Syllabi for 10 Real College Pop-Culture Classes We’d Love to Take

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We’ve all heard of Physics for Poets and Rocks for Jocks, but a few college classes skip the pretense of hard science altogether and get straight to the fun stuff. While these courses may not get you into medical school, they’ll leave you well-prepared for any cocktail party conversation, as long as you go to the kind of cocktail party where guests talk shop about Harry Potter and Joss Whedon. Best of all, many pop culture classes post their syllabi online, making it easy for those of us too old for frat parties to join in on the fun. We compiled the best classes on TV, music, and even video games that colleges have to offer, including a selection of readings so you can hit the books without doing the whole midterm-and-paper thing. Read on for the highlights; it’s just like college, but all electives and absolutely no math!

“California, Here We Come”: The O.C. and the Self-Aware Culture of 21st Century America

School: Duke University

Course Description: “‘Everybody is hyper self-aware. We live in a post-everything universe.’ – Josh Schwartz, executive producer of The O.C. and Gossip Girl

“If Josh Schwartz is correct in saying that we live in a post-everything universe, a post-postmodern world, how do you innovate? You do it with a nerdy, comic-book-reading, plastic-horse-loving, half-Jewish sailor with a keen taste in music named Seth Ezekiel Cohen. Seth inhabits the land of Southern California, where cardio barre, yogalates, and rehab are not so much the vernacular as they are facets of quotidian Orange County life.

“‘Welcome to the OC, bitches. This is how it’s done in Orange County.’ Welcome to a world where popular culture is turned on itself, where alcoholism is as normal as high school, where Death Cab for Cutie went ‘mainstream’ and liked it, where guns, sex, social awkwardness, cage fighting, and rage blackouts can’t tear apart the fantastic foursome of characters that rules like the royal family. (Everyone on the show is related in some way or another by the end of 2007). We’ll explore the ‘hyper self-awareness’ unique to The O.C. and analyze Californian exceptionalism and singularity in history and popular culture, girl culture, 21st century suburban revivalism, the indie music scene, the meta-series, and more. We’ll go on the excessive journey of the foursome that captured the hearts of millions and changed teen television dramedies forever. Get out your surfboards (or skateboards, if you’re more a land shark). California, here we come.

“Don’t get settled in Newport Beach though. We’ll also travel south to Laguna Beach, behind the gates of Orange County’s private neighborhoods of the Real Housewives, up to The Hills of LA, to get like, really real, and finally to New York City for a serene(a) ride to get out of the bla(i)ring sun.

“You know you’ll love it, xoxo Your Instructors”

Sample Readings:

Bullen, Elizabeth. “Who is Ryan Atwood? Social Mobility and the Class Chameleon in The O.C.”

Berridge, Susan. “Serialised Sexual Violence in Teen Television Drama Series.”

Douglas, William. “Television Families: Is Something Wrong with Suburbia?”

Urban America & Serial Television: Watching The Wire

School: Middlebury College

Course Description: “Frequently hailed as a masterpiece of American television, The Wire shines a light on urban decay in contemporary America, creating a dramatic portrait of Baltimore’s police, drug trade, shipping docks, city hall, public schools, and newspapers over five serialized seasons. In this course, we will watch and discuss all of this remarkable — and remarkably entertaining — series and place it within the dual contexts of contemporary American society and the aesthetics of television. This is a time-intensive course with a focus on close viewing and discussion, and opportunities for critical analysis and research about the show’s social contexts and aesthetic practices.

“The goals of this course are two-fold. First, we hope to understand The Wire in the context of its medium: how does it fit within and go beyond the norms of television? What makes it distinct from other media? Second, we will examine the show’s portrayal of urban America as a window into a number of social problems and conditions distinct to contemporary society, including the drug war, the underclass, urban policies and development, post-industrial cities, political corruption, urban education, and mass media coverage. How does The Wire get us to understand, and to feel, these conditions in a novel and affecting way? And where does it leave us, in terms of the potential for solving these social ills?”

Sample Readings:

Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.

Simon, David, and Burns, Edward. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.

Moskos, Peter. Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District.

Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame

School: University of South Carolina

Course Description: “Within a framework of the sociology of popular culture and music, this course focuses on the rise of Lady Gaga to her status as a pop music icon. The central objective of this course is to unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga. Specific attention will be devoted to the role of: business and marketing; entertainment law; the old and new media; fans and live shows; gay culture; religion and political activism; sex and gender; and the city of New York.

“This is not a course in music or cultural studies. Although some familiarity with the artistry of Lady Gaga will be useful, this course instead focuses on the societal contexts of Lady Gaga’s rise to fame. These social issues, furthermore, are explored from a scholarly perspective that is grounded in the theoretical traditions of sociology. Thus, this is not a course in Lady Gaga but in sociology; and it is not a course about Lady Gaga as much as about the culture of the fame as exemplified by the career of Lady Gaga.”

Sample Readings:

Deflem, Mathieu. “Marketing Monster: Selling the Fame of Lady Gaga.”

Martin, Peter J. Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music.

Corona, Victor P. “Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga.”

Vampires in Literature and Film

School: Harvard Extension School

Course Description: “The vampire is everywhere in popular culture in novels such as the Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse series, young adult literature like The Twilight Saga, television series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Ultraviolet, and The Vampire Diaries, as well as short fiction, comic books, graphic novels, and films. Although this mythic creature has existed for thousands of years, at no other time has it been more prevalent or represented in such an intriguing variety of ways. How can we account for the popularity, adaptability, and unique appeal of the vampire figure? With what fears and fantasies in the human psyche does it connect? And in terms of literary genre, how do we classify these increasingly diverse works? In addition to their place in the horror genre, vampire stories have been used as “code” to address a host of provocative topics, including sexuality, death and immortality, gender roles, HIV-AIDS, addiction, immigration, religious doubt, power and economic exploitation. Most surprising, the vampire has morphed from a terrifying figure of pure evil to a handsome, self-hating outsider who longs for community with humans. The course explores the many aspects of this evolution, from its origins in the gothic tradition to its recent incarnation as hip urban fantasy and paranormal romance. We also consider the implications of the vampire myth from anthropological, psychoanalytical, and socio-political perspectives. Readings include the early vampire stories of Coleridge, Byron, Polidori, LeFanu, and Stoker; and the more recent fiction of Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Rachel Caine, Tom Holland, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Elizabeth Kostova, Stephenie Meyer, and Seth Grahame-Smith. Theoretical works by Freud, Auerbach, and others assist us in our investigation.”

Sample Readings:

Rice, Anne. Interview with a Vampire.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire-Hunter.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight.

South Park and Contemporary Social Issues

School: McDaniel College

Course Description: “Over 12 seasons and more than 180 episodes, the cartoon show South Park has never avoided discussing controversial contemporary social issues. Often controversial itself, South Park uses humor to explore issues such as immigration, gay marriage, terrorism, and hundreds more. This course is an interdisciplinary approach towards extending and deepening the discussions already present in the show. Using historical and contemporary texts, theories, and concepts from sociology and philosophy, this course will address issues such as race, gender, sexuality, consumerism, and many more. Ultimately, students will gain a deeper understanding of how to analyze and critically think through the very real social problems addressed by the television show as well as gain new knowledge of the benefits of applying an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary social issues.” Full syllabus available online.

Sample Lectures (No Textbooks Listed):

“Muslims in America and Ginger Kids”

“Sexism and Meta-South Park”

“Social Construction of Reality and Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina”

Videogame Theory and Analysis

School: MIT Open Courseware

Course Description: “This course will serve as an introduction to the interdisciplinary academic study of videogames, examining their cultural, educational, and social functions in contemporary settings. By playing, analyzing, and reading and writing about videogames, we will examine debates surrounding how they function within socially situated contexts in order to better understand games’ influence on and reflections of society. Readings will include contemporary videogame theory and the completion of a contemporary commercial videogame chosen in consultation with the instructor.

“Writing, reading, and playing will be heavy, but students will also be required to present game analyses at each class meeting, providing other students with the opportunity to observe a wide variety of game genres, play styles, and designed rule systems. By examining games together in class, we will discuss how various theories of game design and play are applied to games as texts. Students will be invited to present out-of-game learning and literacy activities as data that show how games are used and played in their organic settings; we will study the implications of these data as well.” Full syllabus available online.

