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Pop Culture and the Curriculum

For many years, people both inside and outside academia have debated
what should be taught in school, what students need to know, and which
texts/topics/fields of study are worthwhile and which are not.  One such
discussion took place on WMST-L in September 2006.  The present file includes
primarily the part of the discussion that focused on the worth of popular culture.  
Are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Nancy Drew legitimate objects of study?  Is
their inclusion in the curriculum a sign that standards have been lowered?

The discussion of pop culture took place almost simultaneously in several
different threads.  Identifying the parts that had to do with pop culture
and shaping them into a coherent file proved challenging.  Unlike most 
WMST-L files, this one seems to begin in medias res and at times refers to 
statements not included here.  Also, some messages had sections not relevant
to the discussion of popular culture; those sections have been omitted and
replaced by the designation <snip>.

Because of its length, this file has been divided into five parts.  For
additional WMST-L files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.

Date: Wed, 6 Sep 2006 18:33:24 -0400
From: Jennifer Musial <jmusial AT YORKU.CA>
Subject: who is popular culture for?
I had to respond to Katha Pollitt's quote:

"It's produced for suburban teenage boys with significant disposable 
income.I mean, for example,
rap, which is performed by uneducated prols (or middle-class blacks
pretending to be uneducated prols) but produced by major corporations
and mostly bought by middle-class white kids. Hollywood movies and
video games are other examples of cultural products produced by
educated people for a market of young middle-class males."

whoa there :)

Rap is NOT performed strictly by the uneducated or pretending to be 
uneducated.  There is a long line of middle-class African Americans - well 
educated - who are popular rap artists... Chuck D & Kanye West (who's mom is 
a PROF for goodness sake) instantly come to mind.  And, anyone who heard 
Chamillionaire speak at the 2006 MTV music awards can't call him uneducated. 
His award acceptance speech is perhaps a teachable moment because his song 
"Ridin' Dirty" is about "driving while black" and police harassment and he 
was asked to speak about this on a major news outlet, but then said outlet 
cancelled his appearance.  And what exactly is meant by "educated"?  Formal 
education (i.e college/university)?   If the answer is yes, that's an 
elitist statement.

I agree with you that most *popular* rap music (billboard charting music) is 
purchased by middle-class white folks, particularly young men.  And we 
*could* be discussing that with students - what is going on when young white 
men are purchasing the performance of a particular black 
masculinity/femininity (for ex.)?

Finally, I think we have to steer clear of thinking that popular culture is 
produced for suburban teen men specifically.  Young women take a lot of 
pleasure in popular culture products.  Let's query that with our students 
too (which leads us full circle back into where this discussion started)

PS - Gail Dines, I love your quote " They buy a degree, not an 

Jennifer Musial
PhD Candidate - School of Women's Studies
Collective Member - Centre for Women and Trans People at York
York University
Toronto, Ontario  M3J 1P3
Date: Wed, 6 Sep 2006 19:29:18 -0400
From: Katha Pollitt <katha.pollitt AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: who is popular culture for?
I don't think it's elitist to use the word "educated' to mean what
most people use it to mean most of the time:  formal schooling or the
equivalent, highly literate and having a good grasp of oh, history,
literature, science and so on. Of course you can go to college and
learn very little, but that just means you're STILL not educated, not
that the term is meaningless. I think it's funny that a PhD candidate
thinks it's elitist to say educated people are those with the kind of
education you yourself have! That is not to say that people with no
book learning cannot be wise and understand lots of things that
formally educated people don't get. But surely you think you know more
than you did in eighth grade, or you wouldn't be pursuing a career
as... an educator. You wouldn't think you have something to impart to
people less, um, educated  than yourself.
     More on rap another time.

   katha.pollitt  AT
Date: Thu, 7 Sep 2006 11:58:39 -0400
From: "Marshall, Denise" <denimars AT FDU.EDU>
Subject: Re: who is popular culture for?
I may be coming into this discussion late, but it seems to 
me that there are all sorts of popular cultures available 
to all sorts of the populace.  It is not the same for 
everyone.  Popular culture is the culture of the 
people--whoever they are and wherever they are and 
whatever they're interested in.  If you are discussing the 
interest in rap--I have two young white nieces  who are 
buying up rap and hip hop and loving it--so it's not just 
teenage white males either.  BTW one of my nieces is in 
10th grade, and the other is a sophomore at UNC Chapel 
Hill.  I know that when persons try to pin down popular 
culture it glides right out from under.  I have an M.A. in 
Popular Culture from Bowling Green, the home of Pop cult 
and of Ray Browne the "father of Pop culture".  It is as 
many things and as amoebalike as one can imageine.  And 
the whole educated debate???  Well I know some people who 
have formal education up the wazoo whom I would call 
ignorant and uneducated. Just stuffing material in your 
head does not mean one is educated or knowledgeable.  I 
can't say that I enjoy all the forms of popular culture 
and its expressions, but I wouldn't say it's not popular 
culture.  Ray would come after me his own self!!

