The Sci-Fi Anti-Dupe Science Fiction TV as Teaching Tool
Issue #57, October 2001
Spectators are not the dupes of the media theater, but they refuse to say so.
— Michel de Certeau, Culture in the Plural, 1997/1974
Recently, I have been thinking about political subjects who imagine their position in the world and act, but who are also subject to state power. I have been thinking about the way the state manifests its power, especially when it does not call attention to its presence.
— Wahneema Lubiano, "Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor" (in Gordon and Newfield, eds., Mapping Multiculturalism, 1996)
To say that Americans are not dupes of the increasingly global mass culture industries is perhaps a useless banality in 2001. But what if we amend that theoretical statement as does French social theorist Michel de Certeau? What if we could find a discernible subset of Americans who seemingly prefer to act as if they had little control of their thoughts and actions, believing that the culture industries exerted a powerful one-way influence? What if we attempt to make them say that they are not dupes and adopt the subjectivity suggested by African-American social theorist Wahneema Lubiano?
As an instructor who has worked in two large midwestern universities, I encounter many undergraduate students who enter my social science classes as de Certeauian spectators. I use TV shows to encourage them to leave as Lubianoan subjects. Specifically, science fiction TV is useful in helping college students see themselves as actors who should constantly re-imagine their social positions and act to create new social contexts and meanings.
During the 1997-1998 TV season The X-Files was still great. Among other things, we witnessed investigations of a sentient computer program in "Kill Switch," militias in "The Pine Bluff Variant," and small-town Americana in "The Post-Modern Prometheus." I often opened my Monday classes with the question: "Did anyone catch last night's X-Files?" And I'm sure my students were absolutely thrilled when we watched and discussed "The Post-Modern Prometheus" in its entirety, but hey, what else is a sci-fi geek gonna do with a favorite show that's not only entertaining but also creates learning opportunities?
During the 1998-1999 season I started a salon of interested students who would watch The X-Files every week and then gather as group to discuss it, with 12 former students participating. The point? Yes, pure entertainment was one objective, but I also wanted to extend the discussion that began in class in response to the following question: Can a televisual work of fiction create powerful real-life understandings about the operation of hegemony in America? I believe that it can, and did in our salon meetings. The question can be powerfully addressed using other sci-fi TV shows and in other social contexts with different casts of participants. Here's how.
From the Classroom to the Salon
The 12 students were from my "media culture" freshman-level sociology classes. Some joined the salon because they were avid X-Files fans. Others joined because they liked in-class discussions and hoped for more of the same in an informal setting. A few joined because of the one credit of independent study they could receive for attendance and completion of a journal. All, however, made interesting comments throughout the year and learned new things about themselves and their social worlds.
Most 100-level introductory social science classes in large public universities are mob settings, with 100, 200, even 300+ students enrolled! I was "blessed" with enrollments of about 70, but even such an intimate context makes it tough to get good sustained discussion going. Even when the instructor uses a text — like a television show — that students enjoy, there's never enough time to have more than a handful of students participate, and then only two or three viewpoints are expressed, and these usually don't explore the hidden aspects of institutional structures. Furthermore, provoking the expression of more than one viewpoint assumes that the instructor selected something of real interest. During my last year of college I swore that if the number of times I had to watch a ten-year old documentary reached double digits I was going to bail out and go work at the closest McDonald's.
I shouldn't be too hard on my colleagues in this type of situation, however, as in addition to the convenience of tried-and-true texts and methods, there may be institutional restraints on the curriculum. On the student side, additionally, attendance in a large lecture-format classroom fosters a regurgitation mentality: "I'll learn this stuff, spit it back on the test, then forget about it." I can probably get away with saying that almost all who've attended college have done this, especially when the content is "dry" and "boring" (I know that I did). Learning only for the test is as much a part of college as are post-party hangovers.
Here's where science fiction TV comes in. While only a minority of students will admit to being fans, the majority has had some exposure to the genre and knows its conventions. An instructor, then, can use sci-fi TV in the class to stimulate interest and discussion of current events. Specifically, most students will regard sci-fi as "strange" and "unreal". Instructors can use this opinion to make connections to strange aspects of real life that most see but do not want to investigate. With its history of utopian possibility, instructors can use sci-fi TV to help students question taken-for-granted assumptions and form alternative possibilities that work against ever-expanding social stratification and inequality.
