After finishing Berlin, one question that was on my mind, and likely on the minds of some of you was well, was “how do I incorporate this into Comp 1113 or 1213?” So I started thinking about what essays in the sequence would lend themselves to incorporating some of Berlin’s lessons. While I understand that his goal is to have social-epistemic rhetoric at the heart of the entire course, and while I think that is probably possible, I have decided to solely focus on creating a unit for Essay 3 in Comp 1113 that mirrors but updates Berlin’s television unit. Like Berlin’s description of his unit, I’m not going to lay out specific lesson plans, but the overall approach I would take, the general direction of lessons, and finally, an assignment sheet that asks students to write a comparative analysis of the subjectivities two sitcoms The Middle and Modern Family attempt to create for the audience and the effects the medium of television has on shaping those subjectivities.
Where to Start
Like Berlin, I would start by introducing the class to Fiske’s Television Culture and the heuristic used for analyzing television programs. I think this image is helpful for understanding the heuristic. Fiske’s Television Culture. The questions that would be used to drive the unit are these, “What imagined realities are The Middle and Modern Family representations of?” and “How are these shows coded constructions?”
Students would be assigned to view a number of episodes of these shows which are available through a number of online players, but we would also view at least one episode of each show together in class. Each episode without commercials is about 20 minutes.
The Middle follows the ups and downs of a working class family in suburban Indiana. Frankie Heck, the mother, works as a used car salesperson while Mike Heck, the father, works as the foreman of the local quarry. They have three children, Axl, Sue, and Brick. Axl is a junior in high school who excels at sports but struggles with academics, Sue has just started highschool and is completely oblivious of her own nerdiness, and Brick excels in school and is a prolific reader but is socially awkward and in a special “social skill building” group. Episodes revolve around the children’s problems at school, Frankie’s problems at work and home, and the gradual decay of the Heck home.
Modern Family is in fact the story of an extended family: the patriarch, Jay Pritchett, his second wife Gloria and his stepson Manny; Jay’s daughter Claire Dunphy, her husband Phil and their children Haley, Alex, and Luke; and Jay’s son Mitchell Pritchett, his husband Cam Tucker and their daughter Lily. The tag line for the show is “One big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.” The Pritchetts and Dunphy’s all live near each other in sunny southern California in large and stylish homes. Jay works, but it’s not very clear exactly what he does – something with designing and installing closets – the viewer rarely sees him working. Phil is a real estate agent, and Mitchell is a lawyer. Gloria, Claire, and Cam all are stay at home parents. Manny, Gloria’s son, is excentric, smart, and ultimately a hopeless romantic. Haley is the popular girl in high school who struggles academically and is constantly on her phone texting. Her sister Alex is the exact opposite. She is unpopular and takes school very seriously. Luke, while sweet and naive, may or may not have ADHD. Cam and Mitchell adopted Lily from China.
Part 1: Reality
I would begin the unit by having students look at each show’s representation of “reality” that is forwarded through the raw materials. Over the course of a few days, I would have students identify the appearances, environements, etc. of each show. This analysis may lend itself nicely to a jig-saw type of activity, with groups of students focusing on one aspect of the raw materials and then bringing their findings back to the rest of the class.
For example, analysis of the environments of these shows may lead students to note the disparities between the Heck’s home, which is constantly falling apart, and the spacious and spick and span homes of the families in Modern Family. Students will notice the Heck’s home is outdated with old olive colored applicances compared to the stainless steel appliances in the homes on Modern Family. Berlin’s students noticed differences in home decor in Family Ties and Roseanne, and that this sense of taste was related more to class affiliations than finance (129). This distinction may be made between the sense of taste of the Heck’s and the Pritchetts/Dunphys and can be expanded beyond home decor to include looking at the families’ sense of taste concerning family activities, family vehicles, etc. (The Heck’s drive an old station wagon, which may be based on finance, but Jay drives an Audi and Mitchell and Cam drive a Prius, which are more based on class affiliation).
Another aspect students can analyze is the problems that the families face. Berlin’s students noted that the problems the families in Family Ties and Roseanne faced were in general related to income, job stability and class (130). Students could analyze a number of episodes taking note of the problems the families face and what these problems are related to. Two episodes in particular came to mind when I considered family problems.
