There are many who are hesitant to use popular culture in the classroom. White and Walker explain that:
“Some teachers simply refuse to recognize the importance of popular culture in the lives of students. Rather, they see it as a distraction and pretend that they can fight the evil influence of popular culture by putting up posters like those sponsored by National TV-Turnoff Week and distributing stickers urging students to ‘kill your television set.’ Educators must accept that many of students’ understandings about the world are constructed through popular culture texts” (15).
By ignoring popular culture in the classroom, teachers have effectively created a divide in the lives of their students between their personal and academic lives. Campaigns like the aforementioned ‘National TV Turnoff Week’ may seem like a good idea but only until one considers that instead of educating our students about popular culture, we are effectively telling our students to simply ignore media issues.
Some argue that popular culture isn’t worthy of study simply because it is popular or too contemporary – as if culture is like a wine that must age in order to achieve perfection. In Michael Berube’s article “The Elvis Costello Problem,” the author explains the theory of the Test of Time from the managing editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, which is essentially that no works can be considered for serious academic discussion until fifty years from their publication had passed. Berube goes on to write, “Imagine, if you will, the literary scene if the world’s leading literary critics had agreed not to touch Ulysses or The Waste Land until 1972, To the Lighthouse until 1976, Invisible Man until 2002” and notes that the Test of Time is inherently flawed because it presumes that after fifty years have passed, society will automatically know which works are worth discussing without the works being discussed in an academic setting.
Students want to learn, but they only want to learn about things that they know they can apply in the future. Perhaps this is why our course level expectations and curriculum standards aren’t interested in specific texts – because they have been deemed inessential to the future of our students. Students aren’t going to be required to know any of the plot points to The Great Gatsby for their future or for a standardized test, nor will they need know that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it, so this mentality that classic literature is essential to a student’s education must be abolished. Teachers who advocate for a classic literature only approach, aren’t interested in teaching the standards set forth by their states, but rather they are interested in an antiquated pedagogy that favors the ends of texts rather than the means.
Many educators fear that they are not knowledgeable enough to guide students in their pop culture endeavors, but how often are teachers absolute experts on everything that students write about? Using popular culture in the classroom isn’t meant to test a teacher’s expertise on a subject so much as it is meant to allow students a means to express their own expertise.
Recently, a friend of mine had been tasked with teaching non-fiction writing to at-risk students. She was concerned because she felt like she would have a difficult time being able to reach out to some of the boys in her class. Two boys in particular were difficult because they seemed to only care about video games. “Which games?” I asked.
“Call of Duty and I don’t know the other one,” she said as she pulled out some information cards her students filled out.
I looked over one of the cards and saw the acronym “V.A.T.S.” and I knew that I was familiar with it, but I couldn’t remember where I saw it. After a quick Google search, I was reminded that it was a term from the Fallout series of video games. My friend asked me how she could connect to these students and I told her to use elements from the games as a jumping off point for a research project. After a few minutes, we generated topics that ranged from World War II to the history of post-apocalyptic literature to 50’s advertising techniques.
My friend left with some new ideas and confidence that she would be able to reach her students by having them analyze things they already enjoyed. It was amusing to me that she came to me for advice and I hadn’t played either game. I had vague ideas about both games and from these vague plots, the two of us were able to generate a list of topics that students could easily research and learn much from.
This story shows us two things. First, pop culture can be used as an excellent jumping off point for a myriad of different topics for the classroom. Also, it doesn’t take much to generate ideas as long as one has a basic idea of the plot or elements of a game (the details of which can be learned from a simple Google search). In the end, my friend was able to reach out to her students by having them look at the popular culture that they enjoy and analyze some aspect of the games that they play.
Pop culture has recently become a topic for serious academic discussion. The Pop Culture Association and American Culture Association were created for this very purpose – their mission statement being to “promote the study of popular culture throughout the world through the establishment and promotion of conferences, publications, and discussion.” Conferences discussing the literary merits of Batman, Harry Potter and the complete works of Joss Whedon occur all across the country and with good reason: though these works are part of popular culture, the emphasis is on the word “culture.” This isn’t to say that the classics are not still classic, but it is ridiculous to think that everything after the 1950s isn’t worth studying in a serious manner.
