A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



Television: Production vs. Reception Over Time
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Instances of television-oriented pedagogy began in 1951, shortly after broadcasting networks were established in the United States. (Incidentally, interest in radio-centered pedagogy among English teachers wanes just as television emerges, a point in time we jokingly refer to as the moment when TV killed the radio star.) A closer look at the role of television in English education shows a slightly different pattern compared to film or radio, where production-focused articles appear early in the timeline. With television, reception is the predominant focus of articles from the outset in 1951, and it is not until 1967, with Robert Meadows' "Get Smart: Let TV Work for You," that we see the first indication of interest in production (and even here, Meadows described a multi-part assignment that involved script writing and live, in-class performance). In fact, most of the production-oriented articles in this corpus center around alphabetic script writing of television dramas, press conferences, and other televisual genres.

As the 1970s ushered in the era of teaching with television (exemplified by the emergence of the Children's Television Workshop and programs like Sesame Street), we had expected to see an explosion of television-based publications erupting from the pages of English Journal, but alas, this was not the case. With respect to educational television in particular, we found one representative: John A. Wiegand's (1965) "Teaching English on TV in Samoa," which addressed oral English instruction transmitted from a local television station in American Samoa. The establishment of public access cable channels in the early 1980s also did not have the kind of impact we initially anticipated when we began this project, even given the democratic or egalitarian promise of the format; this was perhaps due to the highly specialized nature of television production, the availability of public access stations in a given area, or other access impediments.

The largest (though still modest) spike in television production occurred in 1994. This year included three articles, actually part of a special symposium section in the January issue: Travis E. Jackson, Anthony Bencivenga, and Lestra Litchfield's "Writing for Television: Purpose and Audience Already Defined"; Richard Kosier and Candace Morgan's "A Show with Class"; and Diana Mitchell's "Scripting for Involvement and Understanding." Two of the three dealt with production in terms of writing for television, whereas Kosier and Morgan actually described a kind of public access station internship program where students were involved in production, performance, and editing in addition to writing.

Aside from the aforementioned Meadows article, production-oriented publications were concentrated in the 20-year span from 1978-1998, with several gaps occurring therein. Articles on television reception, by contrast, appeared much more regularly and with more frequency up through 2009, save for a noticeable drought from 1968-1974. A cursory glance at article titles during the period suggests a renewed emphasis on teaching with and about literature. One article worthy of mention, if for no other reason than who was partly responsible for penning it, is the 1978 article "The Laws of Media," an op-ed column arguing for greater attention to media literacy written by none other than Marshall McLuhan (and co-authored by Kathryn Hutchon and Eric McLuhan).

Commonplaces for Teaching With Television

When we look at the bar graph of commonplaces associated with televisual English pedagogy, we immediately notice that "Harming Alphabetic Literacy" makes it into the top three, a viewpoint reflected in 37 total articles (two production centered, 35 reception centered). This is something of an outlier compared to other media, where attitudes were generally favorable, and the willingness to experiment was apparent. The derogatory slang term "boob tube"—a phrase literally occurring in four English Journal articles according to a cursory JSTOR search, but the general sense of which is more pervasive—wafts through this part of the corpus in a way that it doesn't in other areas. In fact, the most represented commonplace, "changing the nature of literacy," is not uniformly depicted as a good thing—this, despite the frequent invocation of Marshall McLuhan in articles and columns of the period (some of which are critical, but many of which concede or celebrate his impact on how we think about media literacy). Whether this attitude stems from the sheer ubiquity of television sets in the American home, a growing preoccupation with what many have deemed a literacy crisis during this time period, or a combination of related factors remains unclear, but the unique shift in English educators' attitudes regarding television signals a potential area of further exploration. As we turn our attention in the following section to the next major technology, the computer, we will see English teachers returning to more positive views of new media's impact on literacy learning.