The Simpsons Meet
Analyzing Popular Media Texts In The Classroom
Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
Published as "The Simpsons
Meet Mark Twain: Analyzing Popular Media Texts in the Classroom," English
Journal, January 1998, pp. 49-53. By Renee Hobbs There's a number of
reasons why the Standards for the English Language Arts has adopted
the term"nonprint texts" to describe messages that are not traditional
classroom resources in the K-12 classroom. "Nonprint texts" is an umbrella
that includes everything, from photographs to web sites, from films
to popular music, but it also covers and avoids mention of the fact
that many of these works are-- dare we say it? -- popular.
pages have been filled with reports from teachers using popular films,
music lyrics, advertising, magazine photographs, tabloid newspapers,
cartoons, animation, and more in the process of stimulating students'
speaking, writing, viewing, reasoning and critical thinking skills.
Teachers have good reason
to be interested in using popular works in the classroom to strengthen
students' media analysis skills. Student interest in these works is
high, and students bring a wealth of information and opinions about
these works. In some high schools, many of the better students, faced
with the pressure to get into college, are going through the motions
intellectually in the classroom. They give the right answers, do the
assigned work, but it's hard to get them excited about anything, hard
to see much of their individuality in the classroom. Other students
have disengaged from the process of schoolwork long ago, and are apathetic
in relation to any learning activity presented by even the most effective
and thoughtful teacher. As a motivational tool alone, using popular
works in the classroom can be a powerful teaching tool.
Plus, teachers who have
used popular works in the classroom know that such works can generate
some remarkable, vigorous and sophisticated reasoning, rich conversations
and dynamic writing. It's a transformative experience for a young person
to discover that the same skills used to discuss The Tempest
can be applied to an episode of The Wonder Years. Students who
discover this in a powerful way chant a mantra that many teachers who
employ media literacy have heard frequently: "I"ll never watch TV the
same way again!"
But teaching media analysis
skills with with popular media texts can be dangerous for a teacher.
There are numerous formal and informal sanctions which may limit an
individual teachers' ability to use popular works in the classroom.
The perceptions of parents, colleagues and school administrators may
serve to create a climate where teachers will not be respected if they
use these resources, will not be considered "serious" or "academic."
At the recent 1996 National
Media Literacy Conference in Los Angeles, one Michigan teacher told
me that, in her district, the students who enroll in a media literacy
English class where the teacher uses classic films like Citizen Kane
and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari get English credit. The students who
enroll in a media literacy class where the teacher uses television texts,
including news, advertising and situation comedies as study objects
do not receive English credit--- this class counts only as an elective.
The convention of using
the television as a classroom babysitter has become so well-established
in many of our nation's schools that in a recent survey I conducted
of 130 secondary school teachers, 85% had witnessed television used
in this manner in their school. It's so easy for teachers to use films
and television to fill time, keep students quiet, reward them for good
behavior, or present material that the teacher doesn't want or know
how to present. So when a teacher uses a television text as an object
of serious study, this work occurs in the larger context of expectations
that television is adjunct, peripheral and less rigorously demanding
than others sorts of classroom activities. Such expectations can serve
as a powerful sanction in some schools to the analysis of television
texts in the English classroom.
Another issue for English
teachers is the tension between literature and works of popular culture,
which is reflected across a wide range of media and genres. Why don't
more English teachers use essays from the New Yorker, articles from
Time and Newsweek, or popular works of contemporary fiction writers?
What characteristics make a work a 'classic'? Which works of popular
culture circa 1997 will likely be read or viewed as classics by our
grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
In the classroom I have
explored this issue explicitly through an activity where students compare
an episode of "The Simpsons" to some speeches and essays of Mark Twain,
including works from Life as I Find It.
Because students have so
much background knowledge about the program, they can vividly describe
the characters, the plot lines and the controversies associated with
this program. Some students remember the tensions associated with the
"Bart as Underachiever" T-shirts which were popular among schoolchildren
when the show first premiered. In the classroom, we create a list of
all the contextual information we have about Matt Groening, FOX, and
the show's history, including specific information about how frequently
the show airs old episodes and current ones, and at what times.
Since most students categorize
The Simpsons as a cartoon, we begin by exploring the program
within the genre of social criticism by analyzing the program opening,
which shows the family members in daily life, with Bart being rambunctious
and slightly devious, Lisa being artistic and humane, Homer carelessly
dropping nuclear waste throughout the town of Springfield, and Marge
doing the grocery shopping. Students write a short essay about the way
the characters' personality are suggested by these brief visual fragments
which serve as character introductions.
Working through one episode
carefully, we actively use the pause button while a student at the blackboard
writes down other students' analysis as they try to document every instance
where the program is making fun of something, somebody, or some idea.
Our stimulus questions are, "What's being made fun of? Who or what is
the target of the humor?" This turns out to amaze myself and the students.
For example, in the one Simpsons episode, where Monty Burns decides
to run for governor after a "Blinky, " a genetically mutated fish is
found in Springfield's river, the following targets are chosen for respect
for the role of government in inspecting the safety of nuclear plants,
the political campaign team, consisting of a "pollster, spin doctor,
personal trainer, muckraker, character assassin, mudslinger, and garbagologist."
Visual references to Citizen Kane are prominent, and in one
scene, Burns gives a TV speech, "Don't Blame Blinky" that is highly
reminiscent of Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech.
When we have completed
the entire episode, we look for patterns that emerge. upon inspecting
the whole catalogue of targets. Students discover the The Simpsons
has some repeated targets, including the hypocritical behavior
of local government officials, corporate greed and power, the news media,
and human stupidity, laziness and self-indulgence. When I ask, "Would
a different episode yield a list of targets very different from this?"
students give examples from other episodes which demonstrate their rich
"card catalog" of experiences from home viewing that they can use to
support or refute this claim. They also note that a number of other
television programs use humor to target these same social issues, and
they frequently mention programs that are completely unfamiliar to me.
Then in small groups, students
discuss and write their responses to these five questions:
Finally, students write their
own stories where they try to make fun of some of the same targets that
are addressed in The Simpsons' episode we analyzed.
- What is the author's
- What lifestyles, values
and points of view are represented here?
- What techniques are
used to attract and hold your attention?
- What background knowledge
(not presented in the text) helps enhance your understanding of this
- What historical, political
or social events does this message connect to? Which character is
presented most sympathetically?
We then tackle Mark Twain's
essays and speeches, using exactly the same structure. We discover,
for example, that Twain's targets include....