TLC as a Sideshow: Final Reflections

by Tori Warenik, Abigail Gautreau, and Katie Stringer

Tori: Over the last couple of months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the type of TV we as a society are being shown. Specifically, it’s been interesting to think about TLC and their offerings. Before I began this investigation I had so many preconceived notions about American Gypsies and the Duggers that I just thought I would be presenting my initial biased, admittedly close-minded, view. Instead, after doing some research on both shows, it became simple to separate my personal thoughts about the people involved on the shows with the company who airs them.

I have come to find that TLC, much like other channels, panders to their viewers and is just as biased as the rest of us. During a time when TV networks pride themselves on their partisanship (ala Fox News, CSNBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) we shouldn’t be surprised this would be the case for TLC. And yet, given TLC’s brand is based on “The Learning Channel,” what are they actually teaching us? That it is utterly ridiculous to get married so young in the Gypsy culture (but they do it anyway) and completely acceptable to get married and have 19 kids if you’re able to sustain your family? In the end, people watch TLC for the entertainment, not an education which leaves me with one final, unanswerable, question: is this what TLC wants from their programming?

Abigail: First of all, I’d like to thank Katie and Tori for taking the time to have this slightly more formal conversation about this particular moment in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, and I had a lot of fun writing mine.

Sister Wives

This is probably the time when I should make some great announcement as to whether TLC is the modern sideshow, but since I’m still safely ensconced in the ivory tower, I’ll use my academic prerogative to challenge the question rather than simply answering it. If we consider the sideshow a place where people could safely view the “other,” than yes, TLC is certainly such a place. From the comfort of our own couches, we can sit back and wonder at the titillating questions raised by Abby and Brittany and Sister Wives or gawk at the lifestyle choices of the Duggers and Honey Boo Boo’s family. At the same time, TLC is hardly the only place where such programming exists. A&E, Nat Geo, and even The History Channel offer similar programs (after all, there are shows on hoarding on TLC and A&E, and Nat Geo’s Taboo often includes the same people featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction or My Weird Obsession). If it’s a sideshow network, then it’s hardly alone.

Calling any program a sideshow has connotations of exploitation. Katie is far better suited to answering the question of whether sideshows are inherently exploitative in nature, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think the TLC programs are. One of the themes that came up again and again as I watched these shows and read about them was the extent to which the subjects control their own narratives. It’s also clear that these people are being compensated by TLC for appearing on the program, though it’s unclear how much money is involved in the agreements. Whatever we may think of these stars of “reality” television, I, for one, hope they are using their fame to their advantage.

She is full of wisdom.

It’s also probably worth a reminder that when we talk about popular culture, and especially about the stars of “sideshow” programming, we are really talking about ourselves. So whether you love Honey Boo Boo or just love to hate her, do yourself a favor and take a minute to think about why.

Katie: I’m so happy that after months of watching all of the TLC shows unfold before our very eyes the three of us were finally able to sit down an put together a blog series on our thoughts, questions, and ideas.  Thanks so much to Tori and Abby for participating!

As I’ve said before, this is a topic that I feel I could write about for each of the shows, probably multiple times.  Last night during the Sister Wives premiere (which Abby and I g-chatted through “Kody is such a fool!”) I saw promos for a show about the wives of Sin City and another about the Amish Mafia.  While is is really more fodder for the freakshow fire, I still do wonder how educational it is?

Since Abby and Tori summed up a lot of thoughts from this series, I can’t help but go back to the History Channel (as I always seem to do), which in the not too distant past did show documentaries about castles, Vikings, The “Dark” Ages (they weren’t that dark!!!), and of course, Hitler.  With the reality TV of Swamp People,  Mountain Men, and Hairy Bikers  it seems like they are focusing on the out-liers (and MEN) of society to draw visitors to see something weird or strange rather than actual history (ya know, from the past).  Yes, History is made every day, but aren’t there other channels for that?  What is the education value here?

The flip side to that is, what happens when educational programming actually occurs?  I will admit that How the States Got Their Shapes is educational and pretty fun, which proves that this is a possibility.   I also got a text from Abby that there is a new show called I Love the 1880s;  while this is an obvious play on the I love the... series on VH1, Abby pointed out that it isn’t about the 1880s.  I haven’t watched enough to know if this is something worth watching, educational, or just silly, but I’m not sure how well relating to teenagers is working out for the network with this theme.

Watch, as four white males survey the beautiful country that they built (seemingly) without the help of immigrants, non-whites, slaves, women, or anyone else that isn’t rich and gloriously ivory.

My last example from the History Channel of “actual educational programs” is the warning vibes that I got, just from the titles really, of Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Men Who Built America.  The former may cover all genders and races, but the title seems to appeal to the male demographics the history channel reaches, and from the short clip that I watched (which enraged me), no women were shown. On principle I pretty much refuse to watch The Men Who Built America because I think traditional history classes and the “great books” and everything else in the world has covered the stories of the rich, white men more than enough.  Is this seriously a show?

Maybe I’m just irked that the History Channel caters so much to men and leaves women and minorities out of the picture so much; maybe I’m irked that this shows a skewed history; maybe this should become another blog series…

As I digress, I do think that television in general has replaced the sideshow, the freakshow, the circus, the gladiatorial ring, and so forth. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment and, in some small way, education.  People are always curious about the strange and the different, so it makes sense that there would be television programs that address that.  Perhaps society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and maybe even silently (or vocally) judging the different people/lifestyles/choices/disabilities/whatever than they would be in a public forum.  My only remaining question is, how long will this trend continue on educational television networks?

