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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Pedagogy of the Possessed : Teaching and Learning in ’Buffy’

Monday 21 March 2011, by Webmaster

For the last ten years audiences have watched young wizards learn to negotiate the supernatural in a rigid, hierarchical academy for the magically gifted. Joss Whedon’s series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set first in a California public high school, later in a university—offers a very different view of instruction in the dark arts, one that not only comports with Americans’ suspicion of formal education and preference for pragmatic, on-the-job instruction but also reflects its creator’s pessimistic view of the perfectibility of culture.

Joss Whedon has structured Buffy as an amalgam of an American television staple, the high-school comedy-drama, and the traditional horror story, whose frequent reliance on a research component makes it a good complement to the school setting. Elevating a character type usually relegated to supporting cast status, the juvenile delinquent, Whedon makes his heroine an average pupil at odds with school administration, adept only at an alternative, secret curriculum that the series valorizes over traditional classroom instruction.

Aside from fleeting moments of insight in the classroom, Buffy’s substantive education takes place under the tutelage of Watcher and mentor Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Working undercover as the school librarian, Giles instructs Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the dark lore she must master in order to dispatch the creatures she’s been called to slay. Buffy’s course of study plays like a dream curriculum founded in principles of active learning. Providing access to primary documents (thanks to Giles, Sunnydale High has an impressive collection of occult texts) and taking his charge into the field for hands-on instruction, Giles turns Buffy’s education into a literal internship from hell.

Yet Buffy is hardly an endorsement of experiential education, a favorite American pedagogical approach with an emphasis on individual growth and societal change, whose roots go back to psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey. Neither is it a call to revolution, like Brazilian Paulo Freire’s influential and still controversial treatise on the transformative potential of schooling, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead Buffy mocks earnest, issues-of-the-day writing common in shows from Room 222 to Beverly Hills, 90210 to Joan of Arcadia by grafting teen narratives about drug abuse, domestic violence, or sexual orientation onto horror plots, a practice that simultaneously reinvigorates such themes while disavowing the belief in progressive educational goals that usually accompany them.

Just as Sunnydale’s Hellmouth attracts an impressive array of supernatural creatures—mummies, shape shifters, and soul-sucking demons, in addition to vampires—so the local high school employs a lengthy parade of pedagogues, whose rapid turnover is insured by the predations of the former group. At Sunnydale High, teachers, principals, and advisors have the shelf lives of Spinal Tap drummers, and their evanescent tenures enable writers to represent (and parody) a wide range of teaching styles and instructional approaches.

Principal Flutie, in charge of Sunnydale High when the series begins, subscribes to the permissive, self-esteem approach to educating teens, welcoming Buffy and giving her a clean slate, despite her spotty record at her old school in L.A. After he proves too indecisive to lead a school built on the portal to hell (in conference with Buffy he tears up her record, then, after glimpsing what it contains, anxiously tapes it back together as they talk), the hapless Flutie is torn apart by students possessed by hyena spirits. Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), Flutie’s law-and-order successor, more interested in integrating “antisocial types” like Buffy into the school, declares that “Sunnydale has touched and felt for the last time.”

Good teaching manages to manifest itself despite Snyder’s harsh tactics. Season One’s “Teacher’s Pet” features a science teacher who sees past Buffy’s reputation, but insists on discipline. Mr. Gregory tells her that she “has a first-class mind,” and encourages her to apply herself. She does, and for once, carries out the pre-slaying homework—usually tackled by Giles and Willow (Alyson Hannigan)—that saves the day. Before he can establish a lasting connection with Buffy, however, Mr. Gregory loses his head to a she-mantis impersonating a Sunnydale teacher and seducing, then feeding on male virgins.

Computer instructor Ms. Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), self-described “techno-pagan,” wins over the Scooby Gang (Buffy, Willow, and Xander [Nicholas Brendon]) with her frankness and open classroom in Season Two. Angel (David Boreanaz) kills her later the same season when he temporarily loses his soul. Guidance counselor Mr. Platt also reaches Buffy, in Season Three, albeit briefly. “The hope I bring you is, demons can be fought; people can change,” he confides, shortly before his death at the hands of a student dabbling in a Jekyll-Hyde potion.

