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Teaching Wicked Problems: Critical Pedagogy, Personal Transformation, and Social Action through Popular Culture

The “wicked problems” of our day continue as first discussed by Rittel and Weber  (1973). As a means to address such problems, Donna Mertens (2020) suggests transformative research to bring together solutions for the wicked problems needing interdisciplinary thought and practice to solve (e.g., hunger, poverty, educational access). What has changed since first discussed is a commonly accepted awareness for addressing these problems. For those of us in higher education, we have opportunities to consider the ways in which we work with students and communities to affect a greater understanding of worldwide issues as well as personal level concerns affecting growth and development. In our classrooms, we have a chance to introduce new ways of thinking and deeper learning and self-awareness to become more effective global citizens.

The three articles for this issue speak to these fundamental aspects of being global citizens in a world increasingly marred by seemingly intractable socioeconomic inequalities. Yet as the articles that follow show us, the classroom remains a space of “possibility,” one where, as Wayne Au, Bill Bigelow and Stan Kar suggest (2007), “students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality” (p. x). As teacher-scholars who take seriously the socially transformative and pedagogical potential of popular culture, the authors in this volume prompt us to consider how the study of (and thinking with) popular culture invites students to seriously grapple with questions of identity and identification, of ethics and representation, of difference and sameness. At the same time, these case studies highlight the profound significance that teaching popular culture has, be it in the literature or philosophy classroom, for students’ interrogation of their personal lives, for their reflections on the power differentials evoked by their social identities, and on their ability to translate such discussions to the public realm. 

Thus, if popular culture, as Nadine Dolby (2003) argues, is a “cultural practice that has its own power to create social change — to alter social conditions and the very foundation of people’s lives,” (258) how can the practice of critical pedagogy through popular culture help tackle the “wicked problems” of our contemporary moment? Further, given that popular culture is not neutral but rather a site of contestation, how can educators empower students to openly challenge, make meaning of, negotiate, and reshape popular culture in ways that prove to be (socially) transformative? Finally, how can both educator and student, as co-conspirators in learning and unlearning, help promote cultural citizenship, self and social empowerment, social justice, and more just futures vis-à-vis their critical consumption of popular culture? 

Across these articles, we see a deep engagement with such questions, each tackling the intersections of critical pedagogy, popular culture, and social action in potent and imaginative ways. In this issue’s first article, “Conceptualizing Empathy and Prosocial Action: Teaching Film within the Literature Classroom,” Mayuri Deka explores the pedagogical potential of integrating socio-affective strategies in the literature classroom. Using films like How to Train Your Dragon, Deka argues that “including film within the literature classroom would allow for a critical interrogation of the socio-cultural and economic negotiations between various ethno-racial and cultural communities while attempting to alter and subvert the traditional power structure with the marginalized Other.” In turn, cultivating empathy in the literature classroom, as Deka suggests, “could play a crucial role in creating a student body that better negotiates the Self/Other divide and enhances their moral emotion, motivation and action.”

Along similar lines, our second article, “Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry,” takes up questions of inclusion, representation, and canon formation in the teaching of contemporary poetry. Through the inclusion of poets of color who disidentify with or disrupt the rigid forms and conventions of “traditional” (read: white and cisheteropatriarchal) American poetry, Ronnie Stephens argues that poets such as Jericho Brown, Franny Choi, and Natalie Diaz, among others, employ dissentive poetic forms to conjure “more expansive conceptions of gender, race, and the human experience.” Thus, emphasizing “dissent poetry’s” fluid quality and its relationship to the rigidity of “traditional” poetry allows students to effectively learn poetic conventions all while tapping into the emancipatory potential that such poetic disruptions invite. By incorporating “dissent poetry” into their curriculum, Stephens argues that educators are uniquely poised to promote students of color engagement with the “literary canon on their own terms.”

This issue’s third and final article, “What We Owe Our Students: The Good Place, Pedagogy, and the Architecture of Engaged Learning,” invites readers to consider how NBC’s hit television series, The Good Place, effectively models how a “well-constructed ‘classroom’ can prepare students to meet ordinary challenges, extraordinary obstacles, and even existential crises.” Putting in conversation The Good Place’s “architecture of learning” with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Global Challenges “real world” blended model, Shala Mills and Darrell Hamlin argue that both similarly “engage students through content connected to issues that confront them personally and professionally, providing them with opportunities for repetition and mastery.” The “students” in the show’s diegetic world and those who take part in the “real world” case study are thus empowered to tackle the “wicked problems” of our present moment through an architecture of learning that offers “engagement pathways for the common good.” Ultimately, Mills and Hamlin urge educators to deploy a pedagogy of engagement that helps “awaken students and build skills for purposeful work to solve wicked problems.”

