Pop Culture Makes You Smarter
9 professors share how pop culture enriches their classrooms
If playing a Bugs Bunny cartoon can pique a student’s interest in Wagnerian opera or if making a reference to The Avengers can kindle an interest in Joseph Campbell’s theories on the power of myths, then … well, why not?
As a teaching assistant for the Religion and Philosophy Freshman Studies course, Caitlin Maples ’15 had the job of playing music before class. “It sounds odd, but it’s based on the idea of tying in popular culture or familiar things to what’s going on in the classroom,” she says. “If you can show the students that what they’re learning in the classroom is relevant to what’s going on outside it, they won’t think that this is some obscure corner of academia that doesn’t matter. [The late] Associate Professor of German Harald Becker used to play songs that had to do with the book we were reading.”
Professors who use pop culture to connect with students are doing more than simply demonstrating their skill at reading Entertainment Weekly. Those who bind key concepts to pop-culture references are capitalizing on “deep processing,” says Professor of Psychology Alan Swinkels. By meshing new ideas with familiar concepts, the instructors are setting the stage for better retention by their students. “The learning is much more vivid and lasting,” Swinkels says.
To grasp how professors at St. Edward’s integrate pop culture into their courses — and what effect it has on learning — we talked with eight professors across a range of disciplines who use rock music, television shows, mainstream films and video games as a springboard about psychology, international relations, literature, visual arts and even math. None of them use pop references as a replacement for the wisdom of the ages, of course. But sometimes, they agreed, a contemporary reference can spark curiosity and further learning.
Statistics requires discipline. Process is paramount since bad data can lead to mistaken conclusions. So when Professor of Mathematics Cynthia Naples lays out the concept of linear regression — a basic test that statisticians use to predict one variable from another — she tries to impress upon her students the importance of checking assumptions. It’s required before all else. It’s a fundamental process.
But, still, students forget. So Naples has taken to prompting them with — surprise! — a song. “I spend a lot of time thinking about my teaching when I’m driving back and forth to school,” Naples says. “And one day while I was thinking about how to teach linear regression, one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs came on the radio.” Now, whenever Naples wants students to do a linear-regression test, she breaks into Cash’s classic, “Walk the Line,” adding a few twists.
It’s not the only tune Naples employs, either. She’s been known to channel Maria in The Sound of Music to explain the confidence interval, another basic element of statistics (“I have hum-hm-hummmm in sunshine,” she trills), and to whistle the theme song from Patton to remind her pupils about generalizations — get it? (Increasingly, that’s a dated reference, she admits.) It may all seem corny, but Naples doesn’t mind. It just adds to the fun.
Do Naples’ colleagues in math also use music to engage students? “I know there are some songs for calculus out there. But I don’t know of any others for statistics,” she says. “It’s not, um, a real fertile area for songwriting.” Taylor Swift, are you listening?
Americans not only consume lots of pop culture. We’re also responsible for creating much of it. Other countries have taken notice in recent decades, and some of those nations have begun to focus on developing pop culture as an economic engine and international export.
Take South Korea, for instance. Popular music from South Korea — or in its short form, K-pop — has taken the world by storm in recent years, streaming on devices, dominating YouTube and even birthing the international dance craze Gangnam Style.
What most people don’t know, however, is that South Korea was a fairly poor country until the 1970s, says Assistant Professor of Global Studies Jooyoun Lee. When the South Korean government realized in the 1990s “that the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park was equivalent to the value of foreign sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars, it shifted its national export strategy from manufacturing goods like cars to popular cultural products” — like movies and music, Lee says. This shift ultimately paid off: The Chinese are huge fans of Korean television dramas and movies, and South Korea’s focus on pop culture has done considerably more for the country recently than its support of companies like Hyundai.
In the classroom, Lee points to K-pop and other cultural exports as signs of the “soft power” that South Korea has begun to accumulate in international relations. Passing familiarity with any nation’s culture translates into easier governmental and commercial relationships around the world, rather than adversarial “foreign” ties characterized by distrust.
