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    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    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!

    Katha Pollitt

    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."

    Michele Ren
    English/Women's Studies
    Radford University

    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.


    Anonymous petitpoussin said...

    Hi there... just found your blog through Bitch Lab. And ba-da-ba-ba-buh, I'm lovin' it. (Seemed appropriate for this post.)

    The discussion you posted from the listserv reminds me of Deborah Solomon's interview in the NYTimes Magazine last month with Andi Zeisler of Bitch magazine, where Solomon pretty much accused the magazine's mission of being trivial and not addressing the Big Stuff. But, as you say:

    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.

    That's true for English/lit too! You don't read a novel OR watch a movie in a vacuum. It's not just about the play of language in a text but how that text represents various attitudes and assumptions and power dynamics. You say 'I don't know if my students will ever really read again.' So what's wrong with helping them learn to think critically about film, TV, whatever media they will interact with on a regular basis? That's still important.

    However, it is an important point that college can be 'the last chance' for people to engage with Serious Literature (TM) (and a big privileged blind spot to overlook that)... but you say at the start that you're mixing up high and low! If you get your students interested, with a movie or whatever else, I think the odds are better that they'll trust you when you steer them toward more 'serious' territory.

    So says a student, former and future.

    4:51 PM  
    Anonymous eninnej said...

    I have to say that my reaction to this post was, basically, 'right on!' I struggled with math and science, too, and if someone had given me a intro, like as you say, nutrition, that would've given me an immediate way of applying practically in my life what seemed to me to be incredibly esoteric information, I don't doubt I would've been more motivated to learn math and science more thoroughly.

    I think your high/low culture approach sounds really good. There are so many ways you can go about it. One I always enjoyed taking contemporary films and relating them back to classic texts - myths and legends or Shakespeare, for instance. Low culture and high culture mine each other for inspiration, so it makes sense to tap into both.

    And I think it's absolutely essential to give students the skills to be more critical consumers of popular culture. I think there's a lot more merit in teaching people to think critically about the TV they're watching than Pollitt allows for. I think it's quite snobby to assume that it's harder to read literature than to watch a film critically. While I've been reading literature critically since high school, I was well into my 20s before I learned to apply similar skills to film, and that skill set was only learned because I was dating someone who picked *everything* about a film apart. And learning to be critical of film has, I think, had a more profound impact on how I consume culture on an everyday basis than my literature studies (much as I loved them).

    I think you have to reach people where they are - push them and challenge them, yes, but there's a difference between that and just throwing them into the deep end and yelling 'swim!' petitpoussin's point about creating trust with your students so that they're willing and able to give more challenging material a chance is right on. If your instincts are telling you that you need to revisit your syllabus, by all means, do so. But it really sounds to me like the underlying approach you're using is solid.

    5:45 PM  
    Blogger zp said...

    EL hits the classroom and all hell breaks loose. Hooray! Thanks for sharing your new, exciting experiences and your thoughtful reflections on them.

    Thankfully it's never really an either or choice. That Buffy example seems a little rhetorical.

    But my favorite point is the part about nutrition. I've been thinking about this a bit in reaction to the NYer articles on high school music ed and school lunches. Teach a girl to fish . . .

    7:31 PM  
    Anonymous Luke said...

    i'm not a teacher or professor or anything (i do tutor grade school kids part time tho) but I would think that on top of the "i don't read/I don't like to read" comment made by students, another popular one would be "why are we reading this?/what's the point of learning about this?" which then makes me really wonder how this Katha Politt can't see the value in things that aren't basically "the classics" which is then why "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." is so right on.

    To me, the best teachers were the ones who directly connected things to pop culture/everyday life or recent pop culture in some way..the ones who pointed out how what I was seeing today wasn't some 1-d image ("it's just a tv show, luke. Why do you have to always think about it so much?") but the product of so many other things. Either they taught "old" books and pointed out how they influence literature, film, perceptions today or through teaching the Buffys, the Cagney and Laceys to stop and point out what was going on at the time, what the implications of those media images are..or why Dan Quayle hated Murphy Brown, etc.