Abby and Brittany: Conjoined Twins, TLC, and the Sideshow

TLC Promo

No discussion of the similarities and differences between TLC programming and antiquated sideshows is complete without a post about Abby and Brittany.  Abigail and Brittany Hensel were born in 1990, and they are dicephalic parapagus twins, which means they are conjoined twins.  The “interesting” part of their condition is that they each have a separate head, but their bodies are joined.  To some, without closer investigation, this almost makes it appear that they are “a two-headed girl.”

SO many questions!

When Abigail and I saw the promo for this show, we knew immediately that we would HAVE to watch it.  Even though the preview was sensationalized, as they usually are, we were intrigued and had SO MANY QUESTIONS.  The obvious: how does one control each side? how do they attend college classes? how do they drive? what parts of their bodies do they share?  And the questions you want to know, but are afraid to ask: What if one of the girls was a lesbian and the other was straight? How do intimate relationships work when there’s no privacy? How does privacy even work?   Fortunately, the show does a lot of answering of these questions through interviews with friends and the girls themselves.

TLC’s website really only provides videos and images from the show, and not much real outside information about the women.[1]  Gawker published a very informative article about the girls.[2]  One quote in particular is very relevant:

“So basically the show exists so we can oggle these girls in private? I thought TLC was supposed to be The Learning Channel. What the hell happened?
This is one of the stalest observations a person can make on the internet but, since you brought it up, TLC’s (alleged) downward spiral began with the program Jon and Kate Plus 8… From there, we moved to 19 Kids & CountingToddlers & Tiaras, and now the apex of observational learning Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The criticism that TLC isn’t doing enough to educate its viewers is a weak one, because, if you really wanted to explore the world of science, you wouldn’t rely on the folks who brought you A Wedding Story to do it. Anyway, look at all you’ve learned about conjoined twins so far today.” (full article at: http://gawker.com/5933247/)

Anatomical Answers!

The article also asks and answers:

“What happens if one of the girls doesn’t want to have sex with a man but the other one does — is that rape? Do they have to buy separate tickets if they see a 3-D movie, because they require one seat but two sets of glasses? What if Abby had failed her driving test but Brittany had passed it? What if one of them is sleepy and the other one is wide awake? Since they have two stomachs but one bladder do they have to pee all the time? What if one had graduated high school but the other had failed all her classes? What happens if they have to throw up?

Who knows? They aren’t doing press. But now you’ve uncovered the real fun of Abby & Brittany: coming up with an endless list of questions you will never ask them in real life, because it would be rude.”[3]

Conjoined Twins: Now and Then

Chang and Eng Bunker

Another set of conjoined twins that I have studied helped to inform many of these questions and provide more.  Chang and Eng Bunker were born in 1811 in Siam (get it – Siamese twins? – but seriously, please don’t call conjoined twins this [racist]).  Rather than being conjoined to the degree that Abby and Brittany are, the Bunkers were connected only by a narrow band of flesh at chest-level.

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Robert Hunter, a British merchant, “discovered” the twins and paid their family to allow the boys to be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour. The men toured the world to give demonstrations and lectures, and they were among P.T. Barnum’s “curiosities” that included Tom Thumb,  Native American dancers, giants, and albinos.  After a successful career of traveling, the men settled in North Carolina, bought a farm, and married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates.   To answer the question, YES the men did have children: 21 between them.  They died in 1874 within 3 hours of each other.[4]

Exhibit at Mutter Museum

Another interesting note is that a cast of the men’s bodies can still be seen on exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadephia.

How might things be different if the Bunkers lived now, or alternately, if the Hensels lived in the 19th Century?  Would the Bunkers have a television show on TLC, or would the Hensel twins take part in traveling sideshows?

One similarity between the two sets of twins is their fame (sought after or not), due to their “differences”.  It is unclear whether or not the Bunker twins were presented as and appreciated as actual people with feelings and lives, or if they were simply curiosities.  While many people might be attracted to TLC’s Abby and Brittany initially because of their condition, if one watches the show they will get an education about the girls, their lives, and their daily experiences.  At least TLC can be commended for that.

Exploiting people who are “different”?

Human “Freak Show” tent

In my research, I recently came across an article that is really informative to this discussion.  Annie Delin’s article, “Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” looks at disability in museums, and in side shows.[5]  Delin says, “In modern society, we no longer actively condone the showing of ‘different’ people as freaks.  …. Yet we do perpetuate the acceptability of staring and pointing whenever we allow a picture of a small person or someone with a disfiguring condition to be displayed without identity and context.”[6]

DOES modern society really shy away from exhibiting people who are “different” as freaks?  Even if no one is outright calling TLC or other network programming a freakshow or a sideshow, are we de-humanizing people through these exhibitions?

I do think that the TLC show Abby and Brittany does manage to show that the women ARE real people, with feelings, and lives, and success, rather than just displaying them for their differences.

TLC and the Sideshow

An article on dlisted.com puts out a seemingly accurate call for a new show saying, “if you’re a pair of pregnant redneck conjoined teen twins who are former child beauty queens and own a cake shop that caters only to little Amish people, call TLC, because your dream of being on The Soup every week can come true!”[7]

Too true.


[3] Ibid.

[5] Annie Delin, ““Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” in Museums, Society, and Inequality edited by Richard Sandell. New York: Routledge, 2002

[6] Ibid, 89.

Romani Travellers: Are We Ready to Care?

Guest post by Tori Warenik

Over the past ten years or so, The Learning Channel has been making marketing moves forward. Instead of promoting shows that have substance, they’ve bought into the rise of reality TV and moved toward more sensational television programming, right?

