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Vol 40  No 9
January 31, 2008


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Contemplating consumer culture
by Heidi Wicks


Whether it’s the office Christmas do or a high school dance, the Saturday Night Live sketch you saw last week or the newest AKon rap ditty, popular culture seeps into everyday lives, well, every day.

In Elizabethan England, they quoted Shakespeare. In 21st century western civilization, it could be anything from Sir Ian McKellan to Jay-Z. However, it is perhaps more common for school-age children and young adults to refer to popular culture, and it is imperative for teachers to find ways that will help them better understand their students and the things that inspire them.

Dr. Ursula Kelly has taught Education 6106 – a graduate course — since her arrival at Memorial in 2001. The course is an elective for education students on the teaching and learning program, educational leadership and post-secondary. Each year it has reached capacity, and is one of the faculty’s most popular courses.

“The focus is on our attachments to and the meanings of consumer culture,” Dr. Kelly explained, “I work within a cultural studies context, resisting the harmful divisions between high culture and popular culture.

“For teachers from primary to high school, understanding their students’ and their own attachments to culture seems to be important,” she continued, “and it’s one of those courses where I think students not only gain insight into the students they teach, but they get to really understand those attachments.”

Some of the topics are based on where students are currently focusing their attention. Obvious places are Facebook, online teen therapy groups like Blue Kaffee, YouTube, and Wikis (an online web application which endorses a highly collaborative view of composition and creativity in research and writing).

“Hip-hop is an example,” Dr. Kelly said, “Many times people have this instant ‘I don’t like it’ response, and because of that it’s very difficult to talk about the history of it, what types of resistance are built into it, what might be positive about such resistance, and so on. We take a cultural form like that and look at it in a broad ranged way, and try to eliminate this simplistic view.”

Dr. Kelly said that traditional media tends to look at things rather defensively – consistently guarding youth against the evils of pop culture, which she doesn’t agree is always the best approach.

“Obviously, you will encounter things that are deeply disturbing, for example, violence in video games,” she explains, “Some people would argue that it increases bullying in the schoolyard. But that’s only one piece – I think there are more interesting, more provocative and profound pieces to investigate, like what game culture has to do with notions of personal and cultural identity.”

However, Dr. Kelly reiterates that the course is not about manipulation. Life isn’t movies, and most teachers are not Michelle Pfeiffer learning about rap in order to reach the kids in a heartbreaking, triumphant flash of glory (refer to the 1995 Hollywood film Dangerous Minds).

“The information we’re learning is not bait. It’s not the kind of thing where you say, ‘OK if I know why students read romance novels, then I can trick them into reading what I consider to be great literature,’” she clarified, “It is about the study of popular culture in its own right. When we understand, we’re less inclined to stereotype or dismiss, and more inclined to see things in a broader and more educational way. I think that’s key in great teaching.”

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