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Influence of Oprah, the College Course

Television * At the University of Illinois, students examine her career and what it says about race, class and gender in today's world.

February 21, 2001|MARJA MILLS | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

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 'Oprah.' "

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 in a fourth-floor classroom to analyze her success in the context of the country's social and economic history.

The course began Jan. 18. At last Thursday's class, the dozen students in the seminar took their places in blue plastic chairs around a long conference table.

Walker, sitting at one end, led the discussion.

"What changes have taken place in American culture whereby people are receptive to this kind of confessional show?" Walker asked the students.

Winfrey herself helped change the culture, offered Rebecca Lawrence, 21. "She made herself seem like 'I'm your best friend you never met.' . . . No one else has given them that comfort zone" on television.

Walker pursued the point. "So to what extent does she reflect the culture and to what extent did she shape it?"

Some of both, the students said tentatively.

Answering her own question, Walker concluded, "Oprah was in the right place at the right time."

The students seemed to agree with that.

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 over 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."

Walker wanted a mix of students in the class, and she got it--male and female, white, black and Latino.

No one is more enthusiastic about the class than Lawrence. She called Winfrey her personal hero and emulates her right down to the sparkling ring the student wears on her pinky, "just like Oprah."

Lawrence, who is black, started watching "Oprah" as a high school student in Chicago's Avalon Park neighborhood on the South Side. She subscribes to O magazine, and to Winfrey's philosophy. "She's all about living your best life," Lawrence said, "and that's what I'm trying to do."

Lawrence is, naturally, a major in speech communications, with designs on a career in radio or television.

Meantime, her 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.

Going around the table last week, students discussed possible topics for their research papers and the differing views of Winfrey.

Some Americans view her as a shining example and surrogate best friend, the students noted; others see her as an example of the country's devotion to self-help and public self-revelation run amok.

Lawrence said she plans to write her term paper on Winfrey's ability to shape people's opinions and buying decisions, and to create a sense of intimacy even among viewers who have never met her.

Junior James Creed, who is white, said he took the class in part because he wanted to learn more African American history.

The 20-year-old history major told the class he plans to research the influence Winfrey's popular book club has on publishing, and to compare it with other efforts in the country's history to encourage reading.

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