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  • Teaching the Lone Television Studies Graduate Seminar
  • Timothy Havens (bio)

A friend of mine, the only Television Studies scholar in her department, tells this troubling anecdote: A graduate student from English has been sent to her because he wants to be eligible for jobs in Media Studies. Can she, the student inquires, recommend thirty-odd articles that will provide the “basics” of Television Studies?

While Television Studies may still be “aspirationally disciplinary,” as Charlotte Brunsdon put it more than a decade ago, as a field of inquiry it has developed over its brief four-decade history a coherent set of theoretical assumptions, canonical readings, and prevalent methodological approaches. 1 Much as a doctoral student in English cannot hope to master the field of Television Studies in a single semester, even graduate students with training in fields that may seem closer—Film, Communication, Media Studies—can only begin to scratch the surface of Television Studies in a single graduate seminar.

As someone who considers himself first and foremost a television scholar, I have a deep commitment to preserving, explaining, and promoting my understanding of the field to the next generation of scholars. This includes methods of analyzing television texts; theories about active audiences, networks, and the televisual apparatus; an interdisciplinary commitment to studying the intersections among texts, institutions, and audiences; and a belief in the contingency of meaning, social power, and popular resistance. It also includes an emphasis on the continuities among [End Page 172] new media and older media; such an emphasis enables us to see television broadcasting as an antidote to the industry’s claims about the revolutionary power of new media. However, much like my friend (and numerous other colleagues), I am the lone TV scholar in my department. So what aspects of the field should I privilege or exclude in my graduate seminar? How do I decide what will most assist graduate students pursuing Television Studies, as well as those pursuing different traditions in Media Studies? And, just as important, how do I accomplish my pedagogical goals without taking on an excessive teaching burden?

The circumstances that influence the answers to my questions about graduate-level Television Studies depend primarily on what departments faculty are employed in, rather than the massive changes that are taking place in the current television industries and how to deal with them curricularly. I teach in a communication department with a substantial presence of Media Studies scholars, but I am the only faculty member with a strong background in what I would call Television Studies, or an intellectual undertaking that uses a range of theoretical perspectives and methodological tools to ask and answer questions specific to television. While other graduate seminars across my department and college include topics and readings related to television, they are framed as ways to understand broader theoretical questions, rather than television itself. Certainly, these are worthy endeavors, but they are no more Television Studies courses than are courses in, say, interpersonal communication that use clips from television programs to demonstrate perspectives on human communication. At the same time that I need to educate students on the particularities of Television Studies, I also struggle to give students with strong backgrounds in the study of television sufficient training for their future careers.

I see three possible approaches to teaching the lone Television Studies graduate seminar. I have tried the first two of these approaches, and would love one day to develop a course around the third approach. In fact, I spend a good deal of my precious free time fantasizing about it.

First, we might structure a course around distinctive theoretical perspectives in Television Studies, emphasizing such things as flow, the glance versus the gaze, television as an oral medium, the concept of the apparatus, the programming supertext, domesticity and reception, gender and popular pleasures, models of cultural circulation, and the cultural forum concept. When I have taught such a course, we’ve focused on reading some of the “classics” of Television Studies, including Raymond Williams’s Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Horace Newcomb’s TV: The Most Popular Art, John Fiske and John Hartley’s Reading Television, and Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic...


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