Reflections on a Shimmering Screen: Television’s Relationship to Writing Pedagogies

Williams, Bronwyn T.

If you listen to teachers talk with one another outside of their classrooms you get to hear them swap classroom techniques, funny anecdotes, and common frustrations about their students. Though the latter come in many forms, some of the more common complaints about teaching writing would be recognizable in most schools:

They call everything they read, and everything they write, a ‘story’ even when it’s a persuasive essay.

If I hear one more of them say that they didn’t like a ‘story’ because they couldn’t ‘relate’ to it I will scream right there in class.

They started complaining about the length of the reading before they had even started it.

Their attention spans are only a minute long; I just wish they could stay focused in their writing long enough to construct a sustained critique or argument.

All they want is to be entertained all the time, as if this is some kind of TV show.

Whether we as teachers have voiced these or similar complaints ourselves, we no doubt recognize them as familiar sentiments. Often these comments are just the venting that result from being dedicated teachers frustrated with not being able to reach all the students in a class. In part, however, they are often the product of the clash that occurs when student writers, adept and fully immersed in the unending flow of mass popular culture, collide with the expectations of print literacy held by their teachers.

Teaching a critical mass media literacy is important in our wired-up (or perhaps now wire-less) and mass-mediated culture. Yet often such instruction occurs with the implicit, or explicit, goal of fortifying students against the evils of mass media. Joseph Tobin notes that when television or other media education make it into elementary schools it is often “taught along with sex and drug education, as a curriculum of prevention rather than appreciation” (5). To be sure, helping students become more reflective and critical readers of mass media texts is an important goal of education and writing about such texts is a vital part of such a pedagogy. If, however, we focus only on teaching critical reading skills of the mass media we miss a crucial factor in students’ relationship to both mass popular culture and academic print literacy: Students not only write about mass media, but write through mass media. If we believe that the mass media can have an effect on students as viewers, consumers, and citizens, then we must also realize that the mass popular culture students have so much experience with and can read so well is an important influence on their perceptions and responses to print literacy. In a world where the most dominant and pervasive form of mass popular culture is television—where 96 percent of American homes have television sets (Borgmann) and where eight to eighteen year olds spend more time watching television than with almost all other media combined, including the Internet (Kaiser)—it is vital that their teachers consider the influence of television on students as writers.

Watching television and the teaching of writing are cultural forms that are enacted so differently as social practices that they cannot always be expected to be easily compatible when they come into contact in our classrooms. This frequent conflict does not mean, however, that they do not come into contact whether we are aware of it, acknowledge it, or choose to try to ignore it. It is naive to expect that students or their teachers are conveniently and thoroughly cleansed of the discursive influences of television as they pass through the classroom doors. If we want to understand what happens when these systems come into contact, we need to begin considering how both television and composition as a field are constructed as cultural forms and social practices, what ideological forces shape the way we and our students experience each of them, and what results when those cultural forms come into contact with one another as they inevitably do in our society. As John Schlib notes, "True literacy means examining one's society, not simply manipulating surface features of text" (187). If television remains a detested and demeaned cultural form in the writing classroom, then we consign it to students for their use without analysis or critique (Freccero 4).

Often the dire warnings about the effects of television on young people’s abilities to read and write are as simplistic and unhelpful as the utopian claims made for television as a boon to education in the early days of the medium (Tyack and Cuban 121). What is important, when it comes to considering how our writing pedagogies can respond to students’ experiences with television is to recognize the complexity of the articulations between the electronic medium and print literacy. On the one hand, years of watching television have provided students with a supple and complex ability to read and interpret images and narratives. Even when they are given an unfamiliar and complicated photograph or scene from a film or image from an advertisement, they can read and respond to it with a vigor, depth, and thoroughness that is usually much harder for them to display with an essay or poem (Williams, 2002). This form of literacy may be difficult for them to articulate in academically acceptable critical language when they enter our classrooms, though no more so than any of the print literacies they possess. Yet their television literacy is extensive and offers us different and effective ways to consider the teaching of writing. [1]

At the same time we have to be aware of how television as a form of communication is fundamentally different from the way we envision print literacy, the way we often teach writing, and the way we want students to write. Such differences can influence student writing in ways that make the writing less effective. Toward that end it is useful to consider some of essential properties of televised discourse in contrast with the properties we want students to learn about print literacy. Specifically it is important to explore television’s qualities as a medium of popular response, distraction and simulation, and emotion.

