Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American
Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview,
or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American
popular culture studies.
This spring 2004 edition, we are featuring Robert C. Allen who is
James Logan Godfrey Professor of American Studies, History, and
Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel
Hill. He is author of Vaudeville and Film, 1895-1915: A Study
in Media Interaction; Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and
American Culture; and co-author with Douglas Gomery of Film
History: Theory and Practice. He is the editor of Channels
of Discourse, Channels of Discourse Reassembled, and
To Be Continued: Soap Operas around the World,
and co-editor with Annette Hill of the recently published Television
But it is his book Speaking of Soap Operas that draws us
to him today. Scholars have called it “revolutionary,”
a “must read for scholars in mass communication studies,”
“a superb model for television scholars.” One even went
so far as to announce that this book delivered “the fatal
blow to empiricist mass communication research.”
With the publication of this now seminal text, Allen moved popular
culture scholarship in a new and more powerful direction by providing
revolutionary lines of inquiry for scores of researchers that followed.
We recently interviewed Professor Allen to ask him about Speaking
of Soap Operas and other important work he has done in American
popular culture studies.
What drew you into soap opera studies? In your Afterword,
you state, “My initial research on soap operas was propelled
in large measure by what I saw as their uniqueness and the scholarly
challenge represented by their peculiarities.” Could you elaborate
on that observation?
My interest in soap operas as an object of scholarly inquiry grew
out of my experience as a graduate student in film studies at the
University of Iowa in the mid-1970s. This was an exciting moment
in the development of film studies, as it took shape under the influence
of an extraordinary array of intellectual currents: political philosophy,
anthropology, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and literary
Among the many courses I took outside the film program at Iowa was
a course on narrative theory. One of the concerns of narrative theory
was to identify the minimum formal requirements of a narrative.
The examples of narrative we worked with ranged from Russian folk
tales to novels. I recall wondering aloud in class one day if there
were examples of narrative that did not possess what most theorists
regarded as essential elements of narrative: a beginning, middle,
and an end. Soap operas, I suggested, were narrative texts that
were seldom experienced as having a beginning, nor did anyone view
a given episode in the anticipation of its bringing closure to the
show’s narrative. A lively discussion ensued, which prompted
me to think further about the curious formal nature of serial narrative
and its most fully elaborated and complex manifestation: the television
At about the same time, I became a regular viewer of soap operas
for the first time since I was twelve or so. A friend of mine who
was an MFA student in Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop revealed
to me that every weekday he took a break from writing to watch The
Guiding Light. My mother had watched the CBS soaps in the afternoon
(including The Guiding Light) when I was a small child,
and I can recall her discussing what she called her “stories”
with her best friend on the telephone. I also remembered watching
The Edge of Night when I was a bit older: it was a police/detective-based
soap opera scheduled by CBS late in the afternoon in an attempt
to catch both male and female viewers. Between the ages of 12 and
23, however, I probably didn’t watch a single episode of a
soap. I was intrigued that someone with whom I discussed cutting-edge
literary works also took pleasure in watching soaps, so I began
watching as well.
Also, there were some of us in the film program at Iowa—Jane
Feuer, Tom Schatz, Mimi White, among them—who were interested
in exploring the extent to which the theories and methods being
applied to film were applicable to the study of other media forms,
particularly television. The scholarly study of popular cinema was
burgeoning in the US, Great Britain, and France in the 1970s. It
was hard to keep up with the monographs and articles devoted to
the critical analysis of Hollywood directors and genres. And for
me it was impossible to keep up with the cultural theorists, philosophers,
narratologists, psychoanalysts, and linguists whose work was seen
as having a very direct relevance to the understanding of popular
cinema and its appeals.
By contrast, there was very little in the way of critical or theoretical
scholarship on popular television. The academic study of television
seemed intellectually disconnected from the study of cinema, and,
indeed, largely disconnected from theoretical developments in the
humanities in general—even though at Iowa film and television
were a part of the same department. To a considerable extent, the
study of television was still framed by the methods and theories
of quantitative mass communication research or concerned with questions
of regulation and policy. In short, there was a huge gap in scholarship
about television as an aesthetic and cultural form.
