Reflecting on Wineburg and Core Courses, Continued

Final Thoughts, Lessons, and Musings from 2012 on Wineburg. This is an excerpt from my reflections after my first year of teachingAs I look back on this, students 5 years later still don’t question bias or question me as a source. This is particularly interesting in our current political and media climate. I’ll be interested to see where things are in another 5 years. Here is my previous post about Wineburg’s influence in my classes. 

Image result for the midwife's talePrimary sources are another resource I used in my World Civilizations class.  Wineburg included an anecdote of a teachers’ workshop that explored the classroom textbook and The Midwive’s Tale.[3]   Many students, and surprisingly their teachers, believe that the textbook tells facts and “how things were.” Bias is ignored and students and their teachers do not often think to question the textbook’s story.  The Midwive’s Tale was previously seen as trivial information, in spite of the important bits about daily life and people that can be gleaned from it.  I hope that this will continue to change as we strive to personalize the past.  One of the most important things I tried to get across to my students was that they CAN question everything: the textbook, authors, and even their instructors.

Finally, there are three other concepts from Wineburg’s book that I particularly enjoyed.  Wineburg’s explanation of context and strangeness through Marco Polo’s excerpt on unicorns/rhinoceros is a great example of people interpreting what they see and learn through their own knowledge and ideas.[4]  It is an important thing to remember both in my own personal studies and in teaching undergraduates.

Image result for mayan culture

A Mayan Plaza

Presentism, viewing the past through the lens of today, is another important concept for my students.  Trying to get students to remove themselves from the present and look back is a hard thing to do.  When we covered the Mayans and bloodletting rituals this was particularly evident.  My students were appalled and could not understand why people let mutilation and “torture” happen.  It was hard to explain to them that their worldview and religions were different, and that perhaps the people who were being sacrificed or who were mutilating themselves to give blood to their gods did so willingly.  At the same time, I tried to explain that they were people and not that different from us even though they seem so strange.  I used the analogy of wrestling or cage fighting today and even the ancient Romans and gladiators to explain the allure of seeing executions.  At the same time, there was a difference in Mayan culture because of the religious meanings behind sacrifice and bloodletting rituals.  Lastly, this chapter introduces context; this word is from the Latin “to weave together.”[5]  History and context are inextricable, and historians and teachers must connect the past into a pattern to understand what happened, why it is important, and what we can learn from it.

Image result for craap test

I now use the CRAAP test with my core courses as a way to analyze sources.

The second section of this book is called, “Challenges for the Student.”   Chapter 3 again looks at reading history and understanding the bias that is present in all writing and sources.  Wineburg suggests having the students think aloud as they read.  I have experimented with this to some extent in my own classroom with group primary source interpretation.  Next time we do a similar activity I will try to explain to my students that,  “The comprehension of text reaches beyond words and phrases to embrace intention, motive, purpose, and plan- the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action.”[6]  School texts and their expected level of trustworthiness are somewhat disturbing: students take the text at face value.  They often believe that the textbook is the source.  Students, and sometimes teachers, reason that the text is written by nameless important editors, so it must be true.

Students must be taught how to decode the text and ask such questions as what is the author really trying to say? What is the author’s purpose? Students should engage with the text, and they should not just read it.  This raises a question to myself about my own class and methods.  I require students to read the text before coming to class so that we can engage in discussion about the concepts they read about that relate to my lecture for each day.  I have built in five pop quizzes to the semester to make sure that my students are doing their homework and coming to class prepared.  The tests are made up of five multiple choice questions that cover the bigger concepts and important “facts” from the pages they were supposed to have read.  They are designed to make sure the students are doing the readings and to judge their reading comprehension.  Perhaps they are learning to list useless facts, but perhaps reading comprehension and actually looking at the text is the first step to analyzing the words they read.

Image result for interpretation tildenIn many classrooms it seems that there is no interpretation of history but rather the presentation of a chain of “facts.”  To me this immediately raised the question, “are there really any facts?”  Students also do not ask how something happened, just know that it did.  Instructors and history teachers should strive to explain the implications of each “fact.”

