Doing things with texts

November 2, 2006

Riddle me this: how much of an impact has Sex and the City had on women’s maudlin writing? I know I’m not the only person – male or female – that draws parallels between television stories and my own life stories (I’m, like, totally, sooo much more Miranda than, like, anyone else). The series saturates late-night syndication slots, hitting prime nightcap-and-laptop time. What are women (not implying that men don’t watch SATC, but for brevity using what the inane weight-loss ads indicate is the show’s target audience) doing with the easy accessibility and repetition of this show, with its emphasis on chronicling experiences in order to make sense of them? Can someone (not me, I’m bad with quantitative stuff) please do some sort of study that charts the content of blog posting alongside airdates and times? It should come as no surprise, then, that I just watched the episode in which Miranda first meets Steve, knowing of course how their story ends, and starts again, and ends again, and starts again… what can I say, there’s a romantic (mass, not heartless) buried somewhere under a layer or two of crusty cynicism. Like crème brulee. Mmm… crème brulee…
In other parts of my brain: I’ve been harassing the library for awhile now, since no one seems able to answer my question. The “upgrade” to WebCT Vista means it’s now possible to link to journal articles from within the course website, provided McGill’s already got access to the articles in their databases. I took it the next logical step further, figuring I’d just get all the other readings for my courses (book sections, e.g.) turned into pdfs and put them on there as well. No stacks of expensive coursepacks that invariably end up in the garbage at the end of the semester. And yet no one at the library can tell me whether or not this infringes upon ‘free use.’ I don’t see why not – only students registered in my courses will have access to these materials and they’re being reproduced for teaching purposes. What struck me as a no-brainer is turning into an increasingly irritating endeavour. So much for being a visionary…

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As promised

November 1, 2006

The aforementioned musings. We’re talking about Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion this week. I love talking about novels, even if I didn’t particularly like them (bad Canadian, not overly keen on Ondaatje). Most people I know tend toward non-fiction so I rarely get the chance (sidenote: I got to live out a fantasy scenario on Friday: meeting a cute boy in a bookstore as we were both reaching for the same book by my favourite writer – I was picking up Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore as a present for a girlfriend. Next on the list is looking out my window to see where the Peter Gabriel’s coming from…). I love listening to the different ways fiction affects people, and aside from the expected comments of how this book completely changes the way a few students are going to think about the Bloor Street viaduct, I was intrigued by their perceptions of the book’s ideas about identity, or lack thereof. How very Canadian, they commented, that the protagonist has no clear sense of where he fits in. I don’t know if it’s a uniquely Canadian trait, this navel-gazing, though we’ve become very adept at marketing as such. On a more personal level, it seems to be going around – I had a thematically similar conversation a few weeks ago with someone traipsing from cultural world to cultural world and feeling foreign in each of them. A discomfiting experience. I’m sure we’ve all had them, especially in places that we think we’d feel most at home. There are times when I feel profoundly out of place in front of a classroom, just waiting to be exposed as a professorial poseur. Every time I go out for drinks in my hometown I listen to the stories of stag and does at the arena, of first and second children being born, of cashier shifts at the giant box stores, and wonder when I can politely leave. My old lives no longer fit, the new one is often lonely or uncomfortable. Not yet a prof but not only a student; sometimes a feminist just because it’s theoretically convenient; a dog person sans dog… we can’t expect one simple label to encompass everything we are and are not, particularly when we’re exposed to and made up of multiple and often contradictory experiences. Such is the fun and frustration, as my best friend is discovering in her experiments with online dating, of describing yourself in 200 words or less, catchy snippets that only offer a less-than-partial glimpse. And, tritely, that’s part of the allure of Halloween – trying other identities on for size, at least for a night (remember the Buffy episode when the Scooby Gang becomes their costumes, and learns in the process that cocksure masculinity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that there’s a vixen under every white bedsheet, that being a simpering priss is even more frustrating then a self-assured young woman?). Judith Butler (Judy B! What can I say, I was holed up writing about sex and gender as problematic social constructions all day) talks about the inherent potential of identity construction and masquerade, convinced (and convincingly so) that these are sites of political possibility. That may be little consolation, even for theory nerds like myself, for how in the interim and on a daily level, this process of process opens cracks of self-doubt, that because it’s not static or sure it’s not good enough. But rather than get into the genuinely personal, I’ll circle back out to Ondaatje, whose writing is full of thinly veiled versions of his own personal dramas – note the recurring love triangles with married or otherwise unavailable women, or the entirety of Secular Love. Just wait until my first novel. Or first sitcom.

