Politics and Popular Culture
at The University of Delaware
Dannagal Goldthwaite Young
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
University of Delaware
The syllabus from Fall of 2009 can be downloaded above. The course is a broad survey course open to all majors exploring politics, pop culture, and citizenship. I'll be teaching it again this fall and updating it with Geoffrey Baym's From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
Thoughts on "politics and pop culture":
This course begins with a text that is often a favorite of students - and still feels relevant to them today: Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. We spend one or two lectures just going over the meaning of this quote from Postman's intro: “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” For students who have never read 1984 or Brave New World, we review excerpts and go over the premise of the two texts. Students are captivated by the possibility of being "imprisoned" by their own desire for amusement. They struggle with the possibility that their hypermediated environments might ultimately be disconnecting them - or distracting them - from the important "stuff" of life. This is ultimately the big question we wrestle with throughout the semester: Does the fusion of entertainment and politics encourage or discourage healthy citizenship and the healthy functioning of democracy?
To answer this question, it becomes necessary to reconsider the very concept of citizenship - hence the discussion of Schudson's work which explores citizenship as a fluid concept defined by historical and cultural context.
Postman's text is also a lovely intro text for the course because he was writing for an audience already familiar with his cultural references from the early 1980s (the golden era of all-powerful networks) - references to mainstream culture abound, from the film "the Day After," to "Dallas," to the film "Witness." These cultural texts, which were distributed in a media environment not nearly as fragmented or competitive as today's, were consumed by huge sectors of the population, a fact which opens up the minds of students just beginning to consider the transformative role played by digital technologies in the past 20 years. Postman's discussions of 1980s popular culture also allow for the possibility of going deeper into each - exploring the original texts, and the historical/political/economic/ and technological conditions surrounding them. Finally, we connect the texts to Postman's conclusions about them, and then challenge those conclusions by exploring other possible roles played by them.
My favorite section of the course comes when reading Postman's chapter on the "Age of Show business." His premise, of course, is that television has transformed our very way of communicating ideas. Instead of informing one another, we amuse or entertain one another. Instead of thinking, we are constantly consuming entertaining images and symbols. He provides examples from churches, to news programs, to classrooms, in which message recipients, students, and audiences are not simply delivered information; rather, they experience the information as performance or entertainment.
Throughout the discussion in class, I encourage participation by handing out giant (18" long) candy pixie-sticks. It is not until the end of the hour and a half that I step back and simply ask the students: "So, what would Postman say about today's class?" (alluding, of course, to Postman's guaranteed contempt at the game-show-esque tactic of rewarding conversation with candy).
Once they put it all together, they're amused at first. One student actually said, "Postman would say that all we will remember from today is, 'PIXIE STICK! PIXIE STICK! PIXIE STICK! " At the same time that they are amused by the connection, they also feel an emotional response to Postman's charges that transforming teaching in this way somehow debases the process or disrupts their pathway to enlightenment. They begin to argue with the premise that such an infusion of performance into "serious business" is a bad thing.
In the end, the course does not offer an answer to the question posed at the outset regarding whether the fusion of politics and entertainment is good or bad for democracy. However, through discussion and rumination, students have at least considered their role as citizens, what citizenship can and should mean, and how they can respond to, think about, and utilize popular culture in politically relevant ways.
2009 Recipient of Excellence in Teaching Award from Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society at the University of Delaware
2009 Nominated for University of Delaware's Excellence in Teaching Award
2008 Nominated for University of Delaware's Excellence in Teaching Award