Responding to the Popular

The core differences between how television and composition pedagogies operate as cultural forms make simple comparative work between television and print texts difficult if often not impossible. Such differences also help us understand some of the conflicts students experience when confronting writing assignments at school after having watched years of television as resulting from radically different experiences with media and discourse rather than merely as student apathy or cognitive impairment. If we can begin to understand these underlying conflicts, and make them more visible to our students as well as ourselves, we can make it clearer about where the goals and forms of discourse we want students to enact in writing are different from the ones they have enacted while watching television. I believe that such an approach can help to address what often seems to be an unreasonable and unfocused student resistance to writing but is instead an anxiety and even confusion at encountering a form of discourse with which they are unfamiliar and which withstands their attempts to compare it with the discourses with which they are most familiar such as television.

The field of composition has dual roots in rhetoric and literature. The study of both rhetoric and literature rise from a history of humanist philosophy that regards the reading and writing of the best print texts as activities that will empower the individual and improve the quality of that individual's life. Whether the focus of teaching students writing is to help them write personal narratives that allow them to express ideas and emotions, to use a cultural studies perspective to critique mass popular culture texts, or to use a more instrumental approach to learn theories of exposition and argumentation that may help with writing assignments in other courses, there is a fundamental philosophical purpose of composition assignments and of the field in general: to help students make their lives better through learning to write and read more effectively. We judge, and argue about, competing theories of composition and pedagogy with that philosophical assumption as the common ground on which we in the field stand.

Television, on the other hand, has its roots in popular entertainment, and even more fundamentally has its roots in commerce. There is no underlying assumption that television will act as a humanizing force for the individual viewer. The assumption instead is that television will provide the viewer with diversion and access to advertising. If television programming is illuminating in some way, if it produces works of aesthetic or intellectual value by happy accident, that is fine, but only as long as enough people keep watching it to make the sponsors consider it worth advertising on. As David Marc notes, an innovative television program will be evaluated by television programmers and executives not by "the quality or lack of quality of this invention, or its beauty or truth or lack of same, but deeply it can penetrate the market without causing disruption of the marketplace" (56) Television, both programming and advertising, is judged by its popularity, by the number of eyeballs that stay glued to the screen, not by an underlying philosophical assumption about the value of what those eyeballs are watching. Television is indifferent to questions of quality and philosophy.

Of course print texts used in schools are also products of commercial forces. Certainly writers such as Dickens famously cranked out chapters to fill pages between ads and get a paycheck; but such writers now are presented within classroom walls as having a philosophical value transcending this commercial impulse. Such texts are not just diversions but are intended to offer intellectual or artistic insights. It is the indifference of television to such insights or the philosophy they represent, the response only to the popular, that results in some of the most fundamental and striking distinctions between the way students experience television and the writing in school as social practices. I will briefly outline a few of these distinctions that explain how different television is as a medium and discourse from the print medium we teach in writing classes.

Reading While Distracted

Considering the social context in which television is watched becomes vital to considering its effects. For example, though television seems ubiquitous in our culture, in fact most of our television watching happens in a domestic space in which other activities are going on. In fact numerous studies indicate that viewers often engage in other activities while “watching” television (Lembo 143). In some surveys, in fact, as many as 50 percent to 64 percent of the viewers reported engaging in some other activity, including preparing a meal, talking, reading, while watching television (Morley 176). This makes the experience significantly different than watching a play or a movie in a theatre or discussing an essay in an English course. Though our readings of all texts, print and electronic, require some intertextual connections, our experiences with television are particularly interrupted and shaped by the social contexts of our readings. When we think about how television is "read," then, we must think about how the reading is shaped through this "distracted glance" at the text.

Such a distracted interaction with television means that the viewer maintains a dual state of mind while "watching." [2] According to Margaret Morse it "depends on an incomplete process of spatial and temporal separation and interiorization" (110). Like the shopping mall and the interstate highway, Morse says, our connection with the "outside" through television drifts between the real outside and an idealized representation (110). This dualism creates a non-space of televised "elsewheres" and "elsewhens" that are both everywhere and nowhere in particular. For television it depends on a system in which we are addressed directly; unlike film, television acknowledges that it is being watched, yet does not necessitate direct face-to-face contact with others (107).

