Teaching History and Theory through Popular Culture: My First Time Designing a Module

As educators in the humanities field, one of the key ideas we seek to share with our students is the notion that all literary texts are ensnared within a dynamic web of socio-cultural discourse. However, in our haste to reveal the ideological and socio-historical context of such cultural products, we often limit our pedagogical endeavours to traditionally “literary” or “highbrow” works. As a result, we litter our curriculums with canonical texts which, to many students, seem removed from their own experiences and whose cultural concerns are intimidating and alien to them.

Responding to this disturbingly common experience, I believe that one solution which presents itself to lecturers and tutors is to transgress the accepted boundaries of the academic canon. To do this we must explore how more populist texts can function as potent manifestations of ideological paradigms, cultural conflicts and socio-historical discourses. In contrast to some of the more linguistically and culturally alienating works studied in many conventional literature courses, popular culture appeals to undergraduate students as a dynamic and energetic entity: its language and thematic concerns are not only accessible to the average student, but actively engaging. This post therefore seeks to explore the value of and rationale behind teaching critical skills through populist texts by sharing my experience of designing and teaching a popular culture studies module. In doing so, I will connect my strategies to the wider academic discourse surrounding the role of mainstream entertainment in the classroom.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still. 20th Century Fox, 1951.

While universities should remain firm in their commitment to presenting students with texts that challenge them intellectually, the introduction of popular culture to the classroom can provide a useful means of supplementing the study of canonical works. The academic analysis of popular entertainment can serve to bridge the chasm between traditionally “highbrow” literature and the more populist media that often defines a student’s pre-existing cultural experience. One educator, Rana Houshmand, describes this practice as the “scaffolding [of] difficult literacy skills” – a strategy which has proven remarkably successful in foundational projects where the critical analysis of hip-hop lyrics has been used as means of connecting students’ contextual experiences with the analytical skills developed in the classroom. This strategy has also been used to facilitate understandings of theory and philosophy in more advanced courses which utilise video game character tropes to interrogate, in relatable terms, Judith Butler’s notion of performativity in the construction of hegemonic gender roles.

The Module

Two years ago, in an attempt to broaden the scope of literary analysis practiced at undergraduate level, I designed an interactive seminar aimed at second-year university students entitled “Watching the Skies: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction”. Encompassing such landmarks of the genre as the novels of Richard Matheson and John W. Campbell, cinematic works like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and the classic television series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), the seminar aimed to introduce students to the different ways in which these texts adapted the conventions of the science fiction genre in order to comment upon and critique the major socio-cultural concerns of mid-twentieth-century America.

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Family watching television, 1958. Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

The Planning Stages

While the idea for this module emerged from my desire to render literary criticism more accessible, there were numerous practical concerns which had to be taken into account when designing this seminar.

Where will my module fit within the University and the Course Curriculum?

Firstly, I had to consider the position of my module and the role it would serve within the wider undergraduate English course offered by my department. Although my university offers a broad range of literary studies modules, incorporating subjects as diverse as Anglo-Saxon poetry and experimental European cinema, twentieth-century popular culture does not feature prominently on the curriculum. Consequently, in the written proposal submitted to the School of English selection committee, I presented my module as filling a gap in an otherwise comprehensive degree programme, framing the course as a unique opportunity for students to engage critically with frequently overlooked, yet highly influential, cultural artefacts. Furthermore, I was careful to establish that the introduction of a popular culture studies module would not supplant the teaching of canonical works, but rather compliment them. I also advocated for the inclusion of texts that normally fall outside the purview of mainstream academic analysis on the basis that a lack of secondary critical materials would encourage students to rely on and further develop their own capacity for independent thinking.

Teaching History and Theory through Popular Culture

The next major factor informing the design of this module was the issue of structuring the course so that it would provide students not only with a broad overview of twentieth-century science fiction, but also serve as an effective platform from which to explore complex issues such as literary theory, ideology and the socio-cultural production of the text. Basing my pedagogical approach on the educator Ernest Morrell’s assertion that the critically literate student should be able to understand the “socially constructed meaning embedded in texts as well as the political and economic contexts in which the texts are produced”, the theoretical framework informing the creation of this course was grounded in genre theory and a historicist approach to literary analysis. While this practice of exploring literature through a largely socio-historical lens can be viewed as dismissive of those facets of literary production that transcend historical context, I felt that in order to adhere to the time constraints and maintain a cohesive thematic focus a single critical perspective would prove a more effective means of structuring the seminar content.

Moreover, in the case of popular entertainment, which is generally mass-produced and often intended as disposable cultural ephemera, the immediacy of populist texts allows them to engage directly with current social and political discourses, reflecting in their iconography and narrative content the prevailing cultural preoccupations of their era. The historicist approach to literary studies thus functions as an ideal approach to the study of science fiction, a genre which, throughout much of its history, has employed highly imaginative narrative tropes for the specific purpose of interrogating a wide range of  topical social, political and cultural issues.

