It’s Based on a True Story, Every Module, Every Week: Teaching World Civ since 1500 through Popular Culture Analysis

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:20 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Kristina Boylan, State University of New York Polytechnic Institute
In 2008 I designed a “Gender Issues in World History” course with the purpose of inviting students -- none of whom will major in history, and only a minority of whom major in social sciences or interdisciplinary studies with a humanities focus -- to explore gender as a “useful category of analysis,” in Joan Scott’s words. To fulfill General Education requirements the course followed a familiar periodization of World History since 1500 (strength of Asian empires, catalysts of European expeditions and expansion, emergence of Atlantic slave trade, inter alia). The trick was to make familiar topics and unfamiliar analysis engaging for the students. So, reporter Peter Kenyon’s fascinating coverage for National Public Radio of disparate reactions within and outside of Turkey’s parliament to the smash television drama “Magnificent Century,” inspired the use of popular culture sources — television shows and movies, including advertisements, graphic novels, comics, and cartoons — for every module. The course also includes an assignment based on close readings of key theoretical works, both on social markers like gender, race, and class, and on historiographic and other issues of scholarly writing (including an introduction to popular culture studies methodology), which guides their thinking and supports student production of independently-selected analytical research projects (in-class presentation, followed by a documented paper) on the popular culture artefact of their choice. I have taught the course this way four times—not without challenges, but with some success in encouraging careful re-examination of what we as media consumers think we know when we claim knowledge of genres (“I love manga,” “I watch foreign films all the time”) and when we have, even unwittingly, learned some history at the movies that needs to be unpacked.