Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application
College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding
Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)
Secondary school counselors, CBOs
Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.
The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.
But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?
College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.
Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).
However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.
It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.
Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”
A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.
HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) presents viewers with a rather paradoxical situation: although ostensibly a show saturated with death (the main characters work for a family-run funeral home), the series’ core is a frank exploration of human existence in the wake of the deceased. Quite literally, the show is about life after death.
It follows quite naturally, then, that the third season episode “Twilight” concerns itself less with the moral arguments surrounding capital punishment and instead chooses to focus on the effects that the act has on those who survive. Taking this argument a bit further, we can see that while, on one level, the opening teaser of “Twilight” could be viewed in terms of lethal injection and punishment, it also more broadly sets up a theme that resonates throughout the rest of the episode: in what ways do we choose to let things die (symbolically or otherwise)? In effect, “Twilight” asks us to consider that capital punishment isn’t necessarily something that is solely defined by midnight stays and candlelight vigils; we make choices in our everyday lives that sentence others to a kind of death, whether it consists of the termination of a relationship, accepting the reality that a missing loved one might be permanently gone, or having an abortion. Importantly, while displaying all of this, the show does not pass judgment on individuals, but instead examines the inner turmoil incurred as part of the decision making process and suggests that although the choices made by the characters might indeed be the right ones for them, they do not come without emotional consequences.
Six Feet Under thusly takes a rather unexpected third position in the debate over capital punishment: instead of proclaiming the deed right or wrong, the show asks viewers to consider if they are prepared for the emotional fallout that comes from literal or figurative execution. This episode, like many others in the series, asks us to contemplate the role and power that death has in our lives—and I would argue that determining this answer for oneself greatly impacts one’s view on the morality of capital punishment. Ultimately, as we struggle with the notions of how and why life is sacred, we are also challenged by the show to consider the ways that we routinely (and virtually without notice!) determine that a life, or lives, are not worthy.
 The title of the episode also evokes a sense of the liminal state with twilight literally representing a sort of transition period but also manifests as a sedative taken by Claire during her abortion procedure and is described by the nurse as invoking a state in which “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” There is, perhaps, no better line in the episode that describes the relationship of the dead to the living.
 As noted in Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters, our constant preoccupation with death manifests in myriad ways, from Gothic Horror (my particular area of interest) to popular music to philosophy. The significance of the condition is also demonstrated by the various rituals that we have constructed to deal with death and dying—from the often-present funeral and wake (which are, to me, mainly an effort by the living to create a sacred space that confers a sense of community during a time of crisis) to the rite of the last meal and the rather morbid recording of prisoners’ last words in the state of Texas (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm). The existence of these rituals indicates that we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and finality of death and also place particular emphasis on actions undertaken prior to crossing over.
In which everyone becomes a victim. In some ways a state of mind, in some ways a state of being.
If there’s one thing this show does best, it’s to feed you something and then turn it on its end in the most spectacular way. And, as it seems, inversion/duality is the name of the game this season.
The flip side, of course, of fighting over nothing is waging war on two fronts at once: ownership is, in some ways, a state of being but also, in some ways, a state of mind. Sookie’s predicament takes the concept of Bella and redresses it in a way that is simultaneously more real and more powerful: if you’re not somebody’s, you won’t be anybody. Ownership is not just about identity or relationships, it’s about your very existence. It’s what every vampire in Bon Temps gets and Sookie does not.
The flip side is Bill, who’s in deeper than we could have ever imagined: as if being at war with himself wasn’t enough, Bill is playing the Authority against the AVL (against whatever feelings he still has left for Sookie). War is a series of ever-shifting alliances that causes you to forget where you end and where the ideology begins.
The flip side is Jason, struggling to escape Hotshot, literally and figuratively. It’s about extracting ourselves from the consequences of bad decisions (made worse by good intentions!) and the bondage that results.
The flip side is Jess and Hoyt, fighting to maintain the veneer of domestic life as it cracks and fades. The opposite of Sookie and Eric, their fight is the fight that everyone has when you’re not speaking the same language, fighting two entirely different wars. Or worse, it’s being Sophie Anne and fighting in a war whose factions you can’t even comprehend.
All of this seems to be introducing the idea that ultimately, in some way, we are at war with ourselves as we fight the war abroad and the war at home.
I had gone with my friend Kim to a concert the night before and it had been a long evening. I will be the first to admit that I usually stay up late, but getting out of a venue after six hours of hearing sets from Snow Patrol, The Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie, would be draining for anyone. Kim and I had both refrained from calling in sick to work and were now commiserating with each other.
“It was raining on the freeway this morning,” Kim lamented via e-mail.
“I have to navigate the treacherous waters of the office holiday party,” I countered. “It’s like Buffy having to live on Earth after glimpsing heaven.”
To be honest, it wasn’t much different from any other day but it was in the wake of one of the best shows of my life and the relative low could not be avoided. Being surprised by Kanye West’s performance was enough to push me over the edge and I would be in the relative doldrums for a few days.
I sat at my desk contemplating the message that I had just crafted. Had I just made a Buffy reference? Sure, I’m not the biggest fan of the show, but, like with the Facts of Life, you take the both the good and the bad (aspects of pop culture). The merits of Buffy itself are another discussion entirely, but one of the things that always struck me about this series was the way that it incorporated sex. Thankfully, although a show containing teenaged characters, the show itself transcended the issues that make up the typical high school fare. In the run of the show, audiences were exposed to Warren, a guy so desperate for a girlfriend that he created a robot (go back and check out the allusions to sexual gratification); Oz giving into his animalistic nature and cheating on Willow; and Buffy engaging in loathsome sex (her internal judgment, not mine) while the walls were literally and figuratively coming down around her. But, of all of the issues surrounding sex and sexuality on the show, the one that continually got to me was the recurring theme of sex and death.
These two things are of course linked: one brings you into this world (usually) and one takes you out of it. We can get philosophical and mention the cycle of life or our subconscious desire to cheat death by having children, but I find it fascinating to examine how these two forces affect our daily lives—we seem to have a bit of trouble with both in America, don’t we?
Americans are complex beings and our psyches often do not make a whole lot of sense. We have trouble dealing with death and sex but we are ready to accept sensual vampires—Twilight, True Blood, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m looking at you. Vampires are an incarnation of death (fine, the undead) whose act of feeding involves the intimate placement of a mouth on a neck and live only by seeing others die. Not to mention that the process of siring involves killing and birthing in the very same act!
I firmly believe that both events are natural (although they definitely have unnatural manifestations at times) and that neither should be feared. Yet, while I have my personal opinions on this subject (and there’s enough material to write a moderate essay), what’s more important for me is that you ask your own questions and find your own answers. When you have a second, think about how you relate to sex and how you relate to death: these two things will, in part, tell you how you relate to life. From le petite mort, to necrophilia, to autoerotic asphyxiation and the reduction of blood flow, the connections are there, if we choose to see them.