Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Teaching with Pop Culture

I was already intending to blog today about pop culture and teaching when I got distracted by a twitter conversation about the McDonald's peace.  Anyhow, I tend to use pop culture a lot to illustrate concepts in my courses, starting long ago by referring to and then showing the tractor scene in Footloose.

It come up yesterday three times, this tactic of using pop culture.  First, in my penultimate lecture of the term for the IR of Ethnic Conflict class, I buzzed through the regular lecture faster than I expected and ran out of material.  So, I opened up a set of slides from last year (when I mis-scheduled a bit the end of the term lectures and had to add at the last minute one more lecture) that applied the concepts of the course to Harry Potter.  It was heaps of fun and useful actually to demonstrate how some of the concepts might apply, including the nature of identity (constructed as half-bloods tended to be the leaders of the pure blood movement); causes of conflict (concerns about the fragility of the government and how it can be taken over by those who want to use its power for their own group); responsibility to protect (where were the non-UK wizards and witches when it came time to confront Voldemort); post-conflict reconciliation (do the Malfoys testify in truth and reconciliation commissions?).

Second, after my penultimate lecture in my big Intro to IR class, a student asked me why I did not use Breaking Bad references.  The first answer is that I was late to BB, only watching it last spring and summer.  Yes, there are applications, both in terms of the direct and obvious ones about transnational drug wars but also the less direct ones about:
  • trust and credibility in the absence of authority (Walt, Jesse, Gus)
  • playing an iterated game where the end outcome is known to be non-cooperative and working one's way back down the game tree--in other words, pre-emption, baby.
  • unintended consequences, oh my.
But I don't use BB because it is not as widely shared.  Over the course of time and with the fragmentation of pop culture, there are fewer and fewer shows and movies that play to most students.  All?  Never, but most?  Sometimes.  Old Star Trek used to work, but not anymore.  Star Wars?  I think so.  Harry Potter?  Yes, yes, yes.  Game of Thrones?  Nay.  Mad Men?  Not really.  Monty Python?  Sadly, no.

Third, I had beer and pizza with my large team of volunteer undergrad research assistants last night.  The beer was good and the pizza didn't exist so we had fried chicken pieces and fries instead.  But the topic of pop culture and teaching came up again, with the "why not use The Wire" question.  Again, there is heaps and heaps of material to use, again from the direct impact of globalization on the ports and cities as well as the transnational flow of drugs to bureaucratic politics to domestic politics to the classic scene where Stringer and Avon argue about whether territory is important in a world where the product is what matters most.  But again, how many undergrads have seen The Wire?  Plus, the language of that show is a bit harsh for a very large classroom.  One F or S word is one thing, but heaps of all of that and then some, hmmm.... may be not.  Still, my reticence about using Wire references is more about how far it plays. 

I will be thinking more about such stuff as the ISA conference in San Diego will feature a panel on pop culture and teaching IR with Drezner on Zombies, Pat James on Lord of the Rings, Charli Carpenter on Battlestar Galatica (I think, or maybe just the machines in general), Dan Nexon on Harry Potter, and myself as chair.  So, if you have questions you want me to ask of these folks as they rely on different sources to teach IR, let me know.

Until then, make mine Marvel.


Anonymous said...

Sectarian violence in Afghanistan?
Is the West leaving too soon?

Anonymous said...

Will Zombies ruin my day tomorrow?

Steve Saideman said...

Only if you are unprepared. I recommend a shotgun, semi-automatic handgun, and a pry bar.