Also in this chapter Wineburg claims that in many classrooms knowledge is detached from experience; how can we incorporate more experiential learning into secondary education and college-level survey courses?  Many students do not come to school with a motivation to learn.  This brought to mind the concept of “edutainment” that has been discussed in museum classes and conferences I have attended in the past five years.  It is still somewhat controversial; are we entertaining or educating our students?  Does it matter as long as students are engaged and learning something?  If edutainment can happen in museums and institutions of informal learning, can it or does it already appear in classrooms? Perhaps some of the experiential learning concepts can be brought into the traditional classroom to engage students and help them learn in another way.

In my own class I have developed four homework research assignments to try to engage students at their level using entertainment.  The first assignment, which was generally well-received and successful, asked students to think of three references in popular culture to ancient, classical, or world history.  Many of their examples were things I had not even thought of, and we were able to open discussion on whether or not we can learn anything from popular culture, the motives of advertisers or writers who use popular culture, and the validity of historical content found in popular culture.  I hope that this, and the future assignments in the class, gets my students thinking about history in the sense of their everyday lives rather than as the distant and strange past that is presented in the textbook.

This book helped spark a lot of thoughts on my own study of history and how I taught the students in my World Civilizations class.  I have often wondered why exactly it is that I study history and what I want my students to learn through my class.  I do not necessarily want them to learn dates or a chain of chronological events, but rather I want them to understand the bigger concepts, critical thinking, globalization and worldview changes, how to study for a test, how to think critically, how to be a citizen in a global world, and to some degree empathy and understanding of difference in culture throughout the world.  I wish I had more time to plan and to give them more resources that are “fun.”  Next time I teach this course I want to give the students more hands-on and interactive opportunities instead of just lecture with powerpoint slides of pictures.

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?

The Duggers—Creepy Cult or Average Americans?

Guest post by Tori Warenik

The Dugger Family [1]

Here’s the thing. My title is a tad misleading. The answer to the question is more complicated than choosing descriptive adjectives to illicit an immediate, heated response (from either side). When I first started this exploration, I would have chosen the first choice without question. Since going down the rabbit hole that is the Dugger family, I can’t choose either. Because, let’s face it, with 19 kids running around (and more on the horizon, if the past is any indication) their Arkansas home, a TV crew following their every move, and their faith, the Duggers cannot be classified as an “average” American family.

As I said before, I was ready to lambast the family and smear everything they hold dear because their life sounded absolutely ludicrous to me as the product of a secular, two-child, single parent home in, admittedly liberal, south Florida. I have become the picture of the “average” American, but does that make my experience any better than anyone else’s?

When I first started watching TLC’s Duggers, they were still “17 Kids and Counting” and I was young and disgusted by the sheer physics of it all (i.e. Michelle giving birth naturally to all those little ones). Six years later I can admit I was scared of the Duggers’ faith because I didn’t understand it. And that’s really the crux of it.

Jim Bob and Michelle Dugger[2]

People either love the Duggers because they represent a strong family unit, living their lives by a book written thousands of years ago, containing the words of a man written by other men most Christians interpret and live by today or hate the Duggers because they represent everything that is most coveted (by most) in the United States today: a debt-free, loving, full family.

I mean, sure, I long to live debt-free (stupid student loans) and I hope for my own loving family in the future, but I think the hang-up for most people who watch the show or know the family because of their extraordinary circumstances (the whole 19 kids thing) is their faith. Six years ago, and even two years ago, I would have wanted to “show them the light” and turn them away from this mythical God they believe in.

