Teaching Black Mirror and Popular Culture

by Bethany Holmstrom

Associate Professor of English,

LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 80] A large part of my job as a composition professor is to teach my students the language of academia: how to read, write, and think in academic-ese. And, in turn, I want students to recognize that they can have a command of this language and a part in larger conversations and debates. I’ve begun devoting the first third of my composition classes to setting up an academic conversation, having students summarize the exchange (in order to work on summary and citation skills generally), and then asking them to analyze a popular culture media item in light of this conversation.

Black Mirror and its anthologized format works particularly well for my ends; the episodes are like thematically-linked texts, but each episode has its own argument or suggestion. There is no need to understand the “worlds” of one episode to unlock another. I’ve taught Black Mirror both in a liberal arts capstone class focused on Artificial Intelligence and SF films/shows and in college composition: for the purposes of this note I’ll focus solely on my composition class, as the overall model of the course will, I believe, be of greater potential interest to instructors.

We began the class by watching Sherry Turkle’s “Connected, but Alone?” TED Talk, and reading her “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” piece in the New York Times. We also read some critiques of her work, Claude Fischer’s “Smartphones Aren’t Anti-Social” and Jenny Davis’s “Our Devices Are Not Turning Us Into Unfeeling Robots.” We analyzed the rhetorical strategies used by the authors and how they all constructed their arguments. Students used informal writing prompts to summarize, cite, and analyze this particular conversation and began to form their own stance and thoughts on the exchange as well. This informed our reading of Bruce Feiler’s “For the Love of Being Liked,” and our viewing of “Nosedive.” Students could draw on any of these texts to make an argument as to whether or not technology and social media harm our relationships, using the “yes/no/okay, but” strategies for agreeing, disagreeing, or agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously outlined in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.

And then, I’m not going to lie: things got a little rough. Our [page 81] next unit was on Minority Report and “White Bear,” as part of a discussion around free will, determinism, and models of criminal justice. We waded a little too deeply into philosophical waters, reading Michael Heuer’s “Free Will and Determinism in the World of Minority Report,” along with Greene and Cohen’s “For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything.” This is not to say my students couldn’t handle it; they came up with some excellent insights and connections, but we needed much more than a couple of weeks to grapple with these ideas and texts in conversation with one another. Next time, I would use “Be Right Back” (one of my favorite episodes) accompanied by texts and media where futurists discuss life extension (such as, for example, excerpts from the documentary on Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man), and responses to these problematic visions of the future in turn, and would, of course, include Chris Campanioni’s fantastic article from this issue that touches upon “Be Right Back” as well.

I have an ongoing commitment to using student writing as class materials, and the final portion of the semester is devoted to this exchange. Here, students chose any episode of Black Mirror they wished, and then assigned a reading to go along with the episode. In doing so, students had to identify a “so what?” of the episode to discuss why it was important, or worth engaging with, and link it with current developments and discussions around a particular theme or topic, as well as justifying their pairing choice.

We then had a day where students “pitched” their episode and pairing; it was an informal, quick-and-dirty pitch (I told them they have no more than a minute or so). I reminded other students in the class to note episodes of interest, and they circulated and selected the episode/reading/student paper they wished to engage with; it did not need to be a one-on-one exchange, and students were asked to identify themes that they had a genuine interest in. Students then had to watch, read, and discuss their colleagues’ work during a structured but informal peer group session. Next, students wrote a reflective paper, analyzing their colleague’s argument and article selection, and making connections to their own work if applicable. Just as with the other articles we had encountered earlier in the course, students were expected to quote and cite their colleagues’ papers. In their final course reflection, students consistently remarked that this development and exchange of ideas was their favorite part of the class. [page 82]

This model for teaching and analyzing media is fairly portable. I first developed it when teaching Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, and have used it to teach Jordan Peele’s Get Out as well. In these iterations, for their final project and exchange, students are asked to choose any popular culture item: any media genre, any language, from any period, but the general methods (developing research idea, finding readings to pair, stating a “so what?” that makes a case for why we should engage with this piece, pitching and exchanging and responding to each other’s work) remain the same. In some ways, this teaching note is less about content, and more about methodology. Using popular culture as a way “into” college composition has been deeply productive in my classroom, and Black Mirror provides one vehicle (of many) to begin introducing students to academic writing and conversations.

MLA citation (print):

Holmstrom, Bethany. "Teaching Black Mirror and Popular Culture." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 80-82.