“You need to learn a lot about your own culture”: Addressing culture and language through humour in The Office curriculum by Scott Reid a Final Conference Paper for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

“You need to learn a lot about your own culture”: Addressing culture and language through humour in The Office curriculum by Scott Reid a Final Conference Paper for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

Abstract

The US mockumentary sitcom The Office is a satirical series that uses humour to address issues of culture and language.  In particular, the series uses humour to address the issue of essentializing cultural minorities.  Consequently, the curriculum of The Office demonstrates the importance of using said humour to promote an inclusive environment.  The purpose of this analysis is to review the successful manner in which The Office deals with these many cultural issues.  This review will also examine character Michael Scott’s role as a culturally responsive manager, and the power relations that are present in the series.  Additionally, The Office’s use of the documentary format, which demonstrates the relationships the characters on the show have developed with that particular place, and the unique language found there, will be discussed.  Moreover, this analysis will include a review of the curriculum the fictional office is trying to establish through its implemented policies.  Ultimately, the writers of the series have been successful in establishing a curriculum that provokes reflection in their audience, particularly in relation to the issue of multicultural inclusiveness.

Keywords: culture, language, curriculum, The Office, humour

Introduction

It’s Thursday night and I am rushing home after class to catch the latest installment of The Office.  The American version of The Office, which proved to be a television hit for NBC, is currently in its ninth and final season.  The series is considered a mockumentary, or a faux documentary series, about the occurrences at a local paper-sales company named Dunder Mifflin.  The premise of the show, the satirical nature of the series and the lack of laugh track, among other things, are what have made this sitcom one of my favorite comedies on television.  Issues dealing with race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and status have all played a part in the series.  Thus, the issue of culture is featured prominently on the show.  This analysis will look at the satirical manner in which The Office deals with these many cultural issues.  A look at Michael Scott’s attempt at being a culturally responsive manager, and the power relations that go along with being a boss, will follow.  Next, a discussion about the relationships the characters on The Office have developed with that particular place, and the unique language of this place, will be presented.  The analysis will conclude with a review of the curriculum the fictional office is trying to establish through policies, and the curriculum of the writers of The Office in terms of teaching the public about race and cultural relationships.

Culture as Satire

The Office’s use of cultural satire is quite prevalent in the season 1 episode titled “Diversity Day,” where Michael Scott has his employees place a Post-It card on their forehead with a particular race written on it.  Michael Scott, the manager, would like his employees to treat their peers as a member of the race that is written on the Post-It card attached to their head.  While most of the employees do not appear to be comfortable with the activity, Michael forces them to participate.  When Pam, the office receptionist, talks to Dwight, a white man who is wearing a Post-It card with the word “Asian” on it, she tells him she likes his food.  Michael interrupts and suggests Pam try again and “[s]tir the pot, stir the melting pot” (Novak & Kwapis, 2005).  The notion of the melting pot is often associated with the idea of assimilation, which can work to eliminate a variety of cultures in favour of a single unified culture.  Kanu (2003) discusses “[a] recognizable theme in the discourse of the nation as continuous narrative of national harmony and progress and the production of ‘unifying’ national cultures is the role of the school as an ‘ideological state apparatus” (p. 71).  While Dundler Mifflin is not part of the school system, this particular office is acting similar to the schools Kanu (2003) describes as “the state’s vehicle for ideological assimilation and homogenization” (p. 71).  Moreover, none of the Post-It cards had the word “White” written on them, which is also problematic.  By not including “White,” Michael is furthering the idea that his “culture is ‘normal’ and ‘their’ (immigrants’) culture is ‘abnormal” (p.87) mentioned by Moon (2010) as an assimilation tactic.  Essentially, Michael’s behavior is not unlike the teacher identified as white by Moon (2010) who argued that it is “counter-productive to keep pulling us [Americans] apart and looking for what each small ethnic group needs, wants, demands, etc. The idea here, in the U.S., is to meet together and ALL become Americans. We need to assimilate!” (p. 86).  Consequently, this particular extreme example in The Office may not be totally uncommon in the United States.  Furthermore, the idea of assimilation found in the US version of The Office is similar to the story of Aboriginal people found in Canada, which, as Weenie (2008) notes, is “entrenched in colonialism, patriarchy, sexism and racism” (p.547) and “reflected in the different processes of segregation, integration and assimilation that have constituted federal policy on Aboriginal education” (pp. 547-548).  Consequently, it can be said that Michael Scott’s managerial style is similar to the colonialism found in the Canadian Government that has been unfair and harmful to the Aboriginal people of Canada.

