Scholarship Outside the (UT) Ivory Tower


Lily Zhu

Image Credit: 

Sean Spencer & Lily Zhu

I’m currently teaching a course on “subversive” cartoons though as a class, we decided to focus on television shows traditionally aimed at children and pre-teens. It’s been a wonderful, engaging experience with passionate students contributing insights that have never crossed my mind. The rhetorical politics of ignorance in Adventure Time? Addiction and depression in Hey Arnold!? Cognitive difference in Jimmy Neutron? PTSD in Courage the Cowardly Dog? I thought I began the course with a substantial appreciation for subversive children’s programming, but I know that upon finishing the semester, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding that would’ve remained inaccessible to me without my students’ inspiring contributions.

One of the difficulties that I underestimated before starting Unit 1 was finding “credible” sources. Apart from Heather Hendershot’s work, and the odd newspaper/journal article, there is a dearth of traditional critical scholarship that deals with this aspect of popular culture. Even worse, traditional scholarship seems to have stagnated. Homosexuality and Spongebob Squarepants. Of course. Feminism and The Powerpuff Girls – that’s a given. Bronies and My Little Pony. Seems obvious. But what else is there that hasn’t been covered backwards and forwards over the past decade? There is certainly more to subversive children’s cartoons than these simplified, mainstream sound bites that often lack the precision and respect necessary for a good, much less a great, analysis.

It became clear to me that to move past this obstacle, I’d have to ditch everything that had been hammered into me since high school. I encouraged my students to use Wikipedia pages, Reddit posts, Blog entries, YouTube channels (I highly recommend PBS Idea Channel  and its sister networks), and other unorthodox – but expansive – forms of information distribution. Currently, the majority of the most valuable, astute, and revolutionary critical commentary dealing with children’s cartoons comes from mainstream viewers. For instance, people who are so affected by their viewing experience that they create sleek, polished websites to publish their views, or, even better, publish the informed opinions of other dedicated fans. I’ve always loved what fandom can offer in terms of socio-cultural critiques, conspiracy theories, constructive debate, and creative works rooted in incisive observations (the alliteration in this sentence was unintentional).

Fandom can be such a wonderful, expressive place not just for social conventions, fiction, and art – but (underappreciated and underutilized) critical dialogue. I hope my students can help bridge the (gradually diminishing) gap between academia’s pristine, ivory tower and the messy, colorful, twisting spires of fandom that lie right across the moat.  This shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, academic scholars frequently moonlight as fangirls, fanboys, fanwomen, fanmen, fanpeople…

To bring this all back to pedagogy – I’m encouraging my students to submit the Unit 2 rhetorical analyses of their cartoons to popular culture websites for publication. Regardless of whether their attempts are successful or not, I’m proud of them and their work within fandom and within academia.

(Apologies for the rambling structure of this post)


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