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Pop Culture in the Classroom

By Megan Scott '96

Pop culture is part of everyday life, even Knox's classrooms.

A number of Knox's regular courses study popular culture in its various forms -- Media and Globalization, Japanese Popular Culture, and Political Communication, to name a few -- but pop culture makes it into classrooms in other ways and forms. In some cases, popular culture, especially movies and television, sparks students' interest in certain fields of study.

"There has been a recent 'third wave' of movies and television shows set in ancient Mediterranean cultures, some drawn from Greek literature like Troy and some from ancient history like Gladiator, 300, and HBO?s Rome," says Brenda Fineberg, professor of classics. "Some classicists cringe at errors and misrepresentations in these productions, but we also acknowledge that they have helped re-enliven interest in antiquity."

Popular culture also becomes a universal language for students, particularly in the arts. "I use pop culture all the time," says Craig Choma, associate professor of theatre. "I wouldn?t be able to teach what I do without it."

Choma teaches numerous classes on theatre design, from Introduction to Theatre Technology to Scene Design and Stage Lighting. Even though most students in his classes are there because of a love of or interest in theatre, not every student has seen a live theatrical production. It then becomes necessary for Choma to use movies or television shows as examples of theatrical design.

"Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and CSI are great references. They are all cultural benchmarks -- everyone in my classes has either seen them or is familiar with them," says Choma.

The most common use of popular culture in the classroom is as a teaching tool. From movies to YouTube, pop culture mediums provide professors with additional resources to engage their students. Robin Ragan, assistant professor of modern languages, recently used YouTube in her Spanish Youth through Literature, Film, and Music class.

"A student mentioned off-handedly that he?d seen a Spanish group we both liked on YouTube. I acted like I understood and then went searching. It turned out to be a lifesaver," Ragan says.

Ragan used YouTube almost everyday, showing videos and live performance clips, as well as footage from other Spanish cultural events like the Madrid bombings. "This footage gave students a sense of being transported to the time and place we were studying," she says.

Catherine Denial, assistant professor of history, regularly shows films in her classes, having students assess the film's historical accuracy and its effect on popular culture. She also helps her students learn to use the Web for historical research with an assignment that asks her students to act as a researcher for an historian. The students must find a website on a particular research topic and assess that site for its accuracy, reliability, and relevance.

"Students are turning to the Web more and more for research," Denial says. "They need Web skills now as much as people from earlier generations needed to know how to dissect magazines."

Whatever its purpose, pop culture provides students and professors alike with new ways to discuss and analyze the world around us.