There has been and there continues to be resistance to popular
culture studies. Soap operas are most certainly a pop culture artifact.
Did you see any raised eyebrows when you began your research or
were you lucky enough to find yourself in a supportive environment?
I had the advantage of coming to the study of soap operas and television
more generally from the study of film, where the idea that popular
forms were both culturally significant and aesthetically complex
was taken for granted thirty years ago. In graduate school, we were
reading Brecht and watching Douglas Sirk melodramas, reading Levi-Strauss
and doing seminars on the western. The idea of taking soap operas
seriously is not going to meet with a lot of raised eyebrows in
a field that already takes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as
a canonical text.
My first teaching job out of graduate school was in the Department
of Performing Arts and Communication at Virginia Tech. My first
department chair, Tony Distler, had done a dissertation on ethnic
humor in vaudeville, and one of my senior colleagues there was Marshall
Fishwick, one of the pioneers of popular culture studies. So even
though I wasn’t working on soap operas at the time, I certainly
don’t think I would have encountered any resistance to doing
so—indeed, I think I would have been supported in that work.
In fact, I can’t recall an academic colleague ever suggesting
that writing a book on soap operas might be a risky career move
or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a scholar if I associated
myself with such a “low” form. If I had started my teaching
career as part of an English Department (which a number of my colleagues
in film studies did), there might have been more resistance to the
things I chose to research and write about.
I’ve also been fortunate to spend the last ten years of my
career in an American Studies program—a field that has been
transformed, I think, by its embrace of “the popular.”
It would be very hard for me to get a raised eyebrow from Joy Kasson,
John Kasson, Peter Filene, or my other colleagues in American Studies
at UNC simply on the basis of my chosen object of inquiry or pedagogy.
Having served on the American Studies Association annual conference
program committee and chaired its dissertation prize committee,
I don’t think that the worthiness of the popular as a category
of inquiry is much of an issue any more—at least in American
We hope you are right. There have long
been and continue to be questions raised about the quality of scholarship
examining popular culture, but that is a different matter.
The soap opera seems to be a particularly slippery text. How did
you get a handle on it?
As I noted before, my initial interest in soaps as an object of
study was piqued by the distinctive formal qualities of the genre,
particularly its being predicated upon the infinite deferral of
narrative closure. This feature of soaps then begged the question,
“In the absence of any expectation of ultimate narrative resolution,
what pleasures are/might be/have been generated by watching soaps?”
These formal, narrative issues seemed to me to further require a
consideration of how soaps are “read” by viewers—hence
what I termed a “reader-oriented poetics” of soap operas,
which allowed me to bring to bear upon soaps some of the insights
of (then) contemporary reception theory in literary studies (Iser,
Jauss, Fish, etc.).
But the signal characteristic of both the imagined “reader”
of the soap opera as well as its historical audience has been gender:
soaps are and are assumed to be made for and enjoyed primarily by
women. I was led to ask, “What could I say about soap operas,
given not only that I was not female, but also that I was not a
part of the audience that soap operas had addressed for fifty years?”
The more I read about what had been written on soaps in the broadcasting
trade press, in general critical and cultural commentary, in mass
communication research, in magazines and newspapers columns aimed
at regular soap opera viewers, the more it struck me that soap operas
were ungraspable as a single, unitary, agreed-upon, stable “thing.”
The term “soap opera” itself comes replete with odd,
clashing connotations. Rather, over the half century since their
introduction as radio programs, they had accreted a variety of meanings,
or, to put it as I did in the book, soaps were so “discursively
encrusted” that there was no way to separate how groups of
people felt and spoke about soaps from what they, in any objective
sense, were. And so “soap opera” as a complex, variegated
discursive construct also became a part of what the book was about.
