Oprah College Course
Oprah college course not all show
By MARJA MILLS
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.
Yes, Oprah; specifically, "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the
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
"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."'
such inevitable questions, Walker has these
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
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
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
"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
Walker pursues the point. "So to
what extent does she reflect the culture and to what extent did she
Some of both, the students say
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
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.
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
everything from analyzing Winfrey's O to reflecting on the
recent Newsweek cover story declaring this "The Age of
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
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
"Who knows?" Walker said after
class, in an office piled high with scholarly texts and boxes of
papers. "I might even make some money."
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