What do comedians like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart have in common? They are all leaders in American political satire, which is experiencing a renaissance thanks in part to a growing number of performers and late-night TV programs using the art form.
Professor of English and Cultural Studies Amber Day, Ph.D., is a leading scholar on the topic. Her book Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Discourse has been cited extensively, and she serves as a go-to resource for journalists writing about political satire. Currently she’s working on a new book, to be published by Indiana University Press, about feminist comedians such as Samantha Bee, Amy Schumer and others, and the public discourse surrounding them.
“I want to foster a spirit of intellectual curiosity in my students, an interest in taking things apart and not taking their world for granted.”
Day's new scholarship shows such promise that she won a writing fellowship from the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, which promotes advanced research in the humanities and natural sciences, to work on the book. She was one of 12 writers and 400 applicants from around the world selected for 2020 fellowships by the institute, which is based at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
The fellowship, offering a four-month residency in Johannesburg, provides the opportunity to write intensively as well as exchange ideas with a cohort of writers from other fields and backgrounds. The program ran from February to May of 2020 (though Day’s residency ended early due the pandemic).
Fostering intellectual curiosity
Academics and journalists aren’t the only ones who benefit from Day’s latest thoughts on developments in the field – her students do, too, including those in her Political Satire course.
“I keep the class up to date on things happening in the moment, and I bring my own research into it,” said Day. “Similar to what I do in my writing, in the class we think about satire as a lens.” For example, on the current renaissance in satire, she asks the students, “What does that say about our political discourse or about the media conversation?”
“It was nice to have the writer of the textbook right there to answer any questions. I could ask, 'Could you explain why you wrote this instead of that?'"
During the course, students engage with the latest scholarship in the field, connecting theory to relevant modern-day satirical examples ranging from South Park to Internet memes. “I want to foster a spirit of intellectual curiosity in my students, an interest in taking things apart and not taking their world for granted,” said Day.
Students who took the course last fall say the fact that she is at the top of her field, along with her personalized support, helped them do just that, furthering their development of critical thinking and analysis, skills that can help one gain a winning edge in any industry.
The scholars discussed in the course included Day herself, which energized the students. “I remember thinking, ‘this is so cool!’” said Layna Holk '22, a Communications major, who also appreciated the valuable supplemental information on the scholars studied.
The class “has made me much more aware that the things that exist in media are often much more meaningful than just being something that is circulated around the Internet.”
Megan Polun '23 agreed. “It was nice to have the writer of the textbook right there to answer any questions. I could ask, 'Could you explain why you wrote this instead of that?'” said Polun, who is pursuing a double major in Leadership and Innovation and, thanks in part to the course, Literary and Cultural Studies.
Day often went above and beyond to ensure students understood the scholarly ideas and materials presented in class, according to Holk. “We learned different modes of analysis, which she would walk us through every single class. She really wanted us to know what we were talking about.”
Learning from Day: "a privilege"
A final research paper on a chosen topic served to bring all the learnings and ideas of the course together.
"Being an expert in her field provided much more beyond just the subject of political satire. It added to my personal, academic and scholarly journey as a student.”
“Being able to relate scholarship to a satirical performer that everyone can relate to, and then talking about its meaning as it relates to society and politics, has made me much more deliberate about the world that I live in,” said Kayla Batalha '22, a Literary and Cultural Studies major who wrote her paper on feminist comedians. “It’s made me much more aware that the things that exist in media are often much more meaningful than just being something that is circulated around the Internet.”
“Learning from her felt, honestly, kind of like a privilege. Being an expert in her field provided much more beyond just the subject of political satire,” continued Batalha. “It added to my personal, academic and scholarly journey as a student.”