The pattern continues at UC Sunnydale. Professor Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), like Mr. Gregory, challenges Buffy to excel, and she responds, at one point writing a paper that makes brainy Willow jealous. But the professor who refuses to “coddle” her students secretly heads the sadistic “Initiative,” which captures vampires and demons and subjects them to behavioral modification. Oh, and she also creates a prototype human-demon-robot hybrid named Adam.

In the time-honored tradition of the high school comedy-drama, teaching moments serve to introduce episode themes in Buffy. Season One’s “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” introduces the topic of marginalization and persecution, when English teacher Ms. Miller reads Shylock’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Just to underscore the point, during the following discussion, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) gives her self-absorbed condemnation of self-victimization, even as she exhibits that very tendency. In “Bad Eggs” (2.12) a health class exercise in mock-parenting establishes the theme of responsibility.

The teaching moment that introduces an episode’s subject carries over into college. Professor Walsh lectures on Freudian theory—defining the id, ego, superego, and Pleasure Principle—in “Beer Bad” (4.5), highlighting the issues of impulse control and ethical behavior, in an episode that follows Buffy’s reaction to rejection after a sexual encounter with a classmate.

In each instance, there is a supernatural or paranormal dimension to the theme. A marginalized student becomes invisible and carries out her revenge on those who ignored her. Egg parasites turn students and faculty into pod people. Doctored brew transforms Buffy and a clutch of pretentious undergrad boys into cave teens. Thus Buffy puts a clever, ironic, often ghoulish twist on themes, which serves both to lampoon over-serious, ripped-from-the-headlines topical television but also, oddly enough, to give these tired subjects a resonance they lack in TV instructional settings that don’t involve snake-men and fungus demons. It’s the inside joke that Buffy sustained for seven seasons: rendering teen dilemmas as life-or-death struggles with the forces of darkness, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, better captures the experience of being young than any attempt at verisimilitude can.

At the same time, portraits of teachers—good and bad—and alternative pedagogies, serve to set off in sharp relief the series’ ideal teacher: Giles, whose relationship with Buffy is the heart of Buffy. Part John Keating from Dead Poets Society, part Henry Higgins, Giles pushes his mentoring beyond the pragmatic to provide life lessons to guide Buffy’s path to independence as a Slayer and young woman, always reminding her that ultimately, she’s on her own.

Teacher and student evolve together in a relationship with plenty of rough patches. Season One shows the pair growing into their roles, learning to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies. “You’re a textbook with arms,” Buffy tells her Watcher early on. “We’re doomed,” Giles mutters to himself, aghast at the Scooby gang’s nonchalance. “We feel our way as we go along,” Giles admits to Buffy in a typically frank confession.

In Season Two, Buffy opens up more to her Watcher, who in turn reveals more of his past. Giles’s instruction takes on more depth, and he provides the reflection requisite for all successful experiential education (acknowledging, for example, the “issues” plaguing Buffy after her death at the hands of the Master at the end of Season One), and as a result their relationship becomes as much therapeutic as instructional.

When Kendra—the Slayer summoned when the Master killed Buffy—arrives in Sunnydale, the contrast between the two Slayers, as well as the differences between Giles and Kendra’s Watcher, further illuminate Giles’s pedagogy. “With Buffy, however, some flexibility’s required,” Giles tells Kendra, by way of explaining his departures from Watcher orthodoxy.

Buffy discovers that, despite his bookishness, Giles has not been teaching her by the book. The Slayer Handbook (yes, it exists!) that Kendra has memorized has played no part in Buffy’s education, because, Giles explains, it “would be of no use in your case.” Kendra is shocked to discover that Buffy has been allowed to attend school and date boys, since her own experience has been more like a Chinese gymnast’s: given to her Watcher by her parents when she was so young that she no longer remembers them, Kendra has spent her entire life training. Her preparation has more in common with the apprenticeship model of indoctrination that passes for education in the demon world of Buffy than with Giles’s tutelage.