Take Batman, for example. Here is a character that has been published since 1939. Artists and writers have been contributing to the character’s rich mythology for over 70 years with no sign of the character disappearing any time soon. Underneath the surface level of a man in a cowl fighting crime, there is a rich history and powerful motivation for the character. When we analyze what exactly motivates a man to dress as a bat to strike terror into the heart of evil, we can see that he is either a mad man or a frightened child looking to find meaning in his world. Either way, the character can be analyzed as deeply as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Does this diminish Shakespeare’s greatest work? Not at all. In fact, having an understanding of the thematic elements of vengeance that permeates Hamlet can enrich the understanding of Batman’s own quest. High culture and pop culture are perhaps more interrelated than many academics would care to acknowledge and students should be aware of popular culture and the connections it makes to “the classics.”
Perhaps most interesting of all is that students are already taking it upon themselves to have academic discussions, and they don’t even realize it. Love it or hate it, Lost was a cultural phenomenon. What other science fiction television show has been able to generate as much discussion and research as Lost? People who had never watched a sci-fi TV show before were discussing philosophy, time travel, and alternate universes like seasoned comic book pros.
More impressive than the pseudo-science was the inclusion of literary and philosophical references to give the story weight and deeper meaning. Characters like John Locke and Rousseau provided the perfect gateway into a discussion about the philosophies of their real world counterparts. Once students learn about the real John Locke, they can apply his ideas of the social contract and attach it to the ideas set forth in the show. Furthermore, with just a small amount of research, students can better understand why it’s humorous that Lost’s John Locke went by the alias of Jeremy Bentham.
I had students who were logging onto Lostpedia (a wiki specifically designed to chronicle information about the show) and they were doing research into the hidden meanings and connections presented on the show proving that students like to learn, but they want to like what they learn. Students simply need something to care about in order to activate their academic skills and as teachers, we should encourage our students to explore subjects they care about and if that means encouraging them to conduct research over entertainment they enjoy, then we should be pleased that our students are finding ways of intellectually challenging themselves.
Instead of bemoaning the evils of video games, teachers should be utilizing popular culture to make meaningful connections to media that students enjoy. This means more than just showing the popular film version of a beloved book; it means taking media that students enjoy in their free-time and providing opportunities for students to understand the media on a deeper level. Games like God of War, and Dante’s Inferno (graphic though they may be) are heavily influenced by Greek mythology, and the Divine Comedy respectively. Bringing these games into the classroom setting isn’t advisable, but students are playing them at home and by having students research the texts the games are based upon, they will better understand the cultural history of that game.
Even reality television (as much as we loathe it) can be used as a jumping off point to enhance understanding. Perhaps students could analyze the social mores and etiquette (or lack thereof) in TV shows like Jersey Shore and compare it to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Another option could be to watch survival shows like Discovery Channel’s Survivorman or Man vs. Wild and compare the imagery to writers like Jack London or Stephen Crane. Students could reimagine Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to be similar to a Big Brother like setting. Looking at the politics of Julius Caesar could show students that the alliances built on Survivor or the Apprentice are rooted in a history of Machiavellian power-plays that go back centuries. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Essentially, our mindset has to change if we are to promote a Learning Society that encourages students to apply their education to their everyday life. Students like to question why they have to read a specific text all the time and the defense of “because” or “because it’s required” simply doesn’t work. By incorporating popular culture into the classroom, students can become critical thinkers, and reflective, responsible citizens.
A common concern from many teachers is being out of touch with the pop culture topics that teens will pick. This is an unnecessary worry because it is based in upon the philosophy that texts are the ends to be learned rather than the means to acquire critical thinking skills. Whether or not one is familiar with the plot of the newest movie or the content of a video game, a good argument that shows reflective, critical research will be apparent. The finished product should be a good representation of the skills and themes that the teacher has presented rather than a summary of the pop culture in question.
In the end, good writing is good writing no matter what the subject is. A research paper must have sources, and a persuasive paper must have a strong argument and support. Using figurative language is the same when talking about Faulkner as it is when talking about Final Fantasy. Formulating a coherent narrative is just as important when talking about The Great Gatsby as it is when talking about True Blood. As long as students are doing good writing on subjects they enjoy or as long as they use their pop culture to make the texts from class more personal, what harm could a little pop culture do?
“. . . let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” – Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal