Why I Teach...

Dance tagged me for one of the more interesting memes going at the moment. Not surprisingly, it seems to have started over at the ever trend setting Dr. Crazy's, but there are also some interesting discussions with it happening at some of my other favorite places, including Free Exchange on Campus, Tenured Radical, and at New Kid's. I don't think my spewage is going to be quite as eloquent as those. I fear that tackling this is going to wind up sounding like I'm giving one of those Parents' Day Job talks to an elementary school class, except focused on academic inquiry to an already well-educated audience. Apologies in advance.

I spent a decent portion of yesterday wrestling with how to tackle it myself. I rather enjoy the illusion of anonymity that has come with not identifying my field so far (in part because it has resulted in some interesting guesses about who I am and what I do). If I must be honest, I love my privacy and a bit of mystery, so this isn't all about my protection. But this line of topic seems to beg for some specificity. I could, of course, list specific general courses - Research Methods - but who really wants to hear that the real reason I teach it is because I was the low man on the totem pole and no one else would do it? Or I could talk about why I've found I enjoy teaching intro sections, but even that doesn't seem terribly compelling.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that I'm in a field that has pretty porous boundaries. On one hand, we pride ourselves on the interdisciplinary nature of what we do. On the other hand, we have regular debates - we're about due for another one - about whether we're really a field at all. That's meant that what I teach plays well in a variety of areas at the same time that it can be regarded with a fairly questioning eye. This year, for example, I've been able to apply and be fairly competitive in four different types of academic departments. I probably could have done more than that, but a couple of fields I could make a run in are already glutted so who needs one more applicant challenging for those jobs?

So what I think I should talk about is something that falls into what I teach but isn't the field I teach in; something that has those interdisciplinary implications (both positive and negative). So today's topic:

Why I teach Popular Culture*

Popular culture itself is a sometimes maligned area of inquiry (often rightly so). First, because culture itself is a word with not one but many histories. We're not likely to agree on a definition here, but it shouldn't be hard to imagine that tacking an adjective onto an already contested concept is only going to multiply the distress.

The very notion of popular culture, after all, carries with it the notion that it is somehow less worthy by virtue of being popular, that what happens in popular culture is somehow demeaning, secondary, or less valued than what happens in the other kind(s) of culture. In one sense (sorry, anthropologists, this might grate), culture is meant as counterpoint to and a mechanism of change and comment on the things that are less than ideal in society. Culture is art, art is political, political is not popular seems to be the logic.

