Shakespeare Used to be Popular Culture
I do not own the copyright/license to any of the visual content listed below. It is being used here as part of an educational demonstration and not solely for personal gain.
In a previous post, I wrote that general education courses are now becoming “weed-out” classes at the collegiate level. One remedy for this unfortunate by-product of a stripped-down test-taking high school agenda and media consumption is the use of popular culture as a teaching tool inside the classroom. However, many academic disparage popular culture, and miss the opportunity to introduce students to the classics that we all know and have come to love.
As a kid, I was introduced to this delicious cereal. It was called, Count Chocula. There was a companion cereal that I never tasted, Frankenberry. Each Saturday morning, I would see these commercials of the creepy, kid-sized County Chocula, and his gigantic, adult-sized friend/fiend Frankenberry. As a Saturday morning cartoon warrior, I had no idea that these beloved cereal mascots were canonical literary creations.
As a slightly older kid, I had a beloved monster series that I watched every afternoon on TBS. In fact, it was called, The Munsters.
Here were the same two characters from my cereal commercials. There was Grandpa, who looked like Count Chocula. There was the little boy, Eddie Munster, who was a baby Count. Then, there was Herman, who was a live-action Frankenberry.
Again, as a slightly older kid simply enjoying this somewhat strange family on hot, South Mississippi afternoons, I had no idea that these were canonical literary characters. I would not discover this until high school and my English teacher, Mrs. Boykin, made us all read Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound by Mary Shelley. At first, I dreaded it. Come on, I was a 16-year-old of the 1990s and the book was written when? But then, I said to myself that I’d grown up with Frankenstein since Count Chocula. Why not? I cracked the pages of this book and began a love affair with British literature that eventually introduced me to literature of the African Diaspora. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Frankenstein was not the monster’s name, but that of his creator. Imagine my wonder when I learned that Shelley wrote this as a competition one night! If “the monster’s” story were this compelling, what of Dracula’s story?
By the way, old chaps, if ever you wonder how a relatively large, Black woman from South Mississippi became absolutely obsessed with British literature, particularly British literature from the mid/late Victorian era to the post-colonial era, blame Count Chocula and Frankeberry! I am thankful for the days I spent as a child carnivorously consuming Saturday morning cartoons. I was introduced to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by a Saturday morning cartoon movie, and when I saw the writer, Robert Louis Stephenson, on the shelves of my local library, I checked him out -though I would not read the actual text until much later.
Of course popular culture has changed since the 1980s and 1990s. However, what has not changed about it is the opportunity it affords us to use it as a way to introduce our students to the types of things that they will read in academia. Many of us have been trained in canonical literature, the masters of art, all phases of classical music, classical architecture, and even the foundational theories of psychology/sociology/anthropology/archaeology. Now, these things are wonderful. The form the foundation of the Western humanities. Yet, they are also exclusionary in that they feature almost exclusively Western European and Greco-Roman culture (by the way, whatever happened to the Minoans that came before the Greeks?). They are overwhelmingly male. They are not outdated for today’s times, but foreign to today’s students. As stated in a previous post, many of our students do not understand this world. They may not have ever heard the word, “baroque,” let alone listened to the music of the era on a volunteer basis (Most schools have gotten rid of music programs, so Music Appreciation has become a difficult class for many students).
One way to introduce students to the kinds of topics they will be exploring in academia is through popular culture. I use it heavily to teach. Here’s an example: in African American literature, there is a prevalent concept called the trope of the talking book. For students who have learned nothing about slavery and have never read a slave narrative, this is a difficult concept. In order to show them that this concept continues to exist in African American culture, I use a Stevie Wonder album.
Again, many of the students have never seen this album cover, but they have heard the song, “Superstition.” They have heard many Stevie Wonder songs. They know him as a premier songwriter and begin their own conversation about his use of the trope “talking book.” The talking book, they discover, talks to several audiences and talks for the writer. If Stevie Wonder labeled his songwriting skill as the talking book style, who was he talking to and what was the book saying for him? I relate this back to the slave narrative. Who was the audience and what was the book to say? I tell the students to look at the subtitle, “Written by Himself/Herself,” which is incorporated in most slave narratives. Then the students are introduced to the term, “autoethnography.” Yes, the notion of the “collective I” is complicated and may seem foreign to them at first, but once the class is able to relate this to a song that they have heard on the radio, they want to learn more and read more. I could not get those same results without introducing them to the complicated nature of the popular culture that they all know and enjoy.
Of course, many academics, because we like the snob appeal of an advanced education, are condescending towards popular culture, feeling that it has nothing of value whatsoever to contribute. I remember sitting in a graduate school class, one that was based on literary theory. My colleagues and the students were absolutely shocked at the ease of my grasp of the theory (Looking back, it was absolutely racist. Their shock was that I, a Black woman, could understand this particular theory, when they, white people, could not). When I told them that I’d already been introduced to the concept by a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, they pealed with laughter and swore that I was lying. I was not. I’d already been introduced to the notion of vampirism in our society as a by-product of renegade capitalism by an episode of The Simpsons. But, I did not share that.
While I do not aim to throw shade at (a popular culture term) my colleagues, I do not think they understand how underexposed students today are to what was common knowledge or quintessential American cultural references. They become frustrated because the students do not seem to know anything and cannot seem to understand them, but they all scoff at me for using popular culture. As they stand around grumbling and complaining about today’s students or as they yell at the English department for not erasing four years of bad high school in 32 weeks, they continue to sneer at popular culture as a tool of learning. Imagine how stupefied they all are when I tell them that Shakespeare, The Bard, was considered popular, low art during his time. Actually, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe was considered The Tragedian of Elizabethan times (Wait, I’m a Black woman from Mississippi. I’m not supposed to know that, right?). Had Marlowe not gone and gotten himself stabbed to death at the age of 29, we’d be reading him, and not the terribly bawdy, popular culture writer of the Elizabethan age, Shakespeare.
You read me right: Shakespeare used to be popular culture. While my colleagues may thumb their noses at popular culture, it is a powerful tool for teaching. And if it means students’ successful completion of college, I am going to continue to use it. Does that mean that I am stripping down my academic rigor? No, to the contrary, I can introduce very complex topics in class using the shows and the music that students currently consume. Just two years ago, my students were able to have a frank discussion about the ambiguity of sex in a capitalist society and how women’s bodies are often reduced to anatomical parts in hopes of a sexual transaction. Love simply does not fit in capitalism. How did they arrive at such a conclusion? Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” How did they arrive at the malicious stereotypes of poor whites and Black women that have been in circulation since colonial times in America? Honey Boo Boo.
Look, as higher education professors, we can mourn the bygone days of when students were better prepared, or we can meet students where they are. For me, I choose not to wallow in pity, but to simply teach.
By-the-by, for those of you who are interested in using popular culture for teaching, one of my source books is a popular culture reader and I find it to be an invaluable tool. Since it is summer, I have somehow banished it and CANNOT find it at the moment. But come fall, I’ll be using it again!
This comes directly from my diary and not from a class per se. If you like it though, clap back (press the hands).