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Teaching Tube

A Middlebury professor shows students how to think inside the box


Published August 26, 2009 at 10:04 a.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:26 p.m.

At Middlebury College, students who like to follow the twists and turns of complex narratives can take courses devoted to Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, Shakespeare . . . and the HBO show "The Wire."

Watch TV for credit? It sounds like an undergraduate’s dream come true — especially since the college now has an HD- and Blu-ray-capable screening room, located in the new Axinn Center at Starr Library, that makes some commercial multiplexes look dinky.

But the 200-level course Watching “The Wire,” offered last spring by Middlebury’s Program in Film and Media Culture and designed and taught by its chair, Associate Professor Jason Mittell, involved more than sitting in a chair and watching all 60 hours of David Simon’s acclaimed drama series about the dark side of Baltimore. The students read texts about the drug-dealing life such as Richard Price’s Clockers and Philip Bourgois’ ethnography In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. They analyzed the show’s storytelling methods and its portrayal of American urban race relations, education, politics and journalism.

When the class was over, Mittell used its blog to ask students, “What have you learned?” “I have peered into a part of society that I could not have gotten from any other medium,” wrote one. Another said the course had taught him “how to critically watch television, and all from a show that was beyond any television I had ever seen.” A third student, intrigued by the real-life problems treated by “The Wire,” noted, “This is the first class in a while (maybe ever) to inspire me to read multiple related but extracurricular books…”

While Watching “The Wire” was an unusually intensive look at a single show, it was no radical departure for 38-year-old Mittell, a scholar who has been focused on television since he wrote a paper on “The Simpsons” in grad school at the University of Wisconsin. In 2002, Middlebury hired him “to add more nonfilm content” to a program that was then primarily focused on cinematic history, criticism and production, he says. The Program in Film and Media Culture currently has five full-time faculty and a handful of “affiliates” from other departments, but Mittell is still the only television specialist. He teaches an entry-level survey course that has spawned a 450-page textbook called Television and American Culture, published last February by Oxford University Press. (Mittell says he’s heard from faculty who plan to adopt it for similar courses at other schools.) He also teaches a course on “digital culture: everything from social networking to online video to remix culture to video games,” as he describes it.

Film and Media Culture has a cohort of 15 to 20 majors each year, says Mittell — up from about 10 when he first arrived. At a time when college budgets are tight, the program is soliciting applications for a tenure-track position in comparative media studies, with expertise desired in “online video, social software, videogames, new media art, digital media pedagogy, transmedia convergence, media and the environment, or global media,” according to the ad. Mittell is currently answering questions from potential applicants on his Wordpress blog, Just TV — an unusual move in a process traditionally shrouded in secrecy.

With a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and an unpretentious manner, the professor is approachable in person, too. Mittell is equally at ease whether he’s talking about plot developments on “Lost”; his favorite new show, “Breaking Bad” (“It’s so intense and focused”); or the complexities of the Nielsen ratings system. In his first book, he explored the development of TV genres from early quiz shows to “The Simpsons.” Now his research focuses on serial dramas such as “Veronica Mars,” “Battlestar Galactica” and, yes, “The Wire.” “One of the great things about being a media scholar is that you can write about what you love,” Mittell says. “I don’t have to focus on a particular period or genre.”

But when you offer students the opportunity to study what they love to watch, will they learn? Mittell acknowledges that not all the 50-odd undergrads he sees in his Television and American Culture survey each year come to class expecting a mental workout. “Anyone who’s teaching something about popular culture has to overcome the initial stigma or assumption that this is gonna be a gut class, or that personal expertise will equal academic achievement,” he says. “I try to dispel that right off the bat and say, ‘Some of you in this class have watched a lot of TV and feel really comfortable talking about TV, and that’s great. But the way in which you’ve talked about it probably is not going to help you in this class.”

A glance at the many online forums devoted to television shows suggests that young people do, indeed, “talk about TV” more than ever. But what’s generally missing from such off-the-cuff discussions, says Mittell, is “history. A lot of people assume that television began when they started watching television.”

TV fans also tend to forget how “the institutional apparatus of television matters,” he points out. “What I always try to impress upon my students is that the programming itself is really important for us, the viewers, but for the institution it’s the worm on the fishhook … If you think about a TV program as an eyeball magnet for advertisers, that really changes your perspective.” In short, “I see a lot of what I do as providing media literacy,” Mittell says.

When it comes to new media, Mittell is an avid user. A fan of open-source academic publishing, he says he no longer submits to journals that don’t offer their content free on the web. Of the three essays he’s writing this summer, he’s shared drafts of two on his blog. One is about “Narrative Construction and the ‘Veronica Mars’ Pilot,” another about how serial dramas draw on viewers’ long-term memories.

In his scholarship, Mittell is surprisingly traditional — that is, he has more to say about the craft of television storytelling than about the political subtexts beloved by cultural theorists. In literary studies, he notes, critics started out by exhaustively analyzing novels and poems simply as artworks, then moved on to questions of “culture and history.” In television studies, which “emerges in the 1970s and ’80s from British cultural studies,” the process has been the inverse: With television already the focus of so much public debate, critics started with politics. “I’m trying to look at questions that haven’t been asked, like How does television tell stories?” Mittell says. “It’s a very basic question, but it’s one that really hasn’t been given enough attention.”

Right now, that means asking how the serial format originally associated with the lowly soap opera — with its command to “tune in tomorrow” — came to be the basis of acclaimed shows in traditionally “masculine” genres, such as “The Wire.” More and more, Mittell’s research suggests, American viewers don’t need or even want the closure of a mystery that can be solved in 40 minutes plus commercials. They have patience for elaborate stories that drag on, sometimes indefinitely, and they enjoy trying to solve the mysteries on their own time, often with help from the web.

