The Clash Over New Classics

Tucked away at the end of the syllabus for Professor Louis Menand’s English 169: “The Road to Postmodernism,” past all the essays by Sontag and Greenberg, one finds a startling message from the professor: “For those students who grew up on Mars, there will be a screening of ‘Star Wars.’”

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the inclusion of lightsabers alongside Pynchon is hardly an anomaly. More and more, undergraduates find their Derrida reading accompanied by comic strips, their Shakespeare supplemented by “10 Things I Hate About You.”

Within Harvard’s top faculty, a divide is growing among its literary and social critics. On one side, there stand those who see pop culture artifacts as valid objects of inquiry. On the other side, there stand profs who fear a collapse toward the bottom of the barrel.


Menand, Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language, says that he put the George Lucas movie on his syllabus not because of its intrinsic artistic value, but because of its social context. “ ‘Star Wars’ is an important movie in the history of movie making,” he says. “In terms of cultural history, it’s an important moment.”

John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences Jason Kaufman, who teaches Sociology 153: “Media and the American Mind,” sees the trend towards pop culture inclusions on syllabi as both a relief and a duty.

“Just because we’re Harvard professors doesn’t mean we don’t like shitty movies and TV,” he says. “It’s intellectually and academically irresponsible to ignore them.”

“Every day, you read a comic book. Every day, there’s an installment of a new weblog,” says Assistant Professor of Visual and Environment Studies and of English J. D. Connor ’92. “These things reward the kind of attention that cultural studies scholars can bring to bear on them.”

Connor, whose VES 195: “Hollywood Film” requires that students watch movies like “The Exorcist” and “Jaws,” bemoans the lack of attention given to television at Harvard. “It’s silly, I think. There should be at least one person whose job is [to study] TV.”

“There’s been a leveling of cultural artifacts,” says Menand. “That kind of rigid stratification of cultural artifacts is no longer very persuasive to people.” Though it may seem obvious to point out, a work is only “great” or “highbrow” if people decide that it is.

Additionally, Assistant Professor of English Jason Stevens argues, looking at popular art is far from a professorial cop-out—it’s a challenge for critics to put all art into context. “The new historicism is to restore high cultural artifacts to the complexity of the circumstances that produced them,” he says.

Stevens adds that the inclusion of mass culture on the syllabus “exerts pressure on those who teach highbrow [works].”

But Menand is not so naïve to think that there will be no opposition to the trend he embraces. “There are people who think that the study of literature should be restricted to works that we pay close literary analysis to, that students shouldn’t write about pop culture for their senior thesis,” he says.

Connor puts it more succinctly: “I’m sure that many of my colleagues will feel that this is dangerous.”


Assistant Professor of English Gordon Teskey is one such colleague, though he would hesitate to use a word as incendiary as “dangerous.”

“It would be dismaying to me if a person were to have two or three courses in contemporary cartoons instead of courses in Shakespeare, 17th century poetry, and Victorian culture,” he says.

Teskey’s not alone, according to Connor: “[University Professor] Helen Vendler has said that our students watch [recent Hollywood film] ‘Troy’ and don’t read ‘The Iliad.’ And she is someone whose opinion I take very seriously.”

Vendler, who is currently on leave for the academic year, could not be reached for comment.

Teskey’s worries stem in large part from the limited time an undergraduate has to receive an education.

“It’s always important to remember that if you put something on the curriculum you have to take something else off,” he says.

Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism James Wood shares this concern. He says that a deep understanding of great texts is the best way to teach “the evaluative power that one is trying to train and empower in students.”

Teskey cites legendary pop culture communications theorist Marshall McLuhan as an example of why a focus on the popular should never come at the expense of the classics. “He studied literature,” Teskey says. “He was a brilliant analyst of popular culture, but he came to it through a deep engagement with literature.”

Teskey takes issue with “this sort of language of instrumental analysis with tools,” arguing that at its worst it reduces the study of popular culture to something that is “easy, it’s flashy, and it can sound cool because it involves comic books and movies.” In a striking counterpoint to Stevens’ assertion about the importance of context, Teskey thinks a focus on recent pop culture can take the world out of context.