There were at least four significant cultural and discursive frames
within which “soap opera” had taken on meaning since
their initial success as commercial broadcast programs in the 1930s:
that of the broadcasting and advertising industries, that of general
cultural critique, that of academic mass communication research,
and, of course, that of the audience. How, I asked myself, have
soaps been constituted within these discourses, and how have the
tensions among these different discourses about soaps helped to
make the “soap opera” such a complex and highly-charged
cultural phenomenon in American society since the Great Depression?
You also deal with the soap opera in an historical context.
Yes, I quickly concluded that soap operas deserved to be treated
historically, for a number of reasons. The daytime dramatic serial
is after all, one of the oldest and most profitable genres of commercial
broadcasting. Until very recently, it dominated the daytime schedules
of all commercial networks. As texts, the soap opera is also “historical”
in several senses. Soap narratives are grounded in the recognizable
social worlds of contemporary America, and as those worlds change
over historical time, so do the narrative emphases and possibilities
within the soap opera world. Soap opera narratives are built around
“historical” characters, in the sense that those characters
themselves have both personal histories and memories of a social
past—both of which are shared with and relied upon by viewers.
Also, just as viewers can’t imagine the end of social history,
the soap opera world is similarly predicated upon the impossibility
of its ever coming to an end.
In deciding to deal historically with soaps, I also set for myself
an interesting historiographic and theoretical problem: How do you
“write” the history of a form that has largely disappeared
into the ether and which few people regarded as being culturally
worth enough to document in any systematic way? If I were interested
in writing an historical account of one of Dickens’s novels,
even one of the minor ones, I would at least have available to me
the omnibus text of that novel. I could probably also retrieve microfilmed
copies of the weekly magazines in which the novel was serialized,
so that I could trace the process through which the text was distributed
and read in Britain and the United States. So far as I am aware,
it is impossible to “read” the text of any radio serial:
their episodes were broadcast live and most of their scripts were
never saved. With television soap operas there is a parallel problem
of textual survival (soaps were the last form of dramatic programming
to make the transition from live to tape in the 1960s), but there
is also the problem of the sheer size of the soap opera “text.”
If all the episodes of The Guiding Light did exist (they
don’t!) it would take the analyst literally years to read
the tens of thousands of hours of text produced only since the show’s
television debut in 1952.
Like my later book on burlesque (Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque
and American Culture), Speaking of Soap Operas
was in part, at least, an exercise in producing an historical account
of an important but fugitive and ephemeral cultural phenomenon.
I was fortunate that some of the papers of Irna Phillips, one of
the pioneers of the soap opera form on both radio and television,
were preserved by the Wisconsin State Historical Society. These
papers along with articles in the broadcasting trade press became
the basis for my account of the institutional history of soaps.
So you needed multiple research methods.
In the end, Speaking of Soap Operas became a collection
of methodological mapping projects with the soap opera as the terrain
being mapped. Like a set of overlays on a topographical map, each
approach thrust some features of the terrain into sharper relief,
while obscuring others. My goal was not to produce an ultimate,
master map, but rather to show that such multiple perspectives were
warranted, and, indeed, called for, by the complexity and multi-dimensional
nature of the soap opera phenomenon itself. In fact, the Afterword
to the book does not lay out a set of neat conclusions about soap
operas, but rather points to what seemed to me one of the glaring
deficiencies of my own soap opera “map”: its lack of
an engagement with contemporary “real” viewers’
accounts of their experiences with and understandings of soap operas.
At the time I finished writing the book (1984 or so), I was just
becoming acquainted with the ethnographicly-oriented work of British
cultural studies scholars and its application to television reception
(David Morley, Dorothy Hobson, John Tulloch, among them), and Janice
Radway’s Reading the Romance had just been published.
So I wound up gesturing in the direction of what would become a
very important strand of work in television studies and cultural
studies without being in a position to fully absorb that work or
the theoretical models on which it was based into my own thinking
about the study of popular culture.
