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11.3: A Student Example: “The Story of My Working Thesis Malfunction” by Amanda Kenger

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    In the course where Amanda wrote this essay, students were given the option to either follow the Chapter Ten assignment for writing a more “conventional” research essay, or to write a research portfolio/narrative essay following the assignment described in this chapter.  Amanda said that she originally chose to write a portfolio/narrative essay because “I thought it would be a piece of cake.  I was wrong.”  She soon realized that this assignment required her to think carefully about how to present her research to her readers, and it required her to follow an approach that was different from her previous academic writing experiences.  Overall, Amanda was glad she chose this writing option “because it gave me an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary.”


    The Story of My Working Thesis Malfunction

     

    When we were fist given the assignment for the final research project, I was sure that I was going to write a traditional research paper. I have done all of the research, written out the annotated bibliography, and have created a fairly decisive working thesis. However, I finally decided to work through the research portfolio essay option after looking at the work I created during the semester and realizing how much things have changed from start to finish.

    I wrote four essays that examine my thesis and my sources and my working thesis changed with each essay. It transformed from my original idea that three events in history changed television censorship to my final working thesis, "Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction has changed the way that Americans view television."

    Each of the essays I wrote has had an effect on my final working thesis. This is especially surprising for me because previously, when I came up with an idea or a thesis, my mind is usually made up. But I think that story of working through the different exercises this semester shows how much my original working thesis changed.

    I first decided on the idea for my original working thesis through writing my topic proposal essay. This essay got me thinking about the evolution of television censorship from shows like I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives. I began to think of events in television history that would have caused a domino effect in censorship. So in my topic proposal essay, I said that there were three events in TV history that drastically changed the way that television was censored. The first of these three events was Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. His sexual dance moves sent shockwaves through conservative America. For the second event, I chose George Carlin's classic comedy skit "Filthy Words." The skit included "seven words you can never say on television" and was played over the radio by a small town DJ. The controversy surrounding the skit eventually snowballed into a lawsuit, and finally a Supreme Court case. For the third event I chose Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime show performance. Her "wardrobe malfunction" on live television became grounds for the institution of a delay on all live broadcasts.

    One of the reasons that I decided to choose three events was because I wanted to trace some longer trends in television, and also because I was worried about not having enough evidence to support my thesis in a research essay. I can see now though that I had too much going on in my original thesis. I was going to have far too much information and my paper would probably lose its focus. Also, when I look back at my topic proposal essay now, I see that I only cited one reference each for Presley and Carlin, and I wrote that I found, "hundreds of articles on several databases and on the World Wide Web" about Jackson. That should have been my first red flag that the bulk of the information available to me was going to be on Jackson.

    Regardless, when I completed my topic proposal essay, my working thesis was, "Three main events in history have changed censorship: Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, George Carlin's Supreme Court case, and Janet Jackson on the 2004 Super Bowl."

    My evaluation of my own working thesis continued throughout my critique essay. For this essay, I chose to critique an article called "The New Puritanism" by Eric Gillin and Greg Lindsay, published in Advertising Age and accessed electronically through the Wilson Select database. This article investigated the consequences of Jackson's Super Bowl stunt and, to my surprise, these consequences were not only felt in television. The wave of conservatism that Jackson created was felt strongly in the world of advertising and big business. The article poses the seemingly unanswerable question of how to make everyone content with mass media content.

    Gillin and Lindsay lean towards the idea that the conflict that lies in censorship is a generational one. They write "74% of consumers ages 12 to 20 said CBS overreacted in its response". They also describe some of the possible solutions that have been proposed to solve the censorship conflict. Some of these suggestions include running parallel ad campaigns with designated ratings.

    This article finally caused me to realize the seriousness of Jackson's actions. "The New Puritanism" pointed out several ways in which advertising companies and big businesses like Wal-Mart altered their campaigns and content after the incident. For example, Wal-Mart pulled Maxim magazine off of their shelves and Budweiser pulled some of their commercials off ofthe air. Gillin and Lindsay describe an impossible situation in both television and advertising, and warn, "sex or violence... may be off the mainstream for good" (6).

    Gillin’s and Lindsay’s article first got me thinking about the fusion of academic culture and popular culture. Going into this project, I assumed that every academic article was going to take the side of the FCC.  Much to my surprise, almost all the academic articles I found carried warnings of the FCC's over-involvement in the media.

    This article also made me look once again at my working thesis. When I was searching for an article to critique, I could not find any on Carlin or Elvis. The sources that I had for the Carlin and Elvis consisted mostly of web sites or page long narratives. I found it very difficult to locate any article that I would be able to use in my critique essay.  Another red flag. However, after my critique essay I felt more confident in stating that Jackson's halftime show changed media censorship.

    When it came time for me to write my antithesis essay, I was really worried. Almost all of the articles I found warned about the dangers of the FCC's power. I was concerned that I would not be able to find any evidence that supported my antithetical arguments. I finally found my answer on a website created by United States Senator Sam Brownback. Senator Brownback served as one of the sponsors for the Broadcast Decency Act of 2004. He wants stronger regulations from the FCC and other parts of the government. On his web site, Brownback stated that Jackson's halftime show "is just the most memorable example of the growing volume of inappropriate material that is broadcast..." He argues that Jackson's halftime show did not serve as an important event in censorship history, only the most recognizable. Brownback goes on:

    We live in a nation where we hold the First Amendment in high regard.  In an effort to maintain the free exchange of information, thoughts, and opinions, we strive to avoid government involvement in communications content.  At the same time, we are nation raising children.  With the turning of a tuning knob, or a click of the remote, Americans are presented with the content of the public airwaves and the culture it generates. Broadcasters can express any viewpoint and idea they want, but they have a legal and moral duty to ensure that viewers, especially minors, are not presented with explicit material.

