Unpopular Culture
Graduate students, risky topics, and professional cachet
Shannan Palma, Graduate Student, Women’s Studies and Graduate Editorial Assistant, The Academic Exchange

VVol. 9 No. 5
April 2007

Return to Contents

Purchasing Power
Managing Emory's endowment for the present and future

What is an endowment?

Asset allocation of Emory's endowment

“I tried to think of issues that the faculty might bring to the investment committee, and it's difficult to find one.”

“We want to spend today and benefit the students and faculty of today, but we don't want to do that at the expense of the next generation.”

Is Movie Science All Wet?
Tsunamis, global warming, and other film disasters

Unpopular Culture
Graduate students, risky topics, and professional cachet

Further reading

100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way
William M. Chace, President Emeritus and Professor of English


What are you working on?” is a ritual greeting among academics—but if the answer involves television, hip-hop, romance novels, science fiction, new media, or any other of the infinitely varied projects Emory graduate students currently pursue, reactions may include dismay, dismissal, or condescension, as much as delight, interest, or respect.

An unresolved tension persists around the place of the popular in the contemporary academy. Students who articulate a desire
to study popular culture are admitted to traditional programs, as well as innovative ones like the Institute for Liberal Arts. We
write dissertations, earn doctorates, even find jobs, and yet the long-term security of these jobs—specifically, our projects’ professional cachet when it comes time for tenure review—remains a topic of gnawing doubt.

So why risk it? I can only offer my own reasons, filtered through conversations with like-minded peers until I am sure they are at least not completely idiosyncratic, though perhaps not universal. At the basis of this choice lies the conviction of epistemological
relevance. In 1994, pedagogical theorist Henry A. Giroux wrote, “films, books, journals, videos, and music in different and significant ways did more to shape my politics and life than did my formal education, which always seemed to be about somebody else’s dreams.”

As the popular becomes more explicitly interactive, this shaping may begin to feel (falsely perhaps) more intimate; calling up, ironically maybe, a passion once theorized for academics. In 1973, French semiotician Roland Barthes published his moving tribute to literary criticism, The Pleasure of the Text, calling for texts that were “writerly,” that seduced the reader into incorporating her own experiences and reactions, as the popular did with Giroux. Barthes called the moment when this occurred
jouissance, bliss: “What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again.”

Nowadays, interactive technologies allow for literally “writerly” texts, blurring the lines between producer and receiver of the popular. Viewers of American Idol can call in to vote for their favorite contestant. Fans of the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica can download a podcast by the executive producer after each episode, hear his commentary on its production, as well as his evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses, and, occasionally, his comments on their emailed critiques.

The popular takes shape across multiple media on an infinite number of fronts, and for some scholars, form or structure may be more interesting than content. Look at the work of Wendy Doniger, director of the Martin Marty Center and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at University of Chicago, whose latest book incorporates analysis of texts from the Mahabarata to Total Recall in order to make a structural argument about myth. For others, it might be the overlapping or sequencing of ephemeral phenomenon in a particular context that signifies something. In rare cases, content, form, and context lead to so many critical approaches that a new nexus of study develops. There has been
so much scholarly attention to the cult show Buffy the Vampire Slayer that multiple academic conferences that have been pulled together around the world.

Graduate students who theorize from the popular are thus following in rather large footsteps. It is one thing, however, to use one’s reputation to point out the importance of the popular, and another to try and build one’s reputation on it. Timing is everything.

And so, again, why risk it? Why not utilize less interdisciplinary
methods early on? Why not employ the same theoretical paradigm in more traditional areas? There are no guarantees for any career, but there are safer bets. In less than twenty-four hours, the popular can cut through homes across the wired world like a digital whirlwind, sweeping away the fads not tethered down after its last pass. However ephemeral the object of study, if the project itself has your theorized significance, it will still be relevant in seven to ten years. Why not wait?

When I began talking to my colleagues about this essay, I expected to hear about the importance of passion and drive in a book-length project, or the fear that someone else might write your book. I had my own reasons, but I certainly did not expect to hear them echoed back at me.

It kept coming back to that conviction of the popular’s epistemological relevance. Such conviction (it has a most zealous quality) leads people down a strange path, because when they acknowledge how their own knowledge is constituted in and from the popular, and experience the jouissance of engaging with the popular as a critical participant, they begin to see its potential as a medium for constituting their own ideas and forms of knowledge for transmission to others. With everyone I talked to about timing, teaching came up as a primary motivator for incorporating the popular right from the beginning of the academic career. After all, there is no reason to limit uses of the popular in the classroom to the study of a particular phenomenon (such as Buffy). It can be used to facilitate understanding abstract ideas as well, through example.

Connecting students’ studies to their passions harnesses the excitement, the jouissance, of engagement with the popular as a source of infinite writerly texts. It generates enthusiasm and demonstrates on the spot the relevance of the academy outside the classroom. It trains them to apply the critical skills they are learning to other aspects of their lives.

On the first day of my spring intro class, I showed students the opening scene from the pilot of the television show Bones. The opening moments of a television pilot are designed to transmit as much information as possible in as short a span of time as possible. Gender, race, clothes, body language, dialogue, mise-en-scene—everything that appears on the screen is designed to grab the viewer’s attention and keep her interest, to shape and time her reactions, to tell her who to root for and who to despise. I asked students to take notes on what they learned from and about each character while watching the clip, and we then
discussed how they knew what they knew. They learned how to talk about the process by which meaning is constituted through signs as a form of epistemology. They began to recognize how
their perceptions are formed by processing race, gender, class,
sexuality, and so forth as codes. It was a good first day.

The popular, like any avenue for scholarship, means different things to different people, and the motivations of graduate students pursuing projects located there are surely various, including many more than I have even begun to broach here. And yet I cannot help but think that the number of scholars pursuing popular culture will only continue to rise. Will our work gain in capitol as our numbers increase? Will we find career longevity in the academy?

I’m betting on it.