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Teaching Discomfort

Posted By Christine A. Becker, Friday, March 23, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 26, 2012

I attended two teaching workshops yesterday, and both made me reflect on the idea of teaching comfort. The first workshop, Teaching the Negative Representation: Blackness and Disreputable Media, focused on the challenges of bringing into the classroom African-American texts that would typically be deemed "bad objects:” Tyler Perry films, Basketball Wives, vlog entries like "The time I got too drunk” (standout quote: "It was so horrific, I felt like I had to put it on the internet.”). The second, Teaching Film and Media Industry Studies (Outside of Los Angeles), explored how to point the classroom out toward studying the film and TV industries, when many of us teach far from what is perceived, especially by students who want to work in them, as the home of those industries. I teach media industry courses frequently, whereas I rarely address racially charged disreputable material in the classroom, and the key difference is that I'm very comfortable talking about the media industries to students, especially because it's been my primary general area of research since graduate school, whereas I don't feel as comfortable teaching disreputable explorations of race and identity because I haven't really been trained in nor have I explored myself how to best teach such material. I don't mean to slight the industry panel by not talking about it in the rest of this post -- it especially offered an excellent collection of practical advice for pushing students to look beyond Los Angeles for sites of industry research -- but I felt it would be more productive for me to address the other panel in my space here because of how it made me think about my limitations as a teacher, rather than my value, which my previous posts touched on.

The Negative Representations panel, expertly chaired by Racquel Gates, was a delight, filled with smart ideas, passionate discourse, and productive insights suffused with humor (for instance, Kristen Warner brought the house down with the observation that the recent film Red Tail is equal to Tyler Perry films in terms of regressive ideology, except "one is the air, one is in church.") For the formal presentations, TreaAndrea Russworm first discussed digital content, such as amateur productions and viral videos, where the form can be as disreputable as the content and it can be a challenge to get students to take the material seriously. She proposed, among other things, using theory to help defamiliarize the texts and called for new methodologies to address new media content and complicate assumptions of its democratization. Samantha Sheppard acknowledged that she is both attracted to and repelled by Tyler Perry’s films and spoke of the need to study the way we invest in images and how it’s possible for negative images to create positive feelings. Jacqueline Smith next argued that there can be more than buffoonery going on in Perry’s films, even the possibility of an oppositional gaze such as with his treatment of violence against black women. Finally, Kristen Warner acknowledged cathartic enjoyment of female representations from Basketball Wives, highlighting the challenge of getting students to see beyond the simple binary of good (sanitized) and bad (sexualized) black femininity that the media typically offers and the assumption that the good is always positive (as in The Help, which garnered groans at every mention), as well as to deal with the feelings of shame that can come from consuming these images. The notions of affect, including both pleasure and discomfort, that multiple panelists addressed were taken up in the Q&A, as attendees asked how we can teach texts that we find personally repulsive, what means we have to understand reactions to this material, and how we can equip students with the tools needed to think for themselves about it without just insisting that they react exactly how we do.

Smith raised a resonant point in response to the latter issue: the classroom offers a place for discussions about difficult content like this that would be tough to have in other spaces. This made me reflect on how I've been hesitant to have such conversations even in the classroom, largely due to my own unfamiliarity and uncertainty with the material. I'm white and privileged, the majority of my students are white and privileged, so what would be the "proper" way for us to discuss the viral popularity of, say, Delonte West's KFC Freestyle video (which I had never heard of until Russworm showed it) and its implications for representation, racial stereotyping, and identity? The workshop didn't give me a magical answer to such question, but the vigorous discussion it offered convinced me that I must grapple with this in the classroom, perhaps by combining established theoretical approaches with honest discussions about our own subject positions and openly acknowledging any pleasures and discomforts that emerge. It's not easy to teach things that make us uncomfortable, right down to forgoing films we don't personally admire over ones we do in selecting course screenings, but we are likely short-changing our students (and ourselves) if we opt only to teach in areas of comfort and expertise.

(P.S. A shout-out to the great live-tweeting of Erin Copple Smith, which helped me explore some thoughts for this post.)

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Derek E. Kompare says...
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Looks like a great panel, and I'm sorry I missed it. Lots of great workshops this year, actually, with plenty of ideas to keep me considering till 2013.

I love the point about "if not in the classroom, then where?" We do need to bring in discomfort and figure out ways to handle it. So many poles and tensions at play in those moments (not least of which being the professor-student relationship, which trumps them all). I agree that it's difficult to deal with our own pleasure/pain, and NOT simply telegraph "you must/not like this because I do/don't!" I believe in a bit of self-disclosure about such matters, but not too much; it's not about OUR own reactions, but rather using those reactions. Moreover, too much and it gets like "OK, Dad, I get it..."

Great topic, worth always revisiting.
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