It’s D’oh true – Homer’s on campus

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Published: Friday 19th December 2014 by The News Editor

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Bart and Lisa Simpson have been at primary school for 25 years, but that hasn’t stopped them and the rest of the family from showing up on campus.

Universities across America are using satirical references from animated TV show The Simpsons to grab students’ attention and convey lessons in literature and all manner of popular culture.

“If the references are important enough to be lampooned by The Simpsons, these works must be important cultural milestones,” said Hofstra University adjunct English professor Richard Pioreck, who has been incorporating the denizens of Springfield into his courses for about a decade.

He teaches a course about the Broadway theatre and how The Simpsons have embraced various musicals and plays. Next he will shift to an online literature course called The D’oh of Homer that includes readings from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – all referenced in Simpsons episodes.

“Teachers need to keep things fresh,” said Denise DuVernay, an adjunct English professor at St Xavier University in Chicago, co-author of the book The Simpsons In The Classroom: Embiggening The Learning Experience With The Wisdom of Springfield.

“They need to reach students however they can. And using The Simpsons to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant.”

In recent years other universities have had courses focused on the prime-time cartoon which has celebrated its 25th anniversary, including Oswego State University in New York and San Jose State University in California.

Long-time Simpsons executive producer Al Jean said he was not surprised professors embraced the programme. “Some people may think we are very vulgar, but then they find there is a lot of warmth and emotion and many people are surprised at the intelligence of some of the jokes,” he said.

Prof Pioreck says he decided to use the show after a friend of his daughter’s passed an exam on The Devil And Daniel Webster by watching a Simpsons episode that focused on the story.

He found that the animated sitcom usually aims for more than just the easy punchlines, with writers layering the plotlines with humour that can be appreciated by low and highbrow audiences alike.

For example, in one episode that parodied A Streetcar Named Desire (A Streetcar Named Marge), the dynamics of Homer and Marge Simpson’s marriage are deftly illustrated through a comparison to the relationship of the couple in the play, Stella and Stanley.

“The Simpsons do a great deal of parodying, whether it’s a complete script or a number here or there,” Prof Pioreck said.

“Quite often they choose family relationships; what makes a man a success is one of the things that we pursue. And you can see what happens to Homer. Even though it looks like he’s not a good father, he steps up and he comes through in the end.”

Jean acknowledges a theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C Montgomery Burns character – the miserly owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant – to the lead character in the movie Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane.

“Mr Burns … he doesn’t have fulfilment in his life even though he’s the richest person in town,” Prof Pioreck said. “Here are two people who have it all, they have more money than they know what to do with and yet they’re not happy. Homer has no money, but has friends and family.”

Almost incredibly, at least one young Hofstra student confessed she had never seen the sitcom before signing up for the Simpsons-Broadway course.

Elizabeth Sarian, a 21-year-old music performance major from Plainview, said she signed up because of her interest in Broadway, not the cartoon.

Still, she says, the connection to The Simpsons is hardly trivial “because it really does teach you a lot from watching it”.

Published: Friday 19th December 2014 by The News Editor

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