Admittedly, some of the tenets Michelle lives by, and promotes, make me sick to my stomach, even now. Tracie Egan Morrisey, writing for Jezebel, a general-interest woman’s website, calls the Duggers the “Cult of Progeny,” listing the eight the eight factors used to identify a destructive cult, outlined by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Among them, Morrisey identifies “Demand for Purity” which includes the following graphic Michelle adheres to for her hairstyle[3]:

“The Seven Basic Needs of a Husband”[4]

Interestingly, I have great friends who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews and would have little problem with this graphic. As a society, we shy away from anything we ourselves don’t understand and the Duggers appear to be just another case of our inability to understand. By all accounts, the Duggers are a wonderful family who love one another and support themselves through patriarch Jim Bob’s job, and the family’s involvement in the show.

I do take some umbrage with how the children, specifically the girls, are raised. The children are home-schooled and the older children help take care of the younger ones. The older girls show complete deference to their parents, specifically Jim Bob, when it comes to future suitors with Jill (one of the eldest) saying, “Talk to my dad. He knows what we’re looking for in a guy and future spouse”[5]. The feminist in me, raised by a fiercely independent mother, rears and roars to go save these girls, close to my own young age, who are willing to date anyone their father accepts. Taking a step back, and a deep breath, I realize this notion is not unlike other utterances by women in our society, “I can’t bring a black man home,” “I can’t marry anyone outside of my faith because it’s too important to my parents,” “I can’t come out, I’ll be kicked out.” We are all forced to make decisions about our lives with our parents and community in the back of our heads guiding our way. There are those who go against the grain whose family happily accepts them but there are more stories of children being thrown out of their families for the love they choose or the choices they make that doesn’t align with their community.

President Obama on Letterman[6]

When President Barack Obama was on David Letterman one night earlier this fall, Letterman notes how grown up President Obama’s daughters look and adds, “Does it kill you?” only to have the President quip, “It worries me, but they’re surrounded by men with guns” (“The Late Show”). While it may be seen as sweet and that a father is protecting his daughters, the subtext is that anyone who tries for his daughters will be summarily handled, by men with guns. Do we have a problem with this though? Couldn’t we say this is the patriarch of the family unit of Michelle, Sasha and Malia choosing his daughters potential suitors?

Now, though I am bothered by Michelle’s comments about women and their place and Jill’s response about suitors, the family seems to be a working unit that gets along fine without what I hold dear: independence. I cannot say I would ever willingly belong to a family like this but then, the kids don’t really have a choice. I think it is a tad harsh to call the Duggers a cult, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. What makes what I think more correct than what others think? Does authority of the author even have a place in this discussion?

Years after I started watching “17 Kids and Counting,” we now have “19 Kids and Counting” and honestly, I don’t understand the backlash anymore. If you don’t agree with the family and the decisions they’ve made all power to you, but what can you do? Michelle and Jim Bob realize that people make snap judgments about them and how they raise their family and they accept the love along with the hate. Never once has the family tried to indoctrinate the viewers of their show. The Duggers simply try their hardest to live their lives by the word of God and they seem to be doing fine. I don’t live my life by God and here I am, doing fine.

Life is all about personal choice.

In my last post I talked about American Gypsy’s and their representation by TLC. Here I wanted to talk about how the public represents the Duggers because TLC actually did something right. Because they actually respect the family, their representation is unbiased and plain. While I could spend time castigating TLC for, inadvertently, showing favoritism, instead I’ll just note how uneven the response to the Duggers is. Whether the family is highlighted on “Anderson Live,” “Today,” or “TLC,” the response from viewers is divided, further proof that we are a country strengthened by our diverse beliefs.


[2] Image 2: people.com

[3] Found on this site, http://www.southheightsbaptist.com/mp3/CliffPalmer/7BasicNeeds_Husband.pdf, the list of rules for a wife is extensive and “for the WIFE ONLY.” Men are encouraged to study “The Seven Basic Needs of a Wife.”

[4] Image 3; ibid.

[5] Morrisey, Tracey Egan. “The Duggers Aren’t Just a Family, They’re a Cult.” Jezebel. 4 Sep. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

[6] Image 4: blog.zap2it.com

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

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.

