Philosophy, ‘Firefly’ collide in Joss Whedon course

Recently, Whedon is most known for writing and directing the record-breaking blockbuster, “The Avengers.” Photo via Facebook.

Avid fans of Joss Whedon will be happy to hear that there is a class at Marquette geared toward his work. For the uninitiated, Joss Whedon is a director who has somewhat of a cult following after creating series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly.”

Though Whedon’s fame has grown with recent high-profile projects like the hugely popular superhero movie “The Avengers,” this little-known class has been in existence at Marquette for almost 10 years, albeit in a few variations, thanks to professor James South, chair of the philosophy department. The class, “Thinking Philosophically with Joss Whedon,” is both an introduction to Whedon and his works and a beginners course in philosophical thought.

“I see myself as letting (the students) sort of discover the themes – freedom, necessity and self-knowledge – that preoccupy Joss Whedon and provide them introductory philosophy readings that can help them conceptualize those themes, then give them a vocabulary to talk about those themes,” South said.

A primary objective of the class, South said, is to get students comfortable in seminar formats and get them willing to share their views and interact about the ideas with their peers. He hopes the students achieve a “dialogical way of learning and teaching each other about whatever the topic is.”

“A big goal of this class is to get them to be active viewers and active thinkers about popular culture,” South noted.

South has been doing variants of the class for 10 years, with it originally starting as a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” course. However, as more Whedon material developed, South saw the opportunity to use all of his works to create really fascinating material.

“It first occurred to me when I first introduced this course that students spend a lot of time taking in popular culture and talking about it amongst themselves, but they don’t have a way to talk about it in some systematic way,” South said. “By correlating that interest with a set of readings that would give them some concepts to help them think about that, we could do something really interesting in the classroom.”

Since the original class, a large amount of materials and topics have developed from the range of Joss Whedon’s material. Rather than dealing with the Buffy metaphor “high school as hell,” more realistic problems are explored in this seasoned class, South said.

“(The problems are) about what happens when you have hopes and dreams that get smashed, and how you carve out a life for yourself that is authentically yours,” South said. “So I think the themes in a show like ‘Firefly’ are perhaps less relatable to a freshman student but are worth exploring because they have these dimensions that people in their 30s are trying to figure out what life’s about.”

Unfortunately for some Whedon fans, only freshmen honors students are allowed to take the class, except for special cases with approval from the honors program. However, if South figured out a way to make the course format compatible for the general student population, he would certainly open it up.

“These honors seminars are designed to build community in the honors program. That’s why they are primarily limited to honors students,” South said. “There are also not other easy outlets for a course like this. Just doing a course on Joss Whedon, I haven’t figured out how to do that other than in this smaller honors program format.”

Compared to other freshmen honors seminar courses, South considers his unique. He uses a different model in his course compared to a seminar course about the Beatles, for example. In that class, history, culture and music appreciation are discussed, topics generally not covered in “Thinking Philosophically with Joss Whedon.”

“I’m really trying to get them to see philosophical themes, and I don’t know that these other first-year courses are as focused on the philosophical elements,” South said. “If there’s a uniqueness to this class, it’s the philosophical texts that we’re reading and the things we are trying to talk about.”

This year, South is incorporating a new aspect into the class, one that focuses specifically on the premiere episodes of each series in order to get a sense of how Whedon introduces characters and sets up the show. Students then watch specific arcs to see how the story has progressed.

“Part of the learning of ‘Thinking Philosophically with Joss Whedon’ is watching how he tells a story, so I’m concerned not just with the words on paper, not just the script. I’m concerned with the storytelling style, with the visual style, with everything else.”

As for South’s favorite work of Whedon, the answer is hard for him to give because there is so much to be discovered in each film and series.

“I’m going to say Buffy because it was the first one, and it opened up to me the possibility to use my philosophical background and my interest in popular culture in some sort of blended and fruitful way,” South said. “But if push came to shove, and you asked me what his best work was, I would say ‘Firefly.’”

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