Discussing the two types of workers at Dunder Mifflin in the episode titled “Boys and Girls,” Michael tells his employees that most people will “look around and see two groups here, white collar and blue collar” but that he does not see it that way because he is “collar-blind” (Novak & Gordon, 2006).  Michael is implying that he is also colour-blind in terms of race.  In this sense, Michael is not practicing culturally responsive managing.  Rather, Michael treats everyone as if they shared a similar culture.  While this may be common, and even accepted in the workplace, it is not culturally responsive in the way Gay (2002) describes, which includes taking into consideration “cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives” (p. 106) of an ethnically diverse population.

However, Michael’s opinion to treat everyone in the same manner changes in the third season episode titled “Gay Witch Hunt,” when he discovers that Oscar, an accountant at Dunder Mifflin, is a gay man.  Discussing the issue with Dwight, a straight co-worker, Michael asks whether it is possible to determine if anyone else in the office is homosexual, as he does not want to offend anybody else, as he did to Oscar.  Dwight responds by mentioning that he “could assume everyone is, and not say anything offensive” (Daniels & Kwapis, 2006).  Michael replies suggesting he is “sure everyone would appreciate [him] treating them like they were gay” (Daniels & Kwapis, 2006), implying to be treated gay is to be treated as lesser.  In this scenario, Michael does want to treat his employees differently based on differences.  Whether Michael’s position changes because the scenario includes a member of a sexual minority rather than a racial minority, or if he is simply inconsistent, is not clear.

In the fifth season episode titled “Business Trip,” Michael brings his employees into the conference room to discuss his international business trip.  Michael asks Meredith, a white female employee to pretend she is from Abu Dhabi.  Meredith responds by saying “Hello,” likely in the same manner she would normally.  Scott goes on to say that he is “ashamed at [her] naked face” and that he “must cover it with [his] jacket” (Forrester & Einhorn, 2008).  After throwing his jacket onto her face, he tells Meredith that she is “now sexy in [her] culture” (Forrester & Einhorn, 2008).  Clearly unaware of the meaning of hijab or nequab, Michael refers to the religious garment as an object of sexuality.  It is not surprising then, that Khan suggests “some of the girls feel wearing hijab gives them an opportunity to teach their peers about Islam” (as cited in Watt, 2011 p. 65).  While Michael Scott is a fictional character, these scenarios may not be uncommon in many Western cultures.  Michael often makes incorrect comments about other minorities; however, these often occur in the presence of an individual belonging to that minority, who are then able to respond to the faulty comments.  Perhaps what is most significant about this particular scene is that there is no female Muslim character on the show to respond to Michael’s comments, furthering the idea of the “imaginary category ‘Muslim woman” (p. 74) discussed by Watt (2011), who goes on to questions “where … we get to hear the voices of Muslim women” and “[w]hy… this absence remain[s] invisible” (p. 74).  Their identities continue to be fictionalized by television programs, and her voice is not heard on the television comedy The Office.

In the second season episode titled “E-mail Surveillance,” Michael sees a man with a turban through his window and shouts that there is a serious problem.  He informs his employees that they should “lock the doors, turn off the lights” (Celotta & Feig, 2005) and pretend they are not in the office.  Jim responds by asking if the employees are in danger and Michael responds by saying there is “no time to think about if this is real” (Celotta & Feig, 2005), presumably referring to a Taliban terrorist attack.  Later, in an interview with the documentary crew, Michael mentions that he and the IT tech guy did not get off to a great start.  Ali-Karamali (2008) argues that the September 11th, 2001 attacks have allowed for “a blanket justification for anything negative anyone might possibly dream up to say against Muslims” (p. 215), and that “[v]ery few people realize what it is like to be the subject of daily socially acceptable lies, slander, defamation, and distortion” (as cited in Watt, 2011, p. 65).  It is clear that Sadiq, the IT technician, faced discrimination and defamation by the office manager Michael Scott.  Is it not surprising, then, that Watt (2011) suggests Muslim youth “may feel defensive and under attack or scrutiny because of their religion” (p. 65), particularly if the explicit discrimination seen in The Office is even remotely found in Western culture.

