its gendered appeals through innovative genre mixing and storytelling strategies” (¶ 41). By this, he means that the show offers up stereotypically masculine and feminine viewing pleasure in order to open up more “fluid possibilities of gender identification” and challenge “rigid stereotypes of gendered appeals” (¶ 23). He notes that, “[t]he personal and professional, effeminate and masculinist, melodramatic and rational are fully interwoven and inseparable both in terms of storytelling structure and affective viewer experience” (¶ 43). While I agree that The Good Wife holds cross-gendered appeal and blends traditionally feminine (emotional and relationship-based) and masculine (rational and action-based) traits, I propose that it works to destabilize these very categories as opposed to only blending them by calling into question the gendered category of “wife.”
Mittell notes that the series is “explicitly gendered by its title, the premise suggests a melodramatic, effeminate focus: a political wife is humiliated by a shameful sex scandal, and forced to both establish her own career and publicly redefine her relationship with her estranged husband” (¶ 41). While the title is explicitly gendered, it also self-reflexively refers to figures of “the good (house)wife” that have peppered the landscape of television. Think of June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) of Leave it to Beaver, Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) of The Brady Bunch, Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) of The Cosby Show, Vivian Banks (Janet Hubert) of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Annie Camden (Catherine Hicks) of 7th Heaven. One might also think of the roles that progressively worked to call into question the constraints outlined for the on-screen wife: Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) of I Love Lucy, Peggy Bundy (Katey Segal) of Married With Children, Roseanne Connor (Roseanne Barr) of Roseanne, Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton) of Everybody Loves Raymond, Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini) of King of Queens, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) of Malcolm in the Middle, Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) of The Sopranos, the Desperate Housewives, or the Army Wives. (Check out this list or this list of memorable TV wives.) One might notice that the majority of these wives populate sitcoms (although the women of Showtime’s dramedies serve as a counterpoint to this observation—Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) of Weeds, Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) of Nurse Jackie, Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) of United States of Tara, Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) of The Big C). The wife of primetime broadcast television is primarily confined to the sitcom format and to the home. The majority of dramatic wives live on cable or premium channels.
CBS’s The Good Wife, though, begins by uprooting its protagonist Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) from her role as housewife and from her cozy Highland Park home in the very first episode. After Peter’s (Chris Noth) press conference in which he publicly admits to having an affair with a prostitute and subsequently goes to jail on allegations of using government funds for illegal purposes, Alicia moves into her own apartment with her two children and joins a law firm. She bids farewell to her thirteen years as a housewife and stay-at-home mom as she enters the workforce. The viewer only glimpses the house and Alicia’s previous life in it through flashbacks or when Alicia visits it in the episode “Long Way Home.” The series doesn’t restrict Alicia to her job, though. The viewer spends a lot of time with Alicia in and outside of work, in and outside of the home. The viewer watches Alicia interact with her mother and mother-in-law, her husband, her co-workers, her children, her lover and her friends. The series demonstrates the complexities of motherhood and marriage by defining Alicia by attributes other than “mother” and “wife,” yet still grants a nuanced portrayal of both of those roles.
While the series intrigues the viewer with its case-of-the-week structure, the show also builds a complex world of interwoven personal and professional relationships through its serial storytelling (as Mittell also notes). In doing so, it offers up multiple pleasures to the viewers, pleasures that can very well be defined by their cross-gendered appeal. Though that is true, this format and the extended duration of the television serial also allow the show to slowly deconstruct expectations of stereotypical gender roles as it respectfully revises the figure of the TV good wife. The Good Wife, returning to CBS next Sunday (September 21), promises to deliver more of the same in its sixth season as Alicia considers an offer from Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) to act as State’s Attorney, continues to deal with the fallout of her former lover’s death and her for-appearances marriage, and further negotiates the boundaries of what it means to be “the good wife.” (Other reasons to look forward to Season Six include Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and all of her necklaces, and all of Alicia’s fantastic outfits.)
