Pop Culture in the Classroom – Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Stephen King

Back when this blog was new and I had no idea if people would even bother reading it, I wrote about my use of Joss Whedon’s Firefly in my Basic Writing II classes. With the new semester finally under way, I figure a similar post is in order to explain my newest attempt at emboldening the English classroom: Stephen King and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

Over the summer, I taught my first Freshman Comp course. I started using Stephen King’s “Autopsy Room Four” as a way to get students to realize how effective descriptive writing can be. Later in the course, I used the TV adaptation of the story that appeared in the miniseries Nightmares and Dreamscapes to write a compare/contrast essay.

For all my high hopes, I consider that attempt a failure. I blame not myself, however, but the incredibly condensed nature of a four-week long writing course, on top of having a (mostly) uninterested roster. (I will go on the record here that four weeks is an absurdly short amount of time to try to teach someone the fundamentals of academic writing; one cannot even begin to revise effectively in four weeks.) That being said, however, I think that there was a lot more pushing I could have done to really implement it into my class.

With the Fall semester starting, that’s just what I intend to do. I have the time to actually dig into Stephen King’s writing, how he writes, why he writes, and why I think “Autopsy Room Four” is the perfect way to introduce descriptive narration to a potentially resistant audience. I didn’t have much flexibility in the four week July session.

For people who aren’t familiar with the story, “Autopsy Room Four’s” basic premise is this: Howard wakes up on an autopsy table, completely alive, but unable to communicate that to the people who are about to carve him up.

It’s not the most exciting story in the world, but given that it’s told in first-person and the main character can only describe to the reader what he experience through his senses other than sight, I think there’s a lot of worth in the writing.

I think this series of assignments will also give my students the chance to deal with cross-genre writing. They’ll be looking at a piece of fiction and learning to take the writing style into consideration rather than the story itself, which promotes critical thinking. They’ll (hopefully) be applying the lessons they learn from King’s fiction style to their own non-fiction “snapshot description” essay assignment. By merging a style that is used most often in fiction into early non-fiction in the class, I hope the students can see that everything has a place in academia, not just the overdone, stuffy “classics” they tune out whenever they’re assigned.

On the other side of my schedule, I have, for the first time, a Basic Writing I course. It is the most fundamental of our college’s English offerings. It’s meant to help those with little to no proficiency in the language start to bridge their way into college-level academic writing. We start small, parsing sentences, and eventually move into paragraphs and short essays. One of my favorite developmental assignments is a summary essay. It doesn’t require the student to spend much time on actually coming up with material or critically dissecting somethiing, allowing them to concentrate on mechanics and writing style.

My summary assignment for English 099 is based around the pilot episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” I will admit, part of the reason I threw Buffy onto my syllabus was to have an awesome piece of Whedon make up both halves of my Basic Writing sequence. That, and I’m preparing to submit a proposal to next year’s Slayage Conference, so I have to keep myself in a Whedon mood somehow.

Buffy is easy enough to delve into that I think the pilot will be accessible to even those students who resist the assignment, much like why I chose Firefly initially. The first season of Buffy is far from complex, and “Welcome to the Hellmouth” does a pretty decent job of making the world known to any viewers lucky enough to not have ever seen the film. Since the assignment is a simple one-page summary, the students will not have to understand and regurgitate the intricacies of the world or the character dynamics; they will just be able to concentrate on what the show is.

I also feel that contemporary literature and television is a good way to introduce these students to college English. Many come into college with Ivory Tower expectations, and that’s just not where higher education is anymore. Pop culture is slowly working its way into the curriculum, and I am doing my part to help. By integrating shows like Buffy and authors like Stephen King into my syllabus instead of “classics,” I think I can eventually reach resistant students and let them see that college and learning is not always about esoteric elitism.

The reason I am sitting here today is because my freshman comp classes used graphic novels as texts. Dr. Carl Buchanan introduced me to a world that I really thought was limited to—for lack of a better term—dead white guys. I hope I can be that teacher to at least one student. Helping students see the value in art they might not have ever considered art is one of my major goals. I think I’m well on my way to achieving it.

Comments

  1. Longasc

    I cannot stop smiling after reading this… really. 🙂

    What is it with academics/professors that they ALL seem to love BUFFY and Joss Whedon's series in particular? Okay, not all of them. But 99% of the cool ones seem to be Buffy fans! 🙂

    We had a Buffy course, but in medieval studies, not literature. Talk about serialized art/literature and compare them to courtly novels and all that. Comparing the slaughter in Kill Bill to the Nibelungenlied also sounded crazy, but suprisingly it was not.

  2. We Fly Spitfires

    I think you're totally right! Far too many people assume that writing can only be about Shakespeare etc and never realise that they were just the Joss Whedons of their time 🙂

    I'm reading another Dark Tower novel at the moment and I can really appreciate Stephen King's skill and story crafting. He's a good writer and it shows.

  3. jane

    I don't know, but isn't Buffy 1×01 getting a little long in the tooth? Sorry, I couldn't resist! Of course it's apt, these students are just beginning their Heroic Journeys into the demon dimensions of academia. Just make sure to remind them which side they're on.

    For the advanced classes, why not give something else a shot? I can only imagine how much those budding writers' creative juices would flow with the Pilot episode of Lost on the syllabus. Now *that* would make for some interesting writing assignments!

    The writing of Pilot 2, however, is really something to behold. Every single one of those scenes – there's about thirty of them – has something wonderful inside. The same sort of wonderful, which is also same sort of wonderful in Pilot 1, but differently handled. More importantly for a writing class, examining the *transcript* of Pilot 2 can really expose some valuable writing techniques, which are also mirrored in the details of the shot composition of the episode. The writing is exquisite.

  4. Beej

    @Gordon: I say that all the time. People seem to forget that even Shakespeare was reviled by many in his time for being a hack writer and a sellout.

    @Ben Miller: Unfortunately, Dr. Buchanan has now passed away. I do what I can to keep his kind of scholarship going, however.

    @Longasc: I think what it is with academics about Whedon is that it's not only fun, but there's a lot of hidden meaning and depth to his writing that's not found in a lot of contemporary fluff. If I had to take two "hack" writers from this century and say they'll be anthologized 200 years from now, it's Whedon and Stephen King.

    @Jane: I've thought about that, but my main concern is the serialization of LOST. I'm even wary of "Welcome to the Hellmouth" as a To Be Continued and its effect on students understanding it in isolation. As exquisite (and what a perfect word that is for LOST writing) as Pilot 2 is, I worry about the length of an assignment based around 2 episodes as well as the continuation into the rest of the series.

    It's really something I'll take in mind as I get more acclimated to teaching comp.