Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

687474703a2f2f7777772e7468656e65777374726962756e652e636f6d2f6f70696e696f6e2f7578697734332f7069637475726536323434303239322f414c5445524e415445532f465245455f3634302f7472756d705f746f6f6e[Updated: 23 November 2016]

I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting topic for my 100th post on this blog (hi, guys) for days, but I find that one thing overshadows all the others in my mind: the US presidential elections.

In the wake of 8 November, many educators have been re-evaluating the content of their teaching, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Some people have despaired about the value of teaching at all in this climate. MacSweeney’s posted a grading rubric that reflects the logic of the presidential debates. Many of my fellow PhD students and academics have voiced their sense of helplessness, while also sharing the unpleasant realisation that their research—on monsters, on neoliberalism, on class, race, and gender—is now even more relevant and urgent. And indeed, the appeal to popular culture metaphors in the wake of the election has been overwhelming. References to Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesThe Walking Dead or The Purge, are seemingly everywhere.

trump

While this is potentially a good sign for humanities teachers, it has its dangers and drawbacks as well. In particular, we must be careful that this turn to popular culture does not placate us into a false sense of familiarity, and stop us from taking action against the very real threat to the safety of the very real people around us. The rhetoric behind this election was monstrous, Trumpism is monstrous, and we must take great care not to normalise this monstrosity by comparing it too closely to the fantastical monsters running rampant on our screens.

trumpvoldemort

As Jacob Silverman pointedly wrote earlier this week, in an article you should really read in its entirety:

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.

Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?

980x

A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.

I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.

Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:

The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

Film and television scholar Dan Hassler-Forest has put together a five-part viewing list that ‘might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying’. This one is heavy on popular culture. Part one focuses on ‘Populism and Politics’, part two on ‘Commercializing Media’, part three on ‘Popular Fascism’, part four on ‘Racism’, and part five on ‘(Un)civil Society’. Spoiler Alert: The LEGO™ Movie makes an appearance in part two:

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.

[EDIT: #TeachingTheDisaster has since been updated with even more resources, including syllabi on the Welfare Reform movement, Standing Rock, and a number of other conflicts.

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:

This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

This philosophy-oriented discussion group on DailyNous.com has been taking curriculum subject by subject, allowing members to share and suggest resources for that particular approach. The first session focused on epistemology, but threads on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, critical reasoning / informal logic, and language have since been launched.

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:

The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.

The Zinn Education Project’s ‘Teaching After the Election of Trump’

This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:

Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers (Vol. II: Fun With Mashup)

Earlier this year I posted a selection of book trailers for monster mashup titles in honour of World Book Day (…in the UK and Ireland). This week I’ve been doing some research into several YouTube productions, and thought I’d take the opportunity to do a second instalment. This time, instead of trailers for actual books, I’ve got a series of trailers and videos for nonexistent mashup projects that I wish someone would actually produce.

the_jane_austen_mashups_wed_really_love_to_see

The first (an old SNL sketch) mashes up the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the first Twilight film. If you thought Edward was broody, wait until you see Frankenstein’s creature in action. Also, they substituted Jacob’s werewolf with another classic monster:

This next one takes footage from the Harry Potter films and mashes it up with audio from a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Why not fill two literary voids at once?

There’s also a ‘Real Housewives of Jane Austen’ parody trailer that I would absolutely watch if they ever made it into a proper series:

My personal favourite was the following video, a mashup of Jane Austen’s novels and the movie Fight Club:

I like this video in particular because it’s tonally incongruous with Austen’s books (I don’t remember Lizzie going around punching people, unless we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and yet humorously true to her feminist message, and the bold personalities of her characters.

For a few more parodies that run on incongruity and anachronism, see Pineapple-Shaped Lamps‘ sketch, in which Jane and Lizzie Bennet encounter spam mail (bonus points for their exaggeration of the way Jane and Lizzie address each other – ‘my gleaming beam of familial charity’):

And this BuzzFeed production, ‘Things Jane Austen Characters Do That Would Be Weird If You Did Them’:

And of course, Mitchell and Webb’s parody of dancing in Pride and Prejudice:

If music’s your thing, check out this montage of period dramas set to the tune ‘It’s Raining Men’:

And for a break from Austen (and also for the hell of it), here’s an Epic Rap Battles of History episode in which Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge faces off against Donald Trump:

(They’ve also got one featuring Jack the Ripper).

