In a music classroom on the quiet Catholic college campus, a group of students scribbled notes in the dark, their eyes intent on a 10-minute video.
“Take 30 seconds to collect your thoughts,” Professor Amy Hamlin told the class as the video concluded. They then launched into a discussion of postmodernism, film, and religious symbolism.
On the screen? Lady Gaga’s music video for “Telephone,” featuring Beyonce.
The video’s product placements, prison scenes and boyfriend killings are the point of this St. Catherine University course, titled “The Music and Image Monster: Lady Gaga in Context.”
The class is one example of courses with a specific pop-culture focus that are increasingly populating academia. Another offering at the St. Paul school: “Six Degrees of Harry Potter.”
Two University of St. Thomas professors teach an honors seminar on the TV series “The Wire.” Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., held one on Jay-Z.
The courses sound light, and the professors behind them are sometimes questioned about their seriousness. But like the pop-culture icons who inspired them, the classes illuminate knotty issues about life today and place the “fine art” that came before them in a new context.
“Think of classes that have a pop-culture ‘hook’ as that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down,” said Edward Schiappa, chair of the Communications Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.
When Schiappa taught a course on the TV series “Six Feet Under,” students got to watch HBO in class. But they also digested media theories like cultivation analysis, social learning, parasocial interaction and thanatology.
Texts for the Harry Potter class include “Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature.” The first thing students read in the seminar on “The Wire” is a chapter titled “The Construction of Ethical Codes in the Discourse and Criticism of Popular Culture.”
“I like such classes because if they are done right, the students not only learn about theories and research, but have a very lively example of how to apply such theories and ideas to the real world,” Schiappa said.
None livelier than Lady Gaga. Amy Hamlin, an assistant professor of art and art history, said that her view of the pop superstar moved from “Who is this charlatan?” to “Whoa, what is she doing here?” once she saw the video “Bad Romance.”
In it, Gaga performs as a white-and-diamond-clad plaything pushed into dancing for a group of drinking men. Mid-song, she sets fire to a bed and the man in it. The costumes turn from white to red and black. Crying turns to smiling.
“She was really pushing some buttons,” Hamlin said. “That video touches on things like conceptions of gender, our commodity culture, power in relationships.”