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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Pop culture cracks college curriculums

By James M. O’Neill

Tuesday 20 January 2004

Pop culture cracks college curriculums
Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - (KRT) - These days, when college students say they’re studying Homer, they as likely mean the Simpsons character as the ancient Greek author of The Iliad.

As a field for serious research, popular culture has come of age. It’s been a long, slow road to academic acceptance.

The subject, once dismissed by professors, was later taken hostage by those with political agendas on both sides of the 1990s Culture Wars, when debate raged as college curriculums shifted away from a Western, classical focus.

Today, though it gives some tuition-paying parents heart palpitations, pop culture has taken its place as a mainstream subject for study - not only in sociology, but in disciplines from history to philosophy.

Professors promote the trend on several fronts. "Popular-culture courses help us teach liberal-arts skills using subject matter that’s more accessible to students," said Jeffrey Hyson, a St. Joseph’s University history professor who will edit an American history textbook devoted to popular culture.

Timothy Burke, a cultural history professor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., put it this way: "Anything that lots of people do is worth studying. It opens an endless series of questions about what it is to be human."

Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., defended pop culture studies for another reason. "When I give students classics to read, they’re afraid to speak up. They don’t engage their critical faculties," Rockland said. "Look, one or two of Shakespeare’s plays actually stink.

"Pop culture is useful if you want students to be brave enough to be critical. It’s wonderful to have students raising their hands every two minutes instead of sitting like stones."

His jab at Shakespeare conjures another defense of pop culture studies. Academics argue that many classics were the pop culture of their era, from Shakespeare to opera or Mozart.

"Today’s popular culture is tomorrow’s elite culture," Rockland said. "I don’t want to just teach dead stuff that’s already been acclaimed."

He said jazz started in New Orleans brothels. As it moved up the Mississippi River, it grew more respectable. "Music that had been played in whorehouses was ultimately being played in conservatories of music," Rockland said. "We invest things with value once they stick around."

Though the novel was invented in the 1600s, Rutgers did not teach the genre until 1900. "Novels were considered mere entertainment," Rockland said.

Then the movies, a new genre, arrived; novels were promoted to dignified academic status. In the 1950s, movies became acceptable fodder for study - TV had arrived.

Pop culture courses are now ubiquitous:

Eric Bain-Selbo, a professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., taught a course this semester on two Homers - the Greek author and TV’s Homer Simpson - in order to parse "high" versus "low" culture, and the moral and philosophical lessons offered up by each. The writing course was designed to get freshmen thinking early about what is worth studying and how to think critically. "I know `The Simpsons’ has no standing against `The Iliad,’ but studying `The Simpsons’ does reveal a lot about our society," Bain-Selbo said. "Why does it enthrall?"

Professor Susan Schwartz teaches a course on the religions of "Star Trek" at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., to introduce students to the critical study of religion. She uses the show as a lens to illustrate how culture and religion interact - and to let students discuss an often touchy topic. "It makes religion more accessible," she said.

Next semester, professor Kevin Scott will teach on the images of women in comic books and video games at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. An English professor, Scott found researching comic books "more interesting than writing one more book about `the whiteness of the whale’" - a reference to the more unending scholarly theorizing over what Ahab’s whale symbolizes in a classic of American literature, Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick." "The high-end arts are potentially less helpful to understand what is going on in a culture," Scott said.

Rutgers’ Rockland has taught post-World War II America using best-selling, often trashy, novels. He explained the popularity of Mickey Spillane’s "Mike Hammer" books in 1950s America, while Ian Fleming’s "James Bond" character took another decade to catch on.

The Spillane books emphasized values of vigilantism and individualism, while Bond worked in an organization and his scope was international, Rockland said. In the 1950s, Americans tried to forget World War II by retreating to the suburbs, making group endeavors anathema.

In the 1960s, with President John F. Kennedy’s "ask what you can do for your country" still ringing and Vietnam on the radar, the nation grew more outward-looking and Bond became more popular.

"By focusing on these novels I’m not trying to say Mickey Spillane is great - he’s awful," Rockland said. But the focus on pop culture provided a window into broader issues influencing American life at that time.

Academics note the potential danger in all this - class discussion can quickly degenerate into a bull session about students’ favorite TV shows. The professors must guide students back to the question at hand.

"You have to ensure they talk with the same rigor they’d use with the Civil War," Hyson said.

Over the last decade, even doctoral dissertations are focusing on pop culture, unheard of a generation ago. Some examples: "Baseball Card Collection and the Politics of Sports;" "Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans;" "The Cultural Legacy of Marilyn Monroe;" and others on body piercing, hip hop, and how "Flashdance" and the "Rocky" movies reflected the values of 1980s Reaganomics.

Still, given the field’s long struggle for acceptance, it carries heavy baggage, and even those who embrace the concept squirm when they sense a colleague treating the subject matter too seriously.

This taint exists even among students. When Laura Napolitano, a senior at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, took Hyson’s course, someone asked her if it was an easy, "gut" course.

Anything but. A recent class discussion on Hollywood’s movie-rating system fostered electric debate on freedom of speech, how cultural values are portrayed, and who wields power to shape cultural opinion.

The pop studies trend exists abroad, too. Last year, the University of East Anglia in England held an academic conference titled "Blood, Text and Fears: Reading Around Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Academics read scholarly papers on Buffy, but given the popular subject, organizers felt obliged to stress that the event was "not a fan convention ... and costumes are not encouraged."

Those who attended could hear papers on "From Metropolis to Melrose Place: Morphic Resonance in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or " `You Hold Your Gun Like a Sissy Girl’ - Firearms and Anxious Masculinity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer," among others.

Already, professors are turning their gaze to computer games - even starting Game Studies, an academic journal. The board of reviewers includes academics from the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, and elsewhere.

One paper that Game Studies published was an analysis of Lara Croft, the computer-generated archaeologist: "Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis."

For many, pop culture is still a side interest, something they can do because they have a traditional body of work to authenticate their scholarship.

For instance, Bruce Kuklick, a Penn professor who specializes in U.S. political and diplomatic history, later in his career published a book on Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium).

Burke argues that insecurity and snobbery among academics studying pop culture caused some to use overly scholarly language about subjects that did not merit it - and provided easy targets for the political right during the 1990s Culture Wars.

"They’re so concerned with the suggestion that to write about, say, `The Simpsons’ means you’re not really smart that it causes a lot of academics to overcompensate, unintentionally making parodies of their own work," Burke said.

He said scholars overlooked the fact of their own academic training, which lets them take a popular subject and ask the kind of questions that produce legitimate new insight.

"Pop culture," Burke said, "is the raw material to ask more focused questions."

As Homer Simpson would say: "D’oh!"

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