The Value of the Paratext in Teaching Media in a Foreign Country

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1 (3) Fall 2013
 Marc Raymond
 Kwangwoon University


In the Fall of both 2008 and 2009, I taught the course “History of American Cinema” in the Department of Cinema Studies at the Korean National University of Art in Seoul, South Korea. Teaching media to students from Korea and other parts of Asia, all with advanced but not fluent English language skills, was a difficult task, one for which I was ultimately ill-prepared. Relying on traditional analysis of films such as Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and Vertigo and reading academic analysis of these texts did not allow for a dynamic learning environment, despite the enthusiasm and effort of the students. Beginning in March 2013, I started a full-time position in the Department of Communication at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, teaching courses on “Social Media and Human Relations,” “The History of Mass Media,” and “Popular Culture.” Having acquired experience teaching ESL in the interim, I felt more confident in adapting to teaching media to non-native speakers, and the experience was definitely more satisfying. One of the more valuable tools in accomplishing the goal of greater student engagement was the discovery of the pedagogical value of the paratext.

I use the word “discovery” because, as much as I would like to claim this was a pre-planned choice, it was much more accidental. It was partially the result of teaching different subjects beyond traditional media analysis, especially the course on social media. As Ted Hovet has argued, there is a connection between the rise of the “student-centered” classroom and new media platforms such as YouTube: “The shift to a more ‘student-centered’ classroom has led to the possibility of reversing this traditional (educational) exchange, much as new interactive media technology has transformed passive viewers into active content producers and circulators” [1]. As a consequence of teaching and, of course, learning about social media as an instructor, the importance and potential of using the paratext became more and more apparent, especially in a foreign language context. Despite the large number of teachers working in the ESL/EFL field outside of their native country, there has not been a great deal of focus on teaching media itself. Media is seen as a tool for language acquisition rather than as a way to teach a broader media literacy. As Carla Chamberlin Quinlisk argues, “When we think of literacy in the language learning context, the critical examination of media may not come to mind as quickly as notions of reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills” [2]. As a Media Studies teacher learning about cultural material requires confronting questions of language and meaning, most notably the problem of context. This is where the value of the paratext can be seen most directly.

The most thorough examination of the media paratext to date is Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (2010). In his opening chapter on theorizing the paratext, Gray makes a seemingly obvious but crucial observation: “Texts make sense because of our past textual experiences, literacy, and knowledge. At a basic level, for instance, if we are new to a language, we can only decode small parts of anything that we read or hear” [3]. This aptly describes the situation of many of my students when faced with English language media culture. Despite their wide exposure to Hollywood cinema, there is a great deal of contextual meaning that is missing. The first example of a classroom paratext that proved especially instructive was the parody trailer for The Shining. Although both the original text and this particular parodic paratext are familiar entities to many students in the North American media environment, they are much less so in Korea, and thus led to some fresh responses. Some students were familiar with the original and understood the joke; others were unfamiliar yet still recognized the parodic element, while others were not quite aware of the spoof. By comparing an original trailer for the film with this fan-created remix, a broader discussion of how meaning is constructed could take place. All of this arose not from teaching The Shining as a text, but from a lecture about YouTube and the distinction between professionally generated versus user-generated content, a line that the parody trailer blurs. This use of paratexts gave the students an accessible point of entry into the cultural texts being studied, partially because the text itself (The Shining) was not the main focus of the discussion.

It quickly became apparent that paratexts could also be useful in teaching text-based analysis. For my course on “Popular Culture,” I had chosen to focus on American cinema, and while the course was still structured around twelve main filmic texts (from Casablanca to Zero Dark Thirty), I started to use more paratexts in the classroom environment. I began with some of the paratexts discussed by Hovet in relation to Casablanca [4], although the results here were less successful, perhaps due to the difficulty of conveying the film’s domestic reception cross-culturally. In this case, more traditional forms of analysis, such as Robert Ray’s framing of the film in relation to American isolationist ideology and World War II, made more of a connection [5]. Another major cultural icon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, was greatly enhanced by paratextual examples. Hitchcock’s famous trailer for the film introduced students to the original audience’s expectations and  to Hitchcock himself as a personality and icon. A second paratext, a video essay by Alan Proctor-Thompson on the authorship of the shower scene, provided an example of concrete visual analysis while giving students an appreciation of the craft of filmmaking and the different contributions of a film’s collaborators.

Most fruitful of all in this class was a comparison of The Shining parody trailer with another example that it clearly inspired, the parody trailer for Taxi Driver. In this case, the students also viewed the original films and thus could see more clearly how the paratexts resituate each. Moreover, the comparison brought out elements of the original texts that students had not noticed during their initial viewing. For example, when asked which parody was more effective, the vast majority said The Shining, and when asked why, they observed that many of the scenes used in the trailer were already parodies of typical family films. Thus, what at first seemed like simply a horror film became something more complicated. As Gray observes, “Genre serves an important duty in the interpretive process, of course, because it acts much as I have said paratexts do, by providing an initial context and reading strategy for the text” [6]. In this case, the paratexts play with genre pointing out either total incongruity (like Taxi Driver) or secret affinities (like The Shining). Instead of listening to a lecture on the connections between the horror film and the family in The Shining, the students could use paratexts to identify these connections themselves.

In the course on social media, I attempted to have students make their own paratext by contributing an entry to Wikipedia. For this assignment, I decided to give as little instruction as possible. The only task was to contribute to Wikipedia and not have the entry removed. As students soon found out, this was more difficult than expected, and not for reasons of language ability. In her book The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, José van Dijck describes the core principles of Wikipedia that act as guidelines for contributors, most notably the use of reliable sources, the rule of no original research, and the policy of a neutral point of view [7]. The students learned these protocols through their often frustrating attempts to make an entry that met these conditions. Only one student succeeded, basically by keeping it simple and making an actual paratext rather than an original entry. By going through this exercise, students were able to appreciate Wikipedia and how it operates and to define the text/paratext distinction. More importantly, it showed them how much they could contribute to the global media studies knowledge base from their position as Korean media students. Rather than seeing their language difference as a constraint, they understood the opportunities available for sharing their cultural knowledge with international readers.

Increasingly, scholars teach in environments outside of their home country and occasionally with students with different language backgrounds. This essay points out ways in which this difficulty can be overcome and acts as an encouragement to take on these challenges through the use of paratexts. At the same time, I think it can also be a benefit to think about teaching as if your students do not share your cultural background, even when they do. By not taking cultural knowledge for granted, teachers can avoid alienating students and better connect to a wider range of learners. The use of the paratext provides one way to ensure this connection between the text and the student, which I believe has applicability for educators in all situations.


[1] Ted Hovet, “YouTube and Archives in Educational Environments,” (accessed on September 27, 2013)

[2] Carla Chamberlin Quinlisk, “Media Literacy in the ESL/EFL Classroom: Reading Images and Cultural Stories,” TESOL Journal 12, no. 3 (Autumn 2003): 35.

[3] Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010): 31.

[4] Hovet, “YouTube and Archives in Educational Environments”

[5] Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985): 89-112.

[6] Gray, 35-36.

[7] José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): 139-140.


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.

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