OGDEN — Scott Rogers asked his Weber State English students to identify the symbolism of River Tam picking up the twig.
Did the intuitive, semidelusional child prodigy know the twig was really a gun? Did it change into a gun only when the others on her Firefly-class spaceship reacted with panic?
Or did River even touch the changing object? Perhaps she only imagined the scene as a metaphor for her place in the world, or in her own troubled psyche.
Rogers, a veteran professor of literature, then asked his class of 30 or so students to check their source material: A projected three-second clip of the 2002-03 Joss Whedon series “Firefly,” set 500 years in the future. The course also covers the 2005 series-based film, “Serenity.”
Welcome to Weber State University’s “Television as Literature” course, now in its third incarnation, this time focused on Whedon’s beloved space western.
“This is not the first time I’ve taught a course on television as literature,” Rogers said. “During the last one, I took a poll at the end of class and asked them what they would like to study. The overwhelming response was they wanted ‘Firefly,’ a beloved series that Fox eventually cancelled. There’s a large community of people deeply devoted to the show. The kids in this class were all 9 years old or so when they saw it, and they watched it over and over.”
Summer Glau played River. Nathan Fillion played Capt. Mal Reynolds, a veteran on the losing side of a recent galactic war, now working to survive while keeping a low profile. The crew and passengers also included a former Alliance medical officer, a pilot, a former combat soldier and a prostitute, among others.
“It’s a post-civil war space western that does interesting things in terms of gender,” Rogers said. “In this world without a moral component to it, a prostitute is a highly valued member of the crew.
There are overt and implicit discussions of class. These are people trying to make their way in a world that rejected their philosophy, which puts the viewers in the odd position like siding with the South in the Civil War.
“And those are only a few reasons academics are so interested in the series.”
But … it’s a TV show.
“The English department is in the business of talking about narratives, and this new form has opened up,” Rogers said.
“It’s interesting, and it’s worthy of our analysis. These are texts worth looking at, as we say in the humanities.”
Rogers makes it clear that very few television series are worthy of academic scrutiny.
“Much of television is pretty bad,” he said.
“But we could say the same about novels when they first emerged. Lots of bad novels are not worthy of anyone’s attention. But we are in the middle of an absolute renaissance of television, with ‘The Wire,’ ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Firefly.’ We are watching a new literary form take shape, something we should not ignore.”
Andrew Browning, 21, is a Weber State physics and English major who takes the “Television as Literature” class.
“What people don’t realize about shows like ‘Firefly’ is, it takes a lot of your brain to get to the meaning behind the words, just like any other literature,” said Browning, of Ogden. “You have to work hard to truly understand.”
Browning also believes there is a television revolution taking place, and that programmers are turning away from sitcoms and reality shows in favor of more meaningful dramas.
“We’re going back to actual storylines and plots that reflect a greater understanding of everything about the human condition,” he said. “Television teaches us a lot of different things, like math, science, humanity and reading. It sparks interest in learning other languages, traveling and becoming more than you were.”
Browning thinks the disrespect is a generational issue.
“Sometimes the older generation doesn’t need to give TV such a hard time,” he said. “When it comes to classics like ‘Firefly,’ the class at Weber State barely scratches the surface. There is so much more to explore in some of the best shows, more levels and depth that will help us become well-rounded as a generation.”
Rogers believes that as a teacher, it would be foolish not to take advantage of high-quality literature with a built-in audience. He’s also teaching a class on 19th century literature this semester, and sees no reason lovers of a good story should have to choose between books and video, or classic tales and pop culture.
“Students in this class ask me if this is what an English class is like, and I say yes, but we use books instead of film clips,” Rogers said. “This class demystifies literature by showing them something they really love, and letting them talk about it in a sophisticated, academic way. Two hours after class I’ll still see groups of students talking about what we discussed. They notice stuff I don’t. They’re so excited to be learning. My students are amazing, and I can’t sing their praises highly enough.”