Sample Readings:

Devane, B., and Squire, K.D. “The Meanings of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

Juul, J. “The Game, The Player, The World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.”

Frasca, G. “Simulation Versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.”

Welcome to the Whedonverse: Exploring Popular Culture Through the Works of Joss Whedon

School: West Virginia University

Course Description: “This section of English 258 is not a historical investigation of popular culture, nor is it an introduction to American culture generally. This section is focused on contemporary culture and assumes cursory knowledge of said culture; we will not be investigating the origins or history of American Popular Culture, though we may certainly reference this history as we consider how the past has influenced the present. Throughout this course, students will 1) study what is meant by the phrase “pop(ular) culture”; 2) be introduced to a series of critical methodologies to guide them through cultural texts; 3) enhance their understanding of American popular culture and the way that it shapes our perceptions and definitions of “American”; 4) practice critical thinking and writing about culture; and 5) begin to understand the role of genre in popular culture and its role in forming narratives.” Full syllabus available online.

Sample Readings:

Whedon, Joss. Astonishing X-Men: Ultimate Collection Vol. 1.

Storey, John. “What Is Popular Culture?”

Killoran, Ellen. “Can We Talk About Cabin in the Woods Yet? Crossing the Thorny Terrain of Spoiler Etiquette.”

Harry Potter and the Curse of International Fame

School: Ball State University

Course Description: “This both is and is not a course “about” the Harry Potter books. It is mostly a look at why this series of children’s books has quickly achieved world-wide recognition and whether that popularity is justified. To that end, we will naturally read all five of the Harry Potter books in print, along with selected handouts from the realms of literary criticism, news reporting, and popular culture. In short, ours is not to memorize the rules of Quidditch, but to contemplate who does and why.” Full syllabus available online.

Sample Readings:

Wu, Tim. “Harry Potter and the International Order of Copyright.”

Schoefer, Christine. “Harry Potter’s Girl Trouble.”

Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.”

Topics in Comparative Media: American Pro Wrestling

School: MIT Open Courseware

Course Description: “This class will explore the cultural history and media industry surrounding the masculine drama of professional wrestling. Beginning with wrestling’s roots in sport and carnival, the class examines how new technologies and changes in the television industry led to evolution for pro wrestling style and promotion and how shifts in wrestling characters demonstrate changes in the depiction of American masculinity. The class will move chronologically in an examination of how wrestling characters and performances have changed, focusing particularly on the 1950s to the present. Students may have previous knowledge of wrestling but are not required to, nor are they required to be a fan (although it is certainly not discouraged, either).” Full syllabus available online.

Sample Readings:

Jenkins, Henry III. “Never Trust a Snake: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama.

Craven, Gerald, and Richard Moseley. “Actors on a Canvas Stage: The Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling.”

Trujillo, Nick, et al. “A Night with the Narcissist and The Nasty Boys: Interpreting the World Wrestling Federation.”

Theories of Popular Culture

School: University of Utah

Course Description: “This course examines the ways in which ‘genre’ (in the pop culture sense of genre fiction or genre film) is defined and troubled by its media, as well as the ways by which this genre-media intersection underscores or undermines important social, economic, political categories. We will examine works of film, television, and fiction in the Western, Science Fiction, and Detective/Noir traditions in conjunction with the theory devoted to them and which they have themselves suggested or created. In conclusion, we will look at the explosion of internet fanfiction in the Romance genre, examining its legal status, the way it supports or undermines notions of originality and copyright, what constitutes character, ownership, literature or pornography, the boundaries of a story or genre, and other questions you raise. Then through a historical perspective on ‘fanfiction’ vs. retelling, we will theorize the differences and continuities between the contemporary web-based phenomenon and historical models.”

Sample Readings:

Todorov, Tsvetan. “The Typology of Detective Fiction.”

Haraway, Donna. “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.”

Selected fanfiction, including “Becoming Bella Swan,” by BellaFlan, and “Master of the Universe,” by Snowqueens Icedragon (now Fifty Shades of Grey).