One of the shows that is the most popular is “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” which presents Romani families living in the U.S. This show, and truly, all of the shows airing on TLC (a re-brand from The Learning Channel), has developed an almost cult-like following of fans. Is this support unfounded? Should everyone just point and laugh at these seeming caricatures of American life? What follows is a reflection on the reality TV show that has aired on TLC in the past year, and by extension, the last decade. I will visit newspaper articles, forum responses, and TLC captions to present a fuller view of the perceptions of the show. Personally, I watch this show for entertainment. I sink into the microcosms of the Romani lives and am simultaneously disgusted, warm-hearted, and intrigued. What more could TLC want? And does this personal interpretation fit in with the perception of our new “American Sideshow”?

“Gypsy” fashion at its finest

“My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” first aired on TLC May 2012. The show follows multiple Romani girls, and boys, throughout its season and concentrates on getting the girls down the aisle in the most extravagant dress possible. One fan’s comment on Facebook says it all, “TLC, we do NOT dress this way. What you are doing is wrong. You are perpetuating old negative stereotypes, while simultaneously modifying our culture to create even MORE negative stereotypes” (“Gypsy Fashion and Beauty: Facebook Comment 1”). This Facebook comment is posted under “Gypsy Fashion and Beauty,” a photo gallery of twenty-nine photos of American Gypsy women and their related party and wedding regalia. Under one such photo, the caption reads, “The blinged-out bodice says it all. Barbie is the beauty ideal” (DCL). This photo displays a young woman wearing a pink dress that reads “Barbie” in rhinestone-encrusted script across the bodice (Image 24 of 29). The first of the gallery is a picture of one of the Gypsy girls pouring Champagne into a waiting flute, seemingly on her way to walk down the aisle. The photo also captures her bra strap hanging out of her bodice.

Cultural norms in the Gypsy community?

What does this say about the girl? What does this say about the culture of the Romani? What does this say about the viewing audience and our ever-present need to rubberneck, to see the disaster, shake our heads and thank god we weren’t involved? Something else to keep in mind is the fact that for all of these women, they think it is okay to dress in a sexually appealing way. They dress in this way to attract those of the opposite sex while also upholding the belief ‘they can’t touch me,’ which is another signal to the audience, that we can look but not touch. The girls TLC portrays represent a direct challenge to the ever-present rape culture endemic in our American/Western society because girls who dress in the manner described above, with tight-fitting bodices, low-cut tops and shorter skirts, are “asking for it.”1

Here’s the thing. I like “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”2 because I can sit and gawk at the young women and men and be astounded that there are certain offshoots of our own culture(s) that welcome this behavior. Through all of the episodes there are certain themes and scenes that carry through. For instance, in every episode, there is the meeting of the bride, her groom and the bridal party. Romani grooms, or how TLC presents their show(s), are not involved in the big day and they can choose what color they want to wear. If they are amenable, they’ll change to match their future bride. It seems that most times they do appease their bride if only because they are bemused by her investment in the big day (sound familiar?). The young brides (usually 16-19) spend their time finding a venue that will be willing to host a Romani wedding, going to one of the only dressmakers willing to make a dress for the Romani people, partying in the nights leading up to the big day (though women can’t drink heavily), fighting with friends/family/family-in-law, and actually walking down the aisle.

TLC’s image

TLC has an entire site dedicated to their American Gypsies and through the site there is a article about the “5 Urban Legends about Gypsies” including:

  1.  Gypsies Horde Their Wealth
  2. Gypsies are Lawless Thieves
  3. All Gypsies are Nomadic
  4. One Gypsy is the Same as the Next
  5. Gypsies are Originally from Egypt (Jessika Toothman).

But what about the legends we are creating as a society in watching the Romani’s? Should we also add:

  • 6. All Gypsies are Uncouth
  • 7. All Gypsies Dress Scantily Clad
  • 8. All Gypsy Women Have No Rights in Their Marriages
  • 9. Gypsy Men Bring in the Money and Do What They Want
  • 10. All Gypsy Women Want to be Cinderella/Barbie

One commentator, a Roma herself, quipped through a Facebook comment, “Urban Legend 6: TLC is telling the truth about Romani” (“5 Urban Legends About Gypsies”). Most of the press “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” receives is negative. Even the captions TLC’s own place under pictures, while trying to be positive, reeks of cynicism and money earned off of the ridiculous nature of the Romani’s they’ve chosen to highlight. What that saying, ‘no press is bad press’?

What interests me is the way in which TLC presents the Romani of the United States. The Romani are presented as fiercely loyal to their families and fun loving. The girls dress to show off their assets while still appearing demure to the men, in that they say, ‘we have fun but there’s no grinding. Romani girls don’t do that,’ and the men get lessons from a young age about their place over the women in their fringe society.

Though there have been no studies done to see the impact “My Big Fat American Greek Wedding” and other shows have on the psyche of their viewers, I would be interested to see how young boys and girls, outside of the Romani’s (this specific group of them who are shown to a viewing audience, anyway) view the interactions between men and women. Women are expected to not drink, clean the house, cook the food and abide unfailingly to their husband. As a woman and a feminist, this ‘understanding’ goes against what I believe in. But then, what do I matter? I still tune in to watch the show and, admittedly, get wrapped up in the dress or the fight between families, and not the overtones of the larger problems.

In the end, do we actually care about the Romani travellers and their culture, or are we just watching to see a train wreck? From the many forum commenters, I found that TLC isn’t even trying to represent a true view of what the Romani’s are like anyway, so even if we did care about their culture, we would be getting incorrect information.

Thanks for the education, TLC.

