American Television Culture
Taught by: Kristin Sanchez Carter
What is the course in which you use instructional technologies about? Tell us about its origin, goals and objectives.
I used instructional technologies in American Culture 287, "American Television Culture," team-taught with Laura Yow. The course introduced to the students a set of critical tools for analyzing the medium of television as a locus of cultural, ideological, economic, and political production and consumption. The history of television's complex circuit of transmission and reception was examined, with a focus on the ways in which television's modes of address, and rapidly changing technologies of representation and access, could be said to constitute, enforce, transform, and potentially resist dominant discourses of race, gender, class, and citizenship. The course offered the students a chance to examine, in this critical context, their relation to TV in all its forms: for example, the soap, the sitcom, the documentary, infomercials and advertising more generally, children's television, reality TV. In the second half of the semester, students were asked to present their own critique and engagement with American television, via group-produced video work (their own "episode" of a news, "reality," or children's program), which they supplemented with written work.
What were the technologies used and how did they change or enhance your course?
A variety of technologies were used in class. First, a Frances T. Fergusson Technology Exploration Fund grant enabled us to bring television into the classroom itself. We set up Slingbox Pro equipment so that we could present, during discussion, current and recent television broadcasts that were streamed, over the internet, from my cable/dvr set-top box at home. This allowed us to discuss newscasts from the night before, and talk shows that had occurred that morning. We were also able to "browse" through current television offerings in class, so that, for example, students could observe and discuss the structure of advertising and its relationship to content, from channel to channel. ElGato EyeTV equipment allowed me to set up my laptop as a DVR, convert broadcast segments into .mov files using QuickTime Pro, and edit "clip sets" (selections from prime-time news coverage of the same story on different networks, and segments of a daytime television line-up, for example) to be used in class, and made available to students on Vspace for later use. Quicktime Pro also allowed us to create, and set up for Blackboard streaming, selections from a variety of television series (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Amos and Andy, public access television from the 1960s and '70, etc.). Some of these programs were in DVD format, on reserve in the library, but their episodic nature made screening, or library checkout, not an ideal format for access, viewing, or discussion of particular selections. By using HandBrake, QuickTime Pro, Blackboard, and Vspace, we were able to provide students with regular and timely access to select portions of video content.
Finally, we used instruction from Media Cloisters to train students in digital video production. Baynard Bailey ran a workshop, and we also directed them to the Cloisters' web-accessible instructional files on video production and editing. Students checked out recording equipment from Media Resources, and used their own software and Media Cloisters software (iMovie and Final Cut Pro, for example) to produce and edit their final projects. Many of them were also trained to use the "green screen" equipment now available at Media Cloisters, which they used to produce their own "on-location" news broadcasts.
The Student Response
How have your students responded to your use of technology?
With little or no media technology training, students were able to produce a set of critically engaged, and deeply engaging, televisual "texts." They worked in groups to write, direct, cast, perform in, record, and edit video projects, and once it was made clear that the assignment was as much about the production process as it was the end result, our students were able to generate what turned out to be some really remarkable product.
What are the challenges you faced teaching this course?
There were a couple of significant challenges, having to do with both content and structure. First, students were being asked to think of television as a text to be processed and evaluated, and not simply a product to be consumed passively. We gave them critical frameworks for interrogating the notion of passive consumption itself, calling attention to the ways in which in both television and its viewership do interpretive work. In other words, the course required that students be ready to critique their own claims about the process of viewing, response, and consumption, by returning to, and "re-reading" the same visual texts using a variety of critical frameworks. Because this was not a simple matter of bringing a textbook into class more than once, we had to think hard about how to supply students with regular and repeated access to visual material. We were able to do this, as I said, by setting up clip sets and streaming content, using Blackboard, Vspace, and the equipment obtained with the Fergusson grant.
The other challenge was related to the final video assignment. While the students who signed up for the course were being asked to develop their skills as readers and interpreters of television's history and discourse, they had not necessarily signed on to be television producers, or to get video production training. What we decided to do, in the spirit of many of the readings we had done in the class-readings that emphasized the complex and not always stable circuit of encoding and decoding, of production and reception — was to emphasize process. Baynard Bailey worked with us on this multi-part assignment by functioning as another viewer/interpreter of the encoding process — after consulting with us about what sorts of equipment and software we imagined our students might need, he helped us to articulate more concisely what it was that we expected as a result, what skills our students might need to learn in order to arrive at that result, and perhaps most significantly, what rubrics would be used to evaluate the results. We came up with a 3-part assignment, with the written portions done individually, and the video portion completed by groups of 3-5 students. The first part of the assignment was a prospectus/annotated bibliography, which asked students to describe the "production" process at the earliest stages — how they had decided on their project; what theoretical frameworks they were going to be considering; what "original" texts they planned on "interpreting" with their own visual projects. Whether students planned on producing a 15-minute "parody" or an "homage" to a given televisual text, this pre-production proposal allowed them to demonstrate a sound critical awareness of the discursive structure of the project, and to speculate about ways in which they might represent that awareness, in the video project itself. Once they completed their group video projects, students were asked to submit individual post-production assessments, in essay form. This opened up space for them to discuss what had "worked," and what hadn't, and more significantly, it gave them an opportunity to describe what discoveries were made, along the way, about the processes of encoding, production and decoding, as they were put into practice.
What new directions would you like to explore with technology in your teaching?
I would like to make more space on the syllabus for digital video editing, beyond setting aside time for training workshops, in a way that would foreground, for students, the way in which the "work" they are doing as viewers could be understood to be a version of editing, or critical selection. We were able to do this in the abstract, in the sense of noting in class, for example, that the relationship of content to advertising, or the timing of segments on news programs, was no accident. Asking students to "re-edit" clips of news broadcasts in order demonstrate the ways meaning is produced, and possibly changed, through the process of temporal and visual selection, would be a useful exercise in identifying the "determinate moments" in what Stuart Hall calls the "communicative event" that is television.