When senior Lauren Piampiano registered for the special topics SOC 295 Popular Culture class, she thought she would find the material interesting.
Piampiano discovered that while her initial expectations of the class, offered for the first time last fall and taught by Assistant Porfessor of Sociology Athena Elafros, proved to be true, she learned more than she anticipated.
“I took this class because I wanted to be informed on the functions and critical theories regarding popular culture,” said Piampiano, a sociology major from Webster. “It can be important in a variety of career settings, namely the social service field. This class analyzed and helped me better understanding popular culture, a prominent aspect of our society. It also examined some deep topics that are often thought-provoking and introspective.”
Sophomore Kayla Kuntz agrees.
“I enjoy talking about current events, and popular culture greatly affects my age group,” said Kuntz, an exploratory major from Manlius. “But I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the meanings of these events. What I have learned has been much more in depth and analytic than I expected. This is a good thing.”
And that is exactly what Elafros intended.
“While most of the students in the class are sociology majors and have a solid background in sociological analyses,” she said. “I wanted to teach a class on popular culture to provide students with the analysis and problem-solving skills needed to be critical media consumers. Popular culture acts as a lens that reflects the changing norms and values in society and it also can be used as a tool to shape and promote social change in society.”
According to senior Samantha Yavorek, a psychology and sociology major from Canandaigua, the class focused on “learning about different forms of popular culture and how it is represented in the media, as well as how it shapes our society and the individuals in it. But we also learned about the endless genres of popular culture and how they are relative to society.”
Elafros covered a wide variety of popular culture topics in the class, including Miley Cyrus’ music video for Wrecking Ball; twerking; Riot Grrrl; memes; Bruce Lee films; and World Wrestling Entertainment.
“We also discussed Star Trek; The Walking Dead; bronnies; Fedoras; Pogs; sexism and advertising; women’s magazines; Public Enemy; the Eurythmics; trucker hats; skinny jeans; Ugg boots; Mardi Gras beads; Star Wars; Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines music video; and football, among many other examples.”
Senior Karina Cochran, a sociology major from Cortland, said “popular culture is one of those influences that affects everyone’s life, while going largely unnoticed. I think it is important to learn about factors that contribute to our culture and our sense of self. And, I have absolutely benefited from learning how to conceptualize and better understand popular culture.”
Because of this class, sophomore Thomas Fowler now thinks more about what he sees and reads and questions it.
“I no longer see something in the media and turn a blind eye and say ‘oh whatever’ or ‘no big deal,’” said the sociology and political science and history major from Batavia. “I believe it makes me a better person to question popular culture and try to better understand what I am being shown in the media.”
And Fowler isn’t the only one in the class who now questions what he sees.
“Many of the students have mentioned that this class opened their eyes to the ways in which the mass media manipulate our desires and emotions,” said Elafros. “For example, many of the women in the class have told me they can’t look at women’s magazines without seeing them from a critical perspective. Once you understand the sociological perspective, it fundamentally changes how you view the world around you.”
And for Yavorek and Kuntz, the perceptions of popular culture they had before taking this class have changed.
Yavoerk is now “analytical of every ad I come across,” while Kuntz believes she has “a better understanding of current events and why they have the impact they do.” But Cochran’s perceptions “have not changed drastically, as I have always held somewhat of a feminist and critical outlook toward it.”
After taking this class, Elafros hopes “that students can become critical consumers of popular culture and the media. Given that we are immersed in popular culture on a daily basis, I want students to be actively engaging and critiquing it instead of passively consuming it. This was a special topics course and it is not currently being offered. If there is enough student interest, I would love to be able to teach the course again.”
According to Yavorek, this class was fun to complete work for because it consistently maintained her interest.
“It is one of the classes that I found most directly applied to occurrences in my everyday life for my generation at this time,” she said. “Sociology has done a great job of teaching me how to look at things through a critical lens, and understand as well as analyze how concepts such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and even personality are shaped through social interaction and socialization.”
Should Elafros have the opportunity to teach the class again, she is not sure what material she would cover, because “whatever is current and happening within society will be the subject matter of the course. For example, if I was currently teaching the course, I would definitely focus on the Olympics. So it all depends on when I next get to teach the course and what new trends are happening.”