Why Teach Popular Culture?

Photo of South Austin Museum of Popular Culture


Laura Thain

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This semester, I have taken great pleasure in teaching The Rhetoric of Celebrity to a group of enthusiastic and talented students.  In my office hours a few weeks ago, a student who came in to discuss a recent assignment with me began our conversation by asking if “all rhetoric teachers had to be so young.”  

“Well,” I answered, “most of us are graduate students, so we don’t have our PhDs yet.  We’re generally in our twenties and thirties.”  

“So, what do you want to do, you know, professionally?  Do you want to work for TMZ someday?” she asked.  I smiled a little and explained that I was a doctoral student studying 18th century intellectual history and the English novel.  She looked perplexed.  “Why are you teaching us about music and movie stars and stuff then?  Were there stars back then?  What does what you teach have to do with being a professor?” 

It’s a provocative question.  Many of us shy away from studying our “pet” interests in the mass media to make ourselves more marketable—out of fear of entering an oversaturated market of scholars of popular culture.  I’ve also heard many of my colleagues voice concerns over ruining what they love by studying it: “I just want to read/listen to/view __________ and enjoy it without thinking about how I can interrogate it!” is a common reprise in graduate offices.  But I don’t think we really mean this.  In fact, on our Facebook walls, in our informal discussions, and in our lesson plans we examine and analyze the media objects we encounter constantly.  We express excitement when we find a particularly glowing example of a rhetorical principle in the most recent broadcast of SNL or The Daily Show.  We talk about the ethics of ironic distance in The Colbert Report and Lena Dunham’s Girls.  We laugh at memes that mix Derrida with Honey Boo Boo; we eagerly await the season openers of Breaking Bad and Homeland.  I even have a fairly well-rehearsed defense of Britney Spears in terms of Barthes’ Mythologies

At the heart of the importance of cultural studies in general, and popular culture in particular, is the interrogation of the evaluative mode of rhetorical discourse.  The controversy model upon which all of our introductory composition courses here in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing are based emphasize three main modes of discourse: the descriptive mode, the analytical mode, and the evaluative mode.  These modes represent a cumulative skill set—that is, that one cannot analyze before one can describe, and one cannot evaluate before one can analyze.   Within this model, evaluation usually takes place in terms of a position paper on a social issue.  For instance, last years’ first year forum book encouraged RHE 306 students to argue for a particular position on school reform; this year, the first year forum topic is oriented toward digital democracy and Web 2.0. 

This unit structure transfer neatly into classes that deal directly with public policy—the Rhetoric of Protest, the Rhetoric of Gentrification, or the Rhetoric of Disasters—because the evaluative unit of these course topics easily fits into an argument for policy change.  But how do we teach evaluative rhetorics in less civic-minded classes?  How do we teach students how to evaluate a music video, a documentary film, or a comedy routine?

Teaching popular culture can be a crucial tool in teaching students how to make the evaluative turn when examining implicit, rather than explicit, styles of argumentation.  Because students are often already familiar with the content, they are able to draw on a vast array of cultural associations when formulating their own series of ethical or aesthetic criteria, which is a crucial precondition for adept rhetorical evaluation.  It is what keeps students and scholars alike from falling back on response-type criticism alone and seeing larger systems of meaning in media objects.  It is what elevates the rhetoric classroom from book club to site of social critique.  I believe the most important objective of teaching the evaluative turn in rhetorical theory—as it is in the descriptive and analytical units, as well—is to emphasize the utterly essential concern of audience.  In order to do this, we must teach students to think beyond their own personal responses and consider how different rhetorics appeal to others.  This process always begins with students learning to recognize these processes within themselves, but they must move beyond this in order to understand the effects of rhetoric in society at large.

The flaw of “book-club” style reader-response is that it is utterly centered on the individual and encourages us to read complex implementations of standard cultural mythic structures for plot, and the actions of the characters within these cultural media objects as somehow changeable.  This elicits responses from students such as “If Britney hadn’t driven around LA during the summer of 2007 looking for attention…” or “If Mookie hadn’t vandalized the pizza shop in the end of Do the Right Thing…” in the same way that a reader might muse on the fate of Heathcliff had he not left Wuthering Heights to find his fame and fortune.  This sort of response to popular culture undermines the ability of readers to discern that the choices the characters before them make, whether real or fictional, are nonetheless mediated by cultural forces as a precondition for audiences to even understand that a choice was made.  In other words, the action and the depiction of the action are the argument; we cannot separate them from each other.  Learning to make the evaluative turn rhetorically in popular culture means understanding that we judge the acts of groups or individuals as they are mediated through implicit media arguments; that is, we must teach students to examine with scrutiny the carrier of the message as much as the message itself, because one cannot exist outside of the other.  In this exercise, the use of digitally-equipped classrooms is an invaluable tool, because the discussion of the dissemination of cultural myths in media objects is not only technologically possible but environmentally fostered.

Teaching popular culture means teaching students how to read and understand the content and power of implicit arguments as mediated by mass culture.  It means deferring knee-jerk evaluative judgments—ones without distinct sets of ethical criteria. It means recognizing and resisting assumptions about the distinctions between high and low culture, and understanding mass media as, at least in some sense, a reflection of, rather than the cause of, cultural attitudes and mores.  Close rhetorical analysis of objects in popular culture deconstruct the myths of societal devolution and help us to understand ourselves in our own moment without perspective and without hindsight—all things that make us better readers, better viewers, and, perhaps ultimately, better citizens.


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