Popular Culture Courses for Anthropology

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  • posted byLeah McCurdy
  • dateMarch 15, 2016
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In Part Two of an ongoing series, Leah McCurdy (University of Texas, San Antonio) provides an overview of how popular culture can be integrated into the university classroom.

Last month, I wrote about an interesting “creative connection” of J.R.R. Tolkien to archaeology and anthropology. Beyond curse tablets, stolen rings, and the “Bagginses,” I contend that there are some very relevant and intriguing threads to weave between imaginative literature and anthropology in teaching. In particular, the use of imaginative literature to structure an entire course can enliven long-term interest and encourage students to connect their personal passions with broadened academic awareness.


The classifications schemes of Scamander’s “Fantastic Beasts” could bridge into discussions of early biological, archaeological, and cultural classification systems which continue to influence modern anthropology.

I’m inspired by the up-and-coming genre of academic courses featuring popular culture generally and its relevance to many distinct disciplines. While very multivalent, such courses can pique student interest while they scroll the list of course offerings, as well as offer constant stimuli for students to maintain their interest over the semester. I am most familiar with the ways in which faculty at many institutions focus on the Harry Potter book series in such varied disciplines as political science, criminal justice, education, history, philosophy, gender studies, media studies, theology, general science, and even freshman orientation. I learned about this trend through the Mugglenet Academia podcast which invites professors to discuss their experiences teaching Harry Potter courses. These professors often remark on the incredible interest among students who snap up seats within an hour of open registration and eagerly apply for the wait list. I will return to the topic of Harry Potter and its wide-reaching relevance to anthropology in my next post.

The attraction of the intersection of popular culture and teaching in any discipline likely relates to the “self-referential effect” recognized by Rogers and colleagues (1977). This teaching strategy seeks to meet students on their own terms or in the arena of their own interests so that they may make personally valuable and sustainable connections to the disciplinary content at hand. The goal is to tap into the passion many students (not to mention professors) hold for their favorite books, films, or songs as bridges to academic topics. An article for onlineuniversities.com (2013) quotes educator Clay Morgan explaining this strategy in very approachable terms: “Let them tell you about their world and you’ll have a much easier time telling them about yours.” As an example, the same article describes an activity whereby students discuss the lyrics of a popular Lady Gaga song and translate those skills to analyze a Robert Frost poem. Further, professor of Harry Potter and Philosophy at Fordham University, Dr. Judith Jones, finds that her course is so well-received by students because it derives from “a pool of common knowledge” which makes for “expertise equal[ity]” between the students and professor (Klimaski 2012). Works like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Lady Gaga’s radio hits can be “shared texts” (Granger 2008) which invite students to feel comfortable in new classrooms and in exploring new arenas of understanding.

There are some important distinctions to make regarding popular culture and/or imaginative literature as an aspect of a course. First, what is the primary focal point of the course: popular culture or the academic discipline as a whole? There are many courses in media studies, sociology, or anthropology departments that focus on popular culture or media as a subject of inquiry and critical analysis. Here, I highlight courses in which introductory disciplinary understanding is the primary goal and popular culture serves as a lens through which to focus student attention and the development of their disciplinary knowledge. Another dimension to consider is the degree to which popular culture or literary subject matter dictate course content. As with the Harry Potter courses mentioned above, or courses like Philosophy and Star Trek at Georgetown University (see Pryor 2008) or South Park and Political Correctness at City University of New York, Brooklyn (see Syam 2012), a particular piece of media is integral to the purpose and nature of the course as a whole. This strategy is distinct from taking time in a philosophy survey course to mention “The Prime Directive” and ask students to explore relevant philosophical traditions. Also in the case of the J.R.R. Tolkien connection described in my recent post, popular culture does not necessarily need to be the frame of the class. In fact, most professors intersperse references to popular culture in individual lectures in a variety of effective ways. This is evident in many new textbooks such as Through the Lens of Anthropology (Muckle and Tubelle de González 2016) which incorporates small sections dedicated to explaining a topic or theory through the lens of popular culture. Beyond this sporadic strategy, there is an advantage to including specific references to the pop culture theme in the course title so students know that they will think and talk about Star Trek, South Park, or Harry Potter throughout the coming semester. Such courses can help to recruit non-majors and broaden the awareness of anthropology across a campus.

