Easing Students into Academia: popular culture in the CGI curriculum
Robin Turner May 2004
One idea that sticks in my mind from my undergraduate course in science ﬁction is that in order to write SF, you need strange people, strange things or strange places; 1 however, if you have strange people doing strange things in strange places, the result is a confused reader. The position of ﬁrst-year university students is analogous: too often they are having to write in new and challenging ways, referring to challenging texts about challenging ideas. To add to the challenge, many are doing so in their second language. Too much challenge in education is like too much strangeness in science ﬁction, and the result is the same: confusion, and often demoralisation. Obviously we want to challenge students but not to confuse them completely. As English teachers, we cannot afford to “dumb down” the texts our students study, or set overly-easy writing tasks; however slowly we build up to it, by the end of a ﬁrst-year English course, students should be able to read non-specialist academic texts and write a tolerable essay referring to them. However, there is a sense in which the English class can be “a sheltered context for the cognitive demands of new content” (Owens, 2002:45). In a content-based English course, we have the advantage of being able to choose the overall theme, which gives us some lee-way which would not available to someone teaching, say, Physics 101. As Genesee (1994:3) points out, content need not always be academic but “can include any topic, theme, or non-language issue of interest of importance to the learners.” Popular culture is one way to provide students with a familiar base from which they can tackle challenging reading and writing tasks; all things being equal, it is easier to comprehend an academic paper on, say, the physics of Star Trek or the ethics of soap operas than a similar paper on the physics of superconductors or the ethics of phenomenology. This is not to say that basing a course around popular culture means that students will only read popular texts. Consider the following: 1. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil 2. Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morality 3. Freud’s Love and Debasement 4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer 5. The Gnostic Gospels
The course was taught by Tom Shippey (Leeds University, 1981-82); I have been unable to trace the origin of this dictum, although the phrase “strange people, strange places, strange things” crops up periodically in SF fandom.
but there are three overall phases: Separation (where the hero is set apart from normal life). for example. according to Campbell. and compare. look at the kind of people who watch soap operas or listen to heavy metal. Are soap operas about the rich (or the poor) a way of defusing class conﬂict? Is music a way of diverting the energy of the young into pseudo-subversive subcultures? Does Star Wars disguise a conservative message with cute characters and special effects (Brin. 1999)? Is The Lord of the Rings anti-technology? A large number of texts exist asking these kinds of questions. First. popular culture has been fair game for philosophers and semioticians. We might. provides students with a familiar base from which they can sally forth into the territory of academia. and try to work out what role these play in their lives. the Alien ﬁlms to Beowulf. The number of stages varies according to different versions of the theory. and what do we mean by a “sex-object”. anyway? Possibly the most fertile ﬁeld is philosophy. Jung or Adler. We can analyse debates about the ethics and politics of mass media. We can take a popular ﬁlm or novel and analyse the characters in term of the psychology of Freud. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation 8.6. The works of Joseph Campbell are a godsend for teachers: we can take almost any ﬁlm and plot the events according to the stages of Campbell’s “hero’s journey”.
. texts ﬁve to seven occur in the collection of readings I prepared for a ﬁrst-year English course based around the Matrix ﬁlms. and if not. allows us to look at modern ﬁlms about vampires or zombies and trace the genesis of these myths in Eastern Europe and the Carribean. whether it be a cult ﬁlm. Initiation (where he becomes a hero) and Return (where he completes the quest). most mythical heroes pass through. A second approach is through folklore and mythology. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a hugely popular television series featuring a teenage girl who. Jesus and Judas in many ﬁlms. Its dark side. Psychology also opens interesting avenues. well. Since the publication of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957/2000). as Mohan (1990) points out. cultural and personal experiences they bring to school. 2 Religion also provides us with a rich source of symbolism: we can ﬁnd Buddha. why do so many people want to believe that it does? Are women portrayed as sex-objects.”
