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Teaching and Learning Popular Media Cultures: Fostering Enquiry Journeys within the Messy World of Human Social Life

Florencia García-Rapp
Department of Sociology and Social Work
University of Valladolid


In this theoretical paper, I draw from the interpretive, constructionist epistemology that frames my research practice as social scientist to reflect on the practice of teaching popular media cultures. In contrast to cynical approaches to popular culture, and taking distance from dogmatic assertions, I highlight instead the relevance of user-centred perspectives where entertainment, affect and pleasurable investments are legitimate reasons to engage with popular media texts, including celebrities (García-Rapp, 2017). There is a multicity of purposes, needs, and contexts that frame interpretive resources, appropriation, and modes of reception. It is possible and it is meaningful to offer nuanced and thoughtful conclusions that increase our understanding of cultural phenomena, without resorting to paternalistic views or preconceptions about the critical abilities of these communities (2019).

In my classroom, we work from and within media anthropology approaches and do empirical work online to interpret meanings. Since it is important to create opportunities for students to experience for themselves how they develop their research practice with each passing week, I expose them to research early on by asking them to conduct their own small projects online. We work to achieve data-grounded theoretical contributions that present a complex picture of a culture by drawing attention to patterns that imply cultural process (Hammersely and Atkinson, 2007; Fetterman, 2010). The examination of these particularities in our interpretive accounts reveal common elements of a culture and are of academic relevance as theoretical and analytical raw data to be transferred and compared with other social formations, other celebrities and audiences, or other emic social norms (García-Rapp, 2019). 

Teaching popular media cultures from an anthropological perspective

When researching and experiencing the messy world of human social life, I believe in fostering enquiry journeys that promote a tolerance for ambiguity. Social life is messy and complicated, and we should provide students with tools for them to make up their own minds. We are located in disciplines that are arenas of contestation and discussion and we often agree to disagree. This is the challenge, and virtue, of teaching, researching, and immersing oneself in social sciences. Tolerance for ambiguity is a key trait in research and learning journeys. A powerful way to aid students in their self-regulation and monitoring of their tolerance for ambiguity is by motivating them to keep going whenever they encounter novel concepts or apparently contradictory information.

Part of sustaining tolerance for ambiguity is to nurture contributions that extend our understanding of, and commitment to, the multiplicity and plurality of legitimate goals for social science inquiry (Bochner, 2000). From the very first session, I make clear that we are looking for perspectives that tolerate ambivalences, contradictions, and embrace the complexity of social worlds and human interaction (Tolson, 2010; author, 2019). As Baym and Markham argue “our goal is not to convert others to our way of seeing. We are not after one true explanation. Rather, we are after a thorough, grounded, trustworthy voice that makes meaningful contributions to ongoing dialogues and on which others can build” (2013, p. 189). By acknowledging  how culture is relational, partial and plural, how it is always about cultures, with an ‘s’ (Agar, 2006), we understand that our accounts are not final truths or ever complete. Our conclusions are situated and subject to revision (Boellstorff, 2008; Livingstone, 2003; Bazeley, 2014). “Accounts are essentially contestable, just as cultural analysis is a necessarily incomplete business” (Morley and Silverstone, 1991, p. 157).

When we teach how to research our complex social lives, we must grant space for subjectivity, indeterminacy, and instability. Stemming from hermeneutics and phenomenological understandings, influenced by the egalitarian stance of cultural studies and poststructuralism’s call to deconstruct binarisms, I argue for open and fluid scholarships (Elliot, 2013) to explore already open and fluid texts. In the words of Chin and Morimoto, to work from an “open socio-cultural perspective” (2015, p. 229; see also Sandvoss, 2005). Therefore, when planning learning activities and explaining methods as tools, I highlight the processual character of both learning and researching.

In this line, there is a certain sensibility, curiosity, and empathy that characterize anthropological work (Wollcott, 2008, 2010) that I seek to convey to students learning how to research our mediated socio-cultural realities. While it is important to recognize that we bring our own interpretive sense and cultural orientation with us to the field when seeking to portray the ‘ethos’ of media cultures from emic perspectives, I teach students to embrace the interpretive value of “intuitive realizations” (Charmaz, 2006, p. 5) and develop “theoretical sensitivities” (p. 148; Glaser, 1978).

Explaining and complicating, ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’

If we want young people to understand us in the context of a classroom, then we first need to understand them. We need to be attuned to their interests, their everyday media engagements and habits. Asking questions is also a way to acknowledge their hopes, expectations, fears and worries, to recognize them as persons, and to build “a safe space” (Brookfield, 2015, p. 5), ‘a climate in which there is freedom to learn’ (Rogers, 1983, p. 157, cited by Mortiboys, 2012, p. 10). Planning activities based on contemporary pop culture and youth interests heightens their motivation to participate and their curiosity in ‘finding more out’.

