If you are trying to engage your students "where they live," you have probably thought about incorporating some elements of popular culture into your courses. This is, of course, a tricky business. On the one hand, we are trying to help students see that there is an exciting new world of ideas that they have perhaps never dreamed of, and using mass-market entertainment media materials is not necessarily a good way to do that. A greater risk is that most faculty members don't know much about the kind of popular culture that most of our students care about. Lots of philosophy instructors, for example, draw on The Matrix to illustrate various themes. This movie was made in 1999, however, and many current students have not seen it. To put it another way, the half life of a really well conceived popular culture class is very short, so one must constantly rethink the material.
Henrik Madsen of Mansfield University has developed a clever way to employ popular culture movies. He assigns traditional philosophy essays (for example, Harry Frankfurt's "Reasons of Love" or Plato's Symposium), and then asks the students to pick a movie that they feel exemplifies some of the themes of the essay. (He also recommends some possible movies, such as Brokeback Mountain, Titanic, or Babett's Feast). He then gives a fairly detailed assignment for applying the philosophical essays to whatever movie the student has selected. The point is that the students themselves select the popular culture items, and teach the teacher about them.
There are quite a few texts available on popular culture and philosophy:
The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, edited by William Irwin, has books Philosophy and various pop culture expressions such as The Office, 24, Lost, and South Park, to name a few. If you haven't heard of some of these, you probably should not be incorporating pop culture into your course.
Open Court has a series, with titles on Philosophy and Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mel Gibson's Passion, and a variety of others.
Author: John Immerwahr
Update: 17 Dec. 2015 (E. Tarver)