Discussing with Americana his scholarly work on the U.S.-style soap opera, Robert C. Allen (2004) said his interest began in a graduate seminar. Allen recalls a discussion in a narrative theory class at the University of Iowa in which he asked whether stories existed that challenged one of the core tenets of the experience people have with a narrative: a discrete beginning, middle, and end. Allen questioned how soap operas fit into this construct, and “a lively discussion ensued, which prompted me to think further about the curious formal nature of serial narrative and its most fully elaborated and complex manifestation: the television soap opera.”
Today, media scholars find themselves more frequently teaching media texts for which the narrative does not adhere to a discrete beginning, middle, and end—especially as more shows adopt transmedia storytelling strategies in which the primary text of a film, a video series, a comic book series, etc. is supplemented by material across multiple media formats. Further, access to paratextual material about the narrative—to archival footage relevant to the narrative, to “professional” criticism and analysis about the text, and to fan discussion and fan-produced texts in relation to the narrative under analysis in the classroom—expands exponentially what it means to teach “a text.”
Because many of these transmedia narratives still prioritize a particular primary text—the film itself, or the 13-episode season arc of the primary television show—many instructors’ impulse is to return to the safe confines of traditional narrative pedagogy. As teachers, we favor drilling deeply into the vertical complexity of a multilayered and dissectible finite text, as opposed to engaging with the messiness of the horizontal complexity that accretes from a text that expands quite broadly.
While there is great value in narrative analysis such as close readings, in continuing to focus so heavily on textual analysis while overlooking the importance of everything outside a finite primary text, I fear we do little to help our students think critically about the full narrative experience an audience increasingly has with the popular culture they engage.
To best embrace the horizontal complexity of how a narrative expands across multiple official and unofficial parts of the story, much can be learned from considering more deeply the strategies of what I’ve labeled elsewhere as “immersive story worlds” (Ford 2007), such as superhero comic book universes, U.S.-style soap operas, “celebrity culture,” and politics. In my experience teaching semester-long courses on U.S. soap opera and on professional wrestling, I have uncovered pedagogical principles which may help others as they consider how to bring horizontal complexity into their classroom analysis of media texts of all sorts.
When I have taught semester-long courses on soap opera, students have spent the entire semester watching a particular daytime serial drama in “real-time,” typically with five new episodes per week. Those four months or so which comprise the average length of a semester are still only a tiny fraction of the full “text” of the soap. Nevertheless, I’ve found that engaging students in the confusing process of joining a soap opera narrative mid-stream and trying to piece together who characters are, their relationships to one another, and how storylines progress proves to be a useful way to drive understanding and deep consideration of the nature of media texts and the lived experiences audiences have with narratives. The classroom becomes a communal experience through which we all acclimate to this world we’ve entered. For almost every student, it has taken the full semester to truly begin to appreciate the narrative experience of a dedicated soap opera viewer, and to see how these texts—which often appeared quite unsophisticated to them as single episodes—started to gain deeper layers of complexity and meaning through the accretion of knowledge of the story world and characters over time.
As complex as teaching a soap opera narrative may be, its story world is still primarily contained within a linear track of one primary series. The challenge with teaching a genre like that of professional wrestling becomes many times more complex. First, while various wrestling promotions may have their own narrative histories, wrestling characters have traditionally jumped from one promotion to the other. This creates a semi-cohesive master fictional universe of “the wrestling world” or “the wrestling industry,” within which the narratives of many different franchises fit.
Second, pro wrestling is—by its nature—“transmedia.” The genre’s origin and continued staple is the live event. Television series, magazines, and other types of material were originally created to further promote these live event tours. However, over time, they became staple parts of the pro wrestling narrative in their own right—and significant pieces of the pro wrestling business model. Today, the narrative of “World Wrestling Entertainment” takes place across the promotion’s various live events; seven hours of original television programming per week; two weekly online television series; monthly pay-per-view events; a monthly magazine; the WWE.com website, which acts as a fictional news organization covering the WWE story world; and various outlets for accessing historical wrestling content. Further complicating the sheer volume of these varying “primary texts” is the fact that the pro wrestling narrative plays out in “real time,” and its narrative setting is “the real world,” meaning that these wrestlers rarely appear in what could truly be considered “out of character” situations. Wrestlers maintain their own Twitter accounts and other presence in social media as their wrestling personas, and they often conduct their public appearances—from press interviews to chance encounters with fans—somewhat in character.
Simultaneously, because we the audience live in the story world of this narrative and have the potential to interact not with the actors but with the characters themselves in chance encounters in airports or bars and because all in-arena wrestling shows and non-televised events focus so heavily on the performance of the fans in the stands in addition to the performers in the ring, audience-produced content becomes more directly part of the narrative world in wrestling as well (in addition to the analytical, fictional, and theoretical writing from pro wrestling critics and fans from outside the fictional world—a line that often gets quite blurry for performer and fan alike).
Similar to my approach for teaching soap opera, my classes studying pro wrestling have followed the WWE narrative in real time throughout the semester. Yet, rather than assigning a particular portion of that real-time volume of texts, I have tasked students with keeping up with the narrative world in whatever combination they best see fit—from some combination of watching television series, engaging with online texts, reading critical and fan analysis from both inside and outside the story world, and either holding a class viewing party for a pay-per-view wrestling event and/or attending a live event as a class during the semester. Class discussion has focused on students bringing together what each has found about the story world and connecting it together, as well as to our various readings and in-class viewings.
Especially crucial in each class I’ve taught on pro wrestling or on soaps has been that one—if not multiple—longtime viewers ended up among the students. As is often the case within online and offline fan communities surrounding these two genres, those with deeper experience with the story world became the elders of our classroom community, passing along knowledge from their years of experience and helping the class piece together historical information about characters and stories that are contextually relevant to the current narrative we are following as a group.
Further, I’ve found it helpful to challenge students to both follow or—if they feel comfortable—join online community discussions about the genre for the duration of the class and to supplement our discussion of the current narrative by bringing in fan discussions and analyses, rumors from online news sites, archival clips, etc., to share with the rest of the class. In most of these cases, the students have also published their thoughts about the genre in question in a class blog, which has typically drawn some interest from dedicated fans as well, who came to be involved in some of the class discussions over time.
In all those experiences, true learning has not come through the results of these student explorations but rather through the process itself. By tackling narratives that could not possibly be neatly contained within the model of a “viewing lab” and follow-up discussion, students become responsible communally for analyzing and making sense of the narrative, for even defining what is or isn’t “the narrative” itself.
Whether teaching content from an “immersive story world” or from single films, novels, plays, or short-run television series, the access our students have in today’s classroom to a broad range of paratextual material allows us to open up for class discussion what constitutes a narrative and how that narrative might best be understood. Rather than curate for students a finite and easily intelligible classroom experience in engaging with media texts, it’s incumbent on us as instructors to engage with the messiness of the lived narrative experience we have as audience members. If this becomes a true classroom goal, students will leave our courses better equipped to think critically about popular culture and the autonomy with which audience members make meaning out of popular texts.
Allen, Robert C. “Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture: Robert C. Allen.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to Present) (Spring 2004). Accessed 05 October 2013. http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2004/allen.htm.
Ford, Sam. “As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture.” Master’s thesis, MIT, 2007. Accessed 05 October 2013. http://cmsw.mit.edu/as-the-world-turns-in-a-convergence-culture/.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2013.
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.