Tori Warenik is a second-year MA student in English at Middle Tennessee State University. While she’s busy ignoring the football team she enjoys reading, lamenting the loss of “Firefly,” coming up with new words for existent definitions, and watching TLC. Her research interests lay in Popular Culture, Children’s Lit, and Early American Lit. You can reach her at vlw2s@mtmail.mtsu.edu

_______________________________

1 Thanks go to Abigail G. for her advice.

2 Originally aired in the UK, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” ’s rights were sold to the US’s TLC for airing in 2011. As a result TLC produced their own “American” Gypsy wedding show.

Facebook in the classroom: How can we effectively use social media to teach?

I’ve talked about facebook in the classroom before, as a way to provide funny snipets of history from historical figures.  I wanted to try to find a way to integrate the social media that students (and myself!) use on an almost every day basis into the classroom as a teaching/learning tool.

As an optional extra credit homework assignment (full assignment and rubric available here) I challenged students to think creatively as an historical figure.  Their assignment was:

1. Chose a historical figure that we have studied or a person from one of the civilizations we have covered in this class.

not an accurate representation of me

2. Create a profile page for this character.

3. The next page has a checklist of all the information that must be included.  Use this sheet to complete your research before you begin constructing the page and finding pictures. Make sure you check off each item as you do it to get full credit!

4. This page does not literally have to be an online account.  You can produce a mock-up through Word, Photoshop, Powerpoint, or with magic markers or colored pencils depending on your level of creativity.

5. This assignment does require research.  You may use your textbook or other academic books.  You may go online to find information, but please remember that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A VALID SOURCE.  NEITHER ARE NON-ACADEMIC WEBPAGES.  If you are unclear on what an “academic webpage” is email me.  Use websites with .edu or.gov for valid information.

6. You must, as always, properly cite your sources and include a works cited page.  I prefer footnotes for this assignment since it needs to be aesthetically pleasing.  Since this assignment requires more research I expect your citations to be correct.  If you have questions, email me or visit the writing center.

7. To get full credit you must have information for every category listed below.  This may require you to be creative but also be historically accurate.

8. Extra extra credit (1 point each):

  • Prepare a presentation for the class on your historical figure, your page, and your process of creating this page for an extra point.
  • Create an actual facebook page published using the information you have compiled here.
Students then had to fill in the worksheet with the following information:

Since this was an optional homework assignment for extra credit it did involve a lot more work and research than previous projects.  I wasn’t sure how students would react, or how many would take the time  and effort to fully develop the assignment.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have as many students participate in this as I would have liked!  In the future I hope to make this a required homework assignment instead of extra credit.

One creative idea was to do a page for Cleopatra using the Shakespearean play for the wall facts and conversations among the Pharaoh and her lovers.

I also had another Cleopatra, Achilles, and Jesus. Surprisingly, they all love watching Ancient Aliens!  Clever, students. Very clever.

Achilles’ page was great.  He has some pretty awesome lines; his last status update was, “taking a dip in the Styx River!”  This was after he met with Homer to give him some info on the Illiad and complained that Lycomedes made him dress like a girl.  His interests include working out, sailing, and traveling, while his favorite movies are 300 and Antigone.  Also, for all you Achilles stalkers, he lives at 1345 Hellenistic Drive, Athens, Greece.

My second Cleopatra got very creative, as well.  Her last status was, “…will not let Rome control me!  My Antony is dead and I can not live without him!” dated 30 B.C.E.   Her relationship is “It’s complicated” with Julius Caesar.  Her statuses also complain about having to marry her brother Ptolemy XIII, but she is quite happy to take the throne and rule Egypt.

She also talks about running off to learn Egyptian language and culture to try to gain respect of Egyptians.  Her favorite music includes the sistrum and Walk Like an Egyptian, and she enjoys watching the Style network.  And for any Cleopatra stalkers, you can email her at isislover@ptolemy.com   Her political view is divine rule, and she included several pictures of herself on her facebook page.  She included photos from Egyptian papyrus, Renaissance paintings, 1920s film, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Kim Kardashian as Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra, and also a Greek bust and a coin that may show the “real” Cleopatra.   Another album was also posted of herself and her Ptolemy family members.

My students used (for the most part) valid educational websites or books for this research project.  It seems that they enjoyed themselves and the opportunity to be creative in a history class, which may not always be the case.

It also seems that the students learned quite a bit from this project.  Not only did students learn a lot about a specific person from history (or mythology), but they also learned a lot about creative thinking, the historical context and the world of that person, and how to do proper research and citations.

Have any of you used Facebook in the classroom, or other social media?  How can it be used effectively?  I encourage you to try this with your students either as an extra credit assignment or as an alternative homework assignment.  I believe in my future classes it will be a very beneficial learning tool.

What can you learn from watching History’s “Ancient Aliens”?

I often wondered about this very question while watching this show (before I gave up watching because it almost gave me a stroke to watch it).  I decided to assign my students in World Civilizations 1 a homework assignment revolving around this very question.

The assignment was basically this:

Watch an episode of Ancient Aliens either on the History Channel or online. ***Be sure to watch an episode that is about ANCIENT aliens (despite their name, they have had shows on about the American Founding Fathers and the Third Reich). I would prefer you watch something from Season 1

1. Choose three claims or ideas that are presented in the show.

2. Using critical thinking and deductive reasoning, and some research if needed, come up with an explanation for these claims using historical sources and what you have learned in class or from the book about ancient civilizations.  CITE YOUR SOURCES!

3. What things did we talk about in class that are also discussed in this show?

4. Do you think this show fairly represents history?

5. Why do you think the history channel would show this?

6. Is this a show about history?

7. Who are the “experts” that present the evidence, and what are their backgrounds?

8. What are alternate explanations to theories presented in this show?

9. What is your opinion of this show? (Honesty is fine, as always!)

I hoped that this would help spark some ideas about questioning sources, thinking both critically and historically, and questioning bias and motives that are always present in historians and all people.

