College-level homework is rarely fun, but how do required readings of “Game of Thrones” sound? What about being assigned nightly TED talks? How about mandated viewings of “Supernatural”?


When the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and Florida State College at Jacksonville start classes Monday, some students will be taking courses that focus on popular culture as a way to teach traditional skills, such as reading comprehension and critical thinking. The concept isn’t new, but Northeast Florida professors said it has become more common in the past few years to move popular culture to the center stage of a college course, rather than using it for infrequent anecdotes.

These classes also appeal to students who are fans of certain movies, TV shows or books who are interested in the underlying themes.

“A lot of students who are fans are interested in engaging in a conversation, a more serious scholarly conversation,” said Linda Howell, director of the writing program at UNF and the instructor for “Fandom and Context,” which explores fan culture. “These are people who are experts in that particular world.”

But these courses aren’t all fun and games. Research, textbooks and lectures fill out most of these courses, but professors say keeping popular culture as the backdrop keeps the classes fun. At the end of the day, students are being exposed to new ideas and concepts — and fulfilling some general education requirements along the way.

Getting, and keeping, students’ attention can be difficult, and they’re more likely to absorb material that keeps them interested, said Will Pewitt, a UNF visiting professor who is teaching a “Game of Thrones”-inspired creative writing course this semester. In his course, he assigns readings from the “Game of Thrones” series and uses the books to teach about genre, tone and character development. He said the series also helps illustrate ways to build a fantasy world through writing.

“The great challenge of a professor is to adapt not necessarily the material but the means by which you communicate,” Pewitt said. “It’s not really the material that’s changing, but the vehicle by which you discuss how creative writing works. … Whatever gets students on board is something that we should be aiming for.”

John Fields, an FSCJ professor, said there’s a debate among academics whether including popular culture adds relevance for the students or undermines the efforts of serious, academic disciplines.

He said classes such as this, including the classes he teaches on “Doctor Who” and “Supernatural,” have their place, particularly as general education classes and beginning-level courses. They don’t substitute for higher-level courses but help get younger students interested in the building blocks.

“I’m not trying to teach them Shakespeare. I’m trying to teach them critical thinking,” Fields said. “If students are interested, they’ll pay more attention to it.”

In Fields’ course, he said he encourages students to look up historical and sociological references in “Supernatural” that they don’t understand. Maybe an episode includes an evil genie, and that spurs a discussion on depictions of genies across the world.

“Suddenly you’ve exposed them to cross-cultural myths, and they weren’t even expecting it,” he said.

Popular culture doesn’t just keep students’ interest; it can give them more information than a textbook. In Jacksonville University professor Christi Bamford’s class on the psychology of happiness, she assigns TED talks by well-known psychologists. This gives students a chance to hear about developments in psychology directly from the researcher.

“When you’re reading the original research, sometimes you can get bogged down by the statistics and the methodology,” she said.

“This really helps it come alive.”

In FSCJ professor Johann Pautz’s “Information and Power” class, one day his students watch hero Neo battling his way through the Matrix, and another day his students dissect Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”

Students also have to digest readings from Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and a host of philosophers and scholars.

“There’s no way it’s really sugar-coated,” Pautz said of his class.

Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161