BTS (방탄소년단) in an English Composition Course

Course Header Image, provided by Instructor.

As my students chatted, I situated the camera onto the computer screen. They seemed excited about the class activity: filming a reaction video and posting it to YouTube. Opposite the students, on the screen at the front of the classroom, a music video was paused at a blank white frame.

“Do you think we should have an introduction?” I asked them.

“We have to make it interesting!” a student shouted back.

They decided on various elements. The lighting needed to be brighter. The rolling desks would provide movement. They believed that “Georgia Tech” should be included in the title so that audiences could see where we were located.

The camera began to record. Jazz hands gestured toward a student at the middle of the room, who danced and adjusted his cap. “Welcome to English 1101 at Georgia Tech! My name is Nehemiah. These are my colleagues and we will be reacting to BTS’s new video, ‘IDOL’.” What followed was their real-time reaction to the latest single by Bangtan Sonyeondon (방탄소년단), a seven-member male music group from South Korea, complete with nodding heads, tapping feet, and lively discussion.

The fruits of their collective efforts were over two million views.

First Time with BTS?

This reaction video was one part of a much larger unit on BTS’s transmedia storytelling and the participatory culture that surrounds the South Korean music group. In my English 1101 seminar, themed on media convergence, I asked students and how media like “IDOL” exist within a much larger culture of interactive and participatory texts and communities. Thus, BTS’s transmedia catalogue served as an instrumental resource in teaching multimodal interactions to students while also emphasizing participation in worldwide communities.

In the past year alone, BTS has topped the Billboard 200 chart twice and debuted once in the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In September 2018, the group spoke at the United Nations Youth 2030 event to launch Generation Unlimited, an initiative supporting youth worldwide in conjunction with their #LoveYourself and End Violence campaigns. In October 2018, BTS appeared on the cover of Time Magazine described as “Next Generation Leaders.”

BTS announce their partnership with UNICEF with the #LoveMyself campaign.

BTS’s genre-spanning musical corpus revolves around story and message. The narratives told in BTS songs, music videos, and short films engage timely themes of youth in transition, mental illness, and personal growth. The transmedia narratives and the responses they engender are collectively referred to as the “Bangtan Universe.” Despite the heterogeneity of BTS’s styles and influences, the group promotes one central message: “Love yourself. Speak yourself.”

“Love Yourself”: The Teacher as Fan

To be clear, I am a fan of BTS. In BTS fandom terms, I’m what’s called an “ARMY,” or an Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth. At the same time, I am a researcher invested in the transmedia ecology of which BTS is a central part. On negotiating these two roles, Jason Mittell argues that fan/scholars “should own up to [their] own fannish (or anti-fannish) tendencies regarding our objects of study” and not view “fannish” work as “wholly separate from our academic endeavors.” Contrary to this argument, Ian Bogost submits that “aca-fandom” causes “too great a temptation” to be un-critical of the media with which scholars engage. For me, I consider my “fan-ness” integral to my scholarly persona, personal life, and experience of either—so I speak it outright.

Did being an ARMY influence my inclusion of BTS in my ENGL 1101 course? Yes. Of course, it did.

Framing fandom as an analytical tool, I brought other fans to my course as guest speakers, including cosplayers, radio personalities, and fan film directors. I spoke about the fan fiction I’ve been writing for over a decade. And I included sly references to various other media throughout my course materials—including nods to Marvel texts and gifs from A Very Potter Musical—to demonstrate how knowledge of fan communities, literacies, and lexicons can merge with academic study.

In an article for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), MacKenzie Rawcliffe describes the pedagogical potential in teaching BTS media, suggesting that fandom can ground inquiries into and participation in the BTS global digital community and digital citizenship more broadly. That is, the conversations, jargon, and politics of the various social media platforms that comprise digital communities of fans can serve as objects of and tools for critical inquiry. Rawcliffe notes that the BTS digital community is analytically active place, one where members continually debate “how to effectively trend on various platforms, how to get played on the radio, efforts to improve the quality of comments on videos and articles, how to properly interact with journalists and even hold journalists to account when they treat BTS without respect or engage in outright racism are all part of the day-to-day conversation.”