    In response to this, I found an article on the web site “Intellectual Conservative Politics and Philosophy” by Wendy McElroy titled "Censorship is Not a Solution for Trashy TV." She directly challenges Brownback and says that the consequences of the Broadcast Decency Act "may be far worse than a bit of trashy exhibitionism on TV.” McElroy's article defended my idea that Jackson's halftime show changed censorship in that it propelled the Broadcast Decency Act into the public interest.

    Critic Tom Shales, writing for Television Week, agrees.  In an article I found via the Wilson Select database titled “The Real Indecency Is The Show In Washington,” Shales said:

    Clearly the saddest and most infuriating irony of the whole mess is that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell is demagoguing this “issue” into a national frenzy, or at least a federal frenzy, about indecency in the media, thus distracting attention from his attempt to impose a radical relaxation of media ownership rules on the country.

    When I wrote my antithesis paper I was still thinking of using Carlin's Supreme Court case in my thesis. I included a paragraph arguing that Carlin's "filthy words" are still filthy by today's standards. I still believe this to be true, and I think I made a solid argument defending my thesis. The problem was that I did not include any citations to back up my argument. My main reason for holding onto Carlin in my thesis was to make sure that I had enough research in my essay. However, the antithesis paper reaffirmed for me that Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” incident was a good subject for my essay. The antithesis essay put my doubts to rest by showing me that there were people that disagreed with my thesis and also that I could argue my position.

    It was because of the categorization essay that I was finally able to decide on my thesis. After I put all of my sources into credible and non-credible categories, I discovered that most of the non-credible sources were on Elvis or Carlin. I simply did not have credible sources on either of the two and made the final decision to cut them completely out of my working thesis. I also divided my citations into sources that were for the FCC and sources that were against the FCC. Again I saw the reoccurring theme that most of my sources were against the FCC and its involvement in mass media.  In "The Darker Reaches of the Government," Anthony Mathews warns that if the FCC and the United States government continue to control our television media, "no constitutional guarantee of basic freedoms will exist"(243). It seemed that most of my research made a similar point about the importance of keeping our First Amendment rights in tact.

    Even though the categorization exercise was by far the most difficult for me to complete, I learned the most about my working thesis by doing it. The essay made me think more seriously about my sources. In a way, it only makes sense that most of my articles were against the FCC's involvement in media because the articles are part of the media. Why would a journalist, author or any writer suggest that the FCC should censor mass media when their articles, journals and books could be just as easily censored?

    Our First Amendment rights are not limited to television and other technologies, a point that I neglected to consider at the beginning of the semester. Also it proved challenging to put my sources into credible and non-credible categories. I would not cite People as a credible source if I was writing about pharmaceuticals, but I felt that I had to consider the magazine an expert on my subject of Janet Jackson. In other words, it seems to me that credible and non-credible sources can differ depending on the subject matter.

    I wish that I could have done the categorization and evaluation exercise earlier in the semester. After taking one look at my notes and prewriting for that exercise, I realized that I had more than enough information on Jackson to write an essay. If I had categorized my sources sooner I would have revised my working thesis much earlier in the semester. And beyond that, I think that this was the exercise where I learned the most about research writing. I plan on working through some of the categorizing exercises the next time I have to write a research essay, especially making a chart to help me sort through my evidence. Perhaps by doing so I will be able to see more clearly what sources will work in my essay and what points I can include in my working thesis.

    Even though my working thesis has changed drastically throughout the duration of the semester, I feel that I am now finally happy with my thesis: "Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction has changed the way that Americans view television." I have good evidence supporting my thesis, I can defend my thesis against an antithetical argument and I know where my own opinion lies. I don't know if I will ever use my knowledge of Jackson's wardrobe malfunction in my everyday life, though if it does come up in conversation, I’ll have my answer. But I do think that the skills I learned through revising my working thesis and writing these essays will prove useful in many future essays to come.

     

    Works Cited:

     

    Brownback, Sam.  “Broadcast Decency:  S. 2056, The Decency Enforcement Act of 2004.”  U.S. Senator Sam Brownback homepage.  30 May 2005. <http://brownback.senate.gov/libroadcast.html>

    Gillin, Eric and Greg Lindsay.  “The New Puritanism.”  Advertising Age 5 April 2004: 1, 34-5.  Wilson Select database stuff....

    Mathews, Anthony. "The Darker Reaches of the Government." Modem Law Review. 1 Nov. 1980: JSTOR.25 May 2005.

    McElroy, Wendy. "Censorship is Not a Solution for Trashy TV." The Intellectual Conservative. 19 Feb. 2004. 30 May 2005. <http://intellectualconservative.com/artic1e3151.html>

    Shales, Tom. “The Real Indecency Is The Show In Washington.” Television Week 23.11 (15 March 2004): 37.  Wilson select stuff.

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