University students are often avid media users themselves, who have already customized, personalized and appropriated their chosen media technologies and media pleasures in their everyday lives. My objective is to provide new perspectives, to “zoom out” and achieve a deepened awareness and self-reflexivity of aspects of their own situated practices and local knowledge (Knoblauch, 2005) as members of audience communities and fans of mediated texts and celebrities.

They can also be great informants, letting us know of new developments and trends. It is beneficial to establish an equalizing base of considering ourselves all users, fans, and members of the audience. This implies parting from what we all share as members of society to try to clarify and complicate. We do zoom in’ to discern specificities of phenomena but, beyond the explanation, complicating a concept, practice, or the engagement with a particular celebrity as media text, implies paying attention to their multiple dimensions and furthering knowledge of other possible interpretations, uses, and meanings.

Mass media and pop culture as fields of study put us closer to powerful, well-known examples to start a fruitful conversation where students and teachers are on the same page. Discussing celebrities, online self-presentation, Instagram, and Tweets, are approachable, mundane topics and, as such, great opportunities to heighten their motivation and curiosity. We should make use of this and take profit from the engagement and enthusiasm we generate when involving them in things they ‘know’ already. The relevance of working from what they already master is also present in Carnell’s study (2007) around notions of successful teaching and learning in HE contexts, where it emerged as key to empower students to learn from their strengths. In this sense, it is relevant to facilitate learning by encouraging and supporting them to activate prior knowledge in order to make connections that bring them forward.

To conclude, I would like to reflect on one last point. In her study of UK university teachers’ conceptions of effective teaching, Carnell (2007) mentions the similarity in teacher and researcher journeys. Parting from their own research methodologies, teachers seek to enable students to construct their own knowledge and make sense of their experiences. I felt identified with this idea. For me, it is the foregrounding of the emic perspective and an underlying cultural relativism that I always ‘carry’ with me in my research (and life) journeys. Often it becomes particularly explicit how blended the dimensions of the ‘researcher self’, the ‘teacher self’ and the ‘self’ actually are. I see it as an ontological and epistemological chain where the way we, as people, understand human social life, feeds into our roles as researchers and this further frames our pedagogies, allowing us to involve others. But it also comes back to us advancing in the opposite direction: We realise that it is, after all, possible to end up passing on that same enthusiasm in enquiry journeys ingrained in ourselves, our personal selves, and our researcher selves. As Brookfield (2015) argues, our teaching practice develops from mixes and matches, from a patchwork quilt of formative experiences, and inspirational moments that we went through as learners and peers ourselves.

  • Let us practice tolerant, open scholarships where entertainment, affect, and pleasure are legitimate reasons to engage with popular media texts, without resorting to paternalistic views or preconceptions about the critical abilities of users, audiences, and fans.
  • Let us nurture contributions that extend our understanding of, and commitment to, the multiplicity and plurality of legitimate goals for social science inquiry. Let us embrace our partial, plural, and relational paths and truths. Fluidity, ambiguity, polysemy.
  • When we teach how to research our complex social lives, let us grant space for subjectivity, indeterminacy, and instability. It is, after all, possible to end up passing on that same enthusiasm in enquiry journeys ingrained in ourselves, our personal selves, and our researcher selves. 


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Learning the Game: Individuality and Advancement in the Composition Classroom

Tyler Sheldon
Baton Rouge, LA, USA 

Practices in English Composition are undergoing a gradual and seemingly inexorable shift. Comp, seen by some enterprising students as a forum for exploring creative thought and for bettering oneself as a writer and as a student, has in recent years become plagued by students full of doubt rather than hope. To put it more plainly, some students seem to have acclimated to an educational system that provides reward (in the form of grades) regardless of commensurate effort. In some ways this seems a validating practice—likely many of us, as teachers, enjoy lauding our students for their sheer potential to achieve.  However, in my own composition classroom, I hold firmly to two tenets. I do not regularly give extra credit (lest it lose its value as reward for academic effort), and I do not provide answers to any student questions without first witnessing effort on the part of the student to arrive at an answer themselves. Both principles stem from my unwillingness to “spoon-feed” solutions to my students. If they are to better themselves as students and as writers, they must learn how to conduct independent research, and to venture on their own into the dark forest of databases and decks of the university library. They must learn that curricular and extracurricular life alike can be enjoyed without the lure of extra credit, and that “extra credit” as a concept is like dessert at the end of a meal: it is earned once all regular credit is complete. Furthermore, by allowing students to reflect on a question rather than blurting the answer to them right away, I am fostering the independent thought that students deny themselves when they expect their teachers to open their mouths immediately like pedagogical Pez dispensers. Continue Reading →

Are Nuclear Families the Only People That Count?

