- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

NEW YORK — One of the trendier fields of study is American culture, and there's a cottage industry of professors that's sprung up to teach it. Close to 1,600 people showed up at the recent annual meeting in Toronto of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association Conference to pool notes on their craft. One past president says culture studies should have been included on university curriculums decades ago.
"Pop culture has this enormous impact on American life, and everyone from [North Carolina Sen.] Jesse Helms to Janet Reno agrees on that," says Robert Thompson, who directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Of all places, the university should concentrate on this much more than they do. The university left one of the most interesting pieces of real estate in American life to other people. The early histories of film and TV were not written by academics."
But that was then. Today, academics like English professor Laura Gray-Rosendale use movies like "Fight Club" or TV shows like "Gilmore Girls" to introduce students to rhetorical analysis and argumentation at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
"We can't separate Aristotelian logic from our everyday situations," she says. "When we are talking about ads and how they are put together, we are talking about rhetorical appeals; how it appeals to our emotions, sense of logic and our character."
Marcus Librizzi, who teaches English at the University of Maine in Machias, offers a course on conspiracy theories.
"They are a defining motif in the American experience," he says, citing the Salem witch trials, anti-Masonic theories of the early 19th century and the burning question that consumes his students: Were the moon landings faked?
Conspiracy theories "reflect responses to alienation," he says, "the feeling of being disconnected to self, society or the past. In the conspiratorial view, there are no accidents. Everything is linked together. The individual who can figure things out also feels empowered."
Another pop culture maven is Fordham University sociologist Michael Cuneo, whose idea of field research is interviewing passengers while he drives a taxi, hanging out with hobos and delving into hillybilly murders in the Ozarks.
"Usually I'm hanging out at a 24-hour Denny's or a Waffle House chain-drinking coffee and writing my field notes up," he says while lunching at a moderately highbrow Manhattan restaurant. "I feed off the adrenaline of New York. It's suited to my temperament."
Mr. Cuneo is actually Canadian, but he fishes about the lower 48 to enlighten students about the kind of iconic trends that dominate the world.
"Rock 'n' roll, jazz music and blues they could have only emerged out of the United States," he says. "The combination of African, Indian and down-home influences; you can't imagine Elvis Presley being from anywhere other than Memphis, Tennessee. ['Beat Generation poet] Jack Kerouac couldn't have come from anywhere else than the Atlantic states."
Although natives may be used to the flora and fauna of American life, to the foreigner, life in the States is like stepping into a rainbow. Mr. Cuneo's favorite spots are corners of the country like Spokane, Wash.; Yuma, Ariz.; and Springfield, Mo. They are cauldrons of the "intrinsic fascination, vibrancy and internal dramas" of the American scene, he says.
"I love the roads, the highways, the 24-hour gas stations, the ordinary people you encounter," he says. He is writing a book on a triple murder involving backwoods methamphetamine makers in the Ozarks. He just came out with another, "American Exorcism," about how casting out demons has become commonplace among American Christians.
"Whatever one's personal problem depression, anxiety, substance addiction or even a runaway sexual appetite there are exorcism ministries available today that will happily claim expertise for dealing with it," he writes. "Personal engineering through demon-expulsion: a bit messy perhaps, but relatively fast and cheap, and morally exculpatory. A thoroughly American arrangement."
Mr. Thompson says it is studies of America's real heart and soul that deserve the attention of more academics.
"It used to be that if you were in the English department and were studying science fiction and mystery writing, you were looked down on by people who were studying Chaucer," he says. "Twenty years ago, it was very unusual for an English department to have a course in the history of television."
These days, even the German and Russian studies department at the University of Missouri-Columbia uses pop culture to its own ends. Brad Prager, assistant professor of German studies, teaches a course there on the history of German films.
"It has to do with capitalism," he says. "Innovation is encouraged in American institutions in terms of what you can sell to students. It is a way you can do innovative and new work.
"In Germany, the population has a sense of what is art and what isn't. A lot of Germans will go to Hollywood movies but not consider that art. The inflexibility of their university structures means they cannot get away from traditional scholarship.
"But if students want courses on 'Star Tre k,' does that mean you should give courses in it and offer a BA in it? Actually, a well-taught course on 'Star Trek' can be just as fascinating as a well-taught course on Goethe," he said, referring to the 18th-century German literary giant.
Charles Emmons, who teaches sociology and pop culture at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, tried starting a pop culture course in the 1970s but was told it was too far from the core curriculum.
"One sociologist was upset we were studying roller coasters," he says, "so when the outside evaluators told us to get rid of it, we did.
"Now people are seeing the tremendous global implications of pop culture, from MTV to AOL-Time Warner," he says. "The hottest thing going on in academia now is globalization. And what is the essence of that? Exporting pop culture from the United States."
Mr. Thompson says the reason for the dominance of American popular culture is its enormousness as a nation, both in land mass and population.
"Whenever something happens in America, it's supersize," he says. "Our legend is not King Arthur, but it's Paul Bunyan; someone who makes pancakes the size of a small town.
"To understand the history of our nation and understand the history of our citizens, we need to understand not only the official history of presidents and wars but the stuff regular people subsume day after day after day," he says, "its lawn ornaments, its cheeseburgers, its love songs and its bell-bottoms."


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