Culturally Responsive Managing

Discussing the notion of culturally responsive teaching, Donald, Glanfield and Sterenberg (2011) suggest that it “has had little impact on what teachers do because, we believe, it is too easily reduced to essentializations, meaningless generalizations, or trivial anecdotes—none of which result in systemic, institutional, or lasting changes to schools serving Indigenous children” (Stance 2 section, para. 3).  It is my belief that, at times, the character of Michael Scott on The Office attempts to engage in culturally responsive “managing”.  Michael’s culturally responsive managing includes flawed generalizations, a focus on stereotyping, and essentializing cultural minorities.  For example, in the fourth season episode “Local Ad,” Darryl, an African-American worker, was given the task to come up with a jingle for a commercial the company was going to create.  Upon hearing Darryl’s jingle, Michael Scott notes that he was “under the impression this was going to be a rap” (Novak & Reitman, 2007).  Darryl responds by asking Michael what rap is, and Michael tells him that he “need[s] to learn a lot about [his] own culture” (Novak & Reitman, 2007).  While Darryl is aware of rap and is simply enticing the manager, Michael is essentializing Darryl based on pre-conceived generalizations of African Americans.  In the second season episode “Performance Review,” Michael is discussing a voicemail left by a love interest, with Stanley, an African American.  Michael asks Stanley if his knowledge about listening to the pauses in the message is something he learned on the streets.  Stanley replies by noting that he “did learn it on the streets … on the ghetto in fact,” (Wilmore & Feig, 2005) partly to please his boss because it was employee evaluation day.  Michael’s misunderstanding of other cultures is not unlike many teachers’ cultural understanding, as Moon (2010) suggests “CRT is founded on the assumption that many teachers have only a limited understanding of cultures other than their own” (p. 70).  It is clear throughout The Office series that Michael, while not a teacher, has an extremely limited understanding of cultures other than his own.

Moon (2010) goes on to aver that CRT discourses “assume that race/ethnic identity is fixed, and do not consider complicated and interwoven identities. A singularity of race/ethnicity as primary organizational identity has resulted in a generalized and stereotypic awareness of subject positions” (p. 96).  Michael Scott appears to promote and expect the notion of a generalized minority.  In the season three episode “Diwali,” Michael mentions that Diwali “is a very important holiday for the Hindus” and that he is “a little appalled that none of [his employees] know very much about Indian culture” (Kaling & Arteta, 2006).  He appoints Kelly Kapoor, an Indian-American Hindu to inform the other characters about Diwali.  Kelly replies by saying that Diwali is “awesome, and there’s food, and there’s going to be dancing” and that she got “the raddest outfit” (Kaling & Arteta, 2006).  Michael continues to push Kelly to speak as the token representative for all Hindus, but Kelly is not as informed about the holiday as he would like her to be.  Here, Michael assumes that Kelly fits the fixed identity of an Indian-American Hindu.  Following this discussion, Dwight accurately describes Diwali to Michael and the other employees.  Michael does not appear to believe Dwight, and dismisses it by noting that this “isn’t ‘Lord of the Rings” (Kaling & Arteta, 2006).  Not only is Michael calling on Kelly to be the token spokesperson for all Hindus; he is also purposely disapproving of the accurate description of Diwali provided by someone of a different religion and ethnicity.

The Office as a Unique Place

The unique language used on The Office is also an important part of this specific place.  The language found on The Office is often sexist and racist, and the vocabulary of manager Michael Scott in particular is quite offensive to most other office members.  The derogatory language is significant to review, given Egéa-Kuehne’s (2012) argument that “[t]he role languages play in any society is worthy of the most serious attention” (p. 108).  The most common saying found on The Office, “that’s what she said,” is used frequently by Michael Scott, and other employees, as a response to a phrase or notion that may be interpreted in a manner that is sexual.  This language, which on the surface is quite sexist, may not be intended as offensive by Michael Scott.  For example in the fifth season episode “Stress Relief,” Michael tells Oscar, a gay employee, to reach over and touch Stanley’s thing, referring to his bio-feedback machine.  Realizing there is an opportunity to use his famous line, Michael says “[t]hat’s what he said … because of, gay” (Lieberstein & Blitz, 2009).  Michael is clearly proud of himself in that he was able to be inclusive with his language, despite the crass and sexist nature of such language.  Essentially, Michael is concerned about using language that is equally offensive to all employees, as he hopes to build and maintain an office that is perceived to be inclusive.

