On another blog I maintain, I make a point of providing examples of the kind of work that I would like to see my students do. In part, this is because I have been taught that a part of good teaching is the modeling of the kinds of behaviors desired. My own experience in the classroom, both as student and as teacher, confirm this. Some comments I have had from students also serve to confirm it; a number have reported to me that looking at the examples I provide has helped them frame their own arguments--and I even believe them, not just from vanity (although I am egotistical enough that it bears in), but also from the fact that they bring annotated copies of the examples with them to class, as well as in the content of their writing.
I have noticed that, even so, the students often do not allow themselves to indulge in the kinds of topics that I do. This term, in the four sample papers I have written for my students' use, I have treated a sitcom character and a comic book character, poked fun at myself, pointed up the flaws in Arthurian knighthood, and explicated the citizenship of characters from two major science fiction continua. Only one--the Arthurian piece--treats "legitimate" work; the rest are pop culture references or geek/nerd subculture references. (I am sure that some of my more ethnographically-minded friends will have some dispute with my choice of terms here; I welcome the discussion. I also know that popular culture has a variety of scholarly resources applied to it. But I also know that there remains something of a disdain for much that lies outside of the traditional canon, even so.) Certainly, I am not a "regular" topic "worthy" of scholarship (yet; I did note that I am vain, yes?). And examples from earlier terms have been very much in line with this term's thrust; I have ranged from laundry to role-playing games (which got me into graduate school) to progressive rock to Donaldson, and there is not necessarily much scholarship aimed at any one of them. The question of why I would turn to such things as I do to put together examples becomes an easy one to ask, then (as though it is not always something easy to ask--and which well ought to be asked).
The question has many answers. One of them, and one wholly pedagogically legitimate, is that in treating mundane matters rather than the rarefied, sacralized "great" works, I am bringing the tasks I assign my students more nearly into that cognitive space which Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development" (discussed, among others, here and here). By demonstrating that the methods I teach are applicable to the mentally nearby, I try to show the students that the tasks required of them are much more accessible than is often presented.
Another reason, one grounded in my research agenda (or one, as I have several), is related: bringing scholarship to the masses. It is one of the more sustained pet projects of mine, one I discuss in my actual personal life (when I am around people who are not already involved in study, which is not terribly often, even in the dojo--we have a high number of teachers and professors on the mats). I also have gone on about it at some length in this blog (see this entry, this entry, this entry, and this entry). I find that one way to do so is to apply scholarly methods to commonly accessible materials, and to explain how the application happens.
Yet another reason, which seems to be still related, as well as to tie back to an above aside, is that what is "worthy" is not nearly so inclusive as it ought to be. I know of at least one journal that made a go of looking at the mundane, so I am far from the only one who thinks that there should be more attention paid to the quotidian. Indeed, one of the sources I reference in my dissertation, Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch's "Robert Southey," remarks that "it is often precisely the minor, noncanonical writers who initiate, and typify, what the major figures perfect and thereby transcend"; the unmarked depicts what is going on in the broader social consciousness, and so it ought to be studied by those who want to know what is in the hearts and minds of the people--something in which all of us have interest.
Fundamentally, though, my reason for my topic selections is the one that I hope (often in vain) that my students will deploy: I write about what I write about because I like it. I have written before about my agreement with Mark Edmundson, that those of us who enter into the scholarly life often do so because of our joy in what we study, and that it behooves us to show that joy in our work. When I remark that it was the role-playing game which got me into graduate school, I am not joking; my undergraduate thesis centered on Legend of the Five Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, largely because I enjoyed them and I wanted to find a way to bring what I loved to do and what I had to do together. I wrote my first scholarly publication and my master's thesis on Robin Hobb because I love to read what she writes. My dissertation is on Arthurian legend because I have long enjoyed reading it. And I like to read comic books and to watch sitcoms; I certainly am fond of myself (I did mention that I am vain, yes?). Is it any surprise, given how much of my other work is on stuff that I like, and for no reason other than that I like it, that I would turn to what I like to set up examples for my students?
~Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. "Robert Southey." Dictionary of Literary Biography 93. Detroit: Gale, 1990. N. pag. Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 March 2011.