“You can’t understand modernity just by studying the things around you,” he says.

However, Weijie Huang ’08, a student from Kaufman’s “Media Class,” believes that the contemporariness of the material makes it more relevant. “A lot of the examples were really recent and were really up to date and I could identify with what they were talking about, like MTV and the rise of hip hop,” he says.


Even those in favor of teaching pop culture, however, see the potential for falling into some dangerous traps.

The aspect of “cool” that attaches itself to the study of mass culture can be worrisome to those who teach it. “There is a high status thing in enjoying lowbrow culture,” says Kaufman.

Menand finds the status of taste significant as well. “To the extent that culture is a form of status seeking, you want to enhance your knowledge of the canon with something esoteric,” he says.

It could be that the appearance of “Star Wars” on a syllabus is not as populist a gesture as it ini-tially seems. “I think part of what Harvard is doing is embracing the fact that America’s elites today need to be as conversant in ‘Star Wars’ as they are in Stravinsky,” Kaufman says.

Stevens adds on that sentiment. “These gestures towards popular culture are actually elite in a very flip, ironic way,” he says.

This elite interest in the lowbrow might be seen as a new permutation of what Kaufman says el-ites did with Shakespeare during the nineteenth century.

“Up until then Shakespeare was for everyone, and it was a very ribald affair so long as the sex jokes were hammed up,” he says. “Only in the nineteenth century did elites try to make [Shake-speare] something for highbrows.”

One worry seems to be that pop culture will also soon be rarified on the grounds that most people don’t possess the analytical tools to deconstruct its cultural and social intricacies.

But David F. Hill ’06, who is currently in Stevens’ “Modern Crime Narratives” asserts students’ autonomy against academic criticism: “You can always reject the analysis. You’ve read it, you enjoy it, you can ignore what the professor has to say.”

Those who do possess these tools then affect an amused detachment from whichever genre inter-ests them. By contrast, the guy with the mutton chops and the Whitesnake t-shirt, though he may love his hair metal, doesn’t really “understand” it.

For Teskey, this is the study of pop culture at its worst. “I don’t think that being amused at your amusement strikes me as profoundly clever,” he says. “At least, it’s not as clever as actually en-joying something like kung-fu movies.”

Menand agrees that this wouldn’t be the right way to go about academic work, but he says that he doesn’t see any evidence of it in his classes. “I had one [teaching fellow] give a lecture in class on graffiti. He himself had been a graffiti writer…and I didn’t have a sense that he was self-consciously slumming or anything like that.”

Menand had his students watch “Pulp Fiction,” and he was pleased with the results. “I thought we had a good serious discussion about what it meant,” he says.

One of Connor’s students, Jeremy Landau ’08, similarly commented on the genuine academic stimulation of “Hollywood Cinema”: “We recently watched ‘Top Gun,’ which you wouldn’t consider artistic, based on the premise of Hollywood as its own contained form of art, that inter-mixes artistic production with industrial and economic production.”


But even as each side of the debate confidently asserts its arguments, there are concessions, some of them surprising, being made to the opposition.

Stevens says he finds Teskey’s argument–that for every rap song added to a curriculum, a Keats poem is subtracted—“compelling.”

On the other side, Teskey says he doesn’t think his colleagues choose to include pop culture in their syllabi to pander to undergraduates. “I know no faculty who teach these things because they’re fun or attractive to students,” he says.

He even admits that emerging fields of study have met resistance throughout history: “People used to be saying this about logic in the twelfth century. Critics were moaning that all the stu-dents were running after cool logic classes because they could just make little arguments and not work as hard.”

Teskey’s concerns are serious, but he’s careful to point out that they’re concerns, and nothing more malicious.

“Professors like to trust each other. We shouldn’t be condemning each other’s disciplines. If it’s a recognized discipline then we have a professional and moral obligation to respect it,” he says. “The intellectual system really only works on trust.”

And it would appear that those wary of the influence of pop culture don’t see those who teach it as people from Mars hijacking the liberal arts education by any means. It seems that both sides of this battle are facing an uncertain future with caution.