“Pop quiz, hot shot”: name the film or TV show associated with each of the following taglines: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” “With great power comes great responsibility.” “One ring to rule them all.” “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” “Winter is coming.” It’s likely you knew at least one of those popular—albeit potentially nerdy—lines, even if you’ve never seen the source. And this should come as no surprise, as in the last several years, the top grossing films have been comprised of movies from traditionally “geeky” genres: superhero, science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural films have dominated the lists for the last decade. Rather than being the genres favored by nerdy kids in their parents’ basements, these once-marginalized genres are now the cornerstone of popular culture. Our intensive focus will therefore be on films, television, novels, and short stories drawn from these popular genres, as we consider how these genres have evolved over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and what these changes signify about our own culture at any moment.
Although often derided as having less intellectual value than “high culture,” studying popular culture has the potential to reveal how society interprets itself, what the dreams and fears are of a culture at any particular historical moment. Although we’ll be analyzing works you likely have encountered previously and in less academic settings, we’ll be taking seriously the project of popular culture and what it can tell us about ourselves and our history. This class therefore has several, mostly intertwined, sometimes overlapping, and occasionally competing goals: 1) to gain an understanding of the history of popular culture and the history of theories of popular culture, primarily in the United States, primarily of the twentieth century (lectures, groups projects, and textbook readings will hope to accomplish this); 2) to survey a range of contemporary popular genres as well as their antecedents (the novels, short stories, films and television episodes will cover this territory) in order to understand both their historical development and distinctive formal features; 3) to provide a critical, scholarly framework for analyzing popular culture, especially regarding issues of race, gender, class, and nation (the theoretical readings from our textbook [and some additional on Canvas] are designed to enlighten us in this regard). Although much of our attention will be focused on the popular genres discussed above, through weekly student presentations we will also target a wider array of examples of popular culture, with music, advertising, video games, clothing, fan fiction, and so on all possibilities for discussion. In one way or another, we are all experts on popular culture, and consequently we’ll be drawing a great deal on each other’s expertise; therefore active, engaged participation will be an important part of the success of our class.
As mentioned above, we will be reading several novels, a few short stories, watching multiple films and episodes of television, as well as reading a great deal of theory about popular culture. In addition to the texts available at the bookstore, you will be responsible for watching several films/television shows outside of class; many will be available on reserve at Odegaard, but I also recommend having either a Netflix or Amazon Prime account for the quarter—several are available for streaming through these sites—or arranging some other way of viewing these films/series. Grading will likely be based on participation in discussion, weekly online discussion board postings, reading quizzes, two group presentations and projects, and two essays.
Available at UW Bookstore:
1. Guins, Raiford and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz. Popular Culture: Reader (Sage; ISBN: 978-0761974727)
2. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; ISBN: 978-0547928227