Using pop icons to study broader issues is part of an academic trend.
In a music classroom on the quiet Catholic college campus, a group of students scribbled notes in the dark, their eyes intent on a 10-minute video.
"Take 30 seconds to collect your thoughts," Prof. Amy Hamlin told the class as the video concluded. They then launched into a discussion of postmodernism, film and religious symbolism.
On the screen? Lady Gaga's music video for "Telephone," featuring Beyoncé.
The video's product placements, prison scenes and boyfriend killings are the point of this St. Catherine University course, titled "The Music and Image Monster: Lady Gaga in Context."
The class is one example of courses with a specific pop-culture focus that are increasingly populating academia. Another offering at the St. Paul school: "Six Degrees of Harry Potter." Two University of St. Thomas professors teach an honors seminar on the TV series "The Wire." Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., held one on Jay-Z.
The courses sound light, and the professors behind them are sometimes questioned about their seriousness. But like the pop-culture icons who inspired them, the classes illuminate knotty issues about life today and place the "fine art" that came before them in a new context.
"Think of classes that have a pop-culture 'hook' as that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down," said Prof. Edward Schiappa, chair of the Communications Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.
When Schiappa taught a course on the TV series "Six Feet Under," students got to watch HBO in class. But they also digested media theories like cultivation analysis, social learning, parasocial interaction and thanatology. Texts for the Harry Potter class include "Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature." The first thing students read in the seminar on "The Wire" is a chapter titled "The Construction of Ethical Codes in the Discourse and Criticism of Popular Culture."
"I like such classes because if they are done right, the students not only learn about theories and research, but have a very lively example of how to apply such theories and ideas to the real world," Schiappa said.Message of Gaga
None livelier than Lady Gaga. Amy Hamlin, an assistant professor of art and art history, said that her view of the pop superstar moved from "Who is this charlatan?" to "Whoa, what is she doing here?" once she saw the video "Bad Romance." In it, Gaga performs as a white-and-diamond-clad plaything pushed into dancing for a group of drinking men. Mid-song, she sets fire to a bed and the man in it. The costumes turn from white to red and black. Crying turns to smiling.
"She was really pushing some buttons," Hamlin said. "That video touches on things like conceptions of gender, our commodity culture, power in relationships."
"You wouldn't know it just by listening to the music," said Allison Adrian, an assistant professor of music and Hamlin's partner in teaching the course.
"Really?" Hamlin asked. "Even in 'Bad Romance'?"
"It's a dance pop tune," Adrian said. "You need the hint the video gives you to make sense of the lyrics."
A few years ago, Hamlin and Adrian paired up their academic specialties to teach a course called "Music, the Visual Arts and Politics in the Twentieth Century," and were struck by how often students brought up Lady Gaga in class discussions. They decided she'd make a powerful focus for a course but worried that students and faculty members might not take it seriously.
"We've gotten asked plenty of times by skeptics, 'What are you going to do? Are you just listening to her music in class?' " Adrian said.
St. Kate's Prof. Cecilia Konchar Farr got similar "blowback" when she began her class on Harry Potter. Why not teach Shakespeare? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Despite the novels' target audience, her class, which has proven so popular that she has had to raise the cap on enrollment, deals with serious analysis, "not just playful dancing with the text."
In a sense, Harry Potter beats Jay Gatsby at helping students see how literary theory applies to the texts they read each day, Konchar Farr argues. "I'm not just thinking critically and analytically when I open my volume of James Joyce," Konchar Farr said. "I'm doing it when watching 'The Office.'"Making it relevant
She suspects that the current crop of pop-culture courses is the result of a movement in the 1960s and '70s, when students demanded more relevant course work. Some of those students went on to earn doctorates and are now the ones teaching.
When University of St. Thomas Prof. Wendy Wyatt paired up with a sociology professor to teach a course on the TV series "The Wire," "we thought we were being so unique," she laughed. Turns out four or five universities across the country had the same idea.
St. Thomas' seminar asks two key questions about the series, which depicts the police, drug culture and politics of Baltimore: "Is it accurate? Is it fair?" Students review criminal justice research to help them answer those questions. Pairing the show with the research is more effective than "handing somebody a textbook or a research article about drug legalization," Wyatt said.
Wyatt, who researches media literacy, argues against the idea that "entertainment doesn't matter," and believes the United States is behind on teaching students how to think critically about what's on TV. "If you are willing to engage with pop-culture in serious ways, you will see all the ways it does matter."
Sophomore Kristina Poss majors in chemistry at St. Catherine and plans to go to medical school. Her schedule is "very structured, with a lot of science-based curriculum." The class on Lady Gaga, she said, is "not at all like that."
Gaga was just another pop star to Poss -- until she took this spring's seminar to fulfill an honors credit. "The videos, in combination with the class discussion and the articles, really shed light on the deeper meaning of her work," she said. Last week, she turned in a paper analyzing Gaga's commentary on stardom in the video "Paparazzi," pointing out the "split-second images of seemingly dead women lying on the ground with blank stares," one way Gaga links fame with death.
Poss, a distance runner, said her teammates always ask about Lady Gaga at practice.
"Everyone wants to hear about our class."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168