I am a fan that exists within this space she describes. And as a teacher, I seek to interrogate this messy reality with my students.

“Speak Yourself”: BTS and Multilingual Pedagogy

As I planned a multimodal English Composition course centralizing the oft-debated “convergence culture”— or, the lived interactions of new and old media and the dissolving divisions between grassroots and corporate structures—I knew BTS would make for essential content. But in sharing a draft syllabus with colleagues, there was some hesitation. “It’s in Korean,” one commented, “You teach English. Are you sure you want to do that?”

BTS embodies a variety of elements we seek to engage in composition classrooms: the social impact of media, the effective use of multimodality, and, of course, sick dance moves. As I saw it, then, bringing BTS into an English composition class was as natural as including any of the works of German literature, French poetry, and Brazilian film that underlie other English seminars.

What’s more, as instructors of composition, we continually teach and engage in translations. In my class, students read translations of BTS’s promotional materials provided by the band’s management company, Big Hit Entertainment, or produced by fans. And, given that the first language of many of my students was not English, participating in class was already an act of multilayered translation. Our classrooms, in many ways, are not “English” classrooms. They are necessarily multilingual and translingual as student bring their own knowledges into the course. Thus, the English-first mindset I initially encountered from peers was tone-deaf to the multilingual lives of our students, the multiple-language classrooms in which we teach, the work of scholars who actively engage in trans-language work, and the multiple rhetorical realities that surround us in our day-to-day lives (Canagarajah; Matsuda).

I saw, then, that bringing BTS into my classroom—placing a Korean multimodal text at the forefront of the class’s textual ecology—was one step in decentralizing the English composition paradigm.

Transmedia and Participatory Culture

The Bangtan Universe brings together three BTS series: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life (or “Hwayang Yeonhwa” [HYYH]), the subsequent WINGS/You Never Walk Alone series, and LOVE YOURSELF. Each weaves together a story, one media building upon the last with new themes. For example, the HYYH series speaks to “mental health and the desire to belong in a society,” while the WINGS series speaks to temptation (Kan).

In a unit on transmedia, additive comprehension (i.e., how texts provide information that can change how audiences perceive those texts), and content circulation, students watched a series of interconnected BTS music videos, short films, and highlight reels from the Bangtan Universe. While engaging with this media, students read in-universe notes and short stories that inform the transmedia narrative. Linking written, visual, and electronic modes together into one transmedia experience, students thus saw how multimodality, as Katherine Aho writes, allows “for differing versions of potential realities that require not only an audience who is passively reading and consuming text, but also one who can interact and actively interrogate why messages are conveyed in a specific manner” (131).

Students also came to appreciate how many fans of BTS take up active and complex interrogations of this kind, analyzing modal connections and distributing theories regarding those connections. It is through social media, where BTS fandom reigns, that the fan community for the band shares theories (for instance, on symbolic references to time travel in BTS music videos), translations of content, and discussions on a variety of issues, including Asian representation in media and transnational community-building. Content creators, from grassroots YouTube personalities to marketing professionals, often see more pronounced circulation of their materials among the BTS fan community.

In my classroom, the group’s music videos and paratexts unsettled expectations of culture and modality. Even at their first brush with BTS’s music videos, students identified critiques of educational systems (“N.O”) and social inequities (“Silver Spoon”). I also sought to mirror and engage the lively digital spaces of BTS fandom by incorporating a blog into my course. The blog was a shared space for collective intelligence that housed discussion ranging from the paratexts of BTS’s LOVE YOURSELF series to the projects of fans. In individual and collaborative posts, students were provided with room to make their own meanings while reflecting and communicating with peers. Students were able to see and construct relationships between texts and how they functioned within the larger context of international consumption and circulation.

Foregrounding music videos and online discussions thus reminded students that critique does not have to originate only from “academic” sources, that worthwhile conversations on mental health can take the form of a music video, or even the tweets surrounding it.

IDOL: The Reaction Video

As students engaged with the LOVE YOURSELF series, they saw themes of self-acceptance and self-love, and how music videos can establish discourse communities. We discussed participatory culture, or how fans were active in the meaning-making process by cultivating different readings of the texts and sharing knowledges. In no other situation was this more apparent than the creation and distribution of our reaction video.

