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The Simpsons Meet Mark Twain:
Analyzing Popular Media Texts In The Classroom

Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
ReneeHobbs@aol.com

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.

English Journal 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:

  • What is the author's purpose?
  • 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 message?
  • What historical, political or social events does this message connect to? Which character is presented most sympathetically?

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.

We then tackle Mark Twain's essays and speeches, using exactly the same structure. We discover, for example, that Twain's targets include....