Sunday, November 2, 2014

Using Popular Culture in the Classroom: “black-ish”, Thick Description, & Twitter

Let me preface this by admitting that popular culture is not solely a tool I use in the classroom; my academic work usually focuses on how popular culture gives insight into the social order in which it exists.  That said, whatever your field of study or the topic of your class, incorporating popular culture is a great way to enliven the classroom, promote student engagement, and teach course content.  This will be a part of a series on my use of popular culture in the classroom, and I invite you to share your own lesson plans by responding in the Comments or posting your own Blog.  (To become an author, email

“black-ish” as “Thick Description”
In an Ethnography class (Communicating Across Cultures) in the BAUS program at MCNY, students are introduced to Clifford Geertz’ “Thick Description.”  Students understand how Geertz’ descriptions of the wink, the imitation of the wink, the rehearsal of the wink, and the parody of the wink are all imbued with different cultural meaning, but when asked to create their own “thick description” of a gesture in their cultural scene, they often have difficulties.  For Geertz, thick description is the foundation of ethnography, and I want it to be a useful tool for students to use in their own ethnographies. 

A recent episode of the new ABC comedy “black-ish” gave me an opportunity to re-teach thick description in an interesting and approachable way.  The episode features the father trying to teach his son the importance of “the nod” as an act of communication between black men.  While watching the father struggle to show his son the importance of this gesture in his cultural scene, the show became, for me, an extended “thick description” of the multiple meanings of this seemingly simple gesture.
The next day in class, I showed a clip from “The Nod” episode (Season 1, episode 4) of “black-ish”.  Afterwards, we mapped the multiple meanings of “the nod” as a class.  Through this mind map and discussion, we discovered that “the nod” is a sophisticated form of communication that signifies a connection between black men and comes to serve as an acknowledgement of that shared identity and history. 

During the discussion, I nodded my head often, and then asked, “How is my nod different than ‘the nod’ on the show?  The movement is the same.”  I asked them to identify the concept we had studied this semester which demonstrates how the two nods are different.  Almost immediately, one of the students answered:  “Thick Description.”  The room lit up with light bulbs going off over our heads.   “OOOhhhhhh,” a few of them said in this collective moment of realization.

“black-ish” and Racial Inequality
The television show “black-ish” made an appearance in a few of my classes this week.  This new ABC comedy has been met with some controversy over the title of the show and concerns that the show reinscribes stereotypes of black people.  Donald Trump even got involved in the discussion, posting a Tweet that read:  “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”?  Can you imagine the furor of a show entitled “Whiteish”!  Racism at highest level?”

I brought this Tweet up in an Introduction to Sociology course during our discussion of racial inequality.  The simple Tweet allowed us to have an engaging conversation about race, to define “racism”, and to return to other key concepts we had defined, including white privilege, prejudice, and discrimination.  One of the students brought up the term “reverse racism,” and our discussion allowed us to unpack and problematize this term.  This ”real-world” context allowed us to have candid and thoughtful discussion of race in modern American culture.  It also allowed us to ask, “What can be done to combat these systems?”  The students came up with some interesting starting points, including increased conversation, education, and talking more about how racism still exists today though we purport to live in a “color-blind” society. 

“black-ish” and Twitter
I was so excited by the effectiveness of these lesson plans using “black-ish” in the classroom that I Tweeted about my experience, including a picture I snapped of the mind map we made from the class discussion on “the nod” as thick description.  I even Tweeted the image to the show’s creator, Anthony Anderson, and he favorite and retweeted my Tweet to his followers.  This was exciting for me and for the students.  Furthermore, it allowed for our course content to expand far behind the four walls of our classroom. 

Using Twitter to analyze and post course content allows us to see how the work we are doing in the classroom connects to the larger world.  (I require two of my classes to keep Twitter accounts, and use course hashtags for labeling my Tweets that connect to content in my other classes.)  With our collective experience of seeing the application of classroom concepts to the real world, coupled with the “real world” answering back, the students got to see Purpose Centered Education in action. 
By using popular culture in the classroom, it allows the students access into the course material.  By bringing into the classroom what is happening “in the moment” in popular culture, it also encourages students to think critically about the culture all around them.  Often times we look at popular culture as simply entertainment, but as this use of a comedy sit com begins to suggest, pop culture can be a rich way to teach theory.  Furthermore, it’s just plain fun.

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