Pop Culture's Place in Academics

by Samantha Cooper | 4/19/16 5:02pm

You’re sitting in your 9L, groggy and exhausted from working late in the library the night before, sipping your coffee and praying that the caffeine kicks in as soon as possible. Your professor ambles to the front of the room, fiddling with the computer as he, presumably, sets up for his lecture of the day. You sigh with defeat, pulling out your notebook and pen, praying that this next hour and five minutes will speed by.

Suddenly, instead of the usual beige a Netflix documentary appears on the screen. “We’re watching a movie today!” your professor exclaims. Relief and joy flood you as you sit up straighter in your seat, now eager for today’s class. Not that your professor’s lectures are boring, necessarily — but you appreciate any opportunity to switch up the regular routine, especially when it incorporates something familiar to your own life and interests.

Integrating aspects of pop culture, such as films or music, into class is often a welcome surprise to students. Any opportunity to merge academics with something more “fun” and relatable will often enhance understanding and appreciation of the material. And in some classes, the focus is almost totally on a specific facet of pop culture — there is still an academic quality, obviously, but it is sometimes secondary to the study of the pop culture phenomenon itself.

Jewish studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Michael Bronski has taught numerous courses in both his departments with the primary focus being some aspect of pop culture. These classes include “Jews and Hollywood”, “Queer Marriage, Hate Crimes and Will & Grace: Contemporary Issues in LGBT Studies” and “Beatniks, Hot Rods and the Feminine Mystique: Sex and Gender in 1950s Films.”

Bronski explained that in these classes, especially “Jews and Hollywood,” much of the curriculum involves watching films. However, students also read written text extensively, everything from first-person narratives to film criticism. He said that most film classes focus heavily on written text, in order to broaden a student’s understanding of the time period of the films.

“We want students to come away with an intensive body of knowledge [of the time period],” Bronski said. “It’s important that the films are complemented by a cultural context as well.”

Bronski said he enjoys incorporating films into his classes because they’re something with which students are already very familiar, so they’re better able to understand the academic material and connect it to their own lives. He said this creates a nice synergy between students watching films and reading texts.

“Because of social media, the internet, YouTube, cable networks...students are incredibly visually literature in many sophisticated ways,” Bronski said. “They bring an incredibly vast archive of understanding of techniques.”

Bronski said he also enjoyed this aspect when teaching a class called “I Will Survive: Women’s Political Resistance Through Song.” In this course, Bronski said students were highly advantaged because they had such a huge body of knowledge about music. Once again, he explained, students were easily able to connect to the material, and to do so in a way that many found fun and enjoyable.

“[Using pop culture] is a way to integrate critical thought into a medium which students have complete access to,” Bronski said. “And in which they feel totally comfortable and confident.”

Music professor Kui Dong expressed a similar sentiment to Bronski about the ways in which pop culture can make academic material much more accessible to students.

Dong, who teaches a class called “Music of Today” in which students learn about a wide variety of musical genres, explained that a large part of the curriculum is connecting music to its origins in historical culture and artistic movements. In this way, the study of pop culture provides a vehicle through which more traditionally academic subjects and concepts, such as minimalism, can be explored.

Kong noted that the students in the class run the gamut of interests and majors, since there are no prerequisites. Thus, most students come into the class with little to no knowledge of concepts like music theory. Using the pop cultural aspect of current music provides an accessible medium through which students can understand these deeper concepts in a fast and enjoyable way.

“We can use music in pop culture that appeals to a broader audience to bring those higher arts and concepts more accessible, as long as the students have interest in the music,” Dong said.

Sociology professor Janice McCabe teaches a class called “Youth and Society” in which students watch the cafeteria scene from the movie “Mean Girls” on the first day of class. She explained that this relates to an assignment in which students write a sociological memoir of their high school experiences, specifically the social hierarchy at their schools.

McCabe explained that for students who might not be as well-versed in the media it can be valuable to take a class that integrates pop culture frequently.

“Media literacy is an important skill for everyone to have,” McCabe said.