By the way, the relevance of British cultural studies and of Radway’s
work to my own work on soap operas was called to my attention in
manuscript readers’ reports commissioned by the University
of North Carolina Press. I think that book benefited enormously
from the very thoughtful and thorough responses of the three anonymous
readers then editor-in-chief Iris Tillman Hill chose. Although the
press’s list was pretty traditional and did not then have
a reputation for publishing works on popular culture, she was not
at all hesitant about doing a book on soap opera. She did, however,
want to subject it to a vetting process that was as rigorous and
thorough as the press would employ for a manuscript on diplomatic
history or rural sociology. I’m very glad that she did.
Talk to us about the tensions among methodological schools
at the time you were working on Speaking of Soap Operas.
Although it seemed to me that such popular forms as the soap opera
could be illuminated by a number of methodological and theoretical
perspectives, soaps (and by extension other complex popular forms)
were particularly resistant to being forced through the grid of
empiricist social science research methods. The requirements of
such approaches: the putative “objectivity” of the researcher,
reliance upon probability and statistical analysis in data interpretation,
the inevitable simplification of the object of study in order that
it could be studied “scientifically,” etc.—seemed
to me ill-suited to the study of complex cultural phenomena. I wanted
to explore not only the explanatory limitations of applying what
was then the dominant paradigm in mass communication research to
the study of soap operas, but also the problems inherent in empiricism
as a set of epistemological assumptions as applied to the study
of popular culture more generally.
Working through those issues was very important to me personally.
Even though empiricism had been critiqued by philosophers, I had
not seen a systematic analysis of the philosophical bases and implications
of empiricist media research. One of the manuscript readers suggested
that I was, in effect, beating a dead methodological horse and recommended
that I drop that chapter entirely. But I saw plenty of evidence
that empiricism in mass communication research was alive and well,
and made the case that the chapter should stay. I’m glad that
What has changed since then?
In effect, by the end of the 1980s, the field of media research
in the United States had split into two camps: one that continued
to be strongly influenced by quantitative, empiricist social science
research; and another that acquired the general designation of “critical”
media studies. And the 1980s and early 1990s saw some very serious
battles between the two factions not so much in the scholarly literature,
but in departmental politics and hiring and retention decisions.
Critical television studies emerged not so much as a unified counter
position to empiricist mass communication research as a sometimes
contentious alliance of alternative scholarly interests: scholars
trained in film and literature who began to develop critical approaches
suited to the distinctive formal qualities of television, scholars
interested in the political economy of television, scholars who
examined television from the perspective of cultural studies, and
scholars who approached the study of the television audience from
an ethnographic rather than a quantitative orientation, among them.
Insofar as the study of soap operas is concerned, the nearly twenty
years since the publication of Speaking of Soap Operas has
seen a tremendous amount of very useful scholarship: critical studies
of soap opera texts, studies of the discourses around soap operas,
studies of the production and distribution of soaps, and studies
of soap audiences.
Most of that work has been done within the “critical”
television studies paradigm, and a significant portion of it has
been done on non-United States soap operas. Since the mid-1980s
there has been a huge increase in the international circulation
of soap operas, and a corresponding awareness among television scholars
that serial narratives—whether called soap operas or telenovelas
or teleromans—represent one of the most popular, culturally
resonant, and resilient forms of broadcasting around the world.
I collected some of the scholarship on the global popularity of
soap operas in To Be Continued: Soap Operas around the World
(Routledge, 1995). This anthology included essays on the popularity
of Mexican soap operas in Russia, the success of Australian soaps
in England, the cultural and political significance of a Welsh-language
soap opera in Wales, the serial adaptation of Hindu myth on Indian
television, and the cultural role of soap operas in post-Tiananmen
China. I also included contemporary scholarship on aspects of United
States’ soaps as well.
What are the weaknesses with the empiricist approach?
