Crisis of Conscience: Teaching Pop Culture
It probably comes as little surprise to you that my pedagogical approach so far has been to mix "high" and "low" culture on a syllabus. There are several reasons for this:
1. I love certain bits of a both, passionately. My life would be woefully incomplete without either one.
2. I am one of those wackademics who thinks you can't tell the value of a work of art or culture based on how many times it ends up on college syllabi. The high/low split seems pretty stupid. I prefer it-rocks/it's-crap or it's-useful/it's-not-useful.
3. I want my students (in their very first college course - "developmental" (remedial) at that) to be engaged, and including pop culture seems to be one way of capturing their attention. My students practically skipped out of the classroom yesterday singing that they got to watch a film instead of read for an assigment. Maybe that's sad, but it is what it is. I truly believe it comes from the fact that, for most people, school is a site of serious trauma and certain "types" of classwork bring up that trauma. My students can barely read standard English and certainly can't write it. They're far less likely to have been traumatized by watching the Wayans brothers than reading out of some literary anthology.
I remember how I was with math and science. I felt so helpless in those subjects that just encountering a textbook or an equation or, most especially a lab, would panic me. I was looking into the abyss and it was glaring back at me.
I now regret not having much math or, especially, science under my belt because of this fear and shame. I didn't take a lick of either as an undergraduate. I haven't seen math or science in a classroom setting since May of my junior year. All because it tore me up inside with frustration. I wish someone had tried to reach out to me, to find a way for me to interact with the trappings of science, but no one did. It was one pointless lab I didn't understand after another.
It's entirely possible that there's nothing anyone could have done to make me understand or feel less afraid. It is entirely possible that, in that area, I am dumb. I believe in dumbness; we all can't do everything. But I don't know for sure that I couldn't do it. After all, in chemistry when we didn't do labs all the time (my great hate), I ended up getting an A. It's just as possible that I slipped through the cracks, despite the resources of a suburban high school and the support that comes with being identified as "gifted".
I always wish that we'd done a really thorough nutrition unit. Having gotten into it as an adult in all its nitty-gritty, equations and memorization and all, I feel like that might have been a way to steer me gently into science.
My undergraduate institution had very few traditionally-aged students, though I was one myself. Most of the people in attendance were older and were going back to school. In the courses I teach, some students are still in the high school mode of trying to seem cool. It's much cooler to get into a pop culture assignment than to get into a "high literary" assignment.*
4. At the same time, one of the wonderful things about college for me, perhaps the most wonderful, was being exposed to so many incredible things I would never otherwise have encountered. I am thoroughly appalled by the attitudes many other professors show toward the students at our institution. I remember the other day this guy saying he felt guilty about being "a pusher of standard English". The department chair replied simply, "that's what your students will love you for." I am privileged to have a good education and lots of it. There's something sick about hoarding the tools I gained from that privilege in the spirit of preserving some invented "authenticity" that supposedly belongs to my students. There's something sick about teaching my students as though they could only deal with texts that are like those they encounter at home. My students deserve a good education, just as I did. (Not to mention that seeming "cool" and "down" with the students is not our job and I can't even begin to tell you how sick I think it is to go into a classroom with that attitude - it's my current cross to bear that a sizable chunk of the adjuncts at my institution seem to see this as their primary goal.)
So ... there ya go.
But now I'm doing some second-guessing. One reason is, and this will sound crazy, my students seemed to like this recent assignment a bit too much. Their enthusiasm made me feel like maybe I'm not challenging them enough.
And then I read this discussion on the WMST-L list-serv:
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2006 10:21:26 -0400
From: Katha Pollitt
Subject: Re: Shift of tone on WMST-L
yes, the race division on survivor is racist and idiotic, as is much
pop culture. But you haven't persuaded me that studying Survivor is a
particularly valuable way to approach race/ethnicity in a college
classroom. I would say everything that needs to be said about
survivor's tribes can be said in about two minutes. i would have
trouble stretching it out to a whole column (1000 words). It's all
pretty obvious, isn't it?. And I'll bet that outside the academy
people in the racial-ethnic groups included would not see the way
they are portrayed on Survivor as one of their major problems in life.
