Pop culture and academia: A marriage of convenience or of love?

by Michele Callaghan

TV is bigger than any story it reports. It’s the greatest teaching tool since the printing press.

—Fred Friendly, president of CBS news and one of the people behind the creation of public television

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching?

—Nicholas Johnson, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission

A time-traveling alien passing himself as a doctor? A brilliant alcoholic superhero with a robotic interface? A boy reporter solving international crimes with the aid of his faithful white dog? Since coming to Hopkins I have edited books on the three mentioned above: Doctor Who, Iron Man, and Tintin. I have also helped bring Batman, HBO’s The Wire, and other pop phenoms to life for an academic audience. As a teaser, I will say this: Stay tuned, there is more of this type of literary hybrid on tap in upcoming seasons.

To paraphrase the old pick-up line, “what’s a nice pop icon like you doing in a place like this?” Should institutions dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge publish books on characters from movies, TV shows, and comics? Do “lowbrow” art forms just dumb people down, the opposite of what a university press should be involved with? I think there are two issues at the heart of these questions: Is it fair to divide culture into different levels, with certain things being considered worthwhile and others of no value? And, if you feel that there should not be such a distinction in general, should academic institutions be held to a higher standard than should trade book publishers?

The first question is for curators of art and other media. Any student of art or literature knows that the boundaries between what is seen as great art and shocking trash is constantly changing. Look at Vincent van Gogh, who barely sold a picture during his life, or Percy Shelley, who was on the outs with the literary society of his time. So, clearly curators can guess wrong or tastes can change.

As for the second, increasingly professors and others are using works familiar to students to put larger societal matters in perspective. One such example is former Baltimore public health commissioner Peter Beilenson’s course on The Wire here at the Johns Hopkins University. Other examples include courses on Lady Gaga at the University of South Carolina and on Dave Chapelle at Vassar! Perhaps these professors are reverting to an idea that dates to ancient times, that of using parables and fables to get at a higher truth. If academia uses this tool, then shouldn’t academic presses be able to publish books based on pop culture?

And, just because we use something as a teaching tool, doesn’t mean we condone its message. On the contrary, Honey Boo Boo and other toddlers competing in high-stakes beauty pageants can train child psychologists in recognizing proper boundaries between parents’ aspirations and children’s needs. The Kardashians and other “reality” show husbands and wives can hold their own with any eighteenth-century comedy of manners or Dickens novel in skewering the foibles of our class structures. But sometimes the value of both the medium and the message is clear, as when the comics character Iron Man defines the limits—and abilities—of the human body, when television’s Doctor Who shows us truths behind how the universe works, and when the boy and his dog reveal the man who created them and the complex age in which he lived.

Well, I know my opinion of this issue: I was primed for my role as go-to girl for editing books on pop culture at an academic press by my parallel upbringings as the daughter of a professor and as a lifelong fan of television sleuths and chefs and comic book superheroes. And I definitely feel that learning always goes a little better with a spoonful of sugar, as that other pop icon Mary Poppins says. What do you think?