My objections to the empiricist approach to the study of soap operas,
and, by extension, to the study of popular culture more generally,
had to do principally with questions of the adequacy of the approach
to the question being asked and the claims made for the “knowledge”
produced by such studies. What struck me so forcibly about the soap
opera as a cultural phenomenon was its complexity and its multidimensional
nature. The fictional worlds created by soap operas stand in a very
complicated relationship to the experiential worlds of their millions
of viewers, and the nature of the engagement with soap operas by
those viewers is also very complex. Reducing those fictional worlds
to a set of discrete data points that could be quantified and treated
as if the soap opera were some sort of funhouse mirror reflection
of social “reality” did not seem to me to produce much
analytical gain. It is as if someone started out asking, “What
is the relationship between form and color in the paintings of Matisse,”
and then “operationalized” his paintings for the purposes
of analysis as a set of black and white photographs of fragments
of this work.
Some people have read my critique of empiricism as a general objection
to all forms of quantitative analysis. I have no objection to the
numerical representation of data when it renders that data more
precisely and usefully than it could be otherwise. I’ve even
heard scholars say that I object to “empirical” research.
I’m not quite sure what that means, unless it means all work
that is not entirely textual or theoretical. Empiricism is a particular
epistemological and philosophical position that specifies how the
empirical world might be known. You can certainly engage in empirical
research without being an empiricist!
Talk to us about your research method—we have noted
that you don’t care for the term “model”—which
has been called “contemporary poetics blended with reader-response
As I note in the book, it is not so much a single model as it is
applying some of the insights of a number of critical models to
a new object (soaps). The use of the term “poetics”
refers to any attempt to describe the normative features of an aesthetic
form: how any particular instance of that form is recognizable by
the reader. What, in other words, is the formal scaffolding of the
soap opera as an aesthetic experience upon which a given show or
a given episode of a given show is erected?
Using the term poetics to refer to the critical operation I performed
in the book was in part polemical: I wanted to insist upon the soap
opera as a complex aesthetic phenomenon, particularly in light of
its having been denied any aesthetic status by most scholars and
commentators for a very long time. But I was not interested in trying
to make the soap opera into a critically “worthy” object.
Rather, I wanted to relate what did seem to me to be a highly-developed
and elaborate narrative and representational structure to the experience
of the production of meaning and pleasure.
Reader-response theory or reception theory starts from the insight
that literary meaning is not inherent in the text itself but rather
is produced as readers “activate” the text. Reader-response
theory helped to move literary studies away from the analysis of
“the text” and toward the study of the reading act itself
as well as the contexts within which texts are produced and received.
At the time I was writing the book, reception theory had been applied
almost exclusively to canonical literary texts. I argued that understanding
and making pleasurable the “texts” of soap operas requires
a form of reading competence on the part of the viewer.
My insistence that negotiating the fictional worlds of soap operas
was as a form of reading—not unlike the process by which a
reader successfully engages with the worlds created in literary
texts—was also in part a polemical move. For far too long
soap opera viewing had been caricatured as a passive and mindless
activity that certainly did not require any knowledge or work on
the part of the viewer. I wanted to demonstrate that the pleasures
of the soap opera text were very much connected to the competence
of the viewer as reader. And, conversely, that one of the reasons
that scholars and commentators have found it so difficult to understand
why millions of people watch soaps with such loyalty is that they
(the scholars and commentators) are themselves not competent “readers”
of the codes, conventions, and accumulated narrative of soaps.
Is this reliance on reader-response theory responsible for
your use of the term “reader” instead of “viewer”?
Yes, but also because “reading” suggests something of
the complexity of the process by which the rich social and narrative
worlds generated by soap operas are made meaningful and pleasurable
by their audiences. Referring to this process as reading rather
than viewing and audience members as readers rather than viewers
for this purpose foregrounds the active, varied, and nuanced nature
of the engagement between the soap opera as text and the individuals
who watch and listen to them.
What have been the major changes in soap operas since 1985,
the publication date of Speaking of Soap Operas?
I’m not the best person to answer this question because I
haven’t been engaged in research on soap operas for some time.