“Talking about pop culture in Korea allows me to expose students to how the world works and teach them about how people interact,” Lee says. “It’s a great way for them to understand connections that they may not know about.”
What does it mean to be an American? The definition has grown with each generation to include not only Dutch merchants and British colonists, but also the descendants of African slaves, Jewish refugees, Chinese railroad workers, Mexican farmworkers and numerous other groups. The American identity owes its unique flavor to a complex swirl of influences that can only be understood by sampling the stew of its combined cultures.
So it’s hardly surprising that American literature courses have grown to encompass authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Sandra Cisneros, alongside Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And it’s not just the multicultural accents that stand out on the reading lists for Literature of the American Experience courses, like the one taught by Associate Professor of University Studies Cory Lock. It’s the formats, too: Lock recently added graphic novels to her syllabus.
The graphic-novel format might cause traditionalists to raise eyebrows: Is Fun Home, a graphic novel about author Alison Bechdel’s fraught relationship with her father, truly literature? Does Gene Luen Yang’s comic book about a Chinese American boy grappling with his cultural heritage deserve a place alongside such esteemed texts as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave? Lock asks students to consider those questions as they assess the plot, characters and literary references in the graphic novels. Does the addition of pictures detract from the message or seriousness of these works? Can they be considered literary?
There’s an added bonus: Lock says several students have developed a broader interest in literature as a result of their entry via graphic novels. “I find that for some students it makes literature come alive for them in a way that it might not otherwise,” Lock says.
College students love posting pictures on Instagram. But do they really understand why coloring or cropping a photo on the social media application has aesthetic and emotional power?
To heighten students’ awareness of how photographers and other artists make creative choices — and why they impact audiences — Assistant Professor of Art Alexandra Robinson screens the film Schindler’s List in her freshman Visual Studies I course. She asks students to contemplate why the Academy Award–winning film was shot almost entirely in black and white. And she assigns “The Photograph” from Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilém Flusser, who claims colorless images are more emotionally impactful.
Inevitably, the conversation spurs students to play with black-and-white images on their personal blogs (which Robinson encourages and monitors), Instagram and Facebook. She points out that social media is a place where anyone can nurture creativity — that creativity is not just something for genius artists like Michelangelo or Jasper Johns or Frida Kahlo. “Students often have assumptions. They don’t realize art doesn’t come from an isolated single space called creativity,” Robinson says. “They don’t realize that their life experiences are deeply important. You can get inspiration from a short story, or from music, or from looking at an Instagram feed.”
In some sense, curating photos on Instagram is not unlike putting together a body of work, Robinson observes. It requires focus, time and discipline. “It’s easy to think that van Gogh was just crazy and that was the source of his genius,” Robinson says. “But he had this long-standing body of work because he did art every day. I try to impress that upon students: Creativity requires cultivation.”
The cable series Breaking Bad ran for five seasons before ending in 2013, garnering numerous awards and a huge audience for its plot line about a chemistry teacher with incurable cancer who starts to sell methamphetamine to support his family after he dies.
The show was “wildly popular,” observes Professor of Psychology Russell Frohardt. And that popularity, especially among millennials, spurred Frohardt and Associate Professor of University Studies Todd Onderdonk to incorporate a pair of episodes from the series into a seminar they recently taught introducing freshmen to the liberal arts. “We had them do an analysis of Breaking Bad because it lay at the intersection of what I was talking about regarding drugs and addiction and what Todd was talking about regarding culture and the close reading of texts,” Frohardt says.
Prior to showing the episodes, Frohardt talked about the science and psychology behind drug addiction. Onderdonk explored how shows like Breaking Bad offer antisocial forms of masculinity for viewer pleasure but also criticize those behaviors. After watching the episodes, students reflected in class journals on how the situations mirrored the behaviors and science they had learned about. “The goal,” says Onderdonk, “is to help our students bring a critical focus to the things they actually watch and listen to in their own lives.”