Sister Wives

Guest post by Abigail Gautreau
Buzzfeed recently published a history of TLC, and the unspoken punchline was that the channel has deviated from it original mission as a home of education programming. While this is certainly true in some respects, I would argue that although the programs (and especially their commercials) have become much more sensationalized, many of the programs are still educational inasmuch as they offer a window into how people who do not fit into the standard media paradigms live. People who have seen commercials for programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Sister Wives, but have not actually watched the shows, are often surprised by the programs themselves. Although TLC uses sensationalized clips to advertise their programming, the narratives presented on the programs appear to be heavily guided by the subjects themselves. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Sister Wives, which follows the lives of Kody Brown, his four wives, and their 17 children.

Meri, Jannelle, Kody, Christine, and Robyn Brown

Sister Wives is notable for its candid discussions about the challenges of a polygamist lifestyle, which go beyond its illegality* (and which required the family to leave Utah and move to Las Vegas in Season 2). Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn all discuss the personal challenges their lifestyle creates for them, and often do so with an eye to the questions that monogamists might have. Jealousy is probably the most commonly mentioned theme, and they all frequently make bashful comments about their more intimate relationships, constantly reiterating that they have four separate marriages. These conversations make the program more interesting and set it apart from shows that focus on the collapse of relationships; these five adults talk at length about the challenges they face in nurturing their relationships with each other. The overall picture they present is of an ordinary family working to cope with a unique situation, which is somewhat refreshing. At the same time, it’s also clear that one of the goals of the program is to legitimize this lifestyle choice to a broader national audience. This is not unusual in TLC’s programming lineup: 19 Kids and Counting and Jon & Kate Plus 8 follow similar guidelines. The superficiality of the narrative, however, became evident in the third season finale.

Interview after Season Finale

Breaking with its normal formatting, the final episode of Season Three featured Kody and his wives being interviewed by Natalie Morales. The show included several remarkably candid moments that broke with the image the five had crafted over three seasons. Kody openly revealed that he was initially repulsed by third wife Christine’s body (a moment made more dramatic by the fact that the three older wives had been struggling with their health and fitness in the third season). Meri talked about feeling devalued because of her fertility challenges (she only has one child). The tension between the wives was explored in much greater depth than usual, due in part to the recent publication of the Browns’ book, Becoming Sister Wives. While this episode was remarkable in many ways, its true significance lies in the fact that it revealed how performed the previous three seasons were, and the extent to which TLC allowed the subjects to control how they were represented to the audience and pursue their own agenda.

(Most of) The Brown Family

While this contributes to the intimate and non-voyeuristic feel of TLC’s reality programming, it raises important questions about TLC’s role as a platform for groups with political or social agendas. The Brown family’s goal is clearly to legitimize their lifestyle, particularly given that much of the publicity related to polygamy comes from the activities of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an organization usually labeled a cult that was/is headed by Warren Jeffs. The Browns are careful to separate themselves both from the Mormon Church (which no longer recognizes polygamy) and the FLDS, a delineation made clear by the fact that the Brown wives cut their hair and wear modern clothing. This middle ground, however, is clearly a hard place to find purchase, given the Browns’ struggles with their own relationships. Their choice to position themselves as representatives of a lifestyle makes their own foibles and passing comments fodder for critics as well as their considerable fan base. Interestingly, the Browns rarely discuss their religious beliefs in depth (they are members of the Apostolic United Brethren church, which encourages transparency along with plural marriage), choosing to allow their example to make their case for them. Despite the criticism the Browns have received, they have clearly done a great deal to normalize perceptions of polygamy (or plural marriage, as it is generally called). The program has also appeared at a somewhat interesting moment for the Mormon Church, which has gone to great lengths to distance itself from polygamy while the first Mormon presidential nominee takes the national stage.

Although the Browns have gone to great lengths to set the tone of the discussion about their lifestyle, they do not do so in a vacuum. Sister Wives appears alongside fictional programs like Big Love and news stories like the successful prosecution of Warren Jeffs. While these events may derail the discussion the Browns want to have about their lifestyle, they no doubt also help them attract a much wider audience. Whether they come to gawk or admire, these viewers are unwittingly participating in an advertising campaign for the decriminalization of plural marriage.
*Kody is only legally married to his first wife, Meri (the rest are “spiritual unions”), but the fact that they all shared a single residence divided into three apartments meant that they violated common law marriage statutes.

