3-Act Analysis of The Office, Season 4, Episode 9, “Dinner Party”

I love the TV show, The Office. So does my wife. And thanks to Netflix, we can watch it at any time. We’ve seen every episode, multiple times.

A strange thing has recently happened, though. My tenth-grade students—all of whom had my wife last year, but independent of our influence—are watching The Office.

I’ve been teaching tenth-graders for thirteen years now. Usually I don’t know anything about the things they are interested in. When I started teaching, it was Twilight. Now it’s Fortnite. But here’re these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds who are obsessed with The Office and who, like this forty-year-old, have seen every episode. They wear Dunder Mifflin t-shirts. They paint portraits of Dwight in art class. They play Office trivia.

A few weeks ago, near the beginning of a unit on Oedipus the King, we were discussing Aristotle’s Poetics and applying three-act structure and reversals to the novels we’ve read (plus a couple of movies we’d all seen).

One of these Office devotees raised her hand and asked, quite earnestly, if this could be applied to “Dinner Party” from Season Four (yes, she cited the season and episode title). Her reason for asking, she reported, was that she had been thinking about it and the episode seemed to be all bad; she couldn’t place the reversals to good fortune.

I asked for 24 hours, came home, watched the episode, and here’s the answer, delivered to the student the following morning:

The Office Season 4, Episode 9: “Dinner Party”

The runtime is 22 minutes. Like most episodes, it begins with a pre-credit opener. Often, these are separate from the main plot, but not this one. In this one, Michael elaborately tricks Jim into revealing that he and Pam have no plans that night, forcing Jim to agree to come over for dinner. This is the INCITING INCIDENT (at minute 1).

Credits

Act One begins with Jim and Pam’s arrival at Michael’s condo. In fact, all of the Act divisions are marked by the arrival of a new couple. Jim and Pam arrive at minute 3. Andy and Angela arrive about one-third of the way in (end of Act One). Dwight and that lady arrive about two-thirds of the way in (end of Act Two). They all literally cross the threshold, which signifies a change or entry into a new world. At the end of Act Three, two cops arrive.

In Act One, Jim and Pam get a tour of the condo, which sets up the ready-to-boil-over antagonism between Michael and Jan, demonstrated by their growing passive aggressiveness. We see this develop throughout the party, and we can all see that this relationship is over.

In the Act One climax, Andy and Angela arrive. REVERSAL: the party seems to be progressing toward its conclusion (how much longer could it last?), but Jan reveals that the dinner won’t be ready for hours (good to bad).

At the midpoint of the episode, Jim seems to have resolved the entire conflict by faking a flooding, but in a good to bad reversal, neither he nor Pam (who comically betrays him) gets to leave.

The awkwardness of the party game (caused by M and J’s passive aggressiveness) leads to a parallel reversal. Pam is able to escape the ugly scene to the kitchen (the archetypal female haven) with Jan and Angela, but, in a good to bad REVERSAL, she is erroneously confronted by Jan about dating Michael. In a parallel scene, the boys escape to the garage (archetypal male haven) but, in another good to bad REVERSAL, Michael awkwardly asks J and A to invest in Jan’s candle business.

Act Two ends with Dwight and the lady arriving. The major REVERSAL here is that Jim and Pam now have more buffer and some entertainment (Pam says, “Awesome!”), but the arrival instead leads to a bitter and personal fight between Michael and Jan about having children.

Act Three begins with the dinner scene, and the climax is Jan breaking the little plasma TV with a Dundee, followed by the cops arriving.

The denouement (unravelling) is the musical montage (Hunter’s song) of all the couple’s after the party.

Using 4 Minutes of Toy Story 2 to Teach Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

My three-year-old watches a lot of Toy Story. Daily, you could accurately say, sometimes to the chagrin of the six-year-old, the thirty-five-year-old, and the forty-year-old he lives with. But a couple of weeks ago, during that week’s fifth-or-so screening of Toy Story 2, I came upon a teaching idea.

My 10th-grade students were reading Oedipus the King and had just received a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics during which we defined the terms anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), those definitions, according to Aristotle, being as follows:

ANAGNORISIS = RECOGNITION = “change from ignorance to knowledge”

PERIPETEIA = REVERSAL = “a change of the actions to their opposite”

Here’s what Aristotle had to say about these:

“A recognition is finest when it happens at the same time as the reversal, as does the one in Oedipus.”

