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Oprah College Course

Oprah college course not all show and tell

Web-posted: 3:34 p.m. Mar. 7, 2001

    URBANA, Ill. -- Every Thursday, history students file into a stately old building here at the University of Illinois for classes about Alexander the Great, the Federalist period and ... Oprah.
    Oprah? Yes, Oprah; specifically, "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon."
    Tenured Professor Juliet E.K. Walker, a specialist in the history of African-American business, introduced the course this semester.
    Officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said the course is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The unusual topic has stirred enthusiasm among some, skepticism among others.
    "My department chair told me a member of the board of trustees called," Walker said, "and wanted to know what kind of education was going on up there in the History Department with a course like ĀOprah."'
    To such inevitable questions, Walker has these replies:
    Yes, this is a serious academic course, complete with dense, scholarly texts to read and long research papers to write.
    No, students aren't getting course credits for watching a talk show.
    And yes, Oprah is a historical figure, even though she is only 47 and quite alive.
    And so, in a Gregorian Revival building constructed in 1940, several years before Winfrey was born, students gather to analyze her success in the context of the country's social and economic history.
   The dozen students in the seminar take their places in blue plastic chairs around a long conference table. Walker, sitting at one end, leads the discussion.
    "What changes have taken place in American culture whereby people are receptive to this kind of confessional show?" Walker asks the students.
    Winfrey herself helped change the culture, offers Rebecca Lawrence, 21. "She made herself seem like ĀI'm your best friend you never met'... No one else has given them that comfort zone" on television.
    Walker pursues the point. "So to what extent does she reflect the culture and to what extent did she shape it?"
    Some of both, the students say tentatively.
    The course is designed to examine how Winfrey came to be a cultural icon and to build a formidable media empire that spans television, movies, the Internet and print.
    In doing so, the class also examines the history of black business in the United States, the barriers that throughout the decades kept more African-Americans from achieving great wealth, and why a disproportionate number of those who did are in sports and entertainment.
    "What I'm doing," Walker said, "is using Oprah as a prism to get at the intersection of race, class and gender in the post-civil rights era."
   Homework includes everything from analyzing Winfrey's O to reflecting on the recent Newsweek cover story declaring this "The Age of Oprah."
    Lawrence and the other students also wade through scholarly tracts such as Walker's "Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon: Contextualizing the Economics of Race, Gender, Class in Black Business in Post-Civil Rights America." Their syllabus includes other scholars' harsher views of confessional talk shows and modern-day celebrity.
    Walker said she doesn't know yet if she will offer the class again, but her work analyzing Winfrey and her media empire is just beginning.
    She is writing a book about Winfrey, a book that could have far broader appeal than her academic writings about African-American history and black business.
    "Who knows?" Walker said after class, in an office piled high with scholarly texts and boxes of papers. "I might even make some money."

Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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