Getting to Know You: Using Pop Culture Pedagogy to Connect with Students

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue, Wake Forest University School of Law

As a teacher I’ve been learning.
You’ll forgive me if I boast.
And I’ve now become an expert
On the subject I like most.
Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you.
Getting to hope you like me.”

– Rodgers & Hammerstein, from Getting to Know You in The King and I

As a child, I was mildly obsessed with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The King and I was my absolute favorite! I still remember the first time I saw the confident and commanding (albeit quite sexist) King of Siam twirling lithe Anna Leonowens all over the ballroom. The musical, which was inspired by true events, recounts the magical story of a British woman who travels halfway around the world to serve as governess to the King of Siam’s royal children.

Like all new teachers, Anna enters the palace with mixed emotions: excitement, enthusiasm, and a healthy dollop of fear and trepidation. She encounters many bumps along the way – cultural clashes, gender inequality, and power struggles just to name a few. But as is often the case, those challenges compel Anna to find a strength within herself that she never knew existed. And in the end, Anna learns more from her lovable students than she could ever hope to teach.

Fast forward two decades later, and I found myself in Anna’s shoes, staring into the expectant faces of my first group of first-year law students. Although I’d only traveled from Washington, D.C. to Winston Salem, which is certainly not half a world away, I still shared Anna’s sense of enthusiasm, excitement, and unadulterated fear. I had no idea what new challenges the school year would bring and how difficult they would be to overcome. Like Anna, I wondered, “Will my students like me? Will we connect?” The lyrics of Getting to Know You echoed in my head as I struggled to develop fun ways to “break the ice” and develop an instantaneous rapport with my students without losing credibility. Deep down, I knew that many of my students were just as nervous as I was. They felt like impostors, too.

Six years later, I still experience the same stout emotional cocktail on the first day of class, but The King and I reminds me that every teacher can relate to my experience. It’s unsurprising that when negotiating a new experience, I often rely upon pop culture to provide a familiar frame of reference. After all, pop culture surrounds us. Our lives are saturated with pop culture influences from literature and film to music and social media. These influences significantly impact how we experience our world. Our tech-savvy Millennial law students are no different, so if we hope to connect with them on the first day of class and every other, we should consider harnessing their “pop culture ways of knowing and meaning.”[1]

As used herein, “pop culture” refers broadly to “intellectual or imaginative work[s]” that reflect human ideas and experience.[2] This includes cultural references arising from both traditional and non-traditional “arts,” such as musicals, theatre, poetry, blogs, graphic novels, film, radio, television, video games, music, social media, and other Internet sources. Likewise, “pop culture pedagogy” refers to teaching both with and about pop culture. When properly used, pop culture pedagogy can promote deeper learning and engagement, illuminate the relationship between law and culture, encourage creativity and connection, and make complex concepts more accessible.

But pop culture pedagogy only works if the cultural reference resonates with students. Using a dated or nuanced reference forces students to expend mental resources to grasp the reference instead of the concept or feeling it aims to convey. Such students may not only feel confused about the reference but also isolated from their peers and excluded from the learning experience. These feelings can impede their learning, confidence, participation, and willingness to collaborate.

To avoid this, play the song or show a clip of Getting to Know You as students enter your classroom on the first day. Then use an icebreaker exercise to informally survey the pop culture references that resonate best with them. To do this, ask students to introduce themselves with their name, home state, and favorite book, film, television show, or other pop culture reference. A fun alternative, which my teaching assistants suggested, is to ask students to share their favorite “guilty pleasure” television show; doing so creates a positive rapport and will immediately interject laughter and levity into the classroom. To my students’ surprise and delight, I admitted to religiously setting aside every Tuesday night for Dance Moms and occasionally, even Keeping up with the Kardashians! As students provide their responses, I jot down their preferences and then throughout the semester, try to draw pop culture references from the class-specific pop culture profile they generated. Doing so comports with the “cultural capital model, which encourages students to bring the texts that are relevant to their lives into the classroom.”[3]

Absent such an exercise, choose a global reference, such as a recent, blockbuster film that gained worldwide attention like Star Wars or The Hunger Games, or a long-running, wildly popular television show, such as Game of Thrones. In addition, since the vast majority of our students watch Netflix, popular Netflix shows like House of Cards are another good place to start since students unfamiliar with the reference can view a few episodes easily and free of charge. However, the best approach is simply to set aside a few minutes to show the reference in class and then use it to launch a discussion or exercise.

To learn more about pop culture pedagogy, check out my book chapter, Pop Culture Pedagogy, in Christine Corcos, Ed., Teaching Law and Pop Culture, which is forthcoming from Carolina Academic Press.

[1] Jabari Mahiri, Pop Culture Pedagogy and the End(s) of School, 40 J. Adolescent & Adult Literacy 382, 385 (2000).

[2] Raymond Williams, The Analysis of Culture, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader 48-56 (John Storey ed., 2d ed. 1998).

[3] Devin King, Review, 55 J. Adolescent & Adult Literacy 759, 760 (2012) (reviewing Margaret C. Hagood, Donna E. Alvermann, & Alison Heron-Hruby, Bring It to Class: Unpacking Pop Culture in Literacy Learning (2010)) (emphasis added).

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