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Media and theory through the writing process.


Fostering critical and literate habits of thought requires that teachers move beyond using learning strategies that compel students to "binge and purge" information in the manner of the bulimic. Utilizing concepts from Levi-Strauss, Whorf, Bahktin, Kristeva, Foucault, and Roland Barthes, this essay theorizes about an applied pedagogy that moves students from the position of subjugated vassal and passive knowledge vessel to an active and engaged intertextual creator. As an application of theory, a discussion of a media-based assignment follows.


Often, educational practices emphasize due deference and imitation. From an early age, many students are taught not to love learning for its own sake, but primarily for externally defined rewards. Students are exhorted to "make" straight As and to exhibit appropriate masks of docility. Educational strategies that exclusively stress these qualities are focused primarily on social control. While developing a type of tractability, though, teachers, students, parents, school boards, and even politicians frequently mistake short-term memorization for the ability to create, apply and learn. By overemphasizing standards based on recitation and recognition, we have produced a generation of college students who may be obedient but poorly equipped educational consumers. The results of the large-scale National Writing Test attest to this outcome. The results of the test, administered to a representative sample of 19,000 twelfth-grade students by the National Center of Education, tells us that twenty-six percent of twelfth-grade students do not write at a basic level of competency. Fifty-one percent write at the minimal basic level of competence, while only twenty-four percent are rated as proficient or advanced. Not surprisingly, twelfth-grade scores in reading, math and science have fallen in tandem with the decline in writing. The conclusion of educational professionals is unsurprising: "The twelfth grade scores are a real indication that students aren't ready to go to college and do the work that's expected of them," according to Gaston Caperton, the president of The College Board.

Designed to develop the latent writing and critical skills of students, I offer up an educational exercise that refocuses the relationship between media and critical theory. Although I work in sociology and criminology, these basic principles apply across the curriculum.

Theories and Tactics

I begin by showing students that language does not function as a clear pane of glass to an objective, taken-for-granted world. Rather, language shapes how people perceive and react to their world. To illustrate, I draw on Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic analysis of non-Western cultures. In its weaker form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that language "shapes" perception. The stronger form claims that language constitutes the ground for how we perceive "the real." For example, Whorf reports that the Inuit of Alaska have twenty-one words for types of snowflakes, as well as other words for wet and powdery snow and snow with different crystalline patterns. Conversely, Whorf shows that the Hopi language has no word for denoting a separate self, an "I." Instead, the Hopi "self" is part of an ongoing and non-linear temporal event. The Enlightenment idea of "the individual" who is uniquely endowed with "choice"--a notion central idea to postmodern capitalist democracies--is alien to Hopi language, perception, thought, and action (216). Students, then, apply this insight to their own language by asking questions about how local discourses shape what is seeable, speakable and doable. The process should lead them to ask how they have come to know what they know, and how discourses simultaneously enable and constrain thought and behavior. The activity is an unannounced exercise in epistemological reflexivity.

In S/Z, Roland Barthes discusses how, when a denotation fixes a dominant or primary meaning, the result is often ruse or even fraud. Overemphasis on the denotative is akin to an authoritarian policing of perception. To privilege the denotative, and to exclude or dismiss the connotative, shuts down creativity and plurality in the name of imposing a politically orthodox singular meaning. "Denotation," Barthes says, "is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so [...] [producing] illusion" (9). For critics like Barthes and Mikhail Bahktin, the continual production of connotative meanings, emerging from the cauldron of the wider and constantly changing social order, acts as a significant indicator of human freedom. Connotation, Bahktin says, sensitively reflects and refracts the changes in social systems. Active signs thus embody the very real tensions between stability and change, self and other (19).

Related to the Bahktinian notion of words as a kind of symbolic and linguistic carnival is Julia Kristeva's notion of intertextuality. For Kristeva, "any text [that] is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text [that] is the absorption and transformation of another" (37). In another passage, she describes the concept as "the transposition of one or more multiple sign systems into another," with the production of new accretions of meaning (36). In everyday language, the notion of intertextuality means that pre-existing texts acquire new meanings as they are placed in new and changing contexts. Living texts are neither isolated "things" nor possessed of static and unchanging meanings. To illustrate the relevance of linguistic analysis to my students, I sometimes sing the end to The Flintstones' theme song: "When you're with the Flintstones / Have a yabba, dabba, doo time / A dabba doo time / We'll have a gay, old time!" (Curtin, Hannah, Barbera). Written in the early 1960s, the sentence did not mean that Fred and Barney were going to the bathhouse or planned to enter San Francisco's Emperor Norton (and his Court) Contest. Rather, the political identity of the term "gay" emerged only after the Stonewall Riots in the 1970s combined the previous denotation of a happy, perky demeanor with the buoyant and chatty affect attributed to male homosexuals. Ultimately, this emergent connotative meaning became the denotative, reflecting the realities of late-twentieth-century identity politics. And so, the Flintstone's promise of a "gay old time" can now plausibly be heard as something other than what creators Hanna and Barbera intended.

