A Shift

I got a significant surprise the other day when checking out the enrollment in my various classes. (Actually, I got a few, but one especially big one.)  For certain core classes in my department, the class limit is 30-ish, but for a number of content-course electives the class limit is 80 students.

(My impression is that this isn’t actually a limit, so much as a split point — 85, 105, or even 125 students technically can enroll, but above 80, the class can be split in half, at the professor’s discretion. Unfortunately, this means the class will be split and the other half taught at the same time by someone else, so that two profs have to prep the class and teach it, instead of opening a second section in an otherwise available timeslot, but whatever — I’m glad courses have limits at all, and I suspect the mechanics of rescheduling the second section would just be unworkable anyway.)

In any case, the class I was surprised about is my “Understanding English and American Popular Cultures” course. Which, by the way, I always retitle something like “Understanding Anglophone Popular Culture” or “Understanding Popular Anglophone Culture,” because Korean students seem to America-centric in their English studies that I feel almost obligated to toss some Australia, New Zealander, British, Canadian, or other Commonwealth pop culture at them.

The enrollment for that course has traditionally been anywhere from 18-30 students, but this time, it’s 53. I think that might be my biggest class so far, though not by much — I had a Media English course with enrollment in the mid-40s, a while back.

But with 53 students, it will be very difficult for me to run the class as I did in past sessions: the two-hour weekly session taken up by a little media, some lecture, some discussion, and the one-hour weekly session taken up by one or two student presentations touching on some area of interest within the week’s range of subject.

The thing is, in a (non-Conversational English) class of over 50 people, and Korean students especially, group discussions tend to dwindle away quickly, if they even begin. Also, I’ve been dissatisfied with the way the class has gone in the past, when it was arranged by nation-state: American pop-culture for most of the first half of the semester, followed by British, Australian, a quick dip into the bilingual insanity of Hinglish in Bollywood, Canadian, Scottish… going country by country was just not the way to do it, and lecturing country by-country was really hard to arrange and organize.

So I’m taking a page from Bruce Sterling, specifically his fascinating little book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years, which is arranged using seven “figures” like “The Infant”, “The Soldier,” and “The Pantaloon” (see the Table of Contents for names of the other figures).

Well, if I were to break down American popular culture in a way that would help non-Western students understand it, I think breaking it down into “figures” or “types” that have time and again appeared in pop-cultural representations would be a very useful way to go. (I’ll tack on a list of the figures at the end of this post for the three of you who might, just might, be interested.)

Okay, so I’ve sorted out most of what I’m planning to lecture about. (After all, when you subtract the first week, plus midterms week and final exams, there are only 13 weeks of classes! I figure five, maybe six figures will be the limit.)

But the really interesting change in the class is the way that I’m going to introduce a variation on “presentations.” This might fly, it might crash, I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth a try. The idea is simply stolen from SF conventions, where “panels” discuss some subject at length. Whether a panelist is an SF author, a fan, an editor, or some technical expert, everyone ends up on an even ground because the task of the panel is to come together, contribute individual thoughts and ideas to a discussion, entertain the listeners, answer questions in a thoughtful, interesting, or entertaining fashion, and fill up one hour semi-spontaneously.

This allows students to prepare in the way they’re used to — scouring Wikipedia, memorizing random bits of useful information — but also makes it impossible for them to follow a prearranged script, since besides preparing a few questions or discussion topics individually, they’ll have to grapple with questions put forth by the “moderator” (me) and the students, who will be expected to think up a few interesting questions as well. (And this kind of participation as an audience member will be tracked, too, for grades.) Since panelists will be competing, they’ll all be trying hard to entertain their classmates and me, and to say something interesting, which will reduce the likelihood of them coming together and forcing through some kind of prepared presentation. And I’ll be assigning the topics, so I can set the breadth to allow for focused discussion as well as general thoughts on the topic.

As I say, I have no idea how it will work, but it seems to me more useful than the kind of boring, blablabla, students-not-listening but sitting there because they have to during classtime sort of perfunctory presentations students seem so comfortable falling into giving. For me, eliminating that kind of perfunctory pseudo-academic ritual — what my friend Myoung-Jae used to call “jumping through hoops” — not just  helps to sort the students who belong in University from those who don’t, but also makes my job easier, because more interesting and engaging. But this is a new thing, at least in my department and at least as far as I know, and there’s no telling what will happen when I implement it.

I’m curious to find out, though!