Images from cbs.com
#WhyINeedFeminism (5 September 2014)
Recently, the anti-feminist movement has gained increased visibility thanks to the popularity of the tumblr #WomenAgainstFeminism. Women have submitted photographs of themselves holding up signs that list all of the reasons that they don’t need feminism. These reasons range from “because no one should be shamed for being a stay at home mom” to “I don’t like to degrade men” to being tired of being “represented by hysterical hipster whores.” The two reasons that I saw most often repeated were that “I am not a victim” and “not all men rape.” It would take a much longer post to fully theorize and explain the reasons why I disagree so heavily with many of these posts, and I don’t want to “fem-splain” why I think they’re wrong about the goals and aims of feminism. But I do want to take the time to outline one of the reasons why I do need feminism in my life, and why it’s important to my life and to my teaching.
As I was keeping up with reports on this tumblr trend a couple of weeks ago (and loving the cat parody rebuttal), I started watching the first season of HBO’s True Blood. I know I’m about six years behind on this, and I know that much has been said about the intersection of vampire narratives and rape discourse, but one scene in particular struck me as particularly horrifying and relevant to this debate. In the episode “The Fourth Man in the Fire,” Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) visits the graveyard to visit her vampire boyfriend Bill Compton’s (Stephen Moyer) human grave. She thinks he was caught in a house fire the night before and has “officially” died. While she exits the gravesite, a hand thrusts from the ground, grabs her leg, and attempts to pull the screaming Sookie into the ground. A low voice says her name, “Sookie.” The viewer and Sookie realize that her attacker is Bill, and that he is not attacking her but is instead rising from the grave. Sookie’s fear of attack and death transforms into relief and, incidentally, lust. Sookie embraces Bill’s dirty, naked, and newly resurrected body as he raises her hemline and roughly enters her. This scene feels uncomfortably akin to a rape sequence. At the moment that I think this, Bill bears his fangs and moves to bite Sookie to suck her blood. A breathless Sookie says “No, not the neck.” After a beat, Bill does it anyway and Sookie throws her head back in raptured lust and pain. The scene is no longer ambiguous; it is definitely plugging into rape discourse and the close-ups on Sookie’s orgasming face assures viewers that, even though she explicitly said no, Sookie wants it.
I need feminism because images like this have become so prevalent and so naturalized in media and popular culture. I need feminism because I need the tools to understand the discourse that this is tapping into. I need feminism because I need a way to teach my students how to recognize these codes and think critically about the images being handed to them on a daily basis. To deny victimhood is to deny the daily traumas forced upon both women and men. It’s not as simple as declaring yourself “not a victim.” Yes, not all men rape and yes, some rapists are women. Among many other things, feminism is interested in helping rape victims find a voice, regardless of the gender of the attacker or the victim. I need feminism because it helps me process and respond critically to a scene like the one from True Blood, a scene that is just one among many in the sea of popular culture.
Images from hbogo.com
Wait, What Do We Do? (29 August 2014)
I’ve spent a lot of the summer traveling around and visiting friends and family from back home. We eat, we drink, we catch up. Inevitably, these catching-up conversations wind their way back around to one of my loved ones asking, “So, wait, what do you do?” As an English Ph.D. student just finishing up coursework, I spend a good deal of the academic year sequestered off from the real world; I am absorbed in the latest reading assignment, pushing through a seminar paper, or rushing through that week’s to-do list. It’s quite easy to forget that there’s a real world out there, a real world filled with actual people who live actual lives that are not dictated by the academic clock.
While there are many competing ideas about how to define the Public Humanities, I believe it means that one should connect in significant ways with the public outside of academia. It means having engaged and sustained conversations about the world, the texts we consume, and our ideas. Kristen Case notes that “the most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities.” Instead, it comes from “extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine.”
With this in mind, the Syracuse University English graduate students wish to launch this blog. This blog is not meant as a benevolent vehicle through which we most graciously bestow our ideas onto the public. Rather, it will be meant as a forum through which to start conversations. We want to demonstrate exactly “what we do” by doing it with the public. We want to let the public in on our process as we collectively doubt and then reimagine. We want to use the skills we have gained through our humanities education—the power to think critically about the world, close read, and engage with theory—to have conversations with the public outside of our small cohort, our discipline, and the university. We are interested in hearing how other graduate students are engaging in public humanities pursuits so that we can learn from each other. We want this conversation to be made widely available, not locked behind a pay wall. And we want to hear others’ voices.
With that said, we welcome you all to this conversation. A monthly blogger will post weekly and these posts will reflect the diversity of English studies in general and our department specifically. We hope that you read, join in if you wish, and share with others.