As I wind up and evaluate classes from the academic year just gone by, and start to prepare for the coming year, my thoughts turn to teaching, and in particular to teaching television. It’s always interesting in these blogs to read about other opinions, other critical ideas, other research and I guess many CST bloggers write about what most engages them. For academics, especially during term time, thinking about research is a pleasure and a respite from the round of classes, meetings, marking, and ongoing administration. But now, with term finished and that illusory ‘holiday’ apparently stretching out ahead, I can think about teaching with a little more clarity.
Of course, there are guides to teaching television, but many of them suggest themes or questions to be raised about particular television ‘texts’. I want to start with rather more pragmatic and operational issues, which I’m sure will be familiar to may colleagues who also teach television.
It’s hard. Harder than teaching film, in my experience. Why? Primarily, because there’s too much TV.
Not that there aren’t many, many films to choose from if you’re putting together a module on a film studies programme. As film studies has already done, television studies is establishing its own canon for teaching purposes. But, clearly, it’s not just quantity, it’s duration. Film duration varies. Some, especially older films, might be shorter: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is around 70 minutes. Others might be longer: Titanic (1997) is 194 minutes. Even with longer films, it’s not asking too much of students to prepare for class by viewing a few hours per week. Television series, on the other hand, can have hundreds of hours.
The obvious answer here is that it’s not necessary to watch all those hundreds of hours. Granted, for some classes where the subject is mise en scene, set design, performance, special effects, editing, use of sound, or focus on a particular theme, it might well be feasible and effective to select one episode that exemplifies these things. Yet if the class is dealing with television drama, then, just as with fiction film, narrative and structure are going to be factors.
With contemporary television drama in particular, the increase in seriality and narrative complexity mean that watching single episodes, or even more than one, barely scratches the surface of an elaborate structure that can present multi-stranded plots running across episodes, seasons and series. Forbrydelsen’s ‘previously on’ segments sometimes run to 9 or 10 minutes, for example.
David Kociemba’s essay for the collection Buffy in the Classroom (2010) outlines a number of issues relating to narrative development, complexity and audience engagement, based on his experience of teaching a unit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The problems in negotiating serial narrative are only exacerbated in units taking a broader approach, like my second year module Television Drama where students look at various examples from single plays to miniseries to long-running serials. Admittedly, enthused by the experience of watching Dexter, some come back the following week having watched the whole first season, but Dexter is now in its eighth season and even were this enthusiasm to last all year, the total viewing hours involved to watch each episode of each assigned drama would be immense.
The continuous narrative of soap opera would take even longer to become familiar with, though soap is easier to pick up and follow partway through than a ‘quality’ series relishing its own narrative ingenuity. Throw transmedia storytelling into the mix and even more material is added. And this is only one of six modules a student would ordinarily be studying.
With non-fiction television, fairly extensive viewing is still required to fully comprehend the dynamics of anything from semi-scripted reality shows like The Only Way is Essex, to a popular factual series like Embarrassing Bodies. Watching short clips of the evening news on BBC One and on Channel 5 gives some sense of the differences in approach, address and structure but seeing how this plays out over a week of news programmes would really prove the point. Classes based solely on out-of-context excerpts are generally unsatisfying for all concerned.
I’ve often discussed with colleagues the merits of screening material versus homework viewing for classes. Most of us probably use a combination. For television classes, it’s almost a necessity to set homework viewing, so that students have at least some empirical evidence to draw on.
But this also raises the question of availability. Do we ask students to find their own viewing outside the classroom, or is it provided? A DVD can be bought for a university library, but if students can take it out on loan, this makes it unavailable to others in the same class. If the DVD is reference only, then students have to watch it in the library, probably in an open-access space with headphones, which can be off-putting for 18 and 19 year-olds accustomed to watching TV on demand. Another way to provide viewing, and customised viewing lists is through a platform like YouTube, or the British Film and Video Council’s education service Box of Broadcasts.
Box of Broadcasts allows access for member institutions to all free-to-air channels in the UK under the ERA+ educational license and ‘currently offers over 45,000 TV and radio programmes covering all genres’. The quality of flash video on platforms like these has improved, though it’s not always what we might like for teaching purposes, especially if style and aesthetics are to form part of the analysis and discussion. Both YouTube and Box of Broadcasts also rely on being able to stream video in the classroom. Yes, this is the twenty-first century and it shouldn’t be a problem but any teacher knows that technology is only great when it works and it can’t always be relied on to do so. The reality I’ve found, however, is that students watch TV for class by downloading it, probably illegally, raising a whole new problematic area.
The ephemerality of some television can also affect its availability for teaching. While some older shows can be found online or in DVD collections, others cannot. Drama tends to be privileged here but very early television may be lost forever, and even digitally remastered, is of poor quality.
The development of television studies as an academic subject means scholars (and, presumably, university teachers) are now turning increasingly to television flow and overflow: the accompanying idents, interstitials, advertisements, trailers and online content that form part of the contemporary experience of television (see, for example, the work of Paul Grainge, Jonathan Gray, Catherine Johnson and others). Some of these are, by nature, of the moment and intended to be transitory, and although such content can be archived and accessible, it may equally become unavailable once its moment has passed. The television industry may be fast-moving and of the now but the academic study of television has different priorities and studying its history, as well as the latest innovations, is one of them.
In my own teaching, I have strategies to deal with these issues. I’ve tried out a range of approaches, but I’m never quite satisfied about which is the best way. As I’m so fond of telling my students, there is no right answer. I’ll continue to think about it, to test out new ideas, to talk to colleagues and to my students about what works and what doesn’t. One thing’s for sure: the very ubiquity of television and the wealth of material it offers is what makes it so exciting, so fascinating, so rewarding, as well as so challenging to teach.
Lorna Jowett is a Reader in Television Studies at the University of Northampton. She is the co-author with Stacey Abbott of TV Horror: Investigating The Dark Side of the Small Screen (2012) and author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan (2005). She has published many articles on television, film and popular culture, and is particularly interested in genre, gender and television drama.
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