Rev. of Tuned In: Television and the Teaching of Writing, by Bronwyn T. Williams
Although the title should perhaps be Tuned In: Television and the Teaching of Reading and Writing, Bronwyn T. Williams's new book is a thoughtful look at the connections and disconnections between television and print literacies and how the rhetorical skills that students have gained through television "watching" can be used in the composition classroom. However, Williams does not simply call for an introduction of television as another text in the writing class; indeed, he warns against the use of TV as just another "hip and seemingly relevant subject matter to write traditional essays about" (6). Instead, he encourages a pedagogy based on a cultural studies approach of looking at how we "read" televised discourse and how it influences and complicates our experiences with print discourse. Television, he then argues, is not necessarily an "impediment to what we are trying to accomplish in our writing classes" (10), but is a critical influence for both teachers and students that should not be ignored. Through an explicitly political attempt at keeping the "focus on students" (7), Williams uses interviews with fifteen members of several first-year composition classes about their own perceptions of television as a text, the history of their television and print literacies, and their viewing practices. Along with these interviews, he includes analysis of two hours of TV watching and further discussion and readings with the group of interviewees. Of course, such an ethnographic approach can be problematic, and Williams acknowledges as much: "obviously for this book [the students'] words are mediated through my interpretation and analysis" (7). Nonetheless, I contend that his project, through its detailed analysis of studentsí habits, thoughts, and feelings concerning televised discourse, and its interspersed pedagogical suggestions for "Classroom Practice," does manage to give "voice" to the students' ways of reading television as well as to lead the composition teacher toward possible new understandings of a heretofore critically marginalized literacy.
Williams begins his investigation into the power and possibilities of television by addressing the "agenda of assimilation [that] remains at the heart of what happens in a first-year composition class" (27). He not only critiques the liberal humanist position of writing as a defense against the "infection" of popular culture, but also the more recent cultural studies-style approach, as articulated by James Berlin in Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures and Joseph Harris and Jay Rosen in Media Journal: Reading and Writing about Popular Culture, of the study of television as a way to help students become active readers of the mass media. Williams takes issue with the perception of students as passive consumers of popular culture. He posits that by ignoring our students' ability to read television actively and the power of TV to affect their writing as well as our own, "we make our jobs in teaching print literacy more difficult" (31). Indeed, he notes in the "Classroom Practice" section of Chapter One, "A Social Inoculation: The Resistance in Composition to Considering Television's Influence," that he was taken aback when students in his Introduction to Critical Analysis course indicated that they found Sophocles's play Antigone more enjoyable than any of the more contemporary pieces they read that semester. When Williams asked them why they preferred Antigone, one student replied, "I thought it was cool. It was like an episode of Law and Order" (32). This student's response opened up a conversation about the nature of justice and the position of the state that connected Antigone and Law and Order. However, this connection that the class made, Williams insists, does not point us towards seeing students' reading skills as "manipulated" or "polluted" by television. Instead, acknowledging the power of television in the writing classroom allows students to contribute
. . . the sophisticated critical literacies that they have developed through watching televisionand the authority with which they can display those literaciesand to use those literacies as a starting place for discussing the rhetorical concepts that they will need to use in print and as a basis for comparing different media. (33)Of course, then, as the Antigone example illustrates, the significance of Williams's findings is that students are already active readers of televised texts, and they can come to the first-year composition classroom with a keen understanding of how to read rhetorically.
