Mentor Text Wednesday: Problematic Faves

Mentor Text: Problematic Faves: Firefly by Alyssa Fikse

Techniques:

  • Applying a Critical Lens
  • Critical Appreciation
  • Focusing an Argument

Background – This week’s mentor text speaks to a couple of things that come up frequently in my classroom. One of those things is that pop culture can be treated as a text, and we discuss it as such. The other is that we’re going to deal with texts that result in different reactions, and we need to be prepared to approach texts, and our differing reactions to them appropriately.

So, when the Problematic Faves series made it’s way into my Twitter feed recently, I was pretty excited. Not surprisingly, it actually reflects my Twitter feed very well – geeky stuff, heated debate over it, as well as a focus on challenging the norms of texts, and the curricula they support.

FIREFLY, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Ron Glass, Sean Maher, Morena Baccarin, Nathan Fillion, Gina To
Firefly via ew.com

This series, as exemplified by Alyssa Fikse’s piece about the modern sci-fi classic Firefly, dovetails very nicely with what we’re dealing with in classrooms. We are challenging the canon, and looking at the ways that texts fall short. It makes sense to do this with our pop culture texts as well, to question and speak openly about the places that they fall short.

It’s also piece that can be used to model how we write about a text, leaving the weight of challenging the canon aside.

How we might use this text:

Applying A Critical Lens – The beauty of this series is that it can act as a “stealth lesson” in applying a critical lens. As I write this, the series has only covered pieces that are a bit older, widely regarded as classics. The writers apply a critical lens to the text, in the case of Firefly, one related to how race is handled. The piece discusses how the handling of race, specific the issue of Chinese prevalence in the world of the show being a minimal factor, is done. There is a justification, which is debunked, for the cultural appropriation. The flaws that this creates in the show is well highlighted though.

This piece, and this series, would be a great mentor text, and assignment for students before we have them applying critical lenses to older written texts. It would serve as an  engaging practice run for a standard task in a high school English class.

Critical Appreciation – One of the things that my students find challenging is balancing criticism and appreciation. They can’t criticize a text they enjoy, nor can they discuss the merits of a text they dislike. It seems as if things can only be black or white, no grey. This makes critical appreciation challenging for them.

However, this piece, and series, models this. The name of the series is perfect, Problematic Faves. Right at the outset, the lines are drawn – the goal is to discuss the problems within a favorite text. Fikse makes no bones about the fact that the appealing things about Firefly still resonate, and it’s still a beloved piece of pop culture. As well, the aspects of the show that are challenging are discussed. They don’t knock the show off of the favorites list, but the things that might give a viewer the wiggins are discussed.

Again, this series would serve as a good first attempt at critical appreciation of the canon.

Focusing an Argument – If your writers are like mine, when given a task such as this, have a tendency to write pieces that get kind of “listy,” in which they run through the litany of problems a text presents. These lists are often accompanied by some scattershot analysis of multiple things on that list.

One of the things that first drew me to this piece was the how Fikse highlights multiple faults that one could find with Firefly, yet zeroes in one the one that resonates personally. In writing about texts, this has been one of my frequent reminders for students lately, to focus on the element or aspect that resonates for them as an anchor for their writing, and analysis. Fikse’s introduction mentioning the problems with Firefly doesn’t become a checklist for the piece that follows, in which the writer simply writes about those problems in the order mentioned.

Wonderfully subtle in this focus is that the criticism is directed at the art. Because we are privy to so much information, we know about the issues that surround our texts so much more readily. Like the texts of the canon, pop culture is riddled with pieces made by people of questionable moral fibre. It’s an entirely different task to criticize art based upon the lives of the people involved in its creation. Not to say that it’s not an important thing to consider, but directing the focus of the analysis on the issues presented by the text is an important lesson for students to see in action. This piece does that well.

Many of our students view a lot of pop culture texts. Whether they’re watching the classics, or they’re binging modern classics, encouraging them to do so critically is very important. Like many of us, I feel that questioning the messages, intended and unintended, communicated by texts is a vital part of our work in English classrooms. This series gives us a great way to mentor this.

How do you deal with problematic texts? How do you model critical appreciation for students? Also, what’s your “problematic fave”?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

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