Approaches to Popular Culture
Popular culture can be approached from a number of angles other than the obvious one of literary criticism. the plethora of folk-devils. TV series or music. We can also look at the effects that such cultural phenomona have on their consumers. Basing a course on popular culture. slays vampires). Recently there has been an explosion of philosophy papers dealing with popular ﬁlms and television programmes: the compilation of essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just one
The Hero’s Journey is a set of stages that. “students’ learning should build on the educational. The Matrix The ﬁrst three texts are referred to extensively in a compilation of essays by philosophers on the subject of the fourth text. we can look at popular culture from a social angle. Similarly. regardless of the origin of the myth. for example. Do violent ﬁlms encourage people to commit acts of violence? Does rock music rot the brain.
unbeknownst to the characters.4 Students enter the course with a variety of levels of competence in English language and academic skills. plus a ﬁnal exam (15%). Do soap operas reﬂect virtue ethics or consequentialism? Is a character right to lie to friend? What view of justice do cowboy ﬁlms present us with? The second approach is more suitable for more “writerly” texts which themselves intentionally raise philosophical questions. To be honest. and. Philosophical approaches can take two tacks. the action is taking place inside the Matrix. all students are expected to write a minimum of four drafted essays (making up 55% of their grade). for one student. and there is a degree of standardisation regarding the number and types of tasks.
. other assessment is up to individual teachers. Students choose between CBI courses based on themes ranging from feminism to food. An obvious example is The Matrix. all courses share common learning objectives. much of the work in this ﬁeld is second-rate. however.
The joke is that Simulacra and Simulation is concerned with how simulation replaces reality. and students with weak language could often make up for this by displaying an impressive knowledge of the ﬁlms – which in turn created a desire to improve their language so that they could express their knowledge more effectively. and texts need to be selected with caution. and how students’ performance is assessed. 3
Case study: the Matrix course
This course was delivered as part of Bilkent University’s Faculty Academic English unit’s ﬁrst-year programme. though. where philosophical questions are asked openly (“What is reality?”) while at the same time allusions to philosophical ideas and even philosophical in-jokes are scattered throughout the ﬁlms (a celebrated example is Neo’s hiding a data CD inside a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s (1984/2004) Simulation and Simulacra). while others can tell you what a thesis statement or topic sentence is. This presents obvious difﬁculties in balancing different language and skills objectives and in choosing texts and task types. 4 At present. while another may happily dash off a two-thousand-word paper bristling with citations – but with hardly any deﬁnite articles or third-person “s”s. too often they are the result of minor academic philosophers trying to gain a wider audience by making superﬁcial references to popular works and reading more into them than is actually there. which can be applied to almost any cultural product. The Simpsons. The ﬁrst. and the two are not always congruent: some students are extremely ﬂuent in conversational English but have little idea of how to organise an essay. but be unable to write a grammatically correct example of either. Students choosing this course were all Matrix enthusiasts. is simply to take it as a source of examples for raising philosophical questions. which is a simulation of a world which has long since been destroyed.in a series which includes The Matrix. writing a simple summary of a text might count as a “challenging” task. The Lord of the Rings and the ﬁlms of Woody Allen. moreover. here our task is ﬁrst to tease out the questions from the text. or even to the ﬁrsttime viewer. here the book itself is not a “real” book but a hollow shell. Seinfeld. One advantage of choosing a cult ﬁlm like The Matrix as the theme for the course was that it levelled the playing ﬁeld with regard to content.