Now, for the figures I’ve selected… here’s what I have so far…

  1. The Other: Though we will end up looking at various representations of “the other” in pop culture, we’re going to start with the figure of “The Negro” starting (briefly) with Shakespeare’s “Moor” figure in Othello, but quickly moving on to blackface in the context of the Minstrel Show and its impact on global popular culture, the entry  of African-Americans in (and their importance) in the entertainment business, and the ways in which the minstrel show is a partial source for the kinds of recurring types of personae we see many African-American entertainers consciously assuming even today. My class will be watching Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, as well as part of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer and some other clips. We’ll also be reading something by Jonathan Strasbaugh, and at least one essay by James Baldwin on race in America.  We may also look at one or another of the profiles in my Harlem Renaissance biography collection, and some poems by Langston Hughes. We’ll also have a brief look at other “Others” as they’ve shifted over time; at one time, Russian terrorists, in Bladerunner (as in the late 19th century’s Yellow Peril) the fear of Asians taking over, and now Middle-Easterners — all of which present a fascinating gauge of whom it is that white America officially (and popularly) fears at any given time.
  2. The Man: I’m using that word in the 1960/70s sense of the word, meaning the authorities, the people in power. The way we romanticize authority when we’re not dissing it. From good cops to the President of the USA (as depicted in “The West Wing,” media representations of “The Man” are fascinating, for as often as not, the “good cop” must go renegade to serve justice. This is something we see even in a show as tame as”Monk.” The ways in which authority is often satirized (any number of films or clips could be used to demonstrate this) is also fascinating.
  3. The Outlaw: Banditos, Pirates, Crooks, Gangstas, and Computer Hackers all are outlaw figures. Usually lawbreakers, their depiction is fascinating because it mythologizes them as Robin-Hood like figures, or, at least, as sexy-because-bad. The American obsession with the mafia, and reflections upon it in films like The Godfather series, and in “The Sopranos,” raise some serious questions about why there’s such an interest in, and obsessive romanticization of, outlaws in Anglophone (and especially American Anglophone) culture.

    (And it’ll be interesting to compare with Korean films. Most of the gangster films I’ve seen here, with the exception of “Bad Guy,” have depicted gangsters as dumb, funny, disorganized, and not all that dangerous or evil — they’ve been mostly comedies, and lacking even the comic complexity of, say, “Weeds,” where the drug dealer is a widowed housewife. And yeah, I plan on showing them at least one episode of “Weeds” during this section. But I should note that I’m not a gangster-movie aficionado, so I haven’t seen many Korean mobster movies and maybe a lot of serious ones exist.)

  4. The “Femme Fatale” and Her Predictable Sisters: Depictions of women in popular culture are depressingly predictable, and their roots go way, way back. One major example I’ll be presenting is the depiction of women in “Lost,” but the Kill Bill series also accentuates the weird focus on how so many female characters are obviously written by males, for males, to fulfill male fantasies. Chicks with Guns (Swords/Knives/Random Oriental Weapons The Names of Which Nobody Knows), Easy Women, the Hooker-With-A-Heart-of-Gold (as in Pretty Woman) all open doors to looking at how depressingly slow change has come in terms of the depiction of women in popular culture. And yeah, I’ll be trying to get translations of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” where you can see the roots of almost everything you see in the female characters in “Lost.”
  5. The Visionary: Okay, I’ll admit: this section of the course is less about “figures” than it is about SF and its impact on Anglophone culture. There’ll be a chapter to read from Tom Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, which I a, currently reading, and which is excellent on this subject, but we’ll also look at Bladerunner, at Independence Day, at some stories by Vonnegut and Phil Dick, and discuss why SF has been so massively successful in America and in the Anglophone world, but much less so outside of it. It’s a fascinating question.

If anyone can think of any other figures, I’d be glad of suggestions. The Femme Fatale, for example, was mentioned by James Turnbull in an email conversation, and was one I hadn’t thought of yet. though I’d planned a section specifically on the dismalness of how women are depicted in popular culture.

By the way, when you start pulling apart pop culture this way, weird things happen. I found myself earlier today trying to figure out just how many of the characters on Lost can be fit to character archetypes who appear in The Canterbury Tales.  It’s more than I imagined, by fewer than would justify an analytical essay. Still, interesting.

8 thoughts on “A Shift

  1. I would suggest the Trickster (naturally), but I think that might be too similar to the outlaw. There are obvious differences, but there is also a significant amount of overlap.

  2. One you may have missed: there’s a very deep trend in American pop especially towards what I’m calling the Man of Action. I came at this from a different direction because I was thinking about the very popular saying — in writer’s groups, anyway — that men like plot and women like character, and I thought, “That can’t be right. If men dislike character, we wouldn’t have a multi-billion dollar franchise named James Bond.” So you may want a better name.

    The essence of the figure seems to be one guy (occasionally girl) taking on a very large fight all by himself and winning: Bond, obviously, but also Rambo, Die Hard, the Rocky movies, Jack Bauer from 24… it’s unbearably trite to a lot of us, but at the same time I think it says something about how the Western cult of individuality is coping, or not coping, with the increasingly large, hero-crushing problems the Western world faces. And of course, what with the Bond movies being around so long, you have a really interesting chance to see how the Man of Action has changed since the 50s (or whenever it was Bond was conceived: I honestly have no idea.)

    I doubt you need more stuff for the Outlaw figure, but you may want to look at the very popular con man/big sting genre as well. Highly romanticized, in an interesting way, and of course you again have a chance to look at how the culture has shifted if you want to do that (when was Ocean’s Eleven originally filmed again?)