    I might be reading it wrong here, but I don't buy for a second from this Politt that we should basically read and study things just for the sake of some suggested general knowledge that may or may not help up navigate the current everyday, that we should spend university/college time learning the same stuff everyone else is learning because it's tried and true idea of what someone thinks is good material. I'm all for reading some Twain, some Huck Finn...but there's almost no point in doing that when whoever is teaching it can't talk (at least for a moment) about black politics or the "N" word in pop culture, about why some parents want the book banned ins chools today, why Bill Maher references DMX when supporting his use of the N word.

    THis irks the crap out of me because I think in some (not to off-topic the thread here) ways it's similar to certain attitudes and discussions towards ethnic studies (though admittedly not nearly to the same level). in high school, even in college English classes (my first major before I changed my mind), I was angry and depressed as hell and I never knew why. Reading "the classics" or being taught about the french revolution, while those things certainly are important, didn't tell me why almost my entire life I was seen as an "Oriental" foreigner, or why I hated my ethnic middle name or why Asian men were seen as "feminine" (because that would be a bad thing) or as having small dicks. No, it took a few years into undergrad before a professor shook me out of it...and she only did it because she piled on the pop culture along with history of the chinese, the filipino in america..only because she was able to talk about Romeo Must Die and not Romeo and Juliet.

    9:09 PM  
    Blogger CrackerLilo said...

    I love "Beat! Beat! Drums!"!!! I've been a drummer, bassist, turntablist, and dancer, so I really related to it. I heard it in high school.

    For the first time since Season 2, I did not watch Survivor. I don't know why this one disgusts me, but it does. (I speak in a bit more detail in my blog.) But I TiVoed it for L'Ailee, which may be cheating.

    When I was in high school, we were taught about the penny seats for Shakespeare's plays, and how they were the pop culture of his day. That *really* made an impression on me.

    10:14 PM  
    Blogger Sly Civilian said...

    One part of the dilemma that i think needs to be foregrounded is that by the time these kids get to your classroom, society has failed them a thousand times, and a thousand times again. Whatever the numbers are, they're relative to that. This makes the work no less important, indeed it is critical, but it also makes it to a degree impossible.

    second. i hear you on cannon, in that i'm at a similarly ambivalent point with it. I understand the cultural capitol i gain from knowing about cannon lit, but i hardly find it "more" insightful to the human condition, or more meaningful to read than non-cannon'd lit. these kids need cultural capitol. and they need to understand how to interpret their world.

    you're going to be split by that choice.

    9:55 AM  
    Blogger Bitch | Lab said...

    wow. this was such a great post. i agree with you about everything. even agree with you and your confusion. :o

    i never had to contend with the problem you're dealing with and it'd be such a dilemma.

    the thing with WS is that it's always struggling for respectability and what I read from the people who knee-jerk at Cultural Studies is this sense that CS is hegemonic in WS. It ws the sexy thing to do for awhile, and there was some gloating a few months back at the thought there'd been a demise.


    as for math. well. i was actually way ahead of everyone in math when i was in grade school. there was just two of us in a really accelerated class. hit 6th grade and this sexist teacher who openly proclaimed that girls aren't good at math, i must be a cheater, and systematically humiliated me about *everything*. for the final, he failed me because i elected to start using slashes ( 1 1/4 ) instead of horizontal lines. he told me 1 1/4 looked like 11/4. marked every single answer wrong and when I objected made me get up in front of the class and sing some dorky song. Which was his punishment for anyone who screwed up.

    no, he wasn't a typical teacher, just an ass. he was actually young, still completing his degree, but from a politically connected family --father had been mayor. he even applied the new teachign methods that were emerging, such as teaching history through hands on projects and, get this, through popular culture. (!!!) e.g., one project was to understand why sports teams had the names they had -- which was enlightening in fact.

    so his punitive teaching practices weren't that he was old school pedagogy per se. Just an asshole.


    you also remind me that r and Ihad a long discussion why he felt othered in the math classroom, even though he desperately wanted to learn. talking about it, I realized how such activities are actually embedded right in the instiution of schooling -- because we don't deal with the stage fright and performance anxiety we have as teachers. meant to write a post on that one.


    Tangent Queen who didn't help you a bit.

    OH! Wait. there's a working class studies list at YSU. They might be really helpful on this issue because they specifically address pedagogy.

    I'll also email you an attachment, a paper on pedagogy for working class students from all racial backgrounds. good stuff.