Certainly, United States’ daytime soaps have had to confront
a number of serious challenges since the mid-1980s. One has been
the “graying” of its Baby-Boom audience beyond the target
age range for its traditional advertisers and the corresponding
need to attract younger viewers to replace them.
Also with more women working outside the home than ever before,
there is a smaller proportion of that target audience (women between
18 and 49) available to watch soaps during the day. Ironically,
the remarkably swift and broad adoption of the VCR as a piece of
domestic technology in the mid-1980s meant that more working women
could “watch” soap operas by “time-shifting”
them into the evening hours, but this mode of soap opera viewing
didn’t register with the television ratings.
Competition from cable television has cut into the audience for
broadcast television in general and network daytime programming
in particular. As the total audience available during the day declined,
networks scrambled to find programming forms that could deliver
a large female audience at a relatively low cost. Although soap
operas are much less expensive to produce than prime-time dramas
or comedies, in budgetary terms they compete with forms that are
cheaper still: talk shows and game shows, in particular. Also, soap
operas find their audiences gradually, over the course of months
if not years of daily episodes: becoming a regular viewer of a soap
opera represents a real investment on the part of the audience member,
during which time the network has a significant financial investment
tied up in actors, writers, production facilities and staff, etc.
As a result, there have been few new soap operas launched by the
commercial networks over the past twenty years or so. It is much
more expensive and much more risky to launch a new soap than to
launch a new talk show.
The most interesting development in soap operas since the mid-1980s,
I think, is the international circulation of television serials,
and the rise to international prominence of soap opera producing
countries outside the United States, particularly in Latin America.
The most important national producer of soap operas today is not
the United States but Brazil. Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela also
are major soap opera producers. Latin American soaps are shown not
only in that region, but around the world. Ironically, because the
domestic commercial television market is one of the most insular
in the world, unless they speak Spanish, most American are totally
unaware of the huge market for and popularity of Latin American
After the publication of this book, your research interests
turned to burlesque.
After I finally finished Speaking of Soap Operas, I was
ready to move onto other scholarly challenges and explore other
instances of popular culture. In researching my dissertation on
the relationship between vaudeville and film during the first two
decades of film history, I became intrigued with the commercialization
and industrialization of American theatrical entertainment in the
years between the end of the Civil War and the ascendancy of the
movies as America’s premiere form of commercial popular entertainment
by the end of World War I. I began to collect material on the various
strands of popular theatrical performance in the Gilded Age: variety,
dime museums, melodrama, minstrelsy, medicine shows, concert saloons,
living pictures, etc. In 1986-87, I was awarded a fellowship at
the National Humanities Center to pull all this material together
into a book on American popular entertainment in the second half
of the nineteenth century.
The form I knew least about was burlesque, and I discovered that
very little scholarly attention had been paid to this form at all.
The more I looked into the history of burlesque, the more fascinated
I became. Here was another form that, like the soap opera, was definitely
“gendered,” although in this case the principal performers
were female while the audience was overwhelmingly male. Also, like
the soap opera, burlesque was a form that left very little in the
way of historical evidence from which a historical account could
be fashioned. I decided to refocus the project entirely on burlesque
as an exercise in writing the history of one popular performance
tradition—one that was largely forgotten (and what was not
forgotten was misremembered)--but which was enormously influential
on later forms. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American
Culture was published by UNC Press in 1991.
Your work has ranged across a number of areas and epochs
of American popular culture: radio and television soap operas, television
criticism, vaudeville, nineteenth century and twentieth century
burlesque, film historiography, early twentieth century film history,
and contemporary cinema. What, if anything, do you see as connecting
these seemingly disparate lines of inquiry?
To some degree, my choice of research topics has been opportunistic.
