“Madonna Trouble” Taught by Professor Tom Ferraro

Professor Ferarro teaching Madonna “Like a Prayer"

Has your class discussed "Like a Prayer" by Madonna this semester? If not, you have missed out and are not enrolled in Professor Tom Ferraro's "Madonna Trouble.” Last year, during one of his graduate-level lectures, Ferraro mentioned that he taught a "Madonna unit" in his Italian-American arts and multimedia courses, and his students responded with, "You gotta teach a course on Madonna!"

"Truth is, I can't imagine education in the 20th Century transnational U.S. expressive culture without Madonna (as I can't imagine it without the music of Armstrong, Holiday, Sinatra, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and… —or Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hurston) and I can't imagine an education in 20th Century American women's history without Madonna (as I can't imagine it without the suffragettes, the melodramas and screwball comedies of the 1930s, and second-wave intellectuals)… I designed the course (Madonna) around the materials I know well, especially the music videos of the 1980s (MTV was launched in 1982), the coming-age-of-the-artist genre. Today, Michael Jackson's videos feel like period pieces, while Prince supplied wonderful concert tapes—rivaled only by Madonna's astonishing 1989 "Blonde Ambition Tour." – Professor Ferraro

Professor Ferraro shared that his vision when planning this course was to create an opportunity that sharpens students' ears, eyes, and minds when responding to multimedia. I recently had the opportunity to sit in on one of Ferraro's “Madonna Trouble” classes. It was the day they watched Madonna's "Like a Prayer" music video. Professor Ferraro set the mood for the class with Mavis Staples' "I Will Take You There" and Rev. Al Green's "Take Me to the River" playing as students arrived for class. For this class, Ronald B. Scott, an assistant professor in Mass Communication at Miami University, article "Images of Race & Religion in Madonna's Video Like a Prayer: Prayer & Praise" as the required reading. Scott analyzes how Madonna's "Like a Prayer" brings Blacks and whites together in his article.

"That is accomplished while contextualizing Madonna's videos to the point where the videos themselves become prisms onto their contexts foregrounded in the Madonna Studies boom of the early 1990s and within the social troubles of the eighties, as Madonna vaulted Billboard's separate music charts with much African American talent behind her, challenged the racism and orthodox Catholicism of the old Italian neighborhoods, and rallied gay America while, still, "appropriating" its art. I believe Madonna's art commands because its issues are still with us, especially among our students, and like David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, its complex knowing and contrary wisdom do not map out in the current fashions of right-to-left." - Professor Ferraro

Ferraro’s class watching Madonna’s “Like a Prayer"

Ferraro and his students watched Madonna's "Like a Prayer" music video as a class, which generated open discussion about the attire, imagery, lighting, transitions, and symbolism throughout the video that they felt illustrated the depth of thinking often brought forth by Madonna’s works. The class discussed the complexity of the religious discourse and sensual aspects of the song, video, and Scott's interpretation. As this video was released well before this group of undergraduates was born, it was interesting to hear them discuss a very controversial work in 1989 when it was first released. It seemed less contentious to this generation of students. Professor Ferraro shared aspects of interest about the characters and plot of the video that many who have watched the video over the decades are not aware of, such as the fact that the object of Madonna's interest in the music video was in the image of St. Martin de Porres.   Observing the class as they dissected the video and the artist's cultural influence was enlightening.

"I decided to take the class (Madonna) because I had heard amazing things from my friends about Professor Ferraro and his ability to transform the way students think about literature. I hadn't heard of Professor Ferraro teaching a film-based class before, but I was curious to see how it compared to other accounts of close reading and discussions I had heard about from my friends. I have been surprised by the amount of cultural knowledge and background I have gained from Professor Ferraro regarding the 80s and 90s, feminism, queerness, and pop culture. Beyond just Madonna and her impact on the music and video scene, I have learned to view art through a completely different lens, thinking about the positioning of characters relative to each other and learning to see the underlying queer narrative that I was previously oblivious to. I hope that all the cultural and aesthetic knowledge that I have gained will continue to allow me to view things from this more informed position!" – Casey Syal, '24, Computer Science and Biology and minoring in English

"I had heard fantastic things about Prof Ferraro – even as a non-English major – and taking a class with him was on my bucket list. One of my biggest takeaways has been how various literary theories permeate popular culture – they are always there, even if we don't recognize them. I love being in class with Prof. Ferraro – he creates such a welcoming environment and really cares about his students." - Grace Endrud, '24 Public Policy and International Comparative Studies & French minor

If you are roaming the hallways of the Allen building and overhear a group of students discussing a renowned talent that one might not commonly connect with a Duke English course, know that there is a good chance these students are enrolled in one of the department's unique courses, like “Madonna Trouble.”  Duke English offers courses that include studying an artist or topic beyond the traditional English subjects and take a deep dive into their culture influences.

In the Spring of 2024, Professor Ferraro will teach English 101S. 03 The Art of Reading – War & Worship, Wine & (Wo)men and English 371S.01 – Gatby's Great Rivals.  Many unique courses will be offered by Duke English this Spring: English 276.01 African Diaspora Literature – "Wakanda Forever" taught by Professor Tsitsi Jaji, English 290S.02 – Adichie & Her Contemporaries taught by Professor Chris Ouma, English 358S.01 – Artificial Intelligence in Literature and Film taught by Professor Aarthi Vadde and English 390-1.01 Single American Author – "Bob Dylan" by Professor Taylor Black.