In addition to the full-length articles, this Dialogue issue features two “Musings” on pedagogy and popular culture, and a book review. Tyler Sheldon’s Musing piece takes up questions of academic voice, independent thinking, and the craft of academic writing in the college composition classroom. In the second Musings feature, Craig Wynne considers how the disproportionate representation of “coupled” peoples across varied media forms reinforces the primacy of the nuclear family and the reductive gender and sexuality tropes it consolidates. Lastly, this issue spotlights Tyler Sheldon’s review of David Gooblar’s The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching. Educators interested in constructivist pedagogy will find Sheldon’s review of Gooblar’s teaching approaches particularly useful.

These articles, Musings, and book review have been brought together into a full issue through the hard work of a dedicated team. We would like to thank those amazing people who helped to make this possible: Copy Editors – Miriam Sciala, Robert Gordyn, and Arlyce Menzies; Reference Editors – Joseph Yapp and April Manabat; Creative Director – Douglas CohenMiller; and our authors and peer reviewers. 

Overall, Infusing Pedogogy with Empathy, Social Action and Value through Popular Culture offers readers illuminating case studies that foreground the generative intersections of critical pedagogy, popular culture, and social action. Indeed, all three articles explore the potentialities of using the critical study of popular culture to help fashion solutions to the “wicked problems” of the 21st century. At a moment where students are feeling increasingly dejected and apprehensive about their futures and the future of our planet, approaching popular culture in personally and socially meaningful ways proves ever-necessary. It is thus our hope that this issue inspires innovative and socially conscious approaches to the teaching of popular culture and that these ultimately lead to more liberatory ways of being, thinking, and seeing. 

Karina Vado
Book Review
Musings Editor
Anna S. CohenMiller
Editor in Chief



Au, W., Bigelow B., & Kar S. (2007). Introduction. Rethinking Public Schools (Rev. ed.), 1, I-XI.

Dolby, N. (2003). Popular culture and democratic practice. Harvard Educational Review, 73(3), 258-284.

Mertens, D. M. (2020). Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology: Integrating Diversity with Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Methods. 5th ed. Sage.

Rittel, H., & M. Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. 

Suggested Citation


Vado, K., & CohenMiller, A. S. (2021). Teaching wicked problems: Critical pedagogy, personal transformation, and social action through popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(2). (


Vado, Karina, and Anna S. CohenMiller. “Teaching Wicked Problems: Critical Pedagogy, Personal Transformation, and Social Action through Popular Culture,” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2021.

What We Owe Our Students: The Good Place, Pedagogy, and the Architecture of Engaged Learning 

Shala Mills
State University of New York at New Paltz
New Paltz, New York, USA

Darrell Hamlin
Fort Hays State University
Hays, Kansas, USA


Pedagogy is the architecture of a learning environment. The discipline of philosophy has often operated according to a pedagogy of conversation, clarity, and reflection, certainly since the era of Socratic dialogue in the streets of Athens. We argue that The Good Place occupies that space, re-setting this pedagogy as an architecture of learning through entertainment associated with ultimate matters of eternal disposition. A critical character driving conversation, clarity, and reflection across four seasons of the story’s arc is a philosopher – doomed by their own indecisive flaws – who teaches deep understanding of ethical development through a variety of relevant philosophic problems originating from intellectual history. Confronted with the complexities of an intricately connected world and highly motivated by the weight of ultimate choices, the protagonists bring a sense of how a well-constructed “classroom” can prepare students to meet ordinary challenges, extraordinary obstacles, and even existential crises. The Good Place is a classroom with a purposeful syllabus and highly motivated participants, structured for viewers to extract ethical insights of the highest consequence — if they are willing to keep trying to get it right. By comparison, this article unpacks how the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Global Challenges blended model course is a valuable example of high impact teaching practices which, like The Good Place, engage students through content connected to issues that confront them personally and professionally, providing them with opportunities for repetition and mastery.

Keywords: pedagogy, popular culture, wicked problems, Bloom’s taxonomy, high impact practices, global challenges, The Good Place

Author Bios

Shala Mills, Associate Provost for Academic Planning & Learning Innovation at State University of New York at New Paltz, was formerly Chair and Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University (Kansas).  She is the recipient of numerous teaching and advising awards. She has taught courses in the areas of law and the courts, current political issues, sustainability, food and politics, and global challenges. She served as one of the AASCU Global Engagement Scholars, was the National Coordinator for the AASCU Global Challenges Project, and was the 2017 recipient of AASCU’s Barbara Burch Award for Faculty Leadership in Civic Engagement.  Her most recent publications have been in the areas of academic assessment and leadership and global challenges.

