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Source: Abby Knoblauch, 785-532-2416,
Pronouncer: Knoblauch is pronounced NO-block
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415,

Monday, Nov. 23, 2009

Reaching millennial students:

MANHATTAN -- Students in a Kansas State University persuasive writing class are learning to find their James Earl Jones voice, and it has nothing to do with emulating the actor's trademark resonance.

Instead, students are learning to balance facts with passion in their writing by taking a cue from "Field of Dreams," thanks to Abby Knoblauch, a K-State assistant professor of English who uses popular culture to make students better writers and critical thinkers. In October, she shared her tips on using popular culture in the classroom with English teachers from across the state at the Kansas Association of Teachers of English conference in Wichita.

Knoblauch shows students in Expository Writing II a scene from the movie "Field of Dreams" in which the main character is listening to his brother-in-law's factual argument for selling the farm to avoid foreclosure. Meanwhile, a baseball writer, played by Jones, is passionately reassuring him that people will pay to see a baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield, even if they don't know why.

"What I like is that students who are used to pop culture lock onto that example and will use some of the terminology," Knoblauch said. "When they're workshopping, I hear them tell one another 'You've got good facts, but you haven't found your inner James Earl Jones,' and I think that's fantastic."

Knoblauch said that teaching students about their own writing by using movie clips and other media is one of the more unusual ways she uses popular culture in her classes at K-State. For the final paper in Expository Writing II, students weigh in on Steven Johnson's book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter."

"When I introduce that book I say, 'Some people believe that you are less smart than previous generations because of popular culture,'" she said. "I tell them 'We're not talking about some vague idea of people. They mean you.' The students get a little fired up about that."

Knoblauch also uses pop culture as source material for Expository Writing III, a writing-intensive class for students not majoring in English.

"If millennial students are going to be surrounded by television, video games, advertisements and music, to be able to think critically about that is an important skill," she said.

In Expository Writing III, students watch video clips and talk about representations of race, class, gender and sexual orientation in popular culture texts. They also read both popular and academic essays about pop culture. The students then write their own essays about movies, television and other media.

In one assignment, students read essays about social identity in a television show and practice writing their own essay in response to an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," one of Knoblauch's pop culture favorites. When the students write their own papers, they often use current shows like "Glee" and "Friday Night Lights." One student wrote about representations of masculinity in "Mad Men."

"When I'm teaching those classes, I have to watch a couple of episodes of 'The Real World' and the MTV Video Music Awards," Knoblauch said. "If we're talking about race, class and gender, what Kanye West did to Taylor Swift at the VMAs is going to come up."

Knoblauch often asks students to come up with a "hot list" of people, places and things in popular culture that she might integrate into her classes.

"The class is probably sick of watching clips from 'Buffy' and 'The West Wing,' but those shows are great for talking about rhetorical appeals and gender expectations," she said.

Students often make the mistake of thinking the Expository Writing III class will be easy, Knoblauch said, but talking about popular culture in a critical way can be difficult.

"You can write a paper about 'Family Guy' and how it's super offensive, or you can write a paper about how its humor works," she said. "Either of those are perfectly fine, as long as you can support your argument."

Popular culture offers students examples of writing and thinking about things in ways that can be less intimidating than traditional literary pieces, Knoblauch said. Moreover, she said the topic can provide spaces for millennial students to be the authority in the classroom.

"I don't want pop culture to completely replace traditional texts," Knoblauch said, explaining pop culture's role in the classroom. "I think students need to read. But I like the idea that students who are not English majors can take a class that helps them see some of the same themes as traditional literature but in texts that they're going to encounter all of the time. I love 'The Canterbury Tales,' but I think you can love 'The Canterbury Tales' and 'Supernatural' at the same time."