Paratexts and Pedagogy / Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(3)



Paratexts and Pedagogy

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1 (3) Fall 2013
Co-editors: Ted Hovet and Lisa Patti

Table of Contents


Ted Hovet and Lisa Patti


Paratexts, broadly defined, have always thrived in the classroom.  What more fundamental pedagogical act is there than to provide students with materials that surround a text under study— history, criticism, context, paratext?  There has even been a long tradition of preparing special volumes of canonical texts (Norton Critical Editions, for instance, or the Bedford Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism) chock full of ancillary materials, at times peppering the text itself with notes and commentary.  Are not such volumes the model, at least indirectly, for DVD editions of films and television shows that feature hours of supplementary material and textual commentary that—very likely—become the first and most fundamental way that many media studies instructors bring paratextual material into classroom study?

Yet such material, however bountiful, all too easily reinforces the primacy of the text.  These supplements tend to move analysis in only one direction: from paratext (the periphery) to text (the center); from teacher (who selects both text and paratext from a position of authority) to student (the passive recipient of information).

Fortunately, scholarly and pedagogical interventions have stanched this unidirectional flow toward the authoritative text (and teacher).  In fact in his response to this dossier, Jonathan Gray (whose Show Sold Separately exemplifies and instigates serious scholarly attention to the paratext) argues that it may be time to reverse that flow and make paratexts central to the classroom.

In whatever manner (or metaphor) that the dynamic relationship between text and paratext may flow, the explosion of paratextual material and its ready circulation online provides instructors with a remarkable opportunity—and, as this dossier contends, responsibility—to teach the paratext.  Doing so is no simple matter, and requires much more than tweaking a syllabus.  We have asked the contributors to this dossier to address specific pedagogical questions that arise when moving the paratext from a supplement to a centerpiece of the classroom: How do the terms of formal analysis shift when performing an analysis of a paratext?  Are there new vocabularies that should accompany the analysis of paratexts?  Should archival research be a component of paratextual analysis for students?  How does the analysis of paratexts complicate discussions of authorship?  When asking students to create a paratext for an assignment, what skills should they learn in preparation for the assignment?  How should the paratexts they create be evaluated?  What theories and definitions of the paratext are most valuable in the media studies classroom?

While we can’t claim that this dossier provides definitive answers to all of these questions, it addresses them in productive and provocative ways that, ideally, can be transferred to (and transformed in) other classrooms.

The contributors to this dossier approach the teaching of paratexts from several different disciplinary, institutional, and practical vantage points.  From discussions of Hollywood to Bollywood, from classrooms in the United States to South Korea, from courses on broadcast history to professional wrestling, these articles explore the ways that paratexts can expand and enhance our students’ understanding of media history and contemporary media.  While each article introduces a distinct set of strategies for incorporating paratexts in the classroom as both object and mode of analysis, the authors share an investment in recognizing the industrial, cultural, and pedagogical value of the paratext as a text. These articles provide not only theoretical discussions of the structure and value of paratexts but also practical strategies for incorporating paratextual analysis into courses in any corner of media studies.  The dossier thus functions as both a provocation to reflect on the significance of paratexts to media studies and a toolkit for teaching students to locate, evaluate, and even create paratexts.

In “Foregrounding Context Through Paratexts,” Charlotte Howell discusses the ways that paratexts provide entry points for the analysis of “the fraught interactions among audience, industry, regulation, memory, and content” that shape and complicate media history.  Her article traverses several case studies, explaining her use of trailers for Hollywood genre films to help students to “understand genre as a negotiation of contextually situated expectations between audience and industry” and her use of a range of paratexts (including press releases, network promo videos, and commercials) to explore broadcasting history.

In “Wrestling With Where the ‘Text’ Is,” Sam Ford also addresses the paratexts that define contemporary television experiences, focusing on the complicated transmedia worlds that extend from (and constitute) US television soap operas and professional wrestling, topics he examines in courses devoted to each genre.  Ford argues for a pedagogy of “horizontal complexity” that traces the multiple networks of narrative paths that define transmedia storytelling.  “Immersive storyworlds” like those of soap operas and wrestling require new pedagogical strategies, inviting, for example, class participation in online fan communities or attendance at live events as key components of narrative analysis rather than supplements to textual analysis.

For Lynne Stahl, paratextual analysis can provide students with not only an understanding of specific storyworlds but also the critical vocabulary they need to describe and analyze those storyworlds. Using Scalar, she created a digital textbook to guide students through the development of this vocabulary, building on their comfort with online platforms to introduce the concepts that they will apply to their thinking about text and paratext.  Her multimedia project “incorporates a wealth of paratexts as pedagogy, including trailers, annotated film clips, fan art, and links to pertinent websites, all of which help explain aspects of cinematic analysis.” She shares this project in her article, “Parapedagogy: Teaching Film Analysis from the Digital Periphery,” along with an inventive exercise that invites students to reflect on the paths they follow as they use online search engines and databases to learn about media texts.

Stahl’s concerns about the challenges of convincing students to take pop culture seriously as an object of analysis and arming them with the critical tools they need to complete that analysis finds a complementary set of concerns in Marc Raymond’s “The Value of the Paratext in Teaching Media in a Foreign Country.” Raymond discusses his experiences teaching popular culture courses (in addition to courses on mass media and social media) in South Korea. For Raymond, paratexts are a vital way to help students who haven’t been immersed in American pop culture to identify and analyze the features that define Hollywood genres and film aesthetics.  Like Stahl, he both uses paratexts as key pedagogical tools and invites students to create their own; Raymond’s students create Wikipedia entries in order to discover the opportunities and limitations of the public co-creation of knowledge.  While Raymond’s article focuses on a specific institutional context for teaching paratexts, he points out that his experience should alert us to the value of paratexts for all students.  He concludes, “By not taking cultural knowledge for granted, teachers can avoid alienating students and better connect to a wider range of learners.”

