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Jack Solomon

The MTM Effect

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Feb 9, 2017

The outpouring of affection upon the recent death of Mary Tyler Moore is not only a tribute to a popular television icon, but it also draws attention to the series that made her more than just another TV star: The Mary Tyler Moore Show—a program that offers teachers of popular cultural semiotics an unusually rich topic for analysis.


As always, we can begin such an analysis with an identification of the particular system with which The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be associated.  This system is the television genre we call the "situation comedy," but the moment we identify that system a rather glaring difference appears when we compare The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the prominent sitcoms that preceded it, including, of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show. This difference is the key to the whole analysis.


The MTM difference, and its significance, is obvious: The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with such iconic family sitcoms as Father Knows Best, Leave it To Beaver, and My Three Sons, were fundamentally patriarchal television series devoted to the presentation of a certain ideological vision of the American family.  As feminist scholars of popular culture have long since pointed out, the family sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s functioned to persuade American women that the non-domestic roles they were allowed to play during the Second World War were only temporary and "unnatural."  Rosie the Riveter, as it were, had to be shown that her real happiness lay in a middle-class suburban home, taking care of the house and the children for her bread-winning husband.  It was all, as Antonio Gramsci might have put it, a gigantic act of cultural hegemony.


This is why it was such a very big deal when Laura Petrie reappeared—only four years after the conclusion of The Dick Van Dyke Show—as Mary Richards, a single professional living an independent life in the big city.  Pioneering what could be called "the mainstreaming of the women's movement," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (its very name, as an inverse image to The Dick Van Dyke Show, was significant) marked the moment in which sneering at feminists began to cease to be the default position in American popular culture.


But The Mary Tyler Moore Show does not only signify a crucial moment in the history of the women's movement; it also helped open the door to such other socially conscious sitcoms as All in the Family, and, perhaps more significantly (if far less remembered), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.  For while All in the Family brought racial and cultural conflict into America's living rooms, it remained, at base, a sitcom.  Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, on the other hand, could really be called the first dramedy, its mixture of soap opera with satire offering a not-so-funny exploration of the crumbling edifice of married domesticity.

Like The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (a 1980s proto-dramedy that also explored the darker side of women's lives in a more or less comic setting), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman didn't last very long, but it helped pave the way for Desperate Housewives, Orange is the New Black, and every other contemporary TV series that blends bitter humor with socially conscious drama. 


I do not think it is an accident that the dramedy is, more often than not, a woman-centered television drama.  The most popular sitcom on TV today—The Big Bang Theory (actually, it is simply the most popular show on TV today)—is a strikingly masculine series, and it has no dramedic echoes whatsoever, nor any particular social significance beyond the way it signals the new popular cultural prestige of science and technology (I think of The Big Bang Theory as Seinfeld-meets-Friends-meets-Flubber).  It's very funny, but it isn't game-changing. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was game changing, and a lot of contemporary television is playing by its rules.


Thirty-four years ago, Lisa Ede and I published a brief essay in Rhetoric Review called “Why Write . . . Together.” In response to that question, we offered a number of strong reasons for writing collaboratively, including the ability to mount larger research projects and answer more complex questions. And we embarked on a research study of collaborative writing across seven fields, which we reported on in a number of articles and a book, Singular Texts / Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing (1990, SIUP).


Our persistent calls for collaborative writing and our insistence that most work in the academy is done collaboratively, whether we recognize it or not, fell on many deaf ears—until the digital revolution made it abundantly clear that collaboration is the new normal, with Wikipedia being one prime example. In addition, the research I did for the longitudinal Stanford Study of Writing showed that our students are happily collaborating on everything imaginable outside of class—and that they are increasingly collaborating on course assignments as well. And of course, scholars in STEM disciplines have been collaborating on their work, almost by definition. Perhaps, we thought, the tide has turned.


But maybe not, as evidenced by a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which asks “Is Collaboration Worth It?” in regard to a panel at the 131st meeting of the American Historical Association. This report suggests that the tide has not yet turned in the Humanities, where the single-authored monograph is still the gold standard and the sine qua non for tenure and promotion.


    A panel here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association explored the pros and cons of co-authorship in what some argued should be a particularly collaborative field (uncovering and interpreting the past is not a one-person job), but isn’t. Asked to answer the session’s titular question – “Is Collaboration Worth It?” – panelists offered a lukewarm but hopeful consensus: it may not count, but it is, in some sense, worthwhile.
   By “crass” accounting, collaboration is “absolutely not” worth it, said Ben Wright, an assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas who helps lead a free, online, collaboratively built American history textbook effort called American Yawp. Though the project takes up much of Wright’s time, it will nevertheless be an ancillary piece of his tenure file, he said. “I’m not going to hinge my career on this project.”


The encouraging note in this article is that the young scholars quoted all recognize the importance of collaboration for their own intellectual and personal and professional growth, even when it is not recognized by their departments. So I continue to hope that as these scholars mature they will begin to change the tenure and promotion policies in their department. But such change is amazingly slow: 35 years is a long time to have made so little progress!


In the meantime, I see a special opportunity, and an obligation, for writing teachers not only to provide assignments that call for meaningful collaboration and collaborative writing but also to introduce students to the very large body of research that supports the efficacy of such practices. It is a commonplace now for employers, from Main Street to Wall Street to Silicon Valley, to hire those who are good collaborators, good members of teams. And writing teachers know that good members of teams are not “yes” people, but rather those who look at problems from every angle, arguing out all possibilities and listening to varying viewpoints, and who know when and how to compromise without forgoing sound principles. These are abilities that teachers of writing know how to develop in students, just as we know how to create assignments that call for these abilities and that engage students in co-authorship.


So I’m encouraged that we teach students who will become history majors—and many other majors as well. We have an opportunity to send then into their majors with a strong understanding of the need for collaboration—and the knowledge of how to work and write collaboratively. Those are gifts that I hope will keep on giving and that will eventually lead to the kind of change that will make the question “Is collaboration worth it?” not even worth asking.


Image from PIXELS with CC0 License