When Rutgers University announced that undergrads would have the opportunity to enroll in a class called “Politicizing Beyoncé: Black Feminism, US Politics & Queen Bey” many were made aware of a growing trend on college campuses, semester long classes that stray far from traditional college courses and instead have roots in pop culture. As expected, such classes have strong supporters (Sign me up!) as well as harsh critics (They’re seriously offering a course on THAT?).
Several examples of pop culture classes that have been offered include: “Philosophy and Star Trek” at Georgetown University, “South Park and Contemporary Social Issues” at McDaniel College, and a Doctor Who class at Syracuse University. The Ohio State University even offers a minor in Popular Culture Studies which allows students to develop an “interdisciplinary approach” to the study of pop culture.
Are students really learning from these courses? Or are colleges just catering to students’ natural interest in these topics, with no regard to what they’re actually learning?
The answers to these questions are often not clear. Each course needs to be evaluated based on its content individually in order to truly see its academic merit. However, broadly, popular culture can be an interesting lens to study more traditional topics and provide context to abstract principles and social issues of today’s world. By drawing inspiration and topics from popular culture, professors can move more quickly through material, since many of the students already have at least a basic knowledge coming into the class, and students can make real world connections to what they are learning, in ways that they probably did not think of while they were watching TV or flipping through the latest gossip magizine.
For example, the description for the “South Park and Contemporary Social Issues” course states that, “South Park uses humor to explore issues such as immigration, gay marriage, terrorism, and hundreds more. This course is an interdisciplinary approach towards extending and deepening the discussions already present in the show.” In this case, the show is simply used as a stepping stone to further discussions about the real world. The show might be used to introduce the topics but it’s what the students themselves take from it in regard to current social issues which constitute the actual learning that is taking place. In this case, the students are not learning about South Park as a show but rather the social commentary contained in it.
In an interview, the professor who came up with and taught the Beyoncécourse mentioned earlier said that his goal for the class included, “… trying to bring in pop culture references to get students invested and involved in the teaching material.” This is most likely the goal of many professors when they introduce pop culture based classes to undergrad students, to pique students’ interest with the familiarity of whatever pop culture icon or media in the title and then, once they are enrolled in the class, use the pop culture as a path to deeper, discussion-based learning.
Alternatively, there are also pop culture courses that exist purely for the purpose of studying pop culture itself with no deeper analysis or discussion. These courses are often offered not for credit or for a lesser amount of credit than courses on traditional topics and may meet less frequently. An example would be the Doctor Who class since the online description states, “#WhoClass is an adventure through space and time to discover the history of Doctor Who.” While interesting, students should not get swept away taking too many of these courses since they do little to encourage actual learning that normally takes place in a college classroom.
Overall, courses based on popular culture should not be viewed only as a passing fad. Many such courses provide actual insights into today’s world and do so by analyzing the culture that surrounds us on a day to day basis. In addition to many being intellectually stimulating and relevant for undergrads, they are also fun and can sometimes provide a much needed break from an otherwise demanding course load while still being valuable additions to your schedule.