Joss Whedon Inadvertently Became my Academic Specialty

Joss Whedon I never really knew what my academic specialty would be. I originally thought about being a medievalist, but talking a single class on Chaucer where our entire text was in Middle English turned me off of that idea. I then had no idea really where my specialization would come from.

Half of my indecision came from not knowing just what degree I wanted to work on. Did I want an MFA in Creative Writing or a Ph.D. (eventually) in English literature? The other half came from loving everything. I love to read and write fiction; I love television; I love film; I love comic books and video games. I love it all. And picking a specialty seemed so limiting.

So when it came time for graduate school, I lucked out in that my university only offered two choices: American literature or British literature (though, I guess there were sub-choices one made based on time period). I chose to test in American 1865-present.

But that still didn’t really help me as far as what my specialty was. I took some film classes, so would that be it? I loved studying television, but I never really did any course work on it. I read Stephen King religiously, so is he my specialization, especially since I had worked on The Dark Tower series as part of my (incomplete) Master’s thesis?

None of that fit, really. I attended the Pop Culture Association conference in New Orleans this year, and I went to a lot of Stephen King panels, a few over Buffy, even one over How I Met Your Mother, and even presented a paper on Willy Wonka. I left PCA feeling sure that I was going to specialize in Stephen King’s literature as part of my career. I even blogged about it.

But it still never felt quite right.

I never thought that my specialty should be what I teach. It turns out that in every class I teach, I make my students watch something Joss Whedon created (except for my 101 class, and that will be rectified once my night class starts in mid-October).

In English 099, I have them write a summary paragraph of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s first episode and use my comments to expand that into their first summary essay, including the series’ second episode “The Harvest.”

In English 100, I have them write a summary essay of Firefly’s aired pilot “The Train Job,” and then a compare/contrast essay of “The Train Job” and “Ariel” because they’re both about medicine robberies.

In English 101, I intend to remove Stephen King’s “Autopsy Room Four” from the syllabus and replace it with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I intend to use the musical’s three-act structure to explore the beginning, middle, and end every narrative must have. The students will identify the show’s “thesis” and “climax,” and then work those concepts into their own narrative essays. I have yet to decide how to replace the film version of “Autopsy Room Four;” ideas and suggestions are welcome.

In the spring, I finally get to teach English 102 (the second half of freshman composition which teaches about how to write about literature), and I am thinking of somehow integrating Dollhouse into the class. I just can’t think of a good way to do it since the first half of the first season is weak (though I think the pilot is decent enough), and the really good episodes might be hard to understand with no introduction.

If Dollhouse doesn’t work for 102, then I have two other options in my mind: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog again, only this time concentrating on the poetic nature of the lyrics and how they advance the narrative as we discuss poetry. Or have them watch the pilot of LOST and use it as an introduction to character analysis. My main problem with using LOST is that it would ruin my Whedonite sequence running through all my courses, which is something I really want to maintain, given the point I’m about to try to make. (Of course, there is the option of doing both a Whedon show and LOST in 102, but then I run the risk of not hitting more of the traditional literature the students will encounter later on, and I know my school would look down on that).

PvP Joss So somehow, in all of the English classes that I’ve taught (or will be teaching in the foreseeable future), I have studied and taught something by Joss Whedon. Because of this, I am currently working on a proposal for the 2010 Slayage conference, which is the big academic deal of the Whedonverse. I applied for faculty development funds yesterday to see if my attendance and presentation can be funded by my school. I figure that because of my teaching it in all my classes, it really is faculty development because somehow, it turns out that my specialization is quickly becoming Joss Whedon’s library.

I did not intend for that to happen, nor did I really do it on purpose (except for the 102 conundrum in the Spring). I tried teaching Stephen King, but it did not work for the class(here’s hoping for my Modern Horror course to be approved when I propose it this Spring). It was just a happy coincidence that I wanted to introduce my students to something I care about—it started with Firefly—and it stuck. I’ve even thought about trying to convince them to let me teach a Whedon-themed 102 course where we study the aspects of literature through looking at various episodes of his TV series like Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible (I’m not sure how that would go since they like all writing courses to be uniform here, but it’s worth a shot).

I wonder, though, if this is the way a specialty generally comes about. It seems my niche just fell into my lap, based on me experimenting with television in the classroom. I never really made a conscious decision to “study” Joss Whedon. But I’m happy that it’s turned out this way.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I think I already told you, I know a lot of Whedonites! I like Whedon, too, but I always thought focusing on Whedon would be too limiting … just pulling your leg. 😉

    I think your students are lucky to have a Whedonite professor. At least I have not yet seen people that were outright bored or angered by Buffy, even if not all like the series as much as I do.

  2. I'm not a professor, but if I'd gone on to try for a phD, the subject of my specialisation would've been decided pretty much at least as happenstance as that, if not more. I did my master's on the religion of ancient Rome through a series of years of choosing whatever looked interesting and fit with my schedule from what was offered by the university I attended. When I started, I thought I'd do history or philosophy, or if I somehow DID end up doing religion I was sure it'd be Norse. So, while not the same circumstances at all, I do think people sort of fall into things they at some point suddenly realise they know a lot about and enjoy working with.

  3. Beej: "It was just a happy coincidence that I wanted to introduce my students to something I care about…

    It seems my niche just fell into my lap, based on me experimenting with television in the classroom. I never really made a conscious decision to “study” Joss Whedon. But I’m happy that it’s turned out this way."

    It's not a coincidence. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    For someone who studies Whedon, you should know that that Buffy is modeled after the Heroic Journey, the "monomythic" structure described by Joseph Campbell. You've heard the Call to Adventure – a call to follow your bliss. All else follows from that.

  4. I can definitely tell that you have great love for him and his work, and I understand why. Over the years of enjoying his work, I've come to two conclusions that I'd like to encourage you to explore:

    1. That Whedon is not only painfully aware of genre tropes that are examples of tired, photocopied storytelling, but often engages in reversing expectations (i.e. Mal kicks the bad guy into the jet engine instead of doing the "noble" good guy thing and letting him go).

    2. That his atheism and humanistic beliefs have echoes in his characters, especially in his two core messages: that we have the strength within to be great, and that friendship/family is the greatest thing to believe in. I find it interesting that he so heavily promotes friendships and relationships, yet also constantly tears them down, shows how they fail, and often leaves his characters shattered.

  5. I agree with Jane. Coincidence, to me, just seems to be a word for recognizing a pattern, but not the cause of the pattern.

    My computer specialty fell into my lap the same way, I think it happens to more people than are willing to admit it.

  6. I think your affinity for pop culture and modern cinema in order to teach literary knowledge is wonderful.

    I can say that not only will students be more connected to the material, they themselves can venture into the genre with a healthy dose of what's current.

    Of course, having an appreciation for the classics is a must, but leave that for the more mundane classes.

  7. It's more than recognizing a pattern, Ben. Beej was being directed by his subconsciousness. Let's put it this way: Beej would probably have affinities for Whedon and teaching even he took to the Chair and had himself wiped all shiny and new.

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