Early in the semester of my first-year writing seminar, we consider and reconsider openings in essays, an interrogation of students’ experiences with the mechanical “introduction” with the obligatory thesis sentence.
We examine, for example, several Beginnings from Barbara Kingsolver’s essays in High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder. Two essay beginnings reveal the complexity of student awareness about genre, writing forms, and language/text conventions.
Kingsolver’s “Creation Stories” opens with “June is the cruelest month in Tucson, especially when it lasts until the end of July.” Students always struggle with tone (missing the exaggeration and humor), and completely miss the allusion the T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a work itself rich with allusion and historically situated).
I have them consider that their dominant experiences with literary texts in school have been deadly serious, both the texts they have read and the approach taken to those texts (analyzing for deeply serious meaning). Then, I stress the problems with referential texts, such as the use of allusion, since the author is expecting the readers/audience to have the background knowledge needed to recognize the reference and its significance to the texts being addressed.
“Once upon a time, a passing stranger sent me into exile,” Kingsolver begins in her “Jabberwocky.” Immediately, students identify this reference to fairy tales, showing they have a sense of genre that helps guide their expectations as reader (although, as noted above, they also have the “seriousness” baggage cultivated in their formal English courses).
Formal reading and analysis of texts remains mostly in English and literacy courses where students focus on text-based literature (what we once called “print”) and instruction includes techniques such as satire, parody, allusion, and pastiche.
However, most students spend much of their lives with texts that are virtual and in the form of video (film, series, etc.). And in the world outside of formal schooling, referential texts are quite common but depend on pop culture background knowledge—such as the TV series Community.
Before the activity on beginnings, I asked if students were watching the recent series WandaVision, grounded in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Very few were watching and many weren’t aware of the series available on Disney+.
When I pulled up the IMDB page of WandaVision and scrolled to a black-and-white trailer for the series, students have no reference point for what the series is doing as pastiche exploring the history of sitcoms in the U.S. reaching back into mid-twentieth century.
However, as I watched the first five episodes, I continually identified matching sets from series I watched growing up as well as homages to sitcom opening credits and theme songs.
WandaVision takes the Easter Egg hook now common in the MCU and carries references several steps farther, turning the series into a powerful lever for moving the MCU forward and a stand-alone homage and critique of pop culture driven by TV and film.
As with Community, WandVision provides a perfect opportunity for rethinking what texts we present to students and how we help students navigate referential media.
Here, then, drawn from the sources below, I want to offer a textset for WandaVision as an exploration of pastiche while highlighting some of the instructional goals that match traditional approaches in English course and some that expand that instruction.
Instructional goals for a WandaVision textset may include the following
- Introducing or examining techniques such as satire, parody, allusion, and pastiche, focusing on the distinguishing characteristics among these approaches as well as the uses of and limitations to referential texts.
- Exploring genre and medium conventions grounded in U.S. TV sitcoms since the mid-twentieth century, including the following: bedrooms of TV married couples, conventions of sitcoms (theme music, opening credits, set design, etc.), TV transition from black-and-white to color, sitcom tropes (pregnancy, neighbors, spouse roles, etc.).
- Rethinking text beyond print and the importance of the binge-series versus traditional films or network TV weekly series.
Source background materials (Marvel comics that serve the MCU; see here):
Avengers (vol. 1): 113, 133-135, Giant Size 4 (1974), 185-187, 253, 254, 675-690
New Avengers: 26
Scarlet Witch: Witches’ Road
House of X: 1
Empyre X-Men: 1, 4
TV and Film references (pastiche sources through E5):
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
The Honeymooners (1955-1956)
Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970)
The Twilight Zone (195901964)
The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
The Partridge Family (1970-1974)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972)
All in The Family (1971-1979)
Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)
Get Smart (1965-1970)
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977)
Growing Pains (1985-1992)
Step by Step (1991-1998)
Family Ties (1982-1989)
Full House (1987-1995)
Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006)
Modern Family (2009-2020)
The Office (2005-2013)
Happy Endings (2011-2020)
The Truman Show (1998)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The inescapable postmodernism within television series Community by Sam Shepherd