The characters on The Office have also developed relationships with the particular location they have been working at.  The style of documentary used in The Office is not entirely unlike the concept of métissage described by Blood, Chambers, Donald, Hasebe-Ludt, & Big Head (2012), who note that “each researcher has created his or her own text that articulates the particular relationship that he or she has with a specific place” (p. 49) in their own writing.  The individual interviews the documentary creators have with the employees act as their own personal text in relation to the daily occurrences of this specific place, the offices of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.  The employees are reflecting and reacting to the events that mostly occur in and around this particular office.  Blood et al. (2012) mention that “[f]rom this process emerged a place-story, influenced by known place-stories also about that place. The researchers shared these stories with each other and then worked together to weave a shared script that includes the central place-story.” (p. 49).  It is not uncommon for several employees of the fictional office to conduct these interviews together and create a clip with several viewpoints and opinions about the daily occurrences, resulting in a shared story.  Birthisel and Martin (2013) note that “The Office’s satirical presentation uses … ‘excess as hyperbole,’ allowing exaggerated characters to simultaneously reflect and critique … ideologies” (p. 65).  Reflecting on the events gives employees the opportunity to think about their actions more profoundly, rather than simply proceeding from one day to the next.  Rasmusseen affirms that “[w]hen we narrate, we construct meaning by linking events in particular ways. There are always multiple stories to tell about events and thus multiple meanings to be made” (as cited in Ng-A-Fook, 2011, n.p.).  The characters in The Office are each telling their unique stories about the daily events at the Dundler Mifflin Paper Company, and there are, like Rasmusseen mentions, many meanings to be made from these stories given to the documentary series creators.  The end result, a very long documentary, is essentially a story of this place over the past nine years.

Curriculum of The Office

The policies of the fictional office also form a curriculum in the sense that the management is trying to establish and follow particular office norms, reinforce power differentials that exist between varying levels of workers, and promote a sense of diversity and perceived inclusion.  The fictional office establishes itself as a company that functions in a free-market economy.  Essentially, the ultimate goal of the company is to be financially successful.  Entities driven solely by financial success are often accompanied by serious drawbacks.  For example, Kanu and Glor (2006) argue that “[c]apitalist imperatives suggest that the knowledge society depends on requiring individuals not to think about consequences, alternative futures or the public good” (p. 108).  The Office establishment fits into this capital imperative flawlessly.

This particular office has also established power relations as part of its curriculum.  Michael Scott, the manager, is the boss of the Scranton branch and has power over his employees.  In fact, there is an entire hierarchy, beginning with the warehouse workers at the bottom, followed by the office workers, the manager, and Michael’s boss Jan Levenson, who is the Vice President of Northeast Sales.  Finally, at the top of the hierarchy is David Wallace, the CEO of Dunder Mifflin, a role occupied by Jo Bennett in later seasons. Clearly, Dundler Mifflin has established a hierarchical structure in terms of its employees.  This structure has led to a reinforcement of power differences between employees.  For example, in the majority of the examples provided thus far, the victims do not react negatively to Michael’s outrageous actions partly because he is their superior.  Michael’s actions, in addition to his role as a superior, help perpetuate the notion of modern power discussed by Foucault as “discursively circulated and controlled by normalization, not by law or punishment” (as cited in Moon, 2010, p. 77).  Michael’s actions have power in that they are working to normalize the idea of the minority as the other.  Additionally, the documentary film camera also plays a role in the notion power.  Many employees often act in socially desirable ways upon realizing that the camera is gathering footage of their actions and recording what they are saying.

Dunder Mifflin is also very enthusiastic about implementing policies and procedures that appear to be inclusive of all people. For example, in the sixth season episode titled “Body Language,” the character of Gabe Lewis, who is responsible to oversee the Scranton branch and who reports to the Dundler Mifflin CEO and not manager Michael Scott, tells the documentary crew that corporate is “going to be pretty pleased in Tallahassee that [he] snagged an Indian for the program. She’ll be the first, the program’s mostly black it’s … almost too black. That didn’t sound right,” (Spitzer & Kaling, 2010) discussing the new Print in All Colors program created for Dunder Mifflin employees.  The policy of The Office is to only accept minorities into the program.  Dwight, a white man wanting to be considered for the program, was denied because he is white.  This scenario is similar to the one Popkewitz (2009) describes, where “[i]ssues of equity are premised … on the assumption that the right mixture of policies and programmes can eliminate exclusions and, at least theoretically, produce an inclusionary society” (p. 305).  However, Popkewitz later notes that these “very maps that target populations for rescue are also boundaries that differentiate, divide, and cast out particular kinds of humans into unlivable spaces” (p. 305).  The implied message in this scene is that Dunder Mifflin is trying to establish itself as valuing diversity and promoting minorities in the workplace, but in so doing is creating boundaries that are divisive and exclusionary.  In the same episode, Dwight, discussing Kelly’s candidacy for the Print in All Colors initiative, notes that “she’s, brown-ish” but that “Darryl is far more, ethnic” (Spitzer & Kaling, 2010).  Here, the program is working in a way that is detrimental to office cohesion.  Stanley, an African American, is aware that the program is more about perception than actual inclusion, noting that is aware of the nature of these programs, sarcastically noting that they believe “[e]very color is important because together [they] make a rainbow” (Spitzer & Kaling, 2010).  Thus, Dundler Mifflin is concerned with the perceived notion of being inclusive, rather than actual inclusion and acceptance.