 

Abigail Gautreau is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on how marginalized people use history and heritage to stake out political identity. Her website is http://thepastpresently.wordpress.com.

TLC Programming as the Modern Sideshow: A Series with Special Guests!

Does TLC = Sideshow?

In the coming weeks this blog will be host to a new series about popular culture, in particular the programming on TLC, and how it portrays “abnormal” people, families, and cultural groups.

As I’ve pointed out before, the History Channel seems to cater more to aliens, UFOs, truckers, and loggers than to actual historical programming.  Similarly, The Learning Channel has moved away from historical, scientific, or cultural documentaries to reality programming that focuses on people that are “different”.

Abby and Tori

My guests for these posts are Abigail Gautreau and Tori Warenik.  Abby is a PhD student in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, and Tori is working on her Master of Arts degree in English, also at MTSU.

A BuzzFeed post has recently been popular on social media tracking the “Historyof TLC”.  The change from educational programming to more popular topics began in the 1990s with shows like Trading Spaces and A Wedding Story and A Baby Story.  This has only shifted further from typical educational programming in the recent years.

Abby and Brittany Hensel

A great article about the shift from educational programs to reality television was written by Robert P. Laurence in 2005 titled, “Channels built on arts, education and high culture now go low with cheesy programming.” This article tackles reasons why this shift has occurred, and it includes the quote, “High culture has never had much of a place on American television,” by Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s vice president for research and co-author (with Earle Marsh) of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”  Luckily, the article also points out that PBS will likely never go the reality TV route that other educational channels have gone.

Some of my fellow graduate students and I have long gathered in the evenings to watch such programs as Sister Wives, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Abby and Brittany, and Toddlers and Tiaras.  While watching these, as academics are prone to do, we started discussing the social aspects of these shows and the fact that they seem to be highlighting the strange to gain more viewers, much like the carnivals and sideshows of the past.

Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

Over the next several weeks, we will post our thoughts on Kody Brown and his four lovely wives and several children on Sister Wives, the insanely large Duggar Family on 19 Kids and Countingthe cultural group that is often segregated and discriminated against on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the interesting depiction of a “different” socio-economic family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Abby and Brittany Hensel’s intriguing life as conjoined twins (so many questions!), and the lives of NICU Pediatrician Jen Arnold and her husband Bill Klein on The Little Couple  At some point in the future we also hope to tackle My Strange Obsession and Stanley Thornton, Jr. who lives his life as an Adult Baby on various shows across networks.

Meeting with Lori Stratton, Educator and Consultant

Inside Grand Central

On Wednesday May 9th, I went to Grand Central Station to meet with Lori Stratton, a Special Education Museum Educator at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and the Program Coordinator and Consultant for her company, It Takes a Village in New York City.   She has a degree in Recreational Therapy which provides a fresh look on museum program development.  It was a delight to meet Lori, who I instantly felt knew what I was thinking and what I wanted to do with my dissertation.  Lori has worked in museum education at several places around New York City, including the Transit museum (more about them in the next post!), and she has focused one bringing rec therapy and history to students with special needs.  Perfect!

After I spent a few minutes awkwardly looking around the station for Lori with her Intrepid staff jacket, we met and went to get coffee at a nice little café.

The part of the conversation that sticks out most clearly in my mind from our meeting is the discussion about HISTORY museums and historic sites and how they can reach out to students with special needs.  So many of the places working with this population are art museums, which is fabulous!  But why shouldn’t history museums embrace this population more widely?  At historic sites and in museums students can actually be immersed in the history, which is a great way for them to learn and get something out of the experience.  Anyone can look at art or historic objects online, but actually seeing it in person gives people an indescribable connection to that piece and its history.  Objects and artifacts are extremely powerful for telling stories; you can have someone as simple as an everyday serving platter and from that you can tell stories about that time period, the people who used it, how it was made, who made it and where, how it got where it was when it was found, and countless more stories that help people build a connection with the past.

