In a fit of insomnia, I wrote the following blog post on my Goodreads blog. I then quickly feared that I might someday lose this material, so I copied it here. Enjoy.
A few weeks ago, Amazon Prime recommended Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to me. It was a movie I might like, Amazon Prime told me.
I remember the first two Bill and Ted movies quite fondly. I was the target demographic for the first one, which I am pretty positive that I saw in a real movie theater, and the second one I adore mostly because Faith No More’s Jim Martin makes a cameo. Still, prior to Amazon’s recommendation, I don’t think I had watched either movie more than once.
Having viewed the Excellent Adventure as a wizened adult, I couldn’t help but be charmed by how openly it immerses itself in the popular culture of the day all the while turning its cultural reference points on their heads. Jane Wiedlin makes an appearance as Joan of Arc. Bill masquerades as Eddie Van Halen to get Ted out of a jam with his overbearing father (who has no idea who the ubiquitous guitar god is). George Carlin is in it for some reason.
In retrospect, I do not know how liberally the writers were plagiarizing Back to the Future, but I don’t much care. By the end of this blog post, I am likely to start telling everyone to be excellent to each other, which we probably need more of right now anyway.
Though I’m not so sure that the movie is most triumphant, it’s hard not to marvel at how adroitly it synthesizes classic sci-fi conventions with the pop cultural saturation of the day. Mind you, this was happening over 30 years ago, pre-Seinfeld, pre-Arrested Development, pre-Parks and Recreation, pre-the ubiquity of the winking live action cartoon as mainstream comedic style. It’s quite astonishing to acknowledge that, in a very niche way, the Wyld Stallyns really did influence the course of popular culture.
Moreover, I have come to believe that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in fact, the most accurate depiction of the research process that has ever been put to film.
The central premise of the film is that Bill and Ted, adorable doofuses that they are, must pass their final history report or else they will fail that class (and apparently all of high school). If this happens, Ted will be shipped off to military school, which will cause the Wyld Stallyns to break up, which means that they will not make a most excellent music video, which therefore will mean that Eddie Van Halen won’t play guitar with them, which means that they won’t make triumphant music, all of which is upsetting to George Carlin, who comes from the future in a telephone booth to ensure that they pass history class so that they can continue on their destined course of making the most influential contributions to the future course of human history.
All of which raises the most pressing question: what is this “history report” about?
What era of history are they studying? Who are they studying? What context are they working in? What the devil are they supposed to say about “history”?
No one knows. This detail is never explained. Grim as the consequences are, Bill and Ted really have no direction whatsoever, which strikes me as exactly how most students feel when they are given a research assignment: here is a thing to do, now do it, and make sure that it does the things that your teacher needs it to do, even though none of us know what those things are. If you don’t do these things, you will fail.
In a completely reasonable fashion, Bill and Ted attempt to make headway on this All Important history report, straining to find inspiration and direction from any contextual information that is readily available to southern California teens: Disneyland and convenience stores. Neither of these options work very well, but the attempt is genuine, and the anguish they experience is palpable.
How else can we expect students to make sense of contexts outside of their lived experience without close guidance? How can we expect them to know what to research and how to research without instructing them in those techniques?
When George Carlin arrives in his phone booth, in the convenience store parking lot, the movie transforms into an elaborate academic research wish fulfillment fantasy. Bill and Ted are given a phone book, and they are told that all they need to do is to dial up history, and they will get all of the information that they need.
And they do so.
With a few quick keypad strokes, they are magically transported to 1879, in New Mexico, at the exact moment that Billy the Kid is entering a saloon.
Afterward, Ancient Greece, at the exact time (of day) and location where Socrates is lecturing.
Fifteenth century England? Of course! Right outside of a castle with beautiful maidens in it, which is either a sign of their excellent research skills or the fact that all fifteenth century castles have beautiful maidens in them.
And so on and so on.
Eventually, they kidnap all of these people and somehow piece together a completely nonsensical live presentation that sort of prefigures the Human Library Project, and they pass history.
Why did they pass history? How did they pass history? What, exactly, did their presentation contribute to the study of history?
Again, no one knows. What is important is that the job is done and that there is time to make music with beautiful women who magically appear.
This, I argue, is exactly how researchers want their work to progress. Direct and effortless with joyous and unexpected detours that ultimately support an excellent research project. All information is put to use, and there is no waste whatsoever, just like Napoleon teaches us.
What topic do I need to know about? Well, a few quick keystrokes, and there it is, right in front of me, instantaneously. What is this castle? Who is inside of it? It does not matter. I asked for a castle, and there it is. This castle is good enough. Thank you, magical Internet wires (which were once phone wires).
Having grown up in the card catalog days—the card catalog is about as much of an artifact as the phone book—I know Bill and Ted’s confusion all too well. I can easily recall desperately flipping through endless reams of similar-looking cards hoping that eventually one of them would say something that would magically transport me to some other part of the library that would have the exact thing that I needed in order to do the thing that my teacher needed me to do for a reason that I did not understand.
The pain was real. Totally. And I still feel this pain today whenever I need to conduct research.
Watching this film now, I also wonder if, in a lot of ways, this is how the Googlefication of research of all kinds has affected our collective understanding of what research and critical thinking actually is. I tend not to be swayed by sweeping statements about generational differences—I suspect that Kids These Days feel the exact same way about research projects as Bill and Ted—but nevertheless, I am curious about how being able “to google” whatever information they might need has slightly distorted a clear sense of the time and deliberation that needs to go into research.
Bill and Ted at least needed to go to the convenience store to get into the phone booth. They didn’t, like, have smartphones, you know.
The generic nature of the history assignment also feels very real to me. Too often, teachers work at the mercy of systems they do not control (or even understand), so they have to give students assignments—potentially ones in which they do not believe themselves—and then they have to find some equitable way to grade them. Bill and Ted’s final presentation was not very good, but it did have a lot of style, which does ultimately count for something in all writing and research. They most definitely should have passed.
Thankfully, for all of us, they did.