Pop culture and academia

While teaching a class on writing a research paper, I devoted a class to using pop culture in academia – I wanted the students to know that it was okay to use pop culture products – Harry Potter, Twilight, The Simpsons, Lady Gaga, Oprah – when discussing some sort of issue.

My students – most of whom are foreign balked at my lecture. One in particular was very hostile to the idea of having pop culture included in higher education. He’s a smart student, really intelligent, yet he was noticeably against the idea of using films, TV shows or pop figures in academia – he felt that “TV is TV, you can’t learn anything from it.”

I gently pointed out that when Lady Gaga is being taught in a class, it’s not the musical or artistic merit of her work that is being discussed, but the impact the pop star has on popular culture, or gender studies. He understood, but didn’t understand the point – he doesn’t understand the “so what?”

The issue of pop culture intersecting with higher education is one that’s still being discussed. There are many who are (rightly) concerned that the influx of classes that use J.K. Rowling as a primary author is merely created to either gin up admission numbers, or to indulge the idiosyncracies of instructors. And this concern is understandable – when using pop culture in teaching a class, it’s very easy to slip into lightness or fickleness – when you’re teaching a class on pop culture and Shakespeare, it’s important to remember that the focus should be Shakespeare, and how it responds to pop culture – not the other way round.

There was a controversy over a college course focused on The Jersey Shore – the MTV show about the very unlikable, overly tanned dummies from New Jersey who spend all their time drinking, fighting and working on their Day-Glo tans. The problem with a lot of scholars was that most believed that The Jersey Shore and its cast would not be able to outlast their collective 15 minutes of fame. Our conversation drifted to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – a reality show featuring a kid beauty queen, that highlights stereotypes of southern rural stereotypes – people call it hicksploitation. I mentioned that while there is no redeeming qualities in the show, if we watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we’re watching a show that shows socio-economic issues that are worth talking about – including income inequality, lack of access to quality healthcare, lack of access to quality education, the exploitation of children — especially little girls.

In college, I wrote papers using pop culture – one of my most successful papers in grad school was my look at how Hillary Clinton was miscast in the role of Lady Macbeth in my Shakespeare and pop culture class. In another Shakespeare class, I wrote a paper about A Thousand Acres and King Lear – looking at how contemporary issues were pulled from the original play. I also wrote a paper about feminism and humor, the bulk of the examined work was popular works like Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Bridget Jones’ Diary, along with classic writers like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton.

So, dear readers – does pop culture have a plaace in academia?

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