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The Eighties: Literature, Film, Music and Fun

An Insider’s View of “The Eighties”, by Rosemary Morton

For those who are looking for a great course, I would recommend a new hybrid offered by the English Department called The Eighties: Literature, Film, and Culture in the Blockbuster Era. This course combines everything English majors love.

Taught by Professor Joseph Vogel, The Eighties illuminates many different cultural norms that characterized that decade, a time that introduced blockbuster films, music that today continues to find air time, and literature that inspired popular novels, such as the Hunger Games.

The required workload involves watching films and reading novels, and students compose written responses to course texts every week. I asked Professor Vogel for a progress report on the course and he noted that some unforeseen challenges have emerged. “I think the biggest challenge for this course has been that we have a wide range of student abilities when it comes to reading and responding to texts,” he said. “The course counts as an upper-level elective, which usually means it will be comprised of mostly English majors, who are a bit more advanced. Our class, however, only has about 8-9 English majors out of 26 students; the rest are from different fields. So the challenge is trying to equip some of those other students and find ways to get them to participate, while maintaining the rigor and depth expected of English majors”.

The Eighties connects with undergraduates, because its art lingers and students relate to the material fairly easily; much of it continues to surface in contemporary popular culture. For example, stations still play songs such as “Man in the Mirror” and “Like a Prayer” on the radio and many of my friends know how to perform them on their musical instruments. Many of us still marvel at the amazing storytelling capabilities of films we have studied, such as Back to the Future and E.T. One film that struck a chord with our class in general was Dirty Dancing. As Professor Vogel mentioned in my interview with him, Dirty Dancing was “one of our best class discussions.” I was familiar with the storyline prior to viewing it in class, because I had seen a stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing performed at the Boston Opera House. Our class discussion zeroed in on the film’s exploration of gender role expectations and, because the story was not new to me, it was interesting to witness the reactions of my classmates. Some students did not like the film, which fuelled discussion of elements from the movie I had not noticed. I found all of this controversy refreshing because most of the people I know outside of our class group had told me they had enjoyed the film.

Obviously, we have also been examining literary works produced during the Eighties. For individuals who enjoy the dystopian subgenre, this is a great course to take. We have read novels that influenced writers today, such as Suzanne Collins, the author of the Hunger Games. I particularly enjoyed Stephen King’s The Running Man, a possible inspiration for the Hunger Games. The novels share similar plot lines. Both feature a deadly competition sponsored by the government. Suzanne Collins has come under fire because the novels’ plots were so similar. As a fan of her books, I was intrigued to read another narrative that might have given Collins the push she needed to write her famous serial. Such connections are important to the class, because they demonstrate just how influential the Eighties were and how that historical moment connects to our current culture.

We also discussed the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. Professor Vogel refers to the book as “the hardest novel on the syllabus” and says that he is very interested in how students “digest it.” He told me he hopes “people are up for this challenge”. For me, this novel did prove to be one of the most diffiuclt to get into; however, it connects extremely well to many of the issues we have interrogated in class, especially the role played by media and the contributions these outlets makes to our perceptions of violence. It was thought-provoking, because it made me view the news far more skeptically. Because the socio-political contours of the Eighties remain related to our own, the course enabled me to look at our current political situation and understand better the relevance of earlier iterations of issues involving gender, race, class and technology.

Many of the narratives we read feature equivocal endings that invoked heavy discussion in the classroom. One of the most interesting discussions occurred the last day we discussed White Noise, when the group debated how we should interpret the story’s conclusion.

Professor Vogel also shared with me adjustments he plans to make that will improve the course next time he teaches it. One such change “will actually be spending more time on the song lyrics. The 80s are such a rich period for music. The songs really exemplify and speak to what was going on”.

Once he makes this adjustment, students will be able to see how music influenced other forms of media, notably film soundtracks. As someone who has always loved theater and musicals, I know I would like to have the opportunity to examine the overlap between these two forms of artistic expression.

The Eighties has been one of my favorite courses at Merrimack. This course makes a great addition to the English program offerings, because it focuses on a very recent cultural moment. The Eighties is fairly similar to other English courses in many respects because we analyze and discuss textual material; however, because it is recent, The Eighties seems to illuminate more connections to our current world. I highly recommend this course because the material can be seen in multiple ways and it is extremely fun to discuss components that prevail in creative media today.


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