DISSECTING THE Mass-Cultural BEAST
When Spy magazine set out to list the 50 stupidest college courses in America, they found an easy target in the study of popular culture.
"UFOs in American Society," they quoted from the Temple University course book.
"'...Films such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing" will be shown.'"
At Harvard, the canon still seems to rule the roost--the best Spy could muster was a course on Welsh poetry.
But based on the 1992-93 course catalogue, students can easily match extra-curricular fancies to their academic work--even when those fancies are movies and pop novels.
Take Music 31, for example: "The Origins of Rock and Roll," taught by Graeme Boone, assistant professor of music.
Boone, whose popular course of jazz has cast him as a sort of dean of hip, says the Establishment did not "see the course as out of place."
Neither have the white collars bothered Andrea S. Walsh, lecturer on Women's Studies, who teaches a Social Studies tutorial called "Popular Culture and Modern American Society: Analyzing Multiple Forms of Media."
Boone uses Little Richard and Pat Boone in week 12 of his course and Jerry Lee Louis and Dick Clark in the 13th.
Walsh uses "The Wizard of Oz."
Neither uses Spike Lee films. But that's okay. He teaches here.
Still, Harvard is no Temple University--a class on UFOs wouldn't quite cut it. The registrar might also balk on a Brandeis course:
"From Ancient Astronauts to Lost Continents: Fantasies and Facts in Archaeology" is described, in part, this way: "...Extraterrestrial aliens responsible for ancient Mayan culture in Central America?..."
In the end, Harvard is Harvard--the place founded by Puritans and haunted, as H.L. Mencken said, "by the fear that somewhere, someone might be happy."
Take the libraries. Harvard has 12 million volumes, countless periodicals and a number of foreign language alternative journals.
But no TV Guide.
Harvard has the transcription of a Jack Kerouac movie called "Pull My Daisy." They do not, however, have the actual film.
"It's a new area," says Kevin J. Donley, a staffer at research and bibliographic services in Widener. "You can't buy everything. It's a problem of perceived significance."
Donley is not alone in asserting that modern culture may not rank high on the priority list.
When Harvard rewired all dormitory telephone lines, observers said the University could have easily installed cable lines as well.
And though administrators may have a hard time stomaching MTV and Nickelodeon, college students increasingly see CNN as an indispensable resource.
"If my network is so important to the world," Ted Turner demanded in a visit last week to the Institute of Politics, "Why the hell haven't the Harvard dorms been allowed to put it in?...I'm not coming back until you change it."
In the classroom, despite the preponderance of "traditional" courses, advocates of popular culture in academia seem to have carved out a niche.
After all, in addition to Walsh (whose Women's Studies affiliation places her squarely within the New Harvard set) and Boone (who is known to frequent Grateful Dead concerts), a good number of old-school professors have adopted methods of study which would have been taboo just 20 years ago.
Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature Gregory Nagy, for example, lists movies like "Apocalypse Now" and "The Last Emperor" in his core course called "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization."
Nagy's strategy is simple: Take an abundant resource--modern motion pictures--to supplement what is absent--access to actual Greek performances hundreds of years ago.
"Since classics have survived only as texts and monuments," Nagy explains, "I need to bring to bear all sorts of comparisons...I want to help students understand how the flat text leapt off the page in performance."
In other words, seeing the drama of "Apocalypse Now," students may well be infused with the energy that drove Greek drama--works that are no longer frequently performed.
"Aristotle says that you can't teach metaphor," Nagy says. "Well, you can't teach it, but you can show it, and you can invite people to try to see examples of it."
Boone, too, uses pop culture to facilitate cultural studies. But, reflecting an increasing trend in academia, he regards rock and roll--the epitome of pop culture--as a subject worthy of analysis in and of itself.
"What does an educated person in America need to know?" Boone asks. His answer: "Chuck Berry and The Police."
"I feel I'm trying to tie students into their past, into real life traditions and give them a sense of belonging to the American cultural environment," Boone says.
Boone stressed the dependent relationship between pop culture and academia.
"Are popular and folk traditions destroyed by being academicized? That's patently ridiculous," Boone said. "I don't think we have any choice. How can we live in this culture without understanding what we live with and where we're going?"
And although her work is far more theoretical, Walsh appears to be guided by the same principle: that "pop" culture, broadly defined, is not much different from any other research process.
She rejects the notion that pop culture is by definition a familiar topic to students and therefore set apart from traditional liberal arts disciplines.
"You have to be careful not to assume that everyone is immersed in popular culture and uses it as entertainment," she says. "People have really complicated relations to popular culture."
In any case, Spy would be hard pressed to fit Walsh under their "stupid list." In addition to favorites like Oz, she takes on hard core cultural theory like E. Ann Kaplan's Post-Modernism and Its Discontents.
Besides being charged that they are just plain stupid, though, studies of popular culture have to deal with another often-leveled criticism--that students of the discipline don't learn anything they wouldn't in everyday life. It's a debate that's as old as Harvard itself. Cotton Mather accused the College of pandering to common interests when it delved even slightly into secular matters.
The students themselves, however, retort that accessibility, not some high-minded definition of "proper scholarship," is the goal.
Donley says library resources will match student interest over the years. And, if Walsh is to be believed, students are bound to benefit by the evolving concept of academics:
"In 20 years it's less likely that people will spend a great deal of time on the justification game."