I like to use popular culture in teaching the practice of intertextual allusions. Besides this familiar Flintstones song, I also demonstrate the reality of intertextuality by using another cartoon sitcom family, Matt Groening's The Simpsons. The Simpsons is part of a long parade of sitcoms detailing the travails of working-class families, a parade that ranges from the The HoneyMooners (1950s) to All in the Family (1970s) to the more recent Malcolm in the Middle (1990s). As a cartoon, The Simpsons shares its format with cartoon families of the 1960s, such as The Jetsons. Like Saturday Night Live, the visual images, rhetorical puns, and plots of The Simpsons satirize contemporary and historical political figures, music, and film, as well as other television shows. Full appreciation and enjoyment of The Simpsons depend on recognizing how and where the show's clever citations and recontextualization of previous cultural texts have occurred. Also, its durable popularity is attributable to the way viewers can construct their own novel intertexts, bringing their own histories, cultures, and sensibilities to interpreting the show. In this larger sense, the human agent in these practices resembles what Claude Levi-Strauss called the bricoleur--that is, the self who assembles and reassembles cultural and material dements from disparate sources. The bricoleur practices bricolage, a technique by which people use the icons, objects, and texts around them to develop and assimilate ideas in a creative and active process of self-discovery and self-invention (7).

The sweep of the aforementioned theories funnels into two final concepts. The first Roland Barthes' notion of changing everyday habits of interpretation from the passive reading of a text (that Barthes' termed a "readerly" text) to active and imaginative engagement (that Barthes termed a "writerly" text). The tenderly text is formed by the habit of absent-mindedly embracing the most conventional narrative interpretations (4-5). It's often the product of what Walter Benjamin called reception in a state of distraction (239). We naively digest prefabricated meanings. In contrast, the writerly text emerges when the receiver of the communication probes and analyzes the content and format of messages. The meaning that an active reader/viewer generates is a spontaneous and plural intertextual product. Finally, my pedagogy embraces Michel Foucault's notion that theory is continually emerging from and descending into the details of everyday life (67). Practiced as integral to the art of living, theory is therefore an expression of freedom. Below, I explain.

Critical Pedagogy

Putting these ideas into practice, as a strategy for teaching an upper-division course on theory, was a challenge. After some experimentation, I initially used Glengarry Glen Ross. The film offers an insider's look at the world of telephone/real estate boiler rooms. Set in the late 1980s, the film depicts the activity of selling quasi-worthless real estate. In this world of white-collar crime, the only real skill the men possess derives from a lifetime of cold sales calls. In all, the film is well suited for analysis across a variety of theories, from the conventional to the radical. Also, the script is available online. What follows below is a discussion of this particular assignment, followed by a discussion of student responses. However, please note that with some creativity, any number of films can be adapted into the dialogic format, across a range of ideas and disciplines.

The Assignment

The assignment consists of constructing a dialogue between two or more viewers involved in interpreting Mamet's GGR from different theoretical perspectives. Their dialogue may be set in almost any setting--a conference, coffee house, home, bar [...] whatever. I ask students to use a transcript-like style, clearly identifying each speaker (and, in some way, the position they represent). Possibilities from traditional sociological theory usually include anomie/strain theory, differential association, labeling theory, rational choice, neutralization/drift, and social control. A second category is also included, and encompasses critical/radical and feminist theories.. They must represent the voice of at least one theory from each of the two groups (though more than one each is certainly permitted).

The purpose of the exam has never been not to come to any "final" or "official" definitions. Rather, it is meant to be an event for developing student abilities to think about and represent complexity. As their professor, I assess the accuracy of the positions described, the inventiveness and plausibility of the dialogue, and the degree of insight into the various positions and possible points of confluence and divergence of these imaginary speakers. I tell them that they are the "puppet master" of this discourse. I urge them to be plausible, imaginative, skilled and attentive to detail.

Student Responses to the Assignment

Because the assignment emphasizes student construction of plausible intertexts (between personal experience, imagination, the film script, and social theories), the exercise steers far from the denotative in all its "correct answer" mantra. Additionally, because the format requires active, multiple readings and theoretical voices, a successful response to this exam means that students must produce a self-constructed "writerly" text. Finally, Foucault's notion that theory is something emerging out of and returning to experience is embedded in the very spirit of the exam. Student responses vary greatly. While some students embrace the inventiveness the assignment offers, others find it a source of anxiety and uncertainty. The resulting less-than-successful first attempts at this task may exhibit one of the following coping strategies: First, I often receive dual or triadic monologues. Speaker "A" espouses one theory, sometimes with little or no reference to applying his or her particular theory to the text of the film or to the comments of previous or [imagined] subsequent speakers. Speaker "B" reprises this strategy, and so on. An absence of personal or ideological interaction, let alone conflict, defines this adaptation.

