That TV Tangent

Sorry about that. It just came up the other day, this general sense that educators are in something of a bind w/r/t television and their students’ viewing habits, which are, admittedly, atrocious straight across the board.

Used to be that teachers could teach transmission-style, lecturing for more than five minutes at a stretch, assign problems one through thirty odd, and preach the immorality of t.v. without inhibition.

But lecturing has become stigmatized, problem sets must be differentiated, and a teacher singing the universal immorality of any medium is an odd tune to hear.

Particularly for you next-gen / future-of-learning types, I’m curious how you deal with t.v. No matter how we’re defining School 2.0, a consistent tenet seems to be that students must learn how to sort out the useful and the awful of any medium, even one with such a negatively skewed balance as t.v.

Far be it from any of us to adopt a passive stance on an issue as pervasive as this. So, as a teacher, what do you do with t.v.? What’s the net learning result when you spend hours peer reviewing each other’s blogs but then send them home to 106 & Park and My Super Sweet Sixteen without any sort of reflection?

Comments from other people:

Tony and Rich both give the televisual equivalent of “I can quit whenever I want,” while Mr. Aston advocates self-reflection and Ryan comes down in favor of TV Turnoff Week. Alex Italics wrote a fantastic open letter to Adbusters last week dismantling its TV Turnoff Week one hypocritical, morally relative assumption at a time.

If I only want to read Shakespeare and not Hitler, I simply don’t read Mein Kampf. If “7th Heaven” comes on right after the moon landing, I get up and turn off the television before it starts. It’s just that simple, and it doesn’t have to involve throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Finally, Michael K., who usually trolls around here under assumed names to rile up my hapless patrons, drops the comment of the week:

Cause here’s the thing: the burden of passivity isn’t on the television and it isn’t on the tight-knit group of execs spoon-feeding entertainment …. Rather, the burden of passivity is on you, the viewer. You have complete control over what you watch and how you watch it and, if you’re somehow “forced” to watch something – which is kind of a ludicrous proposition – it’s on you to engage the program, to be active, to spin it into something worthwhile. A pop song a few years back contained a pertinent lyric, “If you’re bored then you’re boring.” To blindly eliminate television from ones environment isn’t a stand against television at all, it’s an admission that one cannot exist – simultaneously and in moderation – with an inanimate device; it isn’t a statement of intelligence, but an admission of ignorance.

Whenever Mike goes on one of his public indecency binges and starts calling his friends one-by-one for bail money, I’m the first to go all Apostle Peter on him. Times like this, though, when the kid and that brain of his aspire to more than defrauding charities, I’m proud to call him a friend. Good lookin’ out, amigo.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I’d love to respond to this–got some ideas rattling around–but I need some clarification as to what your question means.

    So, as a teacher, what do you do with t.v.?

    Like, how do we address it in the classroom? How do we talk to kids about it? Do we acknowledge it? Do we assign homework to watch it? Where are you going with this?

  2. If I had to wager, it’d be on the proposition that teachers don’t discuss t.v. in their classroom. Just like they don’t tend to discuss engine transmissions, architecture, horse racing, or any of a zillion other potential non-sequitors.

    So I’m just wondering, primarily: what is the next-gen teacher’s position — either personal or professional — on television. And then, should television become a discussion point alongside or somewhere below blogs, podcasts, and other pervasive media types.

    Why aren’t we talking about this? And what aren’t we talking about?

  3. I still don’t get what you’re driving at. What am I supposed to do with TV? What are we teachers supposed to be talking about? What are *you* talking about? Are you talking about TV in the classroom or in our personal lives?

    When references to shows come up in class, I run down that train of thought as long as it’s worthwhile. I’m not there to proselytize to my students about TV; I’m there to teach them English. If I can use TV to do that, I will. If not, no loss.

    In my personal life, I have rabbit ears and no cable. Most of the TV shows you mention on this blog I have never watched (some I’ve never heard of). TV just isn’t a big part of my life, but I really like the shows I watch. Movies are where I hang my hat in this regard. I could deal without TV. I couldn’t deal without movies.

  4. Just to throw this into the mix while I percolate a bit on the larger educational question here, I think in a lot of ways TV viewing has changed significantly with the mainstreaming of the DVR in the last couple years. When we bought our first TiVo in 2003, we were not the earliest adopters, but DVRs were still on the “leading edge” as far as acceptance by mainstream consumers.

    So my point – I would have hypothesized that buying a DVR would make us watch more TV, but in fact the opposite is true. I find that we watch less TV because we’re able to sit down and watch exactly what we want when we want. There is no more, “Well, it’s 9:30 on a Tuesday – I wonder what’s on.”

    To me, this has done for TV content what podcasting has done for audio content: Made the content fit into my life instead of the other way around.

