There are course outcomes, and then there are course outcomes. There are the official outcomes developed for assessment purposes and dutifully reproduced on my Writing and Research syllabi. Students should be able to find, read, use, and properly cite scholarly sources; they should be able to develop a semester-long research project, from proposal to annotated bibliography to final paper; they should be able to present the results of their research in multiple modes. On some days, I think that if I can help most of my students get to this point, I’ve done my job. Other days, I think these outcomes are too modest; I dream bigger.
It’s about a month into my new experimental Writing and Research course, “Art at the End of the World.” We’ve read and discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (well, most of us have); we’ve watched some Key and Peele sketches to learn about the conventions of the apocalyptic genre; and this past week we filled out the empty spaces in the course schedule with student-assigned readings that correspond to their own individual research projects. Well, “readings”—mainly movies and TV shows. The students weren’t too keen on assigning themselves actual reading. I think they may find that watching two films a week is more taxing than reading a short story or two, but maybe that’s only true for me.
I designed the course with blank spaces in the schedule because I wanted the students to be more invested in the objects we study and the objects they research. In previous semesters, I chose all of the readings, and students had to pick one of my assigned texts to develop a research project around. There was still some flexibility, but not, I thought, quite enough. The result was that some students got really excited about their research projects, while others merely went through the motions. Plus, some students stopped doing the assigned reading, and class discussions foundered. I hoped that giving students more say in the course material would lead more of them to care more. (Not being completely naïve, I do recognize that this approach is still not going to get 100% buy-in—a small handful of students will not prepare for class even if the preparation consists of watching World War Z. We’re going for improvement, not perfection.)
It wasn’t a surprise that the students picked mainly blockbuster movies—Armageddon, I Am Legend, Contagion—to assign themselves. They’re fun to watch. Popular culture studies is in my view the perfect gateway to humanities scholarship for undergraduates. The primary sources are accessible and appealing, while the secondary sources show the dazzling possibilities of careful analysis. It’s often an exciting moment when students realize that the movie or television show they thought was just cotton candy for the brain is actually brimming with meaning. (Students from previous classes told me it was a mind-blowing moment when they learned that the X-Men series is often considered an allegory for LGBT rights.) If you want to better understand the culture you live in, it’s hard to think of a better way to do it than to analyze its most popular and profitable artifacts.
There are some drawbacks to this approach, however. Most humanities courses, I think, have a desired outcome that is not measurable and hence mostly unwritten: to broaden students’ minds by exposing them to works that are beautiful, challenging, and out of the mainstream. Even as a bookish and nerdy undergraduate, I would probably never have picked up Joyce’s Ulysses on my own. And yet struggling through it in a class was life-changing—it’s what sent me to graduate school to study modernism.
Left to our own devices, we often prefer stories that are palatable, relatable, and not too challenging to our own worldview. Rebecca Mead writes, for example, that the critical tendency to praise works for being “relatable” is a “scourge,” a sign of lazy media consumption and self-absorption. When one uses relatability as the main criterion for evaluating a story, Mead explains,
The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
Ruth Graham’s clickbaity screed against adults reading YA fiction was motivated, I think, by a similar insight. I don’t agree that it’s embarrassing to enjoy the easy pleasures of young adult fiction, but surely Graham is onto something when she claims that “mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.” And maybe college humanities courses are one place in which that more mature satisfaction should be cultivated.
My own intellectual coming-of-age (to put it pretentiously) owes a lot to Horkheimer and Adorno’s “The Culture Industry,” a scathing Marxist critique of popular culture for deadening the minds of the masses and making us content to be passive consumers and wage slaves. And it owes an equal amount to the old-school story of modernism as a backlash against that easily digestible yet pernicious mass culture. Nowadays, modernist scholars have usefully complicated that story and deconstructed the modernism/mass culture binary. But it’s worth keeping in mind the way we can’t seem to stop having the same debate. Poptimism vs. adult taste, fan culture vs. aesthetic diversity, time-worn vs. just-in-time-to-cash-in books… there’s a serious concern that, alongside the “intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom” accompanying the collapse of the distinction between high and mass culture, something legitimate and precious is also lost.
I do worry about the tyranny of democratic taste, about the quiet student whose desire to study something old or difficult or strange gets drowned out when the majority of his or her classmates vote to watch an action thriller with Matt Damon instead. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to do an entirely peer-driven course as Lee Skallerup Bessette did, why I couldn’t relinquish the last bit of control, and why I assigned Station Eleven. At once an instance of beautiful writing, a celebration of the art that inheres in graphic novels and Star Trek and other pop culture objects, and a defense of enduring classics like King Lear, Station Eleven will, I hope, keep those little, dissenting voices audible in our classroom. And I hope it will contribute to that secret, unmeasurable course outcome: persuading students that good literature, even when difficult or time-consuming, is worth their time.