The implication is that television epitomizes a new ontology of the everyday: vast realms of the somewhat-less-than-real to which significant amounts of free time (unpaid leisure, the shadow of work) are devoted on a routine, cyclical basis. The features of this derealized or nonspace are shared by the freeway, mall, and television alike (103).

At that same time that television connects us with a larger world, it keeps that larger world behind glass, at a safe and alluring remove. We can attend to it when it interests us, like the landscape that we speed by on the interstate, and turn away from it when we find it boring or unpleasant or when something in our immediate experience, such as a conversation with a real person in the car or the room, demands our attention. Yet we continue to pay a low level of attention to what is happening on the other side of the glass.

This distracted interaction is quite different from the kind of attention and concentration we expect to be given to class discussions and to the reading and writing of print texts. Most teachers assigning stories or essays to read probably hope that the students will read them in one, uninterrupted and concentrated sitting. The popular image of reading is of a solitary reader in a silent room. We also hope that our students, when it is time to write, do so in a time and place devoid of distraction, which will allow them to focus on their work. Indeed, many writing texts, when offering advice to student writers, begin by urging them to find a “quiet place to work.” The expectation is that students will use this focused, quiet time to produce writing with a specific focus, connected to “real” events, facts, and experiences, and requiring concentrated attention to read and comprehend.

Yet television's presence as a medium of distraction again reinforces the way in which it exists in terms of popular response rather than on a foundation of humanist philosophy. Here Morse's comparison between the mall and television is particularly appropriate. The experience of watching television is often like the experience of wandering through the mall with no particular errand in mind. You can wander up and down the walkways of the mall, distracted and diverted by the shop windows and people who are shopping, occasionally even stopping into a store to look at something more closely. The environment is enclosed and completely devoted to selling you goods. But you will still able to carry on a conversation with a friend; nothing around you will require your complete attention or ask that you remember it, use it in another context, or connect it with another experience. Your history and your plans are, momentarily, unimportant. All that matters is the experience of the present you are having while wandering in the mall. You don't stop to analyze or reflect on the experience of gazing at each store (unless perhaps you're an academic) but instead you wander in the present, enjoying the distracted moment.

The analogy to having the television on and watching, zapping through channels, and talking with a friend is clear. Neither activity requires a purpose or an underlying philosophical goal. The analogous situation for a writing class, however, is quite different in terms of purpose, focus, and concentration. To approach entering the mall like a writing assignment would require you to plan your visit to the mall with a specific goal in mind—say the purchase of a new pair of shoes—that would improve your life, a plan for achieving that goal, and a map that would show you where the shoe stores are located. You would have a purpose and goal and a way of connecting that goal to your life outside of the mall. [3]

Understanding the differences in purpose and audience between the distracted experience of watching television and what we want to be a more focused experience of reading writing print texts is as important for our students as it is for us. In fact, if we talk to our students, or anyone else, about how they watch television we will quickly find that they watch television with differing levels of purpose and distraction. Television is often viewed in a distracted only half-attentive way, a background noise or moving wallpaper to have on while other tasks or chores are performed, or a series of fragmented televised moments viewed as one channel surfs to kill time (Lembo 220). Yet the same viewers will often make the choice to view a specific program with focus and intensity (216). Students will talk about watching a complex, well-written, and popular program such as The X-Files or ER or Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the kind of attention to the text—without engaging in other tasks or conversations for example—that we expect them to bring to the print texts we assign. They also will often discuss such intensely watched programs with friends, either at the time or the next day, comparing interpretations and working through questions or conflicts about the television text they have watched (Williams, 2002). If we can make students more conscious of the different levels of concentration and intensity they bring to their television viewing and the reasons those levels might change—why they might watch distractedly at one point and with focused attention at another—we can help them understand more clearly the similarly different ways in which print texts are read, a newspaper versus an academic essay, and what kind of attention and focus and interpretive skills we expect when they read and write for our classes.