    This is very cool stuff even for a non-teacher. Thanks for posting.

  3. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember any post 9/11 action film (with the exception of The Kingdom or Team America where Middle Easterners were the bad guys. I know there were a few pre 9/11 films that had Muslim extremists as the bad guys, like True Lies and The Siege, but even then, they were competing against South American drug lords as the villain du jour.

  4. Charles,

    Interesting, though I’m kind of trying to pinpoint character types that are a little less universal. The trickster’s great, and probably varies interestingly from culture to culture, but I’m not sure I could unpack it in a way that lets me open doors to Western cultural history in the way I’d like. (Though, of course, the Western “trickster” most well-known is also one of those Men of Action discussed by Kat: Odysseus!


    Yeah, I think essentially The Man of Action is interesting, and will probably come up as a subset of The Man, as it’s usually someone in service of the law (Die Hard) or the nation (Jack Bauer, James Bond). Often these “good guys” have to ignore the orders of their commanders, and that, if nothing else, makes them “Men of Action.” Cool point, I think I’ll integrate The Man and The Man of Action into a single unit.


    Hmmm. That’s interesting, actually. But Vantage Point, Munich, and, on TV, 24 and Sleeper Cell depict Muslim terrorists, though perhaps more sympathetically in Munich. (Mind, I haven’t seen those TV series… I still haven’y finished Season 1 of 24 and couldn’t get my hands on any of Sleeper Cell. However, I think you’re right — after 911, or, more probably, fearful of a recurrence of the massive cleric-engineered mayhem that followed the Danish cartoon publication, plus a Hollywood reticence to too-eagerly support the Bush Administration, plus the desire to appear political correct sensitive, there probably has been an easing off of depictions of Muslim terrorists since 9-11. (Though, I would guess, probably not in cheap, b-grade action films or made-for-TV-movies, which are sadly probably more socially influential than we might hope.) Hell, even in Lost the one Middle-Eastern character is pretty much defined in a deep way by what he did during the (first) Gulf War.

    However, I should note that by “now,” I mean from the late 80s onward. Like, from the Palestinian hostage crisis, I’d guess. Definitely since the first Gulf War. I remember noticing all the bad guys suddenly looked like Arabs instead of Russians.

    (In fact, when I saw Rutger Hauer introduce Blade Runner live, someone rudely inquired how he felt about how the collapse of the USSR made his niche as a Cold War Russian villan obsolete, and “killed his acting career.” He responded quite eloquently about the acting business and independent film, at least until he stumbled into an understandably defensive response.)

  5. How about the ‘Grown-up Child’? An Indian friend of mine was complaining the other day about how as a TA he’s expected to coddle his students, how he couldn’t believe it when he went to college (in the US) that there were some kids who didn’t even know how to do their own laundry yet! I tried to sum it up as follows: basically, you’re in middle school until you get a career, buy a house, or get (someone) pregnant.

    Witness Paris Hilton and her ilk, and every character Adam Sandler has ever played. Or the fact that people in their twenties are now (I think) the biggest market for video games, formerly a feature of childhood. One gets a definite sense here that adolescence is extending farther into biological adulthood than it ever has.

    I’m not sure, by the way, that the Man of Action really aligns so well with The Man. The Man represents authority, order, and heirarchy, whereas the Man of Action (James Bond, MacGyver, every Jack Vance hero) is always a maverick in some way. Perhaps he might be better lumped with the Outlaw?

    And what about some more female archetypes? Can’t think of any off the top of my head, of course… :-/

  6. Tristan,

    Yeah, I was scrambling for female archetypes. They’re sadly mostly, “The Love Interest of [fill in the male archetype].” That in itself is worth discussion, especially in how so much of what we have in popular culture comes from the Gothic triangle, or probably older Medieval depictions of “Romantic Love.”

    But more female archetypes would be nice. The thing I suspect is that the difference between the Femme Fatale, The Princess in Need of a Rescue, and The Bitch is that they each fit along a range with only two dimensions: sexual dominance, and age. (Same for figures like The Nag or The Good Wife or The Bad Wife or The Psycho Mother In Law.) And figures like Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill seem to just substitute sexual promiscuity with wanton violence.

    As for the match between the Man of Action, the interesting thing is how the Man of Action serves The Man (usually) yet does it in ways The Man usually cannot understand or authorize. Thus the maverick nature. Which is why they fit together uncomfortably in my mind, while the Outlaw exists not in service of The Man but in opposition to the establishment, or at least its laws.

    As for the Grown Up Child… that’s a fascinating one, and all over in media. (And I hate it almost all the time.) But I have to wonder whether my students — many of whom remind me of North American middle or high school students in their maturity level, and who mostly live with their parents and even have allowances — would understand what I’m talking about. It’s just sort of normal to be an Adult Child here, or so many of my foreign friends here agree.

    (There are, of course, exceptions, but Korean youth seem to “grow up” at what is an unusually late stage, in comparison to Western youth.)

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