Can watching movies make you more compassionate? Could listening to music help you see the world differently? Some Central Michigan University faculty are using pop culture to help their students explore difficult topics and pressing issues.
Pop culture as a common language
"The thing that enables the greatest success in my classroom is our capacity to communicate well with each other, student to student and professor to student alike. Pop culture is a language we share — I study it and experience it, my students do as well," said Joe Sommers, a faculty member in English language and literature.
"Education happens when we can take difficult concepts and, without reducing or oversimplifying them, explain them to each other in a language we both know."
Sommers frequently teaches classes that focus on pop culture: courses on graphic novels, comic books and even a class exploring Harry Potter's United Kingdom. This fall, he's teaching the works of author Neil Gaiman, who often uses popular culture to discuss complex issues such as religion, immigration or even abuse.
Many of his students have seen the show "American Gods," based on Gaiman's novel of the same name. Others have read his graphic novels, such as "The Sandman," or seen one of the films based on his work, like "Coraline."
Their familiarity with the material makes them more comfortable discussing touchier themes that are in the books and in their day-to-day experiences, Sommers said.
“Just because something is popular doesn’t mean
it can’t be impactful.”
– Nicole Barco, English professor
Fun, familiar and fitting
In Nancy White's business law courses, it's not unusual to see familiar films included on the syllabus. She's used clips from the film "The Devil's Advocate" to illustrate the difference between legal and factual issues. She's seen her class chuckle watching a scene from "The Wedding Crashers" during discussions of mediation.
"The movie clips cover some concept I want to get across in a more interesting way than an academic rendition of the same concept. Often the law and the legal process is not depicted accurately in the movies, but when it is, then it is done in a very interesting and professional manner. The actors, lighting and music make it more engaging for students," she said.
The best part is that students may feel more comfortable discussing ideas once they realize they've already been introduced to them. Concepts like contracts and due process of law become more familiar when seen in clips from Harry Potter films, she said.
Popular culture provides historical context
Students in Mitchell Hall's history course on the Vietnam War use pop culture as a way to understand American thinking before, during and after the war.
"This class is not just about military history — it's about American society and the experience of the Vietnam War. Warfare is one of the most consequential human events. In this way, we can look back and see the entire range of attitudes toward the war."
His students discuss clips from prewar films that supported the government's choice to enter the conflict, such as "The Ugly American" or "The Green Berets," as well as postwar films that attempt to accurately portray the experiences of soldiers and civilians, such as "Platoon" and "Coming Home." Even films like "Rambo" can help the students understand certain American sentiments about the war, Hall said.
Hall provides students with a list of more than 30 films to help them build a cultural and historical context for the war.
A gateway to learn new skills
Learning to write complex computer code for 2D and 3D modeling can be intimidating — especially for multimedia design students who may not have a strong background in computer science.
To ease them in, faculty member Tony Morelli encourages his students to work with what they know, using their favorite books, movies, games and music to guide their design.
"Students gravitate toward what they are interested in, and they'll spend more time on these projects because they are personally invested in bringing their interests to life," he said.
He's seen students bring their favorite "Game of Thrones" characters to life and create lifelike landscapes from horror films. One student even created a game that involved collecting Facebook likes, leaping over Twitter birds and dodging Snapchat ghosts.
One of Morelli's students used social media icons as inspiration for her game design.
"Many of the students come in feeling nervous about their ability to write code. Within a short period of time they are self-teaching more advanced concepts because they are so motivated to see their ideas come to life," he said.
Building compassion through characters
Nicole Barco uses shows like the recently remade "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Handmaid's Tale" to aid discussions in her English classes. She said pop culture helps her students consider issues of social justice.
In the former show, androids called Cylons struggle to be accepted as equals to humans. In the latter, women who can reproduce become possessions of the state.
"When the character is seen as subhuman, or other than human, how are they treated by other characters? What does this treatment reveal about the ethics of a particular society, whether real or imagined? In this way, we can explore the patterns that lead people to commit atrocity."
Her students look for this "otherness" in the form of zombies, vampires and cyborgs, but also in human characters perceived as foreigners, criminals or outsiders. Using "The Handmaid's Tale," for example, her class discusses the fictional society's attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and other cultures and religions.
Books, film and television are the means by which students connect to people who are different from themselves and build empathy, Barco said. Ultimately, she hopes it helps them recognize injustice in their own communities and take a stand for what is right.
"Critical thinking about pop culture can promote meaningful dialogue and improve our understanding of its significance. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it can't be impactful."