I was pleased to get plenty of well thought out and reasoned papers!

Students brought up ideas such as:

–          Maybe the “radioactive bones” at Mohenjo-Daro were exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time.

–          Even if there are aliens, why do we give them credit for everything?

–          We can’t assume aliens exist from something like a cave drawing that is similar to another one on the other side of the world.

–          Aliens didn’t build massive structures for us – today we are too lazy to imagine something like that being possible.  Instead the ingenuity of ancient man isn’t given enough credit.

–          The show is just an opinionated crazy idea that the History Channel shows to make money and get more viewers.

–          Just because a god or spirit is shown in a different way than we think they may have looked doesn’t mean it was an alien – that’s just how followers depicted them

–          More time is spent on the ancient astronaut theorists’ ideas than those with historical research backgrounds – this shows an obvious bias.

–          People looking for alien evidence are not objective and are just trying to find the most simple explanation without using their brains.

–          Why is it so hard for us to give ancient ancestors credit for what they accomplished? This insults those ancient people and also people today.

Today we had a follow-up discussion about the assignment, and we talked about what they got out of the assignment and I also shared with them what I hoped they learned.

We talked about art and artistic representations of people.  Several students wrote about the artistic and physical representations of Akhenaten and Tutankamun.  Ancient Aliens claims that the reasoning behind this is that they were aliens.  Obviously.  We argued

Alien or artistic representation?

instead that oftentimes art is just that – a person’s own visualization of what they think.  A great modern example is Francis Bacon’s representation shown here.  Might someone in the future think that there was a person who looked like that?  Will they immediately come to the conclusion of “alien?”

Additionally, we discussed the idealization in art that is sometimes used.  Almost everyone recognizes the golden mummy mask of Tutankamun, but did he really look like?  He certainly wasn’t gold, and his features are more of a uniform look used to show Egyptian Pharaohs throughout much of the New Kingdom.   In reality, his mummy shows that he had protruding teeth, a slight cleft palate, and a slightly elongated skull.

Perhaps most importantly we discussed the idea of questioning sources and biases.  Throughout Ancient Aliens many “experts” are interviewed.  The name card graphic tells their name and part of their credentials, such as author or Ph.D.  Some of my students went the extra mile to actually look up these people, their curriculum vitaes, and their personal websites (without using Wikipedia!!!).  Most pleasing to me was the student who looked up Giorgio Tsoukalos (http://legendarytimes.com/giorgio ).  This website claims that he is the world’s leading Ancient Astronaut theory expert.  Exactly what does this mean?  Wouldn’t you think that someone who makes a living talking about ANCIENT history would have at least a minimal background in history to have the proper context to discuss this?  One would think.  Tsoukalos DOES have a college degree – in Sports Management. His website also explains, “Until 2005, Tsoukalos also functioned as a professional bodybuilding promoter; for 6 consecutive years he promoted, produced and directed the IFBB San Francisco Pro Grand Prix, an annual cornerstone event in professional bodybuilding.”  Additionally, “Giorgio enjoys a good and relaxed sit-down meal with friends, weight lifting, listening to motion picture scores, classic jazz standards, classical opera, sailing, going to the beach and the movies, and hanging out at the Legendary Times Clubhouse in Southern California” and “ 2 more things: (1) Giorgio loves listening to talk radio. Both at home, the office and in his car. Please don’t ask him to turn it off. Ever. (2) Giorgio loves to sit front and center at the movie theater (5th or 6th row). Movies are meant to be seen like this, that’s why they are shown on the silver screen first. If you want to sit in the back of the movie theater, go right ahead, but you’ll both watch the movie alone cuz’ he won’t join you in the back, and you might as well just wait until the movie comes out on DVD so you can watch it on TV.”  No further comment needed.

Additionally, a student astutely pointed out that this show DOES have some historians that appear – to give historical context and explain various stories and historical happenings.  The way this show is edited almost makes it seem that those actual historians agree with the “ancient astronaut theorists.”  Whether or not they DO agree is never addressed, but tricky editing gives that appearance.

Everyone should understand: you don’t have to have a PhD to be an expert.  Conversely, having a PhD doesn’t necessarily make you an expert.   Is a person with a PhD in 19th century American Literature necessarily an expert on chemical reactions?

OBVIOUSLY aliens are the explanation.

Another great product of this assignment was that I got my students to think critically.  Rather than just saying, “I don’t know – therefore, aliens” they started to think back to lecture and things they have read in their books to come up with other explanations than just aliens.  They also did some outside research to find out what historians think about such “mysterious” things as the building pyramids or moving huge stones for monuments.

I was pleased that many of my students were highly offended by the show’s idea that ancestors were too stupid or incapable of doing great things.  My lectures and enthusiasm for ancient and classical peoples and their abilities seems to have rubbed off on them.  Rather than giving credit to outside extraterrestrials, my students gave explanations that included our ancestor’s ingenuity and ability.

An expert on Ancient Aliens

Lastly, we discussed the dangers of talking in absolutes.  Many times the “experts” say words like “obviously” or “of course” without hard evidence.  Even historians may not have the absolute facts or evidence, but many times they say “possibly” or “maybe” – not fact – in those situations.  We may not know either way, but using absolutes can lead to the wrong impression.

Several people have alerted me to the South Park episode about the History Channel.  It is available to watch online at: http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/South-Park_8958/season_15/episode_13/.  The synopsis is: “After watching a Thanksgiving special on The History Channel, the boys believe that aliens were involved in the original feast. But, questions remain… was the first Thanksgiving haunted? Is alien technology responsible for stuffing? The truth could change Thanksgiving for everyone.”  I personally can’t wait to watch it, and I’m glad the show’s creators are tackling this issue as well, on a level that many people may understand.  Have you seen this episode?  If so, what did you think?