School’s in!

September 7, 2006

The first week of school is always a mess – meetings, chance encounters and the obligatory “my summer vacation” anecdotes, dodging undergrads as they stop en mass mid-sidewalk. It always makes me feel like I’ve gone soft over the summer, for now accomplishing more than two tasks in a day wipes me out. I need to rebuild my social stamina and coffee tolerance. It smells like fall, dusk descends more quickly, I have readings on my list of things to do… school’s definitely back. All intimations of complaint aside, campus’ air of enthusiasm is infectious. It’s far too easy when I’m staring at a stack of books and a computer screen day after day to forget why I’m here, why I’m doing this. The fame of a bestselling dissertation-turned-book? Maybe that’s a tiny and naively optimistic part of it, but those picturesque and deeply connotative ivy covered buildings make me remember how much I believe in and love encouraging students to pay critical attention to the popular culture that surrounds us (experience the magic for yourself later this month). There’s nothing quite like teaching, especially at McGill. Perhaps this too is the ivy speaking, but there’s a qualitative difference between the undergrads here and ones I’ve taught elsewhere that makes walking into a classroom a challenge – the rush at realizing just how sharp they are, the exhilaration of being constantly on your intellectual toes, the way they can make you revisit the way you’ve presented something. Bring it on, semester. Just let me grab a coffee first…

Hosertalk

August 4, 2006

One of the courses I’m teaching this coming year is an introduction to Canadian film and television. I taught a similar course at Brock in 2005, but focused specifically on Canadian television. I love teaching, so it goes without saying that I had a great time and am really looking forward to throwing some Canadian film into the mix this time around (if nothing else, I’ll be able to expose more people to Ham and Cheese). Canada’s cultural policies, not surprisingly, play a huge role in the course just as they have in our cultural production, for better or worse. My background and interest in television means I’m more knowledgeable about broadcasting policy than film production, which has a fairly obvious patriarchal and pedagogical bent – a propensity for proclaiming what’s best for Canadian audiences that often results in embarrassingly unpopular programming. Don’t misinterpret that, I love and will passionately defend some Canadian television (KITH, DaVinci’s Inquest, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein – which Space is going to start airing again in the fall to my immense delight, Degrassi, Prisoners of Gravity, This Hour Has Seven Days, and Straight Up, to name only a very small handful), but others really shouldn’t have ever made it past the programming directors. Canadian television production and broadcasting policies are intimately bound up in nationalism, the idea that our cultural products are capable of expressing a uniquely Canadian identity in the face of an overwhelming American presence in our popular culture. We’re not the only nation-state to adopt this strategy – Australia and New Zealand are also battling to retain public broadcasting as a form of citizen glue – but as Graeme Turner points out in an article I read this afternoon, our proximity to the U.S. makes our situation significantly different. He says, “This is a geopolitical context in which a national television regulatory system has very limited possibilities, but in which the representation national difference is fundamentally important for cultural and political reasons. So, what do you do if you want Canadian television to do more for the Canadian community than it does at present?” It’s a good question. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, both in terms of how to teach Canadian cultural policy in a way that acknowledges both its positive and negative impact, and from the perspective of someone who’s got a sitcom script at the back of her head. The increasing transnational movement of media means that there is no longer an easy equivalence between television consumption and national identity, yet it still persists in policy and in commentary. This makes it hard to get students to look past seeing television texts as simple reflections of Canadian identity that magically build a cohesive citizenry. With no other framework readily available, Canadian film and television remain tricky political and cultural texts, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s why Bon Cop Bad Cop is on my must-see list.
You might also want to check out Dead Things On Sticks, and the Museum of Broadcast Communications entry on Canadian television.