Season Three reveals that Kendra’s Watcher was no aberration. Defrocked Watcher Gwendolyn Post and Watcher Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, an official Council emissary sent from England to investigate newly Watcherless Slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) and evaluate Giles, both react as Kendra did: they see Giles as inappropriately permissive. Wesley says he’s behind the times. Gwendolyn goes so far as to tell Giles he’s become Americanized. When the council relieves Giles of his Watcher duties, they justify their actions by accusing him of acting as a father to Buffy. It’s a charge Buffy’s mother echoes, when she confronts Giles after Buffy’s disappearance following the events of the Season Two finale. Giles, she claims, established a relationship with her daughter “behind my back”; “I feel you’ve taken her away from me,” she concludes.

Giles finds himself in the same position vis--vis the Council that Buffy endures with respect to the high school administration. Both are rebels, and, except for the Scooby gang, isolatos—that is to say, typical Whedon heroes. Perhaps because it’s so hard to think of Giles as an outsider, Whedon gives us Season Three’s “Band Candy,” in which Sunnydale adults become teenagers again. Giles’s adolescent self is pure juvenile delinquent, complete with violent tendencies and a working-class accent. It’s a reminder that he, like Buffy, remains an outsider.

For the balance of the series Giles moves back and forth from official Watcher status to consultant capacity, while Buffy gradually assumes her own teaching duties, with sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), students at the new Sunnydale High (as a part-time advisor), and fledgling Slayers as the series finale approaches.

Buffy first gets a taste of the role of teacher with Kendra. In a heated discussion with the new Slayer, Buffy insists that emotions are “total assets,” while Kendra considers them a weakness. Both girls admit that Kendra has better technique than Buffy, but Buffy claims the newcomer lacks “imagination.”

“Power alone isn’t enough,” Buffy explains; a Slayer needs to “improvise, go with the flow.” Improvisation, incidentally, characterizes Giles’s instructional relationship with Buffy, and is the element the Council finds most distasteful, most “American.” Buffy goes on to prove her point by staging a teaching moment. She goads Kendra, then asks, “You feel it, right? How the anger gives you fire? A Slayer needs that.”

Buffy’s on-the-job training of Dawn follows the same contours. “Who has the power?” she asks her little sister as they watch a new vampire climb from his grave in “Lessons,” the final season opener. Letting Dawn fight the newbie until he’s about to bite her drives home the lesson: the baddies always have the power. “It’s real. It’s the only lesson, Dawn. It’s always real,” Buffy sums up.

It’s the first lesson Buffy gives four Potentials when they arrive in Sunnydale after the destruction of the Watchers’ Council. When Giles wants to consult with Buffy in secret, she disagrees. “No time to coddle them, Giles,” she says, echoing Professor Walsh. “Welcome to the war room, guys.” At this point, Buffy has become Giles’s pedagogic equal, and he cedes responsibility for the new Slayers to her. Other characters also acknowledge Buffy’s new status. Principal Wood and Dawn’s classmates all assume Buffy is Dawn’s mother, not her sister. It’s played for laughs, but in a way her newly embraced adult responsibilities show that Buffy reaches the end of her character’s development before Buffy concludes, which might explain the lack of drama in many of the final season’s episodes. If the series is really about Giles and Buffy, there’s nothing more to tell.

Joss Whedon’s oft-quoted comment about the setting of Firefly—“nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today”—holds true for the vision of history that informs Buffy. The series posits an endless cycle of good battling evil in the place of real social progress, and while this perspective stands in stark contrast to the educational reform worldview, Giles nevertheless shares with John Dewey faith in the educability of the individual, and the belief that “to prepare [the child] for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities” (“My Pedagogic Creed”). “I didn’t make Buffy who she is,” Giles tells Joyce Summers after she blames him for her daughter’s disappearance. Indeed, but he certainly has succeeded in giving her command of herself.