And, of course, one of the wonderful things about the study of popular
culture is that so many things remain so relatively unexplored that
just about anywhere you look you can find fascinating cultural phenomena
that cry out for scholarly attention. I am, however, particularly
drawn to the study of aspects of culture, even popular culture,
that are not academically or intellectually fashionable. I’ve
also been intrigued by methodological, particularly historiographic,
issues: how can you write the history of a cultural phenomenon that
no one at the time thought culturally important enough to preserve
or that, like vaudeville or burlesque, was manifested through performance?
What would it mean to do a history of the social experience of moviegoing,
for example? I’ve also been attracted to projects that allowed
me to work with a variety of materials: scripts, corporate papers,
posters, photographs, fire insurance maps, trade papers, as well
as films, television, and radio programs. How can these different
materials, produced for very different purposes, all be made to
“speak” about the history of cultural forms and experiences?
In several cases my research and writing grew out of my experience
as a teacher. Film History: Theory and Practice (Knopf,
1985), which I co-authored with Douglas Gomery, was provoked by
our frustration as teachers of film history at the lack of methodological
and historiographic self-consciousness in the survey film history
texts we had to assign our students.
Channels of Discourse (University of North Carolina Press,
1992) had its origins in my developing a new introductory graduate
course on media theory and criticism. In order to get new graduate
students without a background in media studies into a position to
read and understand contemporary critical work on television, I
found I had to first give them a primer on the basic tenets of critical
theory in which this work was based: narrative theory, semiotics,
genre theory, cultural studies, feminist theory, etc. What I needed
was a set of thoughtful, accessible essays that would lay out the
key concepts in these strands of critical theory, discuss how television
would be constituted as an object of study within these critical
frameworks, and then provide examples of the kind of critical practice
each might produce. Rather than trying to do this all myself, I
approached colleagues whom I knew to be well-versed in critical
theory and who had an interest in television and asked them to contribute
What are you working on now?
In the fall of 1999, I returned to full-time teaching and research
after twelve years as a “part-time” administrator at
my university (director of the university’s honors program).
Particularly during the last five years of my stint in administration,
I found it very difficult to find time to engage in much original
research and writing at all. So, when I finally got back to “civilian”
life, I had a backlog of things I wanted to work on.
I had put off making a decision on a third edition of Channels
of Discourse for several years. I finally decided that “television”
itself had changed so much over the 1990s that the format of Channels
didn’t accommodate it very well. With Annette Hill at the
University of Westminster in London I began work on a new television
studies reader. We wanted to assemble a wide range of scholarship
on contemporary television that was grounded in the “critical”
tradition of television studies, which I discussed earlier.
Together the journal articles and book chapters we selected for
The Television Studies Reader (Routledge, 2003) foreground
some of the defining characteristics of television at the beginning
of a new decade: the huge increase in channel capacity brought about
by cable and satellite delivery services; the interpenetration of
television and other technologies (computers, video games, the internet,
etc.); the transformative changes in the experience of television
brought about by the VCR, DVD, and PVR; the widespread diffusion
of video production technology through the camcorder; the ascendance
of new television genres (reality shows, for example); and the global
character of television. We selected about forty-five pieces. All
of the essays were written in the last ten years, and most of them
in the last five years. Quite a few of the pieces were written by
scholars working outside the United States and raise very interesting
questions about both the circulation of television programming around
the world and the cultural specificity of the experience of television.
Unlike the essays in Channels, none of the pieces selected
for The Television Studies Reader is organized around a
critical analysis of a particular television program or series.
Because familiarity with particular instances of television varies
enormously from country to country, we decided not to include pieces
whose value relied heavily upon the reader’s prior knowledge
of a given show.
Trolling through the now voluminous journal and monographic literature
on television studies produced over the last ten years and then
writing the general introduction to the collection gave me a chance
to rethink my own experience with television and how both that experience
and “television” as an object of study had changed since
I worked on Speaking of Soap Operas.
