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Breaking the Academic Stigma Surrounding Pop Culture Studies

Joe Darowski argues that pop culture can have as much literary value as traditional canon.

Funko Pop figurines and comic books—not what most people expect to see on a professor’s office shelf. But these are the tools of the trade for Professor Joe Darowski (English). The English Department’s recent decision to add Media and Culture Studies as one of the new English major tracks has sparked interest in the legitimacy of studying pop culture in a university setting. Dr. Darowski’s expertise in this area as an adjunct professor specializing in contemporary American pop culture and media studies gives him a unique perspective to comment on these debates. He believes that pop culture deserves to be seen as a legitimate academic field, and that students will find value in studying it at the university level.

What Does Pop Culture Contain?

Pop culture includes any mass-produced and mass-consumed entertainment. Darowski explains that academics who study pop culture apply the same critical and analytical skills and theories to pop culture objects such as graphic texts, film, and merchandise as they would apply to a traditional text.

Many cultural aspects of society disappear over time: clothing trends, current events, slang, types of humor, popular sentiment. Pop culture preserves those aspects like a time capsule, showing the culture of a specific time and place that mainstream media of the time often misses. Pop culture tends to address taboo topics and be more representative of what people really think. It also includes new forms of media that haven’t become commonly accepted yet, such as comic books, graphic novels, and slam poetry. The study of pop culture can reveal all this preserved information about society.

What Is the Debate Surrounding Pop Culture?

Many academics question if pop culture merits dedicated scholarship and teaching. There are always quite a few English classes that focus on classic works that have been granted a place in the Norton Anthology—Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on. Classes that teach about pop culture specifically are less common. Some scholars are hesitant to teach pop culture because of its popularity, implying that what is appealing to a large audience must not be technically difficult or worthy of deeper analysis.

Professor Jamie Horrocks (English) became interested in pop culture studies when Darowski moved into the office next to hers. When she heard that Darowski studied comic books she became curious about the academic legitimacy of Darowski’s work. Through many back-and-forth discussions, Dr. Horrocks came to accept the value of pop culture. She and her colleague Professor Dennis Cutchins (English) discussed the value of pop culture, and Horrocks brought up how all literature began as pop culture. She used the genre elevation of the novel as an example. The novel was not always the legitimate form of literature that we see it as today. Horrocks says, “Novels were so trashy. When the novel was first invented it was the equivalent of a TikTok video. But today they are the primary literary format genre.” In this same way, pop culture that we see as trashy today may become a respected piece of literature in the future.

Why Is Pop Culture Valuable?

Darowski says, “[Pop culture] is such a force in American culture that it would be strange not to talk about it. The sheer number of people watching Marvel movies is impressive. Such movies start to become deeply personal for fans through repeated viewing, cosplay, and so on. Trying to understand why those movies are resonating to that degree with audiences is worthwhile.”

In considering why pop culture is worth studying, Dr. Cutchins points out that Shakespeare wrote plays the common man could enjoy. Both Shakespeare and Chaucer were the great pop artists of their contemporary cultures, yet we still find their work has literary value today. Similarly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (another pop culture icon) became American literary canon that we still study. Cutchins believes pop culture has an inherent value that is often obscured by its initial popularity.

Drawing an example of what he means from a classic Star Trek scene, Cutchins explains that “Spock returns to earth in our time (hundreds of years in his past) and sees a trashy novel, picks it up, and says, ‘Ah, the classics.’” A movie, comic book, or other form of pop culture may not be seen as valuable in the moment of its creation. But over time, it may rise in critical value. Darowski’s specialty is that he can see the value in a work at the time of its creation and popularity.

How Do We Measure Value?

Cutchins says, “It is bizarre and unaccountable how certain texts become important over time.” He explains that we measure the value of a piece of media in several ways, including the number of viewers, the profit generated, the time since creation, inclusion in literary anthologies, and the number of college courses taught about it. But how does the authority of seven million viewers stack up against the authority of the Norton Anthology? Both indicate value in different spheres, academia versus public opinion, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Some texts cross the divide and become both popular and seen as legitimate; for example, Maus is both a graphic novel and canonized in the Norton Anthology.

Darowski mentions how pop culture’s value can also be measured by what it teaches us about the time period of its creation. For example, why has Superman survived for over eighty years as a pop culture icon, and what does each new incarnation of his character say about us? Studying the Superman story told during World War II, the Superman story told during the Cold War, and the Superman story told post-September 11 reveals different values in each generation. Enduring stories share important messages about the people who perpetuate them, and these messages give pop culture value. Analyzing current pop culture can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves.

Why Should You Study Pop Culture?

When Darowski hands out his final paper assignment in his Writing 150 class, in which he emphasizes pop culture, he says, “There are probably a dozen different majors in this class. You are all going to do different things with your lives. I can’t give you a final assignment that is going to be applicable to every one of your majors, but most of you are going to go to a movie or watch TV again in your life after this. I’m giving you a tool set to think more deeply about the media that you are consuming, the entertainment you are choosing to pass your time with. I think that is a tool set everyone should have.”

Pop culture is everywhere—in our news media, film, music, advertising, local restaurants and grocery stores, on the radio, and in conversations with friends. So when you do come across pop culture, treat it like canonical literature, take a long look to see the nuanced messages it shares. You might be surprised at what you find.

You can learn more by listening to Joe Darowski’s weekly podcast called The Protagonist Podcast, where he discusses great characters from great stories.