Buttercup, Obi Wan, and Mr. Feenie walk into a bar… I mean my class. Well… more accurately, they found their way onto my syllabus for Contemporary International Problems.
I will be an instructor of record for Contemporary International Problems during the Fall B semester. While the course has to meet certain requirements due to its designation by our university as a core curriculum course, a global learning course, and a writing course, there is no set way on how to teach it. The description is broad and, as you can imagine given the title, the topics change with time. I decided to take the creative license up a notch and teach Contemporary International Problems [with/and/through Popular Culture].
Inspired by professors like Dr. John Oates, Dr. Jenny Lobasz, Dr. Alex Barder, and Dr. Dan Nexon as well as my own approach to teaching Friday sections of Introduction to International Relations, I set out to create a course that would allow me to assign episodes of The Powerpuff Girls and get away with it.
Creating the syllabus was quite the undertaking. I spent weeks going through books and articles and syllabi for a variety of related courses. After seeking some insight from what I consider my Powerhouse of FIU Fairy-godmothers on organizing strategies and reading materials, I ended up with a four column table in Word: week (6 of them), topic area, read (required and recommended list), and watch.
It is important to me that I assign students a variety of types of readings. Come October, they will find academic journal articles, book chapters, magazine articles, blog posts, and various website materials linked to Canvas. Some of the readings directly discuss popular culture – either in general themes or as a conversation with a specific film or show I have assigned. Some of the readings cover the historical trajectory of an issue area, while others discuss the current state of a global challenge or specific inequality.
I assigned TV show episodes as well as full-length movies – some much more popular than others I will admit (do undergrads know movies made in the ’80s?).
It was a challenge to not only come up with lists of movies and shows for each topic area, but then to narrow down that list and pair it with readings. The hardest part, I think, was choosing one or two episodes of a show to assign. You see, I wanted to assign shows that I thought people had seen or at least heard of and assign episodes that were representative of the themes to be drawn out of the show. I, however, was also battling not wanting to spoil any major plot twists for new watchers and wanting students to have enough background on the story to feel comfortable with their knowledge and ability to digest the plot and themes of the episode(s) of each show to be able to write about them.
I also faced the Falling-Down-A-Rabbit-Hole type of challenge. For example, I think I may have inadvertently drafted a whole syllabus based on Alice in Wonderland stories in my head as I was figuring things out for my Women’s Rights, Then and Now module.
Despite the challenges, second-guessing, and occasional binge watching sessions, a pretty cool syllabus has been born. Students will have the opportunity to think about access to education and the representation of educators, to reflect upon biodiversity loss and what it meant for humans to be depicted living on a ship circling a trashed planet, and to consider the relationship between popular culture and international politics through Star Wars and Madame Secretary.
Though I wish I was teaching this class in-person, as opposed to online, I am extremely excited about this course and look forward to continuing to learn ways to make bringing superheroes, handmaids, clones, and orange tree loving fluff balls with yellow mustaches into the classroom.
Note: Syllabus may be available upon request.
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