Additionally, the writers of The Office are trying to teach their audience about office culture and its language.  The curriculum, or as Slattery would call it, the “inward journey” (as cited in Schwartz, 2006, p.450), of The Office writers is to inform audiences about office customs, to teach about the dangers of essentializing, and to prove that humour can be an effective tool in addressing cultural issues.  The writers teach about office culture by documenting the events at what appears to be a fairly average office.  The makeup of the characters resembles the diverse North American population, in that they vary in age, gender, race, culture, religion, and sexual orientation.  Additionally, the writers attempt to provoke reflection of the American workplace, and employees of power in particular, as part of their curriculum.  For example, Birthisel and Martin (2013) note that “[b]y turning bosses, corporate leaders, and other symbols of capitalist patriarchal authority into buffoons, The Office has at least the potential to inspire white-collar workers to question the consent they give to an unbalanced employment system” (p. 76).  The Office curriculum also informs the public of the importance of using humour in addressing cultural differences.  Beeden & de Bruin (2010) argue that “the humor in sitcoms … has an important sociocultural function and is vital to the genre’s creation of a sense of national identity and inclusion in the “community” of the joke, the sitcom, and ultimately the nation” (p. 9).  It is clear that the writers of The Office are aware that humour has an important sociocultural function, as they have used it to bring together cultural and ethnic minorities, as they attempt to create a more inclusive nation.  Additionally, Birthisel and Martin (2013) note that “because the mockumentary techniques continually hint at inappropriateness, it is highly unlikely that audiences would interpret their workplace behavior as acceptable” (p. 76), and they believe that “the show is successful in communicating its critique of the offensive antics of these characters” (p. 76).  Thus, rather than laughing at the clear racism portrayed by Michael Scott, the viewer is laughing at the character of Michael for being completely unaware and outrageous.  The majority of the supporting characters, many of which are in fact minorities, understand just how ignorant and uninformed Michael is, and it is for this reason, along with the notion of power, that his behavior is tolerated.

Creators and writers of The Office have maintained success while opting to include a variety of cultures and ethnicities, perhaps to help educate audiences about the problems with essentializing particular individuals.  Thus, while an audience member may be similar ethnically to only a small number of the television actors, they may still watch and enjoy the show, and learn about the similarities and differences of The Office employees.  The writers of The Office may also be trying to help audiences be more open about their media habits, partly because, as Straubhaar notes, “audiences seem to prefer television programs that are as close to them as possible in language, ethnic appearance, dress, style, humour, historical reference, and shared topical knowledge” (as cited in Beeden & de Bruin, 2010, p. 6).  Finally, the writers are also teaching the public about the difficulties facing individuals with multiple identities.  This ambiguity is not unlike the role of Canadian curriculum theorists Sumara, Davis & Laidlaw (2001), who note that “one of the difficulties [they] have encountered in [their] writing is one of categorization (p. 158).  The writers of The Office reveal the complexities associated with categorizing the characters on the show.  Instead of categorizing the characters, they include appropriated office workers who are successful in adapting to the office culture, while maintaining their unique identity.

Conclusion

The Office has proven to be a progressive television comedy that has successfully used humour to educate audiences about culture.  The show’s use of satire has been demonstrated through numerous examples from the series.  Michael’s culturally responsive managerial style has also been reviewed.  The relationships the characters on The Office have developed with that particular place, and the unique language found in the series have also been presented.  Then, the curriculum of the fictional office was outlined, which included its teachings about office norms, power relations, and perceived inclusiveness within the company.  The curriculum of the writers of The Office concluded the analysis, which included a desire to inform audiences about race and cultural relations, problems with essentializing, and the value in using humour.

It is now 9:30 pm and the show is over.  I have enjoyed 30 minutes of quality television, but I have also discovered that there is more value to the show than simple entertainment.  Being aware of these cultural, linguistic and curriculum implications, I am now able to enjoy and understand The Office more than ever.

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