Anne Moore, an English doctoral student at Tufts University who graduated from Middlebury in 1998, says she finds Mittell’s work “incredibly useful. He’s at the forefront of a lot of really interesting things that are happening in the field.” Moore’s own current research is split between television and the printed word: Each of her dissertation chapters compares a “serial” from the small screen with a Victorian novel, such as “Twin Peaks” and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (Like TV shows, many Victorian novels were doled out in installments.)

Moore first studied television as a sociology and anthropology major at Midd, where she wrote a thesis on “Star Trek” fans. Back then, “nobody [at Middlebury] was talking about television at all, except as a sort of cultural studies and anthropology thing,” Moore says. “I think things have changed really radically.” She sees Mittell’s scholarship as “important work, because people don’t look at television formally [that is, in terms of form] that much. People only think about television in terms of what it does in the world, because it’s relegated to this low cultural space.”

“Relegated to a low cultural space” is one way to describe the popular view of TV. “Boob tube” is another. Then there’s the Kill Your Television bumper sticker — as perennially popular in some parts of Vermont as giant satellite dishes are in others.

“In Vermont, there is a kind of anti-television bias that’s widespread,” says Mittell. He recalls an interview he did with Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition” during the change-over from analogue to digital broadcasts earlier this year. “I think there were seven calls in. Six of them were people saying, ‘Well, I don’t watch television,’ which made it a very boring conversation.”

But when he probes people who claim not to watch television about their entertainment choices, he says, they often turn out to be, well, watching television. They just aren’t using a cable or an antenna: “‘But do you rent DVDs?’ ‘Oh, yeah! I get “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under” or whatever via Netflix.’” Other “TV-free” folks watch shows online at YouTube or Hulu, raising the question of what it means nowadays to watch TV, anyway.

“Oftentimes when people condemn what television is, what they’re really condemning is what television was,” Mittell maintains. In the 1960s and ’70s, he says, TV programming was “very restrictive” and “overtly commercial.” Owing to landmarks such as “Charlie’s Angels,” the medium became associated with the lowest common denominator. And, says Mittell, “amongst people on the left, it became a sort of shorthand way of being countercultural: ‘Turn off the TV.’”

But what about all the research into the deleterious effects of TV on children? On that point, Mittell, who has three kids of his own, stands firm: “I think TV can be, if used and framed properly, a remarkably positive influence in children’s lives,” he says. “These days, there’s a vast array of television out there for kids that I would argue is much better than movies.”

When it comes to using television “properly,” Mittell says, encouraging kids to talk about what they watch is vital. But so is modern technology. In his household, the sole TV is connected to a TiVo stocked with recorded shows he and his wife have vetted. Unlike the bored kids of yesteryear, who “watched whatever was on,” today’s children “can choose and really get a sense of ownership and control.” But can they flip? Not in his house, says Mittell: “The only time my kids see live TV is when we have a sports game on, or maybe the news.”

No doubt about it, the Internet and devices such as DVRs are changing our concept of what it means to watch — or kill — our televisions. But will web surfing someday replace channel surfing altogether, as broadcast television’s content moves online?

Mittell says not to expect such a radical shift any time soon. But a 2009 graduate of Midd’s Program in Film and Media Culture, Connecticut resident Aaron Smith, says he’s poised to take advantage of those changes when they happen.

At Middlebury, Smith wrote a thesis called “Transmedia Storytelling in Televison 2.0” that examines how the creators of shows such as “Lost” use web content, video games and novels to expand the stories told on screen. Postgraduation, he won a fellowship from the International Radio & Television Foundation that landed him a summer internship at Deep Focus, a New York marketing agency that runs online campaigns for HBO and AMC. His studies at Middlebury were “a big reason why I was able to get it,” Smith says of the internship, which he left with a “long list of contacts” in the industry.

Smith says his studies with Mittell taught him to watch TV “differently. I’ve developed an eye for how a show’s narrative is constructed, what cultural representations are being reinforced, the economic logic that’s motivating it.” And, he adds, “media studies is becoming more important, because we are in this digital age where everyone can produce a blog or a video. Technology is so democratized now. You need a critical eye to sift through it.”

Astri von Arbin Ahlander, a 2007 Middlebury graduate, concentrated on film within the FMC program — today, she confesses, she doesn’t even own a TV. Nonetheless, she recalls Mittell’s survey class as one that made her “consider journalism and television programming with new eyes … Most students enter the class thinking they are going to be watching TV and goofing off,” she writes in an email, “but thanks to Jason’s extraordinary breadth of knowledge … they leave with a new appreciation for television as a legitimate art form and for television studies as a crucial field of study necessary to fully appreciate contemporary society.”

Since graduation, Ahlander has cofounded the nonprofit Lattice Group, helped make a viral Sarah Palin-themed video, written for the Huffington Post and entered a Columbia grad program in writing. Smith isn’t sure where he’s headed next — perhaps to grad school — but he knows he wants to be “at the intersection between new media and television,” he says. “I like to think the job I will have in the future does not exist right now.”

To outsiders — even those who wouldn’t miss an episode of “The Wire” — studying television may sound like the proverbial path of least resistance. But to scholars such as Mittell and Moore, it’s about finding surprises in the familiar. Moore says she sometimes assigns her English students to write about TV because it’s an occasion for “taking the skills of critical thinking and applying it to the world around them.” While students often feel awkward commenting on great literature of the past, she says, they loosen up and use their critical faculties more freely when the topic is “things they’re already knowledgeable about and obsessed with.”

Describing his survey course, Mittell puts it more succinctly: “It’s about taking something that people assume to be shallow and providing some depth to it.” And, if “Kill Your PC” or “Kill Your iPhone” ever replaces “Kill Your Television” as a rallying cry, his students could be the first to know about it.

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