I have a love-hate relationship (as I do with a good many things) with the conversation on the legitimacy of digital scholarship. On the one hand, I’m all for innovative forms of scholarly activity (I’m a Kindle-toting pro-tech who’d rather write a TV pilot script than the Great American Novel, so that’s kind of a given). On the other hand, though, I feel like the whole topic is at an uncomfortable place right now; the way I see it, it’s inevitable that digital scholarship is going to become more and more accepted, so there’s not much to do right now except rail self-righteously against the Luddites who oppose it…you know, wherever the Luddites have gotten to at this point if they haven’t gotten on board with the whole inevitability thing.
In case I’ve lost anyone so far, let me clarify: “Digital scholarship” is activity that takes place in digital spaces, especially the creation of online material such as webtexts and, well, blogs, that deserves as much scholarly merit as an essay, a book, etc. Also, a Luddite is someone who opposes technological advances.
I don’t think I could contribute much to the general discussion on the merits and future of digital scholarship. Nor do I have any particular desire to do so, for reasons mentioned above. But because this is a TV blog, I thought I’d take a little time to discuss the value of digital scholarship to people like me who have a vested interest in learning about and discussing TV-related topics in a way that has some intellectual heft to it.
In writing this post, I’ll be referring to the digitally published article “Scholarship on the Move: A Rhetorical Analysis of Scholarly Activity in Digital Spaces” by James P. Purdy and Joyce R. Walker. For examples of digital composition, I’ll be referring primarily to two sources. One is my own blog, and I’m using that more for reasons of familiarity than to stoke my ego or anything like that. The other is the tumblelog of Screwball Ninja, particularly her so-called OUAT Essays. I ran across one a while back and then immediately thought about it when planning this post. I was pretty excited to find the whole collection! But enough about that. Let’s start getting to the heart of the matter.
First of all, does television merit scholarly attention? It certainly can. About a year back I was in an Honors class centered entirely around a 1960s TV show called The Prisoner, which culminated in the writing of a 20-page paper about said TV show that also drew on various fiction and nonfiction works. I skipped spending Easter with my family to finish writing that paper, and it was glorious. So yes, I do speak from experience when I say that it’s possible to write about TV in the way that one writes about novels and plays and such.
But does this hold true for every show? The Prisoner isn’t your typical TV fare, after all; it’s rich with symbolism, social critique, and psychologically bizarre situations, just to scratch the surface. Writing a 20-page paper on The Big Bang Theory might have been…well, not impossible, but just a little more difficult. All I can say here is that different shows offer varying opportunities for substantial discourse, but as surely as Children’s Lit students write gripping analyses of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, you could probably comment on pretty much any show in a way that could be considered “scholarly.”
But He Was Still Hungry: Childhood Obesity in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar
So why is digital publication specifically the best route when you’re dealing with discussion of television? Simple: the average TV viewer spends more time reading online material than poring through scholarly journals, so you’ve got your target audience right there. Also importantly, online discourse facilitates conversation between experts and non-experts alike in ways that print publication just doesn’t. I’ll get into that more later.
In analyzing potentially “scholarly” publications in the forms of webtexts, blogs, and so forth, Purdy and Walker identified a few recognized conventions of scholarly rhetoric that appeared in the digital material:
When I was a writing tutor, most of the papers that I looked at (particularly ones from English classes) had some argumentative element to them. Even if you’re not writing a “persuasive” paper, you’re still trying to convince your reader that symbolism was used to a certain end, that a work offers such and such social commentary, that the message and structure of The Prisoner represents an established paradigm of “individual versus established power” that is also present in 1984, Hamlet, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–whatever.
If you’re writing about a TV show and your audience is the people who watch said show, one way to spark some interest is to put some kind of argumentative spin on what you’re writing. For instance, in my commentary on the Breaking Bad pilot, I state up front that the pilot does an effective job of setting up Walt’s decision to cook meth, and then I outline the ways in which it does this. It’s all about taking your own perspective and then getting other people to share it.
Many of Screwball Ninja’s essays also fall under this heading. Just scroll down her list and you’ll see titles such as “The Charmings: Unfit to Rule” and “King Leopold: Creepy Yes, Abusive No” that plainly carry the promise of an argument. And they generally follow the familiar formula of “[statement to be proven] [proof] [proof] [proof] [conclusion]” that you’d expect to see in an essay written for English 101.
In examining digital texts, Purdy and Walker found than many of them (especially the discussion threads and Twitter feeds) abandoned the argumentative model in favor of speculation: bringing up a topic and, well, speculating about it rather than explicitly debating for or against. I think this model has a lot of potential for scholarly writing about TV. Just as academics of today wrack their brains over whether Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to have an Oedipus complex, the fact is that unless you’re the showrunner or someone in a similar position of power, you don’t know all the ins and outs of what you’re talking about. So, in some cases, it might be more about bringing a concept forward for further thought than actually telling people what to think.