Whether or not you believe in aliens is beside the point.  Why can’t we give ancient people credit for the things they did?

Now you, the reader.  I would love for you to try this assignment yourself!  I want to get more feedback from people about this show, sources, “experts”, etc.  Have you done a similar assignment in your classroom?  What do YOU think about the show?

Popular Culture and Public History

Getting ready to present my panelists

I recently ventured to New Orleans to present at the Popular and American Culture Associations in the South annual conference. Rebecca,  another PhD Student at MTSU, and Dr. McCormack, one of my professors who has been super influential in my studies and ideas, joined me on the panel, “Public History and Popular Culture: Use and Abuse.”  Needless to say, we had a fabulous time enjoying the sites (and food!) of NOLA, and I felt pretty good about our panel and presentations.  However, our panel, being on Saturday morning in New Orleans, was not as well-attended as I would have liked.  Therefore, I have decided to present my information to you, my online viewers.

We’ve seen social media impacting movements throughout the world and it has even helped to organize the overthrow of politically figures throughout the world.  Social media is a part of pop culture through its power to unite people and share information across the world as well as with friends.  But can these devices and the internet also teach us anything?  And how can these be adapted to use in classrooms?

My first example is from YouTube – The Historyteachers channel – Amy Burvall is a high school history teacher in Hawaii who believes very much in engaging her students in nontraditional ways.  She uses her own free time to take popular songs, such as Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack, and write new lyrics pertaining to subjects she is teaching in her classroom. She then dresses in costumes and sings the song for a camera and edits the videos using graphics and effects to make them visually appealing.  If you watch the Norman Invasion video, you will never again forget the date of the Norman Invasion. She uses these videos not as the only teaching tool in her classroom, but instead as a jumping off point for her discussions.  Students and teachers alike comment on these videos, and almost everyone seems to enjoy them.  She has 53 uploads to her YouTube channel with everything from the Beatles, to Lilly Allen, to Nancy Sinatra and Blondie.

Drunk History – is an interesting experiment in getting historians drunk and then filming them as they explain an historical event or talk about a historic person.  Whether or not these are completely staged or not is debatable, but their affect remains the same.  The original videos, produced by Derek Waters, have appeared on the Funny or Die website and they permeate Youtube and are shared fiercely on facebook and other social media sites.  The drunk historians narrates an historical event, in this case, the relationship between Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln and its impact on the country and race relations.  Famous actors, in this episode Don Cheadle and Will Ferrell, with a cameo by Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln act out the narrator’s words and mime the words as if they are their own.  The effect these historical figures played by celebrities using popular vernacular of our time is amusing, but at the same time, the stories are generally accepted as true tellings of historical events.  Someone may actually learn something about race relations or the roles that these two historical figures played in the beginnings of civil rights and the abolishment of slavery in the United States.  Other examples include Jack Black as Benjamin Franklin, John C. Reilly as Nicola Tesla (my favorite!!!), and Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton. 

Tumblr- My Daguerreotype boyfriend – this is something I came across in my time as an educational coordinator at a Civil War historic site.  The pictures are of actual people from history, who some people think are attractive.  This site not only shows the pictures but tells the medium with which the photograph was taken, the year, and sometimes a story about that person.  This may teach people something about these people, such as what people wore in that time period, the history of photography, and a plethora of other things.  However, I believe one of the most important things that this website does is personalize history.  Many people see history as a cold and or dead thing in the past with no bearing on the world today.  Looking at these photographs and pictures can help people to realize that these were people with lives and stories of their own.  And let’s face it… those are some hotties of history.

Blogs –  The National Archives have several blogs that they maintain, but one of the most interesting to me is Prologue.  This site really engages the public instead of just telling stories or listing off historical facts.

On Fridays they have facial hair Fridays – for whatever reason, facial hair, mustaches and beards are growing extremely popular with people today.  Mustache finger tattoos and fake moustache packets are popping up all over the place.  The national archives have pounced on this and now every friday they post a picture from their collections of a historical figure with interesting facial hair.  Not only do they post the picture, but they also tell about that person and his impact on American history.  The gentleman in the lower corners story is as follows, “If you’re planning to travel this Columbus Day holiday (and it was, like, 1835), you might thank this guy for building the first steam locomotive in the US: Peter Cooper—inventor, industrialist, and one-time Presidential candidate. But, most important for our purposes, Cooper was the owner of a truly remarkable beard. Impressive facial hair is an asset to any Presidential candidate, but we are sorry to report that Peter Cooper’s beard did not win him the 1876 election, when he ran for the Greenback Party. Still, at the age of 85, Cooper is the oldest person to be nominated for the Presidential office.”

Not only do we learn about the beard and the person behind it, but we also learn a few interesting historic facts as well.

On Thursdays the blog hosts a “Put a caption with this photo” contest.  They post a photo from their collection that is funny or interesting and then ask readers to come up with a clever or amusing caption.  The winner gets something from their online giftshop, and the following week the pictures’ true story is revealed.  Again this engages people, teaches them something, and they get a prize while the national archives boosts sale in their giftshop.

These two slides are pretty self-explanatory – several historical figures are popping up on facebook and on twitter.  While these are often times amusing or clever, they also do provide snipets of history and biographical information.  As discussed below, I hope to experiment with this more in my class through an extra credit opportunity.

As pop culture for the general populous

With historians these things are generally immensely popular, especially among graduate students.  Youtube videos related to historical events make the rounds among my teacher and student friends on facebook and twitter to enormous response and critique.  Historical facebook twitters and facebooks are generally maintained by those people who study the figures.