Designing the Module

Consisting of twelve two-hour seminars spread across a single term, the module was divided into three sections, with each section focusing on a key social or cultural concern of the post-war period  and evaluating how the unique narrative conventions of science fiction can be employed to explore these issues in a variety of innovative ways. In doing so, I identified three key issues that shaped the mid-twentieth century popular imagination – the growth of American anti-communist paranoia, the birth of the Atomic Age and the post-war evolution of gender roles – and built the course content around these subjects. I also ensured that this historicised approach to teaching science fiction would be prefaced by a discussion of genre theory so that students could learn to identify how categorisations such as science fiction serve as linguistic shorthand for a set of “stock” imaginative tropes – character archetypes, narrative structures, recurring aesthetic patterns and intellectual preoccupations – that are utilised as “stand-ins” for broader concepts.

Finally, I compiled a list of learning outcomes that would ultimately become the criteria by which I judged the success of the module. My educational objectives stated that upon completion of this course students should be able to:

  • critically read and analyse a selection of post-World War II American science fiction texts
  • compare the manner in which these texts utilise the thematic conventions of the science fiction genre in order to comment upon a wide variety of social and political issues
  • discuss the cultural and historical context which framed the development of the science fiction genre as a vehicle for social commentary and criticism
  • define terms and concepts central to relevant aspects of genre theory
  • apply these terms and concepts to the set texts.

The capacity of students to successfully achieve these educational goals was measured through a series of written assignments and oral presentations. Less quantifiable learning outcomes, such as the ability of participants to articulate highly personal responses to the texts, were observable through student engagement with informal classroom-based discussions.

Creative Teaching

I designed the seminar to be interactive and grounded in an ongoing dialogue about the nature and function of genre. As such, I based the format of the seminar on the increasingly popular pedagogical method of Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) – a form of carefully structured group work “stimulated by enquiry including: project work, small-scale investigation and problem-based learning”.

As an illustration of how this technique works in practice, I would like to provide a brief overview of a class I taught based around one of the most popular novels on my course, Ira Levin’s 1972 feminist satire The Stepford Wives.

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Ira Levin’s novel employs the fantastic concept of suburban husbands replacing their progressively-minded wives with subservient robots. In her seminar Corcoran used this text to interrogate various cultural discourses surrounding female autonomy and imperilled post-war masculinity. First edition book cover, Random House, 1972.

During the first part of The Stepford Wives seminar I provided the students with a comprehensive overview of post-war America’s changing attitudes to gender and sexuality, incorporating everything from how societal desires to contain female sexuality were manifested in the voluminous bodices and skirts of 1950s fashion to the emergence of Second-Wave feminism. In doing so, I relied heavily on contemporary advertising material to illustrate how changing feminine ideals were promoted in popular media and to underscore how women, as social subjects, were constructed by external cultural and economic forces. I then divided the students into small groups and provided each group with additional post-war advertisements that presented socially-constructed feminine ideals in a variety of contexts, from the domestic to the sensual.

In the second half of the seminar I used the EBL method to get the students to imagine how the narrative and aesthetic staples of the science fiction genre could be used to represent and even critique the popular conceptions of womanhood depicted in these advertisements.  This imaginative exercise was enthusiastically embraced by the students who constructed diverse narratives in which adverts that tie consumerist femininity to modern domestic technology were reconfigured as original stories about cybernetics, while students felt that ads emphasising invasive modern beauty techniques could be reconceived as speculative tales about genetic engineering. The students were empowered to reach their own conclusions about the relationship between science/technology and feminine identity, a critical process which allowed them to construct their own theoretical framework through which to the read the novel.

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While I personally felt that the overall cohesiveness of the module could have been improved through a narrowing of the textual and thematic focus of the course, both student evaluation forms and the consistently high grades achieved by participants indicated that the module was successful.

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An example of an ad Corcoran used in her Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) seminars. Print advertisement from the Hoover Company, early 1950s.

Having designed a successful and popular course for second-year students, I could subsequently identify numerous innovative ways in which a similar module could be tailored to the different educational requirements of other year groups. For instance, a broader, more simplistic survey of science fiction works could be combined with a basic foundations of critical practice course in order to introduce first-year students to key theoretical concepts in areas such as narratology, gender studies and even post-structuralism. Similarly, a more in-depth and specialised course focusing on a specific facet of the science fiction genre, for example the representation of artificial intelligence in “hard” sci-fi texts, could form the nucleus of a third-year, or even a Masters-level, course on scientific or technological ethics in contemporary literature. I found the integration of popular culture into the academic canon provides endless opportunities for the development of creative pedagogical philosophies and teaching practices.

For me, overall, the process of designing a seminar for the first time was a valuable learning experience as an educator, researcher and advocate of popular culture in academic curriculum. My first experience of creating an original module forced me to re-evaluate my own previously held notions about how academics communicate ideas.

Having formerly only shared my research at conferences attended by academics equally steeped in discipline-specific terminology and concepts, the opportunity to tailor complex ideas about history, literary genre, gender and politics to undergraduate students encouraged me to consider new ways of sharing knowledge. Moreover, while I have always advocated for popular entertainment as a worthwhile area of academic study, designing this module allowed me to see for the first time how truly useful popular culture can be as a pedagogical tool which communicates difficult concepts through a familiar cultural lexicon.

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About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran is a final-year PhD student in the School of English, University College Cork. She is currently working on a thesis which explores representations of social paranoia in Cold-War American and Soviet Russian fiction. Her research interests include postmodern theory, absurdist fiction, intersections of literature and psychology, and American popular culture.
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