Students giving final presentations during a December Term class taking place in a theatre.
Jana Casey, a sophomore, gives a final presentation during Introduction to Tropes and Stereotypes in Theatre, Film, and Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, part of D-Term at Lawrence University. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Once upon a time, there was a yankee. Clad in striped pants and a patched vest, this country-bumpkin character was immediately recognizable on stage, created by British authors in the colonial period to represent—and often mock—Americans at large.

But it didn’t stay that way. Rather than taking offense, Americans embraced the yankee, adopting the character as their own.

Now, as time has moved forward, the yankee has continued to evolve. One could argue that in the modern day, the yankee has morphed into the character of the redneck, stereotypically portrayed with a shotgun in one hand and a Bible in the other.

From insult to patriotic symbol and then back to a new kind of insult, this trope has evolved over time while remaining immediately identifiable, giving the audience a clear picture of who that character is and how he behaves through stereotypical mannerisms—a phenomenon that Lawrence’s Introduction to Tropes and Stereotypes in Theatre, Film, and Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly class has been studying this December Term (D-Term).

As an optional two-week addition to the academic calendar, this year running from Nov. 28 through Dec. 10, D-Term gives students the opportunity to take a focused, three-unit course of their choosing during winter break. For students who choose to stay, they often work with professors who are diving deep into a particular subject of interest within their field. Six courses were offered during this year’s D-Term, ranging from Food, Politics and Culture, to The Science of Superheroes, to Happiness: Meditation and Science.

Learn more about Lawrence’s D-Term here.

In the case of Introduction to Tropes and Stereotypes, Austin Rose, lecturer of theatre arts, built the course based on his M.F.A. research into tropes and stereotypes in American theatre, focusing on gay and lesbian, Black, and Latino representation.

With only two weeks at their disposal, the class moves fast by necessity, providing an overview of how tropes and stereotypes function, which common tropes persist in American media, and how to stop the perpetuation of harmful and negative portrayals.

“We consume so much media that there are stereotypes and tropes everywhere, and it’s really hard to recognize them when you haven’t learned about them before and how harmful they are,” said sophomore Lucie Peltier, a philosophy and creative writing major enrolled in the course. “I’m hoping to become more aware of all the tropes in everyday life, in film, in theatre, in media.”

With each trope covered and each piece of media introduced, Rose will turn to the class and ask, “What are your thoughts?” Through this discussion-based structure, students said they are able to process the information verbally with their classmates to understand the trope in all its forms, whether positive, negative or neutral. The course culminates with in-depth student presentations on a specific trope of their choice, enabling students to do their own research and supplementing the surface-level introductions that have occurred throughout the week.

As well as the structure of the class itself, the format of D-Term has allowed students to focus more time and energy on the subject matter, becoming closer with classmates in the process. After every class period, the nine-student class will go to lunch together, where discussions of the class material often continue, according to sophomore Nayla Brunnbauer, a film major enrolled in the course. Since students are also only taking one course during the two-week period, they go to each class feeling more energized, Peltier said, and can take the time to understand the subject better.

“I think one of the big appeals of a D-Term course is that you don’t have all the other stuff hanging over your head,” Rose said. “It feels a little more relaxed and a little more privileged, I would say, than the regular term feels.”

That said, D-Term can also serve as a way to experiment with introducing a new class, workshopping the format and gauging student interest, before expanding the course to 10 weeks for a standard term—an idea that Peltier and Brunnbauer both supported. They hope that future students will get the chance to delve even deeper into the complex world of tropes and stereotypes.

“Identifying these different tropes and different characters, maybe we can identify something about ourselves and how we fit into our society,” Rose said. “Along the way, we can try to knock out the goofy stuff and not perpetuate the bad stuff anymore. We’ve learned why it’s bad, so let’s stop it.”