It's Hip to Be Square
New research on the downsides of pop culture in the classroom
Teaching is hard. Some parts of it become easier with time, like revising rubrics and assignments to speed and fine-tune assessment. Other parts of it become harder gradually and then suddenly, like the generation gap that opens between instructor and students as the professor ages.
When I was first a TA, I was about five years older than my students in section. I am now a professor and my students are, indeed, young enough to be my children. For a while, I could use pop culture references that students got because they were the same as my pop culture, more or less (or, at least, the zone of overlap was pretty wide). At this point, my attitude is basically that of Leslie Knope: “The thing about youth culture is…I don’t understand it.”
For example: I would never use that clip or reference in class because it’s a reference from 2009, when my first-year students had not yet begun kindergarten. Even when it was airing, Parks and Recreation aimed a little older than college students and had ratings so low that Slate had to beg its audience to watch. (It had lower Nielsens than Community for crying out loud.)
And by today’s standards, Parks and Rec had a huge audience! Millions of people watched every episode live! By contrast, about 638,000 households watched Peacemaker, a show so successful in today’s marketplace that it helped James Gunn take over the DC cinematic universe.
There are, then, several major issues involved with trying to use pop culture in the classroom:
fragmented audiences: The monoculture’s dead and hardly anyone is watching the same thing anymore. Good luck finding common ground!
generational differences: the things I think of as “new” are creaking relics of a bygone age. As I get older, I understand why the Old Republic seemed so distant and irrelevant to people Luke Skywalker’s age in the Star Wars universe: twenty years is an infinitely long time if you’re twenty years old. When I was a college student, I was annoyed by professors talking about Reagan all the time, and mystified by their references to the Vietnam War. Same thing with, say, George W. Bush or the Cold War for today’s traditional-aged students. And—the unkindest cut of all—talking about the Simpsons makes you sound like Grandpa Simpson, not Bart.
distributional differences: if you think “pop culture” is movies and TV, well, you’re old. The yutes spend more time on TikTok than YouTube and use YT or TikTok way more than Facebook. If you’re not partaking in games and TikTok, then you’re not really partaking in youth culture. And they’re not partaking in your culture.
Now come researchers Adam Irish, Nicole Sherman, and Levi Watts in International Studies Review to add another bullet point: there’s little upside and measurable downside to using particular pop culture genres (namely, science fiction and fantasy) in class. In a study that offers an improvement on previous work on pop culture in the classroom, they studied whether using Game of Thrones to explain concepts of international relations to students back in 2017-2018 helped, harmed, or had no effect on students’ learning. In statistical and interview evidence of two different classroom uses of the show compared to a control (non-fiction) group, they find that there was no perceived advantage in terms of students’ reported understanding. They also find that students who disliked sf and fantasy were turned off by the clips. In other words: no upside and some real downside.
The article is a welcome fact-based intervention into discussions over pop culture and the political science classroom. I think it could have been made stronger had they surveyed not just self-reports but actual mastery of facts and concepts. As I wrote last year, a similar fact-based evaluation of the CDC’s famous “zombie preparedness” intervention found that despite its buzz it was not particularly useful and may have actually harmed disaster preparedness. As I summarized one study, “Subjects in the humorous condition were less likely to declare an intention to prepare an emergency kit, make a plan for an emergency evacuation, engage in emergency preparedness, or even research more about the topic.” Another study could be summarized similarly: “the zombie message was viewed by participants as ‘fun, cool, and interesting’ but had ‘no influence on retention or resulted in less retention relative to the factual approach’—that ‘the capability of the campaign fell short of CDC’s goals.’”
Research I conducted for an earlier article on popular culture and international relations had already primed me to this downside of popular culture in the classroom. There’s some evidence that using fiction in the classroom can lead to fiction displacing facts. As we wrote:
If people could easily discern fact from fiction, then novels or movies would have few effects on behavior separate from their ability to provide valid data. Yet, consistent with the sophisticated naïveté view and inconsistent with the naïve sophistication view, fictions may convey false information that can replace correct data. Butler et al find that students exposed to film and text better recalled inaccurate information from films than factual information from textual sources. Similarly, Aoki et al evaluated the film Thirteen Days as a teaching tool for explaining international relations and the Cuban Missile Crisis, finding that in class discussion, almost all students, in seeking to explain the actual Cuban Missile Crisis, referred to it cinematically, as in “the scene where…” or “Kennedy looked tired.” Despite having also been exposed to written historical analysis of the event, “for every thirteen explicit and appropriate correct references to the film in class discussion, students referenced the articles just once.” Butler et al warn teachers against using popular history films for this reason.
(The Irish et al article repeatedly cites this article and another piece of mine as recommending popular culture’s use in the classroom, but I think our attitude against such recommendations is much more evident.)
Not only is it cringe to try to be the cool prof, it also runs a greater risk of blocking rather than helping learning.
I do not, however, think that popular culture has no room in the classroom. I just think that, like any intervention or example, it needs to be handled carefully. Instructors need to weigh whether a given pop cultural text or reference is the best way to make a point given these real downsides. Like any text, moreover, pop culture references and clips need to be unpacked carefully and students need to be coached to recognize the exact way that these tools relate to learning outcomes.
And it also requires instructors to confront their own mortality (sorry!). When we leave the zone of our expertise and enter into pop culture, we are leaving the area that we’re certified as experts in and engaging in something in which we are just necessarily as well placed to judge the field of contemporary as the youths. (OK, TAs may be better placed here.)
This does offer some opportunities, however. I have one (short, low-stakes) assignment in which I ask students to describe how they use social media to keep up with international relations. It’s been instructive! I’ve learned that … I know nothing. (See, there’s a Game of Thrones reference!) I’ve also learned that the studies are right: pop culture is TikTok.
And that means I can bring my expertise to bear in another way: this year’s US Foreign Policy course will have a case about the United States, great-power competition, and TikTok. I may not use the platform, I may not know anything about it, but I do know that the U.S. government could kill it. Finally, it is hip to be square.
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