Learning from Beyonce and Kanye: The rise of ‘Trojan horse’ celebrity courses

By on March 8, 2017

— Sometimes it takes a superstar like Beyonce to get university students talking about bigger issues. (Photo: Beyoncé/Facebook)
Sometimes it takes a superstar like Beyonce to get university students talking about bigger issues. (Photo: Beyoncé/Facebook)

TORONTO—Sometimes it takes a superstar like Beyonce to get university students talking about bigger issues.

It’s one of the reasons University of Victoria lecturer Melissa Avdeeff launched a course on Queen Bey a few years ago. She felt a description highlighting the pop superstar would draw students who might otherwise dismiss her music class with a sociological spin.

“It’s kind of a Trojan horse situation,” Avdeeff says.

“(We) bring students in with Beyonce, they get a better critical understanding of an artist they’re engaged with — but through that (we introduce) wider issues.”

Over the past few years, a growing number of universities have warmed to teaching classes linked to today’s celebrities.

While academia once reserved class time for composers like Beethoven and legends like the Beatles, more recently, Top 40 mavens Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus found their names listed on a syllabus of higher learning. Washington University’s “Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics,” which began in January, filled up almost instantly when registration opened for students.

But celebrity courses aren’t entirely a new phenomenon.

Madonna was an early pioneer of celebrity studies when the University of Amsterdam launched a class on her influence in 1997. Other pop culture-angled courses followed, including a buzzworthy class on HBO’s “The Sopranos” at the University of Calgary while the show was still in production.

What’s different today is that social media has injected an immediacy into the conversation unlike ever before. Examinations of popular artists now include debates about their tweets, Instagram posts and music videos.

Even as they grow in popularity, not everyone thinks celebrity courses deserve full credit.

Zainab Mahmood felt the backlash from her peers after enrolling in a Beyonce course at the University of Waterloo two years ago.

“I had to explain myself to most people,” says Mahmood, adding she’s glad she ignored the naysayers and took the class. If anything, time has given her vindication for studying the power of modern celebrity.

Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House blindsided many who wrote him off as a mere reality TV star.

All the while Beyonce continues to ignite conversations about race relations, while actors like Emma Watson and Lena Dunham stoked feminist rhetoric on social media.

Mahmood says her professor warned students this wouldn’t be a series of breezy lectures on Beyonce’s glamorous life. Instead, the pop singer would be a vehicle for exploring broader issues like race, feminism and performance theory, though her self-titled 2013 album.

“It was really intensive,” Mahmood remembers. “(The class) left a huge impact on me — more so in my daily life than a lot of the other things I studied.”

Not every academic is convinced that splashing a famous person across a course title is the right approach.

University of British Columbia Prof. Ernest Mathijs chose not to put Johnny Depp in the name of his media industries class, even though a few sessions focused solely on the actor as a case study.

“It’s really not only about the star — you’re using the star as an example,” he says.

Mathijs believes a class named after a performer who’s still making movies could work against the professor. For example, Depp fell out of favour with his students around the same time a soured relationship was grabbing headlines in gossip magazines.

“In hindsight, all the sudden my course wasn’t that relevant anymore,” he says.

“To use the type of cultural value usually accorded to ‘legends’ to people in the middle of their career seems a little awkward.”

Concordia University lecturer Marc Lafrance suggests academics walk a careful path in making sure famous names don’t overshadow the study of broader culture and how “celebrities are crystallizations of us.”

“Beyonce is a reflection of social and cultural trends,” the associate sociology professor says.

“And let’s face it, Beyonce is a much more influential public figure than the vast majority of our political figures. All of my students know who Beyonce is. How many students know who our minister of foreign affairs is?”

University of Oklahoma Prof. Lisa Funnell feels the debate over the appropriateness of studying pop culture is getting old. If anything, she says, the popularity of these courses proves the need for better media literacy.

“We’re moving into a heightened area of awareness with celebrities,” she says.

“Our connection with media is expanding, but never (how) we’re taught the media has an impact on our lives.”

Funnell says she doesn’t see a problem in putting a celebrity’s name on the marquee to draw students into the conversation either.

“That’s how we attract people to films.”