An alternative response is the "fill it up with noise" approach. Because I invite students to invent, in essence, a script within a script (imagined characters discussing the action in a script, which itself is imaginary, even if informed by reality), some students create overly elaborate imagined setup scenes and florid interactions. Such scripts go on (and on) about the local ambience, the qualities of various alcoholic beverages, and the nature of imagined relationships, etc. When theory and film do emerge, it is an evanescent event, like a hummingbird's landing on a flower barren of pollen.

Yet another strategy is what I call the "dumb it down" approach. If the student doesn't want to make the effort needed to master the assignment, this strategy consists of creating characters so "dumb," so stunningly inarticulate that they do not have the linguistic ability either to evoke the necessary background scenery nor to describe or apply theories. Although this approach is not so common as the other less-than-successful approaches, it is always very striking when superimposed on the literary quality of GGR. Less frequently, I'll find myself on the receiving end of the "I'll tell you right now all about the heroic and tragic struggles of my life" approach. Usually, this takes the form of a tortured personal confessional. Desperately, students misapply the theories to the most intimate details of their lives. These students exhibit the greatest angst and often are very candid about how the assignment raises their fear of failure. That said, the energy level triggered by the assignment may drive these students through their distraction to marked overall progress.

These are understandable responses to an assignment that destabilizes both the standard pedagogical format (with student as vessel) and the associated power relations (with student as vassal). Sometimes in shock, frequently in self-doubt, students find the assignment bridges the passive and active, the consumer and the producer, thus exposing the false dichotomy between experience and practice. Occasionally, the assignment becomes a catalyst for individuals to experience their own micro-Copernican Revolution. They begin to realize how ethnocentric their understanding had been. In class, I discuss the problems associated with these approaches. Sometimes, I offer students a chance to re-write the assignment. In all cases, the weight of the first assignment is less than subsequent assignments in this format. Generally, students struggle with this format, but what began as a grudgingly undertaken task of actively interpreting both film and theory ends with a transformation of perception.

Beyond Academic Bulimia

In fashioning and using this assignment, I face two issues with each group of students I teach: What does my students' resistance to an active use of theory represent? How has such docile and literalist thought and behavior been produced? In response, the dialogic format of the assignment deliberately inverts the standard choreography of teaching and learning. Indeed, standard notions of teaching/learning social theory function like an academic version of bulimia. Students are expected to "binge," obediently taking in "foreign" ideas and then ritually purging in a frenzy of test-taking. Like the bulimic, they are relieved when the process is over, the ballast expelled. The mechanical choreography of this experience is obedience-based. When the educational experience and process are not inherently rewarding, students "buy into" the idea that rewards--a good grade, a college diploma, a good job--come from "playing the game well." They learn obedience, deferred gratification but not the joys of discovery and self-transformation. Neither are they well-equipped for negotiating the ambiguities of a rapidly changing social world. Writing in a dialogic format about theories they can observe in a product of their culture (the movie) helps students recognize and move beyond these common pitfalls of their education.

Films like Glengarry Glen Ross offer rich sources for constructing theoretical intertexts. To perform well, students are compelled to explore where and how to recognize, apply, and advocate multiple theories in creating their interpretations of the script. They must construct multiple, unique and interactive voices. This is not a process amenable to rote memorization and subsequent forgetting. Rather, it is a process intended to produce insight even as it develops the ability to think strategically. Theory becomes practice, and practice become theory. Somewhere, 1 hope, Michel Foucault is smiling. When this and other assignments do their work, the result can be a new understanding of the relationships among representation, perception, thought, and social reality. After the course is over, many students tell me that these dialogic assignments have permanently altered their perception of media products and of the relevance of theory. And, although it represents only one set of tactics, the dialogic essay is among the most successful. Moving from the "readerly" to the "writerly" in the course of one's life is a basic act of empowerment. In that light, somewhere, I hope, Roland Barthes is also smiling.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. (1974). S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller.

Benjamin, Walter. (1968). "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, 217-51.

Curtin, Hoyt, Hanna, William, Barbera, Joseph. (1960). Meet the Flintstones.

Foucault, Michel. (1988) "The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom: An Interview." The Final Foucault.

Mamet, David. (1992) Glengarry Glen Ross.

Henry, Matthew. (1994). "The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and The Simpsons." Originally published in Studies in Popular Culture 17. < /TriumphofPopCulture.htm>.

Kristeva, Julia. (1986) "Word, Dialogue and Novel." The Kristeva Reader, 34-62.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1966). The Savage Mind. (2003) "Students Writing Could be Better." <>

National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2003) The Nation's Report Card, <>

Volosinov, V. N. (Mikhail Bakhtin). (1986). "The Study of Ideologies and Philosophy of Language." Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956) "Linguistic Factors in the Terminology of Hopi Architecture." Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorl, 199-206.

Dion Dennis, Bridgewater State College, MA

Dion Dennis, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. He has abiding publication interests in media, crime, politics and representational formats.
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Author:Dennis, Dion
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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