ESSAY: Why I Teach Popular Culture

ESSAY: Why I Teach Popular Culture

By Tom Robotham

The other day in a class I teach at ODU called Music, Culture & Media, I asked the students if any of them had heard of Pete Seeger. 

“Is he related to Bob Seger?” one of them asked. 

I thought the anecdote was sufficiently amusing to share it on Facebook, but when I did several people took me to task, noting that every generation has “complained” about “kids today.” 

“You can’t expect them to know someone who was popular 50 years ago,” one of them argued. 

I’m not sure that’s true. When I was in college, many of my friends and I were thoroughly familiar with musicians of the Big Band Era, old movies ranging from Casablanca to Duck Soup, and a wide variety of other products of popular culture that predated us by a generation or more. 

One of the main reasons for that was the nature of mass media back then. With only a limited number of television channels at our disposal, we were exposed to whatever it was that program directors wanted to air. Today, by contrast, while virtually every song ever recorded and every movie ever made is available on the Internet, the cultural spheres of most people have shrunk. It’s a paradox, but it makes sense when you think about it: At a time when we have to actively seek out our entertainments, cultural arbiters like program directors and radio deejays, have become less important. Left to their own devices, people tend to stick with what they know or what their peers recommend.

In some respects, I suppose, that’s a positive development. Just as literature departments have challenged the very idea of a literary canon—that body of works deemed important for generations by white male scholars—so the Internet has democratized popular culture. 

And yet, at the same time, we’ve lost something in this transition. 

The question you might ask is, who cares? Students need to learn to read and write well, certainly, and have at least a basic knowledge of math and science. But why is it important that they know who Pete Seeger is—or any other cultural icon from America’s past? 

I happen to believe that it’s crucially important for several reasons. 

First, much of the music and many of the films that I share with my students hold up as great works of art in and of themselves. And when I do introduce them in class, many students are deeply appreciative. 

“I had never heard of David Bowie before you talked about him in class,” one student told me several years ago. But lately I’ve been listening to his music a lot, and I love it.” 

Many students feel the same way about the Beatles, even though the Fab Four had only been vaguely on their radar prior to taking my class. A case in point: Several years back, after I asked the students if anyone knew who John Lennon was, a student responded, “Didn’t he have a late-night talk show?” 

Again, you might say, “Well, Lennon did die nearly 20 years before today’s college freshmen were born.” 

Fair enough. Contrary to the impression I gave to my aforementioned Facebook friends, I’m not ridiculing my students for their lack of knowledge. Well, ok, maybe I am a little—but gently, and more with bemusement than horror. 

It’s important to teach this stuff, nevertheless. Not everyone ends up liking the Beatles after our in-depth exploration of their music and history. But as I talk with them about how the Beatles redefined popular music and, with the help of George Martin, introduced countless innovations in studio recording, they begin to understand how influential the band was. 

In the process, they also learn a lot about American history in general: the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, for example, in our block on Seeger, or the convulsive changes in American society during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in our block on early jazz. 

Their take away from all this, is a better understanding of the ways in which their cultural icons were influenced by cultural icons from generations past. They are also able to think more clearly, critically and imaginatively about how forces of popular culture shape our attitudes toward a wide variety of things from sex and drugs to race and politics. 

And there’s an additional benefit: I learn a lot, too. I’ll freely admit that before I started teaching this class I had a pretty limited knowledge of hip-hop. I realized, however, that it would be a glaring omission if I ignored or glossed over hip-hop. So I studied up, reading Jeff Chang’s wonderful history of hip-hop called Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and taking copious notes while watching the superb documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution. We also watch Straight Outta Compton, which is a perennial favorite of theirs. 

This has been gratifying for me, but it also opens their minds to what I have to say. When they realize that I’m not just interested in telling them how great music was “back in my day,” they’re more open to everything from 1920s jazz to classic rock. 

The same is true of a class I teach called Gangster Films and American Culture.

Yeah, I know what you may be thinking: We used to call such things “Mickey Mouse” courses. What possible benefit could there be to taking a class that involves watching The Godfather and Goodfellas when they could be studying biology? 

There’s a great benefit, actually. As we engage in critical analysis of these films we talk about the ways in which they reflect attitudes toward “The American Dream,” the immigrant experience, gender stereotypes and hyper masculinity, and a variety of other things that shape their values in ways that they might not otherwise examine. 

And again, they also learn the influences behind some of their favorite films. Many are fascinated, for example, to learn that there was a Scarface before the Pacino version—the 1932 version starring Paul Muni. In the process of studying that film, they learn about the “Hays Code,” censorship, Prohibition and the subsequent rise of organized crime in America, and a variety of other important historical developments. 

No, I don’t fault my students for lacking this knowledge coming in. And I am no longer surprised at the blank faces when I mention Bob Dylan. (That’s right—I rarely encounter a student who’s even heard of him, either.) I just want them to know these things after the fact. I want them to know about Pete Seeger, in particular, because his life reminds us that one person can make an extraordinary difference in the world—and if Pete could do it, they can too, in their own ways. Frankly, I cannot think of any higher purpose for higher education.