The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Harry Potter make their way to classrooms
Integrating popular cultures like Dylan and anime in higher- learning environments for better understanding.Updated: Apr 17, 2019 19:08 IST
Beatles and Bob Dylan in your English literature course; anime to help you understand journalism; Harry Potter in law class – popular fiction is making inroads into the higher-learning classroom.
Last year, Calcutta University revised its postgraduate syllabus to include popular films like Sholay and songs by The Beatles and Bob Dylan to balance the classics and the contemporary. At the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media (IIJNM) in Bengaluru, Deeptha Rao teaches media law using the Japanese animation style, anime. At the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) in Kolkata, one course is called An Interface Between Fantasy Fiction Literature And Law: Special Focus on Rowling’s Potterverse. It was introduced last October by assistant professor (law) Shouvik Kumar Guha to encourage students to think critically and evaluate the legal principles and sense of justice displayed in the fictional world of Harry Potter.
MAKING A CONNECTION
“When we were told for our first class that we will be shown an episode of the Japanese animation series Death Note, it was a pleasant surprise,” says Ishita Dave, an alumnus of IIJNM. The episodes follow a high-school student who discovers a supernatural notebook that grants its user the ability to kill. “The idea was to explore the concept of a world where justice is meted out without much context and see if that is the reality for us too. One example we came across was that of reasonable limitations in case of freedom of speech. We discussed how what is reasonable for one person may not be for another.”
Rao uses this technique so that students can connect with the topic. But the stories also contain enough social complexities to encourage classroom discussion, she says. “In anime you have a lot of character development and political messaging. I use them to explain ideas of law, society and justice.” She says she picked Death Note and Fullmetal Alchemist (in which two brothers search for a life-giving stone to restore their bodies after a failed attempt at advanced alchemy) because of their themes. “Both series’ characters find themselves in a situation where they are forced to make choices on the basis of an existing social structure. In such a situation we explore questions like whether the legal system ensures justice or it is something to negotiate,” she says.
Guha’s initial plan was to teach law using examples from the real world. “But I hesitated because our students come from diverse socio-political backgrounds and it is neither likely nor desirable that their political leanings or ideology will match,” he says. So he turned to a parallel world with strong ideas of right, wrong, fascists and revolution – JK Rowling’s seven-part Harry Potter series about wizards and witches.
The stories, says Guha, feature “problems such as the possible consequences of a government that is not democratically elected, a judiciary that is not independent and the rights of citizens being compromised without due process of law”. It also touches upon how “certain sections of society are overtly or subtly discriminated against,” and how “the media is used by the government to spread propaganda,” he explains.
The students too researched different aspects of the Potter universe. “I wrote a paper on ethical vigilantism drawing from the book, Order of the Phoenix, in which a group takes up the responsibility ensure justice when the system falls apart,” says Arindum Nayak, fourth year student.
FACT AND FICTION
Fatima Agarkar, educationist and co-founder at KA Edu Associates, believes teaching methods like these help students engage more and retain information better. “If students are glued into a show like the Suits [an American legal drama] then why not use it to teach a subject like ethics?” she asks.
In Calcutta University, the new modules are under the section of popular culture in postgraduate English. Along with Sholay, Beatles and Dylan, graphic novels like Persepolis and comics like Archie are also included.
But Chinmoy Guha, professor of English at Calcutta University, points out that while it is important for courses to make contemporary connections, one needs to balance them with time-honoured classics. “The students enjoy something they identify with but it is important to not be swayed by popular culture else we will have no roots,” he says.