I mean texts written by people with an academic background (professors and graduate students) but for a more general audience. 2001. in retrospect. A small but nevertheless disturbing number of students dropped the course after a few weeks. The latter was included partly because students do not only need models for writing. for example. Fielding. and a few quizzical stories from Taoism and Zen Buddhism. the course was divided into three parts. The second essay involved applying the analytical methods used in the texts to another ﬁlm of their choice. students wrote two essays. lacked. and do not assume familiarity with the seminal works of the ﬁeld. it is useful for a CBI course to have a number of subthemes (or topics. By semi-academic texts. 2003). In addition to complete texts. which consists of papers by academic philosophers on questions raised by the ﬁlms. they also need to be able to criticise texts. for example. In reponse to these texts. in Stoller and Grabe’s (1997) “Six T’s” terminology) which represent different approaches to the main theme. I had overlooked the fact that they assumed a basic knowledge of Christianity which most of the students. while another showed how Stigmata played with Christian 4
. since they follow most of the conventions of academic writing while avoiding specialist terminology. The ﬁrst was a simple summary of ideas in the texts relating to Eastern and Western symbolism in the ﬁlms. a European reader would know immediately what is meant when Cypher is described as “a Judas character”. An example is the philosophy section of the Warner Brothers’ Matrix website. The ﬁrst term needs no explanation: preference was given to interdisciplinary publications. Such texts are particularly suitable. one student demonstrated how Braveheart mangled history in order to provide an inspiring tale based on Campbell’s hero’s journey. The quality of essays varied. it would have been better to have based the ﬁrst reading task on a simpler introductory text. I generally start courses with a summary task. being Muslims. I also included a few short extracts: passages from Descartes Second Meditation and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. while most Turks would not (fortunately I had a Polish exchange student who could be relied on to help out in these situations).Text selection
Like other FAE courses.
Themes and Tasks
In addition to an over-arching theme. 2003). The ﬁrst part of the course dealt with religion and myth in the Matrix. and is also a good way to introduce citation conventions. but many essays demonstrated students’ ability to take a theoretical model and apply it to a novel subject. which can be termed “academic” and “semi-academic”. Although in terms of academic texts these papers were very approachable. These texts were of two types. Some students spent too much time telling the story of the ﬁlm with very little real analysis. since being able to summarise ideas in texts is an essential skill for other kinds of writing. In this case. While these texts were suitable for the course in terms of introducing students to the conventions of academic writing and academic interpretation of ﬁlm. with two papers from the Journal of Film and Religion (Flannery-Davis & Wagner. and a rather quirky piece relating Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to the ﬁlms (Furze. and I suspect that one reason was that they found the ﬁrst text intimidating. this course had a textbook which was literally that: a collection of texts. and this was an example of a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to combine two unrelated subjects in one paper. since by their nature they make fewer assumptions of knowledge on the part of the reader.
since many of them would ﬁnd the ﬁlms boring. The ﬁnal part of the course examined the social and political subtext of the ﬁlms. The second part of the course raised philosophical questions. the writing focus was on responding critically to arguments: students took one of the essays and wrote an evaluation of it. students were required to explain a portion of Chalmer’s paper (which is conveniently divided according to different hypotheses about simulated reality) and give their opinions on it. Related to this is the question of whether students have a choice of courses. This argued that. between the ﬁlms and Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation. This paper was probably the hardest in the textbook. and the discussion following the presentation was more lively. texts and writing tasks
In choosing a content area. suggesting that the Matrix was an analogy of the “culture industry. but a critique of the Star Wars ﬁlms (Brin. for a change. students will relate to it.symbolism in a subversive way. The second. a leading light in the philosophy of consciousness. since formal presentation techniques were reserved for the second semester. The ﬁnal essay was a draft of a paper I had written myself. Students had a choice of writing essays based on these texts5 or ﬁnding a different philosophical argument and evaluating it. Is it possible to have a theory that would allow this but not allow the possibility that the world is only four minutes old?”
