Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Confessions of a Pop Culture Academic

A few months ago the third international academic conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all things Joss Whedon was held in Arkansas. I did not attend (due in large part to the fact that the conference fell on the day of my daughter's birthday). For many the idea of a conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the works of Joss Whedon is not too surprising. After all, if they can have conferences for people who dress in Klingon outfits, why not? It's when you  throw the adjective "academic" in front of the word that people shake their head in bewilderment. When I inform people that I am teaching or writing on a particular pop culture topic, the looks I get range from confusion to disbelief.

Yet the fact is, the academic world is changing. Go to virtually any college or university campus in this country and you will find classes on popular culture, with specific courses on Buffy, The Simpsons, country music, or just about any significant pop cultural movement of the last twenty years. Although this phenomenon of the intersection of academics and popular culture did not begin with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the pervasive and prolific nature of the academic engagement with this show almost makes it seem like it did.

In fact that's where it began for me. The hunger out there for academic analysis of popular culture has become so strong that for the last four years I have been trying to get back to writing in my chosen field, but have been unable to do so because I am regularly inundated with requests or opportunities to write or lecture on popular culture. Now for many people, allocating college courses to the study of Lost or to the cultural significance of U2 is a tragic waste of an educational opportunity and a sure sign that the apocalypse is upon us --  and I'm not talking about the bi-weekly apocalypses that tend to populate Joss Whedon's shows -- I mean the real one. I have to admit, I understand that perspective because I used to be that person.

I have always been enamored of popular culture. Some of my earliest childhood memories of growing up in Chicago are of Bozo the Clown, the Electric Company, and Sesame Street. I love all forms of popular culture: music, video games, television, comic books, film and, yes, even celebrity tabloid shows (I did, after all, label this "confessions"). Yet once I chose the path of academia, I immersed myself in the traditional pursuits of higher education within my field: archaeology, historical criticism, literary analysis of ancient texts. Frankly, the idea of combining my academic life and pop cultural life never once occurred to me. And I was highly skeptical of those who did. I scoffed when I would read about some college offering a course on science fiction or someone publishing a Freudian analysis of the Teletubbies.

I can trace my conversion to Joss Whedon. I was a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and enjoyed it simply as such, until one day I discovered that there were several other serious fans of the show at the college where I teach -- one was a Religion professor, one a Communication professor, and another an English professor. We began to have regular conversations about the show, carried on in the hallways or during lunch, and I began to notice how they were all, consciously or not, applying their own special fields to their interpretation and analysis of the show. The English professor  would notice traditional archetypes at play, the Communication professor picked up on some overarching themes, and the Religion professor was quite enamored with Faith (okay not exactly a religious obsession, but at least she had the name to go along with it). In my conversations with them, I began to see how I could combine my own academic training in the field of religion with my love of popular culture without feeling ashamed of doing so. This led to my book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Televised Morality) that came out in 2004. Since then I have been teaching and writing steadily in the field of popular culture.

What I have learned through this journey is that the academic study of popular culture is not only an interesting sideline, but absolutely fundamental to a well-rounded liberal arts education in the twenty-first century. Understanding popular culture is essential to understanding twenty-first century western culture. There are many reasons for this, but I want to highlight three.

One, popular culture reflects societal values. We gain a valuable insight into our culture by paying close attention to the stories we tell and the songs we write. The values we hold dear, for good or ill, seep into those expressions. Now that can be a frightening realization, just as any good look into the mirror can be. We learn that as much as we are a culture obsessed with wanton sexuality and enamored with the trivial (we've practically elevated Britney Spears to the level of deity, for crying out loud), we are a culture equally enthralled by the concept of redemption. Just spend a week in the movie theater or watching primetime television drama and count how many times this theme pops up.

Second, popular culture shapes societal values and beliefs. A culture shapes its values and beliefs through the stories it tells. The reason people get so upset about portrayals of violence or smoking on television or depictions of an abortion without subsequent emotional consequences is because they know that these portrayals do in fact influence thoughts and actions to some degree. People have even coined the phrase "the CSI effect" to refer to the impact that show has had on potential jurors who are now much more educated about forensic science and criminals who now have a better grasp of how to avoid detection. Because the songs we sing and the shows we watch help to shape our cultural agenda -- morally, socially, and politically -- it is important that academics explore these connections.

Third, popular culture matters to people. People take their favorite shows, musicians, and authors very seriously. They develop strong emotional attachments to these things and have sometimes profound aesthetic experiences of them. In other words, popular culture has become a form of popular art. Now this is not to say that there are not a whole lot of less than desirable pop cultural expressions out there. For every show like Battlestar Galactica, there are countless Temptation Islands. For every Citizen Kane, there are numerous Weekend at Bernies. But this is nothing distinctive to popular culture. For every Mona Lisa, there are a thousand Velvet Elvises. But the best shows on television, for instance, provide viewers with a significant aesthetic experience and scholars are coming to realize the importance of studying that experience. In fact the philosopher Noell Carroll prefers to call popular culture "mass art" and says that such mass art provides people in western culture with their "primary access to aesthetic experience."

So consider me a convert. In my teaching, I have found my students to be far more engaged and willing to enter into discussion in my pop culture classes than they typically are in my religion classes. I have had students come up to me in the cafeteria wanting to engage me in discussion about the theme of redemption on Lost, whereas trying to get those same students to discuss biblical concepts of redemption in class is like pulling teeth. One of my favorite classes to teach at Rochester College is a class title "Religion, Media, and Youth Culture." I created this as a team-taught class. I teach it along with one of our Psychology professors and one of our Communication professors. It is a valuable learning experience for the students to see how popular culture looks through the eyes of different disciplines. We'll watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica or Buffy the Vampire Slayer together and then the students get to witness and join three scholars from different disciplines in discussion of that episode. I, for instance, may explore that episode's use of christological imagery, the Psychology professor may examine its use of Jungian archetypes, and the Communication professor may examine how it relates to contemporary communication theories. It is a highly valuable educational experience. When the students leave that class and go turn on their TV's or their iPods, they suddenly begin to notice things that they had missed before and see connections of which they had been unaware. Then they'll come back and report that to us with breathless excitement. That joy of discovery is the essence of academia.