Props for Pop

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Pop Culture in Education, a new course in the School of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, uses everything from Chris Rock monologues to the latest video games to show how pop culture colors our social discourse.

Signs of popular culture on campus are as ubiquitous as energy drinks and iPods. “Pop culture serves as a great common point of understanding,” says Josh Diem, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Education. “Often it gets students to open up to other interpretations of things they already think they understand.”

Diem is harnessing that power with Pop Culture in Education, a new Department of Teaching and Learning course he launched recently. His hip multimedia survey uses everything from Chris Rock monologues to a book about Columbine to the latest video games to show how pop culture colors our social discourse on a grand scale—and why it matters. “It’s not just about the artifacts or the pop culture creations but about critiques of them,” says Diem. “If you don’t use pop culture in a meaningful way, or a way that pushes students, they become disinterested. They don’t need to come to class to talk about that stuff—it’s their life.”

When he covered “Video Games: Brain Drain for Profit and Mind Control, Recreation, Stimulation, All, None, or Combination,” Diem also set up two games on a Wii. One was all guns and grenades, the next fairy princesses and tiaras. As two guys faced off in the first, Diem questioned the class about everything from gender and sexual identity roles to the game’s unspoken rules. “Are you supposed to be shooting each other?” he asked. “Why?”

This is more than just fun and video games for Diem, a former social worker with a Ph.D. in education. He says linking popular entertainment platforms to scholarly texts, academic papers, and critical assignments spurs students to “make a connection between larger social theoretical frameworks and issues that are going on in culture,” everything from sensationalism and stereotypes in the media to corporate control and prejudice. “I don’t want them to buy into or believe any one particular thing,” he notes. “But I do want them to open up to the possibility that not only are there alternative views and ideas to the dominant popular culture, but that they’re worth thinking about.”

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