My experience of cinema, television, and popular culture in general
was greatly changed by the birth of our daughter in 1994. I soon
felt I was being plunged into a cultural realm that had been largely
invisible to me throughout my adult life: the realm of kid’s
culture. As our daughter got older, that culture came to involve
electronic and cinematic media more and more: children’s television,
children’s videos, children’s movies, toys and other
products produced as “tie-ins” for those programs and
movies, etc. I began to explore the relationship among technological
change (the development and diffusion of the VCR in the late 1970s
and early 1980s), demographic change (the two baby “booms”
of the post-World War II era), social change (the transformation
of the family as a social institution in America since the 1960s),
and popular culture—particularly Hollywood’s embrace
of a new “family” audience for its product in the 1990s.
I’ve published a few things from my research in this area,
and I have about two-thirds of a book manuscript that I hope to
finish soon. I also developed a new undergraduate course that examines
generational change in the experience of movies since the late 1970s.
I’ve also had a chance to return to the study of the history
of moviegoing. In the fall of 2001, I actually taught a graduate
course on the history of moviegoing in America for the first time.
Working with my students on the early history of movies and moviegoing
in small towns in North Carolina prompted me to pursue something
that had originally come up in the wake of some work I did on Manhattan
nickelodeons twenty-five years ago: the likelihood that the experience
of movies and moviegoing was very different in small towns than
in large cities. What my students’ work underscored was how
very different moviegoing was in the South, and especially in the
small-town South, than it was in the big cities of the Northeast
and Midwest—where a great deal of the scholarship on the history
of moviegoing had been focused. For example, race, not ethnicity
or class, was the chasmic divide that ran through the social institutions
of every town and city of the South at the beginning of the twentieth
century, and the movie theater became a place where the politics
and culture of race were acted out on a daily basis. One of the
students in that class, Chris McKenna, went on to do a fascinating
study of moviegoing in a tri-racial community (Native American,
African American, and European American) in eastern North Carolina.
I’ve been involved in organizing two conferences on the history
of moviegoing since 2001, and I’ve done a bit of writing on
the subject as well.
After having to squeeze teaching into a very heavy administrative
schedule for twelve years, returning full time to the classroom
has prompted me to work on reinventing myself as a teacher. I have
begun to explore the brave new world of internet-based teaching
technologies, both as a way of enlivening and enriching the experience
of my courses for my on-campus students, but also as a way of linking
an on-campus course with another course being taught on the other
side of the world or with geographically dispersed individual students.
I find myself much less interested than ever before in my career
in constructing a classroom environment in which I tell students
what I think about culture, and I am very interested in creating
a learning environment at the center of which are my students’
own experiences, tastes, dispositions, curiosities, and interests.
In my course on American cinema and American culture since the 1970s,
for example, my students work in teams to survey their fellow Echo
Boomers to turn up the most culturally resonant films of their generation.
The results of their research then become the basis for the selection
of the films that we study in the second half of the semester. I
think it makes a difference that the films we all watch and analyze
are those that my students think are important, rather than those
that I think are significant.
Finally, I have become very interested in placing the study and
teaching of American culture, particularly popular culture, within
a broader, global context. In the spring of 2003, I organized a
comparative United States/Australian cultural history course at
UNC, which was linked with a similar course taught the same semester
by Professor Richard Waterhouse at the University of Sydney. Using
the internet and weekly teleclasses, our students spent the overlapping
portion of our two semesters comparing US and Australian landscape
painting, relations with indigenous peoples, outlaw heroes, war
memorials, and agricultural stapes (wool and cotton). It was a great
experience for the students, and it persuaded me of the significant
benefits of comparative pedagogy. I’m working with Kate Bowles
of the University of Wollongong in Australia to develop a comparative
dimension to my American cinema and American culture course, so
that students can better understand differences in the ways that
Hollywood films are received across national and regional cultures.
The American Studies program at UNC is also working to strengthen
its ties with American Studies programs outside the United States
and to encourage our own majors to spend at least one semester doing
American Studies abroad. I’m not quite sure yet how this international/comparative
perspective might influence my research, but I wouldn’t be
surprised if it does.
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