As with all teaching strategies, using popular culture or imaginative literature as a bridge to disciplinary content is not a perfect solution. Connections and content must be relevant and strong. If connections are weak, one may stumble into a “failed analogy” which distracts more than it engages students (Centellas 2010: 562). Some students may not take the activity, or the course, seriously if the bridges offered are too tenuous, or if they lack resonance (Clapton 2015). On the other hand, it is important to ensure that the popular culture content does not overshadow disciplinary topics of interest (ibid). If managed well and in the spirit of engaging education, popular culture courses can lead students to foster personally resonant connections to anthropology, deepen their understanding of the meaning, context, or impact of favorite works, and critically understand any new cultural phenomenon or literary work for which they develop a passion in the future.

In addition to the benefits for students, these courses also spice up the tasks of teaching, particularly if the subject matter is of deep personal interest. If you feel that you can discuss your favorite book or movie or comic series for days on end, it may be fruitful to capture such conversations in a classroom, and for the purpose of teaching anthropology to students who may otherwise not find their way into your courses. For any of you interested in integrating more pop culture references in your courses, I found a few interesting strategies in my searches. For example, Gambier and Carlson (2014) describe how they developed a semester-long activity based on The Hunger Games for an ethnobotany course. Pryor (2008) discusses several means to integrate popular culture into introductory biology (or biological anthropology) courses including “The Evolutionary Fitness Challenge” gameshow wherein students investigate the Darwinian fitness of “fit” Hollywood heroes or “The Evolution of Spam by Natural Selection” activity that explains concepts of natural selection and adaptive radiation through email spam, mailbox filters, and the permutations of spammer subject lines.

For those interested in developing courses fully founded on a pop culture theme, here is a list of courses (as mentioned in Craig 2014; Georgiou and Hawkes 2014; Pryor 2008; Syma 2012) already being offered as inspiration (and a bit of fun) in addition to those focused on Harry Potter catalogued on the Mugglenet Academia website under “Courses in Potter”:

Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé – Rutgers University

GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity – University of Virginia

Zombies in Popular Media – Columbia University

South Park and Political Correctness – CUNY Brooklyn

Philosophy and Star Trek – Georgetown University

Star Trek and Religions – Muhlenberg College

The Simpsons and Philosophy – Lebanon Valley College

The Science of Harry Potter or Harry Potter and Physics – Frostburg State University

Buffyology – Middle Tennessee State

Storytelling through Dungeons and Dragons – Rice University

Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay Z – Georgetown University

The Sociology of Miley Cyrus – Skidmore College

Sean Combs and Urban Culture – NYU

David Beckham Studies – Staffordshire University, UK

Feel the Force: How to Train in the Jedi Way (Open Learning Psychology) – Queen’s University, Belfast

Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular “Logic” on TV Judge Shows – University of California, Berkeley

Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond – San Diego State University


Centellas, Miguel. (2010). Pop Culture in the Classroom: American Idol, Karl Marx, and Alexis De Tocqueville. PS: Political Science & Politics 43(3), 561-565.

Clapton, William. (2015). Pedagogy and Pop Culture: Pop Culture as Teaching Tool and Assessment Practice. Popular Culture and World Politics.

Craig, Samantha. (2014). Pop Culture May Be(yoncé) The Future of Higher Education. NYULOCAL. April 18, 2014.

Gambier, Rosa M. and Jennifer L. Carlson. (2014). The Hunger Games, A Game to Introduce Ethnobotanical Diversity: Using Popular Culture in the Teaching and Learning of Ethnobotany for Liberal Arts Students. The 37th Society of Ethnobiology Annual Conference. [Abstract].

Georgiou, Mia and Rebecca Hawkes. (2014). Beyoncé Studies to Jedi Training: 11 pop-culture university courses. The Telegraph. August 26, 2014.

Granger, John. (2008). Book Binders: What I Learned about the Great Books & Harry Potter. Touchstone 21(10).

Klimaski, Joanna. (2012). Something Wicked to Keating Comes: Philosophy Class Taps Harry Potter to Illuminate Big Questions. Inside Fordham (February 27, 2012).

Muckle, Robert J. and Laura Tubelle de González. (2016). Through the Lens of Anthropology: An Introduction to Human Evolution and Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Pryor, Gregorys. (2008). Using Pop Culture to Teach Introductory Biology. The American Biology Teacher 70 (7).

Rogers, T.B., Kuiper, N. A., and Kirker, W.S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35, 677-688.

Staff Writers. (2013). Cool Teachers’ Guide to Pop Culture in the Classroom. Retrieved February 20, 2016. https://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2013/03/cool-teachers-guide-pop-culture-classroom/

Syam, Piyali. (2012). Tabloids or Textbooks? Popular Culture in the Classroom. Fordham Observer (March 7, 2012).

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