This month signaled the end of my first academic year teaching. I like to think that it went across fairly well: I was asked to come back to teach in both Summer and Fall sessions. Over the course of the year, I have done something that I hope sets me apart from other English professors and writing professors, specifically. I used Joss Whedon’s Firefly in my classroom as a base for my students’ supplemental materials.
The only course I taught was the second section of my college’s developmental writing sequence, and I decided to put my own spin it, with all sections were running off the same syllabus. I decided that it was better for my students to have literature and television as their primary supplement than stock essays. There are sample essays in their textbook, after all, for when an example was needed. I just don’t want those to be their primary supplement to the textbook.
I put Hulu.com links in my syllabus to Firefly episodes “The Train Job” and “Ariel.” If a student happens to have to retake my course, I assign “Jaynestown” and “Out of Gas” as replacements to prevent duplicating assignments. Some of these are not the best in the series (my favorite is “Our Mrs. Reynolds”), but I feel they all stand alone pretty well as well as tie together thematically for the assignments they’re used for.
I really only get three complaints about Firefly from my students: primarily that it is science fiction and they hate anything sci-fi. Secondly, they have to watch a whole 43 minutes of TV for school, and yet others complain about not having internet access at home. The third is the only complaint I consider valid, but I feel is nullified since our college has a Student Resource Center with free internet and computers for them utilize to watch the assignment; I even requested the SRC get headphones for students who have such multimedia assignments. Except for these minor qualms, the response to Firefly in my classroom has been exceptional. While most students still do not appreciate the series to the level I do, I rarely have students who remain entirely shut off from it.
I require four types of essays in my class: summary, summary-response, compare and contrast, and argumentation. Two of these are based around Firefly. I begin the semester with the students watching “The Train Job,” and I have them summarize it. This is a very simple assignment that allows them to get used to writing for me. Even though it is not the strongest Firefly episode, the fact that Fox aired it as the pilot makes it stand-alone and well-rounded enough to introduce naysayers to the series. After that assignment, they do a summary-response paper on H.P. Lovecraft, and then we move into the next Firefly assignment. Now, I assign “Ariel” and have the class compare and contrast at least three elements between the two episodes.
I think this approach works very well for these two episodes in particular because both focus on medicine robberies. The students write a summary of the first episode they can refer back to by the time they get to the compare and contrast essay. There is almost a direct sequence between the two episodes, I think, because most characterization that is questioned in “The Train Job” gets followed up on in “Ariel.” I make my students pick any three elements of the episodes (characters and how they act in the two episodes, how the medicine robberies are both similar and different, how the setting is the same and different, how the characters treat each other in both episodes, etc.), but they absolutely must talk about both sides. Students cannot talk simply about how the episodes are the same because they steal medicine; they must tell me how those robberies are different. Likewise, students cannot tell me how different Simon acts in “Ariel” without giving me examples of his character in “The Train Job.” Firefly has been surprisingly effective to get students involved with classroom work, and on top of that, it gets them legitimately thinking. Their final assignment is an argumentation paper where students argue what grade they objectively think they deserve, and they are required to quote from each paper, thus bringing Firefly into the fourth paper, as well.
I understand this is a basic writing course, and generally, students do not get into literature analysis until the second semester of Freshman Composition; however, I feel that it is important for students to be introduced gradually to new things, and high quality television like Firefly introduces new students to the idea that college is not the stuffy place they might imagine. I don’t get terribly in-depth essays from these students, but I do see the wheels start to turn in ways they might have never turned before. That makes me feel good. It means I might have succeeded as their teacher, that my assignments have worth. I’ve even had certain students go to Blockbuster or Movie Gallery and rent the entire series of Firefly on DVD after these assignments, while others have told me they watched the remaining episodes on Hulu in their free time. This kind of extracurricular interest shows the English professor in me that using non-traditional materials in a writing classroom works, and the fanboy in me is happy because I am using the methods I outlined near the end of this article to get more people involved in the Whedonverse. Shiny.