I’m supposed to working on a book manuscript right now. Instead, I’m procrastinating. My “day job” involves working with University students to improve their academic learning and literacy. That’s right, I teach people to write, and then try to actively avoid writing myself, sometimes by doing things like blogging. Which is, you know, actually writing. The irony is palpable.
There’s a curious tension between such a teaching-focused role and my research, which has become increasingly focused on pop culture over the years. A lot of people don’t get it. But as I’ve argued repeatedly, you can’t teach students unless you engage them. If all they want to talk about is Game of Thrones, fine; use that as an analogy to discuss politics and power, or medieval social strata, or the use of mise-en-scene, or whatever else you can twist it to fit. It’s easier to do that and capture their attention than it is to stamp your foot and demand that they stop distracting you from your pre-established lesson plan whose brilliance they are clearly missing. As Roslyn and I have said repeatedly, popular cultures does matter, because anything with which students–and society more generally–engages, influences the thinking of those students and that society.
So when I was approached by the Centre for Student Engagement at my Uni to present a lunchtime workshop on how to “Ace that Essay!,” I saw an opportunity. Let’s rethink this, I said. Let’s rename it. That idea of an essay having a “body”? Let’s use it. Let’s carve up the corpse of some of my old writing drafts and see how the bits get stitched together to make something of Frankensteinian beauty.
Perhaps they were scared of me, because they agreed.
I’m sure there are some who see my research as completely removed from my teaching. Most people are too polite to actually roll their eyes and say, “She’s in her office doing her own thing, again,” but I suspect there might be some who still think it. But then again, most people don’t see my one to one appointments with my students.
I work mainly with at-risk students. Students with disabilities, Indigenous students, and Mature Age students returning to study after years or decades outside of formal classrooms. Some of them come into my office very cautiously. Others come in seething with resentment, because they think they’ve been identified as somehow lacking and sent for some kind of remediation. But it’s a very rare student who doesn’t comment on the Doctor Who, The Big Bang Theory, The Vampire Diaries or X-Files paraphernalia on the walls. Or the rows and rows of vampire and werewolf-themed books and DVDs. Or even the occasional Twilight-themed card or decorating item, because Roslyn and I like to buy each other hilariously kitsch gifts whenever we can.
It gets them talking. Pop culture is a great leveller.
So, when faced with a group of students in Week 1–number unknown, faculties and fields of study unknown, and whether or not they are in first year or perhaps a bit further along unknown–I could go with a boring, generic: “An essay has an Introduction, a Body and a Conclusion ….” model.
Or, I could talk about Spike from Buffy as a progenitor for Damon in The Vampire Diaries … and about what turns that from a vaguely interesting observation to an academic argument. Or how Buffy’s other British friend, Giles, has influenced Stiles in the new Teen Wolf … and where do we find the evidence or examples that make this the kind of argument someone might want to read? Or how werewolves are just code for adolescence, really — so look at this paragraph about that idea, and tell me where the topic sentence is and how you would go about creating one that has some depth. And we can talk about how to manage 128 versions of the same document, because sometimes, that’s what it takes. Even for academics. People who say they just wrote one draft an hour before it was due? Good for them, but find out what kind of mark they got before you follow their lead, because personally, I’m just not that brilliant, and I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who is, either.
And so, in the words of the original and obnoxious Stiles, we’re going to make this something monstrous. We’re going to carve up the cadavers of my writing about weres and shifters and vamps and all kinds of things that go bump in the night, because Barthes may be right about the author being dead, but the writing has a life of its own.
Or it will do, if I stop procrastinating!