Pop Culture in Practice

This week’s Edublogs Club asked us to consider the role pop culture and pop culture texts play in our classrooms and in our instructional practices.

The Tedx Talk by Mackenzie Matheson argues that pop culture, found in media such as Disney films, provides valuable insights into our world, with narrative that comment on what gender roles are promoted and which are subverted, as well as how these narratives provide powerful socialization tools.

Thus, the use of pop culture in classrooms can be an excellent tool for student engagement and critical pedagogy in the classroom.

Like what Matheson advocates for in her talk, I’ve used Disney films to discuss how media can deliver powerful messages about gender, race, and class. However, what I’ve often found is disdain from my students in such approaches. It’s as if they’re saying, “How dare you try to despoil something from my childhood that I love.” Students want to accept pop culture at face value, to enjoy it as consumers of entertainment. They don’t want to accept that Cinderella promotes duty to cruel and unjust parents, that the little mermaid suggests that women need to change themselves to please men, or that Aladdin perpetuates stereotypes made by Western society about Arabic culture: “It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Most of the messages in Disney films come intermixed on the screen with catchy jingles and smooth whistling from characters.

While I agree with Matheson’s ideas–not just her but with other educators who are pop culture-in-classroom proponents–that pop culture is valuable, but I guess I diverge and think that it’s not the quick fix to student disengagement or faltering motivation.

As an aside, Matheson’s talk provides some great analysis of these films. I wonder how she arrived at it. On her own? Or was that part of a classroom assignment or from someone teaching her about media analysis? Was there any research conducted? What were her sources? I have to think a classroom and teacher were in some way responsible, but we won’t know.

Also, I didn’t think her talk added up. There was analysis of Disney films, but in the end her message is identify with a character, fight your Disney battles. I didn’t seem to come together.

Bringing in media and using it is important, but I’ve also found that students access such a diverse and really fragmented array of media, that finding commonality in their tastes is near impossible.

I play, as many of my students do, video games. For weeks now, I’ve been excited to play the new PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn; however, when I shared this with my classes, not even the gamers new what I was talking about. When I am able to talk about videogames with my gaming students, I realize that we don’t all play on the PS4. Some play on the xbox, some on PC. We play an astounding array of games and in many styles. I love learning from them and I’m inspired. But, even as gamers, we lack commonality.

It seems that we no longer, as a culture, access the same media narrative. Decades ago, there was a commonality–families sat around a radio and listened to a broadcast. And every family in each house and neighborhood was likely to listen to the same thing. Now, each person carries their own metaphorical radio around, and most have them in their pocket; however, that radio plays such a diverse range of media and programming, and that choice gives us power, but it also divides us.

No longer can we count on the idea that everyone watched the latest episode of MASH, or Friends, or Seinfeld the night before and that we can talk about it while circles around the water cooler or over bad cafeteria lunch in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, the water cooler talk revolves around the individual programming of the watcher, and an argument from each on what should be added to the other’s Netflix queue for watching. I myself have trouble remembering what media services my co-workers subscribe to: “Are you on Netflix? No? Hulu? Prime?”

The same goes for students. We can’t expect everyone to have watched PLL, or Lost or Grey’s Anatomy. They’re all watching something different. And if it’s not watching, then they’re all listening, reading, streaming, or Youtube-ing something different. If they aren’t Disney freaks, then they’re into video games or rap or ESPN.  

This makes it almost impossible to have a common framework and approach in using popular media in the classroom.

What’s important is not necessarily the media that I bring, the popular culture media, but that students might bring their own favorite kinds of media into the class space to share, and more importantly to work at evaluate, to review, to analyze, to seek out its messages.

When empowered to work with their own media choices, the results can be great for the individual student. I’ve seen great work done in analyzing gender in Orphan Black and genre mash-up in Firefly. I’ve seen them analyze depictions of masculinity in World of Warcraft. Students do great visual analysis of Seventeen magazine covers. I’ve had students create excellent histories of the Mario franchise.

Where I’ve had the most success is not with what I bring to the table, but when I give them the opportunity to select their own media and texts to work with.

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