Pop culture gaining ground in the classroom

As fall semester winds to a close, students around the country have been registering for spring semester classes. This year, in addition to math, science and rhetoric classes, some students will be lucky enough to add subjects such as Lady Gaga, Mad Men, Star Trek and Twilight to their course calendars.

At Marquette and across the U. S., professors from all disciplines are incorporating popular culture into course study.

Marquette offers honors seminars for first-year students in “The Beatles and the British Invasion” and “Thinking Philosophically” (which incorporates the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), as well as “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” an upper-division history elective offered every few semesters.

Bruce Cole, instructor of “The Beatles and the British Invasion” seminar and co-instructor of “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” said the courses add popular culture to the curriculum to help students better understand academic concepts, and foster more interest in history and music.

Students enrolled in such courses say they find the material interesting, but are often surprised at how much they learn from such modern topics.

“Learning about the Beatles and their effect on life in America is so much fun that it provides a nice break from your other classes,” said Alison Libera, a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences and current student in Cole’s seminar. “We learn a lot about culture, but the topic makes it more relatable and entertaining.”

Natalie Wilson, a professor at California State University-San Marcos teaches a course entitled “Twilight: The Text and the Fandom,” which focuses on women’s studies in the books, movies and fan portrayal of the popular “Twilight” saga. She stressed the seriousness of scholarly study of popular culture and the value of studying disciplines through a pop culture lens.

Sawyer Ditchel, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences who is currently taking the “Thinking Philosophically” seminar, found studying philosophy through popular culture deepened his perspective of philosophy and everyday life.

“You look at pop culture differently (by) seeing the layered messages conveyed,” Ditchel said. “We would use Buffy episodes and her character as a conversation topic to analyze and lead the philosophy discussion.”

Linda Wetzel, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, teaches a “Philosophy and Star Trek” course that focuses on standard topics in metaphysics. She said the class is not about Star Trek, but rather uses Star Trek to get students thinking about philosophical issues and progressions.

“Seeing it in Star Trek makes (difficult concepts) real,” Wetzel said. “It helps the students connect with the issues. Just reading dead white males talk about the problem is not as gripping as seeing it in a film.”

Cole highlighted the importance of studying popular culture, in addition to applying it to traditional disciplines. He said that, because Americans are so bombarded with popular culture, educators can benefit by applying aspects of it to course study.

Wilson also pointed out the importance of studying messages in popular culture that we encounter in our daily lives.

“We’re so shaped by these huge cultural phenomena like ‘Twilight,’ Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, that you can’t help but be subject to them,” Wilson said. “Analyzing the messages in some of these phenomena are important because … all texts have meaning, regardless of whether it’s a Justin Bieber song or ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer.”