Teaching Outrage

In my course on reading popular culture, I spend several weeks teaching students how to discern the ideologies at work in popular culture texts, focusing each week on a particular reading method.  After several weeks of vigorous and intellectually engaged discussion about the vexing nature of popular media, one of my students asked, “So, what do we do, now that we’ve learned how to read texts in this way?”  At first, I was somewhat flummoxed, as this is not normally a question that arises in my lower-level undergraduate courses; I was quite pleasantly surprised to see my students thinking at such a high level.

And, to be honest, I didn’t know how to answer at first, simply because this remains a question with which I also struggle on a daily basis.  However, as I ended up telling my student, we can do a great deal with the outrage we feel at the vexing representational strategies utilized by the popular media.  We can blog, we can write letters, we can even become involved in the production of texts ourselves and reclaim the narratives that have been hijacked and used as weapons against us.  For those who remain politically and socially disenfranchised, gaining a vocabulary in which to express moral and political outrage, as well as what to do with that outrage, can become a solid means of effecting political and social change.

That remains one of the most challenging aspects of teaching the reading of texts.  How to get students to see the stakes of their critical reading strategies?  After all, we live in a culture that routinely tells us to stop over-reading and overreacting to incidents of micro-aggression, to simply sit back and enjoy the entertainment value of popular culture.  Indeed, this impulse to dismiss any critical approach to everyday life–including the “basest” or “dumbest” forms of entertainment–as over-reading is itself a function of a society and a culture that stubbornly refuses (in the main) to engage in self-critical evaluation.  Part of our jobs, as critics and as educators–and I would like to stress that I see the two functions as inextricably linked–is to encourage students to break away from those habits of thought that let these elements of our culture remain unexamined and uncommented upon.  This can be quite challenging, as being critical often gets coded as being a killjoy, as bringing down the life and the energy of the cultural party.

The job of the cultural critic and educator, I argue, is to guide students so that they can see not only the ways in which media propagate and draw upon existing ideologies and systems of power, but also learn how those representations can have real-world effects on shaping and reinforcing existing patterns of thought.  Once they realize how even the most seemingly banal and “entertaining” texts are part of a larger set of discourses that are themselves dependent upon intertwining systems of power, it becomes easier to see why it matters, for example, that Game of Thrones utilizes existing racial stereotypes in its presentation of the Dothraki wedding, or why Looking can be seen as an example of the mainstreaming and commercialization of queer sexualities.  Further, they can also realize that they, as the consumer of these texts, can also have power over them rather than being controlled by them.

This, I think, is one of the great things about teaching in the humanities.  Contrary to what Arthur Krystal claims in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is still a great deal at stake for those who engage in the rigorous and sustained study of texts (especially for those who still occupy a marginalized or denigrated corner of our culture).  We live, after all, in a culture that is hyper-saturated with images and narratives that our students, and we ourselves, have to interpret every single day of our lives.  As a teacher of media, I remain absolutely committed to teaching students not only how and why they should be outraged at what appears in popular culture, but also what is at stake in their outrage.  As I stress again and again, I do not believe in “mere entertainment” or “pure escapism.”  I do, however, believe in pleasures, and the power that can come with both resistant pleasures (as my insistence on queer pleasures demonstrates) and the pleasure of the act of critical engagement.  It’s time that we stop seeing (and stop encouraging our students to see) critical engagement as a chore.  Instead, we need to encourage them to see the pleasure, and the power, of critical outrage.

In Defense of the Academy

I know I’m going to take some flack for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go through with it anyway.  Despite all of the hand-writing over the decline of the humanities, despite the call from some corners for humanities Ph.D.s (if anyone is so foolish or masochistic to go into that calling) to flee to non-academic jobs, despite the ways in which the American university system is indeed plagued by a myriad of difficulties and inherent problems that threaten to drag it down into oblivion, I still support the existence of the Academy.  I still support the existence of a space in which scholars and those devoted to the much-maligned “life of the mind” can engage with the pressing issues facing our society and our culture, while also advocating for a more engaged type of humanities scholarship that works to bring the Academy into the university and vice versa.

When I see humanities scholars and writers so flippantly and easily abandon the systematic study of the humanities, I can’t help but feel a heady mix of emotions:  anger, frustration, and (perhaps shamefully) a little joy that someone is finally being brave enough to say the unsayable.  However, I also worry that, in throwing in the towel, we are actually precipitating the very thing that we claim to be mourning, namely, the death of the humanities as a meaningful intellectual pursuit.

Like most social problems facing our late capitalist, heavily globalized, and technology-glutted society, there is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing the American Academy.  However, does that mean we should just give up on it?  What if we said the same thing about the many other social problems, about bullying of queer youth for example, or the increasingly violent and war-prone world in which we live?  Though the problems themselves seem insurmountable in their complexity, it is precisely this complexity that makes our engagement not only significant, but necessary.

Rather than throwing away what we have, perhaps we should start encouraging our non-academic friends to speak up on our behalf when it matters, i.e. during election time.  If we truly believe that what we do is meaningful and important (and I, for one, do), then it is also our responsibility to continue fighting the good fight (incidentally, I realize that this sounds very trite and cliche, but sometimes that’s the only way I can find to express my philosophy on these things).  We need to explain to our friends, our families, and even our students why what we do is important.  Of course, in order to do that, we need to be able to articulate to ourselves why what we do matters.  Our reasons for this may be as varied as our individual interests, but we need to be more vocal and active about making them intelligible to those who do not speak our academic language.  At the very least, we must invest more of our energy in doing everything possible to ensure that those who are not trained in the esoteric language of the Academy have at least a measure of appreciation for not only what we do, but why.

All of this is not to suggest that I am blind to the gross inequalities that currently construct the Academy and that are, in many ways, built into its DNA.  Nor is it to suggest that non-academic jobs are in some way inferior; indeed, I see them as another part of a multi-pronged approach to make the humanities vibrant and present in American society and culture.  However, I remain unconvinced that abolishing the systematic and sustained study of the humanities–including the production and education of Ph.D.s!–is the solution.  It is, in my mind, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  However, I do want to add my voice to the chorus currently calling for some real change in the Academy, but that call comes out of a love of what we do and what we can do, if we but keep up the fight.

What are your thoughts?  Is the Academy salvageable?  Or should it just be dispensed with?  Is there still a place and a purpose for sustained scholarly study of the humanities?  Sound off in the comments below!