Darrell Hamlin, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University (Kansas), is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Civic Leadership at FHSU and Managing Editor for the eJournal of Public Affairs.  He previously served as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at FHSU and as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Spring Hill College (Alabama). Hamlin was one of the original AASCU Global Engagement Scholars, and his scholarly interests relate to the culture and politics of democracy.

Suggested Reference


Mills, S., & Hamlin, D. (2021). What we owe our students: The Good Place, pedagogy, and the architecture of engaged learning. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(2).


Mills, Shala, and Darrell Hamlin. “What We Owe Our Students: The Good Place, Pedagogy, and the Architecture of Engaged Learning.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2021,

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Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry

Ronnie Stephens
Tarrant County College
Arlington, TX 76063


“Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry” explores the function of form in American poetry and its proximity to whiteness. Through an analysis of experimental and nontraditional forms I argue that poets Fatimah Asghar, Jericho Brown, Franny Choi, Natalie Diaz, Ilya Kaminsky, and Danez Smith challenge traditional notions of what a poem is; these authors use graphics and co-opt familiar text objects to challenge larger assumptions about gender identity, ableism, and the immigrant experience. These experimental forms are grounded in a larger poetic tradition that alters traditional forms, such as the sonnet, to disrupt and further dialogue related to oppressive tactics in American poetry. They also signal an intentional departure from strict forms associated with colonialism and mark a shift in contemporary American poetry. For educators, including nontraditional and experimental form poems in the curriculum encourages students to engage poetry as a living genre. It also invites conversation about the implications of gatekeeping in both the publishing and education industries. The co-opting and evolution of form is not just a rebellion against classic American poetry but an opportunity for students of color to engage with the literary canon on their own terms.

Keywords: Poetry, Counternarrative, #DisruptTexts, Decolonize, Technology, Sonnet, Cyborg, Pedagogy

Suggested References


Stephens, R. (2021). Experimental forms and identity politics in 21st century American poetry. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(2).


Stephens, Ronnie. “Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2021.

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Conceptualizing Empathy and Prosocial Action: Teaching Film within theLiterature Classroom

Mayuri Deka
University of the Bahamas
Nassau, The Bahamas


The experience of viewing a movie in the global era is multi-faceted. A viewer’s response to a cinematic experience as Carl Plantinga explains in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience is not only admiration for the aesthetics and techniques employed in the movie but also in the emotions aroused by the storyline. Audiences react to the story and characters presented with directed emotions by imagining either their mental lives and feelings or their situations. Empathy occurs within this framework of imagination where the audience engages with the story and character based on these directed emotions. The audience could not only empathize with the story or character by experiencing a similar emotion but also think about a similar situation they have experienced and attribute the emotion they experienced to the story or character. Watching a film such as How to Train Your Dragon (2010) would allow the instructor to help students sustain a coherent identity and find similarities with more and more diverse groups of people, leading to a reduction in prejudice while promoting an empathic identity. This facilitation of the development of complex identity-contents in the students based on universal affective states and life-conditions should result in them taking practical steps to alleviate the Other’s suffering and engage in social change through empathic reflection.

Keywords: Film, literature, empathy, Self/Other, pedagogy

Author Bio

Dr. Mayuri Deka is the Chair of English Studies at The University of the Bahamas. She has published and presented numerous papers on the areas of multi-ethnic identities, diasporic literatures, Postcolonial literatures, cinema, and pedagogy. Articles and chapters can be found in South Asian Review, The Journal of the School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies,Teaching Hemingway and Race and such. She is in the process of writing her book on pro-social pedagogy and social justice. Deka has taught a wide range of American and World literature courses, including texts from various diasporas and focusing on the interactions within cultures and races.

Suggested References


Deka, M. (2021). Conceptualizing empathy and prosocial action: Teaching film within the literature classroom. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(3).


Deka, Mayuri. “Conceptualizing Empathy and Prosocial Action: Teaching Film within the Literature Classroom.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 3.

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Evolving Awareness of Popular Culture and Pedagogy: A View into Celebrity, Song, Narrative, and Superheroes

As we enter 2021, we can see the evolving nature of popular culture and pedagogy emerging during times of social distancing. For instance, the SWPACA conference is being held virtually, for the first time in its 42 year history. In this issue of Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, we have an opportunity to look across articles linking the way we think about our world through the lenses of popular culture and pedagogy. 