    I have to wonder what “TV” will look like in a few more years. As Slingbox, EyeTV, Apple TV, and the like attempt to move from niche markets into the mainstream, will the “traditional” model of scheduled TV begin to fade in favor of more “on demand” programming? Will “TV” even exist as we’ve known it? Or will “TV” just join the bevy of other video content (video podcasts, YouTube, Joost) available now and become something that I can watch whenever and wherever I choose?

    Isn’t this a great time to be young and geeky?

  5. “Isn’t this a great time to be young and geeky?”

    It definitely is. I think you’ve nailed it: with the new and various technologies the top->bottom format of media (singular mogul dispenses info/tainment to the masses) is obliterated. There’s this guy, Mark C. Taylor, that writes all about this in his book, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Pretty apropos of what you’re talking about, Scott. (Here’s a link, no affiliation.)

    Taylor’s basic point is this: there are, essentially, two types of societal structures: Grids and Networks. Further: the formerly primary grid is, day by day, becoming an increasingly networked structure, with every node given equal billing. The top->bottom dissemination of knowledge, information, etc. is, Taylor argues, no longer the primary model of structure at play in society. Consider: Wikipedia, MySpace, TiVo, etc. Pretty cool stuff.

  6. Scott: Isn’t this a great time to be young and geeky?

    Seems like the difference between young & geeky is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. A certain aptitude for tech and an unslakable thirst for media seem to be prereqs of “young.”

    That hand-in-handedness is what I was trying to convey in my post. To Todd, in other words, there’s nothing proscriptive or prescriptive about this post. File t.v., if you want, alongside horse racing, car engines, and mid-century architecture under “Topics Beyond The Purview Of My Class.” That’s fine.

    The question is directed more towards the teachers who think a large function of their job is to help kids sort out the good and bad of media. I reckon most of them have an easier time discussing blogs than t.v., which seems like a thornier issue to me.

    And if t.v. falls outside even that course description, I’m just curious how one of these teachers would spin a conversation out of a student’s remark that omg, she really really loves [tv show x]. Blind eye? Deaf ear? Or some kind of engagement?

  7. Isn’t this argument just like the argument that says a teacher’s job is to teach kids technology? It’s the same logic, isn’t it?

  8. I’m not saying a teacher should do anything. I’m saying if a teacher already is of the next-gen sort (teaching kids to sort through new media, etc.) where does t.v., one of the most disreputable media forms around, fit into that regiment, either explicitly or implicitly?

  9. “The question is directed more towards the teachers who think a large function of their job is to help kids sort out the good and bad of media.”

    As an English teacher part of my role is to help my students think critically about literature – to judge it based on standards beyond just their own personal tastes (or the length of the book). I connect some of my lessons to TV because the skill required to be a discerning reader is the same skill it takes to be a discerning viewer. “I love that show but it is kinda cheesy” is a stepping stone to “I love that book but I know it’s kinda too easy.” The “I really really love [tv show x]” comment usually leads to a quick discussion of why and of how the show is being judged – personal taste or larger standards? Which, of course, leads right back to our discussion of how to judge literature and how to recognize larger standards.

    My frehsmen have a very informal contest (although I don’t know if that is quite the right word as there are no rules, no prizes, and no records) regarding vocab words appearing in their favorite TV shows. They come into class practically bursting to mention it and even more excited about it if the show used the word incorrectly and they caught the mistake. Hey, any connection between English class and the rest of their world I can get, I’ll take.
    TV also comes in handy when we are talking about the affects of perspective on the way we read, images & stereotypes of race & gender and couple dozen other topics.

    I guess my point is that regardless of where we personally stand on the TV/no TV spectrum, TV is a huge part of our students lives so we might as well use it.

  10. I have no problem bringing in good TV clips or episodes to help make a point or connection. I used The Daily Show and The Colbert Report when we were working with Huck Finn, and I’ve shown an X-Files episode or two in the past.

    I still don’t buy your original question/point, though. I try to get my students to recognize stance/position/intent in whatever media they use, whether that’s print journalism, blogs, TV, movies, books, whatever. Is that what you were asking about?

  11. For me this is a question I mull over in my mind all the time. Currently I do not have a t.v. and this concerns me because I am afraid of being “out of the loop”. I have nothing against popular culture, it just seems like most times I am observing from the outside, interested sometimes, but most times not getting the hype. I am a believer in the teachable moment and this brings me back to being ‘out of the loop”, I like to be informed so if something does occur on t.v. we can talk about it in class or in advisory (this is a class at my HS that meets 2x/week for all 4 years of HS) I do think it is important for teachers to stay current so they can at least have an idea of what the kids are interested in or talking about. In my experience if a person/teacher seems “out of touch” kids have a hard time taking them seriously. This being “in touch” can take many different forms.