The Image as Reality

Because of its emphasis on speed, images, and emotions, television is a medium generally considered to be superficial and anti-intellectual. Particularly for those who have learned to live in a world, such as the world of education, that privileges print with its deliberate, detached, and linear accretion of data and knowledge, the world of electronic communication seems superficial, ephemeral, and frivolous. This divide is often exacerbated by generational differences in how teachers experience electronic media and how often much younger students do. Such a divide can make teachers feel alienated from their students, and vice versa, and uneasy in the classroom. For many in education, "Surface seems shallow, easy, hollow, flashy. History offers a sense of depth (we think without irony) of genealogy and belongingness, of seriousness. Understandably, we attempt to teach our children to value history over the easy seductions of space" (Johnson-Eilola 186). Consequently, as teachers we can buy into the dominant cultural position that print is an instrument that a mature person learns to use skillfully and judiciously, while television is a distraction, a juvenile medium, that requires no skill or depth of knowledge to watch (189).

Although writing teachers create pedagogies based on the assumption, an assumption they presume is shared by students, that print literacy is a medium of seriousness and sincererity, their students may be much more familiar with watching television, a medium students have been told for years is superficial and intellectually insignificant. Even as students admit to spending more time watching television than reading print, they also know they should apologize for the amount they watch and demonstrate that they know it is a “waste of time.”

One consequence of summarily dismissing the worth of television is that viewers can engage in its often self-mocking, cynical, and often ironic stance. The awareness of those who create television of the medium itself, an awareness that is often transmitted to the viewer, makes television a more ripe field for ironic response than a form such as film, which rarely acknowledges its artifice or structure (Caughie 53). Many of the forms that pervade television, such as the sitcom and the talk show, begin with an ironic, cynical stance and so encourage our response in kind. As John Leonard points out, no one should have been surprised when one of the most bizarre televised events of 1994, the low-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco, ended up the next autumn as an ironic gag on programs such as Murphy Brown and Seinfeld (59). "This is what sitcom writers do. They turn everything...into wisecracks" (59).

On television, then, any moment of viewing is always conditioned by other television texts (Allen 132). Not only has much of television become self-referential toward its own forms and conventions – sitcoms that spin-off from other sitcoms, characters that cross from one program to another, characters in one show that comment on watching another, and so on. Television refers only to itself, and often ironically, for a sense of history. Re-runs of The Waltons or Bonanzaon The Family Channel (formerly the Christian Broadcasting Network) are presented as exemplars of the traditional, family values of the earlier, more wholesome era of American society (those wonderfully tranquil times of the Sixties and Seventies, though they were tranquil on series television), while re-runs of The Donna Reed Show and Bewitched on Nick at Nite are presented as "fun for the contemporary family, 'camped up' with parodic voice overs, super-graphics, and reediting designed to deride their quaint vision of American family life, which we all know never really existed even 'back then'" (Allen 334).

By contrast, writing assignments in school rarely ask for irony and reading assignments rarely present it. Instead writing pedagogies are designed to help students become sincere and direct writers who write from positions of authority to produce serious essays about similarly serious texts they have read. Sincerity and seriousness, not irony, are the goal of writing from the personal essay to the research essay to the persuasive essay. As teachers we want serious thought, analysis, and reflection in student writing, not the surface irony of The Daily Show. (The irony students learn from television, and the initial detachment from a text and awareness of textual conventions, can be used in the classroom as a first step toward a more thoughtful analysis if we can help students understand that analysis requires a different set of expectations and levels of depth and meaning in their response to a text (Williams, 2002).

Although the intellectual value of television is open to debate, there is no doubt that it is a medium whose communicative power comes primarily through images. The dominance of images on television, combined with television’s self-referential and ironic nature, have significant implications for writing students who spend a great deal of their time getting their information through television. This is particularly relevant in terms of how students construct and represent what is “real” and significant in their writing.

Jean Baudrillard has famously theorized that the superficial, self-referential, image-driven nature of contemporary culture has changed our relationship to images from being a "reflection of profound reality" to having "no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum" (6). Television, he maintains, is the ultimate form of this simulacrum in its unending bombardment of images that are no longer grounded in a recognizable reality. Though television often tries to work against this sense of hyperreality by describing television movies as "based on a true story" or, even more telling, a "dramatization of real events" such attempts actually only underscore the simulacra of the televised world. In an attempt to capitalize on real events by making television movies with actors who are cast because they look vaguely like the people we have seen on the television news (or was it the other way around?) and then altering events to fit the narrative needs of the medium and its audience, television succeeds in creating what Baudrillard calls, "The hyperreality of communication and of meaning. More real than the real, that is how the real is abolished" (81). The power of such a hyperreal discourse can be measured in the weight given to fictional characters in the public arena – be it the 1992 "debate" on the definition of family between Dan Quayle and "Murphy Brown" or the Time magazine cover about the current state of feminism that represented its conception of the evolution of feminist thought through photos of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, and "Ally McBeal." To paraphrase an advertisement for HBO, if life isn’t exciting enough for you, there’s always television.

