Why pop culture matters

I was thrilled on Wednesday night to participate in the Higher Ed Open Mic via EDUventures (read the entire recap here).

And while its not a word for word recreation of my spastic, arm flailing 10 minute talk… this is a pretty good version of it.

I don’t think people realize how lucky I feel. I work in the nexus of higher education, student affairs and popular culture, also known as Emerson College (or as I like to call it, Season One of Glee the College). For me, my days are filled with conversations about the latest show on AMC, Nielsen ratings, the NYTimes bestseller list, the upcoming summer blockbuster movie season, what shows are selling out at the House of Blues or Paradise Rock Club, the latest internet memes and what to expect from New York Fashion Week.

Basically, for me to be successful in my job as Director of Student Activities, I have to be up on the latest Grumpy Cat meme, understand that The Walking Dead is the highest rated TV show today, the fact Emerald is the Pantone Color of the Year and that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sold out their at the HOB in less than two minutes. Clearly, I know a lot about pop culture. But you should know about it, too.

You may not need it in the same way I do, but understanding pop culture helps give texture and context to the interactions with your students. Knowing pop culture clues you into the slang you’re students are using and you’re not understanding, the movies they’re watching that you’ve never heard and the songs they’re illegally downloading in genres you’ve never imagined. You see, pop culture matters to them, so it should matter to you, too.

If I tweeted right now: Pop Culture is more important than a 60 year old student development theory, what would people do? I’ll tell you:  Young Student Affairs grad students and new professionals would grimace. Seasoned vets would shake their head in disapproval. Pop Culture gets a really bad rap.

You see, pop culture isn’t about coming up with a meaningless theme to a conference, an RA Training or an irrelevant hook in an educational session. It’s so much more than that. It’s just that so many student affairs professionals give pop culture a bad name by shoehorning the Avengers into a annual leadership conference, making antiquated Harry Potter sorting hat jokes when assigning residence hall rooms or inexplicably using Jersey Shore to explain expectations of health and wellness to a bunch of 18 year olds who haven’t watched the Jersey Shore in three years.

So, let’s go back to that idea, that notion of student development theory. Theory has a place. I have to believe  that theory has a purpose otherwise we wouldn’t be teaching it.

Student development theory tells us how one might react under certain situations. We study theory so we can help predict how our students might act one day.

On the flip side, pop culture tells us why people react.
If we are a profession built on telling stories, isn’t the why more important than the how?

If administrators paid attention to pop culture, no one would have been shocked that Gen Xers were rebellious and distrustful of adults.

We would have remember that as kids, Gen Xers saw movies where children were portrayed as evil. Remember The Exorcist? The Omen? Bad News Bears? And for some reason, you’re shocked that a bunch of latch key kids who were abandoned by adults might grow up to be distrustful of administration?

If administrators paid attention to pop culture, no one would have been surprised by the do good nature and entitlism of the millennial generation.

In 1994, Nickelodeon created The Big Help, an awards show dedicated to honoring the civic engagement and community service of young people. Nickelodeon was promoting community service long before higher ed. Why did it take us so long to catch on? And further more, of course they’re entitled. Look at the movies they grew up with – Look Who’s Talking, Three Men & Baby, Curly Sue… kids were cute and adored then. They’ve always been adored, that’s why they’re so entitled now.

If administrators paid attention to pop culture, no one would have been surprised by the instant gratification and technological advancement of our current generation.

In 2001, our students began using iPods. They’ve always had technology. They’ve always had texting. They’ve always had a computer in every classroom. Yet we don’t understand why they might expect instant gratification. They’ve always had it.

You see, I think pop culture matters. It lets me understand why students act the way they do. It gives me a deeper understanding of where someone is coming from and what they might have experienced. Pop culture lets me have a nuanced conversation with students. I understand what they’re talking about and where they’re coming from. I understand why they are that way.

Because for me, the why is important. The why matters…. it matters just like pop culture matters.

Why pop culture matters

2 thoughts on “Why pop culture matters

  1. I love this article / mindset:) As a middle manager in IT, I find opportunities like teaching FYE courses, org advisor, etc to be in touch with the students.

    An additional thought – just as with student dev theory, pop culture should be used as a starting point to think about our students from a heuristic and general level. It’s important to think about the individual experience of each student. For example, what we consider pop culture in America may not be familiar with international students. This also applies to different sub-populations (traditional, non-traditional, veterans, etc).

    With that said, I agree with your message about how to stay relevant and current with students. Ultimately, we need to understand the world they live in.

    Thanks -Joe

  2. Thanks, Joe!
    Fantastic points about how popular culture doesn’t impact every student in the same way. As students in higher education come from so many places, THEIR popular culture will impact them in different ways.

    At the end of the day, we need to meet all students where they are at.

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