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Pop go the courses - Universities put modern culture under academic lens (buffy mentions)

Marco Ursi

Tuesday 29 August 2006, by Webmaster

If you’re the parent of a University of Victoria student, think twice before reprimanding your kid for spending all his free time watching old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, listening to rock music or banging a drum instead of doing homework. "This is my homework," could well be the reply you get, along with a lot of eye-rolling.

Universities have seen tremendous changes in the 20th century, and course subject matter is no exception. This fall, and not for the first time, UVic is offering classes on vampires, The Beatles, and African hand-drumming, alongside more traditional classes dealing with 19th-century Victorian literature, Mozart and African history. According to the professors teaching them, these courses are as rigorous, serious and academically sound as any of the "traditional" studies.

Not everyone agrees. When Peter Golz arrived at UVic in 1992 and proposed a course examining the portrayal of vampires in film and literature, some of his colleagues responded to the idea like vampires smelling garlic. "They felt it wasn’t a serious topic," Golz, 50, says.

Courses that look at pop culture through academic lenses have been appearing in universities across the country for at least a decade. They fall into an area of scholarship known as cultural studies, which combines sociology, literary theory, film/video studies and cultural anthropology to look at the way cultural phenomena affect — and are affected by — the world we live in.

"What constitutes the ’traditional’ or the ’serious’ is, largely, a cultural invention," Kim Blank, who teaches cultural studies in UVic’s English department, writes in an e-mail.

"Accidents of taste and history, as well as political and ideological agenda, shape what we mean by terms like this."

Cultural studies collapses the distinction between "high" and "low" art. In other words, Buffy is just as ripe for intellectual discussion as Baudelaire.

This kind of thinking isn’t as radical as it might sound — cultural studies have been around since the late 1970s — but that doesn’t mean everyone inside the Ivory Tower accepts it.

"There are two enemies of reading now in the world," Harold Bloom, a Yale University literature professor, said in a 2000 interview with the website Booknotes. "One is the lunatic destruction of literary studies, at least from my perspective, and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world."

"Certainly in American studies, they never read anymore," he continued. "They never read American literature. They don’t know who Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or Henry James are. They study Coney Island. They study Batman comics. They study the peerless Madonna."

Nothing wrong with that, say proponents of cultural studies.

"Universities should be about exploring all things," Blank writes. "Just because something is popular does not mean it should be excluded from study. In fact, it suggests the opposite: The more popular the object or event, the more we need to understand it."

It took him eight years, but Golz finally got A Cultural History of Vampires in Literature and Film into UVic’s undergraduate calendar in 2001. The 75 spots available to students filled quickly and the course has been packed every year since.

"Students have to read secondary literature, write essays, all the things you would for any other course," Golz says. "You can teach anything and make it serious."

Colleen Eccleston takes her subject — The Beatles — just as seriously. "I don’t think that The Beatles are just a pop group," she says. "I think that they grew up with their generation, and all the political, social and philosophical feelings of that generation were reflected in them."

In Eccleston’s course, The Beatles’ Music, students look into myths about the famed Liverpudlian quartet (Is Paul McCartney really dead? Was John Lennon gay? Did they own a Greek Island?), consider how these myths came about and determine what role these mythologies played in the band’s success.

The idea of teaching rock and roll inside the halls of higher learning might strike some as a sad twist of fate for an art form that defines itself as youthful, rebellious and anti-authoritarian. But for universities, which aim to help students understand and interpret the world around them, to ignore what Blanks describes as "easily the most pervasive and popular genre in Western culture — ever," would be like a rock and roll course that leaves out Elvis.

"Everyone has their own personal rock history," Eccleston, 48, says. "It affects fashion. It affects the economy. Everything. It’s a huge business. The concept of a teenager didn’t even exist before rock and roll. Now everything is directed at and marketed to them."

Rock and roll might be the most pervasive genre in Western culture, but it wouldn’t even exist were it not for an instrument that originally comes out of Africa — the drum. Jordan Hanson, 36, uses this simple instrument as a tool for teaching not only music, but also cultural and world issues.

There are 30 students on the waiting list for Hanson’s course, African Hand-Drumming.

Juliane Webster was one of the lucky 30 who did make the cut last fall. Webster, 21, is a classically trained oboeist going into her second year as a UVic music student this fall.

Unlike her other courses, African Hand-Drumming had no textbooks.

"I never knew what we would be doing when I went into that class," she says. "It was a different type of learning than I was doing in any classroom."

The course offered a glimpse into an area of the world she knew very little about. "It’s not very often you get to talk about West Africa and how their culture has influenced their music," Webster says.

Hanson helps the mostly non-music majors in his class "discover their own inner rhythm," leading to discussions about how the rhythms reflect the countries they come from, the erosion of traditional African music and culture by Western hegemony, and social issues in Africa, such as AIDS.

The course also offers something rarely afforded to university students — a break. "You’re totally transported to a different place while you’re playing these rhythms," Hanson says. "You’re not able to think about anything else. It’s a nice stress-reliever."


Getting a new course approved at UVic normally takes about 18 months. The process begins when a professor or instructor brings a paragraph-long proposal to a faculty meeting during the regular school year (September to April).

Faculty discuss the merits of the course and might suggest amendments. The prof also has to run the course by the university library, to ensure it’s stocked with the materials students will need.

At the end of the spring term, department chairs prepare a curriculum submission, including a description of the new course, due July 1. This gets passed on to a Faculty Curriculum Committee, made up of professors from different departments within the faculty (for instance, the Faculty of Humanities Curriculum Committee might be made up of professors of English, philosophy, etc.)

Once past this stage, the proposal goes to the Senate Curriculum Committee, which has the final say on whether the course is a go or not. The committee makes its decision in December. If it’s affirmative, the course will start the following September.

Ran with fact box "Getting a course onto the curriculum"which has been appended to the story.