Of course most people who watch television, if asked, could make clear distinctions between what is real and what is simulation. The point is that, on television, where the judgment of success or failure is the popular response, the distinction between the real and the image no longer matters. Lawrence Grossberg maintains television is indifferent to meaning, indifferent to the line between reality and fiction. It is not that the social has collapsed into simulacra, but that an ideological structure of what constitutes the "real," what creates the line between the private and the public has become less effective (141). Television need only be persuasive to itself, not to any particular viewpoint or position, not to reality or fantasy. It need only persuade the viewer to keep the set turned on and tuned in to the mass popular cultural voice. It need only be persuasive to itself as a vital part of the economic order and as vital force of cultural production (Heath 292). Indeed, Ron Lembo documents how, when viewers criticize the formulaic nature of television as stemming from its organization around the needs of consumer culture, they draw not on their own experiences or identities as the basis for that critique, but instead on their experiences with television itself (197).

By contrast, in writing classes the writing teachers want from students is expected to have a clear and well-defined viewpoint, to be persuasive of a "real" and significant position. We often expect students to not only make the distinction between the real and the fictional, although that is a position that is being challenged as the personal re-enters our conversations about writing, but we expect them to find and build their writing on abstract ideas and outside experiences that are the result of critical thinking. Much of the teaching of print literacy is constructed on the assumption that the best writers are the ones who can step back from their subject matter, make connections to other ideas and texts, and write in a detached, analytical manner.

James Berlin’s call for a pedagogy in which students become “active critical agents of their experience” (104) is echoed in different forms across writing pedagogies. Even the “writerly” [4] movement in composition in the early 1970s, exemplified in the work of Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow and others which was, in part, a reaction against the emphasis on detached exposition and analysis had as its goal of this approach was for the writer to discover through writing a true self and experience, and to communicate that through an honest and authentic writing voice. As Macrorie puts it, "All good writers speak in honest voices and tell the truth" (15). The source of the honest voice and truth should be direct, real, and significant experience, not simulation and irony. The importance of direct experience as authentic subject matter along with the omission of mass popular culture in any form also indicates the unstated benefits of such an approach would be the writer's ability to transcend the superficial influences of mass popular culture. In this stance there are echoes of Harvard’s A.S. Hill's demand in the nineteenth century that "A wise teacher of English will try to make his pupils put their real selves behind the pen and keep them there" (qtd. in Paine 292) as essential to the resistance to and transcendence of superficial mass popular culture.

The other essential element in personal narrative writing as it was re-imagined by Murray and others in college composition courses remained the ability of the author to detach herself from the events and reflect on their more abstract meaning. Narrative by itself – the form that dominates television – was not enough; the mature and accomplished writing would, as Thomas Newkirk notes, need "to negotiate convincing "turns" in the writing, shifts from rendering to reflection that point to the "significance" (a key word in personal essay assignments) of the experience being rendered" (12). Though the assignment may be different from the expository essay, the emphasis remains on the individual author creating a discrete text focused on reflection or analysis of events.

It is vital, then, that teachers make more explicit to students the differences in terms of surface and depth, in terms of sincerity and irony, and in terms of narrative and reflection, between what they experience on television and the print texts they read and write in a writing classroom. If students are more aware of the discursive and rhetorical elements that dominate television, and how those are different from the expectations in writing, they stand a better chance of not simply and unwittingly replicating in their writing the surface, simulated, and ironic stance of television. Such a discussion of the reasons and uses of simulation and irony on television, and how that differs from critical print literacy, also clears the way for more productive conversations about authority, authorship, and audience.