    12:51 PM  
    Blogger Bitch | Lab said...

    hey EL, tried to mail you the paper and the link to the working class studies list, but it bounced back at me.

    if you're interested, email me at info AT pulpculture DOT org

    1:38 PM  
    Blogger Sage said...

    I teach a philosophy course and regularly used an assignment on "Pop Philosophy" in which they have to find the ancient philosophical stance of a modern piece of media. They love it! They, like your students, actually get excited about a project for once, and when they're done, they start to see philosophy everywhere they look! Because it IS everywhere, not just in the Republic or the Nicomedian Ethics. It's entrenched in our society.

    5:15 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    You all are fantastic for coming to my aid.

    Some of the smartest people I know weighing in ... it really calmed my nerves a bit. I'll keep questioning these things, but I have the confidence, for the moment, to keep with my plan (mix of low, middle, and high - quotation marks sprinkled liberally). The points each of you made are ever-so-valuable to me:

    Petitpoussin, your connection to the Deborah Solomon thing really reminded me that part of this comes from my strong, visceral belief in the importance of pop culture. I don't feel my classroom environment should be completely devoid of my own sense of intellectual and artistic ethics.

    Also, the importance of mining both (high and low culture) for each other, which came up again for me with enniej's comment. What you say, enniej, about the way we often ignore the richness of pop culture because it's "entertainment" reminded me that one of the things we are expected to help our students with is "critical thinking" a process which we want students to be engaged in all the time, instead of only when reading Great Literature.

    Speaking of critical thinking, I love how you pick things out of a post, zp. I just read the school lunch article, so it's about time to hop on over to your place and get the 411. BTW, I hope all hell is NOT breaking loose because I'm in the classroom!!! That's what I'm afraid of !!

    Luke, you said,

    I would think that on top of the "i don't read/I don't like to read" comment made by students, another popular one would be "why are we reading this?/what's the point of learning about this?"

    Of course, you're absolutely right. My students tend to be very focused on how everything does or does not relate directly to their future careers. I was kind of that way myself, so I get it.

    Your comment was so filled to bursting with specifics - Dan Quayle, Murphy Brown, Bill Maher, etc- and it started to remind of the positive ways that professors used pop culture in my undergrad days. Some of these profs were those I respected most. Which, of course, was comforting.

    When I was in high school, we were taught about the penny seats for Shakespeare's plays, and how they were the pop culture of his day. That *really* made an impression on me.

    Crackerlilo, it's fab that they told you this in high school. I was fortunate to hear that Big Willie, as the lit geeks call him, was writing sonnets to a boy and a woman. Fantastic that my freshman English teacher shared that, really.

    Sly Civilian, that sense of impossibility is part of what's plaguing me. I feel like a failure before I've begun for just the reason you say: these students have 18-20 years of crap to slough off and I can't do that for them, and to expect them to ever fully do that is crazy. Your statement of the dilemma, so clear, so incisive, cleaned a lot of clutter from my intellectual landscape. Though it's a question, I know what the question is.

    Bitch, I am so sorry about your math teacher. I had kinda one of those myself from whom I never quite recovered.

    I realized how such activities are actually embedded right in the instiution of schooling -- because we don't deal with the stage fright and performance anxiety we have as teachers.

    I think that's part of what I'm grappling with that I didn't explicitly mention. I'm deeply fearful of what my own fear could do, on whatever level, to my students' relationships to learning and reading and writing and blah, blah, blah.

    It's funny because I mentioned the insecurity I had about my own abilities in this teaching workshop (they gave us a day of "training" before throwing us to the wolves) and the prof leading the workshop seemed to think it was a bit quaint and then said something like, "Whoa, no one's ever been quite so naked about that." That was that, no discussion, just onto the next. I didn't know how to go from there internally. It was very clear that I'd said something I wasn't supposed to, but I still felt there was something in what I was saying that we, or at least I, needed to keep pondering.

    (BTW, I emailed ya.)

    Sage, not knowing much of philosophy, I found your assignment really compelling! Which made me think again to my own learning process and the ways in which pop culture as a site of intellectual consideration has made difficult theoretical concepts clearer.

    Darling readers, you may find me working these issues out here perpetually. I apologize.

    7:26 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



    8:53 PM  

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