Next semester, I’ll teach English 391: Special Topics in Cultural Studies: Netflix at McGill University (#engl391). My department gave the class a green light about five months ago, and I’ve been planning it, talking about it, and answering questions about it ever since:
“What exactly does one teach in a ‘Netflix’ class?”
“A whole class on Netflix?”
“Um, so you’re just gonna watch a bunch of Netflix?!?”
As Winter semester approaches, I’d like to offer a short explanation of #engl391 and why I think undergraduates need more courses like this one.
The goal of #engl391 is to use Netflix to frame a variety of narratives about the history of media culture. We’ll trace film and TV industry histories, histories of participatory culture, media convergence, interactivity, taste cultures, feminist media, media archives, fan practices, and more. The idea is to “watch a bunch of Netflix,” but to train students to see Netflix content as the result of diverse and often intersecting media histories. While many Cultural Studies courses teach media forms and histories in isolation, this approach helps students gain a more holistic understanding of media culture by utilizing and critiquing a platform with which most of them are already well-acquainted.
I’ve also designed #engl391 in a way that extends our investment in digital media into the daily workings of the class. We will be paper-free (all-online content), assignments will take place on social media platforms, and students will perform creative analyses instead of writing term papers. I will require that the group of 45 students immerse themselves in the course content, and that they work together to unpack, understand, and reflect on their experiences in the context of academic and nonacademic writing on contemporary media culture. Twitter and Facebook will be key sites of interaction for the group — I ask my students to blur the boundary between academic life and social life in order to engage in collaborative learning.
We’ve got a lot of weird stuff planned for #engl391 (interface experiments, performative tweeting, group binge-viewing). I met with some of my future students for a focus group to discuss the syllabus; they are excited, though understandably bit skeptical. I admit that not everything is going to work. Some students may continue to think it’s a “bird course,” some may long for the days of the predictable exam or essay assignment, and some may never understand my distinction between class “participation” and class “engagement.”
But courses like this one, that combine old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, theory and praxis, are an essential and often-absent element of a strong Cultural Studies undergraduate education. I hope that the spirit of experimentation that motivated me to create this course spreads to the whole group, permeates our approach the material, and results in something unique, enlightening, and fun.
See y’all next semester!