All of these articles take advantage of the online publication format of the teaching dossier, including links to the assignments they discuss and the paratextual examples they cite.  In the final contribution to the dossier, Monika Mehta fully exploits the opportunities of online publication by presenting a video analysis of paratexts.  Mehta discusses her use of paratexts to teach Bollywood song-and-dance sequences.  She analyzes film music compilation DVDs to alert students to the ways that song-and-dance sequences circulate independently from the Bollywood films from which they are drawn, generating not only new avenues of profit but also new venues for fan engagement and scholarly analysis.  Her detailed close reading of the covers of several compilation DVDs and the information they provide about film history, stardom, and cinephilia reminds us that, in some cases, DVDs can be judged by their covers.

The contributors all respond, directly or indirectly, to an emerging interest in media paratexts set in motion by Gray’s Show Sold SeparatelyGray offers a response to the articles in the dossier that argues for the centrality of paratexts in the media classroom. He notes the opportunity that paratextual analysis presents for reinvigorating the pedagogical approach to textual analysis in the media studies classroom by, among other things, dismantling the auteurist assumptions that still often shape the treatment of texts both in and out of the classroom.

This dossier demonstrates that the paratext does, indeed, thrive in the classroom.  The careful study of the paratext reinforces many of the most fruitful traditional practices in the media studies classroom, while also offering an inspiring challenge that can productively take us beyond our pedagogical comfort zone.



Sam Ford is an affiliate of MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) and co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (NYU Press, 2013). He has taught courses on the U.S. soap opera and U.S. professional wrestling at MIT and WKU and also teaches Introduction to Popular Culture Studies at WKU. Sam has published/will publish essays with Transformative Works and Cultures, The Journal of Fandom Studies, and Panorama Social, and has written for anthologies including Third Person, Bodies of Discourse, Making Media Work, and The Essential Cult Television Reader. He is currently is co-curating an annotated bibliography on U.S. soap opera research for Oxford University Press. He is also Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, a strategic communications and marketing firm.

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison. His most recent books are A Companion to Media Authorship (with Derek Johnson), Television Studies (with Amanda D. Lotz), and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.

Ted Hovet is a Professor of Film Studies and English at Western Kentucky University. He regularly teaches film history, world cinema, and film theory, and he helped found the interdisciplinary film major at WKU in 2010.  He has been a Futures of Entertainment Fellow since 2006, and most recently coordinated a workshop on the pedagogy of transmedia for the FoE 6 conference.  He was chair of the SCMS Teaching Committee from 2010-2012.

Charlotte Howell is a Ph.D. student in the department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published “Value in Brokenness: Fractured Subjectivities in Contemporary American Telefantasy” in Networking Knowledge and “The Gospel of the Winchesters (And Their Fans): Neoreligious Fan Practices and Narrative in Supernatural” in Kinephanos. Charlotte has worked for FlowTV and InMediaRes, was a co-coordinator of the Flow Conference 2010, and is the graduate assistant for Media Industries, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal launching in 2014.

Monika Mehta is Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University, SUNY. Her research and teaching interests include new media and film studies; cinema in South Asia; theories of nation-state; postcolonial critique; and globalization and cultural production.  She is the author of Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (University of Texas Press, December 2011; Permanent Black, January 2012).

Lisa Patti is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  Her research and teaching interests include: global media, translation, media industries, and stardom.  She recently served as Chair of the SCMS Teaching Committee.

Marc Raymond is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, where he has taught the courses “Social Media and Human Relations” and “The History of Mass Media” and is currently preparing to teach a graduate course on “Spreadable Media and Cultural Convergence” and undergraduate courses on “Media and Gender” and “Globalization and Culture.” He has also taught the course “History of American Cinema” in the Cinema Studies department at the Korea National University of Art in Seoul (2008-2009), as well as ESL courses at Gachon University in Seongnam, South Korea (2008-2012). He received his PhD in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University in 2009 and taught in the Film Studies department at Carleton from 2003-2007, teaching the following courses: “Film Theory, Historiography and Criticism”; “Forms and Conventions of the Cinema”; “History of American Cinema”; “Martin Scorsese and Film Culture”; and “American Independent Cinema.” Funding support for this research was provided by the Kwangwoon University Research Fund.

Lynne Stahl is a graduate student in the Department of English at Cornell University and is currently working on a dissertation entitled “Tomboys in Time: Gender, Affect, and Resistance in American Film.” At Cornell, she has designed and taught first-year writing seminars called “Shakespeare from Stage to Screen” and “Queer Self-Representations,” both of which considered film, video art, and other media alongside more traditional literary forms, and is currently serving as a TA for a course called “Desire and Cinema.” Through a grant from Cornell’s Olin Library and the Society for the Humanities, she recently created an online, multimedia film tutorial as a supplementary component of the syllabus; it aims to furnish a critical lexicon, to defamiliarize and historicize film as a medium and an industry, and to provoke thought about various cultural functions of film.


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One Response to Paratexts and Pedagogy / Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(3)

  1. Sam_Ford says:

    Thanks, Ted. It was a true pleasure taking part in this issue and bringing some key questions about how to understand and develop new strategies surrounding information discovery, circulation, curation, etc., in a digital age into the classroom…one of the most vital sites, I think, for helping today’s young adults (as well as non-traditional students as well) consider the more active role they can play in engaging (responsibly) with media texts as audiences, as citizens, as communities, etc.

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