The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


SPSSI In the Classroom

On behalf of the SPSSI Teaching and Mentoring Committee, many thanks to Shantal Marshall, 2012 SPSSI Innovative Instruction Awardee, for contributing this social issues teaching column (see p. 18). For more information about the Teaching and Mentoring Committee or if you are interested in writing a teaching column for the newsletter, please feel free to contact the co-chairs, Kim Case and Melissa Bayne.

   Teaching about Inequality with Jersey Shore: 
   Using Popular Culture to Teach Social Issues
   By Shantal R. Marshall, UC Los Angeles

Even as instructors who are responsible for teaching important social issues, our use of popular culture in lessons on social issues does not need to be confined to lead-ins to, or examples of, important concepts. Popular culture can be the concept that students learn. I decided to create a course on the psychology of race and gender in popular culture—including television, movies, music, comedy, and ads—because popular culture is highly accessible and familiar to college students. However, most are not aware that what may seem to be only uninformative entertainment is in fact exposing them to representations of race and gender every day.

Students in my course learn where their beliefs about race and gender might originate, then we transition to topics that can be more complex and controversial. Once students understand how we learn what it means to be a man, woman, Black, White, etc., I am able to introduce topics such as inequality, stereotyping, and discrimination. Specifically, I want my students to learn how stereotypes are created and maintained through the social representations present in popular culture. Additionally, because the course is on a subject matter that students engage with every day, the course can be student-centered, allowing them to learn as much from their own observations and discussions with one another as they do from course materials and lectures. Overwhelmingly positive student evaluations of the course demonstrate that the students enjoy learning about stereotypes, prejudice, and inequality, topics that can often be difficult or uncomfortable to teach and to learn.

Including popular culture within any course that focuses on social issues can be a powerful teaching tool. What makes my course successful is that I allow students to choose their own media for their major assignments. Students analyze and propose experimental research on popular culture ranging from Disney movies to comic books to athletic apparel commercials. When students analyze something they are so familiar with, it allows them to see quite clearly all of the information they have previously missed. Moreover, it can be especially effective for students who feel far removed from issues related to issues such as stereotyping, inequality, and discrimination. Even one lecture or assignment that takes advantage of the practically endless amount of popular culture that is at students’ fingertips will likely serve as a very personal connection to the lesson.

One assignment that my students particularly enjoy is creating their own print advertisement that offers new ways of representing race and gender. Although I give them the products to be advertised, they are able to use the knowledge they have gained from the course to create alternative representations of race or gender in new ads. Students in any course investigating race or gender could easily look up the print ads associated with a product they themselves use and attempt to create an ad that uses different representations than found in typical print marketing campaigns. The students especially appreciate the opportunity to use their creativity, all the while learning the skills necessary to analyze the ways that race and gender are treated in mass media.

Another option is to have all of the students analyze one piece of popular culture together as a group. Homework in my course includes watching, reading, or listening to an assignment, then coming to class ready to discuss the concepts of the course that they were able to find evidence for (or against) in the assignment. Sometimes, the analysis happens in the classroom. For example, in one of my classes, the students listed the stereotypes of rap music, and then as a class, they read and interpreted the lyrics to a current and popular rap song. As the students uncovered themes that went against the stereotypes they had previously listed, the group’s discussion became the lesson on how stereotypes may be perpetuated even in direct evidence to the contrary.

Almost any type of popular culture—music, television, commercials, movies, etc.—can be turned into an assignment for a course on social issues, but what is important is that the popular culture connects to the students. After all, it is these assignments that allow them to see the world they already live in with new eyes. Just be prepared for them to be very excited to talk about topics like stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.


—Shantal R. Marshall

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