Participation in a sci-fi salon continues the critique begun in the classroom. Actually, it extends and deepens the process, as students can more fully explore topics and concerns given that they have more time and are in a relaxed atmosphere (there's no pressure of grades). In my X-Files salon, the students and I met every week in an off-campus restaurant, which — along with lots of informal off-topic discussion in each meeting — created a casual and friendly environment. We had quite a bit of fun discussing the minutiae of each episode. The goal, however, is not so much a close textual analysis of each episode, as it is to use elements from the show to stimulate reflection on wider social contexts.
Let's examine the reaction to one particular episode as an example. First, a brief thumbnail description of "Arcadia," from the episode guide on the official site (www.thexfiles.com): "Mulder and Scully go undercover, posing as a married couple, to investigate strange happenings in a planned suburban community." The "strange happenings" were the vanishing of three couples over a seven-year period. It turns out that people who questioned the community's strict appearance regulations were killed by a thought-demon conjured by the homeowner association's president to keep the residents in line. Talk about Big Brother!
Although the usual subjects arose in our discussion of this episode — gender politics, racial inclusions and exclusions, privacy issues — the students were particularly keen to discuss politics of gated and planned communities. Some students expressed shock and disbelief at the very existence of communities that regulate the color of your house, your use of patio furniture and the length of your grass, etc. But other students assured them that this is indeed the case, and they collectively explored the good, the bad, and the ugly about this state of affairs. Perhaps most heartening, many students said that they would now critically consider all of the implications of their own future home purchase decisions on various social formations (neighborhood, nation, "The Environment," etc.) rather than follow the latest trend. In a journal one student wrote, "this entire episode reminded me strongly of something George Carlin said about how quick Americans are now to give up a portion of their freedom for convenience." In future entries he talked about how he increasingly doesn't want to be that kind of American. Indeed!
That type of conviction doesn't happen overnight, however. It is developed over months of reflection about deeply held — but usually unexamined — beliefs. A small weekly salon about a TV show like The X-Files provides the participants with the space, time, and raw materials to ask and answer tough questions about themselves and society. Discussing elements of the show triggers memories and experiences from real life, which can lead to powerful new understandings on multiple levels.
Teach the Anti-Dupe
If I were doing this project today I'd work with one of the new generation of sci-fi shows, such as the Sci-Fi channel's Farscape or the WB's Angel. As was the case with my X-Files salon, I'd have a group of students meet each week in an informal setting, and have students post messages to each other in a web-based electronic forum. Some people are more comfortable expressing themselves in a written medium than verbally, so this would allow these individuals to fully participate in the discussion. Additionally, a supplemental forum would allow the participants to expand on themes raised during face-to-face discussion, and introduce additional ideas for analysis.
As a new twist I would add engagement with a fan-based website. For instance, I frequently visit www.crashdown.com for the latest news and views on Roswell, which is about four extraterrestrial alien teenagers and their human friends and lovers. Members of a Roswell salon could compare their ideas with those found at crashdown.com. As part of the refusal to reject dupe-hood, many students assume that everyone thinks like them. Participation in an on-line fan forum can expose them to a rich set of diverse ideas. (It can also expose students to knee-jerk reactions and juvenile flame wars, but that's a topic for another essay.) My friends give me much grief about my love affair with Roswell. ("How can a 33-year old Black man like a show about whiney White teens?") But how can I resist a show with a host of ready-made social issues (such as alienation, the family, immigration, and sexuality) that are ripe for exploration by students not much older than the main characters?
You don't have to be a teacher of university students to set up the type of group I've been discussing. I think that the basic idea can also work at the high school level and perhaps in elementary schools too. In fact, you don't even need "students" to start a TV salon; a group of adults can be formed in which discussion revolves around TV rather than the normal "high culture" elements that are more readily associated with a "salon." So all you teachers out there — formal as well as informal — use on-going discussions of your favorite sci-fi TV show to help others question their social worlds. We'd all be better off in the long run if that happens....
Walter R. Jacobs III teaches in the General College at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. This is his first essay for Bad Subjects.