Twilight and Narratives of Immigration (Ten Years Later)

48141990.cachedWarning: this week’s post may have been produced under sleep-deprived conditions. It may or may not also have provoked me to revisit the series, and buy Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped anniversary edition of Twilight, entitled Life and Death

Part of my thesis deals with the overtly political aspect of monstrousness. When we make monsters, we often rely on aspects of politicised otherness (blackness, as with the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, or femininity, like in Species) to cue us in to the fact that these creatures are ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’. More recently, in film, television, and other popular culture, we’ve used monsters for a completely different reason: to try and make immigrants cool again.

In the wake of the not-so-recent announcement that Twilight is getting a new instalment of sorts (in the form of six short films), I’ve been doing some thinking about the ups and downs of the franchise. Where does Twilight fit into the contemporary monster scene, particularly given its depictions of monstrosity and otherness?

You could safely say that I am not a Twilight fan, though I’ve read most of the novels and seen all the films. My bachelor’s thesis, entitled ‘The Horror of Dracula: Twilight and the 21st-Century Vampire’, looked at how Twilight and related tween vampire productions metaphorically de-fang traditional vampire narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a huge vampire fan growing up (the more evil the vampire the better), I found it difficult to connect with the new sparkly, vegetarian variety I was seeing everywhere. Like others, I worried that the days of the ‘real’ vampires were behind us.

So, so white. I feel like they're about to burst into song at any moment.
So, so white. I feel like they’re about to burst into coordinated song and dance at any moment.

A few years down the line, however, my attitude towards the Twilight franchise has mellowed. It may not represent my favourite kind of literature or film, but if nothing else the antics of its fans (and the slow death of Robert Pattison’s soul) have given me lots to think, talk, and write about. Twilight also spawned the hugely successful 50 Shades of Grey, which in turn led to a film adaptation that saw a massively successful opening weekend at the box office (if not with critics). Without this former fanfic, where would I turn for my go-to example of the commodification of amateur art?

Likewise, my attitude about the representation of race and foreignness in Twilight has shifted slightly in the face of my recent research into the role fan and audience response plays in the reception of a text. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely many issues with the way gender, race (specifically people of colour), class, and sexuality are portrayed in the Twilight franchise. I see how Twilight, like many other contemporary cultural products, either ignores or openly mocks the many people who do not belong to the cultural majority.

These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.
These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.

Despite the whiteness of its main characters, however, the Twilight series also has a surprisingly tolerant stance on immigration and integration compared to most of the attitudes out there these days. In horror fiction, the vampire is also generally not very welcome in the country he or she decides to set up residence. At worst, the vampire is a bloodthirsty entrepreneur who wants to suck that country (and its inhabitants) dry. At best, the vampire does little more than leech off the people he meets and the economy that supports him. Neither is really the model citizen.

The Twilight series even has more than one model of the resident alien, and the multicultural government. There are the Native werewolves who quietly if doggedly (pun intended) stand by their traditions, protecting their land against antagonistic outsiders. You’ve got the Volturi, who are essentially a vampire mafia, and who, from their base in Rome, impose their own strict laws upon all vampires for the ‘greater good’. The final instalments of Twilight even feature the equivalent of a vampire United Nations, in which the free exchange of cultures and resources is portrayed in an unabashedly utopian light. Twilight (both book and film) certainly promotes many unhealthy stereotypes about the people of colour it depicts, but unfortunately the racial diversity of its characters and casting still puts much of contemporary entertainment to shame.

Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.
Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.

To me, however, the white, Western vampires in Twilight are also immigrants of a very specific sort. Though sometimes they segregates themselves from the culture of Forks, Edward and his family largely integrate. Edward and his vampire ‘siblings’ attend the local high school, his ‘father’ holds a respectable position as a doctor at the nearby hospital, and the Cullens regularly enjoy a game of baseball, the American pastime. If anything, Edward and his vampire family are frighteningly normal, not Other. Twilight’s vampire characters are all white, yes, but read from a certain perspective their whiteness is taken to an extreme that is arguably no longer identifiable with (or is even a caricature of) mainstream ‘whiteness’. Playing baseball, driving Volvos – are these things eighteenth-century Americans would have appreciated? Is it not terribly, temporally colonialist of the twenty-first century to assume that American hobbies and consumer values would remain inherently unchanged for hundreds of years?

This scene feels almost like it's as much torture for them as it is for us.
This scene feels like it’s as much torture for them as it is for us.

Do I think that this engagement with themes of immigration and integration makes up for the other flaws in the series? No.

Does this mean that the Twilight franchise represents a positive response to the typically racist and classist portrayals of vampires in fiction? I’m unconvinced. I do find it to be an interesting line of thought, however.

Do you agree? Are you also disturbed by the fact that the Twilight series is looking increasingly progressive in the light of current Western politics? Let me know in the comments.