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).
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.