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Some thoughts about TV as a teaching tool

By Rich Heldenfels Published: March 31, 2017

About a month ago I did a presentation for the New Explorations In Teaching conference at the University of Akron (where, as you may know, I also teach part-time). My presentation came from conversations with some of my English department colleagues about using TV shows as a tool in teaching composition -- particularly when it came to analyzing and making arguments. Below is the basic text I used for my presentation, with some revisions since, and notes at the end about another telecast I used. So here goes:

As a teacher of freshman composition here at the University of Akron, I am often looking for ways to engage students in the art of argument, both in analyzing it and in using it for their own writing. It’s a tough task. The best classic writing, including that in current textbooks, often proves heavy lifting for students whose patience with the written word is limited; even something as concise as the Gettysburg Address can seem either dense or simply uninteresting. Advertising is a good alternative at times, but its arguments tend to be so concisely presented that they’re not necessarily adaptable for a student writing an essay.

It’s not that students are uninterested in argument. Many readily embrace an issue brought up in class, taking positions pro and con and listening to what other students have to say, both to endorse ideas and to find the flaws in them. Still, I think we all want them to grapple with a text. And my suggestion here is that we turn to television, particularly half-hour television, as a source.

This is not a new idea. In his 1966 textbook Language And Reality, Neil Postman -- no fan of television – said that “the material of television may be used as a kind of index to the social values of the American community,” that in TV you can find “a wide variety of social situations” reflecting “values, attitudes, and beliefs.”

But what was curious about Postman’s presentation was that he used as an example the script of the TV play Twelve Angry Men, which though admirable dated to 1954, more than a decade before the publication of his book, instead of more recent fare. These days, students lean heavily on the contemporary, and our best approach to them is through material which comes from their own adolescent and adult lives.

Doing so, though, can come up against the practical problem of scheduling: an 80-minute television movie is too large for an hour – or, here, 50 minute – class, and even though an hour-long TV episode shrinks to about 41 minutes with the commercials removed, that does leave a lot of time for on-the-spot discussion.

The half-hour then becomes an alternative, especially a commercial half-hour that clocks in at a little more than 20 minutes when the ads are taken out. And the half-hour comedy today is a rich source of ideas being presented and argued.

A series such as Speechless is an ongoing discussion of what it means to be a young man with mobility and verbal limitations because of cerebral palsy, and how the culture treats him. The Great Indoors is a comedic examination of millennials, and how older generations respond to them. You’re the Worst has dug deep into the effects of clinical depression. Each program serves as a launching pad for discussion, and should be greeted enthusiastically by students. My honors students came close to cheers when told we would spend a recent class looking at a show.

Today I want to focus on one of the best examples of the half-hour as argument generator, and that’s the series black-ish. Now in its third season, the program is built around the upper-class Johnson family – mom Rainbow’s a doctor, dad Dre’s in advertising – who not only deal with the day-to-day challenges of raising four children (with a fifth on the way) but questions arising from being African-American today – questions fueled by the three generations present in the show -- parents, children and the parents’ parents, especially Dre’s outspoken mother Ruby – along with other voices embodied in co-workers and friends.

"Being Bow-Racial," the episode I’ve chosen for presentation here is a departure from black-ish generally; Dre is usually the narrator of episodes, while this one turns that over to Bow. But there’s a reason for that. The premise is that the oldest son, Junior, has come home with a new girlfriend. She’s white. And Rainbow, though herself the daughter of a white man and a black woman, does not like this. That, as you will see, leads into an extended contemplation of racial identity – and of stereotypes. Let’s look at the episode. …

(For those of you following along, I did not see this episode on ABC.go.com, or via my On Demand service, but it is available via Amazon.com and iTunes, for a fee. I bought one of those online copies to show during the presentation.)

Some questions that the episode raises:
-- How do we deal with racial identity in a society that is increasingly interracial?
-- is Bow’s concern about Junior dating a white girl valid, or is she indeed just dealing with her own concerns about her identity?
-- What does the episode say about stereotyping? Who is stereotyping, and how? Does the show always suggest that stereotypes are wrong?
-- Are there class issues as well as racial ones at work here?
-- Does the scene with Bow and her father turn into mansplaining?
-- As for rhetorical questions, how does this frame its argument? How many different points of view are represented? How is the discussion given both a historical context and a major contemporary component?

Now the question for all of us is how do we use this in the classrooms? Do the questions I just mentioned set up discussion? What can we do with details such as Charlie’s wondering if he is a sell-out? How closely do we examine the animated segment of history – for example, by freezing on the individuals included and asking if students can identify them? What, ultimately, is the argument made here – is it that racial identity is a matter of choice, or a choice that society makes for us?

That's a lot to talk about from just 20 minutes of viewing. But when I used this in class, the arguments were intriguing. White students wrestled with the best way to address the show and its issues with black students also in the room.

One student wanted to argue that we had moved past a focus on race, or at least that young people had. And many of them were keenly aware of the details of content. And there was at least one generational note that came the showing: a throwaway joke in the telecast about Corbin Bleu got a big laugh, bigger than I had expected; High School Musical is a cultural touchstone for these freshmen.

I may try this again with other worthwhile shows – the new version of One Day at a Time on Netflix has, for example, looked at trauma in military veterans and how a family should deal with a daughter recognizing she is gay. I won’t use these as a complete substitute for written work, but do think such programming can serve as a complement to other readings, and other kinds of argument.

The discussion that followed was a good one -- lots about other possible shows, for instance. And since then I have tried this with another program: the pilot episode of Hot In Cleveland. I thought it had raised some good questions about age and gender, as well as how Northeast Ohio was portrayed. The conversation that followed was OK, although I don't think the show resonated with students the way black-ish did. While Hot In Cleveland is also relatively recent, it was aimed at an audience that had a long TV relationship with Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick. When I made mention of Bertinelli, one student asked which one she was. (Everyone, on the other hand, knows Betty White.)

I know, that may not strike some of you as a good teaching tool. One of my colleagues lamented my decision to turn away from great literature to TV, even for a moment. But I still believe in the possibilities, especially when you are trying to get students engaged.

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