Dr. Denise M. Marshall
M.A. Comparative Political Science--Ohio University
M.A. Popular Culture--Bowling Green State University
Ph. D. Theory and Literatures--BGSU
MLS--Syracuse University

Just in case someone wants all my citations.
denimars  AT
Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 16:06:06 -0400
From: Abby Arnold <abbyarnold AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: Re: In defense of demanding books; all-women's colleges
This semester I'm teaching an intro to lit course and while we're reading
challenging texts--British Romantic poetry, Tess of the D'Urbervilles--I
decided that the goal of the class isn't that the students "get" the
material but that they learn how to read something complicated and difficult
to which they can't immediately "relate." For example, I'm not giving tests;
instead I assign intense reading logs for them to write, and papers such as
a reading process paper (examining what they do when they read). Reading
theory tells us that one of the differences between experienced and less
experienced readers is that the experienced ones don't expect reading to be
easy, they see difficulty in a book or poem as something you work with, not
a reason to quit. So my assignments and classroom activities are geared to
helping the students articulate and examine what it means to read a poem
like "Mont Blanc," how to struggle with the challenging parts, how to allow
meaning to be indeterminate rather than looking to the teacher for a single
interpretation, how to see confusion as a clue that they are onto something
intriguing and valuable.

I don't know if this will work. I certainly wish they had gotten this in
high school (most of my students are freshmen and sophomores filling up a
Lit. requirement).  But it is work that needs to be done. As to the
difficulty, I picked poems and novels that are complex and removed from
their lives (or so they think) in order to best teach what it means to be a

On the other hand, in my Intro to Women's Studies class, as part of a
section on constructions of love and romance we watch and critique an
episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in conjunction with Cosmo magazine and
other pop culture texts the students bring in. I think there is a time and
place for all kinds of textual analysis and the critical thinking they

Abby Arnold
University North Carolina Greensboro
Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 08:58:45 -1000
From: Hannah Miyamoto <hsmiyamoto AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: Shift of tone on WMST-L
   As someone who is regularly complimented for her contributions to WMST-L, 
I would like to state that my recent relative silence has more to do with 
increased responsibilities than anything else.  However, I think that 
because I am relatively disconnected from contemporary culture (I have not 
owned a television for three years), I have relatively little interest in 
the pop culture-related discussions on WMST-L.  I am also more interested in 
creating positive culture, "in poverty and obscurity," than tilt the 
mindless windmill creating the wasteland of jiggle shows.  It is the focus 
for some WS/GS scholars, but not me.
   I wonder if regular television-watching, particularly watching 
entertainment instead of documentaries, instills a hothouse obsession focus 
on insignificance in scholars.  Moreover, since conducting well-developed 
survey research or other experiments is more time-consuming than so-called 
"qualitative research," what Jessica calls "opinion" and "personal politics" 
is rife in WS/GS, even at the dissertation level.
   Another problem with this focus on contemporary culture to the exclusion 
of all else is that focusing on all the "sturm und dreck" on American T.V. 
leads scholars to lose sight of what positive culture is or can be.  Setting 
aside the racial issues, when I want to see stories of strong women who do 
not demean themselves to be attractive, and usually succeed in the end, I 
find little better than American films of the 1940s and 30s.  If one would 
study films, study good films and compare them to films that are insipid, 
insulting, and vapid.  As for students, I find that they are enjoy 
inspiration more than accessibility, and once inspired to explore, they work 
far harder than they or anyone else would expect.

In Sisterhood,
Hannah Miyamoto
Graduate Studies, Sociology
Pac. Ctr. for Sex and Society
Univ. of Hawai'i at Manoa
hsmiyamoto  AT
Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 16:38:17 -0500
From: "[iso-8859-1] VTronique Aubry" <vaubry AT YORKU.CA>
Subject: Re: Shift of tone on WMST-L
Quoting Hannah Miyamoto <hsmiyamoto  AT  MSN.COM>:

>    I wonder if regular television-watching, particularly watching
> entertainment instead of documentaries, instills a hothouse obsession focus
> on insignificance in scholars.

Pop-culture, such as the tv entertainment industry, can be consider
'insignificant' and unworthy of scholarly attention only if one makes
the assumption that it is somehow happening outside of the 'real'
power relations of inequality and oppression.

As someone who believe however that 1) the production of knowledge is
complicit in the social re-production of racialized, heterosexed, and
classed relations of inequality and 2) that pop-culture is one of the
privilege sites in comtemporary North-American society where knowledge
-- about our-Selves and Others -- is being re-produced daily, I would
argue that pop-culture is far from being an 'insignificant' site of
scholarly research.