Another thing that sticks out is the use of popular culture.  I’ve talked about using popular culture with college age students before, and the same theory goes with any student: find something to relate with them about whether it’s Captain America or the movie 300.  Popular culture can be key with any historic site; find your connections with super heroes, songs, video games, tv shows, etc.  History museums and exhibits can also relate history to everyday life, which is a good tip for all historic sites and museums at any time, really.  Drawing connections is one of the best ways that students learn in informal settings.

In her time at the Transit Museum, Lori helped to develop and present several programs for children with special needs, especially those with autism.  I’ll talk more about these in next week’s recap of my trip to that museum, but here are some highlights from our conversation.  The museum is in a now-unused subway station that has examples of train cars from the early 20th century to today.  This is a great environment for students to see the past and today right next to each other, and they have the opportunity to go inside the trains and see first-hand the differences and similarities.

Transit Museum train exhibits

The Transit Museum had several techniques for learning that I found fascinating.  One is that students are given paper to draw their observations; they could draw the different types of lighting fixtures, advertisements, seats, etc.  This especially gives students who are non-verbal a chance to communicate or ask questions.  Another activity used photographs of the trains and a timeline.  The educator would use the photos to match the old and the new and put them into order.  This also gives students who are non-verbal the chance to express themselves and what they learned on the tour as a sort of evaluative process.  Educators also gave teachers a checklist to evaluate what/of students were learning.

When working with students with special needs at any museum there are several things to keep in mind.  If your museum has 8 exhibits, for example, pick 3 or 4 t talk about and adapt the program that day to the student attention spans and interest.  Don’t necessarily go over specifics; keep the students moving and pay attention to their needs.  Lori explained that in her experience a 30 minute program is generally too long for a special needs audience  to be in one place in a museum unless engaged in an activity.  Depending on the age and diagnosis, you can still do an hour tour (longer is pushing it though) but the important thing to remember is to keep them moving.   There can be many distractions and struggles during these programs, so remember to stay flexible and be tuned into your audience.  Try to find a space in the museum that is quiet with few visual distractions to decrease external stimulus when speaking with the group.  Make sure this is also a safe environment for students to feel comfortable in to better their learning experience.  This is something that I will talk about much more extensively in my next blog about the Transit Museum and their life-skill programs.

Unless an educator invites you to!

As in any museum education program, having a tactile component is very important.  Having objects, whether they are authentic or reproductions, is important to the learning process.  Holding, seeing, touching these objects helps to build connections to the past and the curriculum at hand.

Lastly, we spoke about the importance of training all staff members at a museum, not just the educators.  It is important for security and janitorial staff to know the basics, such as not to touch a child with autism (or any child, really).  All staff should also know not to diagnose the children themselves (because it doesn’t matter), and not to judge the students in any way.   It is also important for all staff to know general basics of teaching children with special needs, especially to keep calm and flexible.

Some basic tips I wrote down from our meeting:

  • Remember that the students might be older but at a younger learning level.  Don’t take a first grade program to use with 7th grade students.
  • Special Education classrooms can have various levels of learners (like any classroom).  Remember to scale down the information intellectually but keep things socially the same as you would with any group of that age
  • Compare and Contrast with concrete facts is helpful (is this artifact from the past or present, why?)
  • You can NOT be rigid; educators in this field must be flexible and willing to adapt to the students’ needs
  • Keep the students moving and don’t talk too much!
  • Ask teachers before the field trip what their goals are for their students on this trip; what can the museum do for them?
  • Experiential learning is particularly important in this type of educational setting (for any student).
  • Engage the students in the past, and slip in curriculum

I enjoyed my meeting with Lori immensely, and I look forward to sharing more research ideas and information with her; she is a font of information and experience!  If you are in the Greater NYC area and are interested in learning more about consulting services that she offers, be sure to check out her website, It Takes a Village New York!

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?