Taking Pop Culture seriously
As trend-spotters and media analysts become more in demand,
NEW YORK — The idea of a seminar on Stephen King, or a doctoral thesis on Doc Martins has typically generated more than a few academic scoffs and well-publicized snickers.
But don't start chortling quite yet at the idea of hard-earned tuition dollars funding such academic inquiry. A quick scan of university course offerings sends a clear message: The study of popular culture is gaining some mainstream cachet.
Long-established schools with fine reputations to protect are turning a watchful eye to the culture of the masses, tucking in among the more predictable titles of the English or American Studies departments such topics such as "Youth Culture" or "The Body in the Movies." Young scholars can also examine the cultural impact of McDonald's or the meaning of "The Blair Witch Project."
The curriculum focuses on far more than just the latest Hollywood blockbuster - it tracks trends historically and sometimes goes back centuries.
As a result, people are starting to realize that pop culture isn't just the weird art or crazy music they loved as teens. And students, even once they realize more is required than watching favorite TV shows, find the studies worthwhile.
"It really is the old troglodyte that resents the study of popular culture now," says Ray Browne, author of the 1989 book "Against Academia," which is partly about pop culture's struggle to gain acceptance at universities.
Those doing the teaching point to the courses' benefits in an era when culture changes by the day and the Internet spreads fads and trends around the world at the click of a mouse. When something like the Columbine High School shooting happens, they point out, the public wants to turn to an authority on youth subcultures and what their music, books, and Internet sites mean. And anxious to spot the next trend, companies are seeking out graduates who have studied popular culture.
"It's extraordinary that the same joke being told 30 years ago is still going: 'A dissertation on the McNugget?!' " says Robert Thompson, a professor of film and television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University and president of the Popular Culture Association. "It's always, 'Can you believe these people are getting college credits for watching 'The Brady Bunch?' " he says.
Not just what's hot now
One of the most common misconceptions about the study of popular culture is that it is all about what's hot right now. In fact, most courses go back and look at daily life and media historically. Some survey courses begin with readings of Plato and Aristotle. Individual courses cover daily life in the Civil War era or even during Elizabethan times.
An introductory course at New York University starts with an essay by Matthew Arnold, a 19th-century British poet and critic, and eventually moves to books: "Hope in a Jar," about the rise of the cosmetics industry; "Inside the Mouse," about Disney's influence; and "Golden Arches East," about McDonald's reach into Asia. In between are film clips and musical excerpts.
"We've come to a belief that there are things worth studying that 30 years ago would have been considered beneath the attention of a serious academic," says Karen Hornick, who teaches the NYU course.
Professors teaching pop culture argue for the big picture, looking at everything from advertisements to humor of the day.
"A lot of our study of history has centered on leaders, rather than what the majority of the population was doing," says Nancy Ellen Talburt, an English professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "So a lot is lost," she says.
In her course on detective fiction, Professor Talburt uses detective novels through the century to examine changes in the law, the criminal-justice system, and police procedures.
"There's no possible way you can fully understand the culture that made postwar America, that informed the Vietnam War and caused the downfall of the Johnson administration, unless you understand rock 'n' roll music during that time, the youth movement, and what was on TV," says Professor Thompson, who is founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse.
"That Andy Griffith was No. 1 in the 1960s tells you volumes when you look at what was going on during that decade," he says.
In television courses, students study advertising and product placement. They notice, for example, smoking habits.
"In the '50s, cigarettes were smoked by the good guys and the bad guys never lit up," says Christopher Geist, a professor of popular culture who teaches TV at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Now in the era of antismoking campaigns and lawsuits against tobacco companies, "We don't see as many people smoking [on screen] and it's often shown in a negative light," he says.
He assigns students to survey television viewers, and to find someone from a show's target audience to watch the program with.
The University of Southern California takes the issue of audience reaction a step further, offering an entire course on audience analysis and another on crowds.
"Whereas in the past we'd look at the movie or the TV show and ask what themes does it represent, now we look more at how do people watch it, how does it affect their values or how they raise their children or the way they dress, " says Marilyn Motz, chair of the popular-culture department at Bowling Green.
An NYU course called "Walls of Power: Public Art" includes discussion of eight-story-high billboards on Broadway.
"Students talk about the effect that has on their lives," says Terence Culver, an artist who teaches the course. "In the process, music, television, and the Internet also come up. No matter what I do, pop culture comes up."
Pop-music classes that used to examine lyrics now concentrate on the fans and how the music fits into their social identity and leisure activities. Joe Austin, an associate professor of popular culture at Bowling Green, specializes in youth subcultures, many of which form around a type of music, like hip-hop or techno.
"The focus is on reception," he says. "Academics are likely to be hanging out in music clubs, listening, watching, and asking kids about their record collection and what's hip and what's not."
The Internet has made studying audiences much easier, since they can be tracked through chat-room discussions, news groups, e-zines and online fan clubs.
Among college students, popular culture courses are, well, very popular. Professors say students are drawn to what they can relate to. "It's more realistic," says Kerri Mason, a senior at NYU who has studied popular culture. "That's my problem with academics is that they consider themselves very separate from people, but we all share these same images."
Bowling Green adds courses based partly on what students say they are interested in. Next semester, a new course on Japanese culture will include Pokmon, and one on horror movies will cover "The Blair Witch Project."
"We like to say that studying popular culture is like being a fish in water," says Jason Foster, who has an undergraduate degree in pop culture from Bowling Green and is now getting his master's degree from the same department.
Even on campus, though, pop culture classes are often seen as blow-offs.
"People still expect our courses to be entertaining," Professor Austin says. "We get a lot of unsuspecting seniors who need one more course to graduate and think they'll come and watch TV and breeze through without being asked any hard questions about it. They usually don't do too well."
What about job prospects?
Popular-culture majors - so far Bowling Green is the only school to offer an actual degree in the subject - find themselves with a lot of explaining to do.
"A lot of people don't understand what it is or how you'll use it, so you feel you have to justify it," says Amanda Gittins, a pop-culture major at Bowling Green. "But they're also jealous because the classes all sound very interesting, and for the most part they are."
When it comes time to look for a job, what does a background in pop culture get students? Grads go on to become critics, museum curators, comic-book publishers, advertising producers, television programmers, or even trend-spotters.
"We try to keep first dibs on what will be popular next, and that's what companies want," says grad-student Foster. "Companies recruit us because we're trained and specialized in that."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society