April 2, 2008
My MIT Course on U.S. Soap Operas

This semester at MIT, I'm teaching a course on the history of U.S. soap operas, based on the work I've published here on the blog over the past couple of years, my Master's thesis project, etc. The class includes a few MIT undergraduates and a Harvard undergraduate, as we look at the history of and contemporary state of the U.S. soap opera through reading and discussing the history of soap opera scholarship and soaps.

In particular, the class is following the soap opera As the World Turns, my longtime favorite, for the semester. None of the students were fans of U.S. soaps prior to the launching of the class, and none had seen ATWT prior to the class' beginning, save perhaps a few clips of gay couple Luke and Noah, through YouTube or other video sharing sites.

The model is intriguing for me, because there is always some question about how to teach a television studies course. Watching individual episodes is just looking at a tiny portion of the text of one of these shows, and certainly watching a full text is much more difficult for television than when teaching film or literature. This is, of course, made all the worse when teaching a class on soaps, with 260 hours of new content a year, coupled by the fact that ATWT is now 52 years old.

The students decided early on that they thought they could learn much more about the ways in which soap operas tell their stories by following a single show for the duration of a semester, rather than watching across several soaps.

For those of you who teach television courses regularly, I'd be curious as to whether you have attempted teaching based on a single television text in the past. For everyone, I invite you to read one of the more substantial projects for the semester--a class blog, which invites any interested party to come on the site and interact with the class and their thoughts on soaps. The site is updated with several new posts each week, based on the readings we're doing, the current ATWT episodes, and other observations from a set of young scholars immersing themselves in soap opera culture for the semester.

The class' blog is located here. I'm also blogging about the course every week or two over at the PGP Classic Soaps Blog, the official blog for Procter & Gamble Productions. See posts about the class here and here. In my post here, I have highlighted some of the work the students have done so far:

Jenn, in Ambiguous Narrative: Ambiguity in American soap operas is key, with many questions left unanswered such as "is this character good or evil?", "what might happen to these characters next?", and the all-too-prevalent "I wonder when they are going to bring up [that thing that was mentioned once] again and make it into its own storyline." I wonder about this in relation to some of the things we have seen lately on ATWT. A few weeks ago, Emily mentioned to Margo that she used to be a prostitute, and yet there has been no fallout from this. Is it at all possible that Emily's revelation will go unmentioned? It is very doubtful that this won't come up in its own storyline. We received slight mention of Barbara's cancer a few weeks ago, and it now seems to be surfacing into a storyline...however, where it is going is ambiguous. Will Barbara putting her children in front of her radiation therapy cause the cancer to worsen and her to die? Or will she recover, battle it out and beat the cancer? Will she dramatically take a turn for the worse only to miraculously recover? Will she also lose her hair, as Lucinda did in the clips we watched from years ago? Where the story is going for Barbara is completely ambiguous right now.

Ernest from Character Analysis: Henry and Vienna: How do you do a character analysis of soap opera characters? How do you do a literary analysis of this particular type of text? Plot must wither away, first of all; the characters' feelings and interactions take precedence. These interactions and feelings must then be placed within the context of characters' histories - their personal histories and their historical relationships with those around them. The first task of leaving plot alone in favor of character is possible for a student who has only recently started watching the soap. The second task of placing these characters in a historical context is nearly impossible. These people have developed outside of most newbies' experiences, and have a rich history that applies to the character's actions in ways newcomers to the soap can't hope to perceive. Given this shortcoming on my part as a newcomer, I would nevertheless like to attempt an analysis of Henry and Vienna. I do know a little bit about these characters, and of all of the relationships on the show, I am particularly interested in theirs. Vienna wears her lust on her shoulder. [ . . . ] Poor Henry is in his own bind. [ . . . ] He is now faced with the huge burden of knowing she had sex with him, knowing it's his fault, and knowing that she thinks she is justified in doing so because of his affair, an affair he knows never happened.

Laura from Reactions: I think "As The World Turns" has succeeded in drawing us into its narrative. The first two weeks were mostly about figuring out who everyone is and what is going on. In the third week, we have fewer questions for Sam. We are starting to know these characters, and care about them. We have seen plots begin, end, and take drastic turns in this time. I think the most telling reaction from this audience is when we have all gasped or cried out in unison at some plot reveal or character moment. We may still be somewhat detached, looking at this analytically and academically, but they've got us to care, which I see as a success on their part. I believe the two biggest reactions were to Craig's sudden and dramatic return, and to Katie's poorly timed phone call during Jack's bizarre Cowboy Jack scene.

Katharine from The "UGH" Factor: At the risk of never ever having someone to watch a movie with again, I have a confession to make. I talk. I talk during commercials. I shriek when the murderer jumps out. And I definitely, most definitely say, "awww" when the couple that should get together does get together. So it was a really weird experience when every time I watched a soap and the sound, "UGH," emerged from my mouth several times in a row. When Carly makes a ridiculously bad decision, when Casey decides to house a bunkmate from prison, or when Sophie makes a bad decision kidnapping the baby, the response is the same. It's UGH! Forgive me for saying, but this rarely ever happens when I'm watching other television shows like "House" or "The X-files" and it doesn't even happen when I watch unrealistic shows like "Walker Texas Ranger." [ . . . ] The foreshadowing in soap operas is done in a way that the audience knows what should be done and shouldn't be done, which can also add considerable frustration. Since the audience is able to access all the character's and their thoughts, we're always ahead of the game. The constant use of dramatic irony can really promote the "UGH" factor more.

Nick from Is it really all that bad?: In a 1974 book called "TV: The Most Popular Art", the author (now teaching at the University of Georgia) gives three plots that are a pattern of soaps, repeated 'again and again':
1. Women who give up their children for adoption begin to search for them
2. Good men go about their business, only to have it confounded by their scheming partners
3. Pattern of accidental death followed by trial for murder
If we look at the three main stories from last week's As The World Turns, we find:
1. Sophie kidnapping her child from her adoptive parents
2. Chris discovering his research partner to be Dusty's murderer
3. Sam being shot and killed, with the presumption of Parker as the murderer despite his motives and/or innocence
So I wonder - has ATWT really changed all that much, in terms of story? Certainly, the soap is moving at a much faster pace, but the same is true of the actual plots going on? I'm not so sure. "

Claxton from Soap Operas vs. Primetime Dramas: Since soaps are never-ending and air so frequently, if a newcomer to the series seeks to "jump-in" it's not difficult. Some of the longest running soaps such as Guiding Light and ATWT have been running for decades now. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to have seen EVERY SINGLE EPISODE AIRED from day one. It's just unlikely and probably very difficult to accomplish. In addition to their long running status (and unlike primetime shows) soaps do not have seasons or any clear boundaries of start and finish; they air year around. This could make it very difficult for new viewers of the show to gain a sense of what is going on, as well as a desire to get into the show (for having missed decades of episodes). As a solution to this, soaps have to stagger multiple plotlines at once, jumping between them fairly quickly. This slows the progression of each sub plot. By doing so, the show is able to build even more intrigue by sometimes weaving two seemingly unrelated stories together, forming a new plot....in possibly a new direction.