Issues and Suggestions
Choosing content area. In the ﬁrst presentation. this was rather more successful. a computer-generated simulation of a world) very few of our beliefs would need to change. 1999). The ﬁrst was “The Matrix as Metaphysics” by David Chalmers (2003). In addition to writing. argued in a similar way that living in a matrix would not alter our moral beliefs to any great extent: harming a sentient program is no different from harming a human being.000 years old. In this section. 2003) investigated the links. on violence in the Matrix ﬁlms (class discussion focussed on how the draft should be revised).” The second (Rovira.e. Students studied two papers. contrary to the message of the ﬁlms. since students related directly to the characters. and how. their motivations and any messages they might convey. for which the text was. if we were living in a matrix (i. The second presentation was simpler. 2003) related the ﬁlms to the ideas of the neo-marxist Frankfurt School. not about The Matrix. I would not do the Matrix course with a random selection of students. or at the very least would ﬁnd it hard to maintain their enthusiasm for ﬁfteen weeks! Another question is the scope of the content area. There was also a ﬁnal exam. for example. There is no point in choosing an area of popular culture which is unlikely to be popular with the particular group of students we are teaching: a course on British comedy would not go down well in a culture which found the British sense of humour incomprehensible. Here we can choose
“What epistemological and ethical difference might occur if we discovered we were living in a matrix?” and “Some fundamentalists hold that the world is only 4. The presentations were informal affairs. but students’ knowledge of the ﬁlm helped them cope with the concepts involved. by Julia Driver (2003). the ﬁrst consideration is whether. Although students performed well in both tasks. students also gave short oral presentations. The ﬁrst essay (Dodson. requiring students to choose a character from the ﬁlms and comment on their role. mentioned earlier. conceptually speaking.
we also watched two kung fu ﬁlms. These provided essay questions such as “Discuss the conﬂict between Buddhist and Confucian values in Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon” and “To what extent is Romeo Must Die a ﬁlm about ﬁlial piety?” (ﬁlial piety is one of the primary Confucian virtues).g.either a narrow subject which can be approached from different perspectives (e. and more likely to stick in students’ heads. and application of a theory to a text or situation.g. simpler texts need deeper treatment and vice versa. The use of popular culture does not alter this radically. Light relief aside. To show how Chinese philosophy is reﬂected in popular culture. I taught a course entitled “An Introduction to Chinese Thought”. The Matrix) or a broader subject with a tighter scope (e. while with easier texts. As a general rule. one of my colleagues recently gave a course on the ethics of entertainment). music and so on can be used as part of a course dealing with a more “academic” theme. help them practice the language from their readings (both orally and in their essays) and give good experience in applying theory to different situations. the extract from Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra mentioned earlier).
Teacher-student and student-student relationships
As mentioned before.g. For example. basing a course on an aspect of popular culture provides an alternative area of expertise for students which offsets the inequality within the class caused by 6
. while others teach what is largely a language course with an overall theme. students can spend more time evaluating the argument or identifying stylistic and rhetorical features. evaluation. Lao Tsu and Chairman Mao. Some teachers eschew speciﬁc language instruction as a departure from the CBI ideal. I always teach at least one lesson on articles in ﬁrst-year courses. In the case of a really hard text (e. with readings from authors such as Confucius. The time I was able to start with the question: “What is the difference between • The Matrix • the Matrix • the matrix • a matrix?”
Popular culture in other courses
It is not necessary to base an entire course on popular culture. In 101 classes I generally concentrate on three types of writing: summary (usually of more than one text). Choosing writing tasks is a matter of blending the course objectives with the texts and themes of the course. For example. but obviously essay types will vary according to the needs of students. popular ﬁlms. A similar consideration applies to choice of texts. though it can make language instruction more entertaining. since Turkish students always have problems with articles. such excursions into popular culture help motivate students..
The role of language instruction in CBI is always problematic. simple comprehension might be a sufﬁciently challenging task.
but the Matrix course resulted in a startling increase in electronic communication. Aside from the solidarity it provides (which is not fundamentally different from that provided by. Naturally. The best antidote to this. it is easier for a student to explain that she has been missing classes because her boyfriend has a drug problem (to cite an actual example) if she has already spent a fair amount of time discussing the possibility that we are living in a matrix. a potential danger related to content is that the teacher may choose an aspect 7
. since students will be all too happy to divert a lesson which supposed to about language into a conversation about ﬁlm or music. as I mentioned earlier. instant messages (via ICQ. this also breaks the ice. the warm fuzzy end of the TEFL world makes much of the idea of community. This tends to create a sense of community in the class – a community in which the teacher is a member. This sense of common interest leads to greater student-student interaction in the classroom. but in terms of content. as valuable sources of information and opinion.
