Thursday, March 6, 2008

Audiences, References, and the Benefits of "Over The Head" Learning

I haven't done an education post in a while, but a recent conversation brought this to mind.

To wit: we were having a discussion in our theatre class about whether or not you can present an audience with material that they might not understand right away. Specifically: if a play uses a reference that an audience might not get, do you cut the reference? If an entire scene might be too "over their heads" for university undergrads, do you cut the scene?

I've had this argument in other classes as well. Once I took a "writing for teenagers" class where the professor insisted I remove almost all cultural references from my story since "most teenagers haven't read the books you've read or listen to the music you listen to." (This was years before Family Guy and Juno and our current trend of inserting as many references into a creative work as possible.)

Her argument was that teenagers would read my work and become alienated/bored because they didn't know why a particular composer was important to the story's characters. My argument was that including unfamiliar references in a creative work -- whether literary, theatrical, or otherwise -- actually inspired learning; it forced the reader to interact with the material because it was no longer a matter of simple understanding. Whether the reader created his/her own meaning via context clues, or whether the reader hauled out the dictionary to look up the meaning, the reader was actively working with the text and actively learning from it.

(In the class, of course, I cut the references from my stories. Profs give the grades, after all. But I still believe in my argument.)

I wanted to share this clip with you because it was from my favorite childhood television program, Square One TV. I started watching this show when I was six years old and continued watching until it went off the air when I was thirteen.

(I've been trying to get the video to embed for about an hour now. YouTube doesn't wanna let me embed it. Until I can get the vid up, watch it here.)

Note the references packed into just the first few minutes of this clip:

Missing person? No, missing avis.

Hollywood Boulevard.


Roscoe "Fatty" Tissue.


And that's even before you get to the math. None of them are references a six-year-old would understand; few of them are references a thirteen-year-old would understand. But the words enter our heads, and years later if we read a reference to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle we know, without having to look it up, that he was an entertainer and comedian whose career ended in scandal.

Long story short: leave the references in. A reader/audience member shouldn't have to understand everything about a piece right away. If they're the eager type, they'll go home and Wikipedia Soupy Sales or the Texas Two-Step; if they're not interested at the moment, the references will still provide them with a cultural background which will return to their memories at surprising moments.

It's worth noting, unfortunately, that PBS no longer shows children's programming more complex than Postcards from Buster, and even the highly meta Sesame Street has devolved into the over-obvious Elmo's World. (Early episodes of Sesame Street are sold on DVD with the note that they are no longer determined educationally appropriate for children. Wow.)


Anonymous said...

Wow. I know we've had conversations about those two shows before, so let me just say this is a very sad situation.

Your post makes me want to go out and buy the Sesame Street DVDs and have kids, if only to tip the balance of future generations back towards well-referenced irony.


Blue Bike said...

Very true PBS !
I myself prefer watching media and looking up unknown references on wikipedia. I'm sure the queries for "Xerces" and "Thermopylae" must have increased manyfold when 300 was released. If the subject matter is interesting enough, the unknown references shall eb automatically looked up.

Blue Bike said...

P.S.: The first time I ever looked up "Thermopylae" on the internet was way back in 2004 when I saw "The Last Samurai" ... here Tom Cruise mentions about the battle to Katsumoto in order to emphasize that mere numbers dont make up a great army.