Pop culture in the classroom

Step aside, textbooks. In some College of the Mainland classes, students learn not just from books and PowerPoints, but with a dash of movies, music and more.

The Matrix and Philosophy

In Stacey Burleson’s Introduction to Philosophy class, students explore themes such as free will and reality. Movie characters’ dilemmas bring these ideas to the forefront.

“These are pretty difficult concepts, so it helps to have a film that can illustrate most of the ideas we are covering in the chapters,” said Burleson. “I use pop culture in all of my classes because it helps students relate better to the material.”

Modern Family and Interpersonal Communications

In Julianna Garcia’s Interpersonal Communications class, shows such as “Modern Family” highlight concepts such as family types, dynamics, language and family communication patterns.

“Students can relate to movies, the characters, and the relationships these characters cultivate throughout the movie. After we discuss a chapter and its concepts, theories and principles, I ask students identify them in an assigned movie. The concepts and theories become less abstract,” said Garcia.

TV shows highlight and explain the information covered in the course.

“I also use ‘Dexter’ to explain how the self (self-concept/self-esteem) is developed and how one can use it to change people’s perceptions of you,” added Garcia.

Family Guy and U.S. History

In his U.S. History class, Cody Smith shows students how history permeates pop culture.

“History is all around you. Last week I showed a ‘Family Guy’ clip where they talk about settlers coming to settle Rhode Island. It’s an icebreaker to start talking about colonies and introduce humor,” said Smith. “It ties history into students’ world and allows them to see how the past leads to events that affect them.”

In his Western Civilization class, students examine what movies get right and what they get wrong. 

“In ‘The 300’ everyone thinks there were 300 Spartans. There were 300 Spartans and 7,500 other people, who had armor,” said Smith. “A lot of the witty lines did come from history. When the Persian emissary came and said, ‘Our arrows will block out the sun and rain down on you,’ and they replied, ‘Well, then we’ll have our fight in the shade’ - That’s taken from historical account from Thermopylae.”

Disney’s Pocahontas and Literature

In Brian Anderson’s American Literature I class, students dive into Disney movies and explore how myths are created and perpetuated. Students view clips of Disney's ‘Pocahontas’ as well as the Colin Farrell film ‘The New World,’ which tells the same story in a much different way.

“Before viewing these clips, we read John Smith's original, brief account of being dramatically saved by Pocahontas. The common element in all versions: Pocahontas throws herself on Smith to keep him from being killed. His story doesn't even hint at romance with Pocahontas, the cornerstone of nearly all modern retellings. I'm interested in the process of mythmaking or how historical accounts evolve over time into fictionalized forms that meet a kind of unspoken need for meaning,” said Anderson.

Anderson also explore how literature seeps into pop culture and culture changes the tale over time. TV series such as Sleepy Hollow and American Horror Story draw on centuries-old stories.

“Often these storytellers begin with a well-known story and characters and then change and expand on those elements to create a new story that works on different levels that appeal to modern sensibilities and shifting values,” said Anderson.

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