However, should I post something on my own facebook or twittwe, historical or related to popculture and history, friends who are not historians or particularly interested also often comment.  Their comments are not as varied or voluminous, but they do exist on some level.  An interesting study of the effect on the general populous would be valuable to see how these things affect people who are not in the history or education fields.

Many comments on youtube videos and articles about twitter and facebook are by people who are interested in the subject matter, are teachers, or are students doing research for a class.  However, many times the students comment on how much they enjoyed learning something new in a way that is not usually used in the general classroom.

Pop culture in the classroom – my assignments and thoughts

I currently teach a section of World Civilizations to 1500 at Middle TN State University where I have a variety of students and only 3 history majors.  While I want my students to learn to appreciate history and what it can teach us, I’m not huge into learning facts and dates, but I believe there are some that are very important.  I hope instead that my students can learn critical thinking and the questioning of sources and ideas.  When my class studied pre-Hellenistic Greek cultures I opened the class asking them if they remembered from their readings on which island the Minoans lived.  No one could answer me until they looked it back up in the book.  I then delivered a short presentation on the Minoans, the geography of Crete, the culture and stories of these people, their art, and the archaeological excavations the site has undergone.  Once I delivered the information I asked how many of them knew the band Radiohead and enjoyed their music.  A large majority of the class was familiar.  I then explained we would watch a youtube video, which received exclamations and praise.  I showed my class “I’m from Crete” by Amy Burvall on the historyteachers channel.  The song is a play on Creep by Radiohead, and the chorus repeatedly sings to the viewer, “I’m from Crete… I’m Minoan…” Interspersed throughout the song are other facts about the culture such as their discovery by Sir Arthur Evans, bull-leaping games, and dolphin fresco art.

At the end of the video I engaged my students in a discussion about this video.  The first reaction from one student was that he thought it was terrible and he couldn’t learn anything from it.  I was not going to let him get away with that explanation so I pushed him to tell me why he thought it was awful; perhaps the singing isn’t the best in the world and the graphics are done by a high school history teacher, not Michael Bay.  I then asked him, well, where are the Minoans from, and he said from Crete.  He then went on to list at least 5 or 6 other small facts about the culture that he had remembered from the video and reneged on his original statement that the video was terrible and worthless.  On my students first test I included the fill-in-the-blank question, “I’m from _____________, I’m Minoan.”  Every student who was in that class remembered Crete and got it correct.  While these facts may not be the most important thing they will learn in my class, I’m still proud that I have been able to use popular culture in the classroom successfully.

We also covered questions such as, what does this teach you? Can you learn better from something like this? What do you like and dislike about it?  These questions get the students thinking historically and questioning, but still they have fun and enjoy the learning environment more than they would reading a textbook or listening to a lecture.


So that was my presentation in a nutshell – unfortunately for you, the internet viewer, you were unable to catch my witty remarks and anecdotes, but I hope this was somewhat beneficial or representative of the content.

In other news, I’m about to assign an extra credit project to my class in which they research information needed to create a facebook profile page for a historic figure we have studied.   Hopefully soon I will have information to report on that!

St. Louis Cathedral and the French Quarter

I will leave you with this picture, of me enjoying the other side of the conference – sight-seeing in NOLA!Crawfish deliciousness

 

Another semester soon begins, after an extremely productive summer…

Getty Villa Courtyard

Indeed, I realize it as been months since I last posted, but I’ve had an incredibly productive and educational summer.  Here are the highlights that I hope to expound upon more in the future:

– I had 3 summer courses, which finished up my coursework portion for my PhD program!!  I took 2 Advanced projects and an interdisciplinary education course.

– I traveled.  A LOT. Highlights include:

Los Angeles, CA – I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu – I have a review all written up in my head, and hopefully my more structured fall schedule will allow me to write more about it.

I met a Sphinx at the Luxor

– Las Vegas, Nevada – It was Vegas!  I also took time to look at several ancient/world history related things (Luxor, Caesar’s Palace, Forum Shops) in relation to Margaret Malamud’s article about the use of history in unusual settings.  Again, I have all kinds of thoughts and pictures from this and hope to share those this fall as well.

Toronto & Niagara Falls, Ontario – Part of an advanced projects in public history and cultural geography.  I developed a walking tour of Toronto, and I assure you I put the leg-work in to that project.  I will post it here soon, and I hope that anyone reading this enjoys walking approximately 25-30 miles over two days as much as I did.

We started a band while we were there

– I worked as interim education coordinator for the best historic site with the absolute best staff and most incredible boss and coworkers for most of the summer.  I learned lots and got some great projects out of it.  I also got to meet a baby goat, Snickers.

– Perhaps most exciting (yes, even more so than LA and Vegas AND the baby goat) was passing both my written and oral PhD Qualifyinf exams this week!  I am officially a resident now.

Snicks!

– Which leads me to the next exciting thing… I’ve been preparing to teach my first very own class this fall – World Civ 1.  I’ve put a lot in to it, and I think it’s going to be fun!  Next semester I will teach Explorations in Public History for my 2nd residency semester, and I already have a million ideas to mull through for that class.

Hope this post explains my absence to some extent!  I plan to post more regularly throughout the school year as I have done in the past.  I have a ton of material to talk about from the summer, and I am positive that the residency year will provide plenty of fodder for the blogging machine as well.   Also look for plenty of portfolio and CV updates full of my summer work!

Teaching begins tomorrow…. send us all the best of wishes (and a prayer for finding a parking space)!

E-Interview with the authors of Dawn Country

I just received this email from the Gears with the answers to questions I sent about their book and writing.  I will hopefully be posting about TAM and how awesome it was soon, but for now enjoy the tweets I sent and be sure to follow TnMuseums on twitter!

