Student Engagement

Who Is Taylor Swift? Using Pop Culture for Deeper Learning

September 18, 2015
a photo of Taylor Swift

Why are educators still so squeamish about employing pop culture as a teaching framework? How can we use pop culture to help our students gain a deeper understanding of their studies and the world around them?

A few weeks ago, while we were driving to a dinner out with friends, my wife turned to me and asked, "Who is Taylor Swift?" I told her she's a pop star. But what she was really asking was, "Who is Taylor Swift as a cultural and social signifier?" In other words, she wanted to know why this pop singer was coming up in conversations and in the media around topics that have nothing to do with pop music. That is a complex question that I did my best to answer.

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I am not a big fan of most current popular music, but because pop culture and sports stars are part of the ecosystem of my students' universe, I've always felt it is my responsibility to know as much as I can. And while I refuse to watch the VMAs (Video Music Awards), I try to stay informed and nonjudgmental about the music, styles, and endless controversies that sometimes surround certain pop-cultural figures so I can better connect with my students.

For many people, both young and older, talking about Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, or Kanye West is sometimes a way for them to discuss gender, race, and class in terms that they understand. Sure, most of the "issues" are mired in the trivial concerns of self-obsessed divas, but sometimes these issues involve topics that concern ordinary people and society's more pressing problems. As educators, we should help them make connections between the sometimes seemingly superficial controversies and the bigger questions and themes of which we want them to gain critical understanding.

Why the Resistance?

I understand why many teachers want to stay clear and "keep the trash outside" their classrooms. We are bombarded more than ever before by celebrity culture, so in order to minimize the distractions in our classroom, keeping students attention away from celebrity gossip seems understandable. Also, many students -- not just teachers -- see the classroom as a refuge from the media onslaught of the outside world.

So how do educators take on celebrity and pop culture without further distracting our students and diminishing our curriculum? I argue that we pull our heads out of the sand and take it on directly. Like it or not, celebrity gossip and controversies are part of the real world we want our kids to be able to navigate intelligently.

Create a Rich and Meaningful Context

By first choosing a subject or framework that is rich with a context of understanding, such as mythology or animal behavior, we can then turn our attention to instances and examples in popular culture while minimizing the risk of superficiality. Many of our celebrities become objects of obsession because their image and style stimulate aspects of our psychological and emotional lives.

Celebrity images also serve as an opportunity to deconstruct and gain insight into the science of image and beauty, as well as connect with historical cults of personalities that have haunted humans in the past.

Help Students Create a Line of Inquiry

What roles do you think occupied the imagination of people in the past in a similar way? How do celebrities from other cultures differ from our own? What aspirations for ourselves do we see in celebrities we admire? How does the artificiality both inspire our imaginations and deceive us? Helping students create a line of inquiry that takes them outside the celebrity culture will help them dive into deeper subject matter in a way that connects with their understanding.

Use Big Thematic Questions as Frameworks

How do we as a culture think about and deal with death and dying? What is the role of class and social status in shaping our society? How do we deal with desire, pain, and suffering? How does love shape who we are and what we do with our lives? We can find answers to these in great literature and art, but also in popular culture.

Forensic science shows, like Bones and CSI, help us confront the biological realities of our bodies. The popularity of orphaned characters, such as Harry Potter, Cinderella, and the siblings in the Lemony Snicket books -- in which seemingly anything can happen (usually bad) -- show how the extension of family to larger society helps provide a sense of a meaningful and purposeful universe.

By intentionally ignoring the world of pop culture, we are not doing our jobs as educators. We need to explain and help our students understand the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. So with all that in mind, dear reader, who is Taylor Swift?

No, really. I would love your responses and examples of popular culture in the classroom. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.