An Interview with Russell Eisenman: On Why NOT to use Popular Culture to Teach on just about anything

Nov 14, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Professor Eisenman, you have just had something posted on the APA’s blog. Tell us about it.

I pointed out, in the APA’s PsycCRITIQUES Blog, that we should usually NOT use popular culture in the teaching of psychology.  The issued was raised because the field of philosophy is using popular culture in some of their teachings and writings.  I read one philosophy book that did so.  I feel that, with occasional exceptions, the use of popular culture is a mistake, since we have tons of information and findings from research that make for a more accurate view of things.  Once we start using examples from popular culture–trying to reach the students at their level–we tend to corrupt what we are teaching.

For example, a movie about illegal drugs might be entertaining but it is not likely as accurate as research findings about illegal drugs.  I have found that, amazingly, students and people in general already frequently take what they learn in movies and believe that it is the truth, even though it is clearly a drama made for entertainment (and to make money). Our classrooms should be a step up from these pop entertainment distortions.

The exception to using popular culture to teach would be when we can use it as an adjunct, as when my students were interested in why actor Heath Ledger would commit suicide.  Then, you can use something from pop culture as an example, and go into what is known in terms of research and clinical (treatment) findings.

2)      Why should social studies, history and other teachers stay away from discussing popular culture?

I am not opposed to studying popular culture.  I think it should be studied, though intelligently with good research methods.  What I am opposed to is teachers using it in place of good research findings, perhaps in an effort to get the students interested in the subject matter.  For example, if you want to talk about crime, discuss theories and studies on crime, not the latest television show about crime.  It is probably a waste of time and misleading to discuss why Tony Soprano (fictional television Mafia character) does something, especially when we have studies of crime, gangs, the Mafia, etc.  Discuss the real stuff, and stay away from popular culture unless you are doing a study of, say, why people watch The Sopranos on television, or what they get from it.  Also, you can use an occasional pop culture example, but adhere to scholarly standards for the most part.

3)      You and I know that society was radically different in the 1950’s, and then in the 1960’s and then in the 1970’s and you get my point here- how do we convince students that culture varies, changes, morphs if you will from decade to decade?

We can give a few examples of changes in cultural standards and behavior.  This would be quite educational for students, who mostly are ignorant about history, culture, etc.  You would have to sell it though.  Most college students, in my experience, dislike videos from the past with people who look different than them, and they dislike black-and-white videos as opposed to videos in color.  So, you might need to explain to the students why they are seeing or studying “ancient stuff.” Or, why you are talking about it.

4)      How would you characterize our current culture ? And what is good, and what is bad about it? Or are those relative terms?

Our current culture has many positive and negative features, in my view.  On the positive side, we have massive amounts of good information in the culture (books, t.v., education), so people are now, in a sense, smarter than ever before. We have made great progress in being more accepting of people who are different than us, as in race, ethnicity, disability, etc.  And, until recent financial troubles, we have had more and more people able to live at an improved financial level.

On the negative side, we are becoming more and more competitive.  Parents push their little kids to achieve in all areas of life.  Kids are often not allowed to be kids and just play and have fun. Many youths (and their parents) feel that if the youths do not get into a “good” college or an Ivy League college that they are failures.  Many people may be more narcissistic, focused only on themselves and far less concerned with helping others (national surveys seem to support this for college students). And, we have developed a strong “political correctness,” where you have to be careful what you say or there could be horrible consequences against you.

All kinds of offensive behaviors are tolerated now (such as stumbling around drunk and  cursing and shouting), but at the same time, in the name of political correctness, all kinds of thoughts and utterances are punished.  So, our culture gives us mixed messages about what is tolerated and what is not tolerated.

This is just a partial answer, of course, to your great question about changes in the culture.

5)      Let’s talk mass hysteria- we have Columbine, we have the Wall Street sit in’s and then years ago we had Woodstock- all the same or different?

Only in a broad sense are they the same, in the sense that you could say that intense conservatives and intense liberals are the same.  In important ways they are all different.  Columbine involved criminal acts by disturbed kids (not necessarily mentally ill, but certainly kids with problems). The Wall Street sit ins come about to protest bad economic times and bad economic decision-making by those with power, and Woodstock was a lifestyle protest, having to do with changes from the more conforming 1950’s to the more freedom-oriented 1960’s. And, of course a celebration of the 1960’s music. Of course, not everyone participates in a movement, so there has to be some motivation to get involved that may be somewhat similar for all these things (activists are different than nonparticipants), but these things all represent to me different aspects of the culture at the time of their occurrence.

 6)      Some high schools offer Psychology courses- why do high school teachers need to be careful in terms of teaching via examples from current events ?

 There are two major answers here, I think.  First, we have to have perspective to understand a phenomenon, and current events are often too current for us to have an overall view that would allow us to teach them.  Second, if you emphasize current events, while it may be interesting to many, it might take you away from good teaching about psychology or whatever you wish to teach.  Psychology is a science with a research methodology, as well as an art when you get to the psychotherapy part.  If you are teaching the science part then you need to teach it properly and current events may have little to do with how psychologists go about doing science.  You need to teach the methods, the findings, and the theories of psychology.  Some of this is incredibly interesting, e. g. my own field of evolutionary psychology (I am also a clinical psychologist) and what it has to say about why men and women want different things in a mate, e. g. men wanting a woman with youth, health and beauty and women wanting a man with money, power and status. This is relevant to everyday life but has nothing to do with what songs are popular or what some current movie is saying.

 7)  In the 1950’s we had Elvis, now we have this Justin Bieber guy. Same or different ?

I do not follow Justin Bieber that much, so that limits my understanding of him and of the Justin Bieber phenomenon.  All ages have their stars, but it seems to me that Elvis Presley was more sensual, at least at an adult level, shaking his hips, snarling his lips, and his overall sex appeal.  Bieber seems to me to have less of these things, perhaps appealing to a pre-teen or early teen-age level, with some sensuality but less than Elvis Presley.

8)      Is there anything we can use in our current culture to teach students about ?

As I said before, I think it is quite legitimate to study a culture.  The study of some cultural phenomenon could be a valid research study.  My objection is using popular culture to teach things that are better taught by the legitimate content–the scientific method, the research, and theory of a field. So, we can teach some things about the current culture, e. g. how the attitudes and behavior of the current culture differ from other cultures.  Sometimes I tell my students about how, in the culture that I and my ex-wife grew up in, you stuck to things even if they were unpleasant, such as staying in school for what it would result in (a good job), even if it was hard and not fun, e. g. graduate school.  But, for my kids (now both in their 40’s) a different attitude prevailed: do not put up with bad things.  Thus, one of them dropped out of community college and never got a college degree. The other one got a B.A. but did not pursue work in her field. Both have been limited in life by these decisions.  I then tell my students that I think they are more like my kids than like me and my wife, and we discuss whether or not I am correct about this. This leads to discussions about what the culture does and does not demand these days.

9)  What have I neglected to ask?

 Nothing.  Great questions.

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