I am the project manager of a research group called the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. This semester, I'm teaching a course on the history and current state of the American soap opera here at MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies. We have a small group of students for this elective class, including not just MIT students but a cross-enrolled student from neighboring Harvard University, who are spending the semester immersing themselves in the world of Oakdale, Illinois.
Starting at the beginning of last month, the class has been following the daily lives of the Hugheses, Snyders, Stewarts, Ryans and all the other characters that populate As the World Turns landscape, as well as delving into the history of the American soap opera, ATWT itself, and academic work on soaps.
We meet each Monday night to watch the previous week's episodes of ATWT as a group, and the class is able to rely on one another to help piece together character histories and relationships. So far, the students have been drawing on soap opera discussion boards, Web sites, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Julie Poll's 1996 book on the show to help understand the complicated pasts of these characters.
We've even been using YouTube to watch 1960s clips of the Hughes family, as well as the 2000 ATWT episode celebrating the 40th anniversary of Don Hastings' and Eileen Fulton's portrayals of Lisa and Bob. When we started the semester, we discussed watching a variety of other shows to compare them against ATWT, but the students have decided that this show has more intrigue and rich history than they could possibly learn in a semester and have thus decided to concentrate solely on World Turns for their taste of American soaps.
None of the students who signed up for the class identify themselves as American soaps fan, although one--a British native--has been a fan of soaps in his country. The students have thus had a chance to test out and challenge some of their assumptions and stereotypes about what soaps are, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that the students have become interested in the fates of these characters and some particularly obsessed with learning the pasts of these characters.
One student has already taken to editing Wikipedia pages on the show, while another has admitted to losing significant amounts of time watching Luke and Noah videos on YouTube.
Procter & Gamble Productions has invited my class and me to post regular updates here on our progress of studying this historic show this semester, and we're excited to share our thoughts as the class comes to learn the complicated history of Oakdale and becomes immersed in the current show.
I personally came to this class after spending two years researching soap opera fan communities, the relationship between fans and soap opera producers, and the changes in how soaps tell their stories in the current age, as well as what I think is essential for the long-term continuation of these "worlds without end" that I feel are unmatched in the type of stories they tell and the depth of fan involvement they invite, at a time when the television industry is particularly interested in "engagement." I argue in my work that the American soap opera is, along with the world of pro wrestling and superhero comic book universes, the best articulation of what I call an "immersive story world" that invites not just deep viewing but community-building around these entertainment forms. See more of my work in http://cms.mit.edu/research/theses/SamFord2007.pdf this draft of my thesis, which I am continuing to revise.
Personally, I'm a lifelong viewer of As the World Turns, which has consistently been "my story," as my grandmother called it. My grandmother watched. My mom watched. And now I have created viewing as a regular routine with my wife. I realize that 25-year-old males may not be P&G's target demographic for this show, but I personally believe ATWT is unmatched both in its storytelling potential and in having a veteran cast of some of the best actors in daytime, as well as the richest history of any show on television.
I'm also co-editing a collection of essays on the current state of soap operas with Dr. Abigail Derecho of Columbia College Chicago and Dr. Lee Harrington of Miami University, which will include essays by both academics and fans and interviews with academics who wrote pioneering pieces on soaps and some key people from the soap opera industry. I will be speaking about my work on soaps at conferences in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara this spring and would appreciate any feedback readers might have. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I plan to share regular updates on my class' perspective as the class moves along, but to start with here are a few notes:
-The Luke/Noah relationship is by far the storyline of greatest interest to my class, and there is continuous debate over how the show will progress the relationship. The class has also demonstrated strong interest in the outcome of the custody battle, which we will be watching on Monday night;
-Perhaps defying what one might stereotypically expect from target demographics, this group of 20-somethings have most continuously said that favorites on the show include Elizabeth Hubbard's portrayal of Lucinda Walsh and Ellen Dolan's Margo Hughes. Austin Peck's Brad Snyder is also a strong class favorite;
Throughout the spring, I plan to share the perspectives of various students, but if you want to read what the class is saying on a regular basis, a significant portion of their work in the class comes in the form of our class blog. Feel free to stop over that way and even leave comments to agree with, argue, or add to the class' thoughts.