The Colbert Report as Millennial Pedagogy

Curator's Note

In addition to the overt pseudo-punditry mastered by Colbert’s onscreen persona, The Colbert Report’s ability to copy and reform The Daily Show’s "not journalism" journalism formulates a brand of satire that informs in tandem with entertaining. Indeed, one could argue substantially that the latter would not function properly without the former. Yet in order to consume his humour de jure in its intended context, audiences must adjust their pace with Colbert’s. The net results often benefit audiences with healthy doses of linguistics, political science, media studies, ideological criticism, and even gen. ed. fundamentals in academic dishonesty.  

One key example draws from Rand Paul’s Republican Vice Presential campaign, in which The Report extends into a contemporary lesson on the difference between intentional versus accidental plagiarism. Like the trickster figure Colbert embodies in his dual performance, the sketch toggles between entertainment, journalism, and satire. Colbert’s physical gesturing and vocal delivery also tether together a playful yet blunt critique of a seemingly minor but nonetheless significant ethical faux pas committeed by a public figure in high place of prominence.

While such political recurrences make for the stock conventions that supply Colbert, Stewart, and their satirical successors with nightly ritualistic material, the pedagogical takeaways from bits like Rand Paul’s plagiarism woes offer millennial students at large (and maybe the small band of extempers in forensics) memorable lessons in the ethics of plagiarism that communicates across multiple learning styles. As trickster pedagogue with his dunce cap conservatism, Colbert embodies out of touch allegiance to the White male authority figure (too close a call for some), subversively upending public trust just as he covertly asserts his own authority in a hybrid archetype between fool-sage. The audience learns without learning, entertained into submissive retention of the sketch’s ethical core. 

Results-I can successfully report from trial experiences that students recognise both plagiarisms performed, retain the material, and (intentionally) practice media criticism set up for later assignments.

Thai (2014) argues that, "Political humor at least molds a more informed public and at best increases political involvement and excitement." Yet in the wake of the ficticious Colbert’s (Faux-bert?) immortality-retirement, a key quesion remains as to whether Colbert—in his transition to The Late Show—will soften his [sincere] brand toward a broad(er) entertainment end versus contemporaries like John Oliver, who have arguably sharpened the two-sided blade that constitutes political satire as contemporary journalism.

Comments

Shaun Treat's picture

Colbert's Pedagogy Problem...

Great contribution to COLBERT WEEK, Garret! Like you, I’ve frequently used The Colbert Report and The Daily Show as classroom “warm-ups” for topics of discussion, with great success. This segment you’ve selected is indeed pretty choice as a preamble for class examination of plagiarism and academic integrity… I’m totally adding it to my teaching arsenal!

But I am far less convinced, however, that Colbert’s antics alone can suffice as critical pedagogy. IMHO, and I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, Colbert can offer a potential primer or catalyst for a more thoughtful examination of an issue such as plagiarism, but I wonder if his deftly-crafted zingers and snark actually carry over after the commercial break for television audiences. That is, I’ve found that Colbert may offer enough contextualizing info and energizing humor to introduce viewers to an issue worthy of further reflection, but it requires actual classroom time and an instructor’s strategic critical pedagogy to really expose the meat of the matter for students to retain. While this jester pseudo-journalist certainly offers a delightfully tasty 5 minute snack on some issue-du-jour, it requires some classroom cooking to transform his base ingredients into a well-balanced media diet for sustained critical reflection. Students don’t have anywhere enough understanding of plagiarism after this sample clip, for example, to be confident in making sound judgments about what does and doesn’t constitute academic plagiarism, much less why.

Cooking metaphors aside, this is why I wonder the degree to which Colbert —or other Satire News Shows— really “educate” their audiences so much as spur interest that leads to more engaged attention. Even John Oliver taking a topic to task in a “lengthy” 10 or 20 minute segment may not suffice… which should be good news for career teachers. That is, if we are careful about what we would consider and include as pedagogy. Colbert is a jester, not an educator, a point which he has made on numerous occasions. As a gateway drug to deeper knowledge and interest, however, his comedy has unquestionable value for sparking interest and student engagement with a closer look.

Garret Castleberry's picture

Backward Learning is Forward-Thinking...

Shaun, thank you for the feedback and commentary that extend the duality of pleasure-problem dichotomy when trying to discern whether a form like satire can function primarily as education, or at least impart the kind of wisdom that spurs 1) audience understanding, 2) social conviction, in the hopes of 3) civic action. The success of such a formula is a stretch to say the least. Indeed, that is why TCR works well as a tool for teaching, not as primary educator.

That said, I’ll note my shift away from Critical Pedagogy to what I am coyly calling Millennial Pedagogy. When concentrating on the current generation of students, their typical habits, and the multi-faceted (dare I say polyvalent) ways in which media is viewed, used, and transformed, Steven Johnson’s neoVintage “Everything Bad is Good For You” (2005, New York: Riverhead) comes to mind. Johnson joins a host of contemporaries that contend viewing patterns and active cognitive processes have changed considerably, adapting to this era of “Spreadable Media” as Henry Jenkins would say (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

But you are on top of that already, and playfully remind us of Levi-Strauss’s “Cooked” vs. “Raw” way of interpreting the directions for how to “warm up” Colbert’s material. I might argue when it was piping hot, TCR whetted viewer appetites as high-priced hors d’oeuvre as opposed to a late night run to White Castle. But it’s up to the viewers to interpret the French menu, something millennials are known to have more active interest in. My dad won’t be looking up “the Word” segment for double meaning on Google. Then again, he wouldn’t be watching Colbert. For that matter, he wouldn’t be ordering in a French restaurant either. On the other hand, I am game for all three. But it will be a far less engaged game of writer-viewer play if The Late Show reboot tries too hard to appease that ideal mass. I know if that happens, I’ll be one of the unfortunate ones to utter, “Check, please!”

Shaun Treat's picture

Slow Clap for spotting the Levi-Strauss nod...

Agreed… we do need to be attentive to these shifts in mediated “structures of feeling” for Millenials and be up to the task for adapting our Critical (or “Millenial”) Pedagogy accordingly. Polyvalent pleasures can and should be mined for teachable moments. Great contribution, Dr. Castleberry!

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