Craig Wynne
University of the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C., USA

According to a 2016 United States Census report, 45.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older were unmarried. Projections from the Pew Research Center also indicate that by 2030, 28% of men will have not married before the age of fifty-four. Similar projections also show 23% of women also will have not wed by that same age. These statistics are important because they show that marriage does not hold the same level of importance in people’s minds as it once did, as many people are marrying later, or in some cases, finding happiness in a life outside of marriage. Yet single people are still marginalized in various cultures. Continue Reading →

When the Crisis Hits Home: Helping Students Cope with Illness and Death

Bridget Goodman
Nazarbayev University
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

In the previous three columns, I highlighted ways in which social media is providing resources, platforms, and inspiration to continue to educate our students and/or our children during this pandemic.  The presentation of these offerings has been driven by my view, influenced in part by early positive reports out of China, that continuing to teach online can provide structure and a sense of “normalcy” to students and teachers who are forced to remain at home. Continue Reading →

The Coronavirus Crisis Highlights our Vulnerabilities

Bridget Goodman
Nazarbayev University
Astana, Kazakhstan

Image 1: A flyer from the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education thanks participants and shares links to resourcesdeveloped for parents and educators as they transition to online teaching.

In my previous column, I twice referred to “vulnerable” populations—the medically vulnerable, and small businesses, each of which in their own way may be at risk for succumbing to this pernicious virus. The reality is that these are just two examples of needs that are made more visible by this epidemic. Continue Reading →

Coronavirus, Social Media, and Pedagogical Possibilities

Bridget Goodman
Nazarbayev University
Astana, Kazakhstan

There is a saying “may you live in interesting times”, which is intended as a curse. This curse has seemingly come to pass as all around the world many educators like myself sit at home, 6 feet apart from another, trying to plan or adapt lessons for online consumption while outside the classroom where we once taught, a pandemic spreads and a war rages against it. As I scroll through Twitter and Facebook and read links to online news articles through both platforms, I, as an applied linguist, find myself analyzing all the different ways people are talking about this disease. Continue Reading →

Teaching High School Students to Recognize Problematic Narratives

B Mann
Léman Manhattan Preparatory School
Manhattan, NYC, United States

Meg Greenberg Sandeman
Léman Manhattan Preparatory School
Manhattan, NYC, United States

During the 2018-2019 academic year, racist incidents at three New York City private schools garnered mainstream media attention. The New York Times published a series of articles including “Blackface Video Has Elite New York Private School in an Uproar” (Jan. 20, 2019) and “Video with ‘Racist and Homophobic’ Language Surfaces at Elite Private School” (Feb. 25, 2019). The following month, “Racial Controversy Engulfs a Third Elite NYC Private School” appeared in the New York Daily News (March 3, 2019). The authors of each of the three headlines seem to suggest that racist and homophobic incidents are a surprising phenomenon in an urban independent school setting. Herein lies the problem.   Continue Reading →

A Pedagogy of Embodiment: The Life and Work of Queer Playwright Maria Irene Fornés

Tabitha Parry Collins
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, NM

Memran, M. (Producer), & Memran, M. (Director). (2018). The rest I make up [Motion Picture]. United States: Women Make Movies.


The Rest I Make Up is a documentary about the life and work of Maria Irene Fornés, known to her friends as Irene, who changed the world of playwriting and directing as well as the ways that playwriting instructors teach the craft. This film follows Fornés on a physical journey from New York to Cuba, Miami, and Seattle while simultaneously documenting her memory loss after the onset of Alzheimer’s. Michelle Memran, filmmaker and friend to Fornés, offers viewers an intimate look into the life of a queer, brown playwright whose works continue to be overshadowed by more mainstream voices. 

Key Words: Maria Irene Fornés, Michelle Memran, embodied pedagogy, playwriting Continue Reading →

Making Your Teaching a Little Sweeter: Pedagogical Implications of Nailed It!

Richard L. Mehrenberg, PhD
Millersville University
Millersville, Pennsylvania, USA

Inspiration sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of places. Educators often look to traditional resources such as in-services, graduate classes, and professional journals to improve their pedagogy. However, sometimes great teaching ideas can be found embedded in popular culture. One such example of a T.V. show that has three strong take-aways for teachers is the Netflix Original Series, Nailed It! Continue Reading →