Problems and pitfalls
One danger inherent to all CBI courses is becoming caught up in content. For example. since many of them will know more about some aspects of the content than the teacher does. the best approach is to limit the media. it is all too easy for us to spend too much time talking about the content area and not enough time teaching language and academic skills. and not give out their ICQ number at all. a simple question about the course developed into an hour-long online conversation about Gothic ﬁction). but in terms of details of the ﬁlms. and not just the teacher. The teacher is still an authority on language and academic conventions. in that a student who might not normally e-mail their teacher to ask about APA citation format or the use of the semi-colon might be more inclined to do so after an exchange about Keanu Reeves’ acting skills. Of course. students see each other. knowledge is shared. restrict e-mails to academic and administrative issues. Many of these concerned practical course-related issues (“When is our ﬁnal draft due?”). Since we naturally choose our content area according to our personal interests. 1978). AIM etc. Aside from creating another opportunity to use English. a teacher may set up an online forum for discussing issues related to the content of the course. but it is preferable to create this community through common interests rather than by artiﬁcial (and often highly embarrassing) exercises to promote “caring and sharing” in the classroom (Moskowitz. Of course not all teachers will want to spend this much time on electronic communication. many were able to answer questions from other students which had me ﬂummoxed. Baudrillard than the students. say. in the case of the Matrix course I knew more about. say.different levels of language. It also has the effect of narrowing the gap between students and the teacher. This problem may become more serious when we chose as our content area an aspect of popular culture which both we and the students ﬁnd fascinating. supporting the same football team).) or (more rarely) posts to an online forum I had set up. is to try as far as possible to link the content and the skills. This can spill over into an increase in the quantity and intensity of out-of-class communication. I have always exchanged a fair amount of e-mail with students. rather than simply transmitted. but a large number concerned the content of the course (“What do you think about the scene when Neo meets the Architect?”) and others went on from there to more general topics (for example. In such cases. In contrast. It may also make students more open about discussing academic problems not related to language. Hardly an evening went by in which I did not receive a number of e-mails.
Despite its problematic aspects. If a course is based around ﬁlm or music. you risk ending up with a class full of students who are only there because the other classes are full. creates a sense of community in the classroom. “Alienation and the will to power: deconstructing the postmodern video game”). it is worth dispelling this illusion before students sign up for the course. students may get the impression that they will spent most of their time watching ﬁlms and listening to music. and may look askance at your proposal for a course on video games. If your content area is too obscure. and provides a nonthreatening content-base from which students can embark into the more challenging world of academia. Even when students have a choice.of popular culture which he or she ﬁnds fascinating but which is anything but popular with the students. It stimulates students’ interest in the course. either as a primary content area or a sub-theme in other courses. As mentioned earlier. Unless you are the noble kind of teacher who actually prefers teaching a class full of “at risk” students. it is important to choose a theme which enough students will choose to study.
. popular culture can provide good material for CBI courses.g. A ﬁnal consideration is face validity. and of course there is no harm in throwing a few academic-sounding words into your course title (e. though. students are looking for an enjoyable course. In contrast. whether students are able to choose between courses based on different content is an important factor. Administrators like courses to look serious. If you do not have free reign over your course content. it is worth collecting a few “heavy” academic texts to show your head of department or director of studies.
Educational Practice Report 11.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/hollywood. D.R.ncela. (A. Salon arts and entertainment.edu/pubs/ncrcdsll/epr11. Keanuvision. Retrieved June 15. (2003) Unravelling the Matrix mythos. J.gwu.: Newbury House Publishers  Owen. (2000) Mythologies.html 2003 from
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