    This is the other side to what I grapple with and one of the reasons I almost stayed out of teaching – I do not want to have to entertain students. Education is not entertainment.Boredom is self inflicted and if a student can not engage they have to take part ownership of that.

    T.v. is part of our lives, so it should be a topic that is discussed and in some cases broken down for what is truly is and what its purpose is. This can be brought into a school setting in many different ways, it depends on the teacher.

    I myself, like to take it apart. I like to use it as a vehicle to make students think about the true intentions of the media. What are they trying sell you? What are they trying to say about society? What is a characters comment on social or anti-social behavior? This is a broad brush stoke, but this is where I like to start.

  12. Let old & geeky n 2 discuss, pls…
    Q: do u c txt msg shrthnd killin King’s Eng?

    Attn all
    Ur hmwrk: rd Herbert Marshall McLuhan’
    “The Medium is the Massage”


  13. Ok look, the TV thing is a big deal to me. I dislike television, pretty much in whatever form it presents. Oh sure, I spent years watching ER and other amazingly well put-together dramas. I can appreciate amazing cinematography, good script-writing, and the other oft-touted reasons to watch good tv.

    Truth is, this has nothing to do with my students and what they watch, this is about me and my family.

    I do not watch television because I don’t like where my mind goes. If I have a covenant with my eyes, I have to be careful what enters, be it in front of a tv or a computer screen. Both can be dangerous.

    The difference is the computer screen holds a benefit for my life. There is productivity there. Sure, there is entertainment, but I tend to avoid that as well.

    I probably lead a fairly boring life, but I notice that when I let my daughter watch a fair amount of television it is harder for her to play imaginatively in the aftermath. When the TV is nicely turned off, she plays for hours without getting bored. And her props in this life play? Cardboard tubes and a check necklace, and a variety of stuffed animals.

    I spent a lot of years on a couch watching television, I have no desire to return to that.

    For me, and I reiterate that this is my deal, perhaps my problem, and I don’t impose it on anyone, I just think our society focuses a bit too much on celebrities, hence my blog post on Google Trends.

    It’s a personal decision for me as the head of my house. Oh sure, she may watch a movie here and there, but broadcast television (I sure can’t afford cable!) holds the keys to unlocking a Pandora’s box in the heart of my girls I would rather see left untouched.

  14. Too much great commentary to respond individually, I’m afraid. Stuff that picks/piques my brain, however:

    Rebecca summarizes my agreements and disagreements almost a little too perfectly. She’s just right on in that it doesn’t really matter whether we dig TV or not (and I’ve got a lot of love for Chris‘ “it just ain’t worth sorting through the shit to find the truffles” response) it’s a fact of our students’ lives.

    As an educator — someone whose job it is to help students make sense of life in general and media in particular — I hope a fella like Chris wouldn’t say something to his students like “y’all shouldn’t watch t.v.” w/o clarifying the part his personal and spiritual convictions play in that decision.

    I’m certainly not recommending you integrate t.v. into your practice (though any composition teachers who follow Rebecca’s lead on her extracurricular assignment get extra credit from me). I’m advocating an improved regard for what has long been mistaken for an adversary of education.

    It’s simply my hope that when opportunities arise to discuss why a student likes/dislikes a certain show, we engage her as if t.v. were as potentially enriching a medium as blogs, books, or satellite radio. Because it is.

    Also, to maintain a consistent ethical code, we’ve gotta recognize the absurdity of a group like Adbusters petitioning the silence of any media on the shaky grounds that people abuse it. ‘Cause it’s one half step from there to rescinding free speech.

  15. Oh, and fun joke there, Greg. I feel like I’ve read in some circles that we oughtta treat the shorthand of text- and instant-messenging as a language right alongside the king’s english. Perhaps there’s some hypocrisy here I haven’t addressed, but I’m pretty sure this is a lame concession to our digital natives.

    Oh, I mean, it’s a valid way to communicate, just as all sorts of slang were and still are. But with it’s extr-ee-me ellipsis, abbreviation, and shorthand, it’s a fundamentally limited language. The languages to which we devote class-hours and teacher-dollars oughtta have a singular long-term benefit to our students’ future livelihood. Which IM-speak does not.

  16. Love the discussion. Okay, here I go. Don’t watch tv, am not out of the loop as it takes me about 1 minute to figure out what is going on in a show as they don’t change much. Use tv clips for teaching – be careful of copyright – most teachers do not follow this when they show things at school. We have a tv, no commercial channels – movies only. No fighting for the remote – I have 7 children so this is a great positive.
    Get rid of the “digital native” stuff, it creates barriers regardless of how you try to explain it and it doesn’t fit. We’re all digital users regardless of when you were born. Man, it’s like saying electrical appliance natives and immigrants or electricity natives and immigrants.
    As a next-gen teacher who is a bit older, I’ve heard all sorts of stuff about how not having a tv will make me odd, will handicap my children and their social lives and all the rest. Crap. All of it. 13 years without commercial tv, great kids who excel and are not worse off than any other children around them. I could state all the positives that I see but then that would be a bragging parent and that’s not what this is about.
    Tv has the potential for good information and lessons. Until it becomes viewer driven and I don’t have wait for a listing, watch silly commercials or sift through countless channels, I’ll stay away. With all the things to do, it’s one thing that I’m willing to give up.

