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"Open the Box" Course Analyzes All Aspects of Television

March 22, 2002

Northfield, Minn.— It can be easy for college students to get sucked into "The Simpsons" when they should be studying, and wind up watching mindless hours of TV. In "Open the Box," a media studies class at Carleton College, students examine how television works to hold the attention of so many people, for so much of the time."[Open the Box] helps us pick apart a medium that we’re used to observing passively," said sophomore Robin Weber, "and we discover what television is really trying to accomplish." Carol Donelan, assistant professor of media studies, gives an example: "In our close analysis of a "Friends" episode, we discovered how the central enigma of the series—‘will the friends remain friends’ — is inscribed in a specific program," she said. "The path toward resolution, the dynamic of cause and effect, played out scene by scene, was rather fascinating. There wasn’t one line of dialogue, one character trait, one action, that didn’t contribute to the advancement of the narrative…it’s put together with the clarity and precision of a Swiss watch.""I think it’s important that we come to terms with [television]…as with anything our culture offers us, we can’t just let it into our lives and living rooms indiscriminately," said senior media studies major Jess Fahringer.Part of the reason that students are so taken with "Open the Box" and media studies in particular is that both cross traditional academic boundaries. "I think what drew me to media studies in the first place was that it’s so interdisciplinary," said Fahringer. "It involves history, studio art, English, sociology, economics, you name it." Mike Riley ‘02 said, "[This course] analyzes the aesthetic and ideological values advanced by [television, which is an] often overlooked part of our lives," he said.In addition to individual television programs, Donelan’s course also involves close analysis of advertising and the news media, and especially the stylistic connection between the two. "The distinction between the news package and the commercial is somewhat blurry," said Donelan. "[Both forms are] addressing us directly, presenting arguments about the world. Essentially, the commercial is ‘news’ about products."Donelan designed "Open the Box" with the expectation that students form their own conclusions about television and its meaning. "We ask not ‘is "Ally McBeal" great art?’ but rather "what meanings are in "Ally McBeal," and how are those meanings produced?" she said. "In answering these questions, we are brought closer to understanding television as a meaning-producing medium. We are better prepared to stay afloat in the sea of contradictory meanings in which we frequently find ourselves."

Written by Brian Kichler '04