But in spite of that contested space - maybe because of it - there are some pretty compelling reasons to teach popular culture.
  • "You're Soaking In It" - sadly, for much of our society, share culture isn't about the great works of literature (whatever they are) or living through similar events and lives anymore (growing up in the South, for example, has taught me just how radically someone ostensibly in the same American culture differs based on whether they live in a place where it snows). Popular culture, though, often serves as that glue. I've tried talking to tons of people about my favorite books and found glassy eyes, but I can engage virtually anyone on the street by talking about the relative merits of reality TV. That's the power that teaching popular culture gives: the ability to engage virtually anyone who walks into your room.
  • "The Pause That Refreshes" - At the same time, it doesn't mean I can't relate things to the great works or to shared experience. It provides an easier entrance to whatever needs talking about and can be taken in any direction you need to go. Want to make a student care about authorship of something? Tell them about how much Milton's estate got for "Paradise Lost" and how they viewed it in comparison to today's views. Good teaching of popular culture isn't just about why this is cool (I'm talking to you people who teach technology in particular), it asks the questions that more formal disciplines tackle.
  • "Have It Your Way" - One of the real joys, though, is that teaching popular culture means I'm not limited to one approach. I get to play with the toys that more traditional disciplines (or at least departments) often put off limits. I've worked places where certain approaches were clearly not welcome. Teaching popular culture well requires an openness to approaches. I get to talk history, economics, psychology, sociology, business, cultural studies. I can use Karl Marx or B.F. Skinner or Benedict Anderson or any other notable under the sun. Sometimes I have to, and I'm always glad to.
  • "It Keeps Going and Going and Going..." - One of the beauties of it is that popular culture changes constantly, and so there are always new questions to be asked and, hence, new ways to engage. Maybe the most useful thing about teaching popular culture topics is that it provides a way to keep yourself feeling fresh (sorry, having stolen ad slogans to help with this, that phrase makes me pause) in a job that often lends itself to sameness.
  • "Make Yourself Heard" - Even before the 500 channel universe, the Internet, social networking, blogs, media literacy, network identity and such, popular culture has tended to be participatory. Recent years have only made it more so. The power to see themselves in popular culture - to shape it - is one of the things that makes it such a useful tool pedagogically. One of the things that often seems frustrating to students is that they get no say in the Canon or the great moments of history; they can want to write the Great American Novel, but the classroom doesn't always provide a path - or at least a clear path - to that sort of goal. It takes a special student to be able to see themselves in Hawthorne or the works of Cicero. But the realm of popular culture, particularly now, is one that almost any student can not only envision themselves but more easily make themselves felt.
  • "Now You're Playing With Power" - One thing that often gets missed about pop culture as a topic is that it is more often than not where the first battles over those ideas that high culture and art are meant to challenge really take place. It would be foolish, for example, to suggest that "Will and Grace" made homosexuality acceptable on its own in America, but it is an interesting signpost in that struggle.
Of course, popular culture is a two way street, and it's very easy to teach it badly. We've all been in classes - and probably even been the one to teach a class (I'll certainly admit to it) - where the professor couldn't quite "kill his darlings" about some popular notion. But when it's done right, popular culture as a subject area offers a lot of benefit to students - particularly students who have a hard time grasping the less immediate - and to the teacher.

I'm not going to tag anyone for the meme specifically, but I would love to hear from anyone reading about it. Let me know, and I'll add links to your posts.

*[Edit: a close second to this would have been why I teach Marx, but since that seems to happen in smaller, more sporadic doses and is generally seen as either obvious or blasphemous by most with no in-between, this seemed the more interesting way to go]


6 Responses to “Why I Teach...”
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Sisyphus said...

Yay teaching pop culture! As long as it's trying to get at how society works, and not "we will now appreciate our favorite pop culture fads," I love it. Of course, getting students to that place is probably the hardest part about teaching it.

a close second to this would have been why I teach Marx

Well, duh! Everyone should! Are you focusing on Groucho or Harpo?

January 27, 2008 at 4:26 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

That's one of the big concerns that I hope was lurking beneath the surface of my post - that to deal with pop culture, it can't be just about the fad itself.

But part of why I didn't go the Marx route is that I can never remember exactly which of the brothers gave us this gem: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” Whichever one said it was both insightful and a satirical genius.

January 27, 2008 at 7:39 PM
khora said...

Lovely post. You should be teaching pop culture.

January 28, 2008 at 8:55 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Thanks, khora (is the similarity to Que hora? accidental?). It probably doesn't hurt that growing up, I spent a considerable amount of time torn between reading whatever I could get my hands on the more general pop culture world. But it's been interesting how many times I've been called to defend it in job interviews and the like.

January 28, 2008 at 3:44 PM
khora said...

I'm afraid the reasoning for my choice of moniker is far less groovy than the one you surmised.

I use "khora" in the Derridean sense--as he derived it from Plato's use. A quick visit to Wikipedia will give you some sense of the term.

Now that I think of it, though, your interpretation implicates an element of the philosophical underpinnings of "khora." "What time?" possesses a provocative ambiguity inextricably related to "What place?" Very sharp, indeed.

As for justifying yourself--after you get a job, of course--I suggest the simple statement, "Ehh, go fuck the horse you road in on."

Scratch that. Unlike me, you may want to keep your job.

January 29, 2008 at 2:59 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I should be embarrassed that I never even thought about anything with Greek origins. It does seem that the act giving a definition of the handle abandons the Derridean meaning. Thanks for the clarification and the interesting reading points.

As for justification, it seems to be an inherent part of this career. And I do sometimes like the sparring that goes with it, so...

January 29, 2008 at 7:25 PM