Using insights from a range of popular culture topics—song lyrics, the narrative behind video games, superhero story plots, and celebrity speakers—the articles provide readers with ways to think about learning. For those of us who are educators, we have the opportunity to consider informal and formal learning through popular culture. Across these works, the authors speak to questions such as what is the impact of celebrity speakers? How can we make sense of a “dystopic” present? How might superheroes help us to understand civics? And how can we make learning interesting?

In the first of the articles, we hear from Jena L. Hawk’s in The Power of Cool: Celebrity Influence in the Ivory Tower. In the text, she traces the development of trends underlying commencement speeches such as that of the initial emphasis on inspirational wisdom-filled lectures by a politician or a graduating star student to a move towards speeches delivered by celebrity speakers. Hawk discusses how this latter approach can serve the educational establishment by providing a means to promote itself and enhance its competitiveness, yet can also pose problems. Setting her essay within the framework provided by parasocial interaction theory, Hawk argues that this practice can be detrimental to the sense of identity of the public attending the graduation ceremony, and more worryingly, to members of the graduating class the celebrity is addressing. 

The ways we are affected by what we see and hear can be linked as well to other forms of cultural input, such as through gaming. In the second article in the issue, we hear from Marc Ouellette, in his article, Society Doesn’t Owe You Anything: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Video Games as Speculative Fiction. Here, Ouellette likens dystopian literature like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, for example, and video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to a type of speculative fiction in whose world issues from our current world are reflected, created, and predicted. More specifically, the tilt towards right-wing extremism that has been amplified in the U.S. during the Trump administration is reflected in GTA: San Andreas’ alternative world. Yet a key difference between dystopic literature and video games is the interactive nature of video games, which Ouellette argues acts as a means to mitigate issues faced in a dystopic world and offers a potential for developing solutions. 

As we move into the third article, we can consider the influence of the superhero as a cultural icon and its potential for pedagogy. In The Many Ways of Wakanda: Viewpoint Diversity in Black Panther and Its Implications for Civics Education, Justin Frank Martin demonstrates the possibilities of embedding popular fiction in the form of superhero films in primary school civics classrooms by highlighting key events presented in the 2018 film Black Panther. Hence, using the responsibilities of T’Challa the main character and superhero of Black Panther offers ways to consider issues of fairness, justice, and consequence. Martin formulates his explanation within the framework of social domain theory and draws a connection between the concepts embedded therein and the understanding children are believed to have of the world they live in. By highlighting the situations appearing in the film as well as students’ own behaviours that represent aspects of the theory, Martin points to ways these can be used to develop students’ ability to analyze and comprehend behaviours and situations, and thus bring about a better understanding of their own social worlds. Martin provides a possible pedagogical plan for approaches which could be integrated into teaching methodology.

The final article of this issue addresses eliciting freshman students’ media literacy to enhance engagement in first-year writing classes. In Guiding Students Down that “Old Town Road: Writing Pedagogy, Relatability and the Sitch,” Lynn D. Zimmerman addresses how many students, upon entering colleges and universities, may view writing classes as a burden, academic writing as foreign, and the subjects therein as unrelatable. Yet, for Zimmerman, this can be averted by incorporating topical and even controversial issues as demonstrated in social media feeds as a way to encourage discussion and debate. The author demonstrates how bringing these topics into the classroom can guide students away from a tendency to unquestioningly accept one point of view. Instead, she explains how an examination of lyrics such as in the rap-country song, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, can lead students towards being better able to evaluate, comprehend and explain different perspectives.

In the end, these four articles showcase the importance of adapting to and evolving with themes across popular culture to better understand students and ourselves. Just as the issue addresses an evolving state, so too is Dialogue evolving and adjusting to the needs of the community. We welcome Miriam Sciala as Interim Managing Editor and thank Kirk Peterson for his work. Also, we have brought to the team, Joseph Yap, as our new Reference Editor, who joins with Copy Editors, Rheanne Anderson and Robert Gordyn. Lastly, thank you to our Creative Director, Douglas CohenMiller and our robust set of peer reviewers. The entire team has moved through challenging times and we thank you all for your coordinated efforts and commitment to Dialogue and are pleased to share these works in Evolving Awareness in Popular Culture and Pedagogy.

Miriam Sciala
Interim Managing Editor
Anna S. CohenMiller
Editor in Chief

Suggested Reference Citation


Sciala, M., & CohenMiller, A. S. (2021). Evolving awareness of popular culture and pedagogy: A view into celebrity, song, narrative, and superheroes. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(1).


Sciala, Miriam, and Anna S. CohenMiller. “Evolving Awareness of Popular Culture and Pedagogy: A View into Celebrity, Song, Narrative, and Superheroes.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 1, 2021.

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