Cue Toy Story 2. I showed my students a short clip that starts at around an hour and four minutes in and ends a bit past an hour and eight minutes.

In the clip, Woody’s friends have come to rescue him from Al’s apartment and bring him back to Andy, but Woody doesn’t want to go. Instead, he wants to go to a museum in Japan with his new friends, the Round Up Gang.

Woody’s friends try to persuade him to come with him, but they fail and then leave. After they’re gone, Woody sees an old videotape of a little boy playing with his Woody doll. As Woody watches, his eyes widen and his mouth opens. Suddenly, he calls after his friends; he wants to go with them after all, and he has very nearly convinced the Round Up Gang to come with him when Stinky Pete the Prospector blocks them from doing so. End of clip.

I asked the students to tell their neighbors what they had just witnessed, and because we had just reviewed the aforementioned terms as well as Aristotle’s opinion as to their “finest” application, the students were able to report that Woody had a recognition (anagnorisis) that he couldn’t abandon Andy, and this recognition caused and therefore occurred simultaneously with a reversal (peripeteia) in the action.

So: Toy Story 2 ended up being a great setup for the students’ reading of Episode Four of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences the simultaneous recognition and reversal that Aristotle had deemed “finest.”

FOUR TYPES OF TEACHERS, ONLY ONE OF WHICH IS REALLY TEACHING

This week, I have been re-reading John Barth’s The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, which is John Barth’s ninth book (and first book of nonfiction, though the subject throughout is fiction).

The Friday Book, along with Barth’s story collection Lost in the Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, were the books about which I wrote my critical thesis as an MFA student nine or so years ago, and this current re-reading is the ninth stop in an (aforementioned here) reading (or, in some cases, such as this one, re-reading) of Barth’s entire bibliography, an effort that has now lasted several years (due to [also aforementioned] all of the side roads that those readings/re-readings have suggested exploring) and that (among many other things) I have “written into” my current metafictive work-in-progress.

In the introductory remarks to one piece in The Friday Book, Barth recounts a panel discussion on teaching creative writing, at which Wallace Stegner was a panelist and during which Stegner, in occasionally equestrian terms, gave the following description of teaching, or approaches to teaching, paraphrased by Barth and numbered by me:

“The writing teacher, Stegner declared, can be (1) an authoritarian who breaks his colts with a two-by-four; or he can be (2) a rebel who by his unorthodoxy tries to stimulate originality in his charges…; or he can (3) abdicate responsibility and let go the reins entirely, admiring everything his students do and being correspondingly loved by them; or (4) he can really teach, declaring his principles and stating his standards and obliging his students to demonstrate that any innovation they make is better than what they give up to make it.”

I’ve been a teacher for twelve years. Not a newbie but by no means a veteran. I’m somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth, still making my way, appalled at the flawed navigational decisions I made upon entering, each turn around each corner now simultaneously producing greater understanding of where I am and where I’m going but more questions about the same.

At various points in my twelve-year career, I have been each of the four teachers described above, some more often than others, but, after a couple thousand days in the classroom, each often enough.

My observation, though, is that good teachers (despite a protean nature day-to-day, mostly early in the career) will tend toward the fourth type—toward “really” teaching.

I believe (and hope that my belief is true) that I am mostly (nearly completely) the fourth type.

I used to teach night classes part time for University of Phoenix. At their twice-a-year general faculty meetings, they would give awards to the teachers who gave the lowest grades while getting the highest student reviews. U of P was (is, I suppose) a somewhat ridiculous institution, but I thought that that measurement had merit.

I get along reasonably well with my students, including with (sometimes particularly with) those who struggle the most in what I believe (and hope my belief is true) is a rewardingly difficult class.

There are teachers whose students love them despite rigid expectations and rigid adherence to those expectations, and then there are teachers whose students love them precisely for the lack of such standards, or for the inability to adhere to any.

It’s important (I think) to always be honest with students (brutally honest, when that is called for).

And establishing unmovable principles and standards and applying them with the rigor they demand is a type of honesty.

And to not do so is not only dishonest, according to Stegner (according to Barth), it is not even really teaching.

CATE Conference 2018

A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.

 

Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).

 

This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.

 

The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)

 

Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.

 

We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.

 

Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.

 

(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)

 

We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).

 

We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.

 

But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.

 

This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).

 

So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.

 

Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).