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Creating Critical Distance; or, on Teaching Avatar: The Last Airbender

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As I noted earlier, I decided to teach an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in my “American Manga” class even though only half that title applies.  (It’s technically “American anime.”)  I chose the penultimate episode, “The Ember Island Players,” because it 1) requires almost no knowledge of the series to understand and 2) it performs the show’s fraught relation to its Japanese forebears.  I’ll tackle the first item today, the second tomorrow.

Before I continue, I’ll add the same caveat I have to all these analyses designed for freshmen-level composition courses: they’re designed for freshmen-level composition courses.*  I’m attempting to model engaged cultural criticism for students who consider culture something to be passively consumed, i.e. I provide the tools then teach them how to construct a persuasive rhetorical argument.**  On with the show:

“The Ember Island Players” requires little knowledge of the series because it consists of the main characters watching a play that recapitulates it.  All I need to tell the two students who haven’t already seen every episode is that the kids are about to go to war with the Fire Nation, and that this play (as the title of the episode indicates) is being produced by a Fire Nation theater troupe.  As soon as Sokka—the Zeppo of this crew—discovers the poster, the difference between the kids:

Continue Reading (at my place because embedding all those images takes forever and I still didn’t quite nail it)…

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