Pop goes academy as nerds revel in American splendour

Jon Marcus visits a department dedicated to the study of popular culture, a growing scholarly field

April 1, 2010

In a small town in rural Ohio, the heartland of the US, stands a building that resembles America's attic. This is the library of the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

It is stuffed to the brim with romance novels, board games, greeting cards, comic books, mail-order catalogues, matchbook covers, vinyl records and Star Trek memorabilia.

Bowling Green is the only American university to have a department of popular culture - the term itself is said to have been coined by the late Ray Browne, distinguished university professor emeritus in popular culture, who co-founded the programme in 1973.

Dr Browne, who initially had trouble persuading colleagues that popular culture was a serious academic discipline, died last year at the age of 87. But the field he pioneered is thriving.

"When the programme first started, highbrow academics looked down on it and didn't see it as a legitimate form of study," said Matt Donahue, instructor in the department and one of its 10 full-time faculty members.

Dr Donahue teaches about and performs popular music, dabbles in decorating cars with everything from papier mache to ceramic tiles, makes documentaries about pop music and automobile art, and likes to address people as "dude".

"A lot of folks in the academy get their information from books. I take great pride in the fact that I'm involved in creating popular culture," he explained.

Dr Browne, he said, "went through the shit to make this happen. Shakespeare, classical music and so on were the only valid forms of study. Now it's become hip to study popular culture."

Although there are no hard statistics, a growing number of US universities are adding popular-culture components to conventional disciplines - offering a history of rock'n'roll class via a music department, for example, or including a history of television course as part of a communication curriculum.

There has also been a surge in the number of books and journals on the topic.

Marilyn Ferris Motz, head of the department at Bowling Green, said this growth stemmed from "an interest in the artistic taste and practices of large numbers of people, not just the intellectual elite".

Even so, Bowling Green remains the only US university to have an entire department devoted to the topic, offering both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

The campus' location in a quiet agricultural area south of industrial Toledo is an advantage, Dr Donahue said.

"We don't have all the distractions that places such as New York or Los Angeles do."

Bowling Green is a small all-American town, and students on the course say that they like to spend their spare time "hanging out" at places such as the local Wal-Mart.

"It's interesting to try to understand the part these places play in the community," said graduate student Rachael Cobb, adding that sometimes she still has to "convince people that this is a real department".

As an academic course, she said, the focus of the programme was on "how to approach pop culture".

But she acknowledged that each of the department's students and faculty had their own obsessions - from her fixation with The Simpsons to a classmate's love of Swedish death metal.

Some of the programme's graduates have gone on to museum or library work, film and television, and even the comic-book industry, Dr Motz said.

Holy comic-book shrine!

Visitors to the popular-culture library on Bowling Green's campus are met with cardboard movie cut-outs and an exhibit of badges from long-forgotten political campaigns.

Its comic-book collection is the third largest in the world (the largest, surprisingly, is in the US Library of Congress), and it has more than 1 million vinyl sound recordings, plus an assortment of materials about the occult, satire and sport.

Much of the material is so valuable that it is kept under lock and key. "They've got everything, dude," enthused Dr Donahue, who was working in a Toledo record store when he came to Bowling Green as an undergraduate.

The programme is turning its focus towards understanding the globalisation of popular culture.

Dr Donahue said: "It just so happens that many countries around the world are fascinated by American popular culture."

But are they fascinated because they like it, or in the way that people can be fascinated by a traffic accident?

"I think there's a lot of disgust about American popular culture in other countries," Dr Donahue acknowledged.

"The Simpsons in itself is a social and political critique of American life and American culture, and in many ways that's why it is so popular in other countries."

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