- My Students and Betty White:American Television History in the Classroom
At a time when television historians are correcting the omissions of the past, scholars are making careful choices about their object of study, mindful that selection itself governs what counts as history.1 These revised histories also situate television within the broader framework of American cultural history, employing a range of fresh interpretive approaches that help rectify our understanding of TV's past.2 These same two principles of scholarship lie at the heart of my undergraduate courses on television history: they acknowledge the significance of historical selection and its instability, and they probe how the drift of cultural history frames and reframes meaning.
While disparate influences are currently striving to outline a canon of TV history, television scholars generally concur that the object of study has become much less stable in the digital age.3 Nonetheless, a course syllabus demands choices. Writing about a parallel dilemma in teaching an unstable film canon, Virginia Wright Wexman concludes that instructors may now teach whichever films "best match their own interests and those of their students," but with the caveat that they must be prepared to defend their choices.4 A well-wrought syllabus for a TV history course [End Page 86] likewise obligates instructors to defend their choices by articulating to their students the theoretical and cultural ideas that informed these choices. To paraphrase Gerald Graff, courses on television history will be enlivened by "teaching the quandary" of inclusion and omission itself.5
The dilemma of an unstable canon is not that difficult for today's undergraduate to comprehend. Twenty-first-century students arrive in the classroom well versed in TV fragmentation, multiplicity, and fluidity, and are thus primed to accept television history (indeed, all of "television") as a mash-up. Students are quick to agree that it has always only been possible to study fragments of television history, since even full episodes are mere fragments of a series, just as series are only partial representations of television flow and overflow.6 With this principle in mind, my students screen fragments of varying lengths, sometimes a full episode of Roseanne (ABC, 1988-1997) or Miami Vice (NBC, 1984-1989) and sometimes much briefer clips, such as an online "minisode" of Gidget (ABC, 1965-1966) or a five-minute clip depicting Leland's death on Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991). Discussing such key segments highlights the fluidity of TV history's object of study without subtracting the meaning that even fragments can provide.
To further drive home the mutability of TV history, students are required to select a television text not covered on the syllabus and present its significance to the class. In addition, students are assigned a discussion topic and asked to locate relevant television fragments from the Internet; they then reassemble these fragments online to produce a new digital history for their classmates. After viewing cigarette ads from the 1950s and 1960s, for example, students uncovered more recent expressions of TV's attitude toward smoking. Among the best was a clip from Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004) that one student called an "ode to smoking," in which a character extols the secret pleasures of cigarettes.7 Through these assignments, my students collaborate with me and with each other to create the object of historical study for the semester. The cigarette assignment is one of many asking students to scrutinize a TV text's historical and cultural frame of reference. Students are quick to discern TV's blatant glorification of smoking in the 1950s versus a more ambiguous allure at the end of the century.
I trust I am not alone in noticing that many of today's undergraduates are uninformed and uninterested in "the past" (anything that happened before 1990). Yet I have also observed that in today's multiplatform world of reruns and asynchronous replays, students have become unwittingly accustomed to time shifts and recontextualization. In the spring of 2010, my students surprised me by introducing a first-rate example of historical reframing. In our study of the political economy of the Super Bowl, students agreed in unison that one of their favorite ads featured...