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.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history: across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.
Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared: a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).
Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities.  Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents. In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing: “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.
At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.
However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.
Ever the Same?
So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984). Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.
Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.
Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.
Reconsidering the Masses
If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).
A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).
Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.
A Higher Power
Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external: God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.
Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.
 Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)
 Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).
 We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.
Generally speaking, advances in technology have not only allowed us to streamline existing processes but have also caused us to radically reconsider traditional modes of operation. As individuals and societies become increasingly familiar with technology, and its use becomes seamlessly integrated into everyday life, room for striking innovation develops. In particular, mobile-based applications represent an area with interesting implications for growth.
In response to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, an organization called Ushahidi developed a simple cross-platform tool that would allow citizens to report incidents of intimidation as they happened via text/picture message or the Internet. By focusing on mobile phone technology, developers tapped into the most pervasive technology available in the developing country; mobile phones also provided additional elements such as ease of access and location-specific crowdsourced data. Amazingly, Ushahidi developed a simple open-source tool that aggregated reports of incidents and displayed them on a Google map—the genius was not necessarily in this mash up, although visualization allowed for new ways to understand the problems plaguing the country, but in the idea that this program could be employed anywhere for almost any type of crisis situation from monitoring swine flu to the recent Haitian earthquake.
Ushahidi, much like Twitter, has an advantage in that it represents a bottom-up model of information integration and reports come directly from the people being affected; institutions such as Ushahidi give people a voice, especially when the presiding government cannot be trusted. However, Ushahidi is not a success story merely because it has developed a new method to present knowledge, but because it has also allowed individuals to create a new system for manipulating it. Ushahidi has empowered citizens to become active participants in their communities and taught individuals how to leverage information in order to affect social, political, or economic change.
While at brunch with some friends yesterday at Rush Street in Culver City, I glanced over at my phone as it lit up for a second. A couple of key clicks later, I discovered that someone had just sent me a message on Facebook. I stowed the message for later and began to muse on the website for a bit as the group devoured a basket of truffle fries.
As hard as I try, I can never really recall what life was life before social networking sites. In the back of my mind, I know that those days must have existed, as the Internet wasn’t even around when I was born, but a solid understanding of that time will forever elude me. The teen culture of the early 1990’s grew up intertwined with the developing technologies of pagers (how antiquated!), mobile phones, and online communications. Now, the same types of advancements are allowing current young people to interact in ways that I wouldn’t even have thought of when I was in high school.
I will be the first to say that some of these ways are innovative and astounding. Sure, not everybody might care about the Twitter saying that you’re first in line at the latest Sci-Fi Convention, but the idea that you could simultaneously tell everybody who did care amazes me; the way in which these social networking sites facilitate the ease of disseminating information to people impresses me.
But, as any teen can probably attest to, the Internet is not all good. Various iterations of the evils of the Internet have been ingrained into the public consciousness with the trailer for an upcoming movie even referring to MySpace as the new “booty call.” Indeed, it seems like MySpace is a place for friends…with benefits. We have all heard the horror stories about cyberstalkers and pedophiles, but there are researchers like Dr. Megan Moreno who are attempting to discover a way to use this new technology to help, instead of scare, individuals.
Essentially, Dr. Moreno contacted at-risk young people though MySpace with some information about the possible repercussions of profiles that included references to unsafe sexual practices or drug (yes, I include alcohol in that category as well) use. The details, which are fascinating and can be found in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, say that online communities like MySpace might present a new forum for public health education—exciting news all around.
I am hopeful that studies such as these might encourage more of a dialogue between the teens and parents about the use of social networking sites. In the past, discussions about online profiles have often gone in the wrong direction due to misplaced or misdirected fear: parents want to protect their children from the evildoers of the world, clamping down too hard on their kids while young people do not disclose information to their parents due to fear of reprisal. I can see how it is difficult as a parent to understand what your child is up to online (especially if you didn’t grow up in an environment that constantly featured the same technology!) but I think that parents still have to make an effort to learn. The unfamiliar is inherently scary, but how can you talk to young people without knowing what you are talking about? Children are resourceful and will find ways around the obstacles that you place in their paths; authoritarian behavior does not seem to be the answer. For me, what is more important is teaching children how to make smart choices, explaining why their actions might be troublesome, and then stepping back a bit. By taking the time to discuss this issue, online spaces can provide an arena for young people to interact with others and to begin the process of figuring out who they are and how they relate to the rest of the world.