Where Emotion Is Suspect and Pleasure Is Denied

The ability to stand back and analyze events, even personal events, for their significance, is not only central to the mission of most writing pedagogy (Newkirk 12) but is central to the mission of schools in general. Pierre Bourdieu notes that the class distinctions are often made by the ability to detach oneself from the function of an item and to be able to apprehend, appreciate, and analyze its form. If, as Bourdieu says, "in matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is by negation," (56) then one goal of schools is to attempt to get students to reject forms of communication that emphasis pleasure and emotion, such as television, and embrace forms, even such as literature, in detached and unemotional ways. As Bourdieu notes "Contemplation now has to include a degree of erudition which is liable to damage the illusion of immediate illumination that is an essential element of pure pleasure" (30). Such learned detachment and appreciation is all the more important as a means of distinction in a culture in which so many of the cultural artifacts and referents are mass-produced and commodified. Most writing pedagogy, then, emphasizes a more detached approach to its subject matter and avoids the emotional.

The writing that is produced in school is intended primarily not for affect or to create pleasure, but to engage in some form of abstraction, analysis, or reflection. Whether in a personal narrative, critical essay, research paper, or other form, the writing that is taught and privileged is expected to contain a moment (or moments) when the author steps back from the events or evidence described in the text to address concepts, theories, or ideas. In most textbooks and most scholarly books about pedagogy, one of the key elements of writing students should be taught is the ability to step back and analyze or reflect. Quite often this is supposed to happen in an atmosphere of calm and rational thought in which emotion or affective response has been put aside.

Much of this conception of proper "academic" writing can be traced to the emergence during the past century of exposition and analysis as the dominant and privileged form of academic writing. Though narrative and argument continued to be taught in some courses, the expository essay with its detached and rational explanation and analysis of evidence overshadowed them as the writing at the center of composition pedagogy (Connors 237-38). There were a number of trends in the academy that helped contribute to the increasing influence of the expository, analytical essay in composition. Among these trends were the pressures to train students to enter managerial professions where such analysis was privileged over argument or narrative. Also, as the social sciences and humanities tried to keep up with the rising prestige of the hard sciences within an increasingly positivist and technologically oriented academy and culture at large, they began to adopt more quantitative and positivist forms of knowledge generation and to communicate in the detached analytical forms of exposition. The classical rhetorician's consideration of pathos was brushed aside and forgotten. The emerging field of composition, seeking its own sense of legitimacy in education was not immune to such pressures. Even the dominance of New Critical techniques in the post-war English classes focused on close, analytical readings of texts and the avoidance of affective responses. Indeed, in the rationalist, positivist world of education, emotion of any kind continues largely to be regarded as suspect. Emotion, regarded as evidence of a popular, banal, and often feminine response (Clark 97) is something to be overcome in the quest for more mature and "higher-order" reasoning.

A key experience of watching television, on the other hand, is pleasure. Regardless of the ideological forces that construct a television program and shape our reception of it, we have to recognize that television, like much of mass popular culture, works also on an affective level. It gives us pleasure, and an emotional and embodied response. Unfortunately, too few writing and literature courses get presented to students as having anything to do with pleasure. With the notable exception of writerly pedagogies, the idea of writing as being pleasurable rarely surfaces. Writing and literature courses may be important, develop critical thinking skills, deepen one's understanding of the human condition or of cultural forces, but they shy away from embracing affect or pleasure.

Television on the other hand, is dominated by emotion and constructed as a medium of pleasure. At the same time, it is a medium we experience through distraction and with a self-referential ironic sensibility. As Grossberg notes, television "presents an image of an affective economy marked on the one side by an extreme (postmodern) cynicism ("Life is hard and then you die") and on the other by an almost irrational celebration of the possibilities of winning against all the odds" (141). Because television privileges emotion as a rhetorical form, because we can experience it within our domestic spaces, because it is a form that favors intimacy and the "up close and personal" over the epic, and because it overtly does not take itself too seriously and therefore not demand rational critique, we are left open to experience the emotional highs and lows of television in a way that cannot be explained by the critique of ideology often at the center of media criticism pedagogies.

There is often a contradiction between the ideological appeals of television programs, the ways in which television works to reinscribe viewers into the dominant late-capitalist consumer culture, and the affective responses of viewers (Grossberg 142). It is what allows us to be brought to tears by the melodrama of show such as ER one moment and then move to ironic detachment about the advertisements that follow. Belief and cynicism, pleasure and irony sit comfortably side by side, or even simultaneously, on television. Even the distracted nature of much television watching allows us to pick and choose our level of emotional involvement with the programs we are watching. Unlike a movie in which the best we can do is hide our eyes, when we see something we don't like on television we can leave the room, turn back to the paper, or simply zap away. As Grossberg says, television, "offers in the apparatuses of its viewing, a strategic response to the contradiction between affect and ideology by placing the nomadic subject within an affective democracy" (143). In other words, the viewer negotiates the gap between affect and ideology by deciding which images to invest with meaning. This does not mean the viewer is impervious to ideology, only that there are affective, embodied responses to television that cannot be predicted by examining in isolation the program being broadcast.