Building on this concept of students as active readers of televised discourse, Williams quite literally places the words of students up front; their comments are put in the same authoritative position as those of scholars such as Stephen Heath, David Buckingham, and Julian Sefton-Green. He recounts the interviewees' histories with television and print literacies, and how the students' "vast and varied experiences of reading and interpreting television broadcasts influence their views of writing and reading and shape their discursive and rhetorical skills" (37). He also provides a detailed analysis, through the interviews, of the students' rather sophisticated ability to recognize intended audiences, genres, and forms of televised texts. Interestingly enough, although most of the students were able to recognize rather complicated televised narrative structures and specifically critique the predictable and generic quality of a basic sitcom such as Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place versus the more complex and "unpredictable" The Simpsons, they were unable to translate this sophisticated ability into a discussion about forms in writing. As Williams states:
When I asked students to talk about the form of any kind of writingfrom letters to emails to short stories to poems to newspaper articlesmost of them could neither come up with an example, nor, if furnished with a specific task such as explaining the form of an essay or article they had recently read in a course, give anything close to resembling the detailed and authoritative descriptions they offered on television programs. (63)There is a conflict between the students' ability to "read" television in nuanced ways, their savvy about genre including their recognition of the double-edge of market-driven yet ironic texts such as The Simpsons (although Williams does note that most of the students did not have the critical language to name it as such), and their inability to rhetorically read print texts with the same level of expertise. This recognition of a disconnection in possible complimentary literacies, then, leads Williams to focus on ways in which to harness students' expertise with televised discourse in order to expand their print literacy. Thus, he models his "Classroom Practice" exercises throughout Tuned In on this notion of improving students' ability to read print texts through their experiences with television.
He also considers the possible anxiety or resistance-producing influences of television on students' experiences with print texts. While he explores many possible conflicts that cause students to feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar with print texts and writing, his most intriguing research revolves around the concept of "zapping and making meaning" (110). Building on the work of Raymond Williams and Robert Bellamy, Williams discusses the technological advance of the remote control, and viewers' manipulation of the "flow" of televised discourse. The remote control, or the "zapper," allows viewers to choose multiple texts to watch with near simultaneity; they can act on rhetorical cues and decide whether or not they want to watch a particular program. They are able to build their own unique and readable pattern of television programs, commercials, and favorite channels. In fact, Williams found that many of his students often had a very "controlled and conscious process" of "[creating] an individual mosaic or collage of meaning out of the fragments that go whizzing by" (111). However, when the students read Annie Dillard's "The Total Eclipse," they had great difficulty comprehending the non-linear narrative style. As incongruous as it may seem, the students were able to recognize the televised rhetorical hints quickly enough to build up a sort of personalized montage of programs; yet, when faced by a chronologically shifting narrative, they simply were not able to recognize the rhetorical signs. It is this anxiety-producing difference that we must recognize. As Williams puts it:
If we uncover the connections between the way students process images and metaphors as they zap and the way such material can appear on the page, we can help bring students' authority and experience with collage and associative reading of television into the classroom in a productive way. (112)Perhaps, if we can acknowledge, investigate, and even utilize the power the remote control gives to our students to build their own texts, then we can apply this "writerly" skill to their work with print texts and, in particular, their own writing.
Williams, though, never directly connects the "writerly" use of a remote control to an application of these abilities in students' writings. Indeed, as I allude to in my suggestion for a possible title change, Tuned In is actually remarkably focused on reading. As I read the book, I remembered Susan Miller's oft-repeated catch phrase: "reading isn't writing." While the students in Williams's research project read and discussed several televised texts as well as a print text, they did very little writing in his experiment. We are able to hear the students' voices and their reactions to various televised and print texts from the interview and group session excerpts, but we are not given an opportunity to examine their writing. In these interviews and group sessions, much of their discussion focused on the students' ability or inability to recognize form, genre, and narrative structure. While admittedly these are useful skills, and as Williams notes, "if, as writing teachers, we want students to write with meaning and purpose, we have to encourage them to read for meaning and purpose" (71), still I am puzzled by the lack of student compositions in Tuned In. Although in Chapters One through Seven he does include pedagogical exercises that illuminate possible ways to connect students' rhetorical knowledges gleaned from television with their experiences with print texts, again the emphasis seems to be on ways of reading rather than writing. For example, in Chapter Seven, "We're Rebellious, But We Want to Make Money: Consumer Culture, Class, and Television," he encourages students to examine "the allure of self-consciously ironic shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or Late Night with David Letterman" and push themselves past emotional responses to the texts and move towards critical analysis "of which cultural assumptions allow for irony" (172). This work, Williams claims, makes it "easier to move [students] towards critiques of the assumptions that are the foundation of the other texts they write and read" (173). Yet, in the exercise, the students never actually move towards applying these rhetorical skills in their writing. The classroom practice, then, concentrates on students' examining their ability to read and analyze rather than a concrete application of these skills in their composition.