I try to keep a speculative tone in some of my writing on this blog. When I was writing about The Walking Dead (a show I knew next to nothing about at the time), I called attention to the fact that Rick was shot while talking about his wife because I thought it was important, but I didn’t go into it too much because I was aware that I was still learning and thought it was best to let people go think about it on their own.
This is where we start to see how digital scholarship has a leg up on the traditional route. Purdy and Walker identified three primary ways that digital works can provide opportunities for implicit association: hyperlinks, “juxtaposition of words, images, and design elements,” and “non-citational gestures to sources and evidence.”
I’ve used plenty of hyperlinks in my writing on this blog, whether it’s to provide a copy of the script of a show, to draw on an interview with an actor, or to share my Camp NaNoWriMo information (and in case anyone cares, I am shamefully behind as of this writing). Screwball Ninja uses them as well, mainly to reference points made in her other essays–think “X (and see also Y for more information on X).”
In the context of TV-related discussion, adding supplementary links in this way is fitting given the nature of TV itself. TV is an interpretation of a script, and so we include a copy of the script. TV characters are portrayed by actors, and so we refer to the actors. TV shows are stories developed over dozens and dozens of individual episodes (or nine episodes if you’re Sherlock), and so we include links to discussions of material found in other episodes. It makes perfect sense, really.
Sherlock didn’t approve of that last comment.
This was one thing that really struck me when I read my first Screwball Ninja essay, “Lacey: The Femme Fatale That Wasn’t.” The subtitle says “Essay in 6 parts,” and structurally speaking, it reads like a five-paragraph essay with three extra paragraphs. But it’s filled with gifs that are used to illustrate each of the main points, particularly stuff related to visuals. Which is as it should be, what with film being a visual medium and all.
My increasingly heavy use of screencaps and other images on this blog is a little less about illustration per se and a little more about this cynical idea that my readers have short attention spans and can’t be compelled to look at a wall of text that hasn’t been spiced up with a few friendly images. Still, there’s a selection process involved, and every picture supplements the text in some way.
My favorite blog post in terms of images is still my “In The Name of the Brother” commentary, aptly subtitled “Monsters, Men, and Fun with Visuals.” Those alternating screencaps of our world and the black-and-white world, plus that killer shot of the gold coins spilling onto the floor, really capture what a visual treat this episode was. Although it may not be apparent to my readers, this was also where I started taking multiple shots of scenes and sorting through them later instead of grabbing the first shot I saw and moving on. This was especially helpful when I wanted to capture specific moments that I was describing in the text (like the moment where Mr. Gold first sees Cora, for example).
So, no matter why you’re doing it, using supplemental images to discuss television is always a good way to go. And you can’t do that with conventional print.
Sources and Evidence
I’ll run through this one because I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s always been true that one way to understand a work is to compare it to another work. I referenced a total of three movies for “In the Name of the Brother” and referred to Sherlock while talking about Elementary. Screwball Ninja compares Lacey to the femme fatales of Hollywood. Basically, referencing other works is a cornerstone of literary criticism, and adding pictures makes it that much easier.
I can’t express how important this is when you’re talking about television, especially if you’re like me and hope to get some general truths about the medium out of the experience. So much of TV analysis is subjective (see “Speculation”), so if you’re ever to come close to knowing whether you’ve actually got a point with what you’re saying or thinking or whether you’re barking up the wrong tree altogether, the only thing to do is to open it up for discussion.
This is where online publishing comes in handy. You may not know how to (or even be able to) get in touch with Joe Professor who wrote that article on symbolism in The Metamorphosis that you had so many issues with, but articles published through WordPress, Tumblr, or any of a whole slew of online platforms give you the chance to talk back to the author and hopefully start a conversation–which, as Purdy and Walker point out, is one of the main goals of scholarly publication in the first place.
I really enjoyed making those videos with Haley for you guys. And that’s just one type of formal enactment that the digital world can allow us to use. Written communication may still be the bread-and-butter of this blog, but the videos, particularly the Bates Motel one, were great for showing what a more on-the-nose reaction looks like. And since first impressions are key when it comes to selling people on a show, those reactions need to be seen.
Look at my face. I have no idea what’s coming.
So, wrapping up here, digital scholarship is more than a new trend that’s apparently here to stay; it’s a crucial tool for the fruitful discussion of TV. And to my readers, I encourage you: If you’ve never published anything to do with TV online or taken part in a serious online discussion of TV, please do so. If we work together, we can all come to a better understanding of the shows we love.