This episode of The Middle deals with Frankie and Mike considering walking out on their mortgage. They are in desperate need of a new roof, but can’t afford one. Other families in the neighborhood have foreclosed on their houses, and the Frankie and Mike consider moving to an apartment complex rather than “being both above and below water.” When compared to the issues faced by the Prichetts and Dunphys in this episode if Modern Family (Claire – whether or not to run for city council or continue to stay at home taking care of the kids, Mitchell and Cam -whether or not to chase after the guy who rear-ended their Prius, Jay and Manny -how to handle the “Bieberization” of America), it is easy to see how the problems the families face are related to income and class. It would also be interesting to have students look at the gender codes across the classes.
Part 2: Representation
Students can then move to analyzing the ways editing, lighting, music, etc. are used to create the realities presented in these two sitcoms. Just as we ask students to analyze an author’s choices in a written text, we can apply these same skills to director’s choices in television. Once again, a few days may be spent analyzing and discussing different technical aspects and their contribution to the imagined reality.
Part 3: Ideological Codes
Discussion of the sitcoms can then move to how the reality and representation are organized by ideological codes. I think looking at the ideological codes in The Middle and Modern Family will result in rich and lively discussion. Even within Modern Family there seem to be many ideological contradictions, but these contradictions don’t seem to bother viewers (they didn’t really bother me until I started to think about it for this blog post). While Modern Family may be breaking new ground in that they are presenting both nuclear and non-traditional families (the modern family), the show holds to very traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Claire, Gloria, and Cam are all stay-at-home parents, reinforcing patriarchy and stereotyping gay males in the process. While neither Cam nor Mitchell are particularly masculine, the more effeminate Cam stays at home with Lily.
Part 4: Socioeconomic Environment
Berlin’s lessons involve looking at a text “successively within its generic, ideological, and socioeconomic environment” (125), so once the initial analyses of reality and representation have taken place, I would move toward looking at these sitcoms in their ideological and socioeconomic environments. While Family Ties and Roseanne were products of different economic times (130), Modern Family and The Middle are being produced in the same economic time, and they even air on the same network on the same evening with only a half hour in between. Students can also research the ratings of these shows.
Hopefully exploring the larger socioeconomic environment will lead students to similar realizations reached by Berlin’s students:
“They begin to understand that television’s presentation of family and the place of work in it are related to popular perceptions of ‘the real,’ ‘the normal,’ and ‘the everyday.’ In other words, the family the largest segment of the television audience chooses to watch is a function of its self-perception, and this in turn is as much related to its conception of what it would like to think is true as to what in face exists.” (130)
I think these two sitcoms are an especially interesting case study in our current socioeconomic climate. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion concerning the disappearing middle class. See for example, this NPR story, “American Dream for Middle Class: Just a Dream?” about new research that indicates that one out of every three Americans raised in the middle class will fall out of the middle class as adults. Students might consider the ratings of The Middle and Modern Family and the potential implications the ratings have given our current socioeconomic condition.
Part 5: Formation of Subjectivities
Next students need to describe their own reactions to the two shows, and “explore their reasons for preferring the version of work and family found in one or the other program, investigating the class, gender, race, religious, and ethnic codes that they have been encouraged to enact” (132). By identifying what students find worthy of emulating, they can start to identify the different subject positions the shows try to create for their audiences.
I think students will require a discussion of what “subjectivities” actually means, and I found Faigley’s quick recap of the subject helpful in the opening of Fragments of Rationality:Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. He goes into much greater detail later in the book, but in the first few pages he explains the modern subject as pure consciousness that is detached from the world and that language provides the modern subject access to reality. In contrast, the postmodern subject is a subject whose consciousness originates in language. The postmodern subject is an effect of discourse (Faigley 8). Working with the postmodern subject, students can identify the different effects (subjects) the discourse of The Middle and Modern Family create with their realities and representations.
Connecting to Comp 1113
When considering where this unit might fit into the Comp 1113 essay sequence, I felt that Essay 3 was a good fit. The departmental guidelines for Essay 3 (Comparative Analysis) say that “students should write a thesis driven essay which analyzes and/or draws connections between two or more texts. In this essay, the analytical frames may be more loosely-defined than the one used in essay two.” So for this essay, I suggest using Berlin’s socio-epistemic frame to compare the two texts of The Middle and Modern Family. I’ve created an assignment sheet for this essay, which I would love to get feedback on as I would like to actually teach this unit in the future.Comparative Analysis of Sitcoms Assignment Sheet