Parodies are pieces of writing or presentations that deliberately copy and make fun of other writings or subjects. Although parodies may offend or make others uncomfortable, they have a peculiar way of benefitting learners by forcing them outside of their natural realms, allowing them to be analytical, and curious of their surroundings. Mary Louise Pratt describes this as creating a contact zone where parody, critique, and unseemly comparisons create social disruptions in which students are challenged. In her essay “Arts of the Contact Zone,” she proposes that classrooms should take up this style of educating.
What would a contact zone in a classroom perform like? Out of all the elements that are capable of creating a contact zone, parody is one of the more familiar choices that would behave well in a classroom. Say for instance an English classroom is designed to be a parody of the students for a week. The professor decided that maybe the students are not performing as well as he had hoped. They haven’t been coming to class, they do not always bring their drafts and their efforts on their papers are lacking.
He wants to challenge them by informing his students about all the stereotypes aimed at young students. He brings up statistics about texting in class, the percentage of homework actually turned in on time, the hours a night spent studying, partying, or drinking, test scores and more. He mocks them when he walks in the classroom, wearing baggy clothes and a sideways hat. He asks them to repeat their questions claiming he wasn’t listening because he was texting on his phone. What kind of reaction would the students have to this kind of behavior?
As a student in this classroom, a person might be confused, angry even at the assumptions made about his or her generation. Everyone is different. The professor can’t make a generalization about everyone in the class based on a stereotype. It is not fair. But what the professor is really doing is allowing the students to question themselves. “The very nature of the course put ideas and identities on the line,” (496) Pratt says about a course similar to this.
The students, seeing themselves in another person’s perspective, may begin to question how they define themselves. Likewise, they will begin to analyze how their newly questioned selves affect their judgments on other elements of their lives, such as people they know or opinions they had prior. This is important because it gives them room to make change if they are dissatisfied with their findings. Although the classroom might have acted as a community, the separation between the students and the teacher by this newly established contact zone may start to break it apart. The students begin to form a safe house.
“We use the term to refer to social and intellectual spaces where groups can constitute themselves as horizontal, homogeneous, sovereign communities with high degrees of trust, shared understandings, temporary protection from legacies of oppression” (497). In other words, a safe house is a group of people with like fears or concerns who find comfort in each other’s understandings of the conflicts within the contact zone. The parody the professor is making of his students would be discomforting and flamboyant; enough so that they would confide in each other for a reasonable explanation.
Although each student is different, every person has room for personal growth and achievement; therefore “despite whatever conflicts or systematic social differences might be at play, it is assumed that all participants are engaged in the same game and that the game is the same for all players” (494). Pratt states that for the most part this is true, although there are a few exceptions. In this case however, we are assuming that the “game” is improvement individually, not to a set classroom standard.
The professor expects each student to out-perform his stereotype, whatever it may be, and become more studious overall. In a way, safe houses have the potential to transform into alliances, where those communities could come together to attempt to defeat something bigger than their individual parts. For example, the students, embarrassed by what society has believed thus far of young scholars, may form an alliance and agree that the only way to change this viewpoint is if they all consent in working towards eradicating this label on the young people.
They will learn to work hard to achieve success and think past what critiques may bound them to. Now there exists a choice the students can make: do they want to live up to the judgments made of them, becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, or do they want to prove their professor wrong? Most students would choose to challenge the professor’s exaggerated opinion. Therefore, unknowingly the students would react the way the professor determined they would. They start coming to class on time, engage in discussions and turn in their homework. They mute their phones and actually pay attention.
All they are trying to prove is that the professor’s belief of them is false. Not every young student is neglectful of his work and not every young student would rather be somewhere else. Pratt’s idea of incorporating contact zones in classrooms in this case worked out well. The students became aware of whom they were perceived as and who they wanted to be. This challenge could work for any classroom. It is not unique to English classes alone. If a person is capable of feeling shame, embarrassment and guilt, the contact zone method could be very successful.