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'The Simpsons' a Useful Tool in the Classroom, Says St. Xavier Professor

By Howard Ludwig | December 26, 2014 7:18am | Updated on December 29, 2014 7:35am
 Denise DuVernay of Beverly co-authored "The Simpsons In The Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield" in 2010 with Karma Waltonen. The two met while studying at Florida State University.
The Simpsons in the Classroom
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MOUNT GREENWOOD — Perhaps Bart Simpson would have better grades if Denise DuVernay were his teacher.

DuVernay's unique approach just might connect with the animated troublemaker, as her lesson plans lean heavily on "The Simpsons" to teach larger concepts.

"'The Simpsons' are an arrow in my quiver," said DuVernay, a Beverly resident.

DuVernay and co-author Karma Waltonen teamed in 2010 to write "The Simpsons In The Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield."

The book ($29.95) suggests various ways teachers can incorporate the popular Fox network comedy in the classroom. It's aimed at teachers of high school upperclassmen and college professors with first-year students.

"Kids all grow up with it," DuVernay said. "I'd say 99 percent of students have at least seen an episode of 'The Simpsons.'"

Indeed, "The Simpsons" celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month. And DuVernay said she believes instructors can use the library of 522 episodes to teach about a range of topics, including feminism, mob mentality, consumerism and much more.

DuVernay was hired as a grant writer at St. Xavier University in April, though she'll continue to teach a couple of classes each year in the English department on the main campus in Mount Greenwood where she began working as an adjunct professor in 2012.

She's also finishing a follow-up book with Waltonen. Tentatively titled, "The Simpsons Are a Part of Us All," the upcoming book will be an anthology of essays from authors describing how they personally relate to the show, DuVernay said.

She hopes to have the book completed next year. Among the 12 contributors is a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder who describes how "The Simpsons" helped him with his diagnosis.

DuVernay and Waltonen met while studying for their master's degrees in English at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. They both taught classes using "The Simpsons" as an entry point. DuVernay used the show to delve into pop culture, while Waltonen made use of "The Simpsons" to teach postmodernism.

"I told my dad about how I was going to teach about 'The Simpsons,' and he had snarky comments about how that's what's wrong with the American education system," DuVernay said.

Students assuming they'd simply talk television each and every class were mistaken. Research papers were required as the undergrads delved into the deeper, often subtle gags woven into the script of each show.

"There's all this low-brow humor with high-brow humor mixed in," DuVernay said.

One example is a 1992 episode of "The Simpsons" titled "A Streetcar Named Marge." The show spoofs the Tennessee William's play "A Streetcar Named Desire." In doing so, the episode is often able to spark interest in the American classic for students who otherwise might be indifferent or intimidated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, DuVernay said.

"Then, they [students] start to understand how smart the show is," DuVernay said.

DuVernay was working at the Milwaukee School of Engineering when her book was released in April 2010. Waltonen was working at the University of California's Davis campus, where she continues to teach.

Teachers interested in weaving pop culture into their classroom lectures remain their biggest customers, but Simpsons fans have also flocked to the book. Among the fans of DuVernay and Waltonen's work are several creators of "The Simpsons."

This resulted in behind-the-scenes visits to "The Simpsons" studios in 2011 and 2012, courtesy of David Silverman, a longtime director of the show, as well as Chris Ledesma, "The Simpsons" music editor.

Silverman reached out to the authors after DuVernay sent a tweet from her shared account with Waltonen - @Simpsonology.

"I tweeted, 'This linguistics chapter is kicking my a--,'" DuVernay said.

Silverman replied via his Twitter handle @tubatron, "I would so fail your class."

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