1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?

The two are interconnected by their very nature. That’s why we have a bibliography in the back of the novel. We’re making the best interpretation that professional anthropologists can given current data.  Keep in mind that we are anthropologists and archaeologists.  We are presenting a paper at the Society for American Archaeology and hosting a forum session at this year’s meetings in Sacramento on this very subject.  We expect the novels we write to be subjected to peer review, and we base all of our interpretations of the events, cultures, and behaviors upon the archaeological and historical records.

Why?

Educating the public about America’s prehistoric peoples is our main goal, but we strive to entertain at the same time.   So, we are very pleased that many of our books are used in college courses ranging from archaeology, history, and literature, to philosophy courses.  They’re also kept in stock at a variety of national and state parks across the country. All Americans are the cultural inheritors of American Indian ideals of democracy, referendum and recall, one person one vote, and even the notion of confederation.  The tragedy is that despite this, less than 5% can tell you that Cahokia, Illinois, was the largest urban center in North America prior to European contact. Only a handful know that Poverty Point was the first city in what would become the United States. (It was built 3500 years ago in northern Louisiana and flourished for over two hundred years.)  As a nation we’re vastly ignorant of the origins of American democratic principles–let alone the nations, cultures, and societies that flourished here.

2. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The formation of the League of the Iroquois was our inspiration.  It fascinated us that a little-known peace movement in fifteenth century North America could shape what would later become known as “The Free World,” and change the course of world history.  Dekanawida, Hiyawento, and Jigonsaseh, the heroes of the League, established a democratic system of government that sought to maximize individual freedoms, and to minimize governmental interference in people’s lives.  They accepted as fact the equality of men and women, championed tolerance, provided for referendum and recall, assured the common good by allowing every person’s voice to be heard.  None of these principles were part of the European way of life, but no European who heard them could deny their power.  The League heavily influenced America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

While historical archaeology plays a small part–mostly through comparative processes–in understanding what happened in the 1400s, we rely more on prehistorical archaeology.  Keep in mind, “historical” refers to a period with written records.  Prehistoric time occurs before written records came into existence.  There are no written records of the Iroquois from the 1400s, so we use three techniques to frame the plot:  the prehistoric archaeological record, Iroquoian oral history, and ethnographic analogy.  All of these things tell us that the warfare in the 1400s was intense.   As we explain in our non-fiction introduction to THE DAWN COUNTRY, the archaeological record contains evidence of cannibalism and extreme brutality; mutilated bodies, crushed skulls, burned villages.  Because of that, this is a war story.  But it is also the story of three brave people’s struggle for peace.

3. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own?

Yes, that’s a wonderful book.  What Janet Spector tries to do is to incorporate native perspectives and voices into her interpretations of the past, and we try to do the same thing.  That’s why we weave native oral history into our plots.  Many archaeologists would frown upon it, because obviously oral history isn’t “fact.”  Nonetheless, we’ve discovered that oral history can be very informative in helping us to understand the archaeological record.

Keep in mind that archaeology isn’t just bits of old broken pots, chipped stones, and burned bone. Those provide a fraction of the information we can garner about long lost cultures.  The true focus of anthropology and archaeology is people: human beings just like us.  They lived, loved, fought, cried, and died.  Many, though not all, of their concerns were the same as ours:  Will my children grow and be healthy?  Can I keep a roof over my head?  Is grandma’s illness curable?  Will my husband who is out traveling make it home safely?  Can I provide for my family?  Will our enemies attack us again soon?  Will this drought end in time that we can save our corn crop?  What we are able to do in a novel is make those people, places, cultures, and environments come alive in a way that simply cannot happen in nonfiction.

Thanks for the great questions, Katie.  It’s been a pleasure.

Michael and Kathleen Gear

Media and Public History

Yesterday I saw on facebook that a kitsch-y video about Nefertiti had been posted by my friend Rachel.   I immediately fell in love with its bizarreness and the ridiculous revamping of an old pop song and had to investigate further.

What I found was the YouTube page of the historyteachers. From what I can gather, this group of history teachers has taken several popular songs, from the Beatles to Lady Gaga, and changed the lyrics to relate to a certain historical figure or historic event.  Basically, these are pretty epic.  There are almost 50 videos, and I was up until about 2am watching them.   They are ridiculous and funny and kitschy and actually quite informative.

In my Ancient Egypt course this morning, Dr. McCormack showed the class the Nefertiti video, and then I was able to lead a discussion about Public History and the Ancient people, mostly revolving around the discussions in my last post.  The class enjoyed the video (because let’s face it… Nefertiti had style), and we discussed that while the video is kinda silly with the graphic ankhs floating around, there are some good bits of information in it.   Also, good job casting Akhenaten… he looks pretty much like I would expect him to in real life.  The video scratches the surface of the historic person and her importance, with mention of Nefertiti’s elevated status as a queen who was sometimes depicted, like her husband, with a crow.  The change in religion with the Aten is also mentioned.  While the video does not talk about all the important parts of the history, it is definitely a good jumping-off point for a lecture on the subject, and one that the audience may remember easier because of the media.

What are your thoughts on some of these videos?  Yes, they are kinda silly… but don’t they have some good information??  What are some of the benefits and consequences of clips such as these?

I will admit, after watching these, the William the Conqueror/Sexyback video stuck with me… I will never forget the year of the Norman Invasion again.   You should check these out, history buff or not.  They are, at the least, mildly entertaining. My personal favorites are:

The French Revolution/Bad Romance

Constantine/Come On Eileen

Copernicus/Because

I leave you with this gem:  Cleopatra, Pharaohlicious