The daughter of a friend of mine took a whole course on Buffy the
Vampire Slayer at NYU. I would be amazed if this young woman has
studied the middle east or Africa, can speak a foreign language
fluently, has read five books written before 1500 (or the Koran!),
or could discuss intelligently the differences between the american
and French revolutions, or .... Sure pop culture is part of our
world, and shapes attitudes at conscious and unconscious levels. But
it's not why we're in iraq, or why people are poor or why they risk
their lives to write or read novels and poetry. Think of all the
courses in the catalog at NYU, and tell me why Buffy the Vampire
slayer was an excellent choice-- better than Modern Poetry, 18th
Century Women Novelists, or for that matter Economics of Women's
Labor or 20th Century russian history or Beginning Spanish (or any
other language) or ...
A number of people have said that college gives you a skill set, a
set of analytical tools you can use to read anything, and that
teaching pop culture is a good way to teach the skill set. i have
three problems with that artgulment. One, I don't think a course on
chick lit really does teach you how to read , say, George Eliot, let
alone TS Eliot. Two, I doubt such courses give students the idea that
serious literature holds something valuable that is missing from pop
culture--the point of studying Survivor isn't to get kids to read
James Joyce, it's to get them to be more critical watchers of reality
TV. Three, for most people college is the last opportunity they are
ever going to have to meet difficult, classic, or out of the way
texts, and learn how to enjoy and understand them and relate to
them. Having spent their undergraduate years on pop culture, how
likely is it that once out of college,in the work world, starting a
family etc, that graduate is going to say, you know, I've never read
Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or Emily Dickinson. I barely know who Balzac
is! I think I'll turn off the set for a bit and spend my evenings
with the penguin classics!
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2006 10:29:50 -0700
From: "Dustin M. Wax"
Subject: Re: Shift of tone on WMST-L
In a sense, I think it's
*easier* to get students to read something like _Pride and Prejudice_
for it's "deeper meaning" -- after all, it's a "classic")
than to get
them to "read" something like _The Sopranos_ or _Scary Movie 8_ as
anything other than trivial. Yet as Katha and others have pointed out,
our students will be exposed to pop culture that they're intended to
swallow uncritically far, far more often than to the "demanding" works
that they avoid precisely because they already know they are expected to
find some deeper meaning in them, that is, that they're "work".
students will admit to me freely that they do not read/do not like to read. If,
under those circumstances, I *do* assign a difficult read such as Faulkner or Woolf,
I can be assured that they will not read it, they'll go to sparknotes.com or
some other such website and read the summary. If I want students to *actually*
read something (or fail the class for not doing so), I know I'll do best to
keep away from "the classics."
Joan Korenman says:
I'd like to say a bit more about the pop culture discussion. Some
people seem to regard that discussion as putting Women's Studies on
the defensive. I don't agree. The debate over "high culture" vs.
"pop culture" has been raging for many years in most Humanities
fields. As an English professor, I've been wrestling with these
issues throughout my entire career, and not just in Women's Studies
classes. And in earlier centuries, disputes over whether
literature written in modern languages (as opposed to Latin and
Greek) should be taught, and whether American literature was worth
teaching at all, are earlier versions of the debate.
When you're talking about teaching Women's Studies (which I don't at the moment), Katha Pollitt's argument is ridiculous, in my opinion. You need some pop culture in WMST because a significant element of the discipline is the analysis of how cultural perceptions of gender manifest themselves everywhere: policy, family, pop culture.
What about English, though? My students may never see a piece of "literature" again in their lives. 50% of them will drop about before the end of the semester, according to institutional data, and, of those who stay until the end, 30% of them will not pass the course and/or the exam which will allow them to move past the "developmental" coursework. (If they do not pass both, they cannot continue their college education.) For many of these students, I'm their only chance to read and experience non-pop culture. At the same time, there's no way in the world I'm foisting Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons on these students because 50% would quickly become 95%, even though I think the experience of Tender Buttons is something that everyone should have the opportunity to have. I can guarantee, however, that my students will watch more mainstream film and television. They won't watch them in the same way, or discuss them or write about them the same way, but they will encounter those forms. I don't know if my students will ever really read again. Because, as Michele Ren says, my students hate reading.
I'm so confused. I'm starting to feel I need to dig through the canon. And I have never, ever had that feeling before. My conscience is screaming that my use of pop culture is in some way condescending to profoundly underserved students. It's also screaming at me that to excise pop culture from my syllabi would be a transgression of some of my most closely held intellectual beliefs. Thoughts? (Not just other teachers, but from students current and former, and, well, everyone else.)
* This reminds of a big moment of embarassment in junior high. After we finished reading it, the teacher asked who liked Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drums!". My hand shot up in the air with enthusiasm. Laughter began and I turned from my front-row seat to see that I was the only person in the classroom with my hand up.