An exemple? The cast of 20 of this season of 'Survivor' will be
divided by race into four tribes, which the show is calling the White
Tribe, the African-American Tribe, the Asian-American Tribe, and the
Hispanic Tribe ( Jeff Probst,
the host of the show, is even excitedly promoting this season of
'Survivor' as a "social experiment" in the video-promo of this
season's show

So, dividing people into four 'tribes' based on their 'race' --
interestingly enough, even if a central premise of this show is based
on a particular set of ideas about 'native americans', this group
doesn't make it to one of the 'tribes' -- putting them in a 'wild',
'harsh', 'untamed' environment, making them compete with each other in
order to see which 'tribes' has the best 'survival' skills and can
best 'master' their environment -- and presenting this heavily
scripted and edited 'reality show' as a *social experiment* is
... insignificant??? Somehow, I'm thinking that those who will suffer
first-hand the consequences of the racist stereotypes and ideas
re-produced through this kind of show would beg to differ.

VTronique Aubry
PhD Candidate, Political Science
Researcher, Centre for International and Security Studies
York University
375 York Lanes, 4700 Keele Street
Toronto ON M3J1P3

Think! It ain't illegal yet! - George Clinton
Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 16:55:35 -0700
Subject: Re: In defense of demanding books; all-women's colleges
I know I am behind on this thread....

but I benefitted so much from an all girl's high school (which was also a 
public school) and I would have very much liked my daughter to have that 
experience. She says I'm sexist.

I wanted to express my agreement with Katha P. regarding academic rigor and 
the need for colleges and universities to enforce it. But I went to college 
knowing how to read and write very well; it is easy for me to talk about 
high academic standards (and believe me, everyone is sick of hearing it).

But the fact is that more and more college applicants are without basic 
skills and, as a teacher in K12 education, I can assure you that number is 
going to increase. But very few colleges turn down an outstanding basketall 
player simply because he cannot read. The support services have always been 
there for a few; they need to be made available more equitably.

We think nothing of having to educate college students in many areas that I 
think should be "mastered" long before the age of 18: sexuality, tolerance, 
diversity, HIV/AIDS and our political system, to name a few. The lack of 
cultural competence frightens me more.

Stephanie G. Chastain, PhD
chastainst  AT
A country with 350 different cheeses is positively ungovernable.
--Charles de Gaulle
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2006 07:31:35 -0400
From: Ellen Moody <ellen2 AT JIMANDELLEN.ORG>
Subject: In defense of demanding books
I suggest one can do both:  you can provide real supports and help in 
achieving better reading and writing skills and also assign good 
books.  You have to pick carefully, and think about what really works 
to enable a student to understand.  I sometimes advise students to 
rent unabridged books-on-tape (or nowadays CDs).

It's not necessary that they be high status or older either. Many 
women's books are not high status, even Jane Austen is not high 
status the way a male's older book might be.  I'll mention another 
book I've used which produced good discussions of a feminist 
thrust:  Suzy McKee Charnas's _Vampire Tapestry_ (it's a vampire 
fiction, beautifully written, and from a feminist point of 
view).  This one takes time but it's worth it:  Azar Nafisi's 
_Reading Lolita in Teheran_. I assigned a Jane Austen novel with it; 
we saw a film of _Daisy Miller_; I provided lots of helps. And you 
can provide another perspective on older classics:  I've done 
Stevenson's _Jekyll & Hyde_ a number of times now with Valier 
Martin's _Mary Reilly_ and this goes over well with the young men 
too.  You are made to see the Jekyll & Hyde story from the point of 
view of a powerless previously sexually-abused servant girl in the 
house.  Pairing books is a good technique for automatic context.

Since high schools are sometimes so poor, the colleges have to take 
on this responsibility.  This is one area where English teachers 
(which is what I am finally) still can contribute something others 
see as useful.

Ellen Moody
Ellen2  AT
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2006 10:21:26 -0400
From: Katha Pollitt <katha.pollitt AT GMAIL.COM>
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
katha.pollitt  AT
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2006 07:44:45 -0700
From: Jessica Nathanson <janathanson AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Shift of tone on WMST-L
Interesting that, in response to the idea that
WMST-L's discussions have become anti-intellectual,
there have been posts that argue that pop culture is
unworthy of study on the grounds that certain
individuals on the list find them to be so.

Katha Pollitt wrote:
> 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). 

But the thing is, Katha, that many academics *have*
written full-length papers and books on Survivor and
Buffy and other contemporary pop culture icons (and
more are being published).  The fact that *you* don't
have much to say about them does not determine whether
or not they are worthy of study.


I don't believe it is the purpose of this list to be
primarily a place where WS educators defend the
discipline and teaching practices to those outside of
it.  Sure, that can be part of what we do, but lately,
it seems to be *most* of what we do, and I find this
incredibly draining and a waste of time.  I used to
come here to keep current on debates and discussions
and teaching approaches in the field.  No longer. 
Now, instead of talking about, for example, *how* to
teach demanding books so that students who are
ill-prepared can accomplish the assignments along with
their better-prepared classmates (a conversation which
some posters have been having, granted), we are
repeatedly sidetracked into implicit arguments about
whether whole disciplines (eg, Cultural Studies, Film
Studies, etc. - the ones that are implicated in
criticism of using Buffy in the classroom) are


Jessica Nathanson

Dr. Jessica Nathanson
Visiting Assistant Professor
English and Gender Studies
Augustana College
janathanson  AT
nathanson  AT

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