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Using Pop Culture to Help Students Appreciate Literature

Credit: Delaware Valley University. Delaware Valley University Professor of English Dr. Karen Schramm is using pop culture to make literature classes more engaging.

Mar 04, 2020

What can professors do to help today’s students gain a deeper appreciation for the material they’re studying in college literature classes? That’s a question that Delaware Valley University Professor of English Dr. Karen Schramm explored in a new paper. She will present her paper, “All Work and No Cosplay: Making Your Classes Pop, Or, ‘I Don’t Think Hank Done it This Way,’” at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) Convention in Boston on March 8. The title is a reference to a Waylon Jennings song about change in the music industry. Dr. Schramm will be one of five presenters who will lead a roundtable discussion on the place of pop culture in academia at the conference. 

She had the idea for the paper after students expressed an interest in talking about Wonder Woman in class. At first, she said the suggestion to take time away from talking about literary giants “stung.” After giving it some thought, she decided to see if she could help students gain a deeper appreciation for the intended course material by sprinkling in popular culture. Dr. Schramm has found that this approach has improved her classes and her relationships with students. 

Dr. Schramm strongly believes that pop culture should be brought in to enhance the appreciation of literature not, to distract from it.

“To very loosely paraphrase Lizzo, robust literature is a whole meal, not a snack,” said Dr. Schramm. 

Her paper addresses the importance of balance when it comes to bringing popular culture into the classroom.

“There’s been this big question in academia of how much we want pop culture to spread into college,” said Dr. Schramm. “As educators, it’s important to appreciate pop culture for what it can do to enliven a class, but you have to avoid having it take over.” 

She said professors need to ask themselves if students are still learning about the original topic or, whether the class is becoming more about the pop culture tie-in.

At DelVal, Dr. Schramm has been gradually bringing pop culture into the classroom for the last five years.

 “There are times when you realize people are tired and their attention is lagging,” said Dr. Schramm. “If you comment about Blake (Shelton) and Gwen (Stefani), for instance, their ears perk up. I will do that sometimes.”

She also likes to get students out of their seats. Sometimes she has students go around campus to gather material to talk about.

“Today’s student is so hyperconnected and bombarded with media and used to fast action,” said Dr. Schramm.

That’s why she turned away from the straight literature lecture in favor of more interactive experiences. 

She said she has been “on a quest” to bring the value and relevance of classic literature to today’s student. 

“There’s no reason that students shouldn’t like ‘Walden,’” said Dr. Schramm. “It absolutely is relatable. College students are often on a quest for identity and one of the messages of ‘Walden’ is finding your identity.”

Dr. Schramm believes educators don’t always need to be serious while teaching.

“The playful quality is something you can introduce into the classroom without disrespecting the dignity of literature,” said Dr. Schramm. “You don’t have to come into the classroom being serious all the time and I certainly don’t.”

One benefit of her approach is that it can make classes less intimidating for new students. 

“Showing that faculty are relatable people is important, especially for freshmen who arrive wondering how college will be different from high school,” said Dr. Schramm. “The professor doesn’t have to be some kind of austere distant person. Pop culture can be a relationship builder and can help keep classes friendly.”