  17. Okay, so a sturdy case has been made for raising kids w/o television. A case has also been made that one’s life will continue appreciably without television. I haven’t disputed any of that.

    If that’s the course this conversation oughtta take and end with then, fine, I agree, but I’ve gotta note that my original point has been thoroughly missed, both here and at Chris’ place, particularly by our contributing parents.

    This has nothing to do with how much t.v. you or your genetic offspring personally watch. Nor am I urging my colleagues to watch Magnum P.I. reruns in class – or listen to music, or read books, or do anything.

    As teachers (again, not as parents), I’d like to see our latent prejudice towards t.v. exposed and dismissed. The sense from the detractors seems to be, “Oh, I don’t mind if my students watch it, but as for me and my family, we don’t touch the stuff,” and that isn’t the same as encouraging one’s students to differentiate a medium’s failures and successes (t.v., music, book, blog, or otherwise) nor does it encourage them to make their own successes.

    Tv has the potential for good information and lessons. Until it becomes viewer driven and I don’t have wait for a listing, watch silly commercials or sift through countless channels, I’ll stay away.

    Just for the record, this has been around (legally) for over a year.

  18. Dan, you are right, this

    “Tv has the potential for good information and lessons. Until it becomes viewer driven and I don’t have wait for a listing, watch silly commercials or sift through countless channels, I’ll stay away.”

    has been around for a year. But, if you don’t have the $’s or the permission at the school level to use the things, it doesn’t matter. Like, dvd’s drives for pc’s have been around for, like, years and yet we NONE in our school – not allowed. So, we have to use a dvd player which we have 3. We’d like to have tv’s in every room but the budget won’t allow it all at one shot. I know, I do the budget!
    Now, as for the tv being good for students or bad for students, I think that I clarified that in my post For the record, I was clarifying that you can discuss something with a person without owning it. I discuss motor bikes, cars, snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles with my students all the time. I own a truck but, because at one time I owned a vehicle, I have a reference point even though cars and many of the components have changed. Likewise, I don’t actually have to watch every program the kids watch in order to have a discussion about what makes good tv or what might “rot their brains” as you state. I use my own children as examples because 1. They are your “digital” natives – very digital in fact. 2. They have lived in 5 different locations from a large city to a small rural town and variations inbetween. 3. They cover a wide span of ages, at one time, in one location. Not too many people have the experiences I have right now. 4. I have a cohort of females – 10 to 15 years old and a cohort of males (2 to 5 years old). 5. The two parents involved are well educated (both with at least 2 degrees – one with a Master’s.)
    I have debated, and will continue to debate the merits of tv with anyone. In fact, I still can recall the moment when tv news reporting went from reporting “facts” to sensationalism. It happened when a group of Sough African Nazis were captured and were placed in front of their car – with their hands tied behind their backs. One was wounded, badly and the other was pleading with journalists to help him, to save him as they were going to kill him. Then a soldier walked into view, smiled into the camera and executed, on live television, the one Nazi. It was during a discussion with the students I was teaching at the time when a young man uttered “Cool” to that discussion that I began to challenge the viewing habits of people, teens and tweens, in particular. So, as I stated clearly, I don’t impose my habits on others. I will discuss and debate the merits of programs, viewing habits and other things with you, Dan, or anyone. I will also discuss the health impact of a sedentary lifestyle and the impact that such a lifestyle has upon my taxes and my income. I will also discuss the impact that your eating habits will have upon the ability of our health care system to take care of people and if it is the responsibility of the public to fund for disease and problems that can be directly linked to the lifestyle that you live watching 14 hours a day. We can discuss the passive state of your existence that happens when you have been exposed to tv for particular lengths of time and compare it to other media and the impact each has on you and your lifestyle habits. We can do all this and more without, yes without, me having commercial tv in my house over the past 13 years. Why? Because while you’re watching, I’m reading and looking for information to use when I have these discussions with adolescents and children. So, go ahead and watch the tv – it just allows me to get that much further ahead. Keep telling yourself that you need to watch it to discuss it – that’s what the media has you believing and you’re a very avid spokesman for the viewing television in order to be an “expert”. I’ve also known many a armchair quarterback or coach that, when it came to actually doing it, should have stuck to the chair. At least there, they didn’t make a fool of themselves. But hey, maybe I’m too old to really know what you’re talkin’ about anyway – ;)