On the other hand, many of the exercises that are explicitly focused on writing are based on comparisons of print and televised texts or lead students towards a new way of thinking about their position in televised or print discourse. The "Classroom Practice" exercise in Chapter Three, "A Valuable Wasteland: What Students Learn About Rhetoric from Watching Television," suggests that instructors ask students to write a brief description of an original television series that they would like to propose. The writings are to lead into a discussion concerning the conventions and constraints in authoring a televised text and a comparison of the "differences in television and print texts' relationships to audience and agency" (84). While this is assuredly an exciting and useful opportunity to discuss the position of the author in televised and print texts and helps illuminate the cultural constraints that both forms of discourse are under, how does it directly lead students towards a better understanding of how to use the rhetorical skills that they have gained from TV viewing in their academic and public writing? How does an investigation into those differences between television and print move the students towards a better understanding of how to improve their own writing? Indeed, these questions never seem to be adequately addressed. Again, the "Classroom Practice" tends to focus on building students' analytical reading rather than compositional skills.
Also, Williams, working in a New England university, found that his interviewees were a relatively homogenous group in terms of raceone Asian-American female and one immigrant male from Africa were the only non-white interviewees. Although he encourages other scholars to investigate into various racial and cross-cultural viewing practices, he admittedly does not focus on these issues. However, he does spend a great deal of time discussing class difference in viewing practices and ways of discussing televised texts. He analyzes his own class biases in the interviews, and confronts the "troubling . . . sense . . . of how insightful and valuable the professional-class students had been and how much less useful the working-class students had been" (168). After reevaluating the interviews, he found that the working-class students had roughly the same quality of analysis as the professional-class students; however, the former were less adept at "performing" the critically and academically valued skill of "detachment." Of course, I applaud Williams' desire to deconstruct his responses to students and attempt to discover their rhetorical skills through an awareness of class differences. It is imperative that we, as pedagogues, be aware of all cultural differences that will arise in our classrooms; thus, I found the omission of possible gender differences in the students' responses and ways of reading quite odd. Besides a very brief mention of the general tendency of women towards more socially-oriented television viewing and his inability to decipher any difference in the males and females use of the "zapper," gender issues simply do not come up. While I know that not every analysis can contemplate every aspect of a potential study, I am rather bewildered by Williams's disregard for such a crucial area of possible difference. Why focus on class and not gender? An adequate answer is never given.
These criticisms should not be seen as a condemnation of Williams's work as a whole. On the contrary, I believe that Tuned In fills a critical gap in our understanding of not only what constitutes literacy, but also how we can continue the project of cultural studies in the classroom. Using televised discourse as a space in which to explore and reveal students' considerable rhetorical skills can only help our students' progress in a composition course. Such an approach allows them to see that they already posses critical literacy skills, which, through the course of composition studies, can be built upon. Tuned In is a solid start in this push towards revealing and exploring students' existing literacies and signifies a definite shift from the construction of students as passive consumers to more active participants in culture. This work does not seek to "empower" students culturally; instead, it acknowledges that they already have cultural power and capabilities of resistance and critical thinking that can be utilized in the composition classroom. Tuned In signals a move towards decentering the classroom which accepts student literacies and seeks to build upon them. Now we should look at the gaps in Williams's work and deduce how we can utilize the influence of television to the students' benefit in terms of their print compositions. We must work towards a shift from recognizing students' complex television literacies and improving their ability to read print to a direct application of these skills to their writing. Finally, we should also direct our attention towards a greater understanding of the cross-cultural, gender, and racial politics of television literacy and the implications for the composition classroom.
Williams, Bronwyn T. Tuned In: Television and the Teaching of Reading and
Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2002.