My first semester of teaching Introductory Sociology was to a class of 120 students, and I had just completed my Master’s degree. I didn’t have a lot of pedagogy prep and was told I could construct my course any way that I wanted. I was told to, “play to my strengths” – and for me, that meant utilizing popular culture, which was my main area of research. I decided to structure each week of a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday course around two days of lecture and then a Friday class where I showed something from popular culture and then we analyzed it using what we had learned in the previous two lectures.
While this plan was initially meant to be a one-semester strategy to save me from having to create 3 brand new lectures from scratch, and instead only focus on making 2 lectures per week, I quickly realized this strategy was 1) bringing students to class on Fridays (when there was no attendance policy), 2) helping students learn materials rather than simple memorize them for a test, 3) involving students in the co-creation of lecture materials, and 4) helping me expand the definition of “popular culture” for both my students and myself.
Getting students to want to attend class is no easy feat without an explicit attendance policy, especially post-pandemic. Fridays seem to have the lowest attendance rates, so implementing a teaching strategy that effectively brings more students to class on Friday is a win. I encourage students to bring a small snack, relax, and enjoy watching sociology come to life. I even offer for them to bring friends if I’m in a room large enough. I start each class with a list of concepts, theories, perspectives, etc to “Watch For”, give some background on the item we will be watching, and then start the show. Afterward, large classes break into small groups to discuss what they found; in smaller classes, we can stay as a large group. I make sure to have a few clear connections that will be testable material for their notes. This strategy has also proven especially useful recently with concerns over Artificial Intelligence because AI wouldn’t know what we had watched or what connections we had used in discussions.
I encourage students to email me suggestions for these days, but they must make an argument for how it fits our material. I get a lot of suggestions from students. I try to use as many as I can, which they love, because they are seeing things they enjoy, and they are co-creating materials that they describe as having a strong impact on their agency in the course. Students who are not from or familiar with American culture share things from their culture – which is beneficial to all students in the class and students like the inclusivity it brings. It also helps me to stay up to date with what is trending for my students, which is extremely beneficial to me as both a teacher and pop culture researcher.
I know students are learning class material, rather than memorizing it because they tell me about seeing class concepts when they encounter popular culture outside of class – they say it’s a “switch” they can’t turn off, and now they share sociology with their peers, family, and on social media occasionally! For me, this demonstrates how teaching sociology can be public sociology, and hopefully make the world a better place.
If you want to start incorporating popular culture into your own classes but don’t know where to start, I recommend https://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/about-us.html. They offer phenomenal suggestions for free and also share the goal of advancing public sociology.
Anna S. Rogers is a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia. She teaches courses for the sociology department and the criminal justice program. She is currently the Undergraduate Coordinator for the Sociology Department. Her research interests include pop culture, gender, and cultural criminology.