Dong also explained that many current pop cultural phenomenons are rooted in history, which provides and even mandates an academic focus.

“A lot of recent bands, for example, got ideas from avant-garde musicians from the ’60s,” Dong noted.

Bronski said that although it’s easier to integrate film and music into some departments than others, it’s possible to use pop culture in any class.

“I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t have an economics class using film,” Bronski said. “Economics, the money system and Wall Street banking are all heavily represented in Hollywood films, like ‘Wolf of Wall Street.’”

He added that he’d imagine such a class would be “incredibly popular.”

In a similar vein, Dong said that pop culture can be a unifying point for students from different disciplines. Presumably, this is why her class attracts such a wide variety of students.

Bronski said that incorporating pop culture into academic settings is a fairly recent occurrence. He explained that academia, by its very nature, tends to be conservative, even in liberal schools. Ostensibly, this can preclude significant study of pop culture from the typically pedagogy of academia. He said this is especially true with schools that have religious origins.

"The introduction of popular culture into the academy is fair new,” Bronski said. “When I went to college in the late ’60s, only the most daring of teachers would say, ‘Let’s listen to this new song and think of what it means.’”

However, he said that in the past 50 years, the academic discourse has shifted more in favor of incorporating pop culture.

He added, too, that film — typically considered an aspect of popular culture — has become an academic focus and subject itself.

Asian and Middle Eastern studies chair and film and media studies professor Dennis Washburn teaches a class called “Krieger’s Virtual Girlfriend” that focuses primarily on animated film and popular video games in Japan.

He explained that the purpose of the class is to look at the rise of “geek culture” in Japan in the 1980s, referred to as “otaku” and recognized by the Japanese government as an important content industry.

Washburn’s class also examines issues surrounding cultural identity in the context of Japan’s upheavals in the past century, from earthquakes to atomic bombs, and how they influenced the concept of otaku.

“Place and identity get played out in the [science fiction] narratives, which points to historical cultural industries,” Washburn said.

Washburn explained that otaku reflected the country’s anxiety, caused by Japan’s societal upheavals. Otaku engendered pop culture like anime and manga.

“One of the things that I want to stress is there isn’t anything unique about anxiety in Japan,” Washburn said. “It has global appeal. It’s a transnational subculture, pop culture.”

In response to the question of the value and importance of pop culture in academics, Washburn explained that studying pop culture is akin to studying culture, part of an inherently academic study. He said such studies are integral to the liberal arts experience.

“That’s what the liberal arts is about. It’s about thinking about different ways those ideas, those concepts of the world get represented,” Washburn said.

He also noted it can push students reflecting on their own beliefs.

“It makes you self-reflective, it makes you critical of your own expectations,” Washburn said. “It makes you question your political and ethical values.”

McCabe said students can sometimes be skeptical of the value of integrating pop culture into an academic setting, as it isn’t traditionally “academic.”

“I suspect students avoid [popular culture classes] because they’re too easy, and they came to college to learn about the great books and classics,” McCabe said.

Washburn said, too, that although he thinks pop culture studies are important, students should balance out those classes with courses in other disciplines.

“I don’t have a percentage [of what it should be],” Washburn said. “But it should be a mix.”

McCabe spoke to how “Youth and Society” has evolved since she began teaching it at Dartmouth. She said that she felt more behind the students when she was teaching at other schools in terms of their knowledge of pop culture, but doesn’t feel the same way here. She attributed this to Hanover’s isolated location.

Washburn said that he thinks studying pop culture, as with any other academic discipline, teaches you to look at subjects from a wide variety of perspectives.

“You need to understand what you’re bringing to a film, a book, a painting. You need to bring your values,” Washburn said. “You have to understand how to read something in a different context, in a different way.”

Bronski expressed a similar sentiment and explained, ultimately, that academic discourse related to pop culture teaches people to think critically in a very useful way.

“Being able to think critically and evaluate and measure and figure out immediately what’s going on with texts and in a larger sense is very important for students,” Bronski said. “[Using] popular culture is a great way to do this.”