Pop Culture 101: The Science of Broomsticks
A class in what?
To the shock of academic purists, today's students can now take classes in Buffyology (the study of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Elvish (the language of “Lord of the Rings”), “Harry Potter” and other TV shows and movies, with a focus on everything from physics to military history.
The professors who are giving these courses say the subjects are works of art worthy of scholarly ink and students' time and dollars. But others are wary of bringing Entertainment Weekly into the classroom.
"The Potter class looks at how anti-gravity research could produce a flying broomstick. That's intriguing, but it's not really science education in my book," said Reader's Digest editor Jacob Young, who featured "The Science of Harry Potter," a Frostburg State University (search) course, in a March article called "Absurd 101."
Young compared the Potter class to "How to Watch Television," an offering at Montclair State University (search), and "How to Get Dressed," a freshman seminar at Princeton (search).
"I'm in no position to say they're bunk — but they sound pretty weird," he told Foxnews.com.
But physics professor George R. Plitnik, who teaches the Potter class in Maryland, insists that the course — which ponders the possibility of self-teleportation — is no joke.
“It’s science, not magic. They learn as much as in any science class for non-science majors. There are daily quizzes, two big essay tests, a midterm, a final and an original paper."
Plitnik’s top student, 20-year-old Samantha Parsons, said she can vouch that the class is more about protons and neutrons than wizards and witchcraft.
“So many people go 'Oh, it’s a 'Harry Potter' course? How dumb is this?' They quickly find out that it's actually quite a bit of work."
While Parsons confesses that the movie name in the class title is what originally caught her eye, the course turned out to be different from and more interesting than what she expected, she said.
“I rather enjoyed it. The information was surprisingly useful outside of class. It covered a wide variety of subjects and extended my interest in several other fields."
Middle Tennessee State University English Professor David Lavery — known to fellow Buffyologists as the “father” of "Buffy" studies — said people are as skeptical of his colleagues as they are of J.K. Rowling (search) groupies.
"It's astonishing how quickly people reject this stuff before they experience it," he said. "The concern is that if students are given the choice, you know what they're gonna choose. Film classes fill up on first day. Seventeenth-century drama does not."
But the literature professor thinks there's room for both "high" and "low" culture at the university level.
"It becomes harder by the year to teach Shakespeare, but I don’t want to give up. I just want to include Buffy."
Lavery, who recently co-hosted the “Slayage” conference — a three-day gathering of more than 325 fans and students of the butt-kicking blonde — admits that part of the appeal of teaching pop culture is simply that the scholars are fans, too.
"[We] do it in a way because [we] enjoy it — and after all, [entertainment] is where the money and influence is. What has more influence, the poems of Wallace Stevens — which I love — or a television show?"
Lavery also said the interest at the scholarly level is not just in any television shows and movies — it's in quality shows and movies. Buffy, for example, not only features all the themes of Shakespeare, it is also beautifully written and rife with references to "high" culture, he said.
"There is tremendous interest in Buffy from a wide variety of disciplines: English, classics, military history. It’s one of those works of pop culture that the more you study it, the better it gets. This is not true of all shows. The third time you watch 'Alias' or '24,' there’s nothing left."
Other films and TV programs also have been deemed worthy of a closer look. The philosophy of "The Simpsons" is being discussed in classrooms along with Plato and Kant; classes in Klingon, the language of "Star Trek," are widely available; and at Turves Green Boys’ Technology College in Birmingham, England, children are offered weekly after-hours lessons on Sindarin, a conversational form of Elvish invented by “Lord of the Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien (search).
"It's very useful if they want to go on to university to study, as it involves looking at some of Tolkien's old manuscripts. This develops some very complex skills," the British school's educational coordinator, Zainab Thorp, told the Associated Press.
New Yorker Michael Klein, 31, is willing to accept that pop culture can be a good launching pad for further academic study.
"I think it’s a good thing, if it's a jumping-off point. I often progressed in types of things I read. It's an attempt to engage a wider audience," he said.
But he also fears the dumbing down of true academic study.
"You're risking engaging them on a level where it no longer is what it is. If it's a cartoon it’s not a real moving body in the universe," he said.