Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Professors Turn to Pop Culture in Class

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Professors Turn to Pop Culture in Class

Article excerpt

When people think of college philosophy and theology courses, they may think of Socrates, sacred scripture or the musings of the saints. Chances are they won't conjure up images of Disney films, Bob Dylan tunes or MTV's "Jackass: The Movie." But the juxtaposition of all of these things is increasingly common in many college classrooms. More and more philosophy and theology professors, in an effort to reach across the generation gap, turn to popular culture to illustrate abstract concepts in the classroom. Though the pedagogy may seem peculiar, both faculty and students agree that the approach enables effective learning of abstract philosophical and theological concepts.

For Carissa Gores, a sophomore at Santa Clara University in California, the regular integration of movie clips from movies like "Jackass: The Movie," "The Apostle" and "40 Days and 40 Nights" in her introductory-level theology class helped to bring alive subject matter she had once struggled to see as relevant to her life.

"It closed the gap a lot between studying something that seems very ancient and can seem kind of 'done with' in a sense, because these questions were explored so long ago," Gores said. "Watching modern movies where people are trying to answer the same kinds of questions like what is right; what is wrong; should I feel bad for committing this kind of act--it makes these questions relatable to students."

Gores' instructor, Santa Clara religious studies professor Tom Beaudoin, said that using movie clips in the classroom enables students to make theological sense of their culture and cultural practices.

"It helps to show that in a theology class you can deal with what people take pleasure in in their everyday life," Beaudoin said. Beaudoin uses clips from "Jackass" to spark discussion of how seemingly spontaneous practices are strongly culturally situated, and shows scenes from the Robert Duvall film "The Apostle" to begin a dialogue about conversion.

For Beaudoin, using pop culture to teach theology not only enhances learning, but it also establishes good teacher-student rapport, and it predisposes students to the subject matter.

"It gives them access into my sense of humor and lets them know that I care about their perspective," Beaudoin said. "It's from their culture, and it shows that I want access to them; it renders them benevolent to the lesson. They're laughing and more ready to learn."

Chris Fuller, a theology professor at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., teaches entire courses on scripture and film. Regular classroom media use shows students how Catholicism has shaped the wider culture. Fuller teaches with films crafted by directors who come from a Catholic heritage, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Frank Capra.

"These directors' visual style and storytelling structures give evidence of someone who has lived within a Catholic culture even though some of them have explicitly or unconsciously rejected it," Fuller said. "They're illustrations of the cultural power of Catholicism. I'll say to the students, 'Look at this scene. See how this is a reflection of the artist's Catholic background.'"

Hilary Burr, a junior at Carroll and one of Fuller's students, said that a classroom viewing of the film "It's a Wonderful Life," directed by Capra, changed the way she perceived the film, often recognized simply as a heartwarming holiday tale.

"Learning that Capra was a Catholic director helped me see new details," Burr said. "We learned to pay attention to the father-son relationship in the movie and to see the importance of family in a Catholic context. Capra's Catholicism was implied in the way he directed the movie. It was interesting to learn that being Catholic affects your life outside of Mass."

Fuller also uses movies extensively in his scripture classes. For example, he uses the Disney movie "Prince of Egypt" to provoke student discussion on how they have come to know scripture. …

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