Popular culture studies provide us with a means of critically examining the culture we live in according to academic standards of research and argument. The movement, founded in the 1970s, grew out of an explosion of popular-cultural awareness and a growing distrust of “traditional” academia prevalent in the `60s and `70s. More formally, the movement’s founders had become frustrated with American studies’ rigid and repetitious examination of the same narrow, canonical topics and sought to “break free” into new and valuable areas of research.
Popular culture studies are sometimes linked to academic and artistic interests in Marxism and postmodernism, and therefore can be connected to a wide range of scholars and authors. However, professors Ray B. Browne of Bowling Green State University and Russell Nye of Michigan State University are widely credited with “officially” founding the field of popular culture studies. Ray Browne established the first department of popular culture studies at Bowling Green in 1970, and he and Russell Nye developed the Popular Culture Association, which held its first meeting at Michigan State University in 1971. The PCA later merged with the American Culture Association to form the PCA/ACA, a vast national organization of scholars and professionals that, in addition to attending the annual national conference, also convene in regional conferences and an annual international conference.
The most important aspect of popular culture studies is the field’s interdisciplinary nature. Popular culture scholars recognize that we can learn from almost any aspect of our culture, and so we find ourselves studying everything. (This was famously satirized in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, in which Murray Jay Siskind, a lecturer on living icons, complains, “I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even understand how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”) More importantly, we recognize that many areas of study necessarily overlap, so that we can combine traditional literary analysis, traditional film criticism, and/or “high” art appreciation to the genre of graphic novels and comic books; or we can examine advertising strategies in terms of psychological analysis as well as marketing studies; or we can bring race, gender, and ethnic studies to bear on a discussion of sports culture.
This breadth and depth sometimes confuses students, because with so many areas of study and so many points of overlap, they feel at first unsure where to find or how to approach a topic. But they quickly come to realize the freedom of choice inherent in popular culture studies, and they often express appreciation for being allowed to write lengthy research papers on the music they love or the video games they play. And by the end of each semester, students tell me they’ve learned the most valuable thing about popular culture studies: in critically examining the aspects of their normal experiences and personal interests, they come to realize the importance of critical thinking in all their studies and, indeed, in their daily lives.
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