Students familiar with television's emphasis on emotion find themselves, then, in writing classes in an environment where emotion is suspect. If television programs often want us to identify with the people on the screen and if discussions about television programs are often about replaying the plot and sharing the emotions, discussions in the classroom are supposed to be about the abstract ideas that books allow us to consider. How students feel about a text is not enough; most teachers I know cringe when they hear students praising a piece of writing because they could "relate" to it. It is the engagement with the ideas represented in the text that matters. Similarly, the emphasis in the classroom is to connect those ideas to other abstract ideas in an intertextual and often interdisciplinary way.

I should be clear that I agree that writing is a form of thinking which lends itself to reflection, consideration, subtlety, and depth. I see teaching writing as a way of engaging in critical thinking and analysis as a valuable goal in the teaching of composition and it is something I try to accomplish in my courses, and even hope to get students to see the pleasures that can be found in reflection and analysis. Writing has value, but we need to understand and be more explicit as to what its value is and how that is different from the values of televised discourse. It is important to realize that those qualities most valued in writing pedagogies of the individual writer producing discrete, analytical texts are not the same qualities that dominate the discourse on television.

Using What Students Bring in the Door

Writing teachers can recognize with their students the literacies they do bring to the classroom from their deep experiences with television. These literacies not only provide often marginalized students with a position from which they can speak with authority, but also can be gateways to otherwise hidden student knowledge about the society and culture at large (Dyson, “Coach Bombay’s Kids Learn to Write” 368). There is then the opportunity to bring such existing literacies together with the print literacies valued in the classroom and, with students, explore the commonalties and the differences. Dyson maintains that students find meaning and powerful narratives and images in popular media and that, particularly those from marginalized groups, use such narratives and images to find a way to greater communicative resources and agency as writers (396). On the other hand, she maintains that, "If official curricula make no space for this agency, then schools risk reinforcing societal divisions in children's orientations to each other, to cultural art forms, and to school itself" (Writing Superheroes 180). We should embrace Dyson's advocacy of "permeable curricula" that allow for students to bring their cultural and textual knowledge into the classroom where they can interact with other students and with the teacher's knowledge of texts and communication, (Dyson, "Coach Bombay's Kids Learn to Write" 397).

As teachers we can make students aware of how experience with any form of communication, be it television or print, leads to a deeper, critical enjoyment of that form and ability to use it more effectively for their own goals. Indeed, it is only by addressing the influence of television, both its attractions and its limitations that we can make students truly aware of the distinctive power of print literacy. At the same time, we must be aware how communication is changing in our mass-mediated culture. As new technologies, particularly connected to the personal computer and the Internet, allow individuals to create texts that combine print, image, and video we must begin to rethink our pedagogies to respond and adapt to student needs to be able to read and produce such new textual forms. Just as television influences students’ perceptions and productions of print literacy, it will influence how students respond and produce new electronic texts. It is our responsibility to help students engage in a critical literacy in the new media of word, video, and image.


[1] For an extended discussion of student responses to television and how these can be put to practical use in teaching writing, including interviews with students about their perceptions of writing instruction and television viewing, see Bronwyn T. Williams, Tuned In: Television and the Teaching of Writing. Heinemann-Boynton/Cook. (2002).

[2] It becomes surprisingly easy when writing about television to do as I have done and talk about what happens when the "viewer watches television." In other words, by reading the text of television I begin to assume the effect that such a text has on members of the audience. Yet there is a gap between encoding and decoding that is particularly important when considering the way television is received by viewers. Though we all may talk about "watching" television, in fact such a term is an ill-defined shorthand for a varied and varying set of social practices (Morley 197).

[3] I thank John Erni of the University of New Hampshire for providing me with this useful and engaging metaphor.

[4] I believe "writerly" is a more accurate descriptor of the kinds of writing and pedagogies advocated by Murray, Macrorie, Elbow and others. The term "expressivism" was coined as a pejorative by those who sought to attack and marginalize this approach by making it sound like a simplistic extension of Me-Generation pop-psychology.

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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