Spring semester is in full swing and once again my experience in the classroom confirms that we are a culture immersed in visuality. While my students often seem reluctant to delve deep into reading, they eagerly engage with images. Allegory in a reading might be difficult to grasp, but irony in a commercial is an easy prey for their “skillful eyes.”
There are no surprises here. Visual culture has been at the fingertips of this generation. Films, TV, YouTube, Facebook, and now Instagram are consuming American teens, shaping how young people understand and engage with the world. Super bowl commercials fascinate us in a way that the writings of Stevens Wallace do not.
How does the Faculty in the Modern Greek Program operate in this environment? What tools do we use to enter into conversation with students, and draw their interest to modern Greek culture? We continue to teach literature, of course. We value it as a tool to expose young people to situations outside their immediate world, and to probe reflection on perspectives and life situations other than their own. At the same time, I incorporate visual culture in my classes to facilitate how students imagine, think, and enter debates about Greek worlds. We discuss the meaning of images in context. The idea is that images are loaded with messages that we cannot afford to accept passively.
For the last ten years, I have spent my free time scouring the Internet and YouTube in search of images, documentaries, films, or commercials, for teaching purposes. The goal has been to discover visual materials that illustrate a major point I wish to underline or to identify material that has sparked controversy.
For example, last week in my course on Greek traditions, I taught a session on food practices in Greece and Greek America. We discussed the ways in which history shapes contemporary habits of food consumption. Our example was the famine during the Nazi occupation and the tendency of Greek mothers to overfeed their children. We also discussed the religious symbolism of food, emphasizing the symbolic significance of bread and wine for Orthodoxy, the consumption of lamb during Easter Sunday, and the custom of cracking red-dyed eggs during the holiday, among others. A power point presentation offered corresponding images to help students visualize these traditions.
YouTube came handy in the third aspect of the discussion. I wanted to introduce the idea that representations related to food may generate debates in society. For this we turned to the controversy surrounding a number of Kraft commercials promoting Greek Athenos products in the U.S. The commercials dramatize Greek yiayias as guardians of tradition, grandmothers using harsh words to castigate the modern lifestyle of young people. The yiayias, of course, endorse the Athenos, which is the selling point of the commercial: the product is so authentically traditional that it is the only “modern” product a yiayia would ever consider approving. Cultural caricaturing in the service of selling a product--we get the idea.
An editorial in The National Herald in particular lashed this advertisement. It accused Kraft with ignorance about the “Greek mentality,” which led to cultural misrepresentation and stereotyping. To help students understand the Greek American sensitivity in this controversy, we first watched stand up comedian Basile, in his routine “picking horta” (http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=basille%20horta&sm=3).
What does this short excerpt tell us about food and ethnicity? For one, it dramatizes how attached immigrants can be to ethnic food. But most importantly for my purposes, the segment shows how cultural difference that could be interpreted as backward and old-fashioned may be a source of embarrassment for some Greek Americans. I offer further examples to establish why it matters how Greek culture is portrayed in America.
We proceeded to watch two of the several Athenos yiayia commercials (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=We3MxsWdqOc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqzlO_SEINY). The questions we discussed were: does The National Herald have a point? Is the advertisement offensive to Greek culture, as the editorial charges? Or is this an “ethnic” overreaction? These questions piqued students’ interest, and there was lively exchange. From the discussion, it’s clear that visual culture helps students examine controversial issues and frames discussion to help them better understand and debate perspectives other than their own.
What is your take on this debate? As a first step to enter the discussion you must watch the Athenos commercials, available through a YouTube near you.
(Written for the local magazine ETHOS, published in Columbus, Ohio)