The reaction video—a genre in which an audience offers real-time commentary to media—was filmed on the third day of class, well before we began to discuss circulation, distribution, and fan communities. The “IDOL” music video was published just four days earlier. Pedagogically, the reaction video functioned in three important ways: (1) it broached discussions of genre conventions, (2) it allowed for direct “participation,” and (3) it allowed students to observe circulation and distribution.

Below is our reaction video, posted to YouTube on August 29, 2018:

The two million views of this video have come from from all over the world. More important, perhaps, than this figure, fans of BTS (including many an ARMY, like me) responded to the video in comments, likes and dislikes, shares, and connections to other online communities. From responses in English to Russian to Korean to Arabic, comments on the video demonstrated its appeal and salience across languages. The video was also shared independently on Reddit and Twitter.

In the class meeting after filming and posting our reaction, we followed a link provided by an ARMY in a YouTube comment. The link led us to a video by DKDKTV, a YouTube channel on Korean culture, discussing the Korean cultural influences seen in “IDOL.” Immersed in the messy reality of the digital space, students observed comments on and critiques of their video, and watched their work travel across platforms, languages, and borders. And students realized how often their own interpretations, whether they know it or not, are shaped by the fan-mediated conversations.

After several weeks engaging with the various transmedia elements described in this article, I asked students how the paratexts from the HYYH, WINGS, and LOVE YOURSELF series changed their original readings of “IDOL.” One student, Pranav Krishnamurthy wrote:

Originally, I was perplexed by the weird and eccentric images and extremely bright colors. However, now I realize that there is a very purposeful reason for the over-the-top nature of the music video. Because it is the last stage of the LOVE YOURSELF series, the over-the-top nature [of the video] perfectly demonstrates the idea of self-acceptance regardless of the obstacles or environment you face. I now understand many of the origami unicorns in the video (including the Korean cultural references) that show BTS reaching self-acceptance and displaying who they are.

After describing the Bangtan Universe and placing his descriptions in conversation with the “IDOL” music video, Pranav notes the influence of additive comprehension and the thematic cornerstones of the BTS transmedia storytelling experience. His reflection thus demonstrates how the course created an opportunity for continuously-evolving perceptions of the “IDOL” music video. By scaffolding fan-like engagement with the various elements of the Bangtan Universe atop media theory, students gained an understanding of the evolving relationship between texts. And in doing so, they developed foundational skills in communication and analysis.

Outro: Participate

By seizing on the opportunities for multilayered engagement provided by BTS’s content—that is, the expanding Bangtan Universe—students gained new understandings of the relationships between texts, people, and knowledge on a global scale. These lessons were not learned in spite of the texts being written in Korean, but by virtue of being first written in Korean, and then disseminated in multilingual digital ecologies. It was in articulating connections between grassroots and corporate structures that students effectively partook in the collaborative and international making of meaning. And they saw their efforts recognized in a reception that astonished everyone involved, even their instructor.

 

Works Cited

Aho, Katherine G. (2015). Building a discourse: Bridging the gap between new media’s convergence and rhetoric and composition’s multimodality. Dissertation, Michigan Technological University.

Bogost, Ian. (2010). “Against Aca-fandom: On Jason Mittell on Mad Men.” Ian Bogost. Retrieved 10 Aug. 2017.

Canagarajah, S. (2013). Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. London, UK: Routledge.

Kan, T. (2016). “Creative Production Inspirations and Lessons from BTS in KPOP, Pt. 1.” Vivid Foundry. Retrieved 10 Aug. 2017.

Matsuda, P. K. (2010). “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition.” In Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Kei Matsuda (Eds.), Cross-Language Relations in Composition (81-96). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Mittell, J. (2010). “On Disliking Mad Men.” Just TV. Retrieved 10 Aug. 2017.

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Chelsea Murdock

About Chelsea Murdock

Chelsea J. Murdock is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Assistant Director at the Georgia Tech Communication Center. She earned her PhD at the University of Kansas with a focus in Composition and Rhetoric, lingering particularly on Indigenous and cultural rhetorics as well as participatory culture. Her work has appeared in Community Literacy Journal and will appear in College English. For more information about her work, visit chelseajmurdock.com.
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