Breaking Bad wasn’t the only pop-culture reference the professors incorporated into their freshman seminar: films, television shows, music and even video games all served as starting points for vivid discussions about culture, science and human behavior in the class.
“The liberal arts are not about studying each discipline in a vacuum. It’s about examining how it all comes together in real life,” says Frohardt.
Americans love to work. We forgo vacations. We immerse ourselves in our jobs. Economists point to our productivity and our place in the world economy as signs of our willingness to roll up our sleeves and go to work.
But approaching work from an academic or sociological perspective yields a slightly different view. Last year, when Assistant Professor of University Studies Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman taught an American Studies class on how attitudes about labor and leisure have changed over time, she asked her students to bring music into the classroom as a means of making contemporary connections.
Hernandez-Ehrisman wanted her students to explore how Americans have historically thought about their jobs. Was work meaningful or something more mundane? Did jobs provide people with identity or merely income? What values had they developed about working life? What was the difference between a job and a profession? Rather than asking students to lurk around the edges of professional chat rooms or listen to a litany of guest speakers talk about their work, she asked each student to find a pop song that centered on work.
It wasn’t hard. “When I started this, I didn’t know how many songs there were about work,” Hernandez-Ehrisman says.
Students produced the makings of a lengthy playlist: Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” Iggy Azalea’s “Work” — the list went on and on. But the music provided plenty of insight into the nuances of working lives and shed light on how labor and leisure were interrelated as well.
Business schools have long relied on real-world examples to illustrate how ventures succeed or fail. But identifying solid examples of digital-marketing success among digital corporations can be challenging, given how quickly the world has changed in recent years. It can also be somewhat dull and abstract.
That’s why Jason Rosenblum, assistant professor of Visual Studies, likes to point students in his Social Networking and Digital Analytics class to the British band The xx. For starters, most of his students are familiar with the group — and even those who aren’t are intrigued when he starts talking about them. What’s more, there’s solid literature documenting the group’s content strategy for promoting itself on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks.
Early on, The xx followed a principle in social media called the 70-20-10 rule: 70 percent of the content posted by the band was related to the band or to its music but wasn’t sales oriented; 20 percent of the content was shared by or with other artists; and, finally, 10 percent of the content was aimed at promoting album releases, concert-ticket sales and the like. The sliver of content focused on actual sales often surprises people, but following the 70-20-10 rule has meant big success for The xx and other entities.
Based on what they’ve learned about The xx, Rosenblum asks students to develop a content strategy for a band of their choosing. The results often impress him. “I find that students absorb more and connect to content when you have them apply what they’re learning to real-world examples. And sometimes — not always, but sometimes — that means digging into pop culture.”
Professors use pop culture references in the classroom because they’re effective, says Professor of Psychology Alan Swinkels. Relating knowledge to an episode of Modern Family or the lyrics in a Maroon 5 song almost always improves comprehension of a concept — it’s simple cognitive processing at work.
Humans process information at varying levels, Swinkels notes, which causes them to remember some things and forget other things. The durability of the recall depends on the level of processing that happens when the information is first encountered. Suppose you watch a trailer for an unfamiliar film on a topic that doesn’t interest you: You’d observe the scene, see the action and hear the dialogue — but the processing would be fairly shallow, causing you to remember little a week later. On the other hand, if the trailer was related to a book you’d read or mirrored an experience you’d had, you’d process the information more deeply as it was entering your memory system. Because of this deeper processing, you’d probably remember the trailer later.
Pop culture references help students learn things because they often lie within their realm of experience, offering greater opportunities for deep processing. “When you talk to an 18- or 19-year-old about something you’ve encountered on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube,” Swinkels says, “chances are you’re talking to an audience that says, ‘Yeah, I’ve experienced that’ or ‘My roommate has done that’ or ‘I saw that online.’”
So the information sticks in the memory. “Any commonly shared experience will do, but the more vivid it is, the better,” Swinkels says. “That’s why pop culture references work so well.”
By Joel Hoekstra
Photography by Morgan Printy