Friday, August 5, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Teaching Contemporary Culture

Our guest blogger this week is Dr. Lisa Lipinski, associate faculty and interim chair of arts and humanities at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, I was asked to develop a new course required of all sophomores at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I’m an art historian by training and education—I have a doctorate in art history, and my area of specialization is modern and contemporary art. Consequently, the course appeared to be a new area for me, and my friends and colleagues wondered how I was going to teach it.

I began with a course description. A significant part of my education has been what is loosely called “critical theory,” which I drew upon in designing the syllabus, in collaboration with Dr. Lisa Uddin, a faculty member at Corcoran.

The Dunphy family from the
"Modern Family" TV show (source: AdelaideNow)
Contemporary culture is primarily visual and media-dominated. Thus, the focus of the course is on the production and reception of various forms of media: print images and graphic design, TV and cable TV, film and video, computer interfaces and software design, the Internet and web as a visual platform, digital multimedia, and advertising in all media. We also examine other aspects of contemporary culture: news, transportation, urban spaces, entertainment, food, fashion, science, and biotechnology.

If the students are living contemporary culture, why do they need to study it and how would they do so? Yes, students are living contemporary culture every day, and references to contemporary culture abound in their art, which is why students needed a course that addressed contemporary culture from a critical standpoint. The course was not to be a survey of popular culture, but a critical analysis of their own culture broadly speaking, including—but not limited to—the production of artists. The students needed conceptual tools with which to understand contemporary culture. Furthermore, to understand the present moment in our post-industrial culture, as with art history, you have to go back to the past, to the beginning of modernity in the 19th century, with the rise of cities and industrialization.

A painting by Benoit Piret
Students read influential and intellectually challenging essays by modern and contemporary cultural critics, including Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Donna Haraway, Laura Mulvey, Raymond Williams, and Marshall McLuhan. They read essays by scholars of visual culture, who analyzed different aspects of contemporary culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.

As I’ve mentioned, contemporary culture is primarily visual. Through the readings and discussions in class, we probed the issues raised by contemporary culture through the concepts presented in the readings. For example, Guy Debord, member of the French Situationists group of artists and activists, argued that capitalism and the “spectacle” of images was a destructive, invasive force in people’s lives, turning them into passive consumers.

Students’ lives are mediated in ways neither Guy Debord nor I ever imagined when I started graduate school in the mid-1980s. By the end of that decade, I was giving demos for the world’s first web browser, Netscape, at the University of Illinois, but I never imagined how the Internet would transform life and contemporary culture. In my class now, students debate the ideas of Marshall McLuhan (“The medium is the message.”) and Raymond Williams, who argues that new media empowers people. Class discussions often involve the use of the Internet, not only social media like Facebook, but also Second Life, a free 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect, and create. For a humorous parody on the power of technology, see the following Portlandia: Technology Loop.   

Modern kids (credit: Stuart Harrison)
With all of the heavy reading and discussion, we still manage to inject some fun into the class. One of the highlights was playing "Connect" on the Xbox. Students took turns competing by dancing to Lady Gaga's "Pokerface." We also took field trips to famous D.C. landmarks, such as Union Station, the Newseum, and the Museum of Natural History, to explore cultural spaces firsthand.

In their daily life students are consumers, but in this course, they become analysts, putting their own culture under the microscope. Besides the concepts, my students learn the process and value of intellectual debate as well as critical thinking.

Illustration in Guy Debord's
La Société du Spectacle
An idea we came back to frequently in class was the power of capitalism. Contemporary culture revolves around two key features, the commodity and technology. We all agreed that it is difficult if not impossible to opt out of this system, but I was surprised and pleased to know that students still read books for pleasure and don’t spend all of their time on Facebook. Furthermore, I saw an immediate impact of the ideas upon students. By the time we went to the Newseum toward the end of the semester, students were attuned to all the subtle ways we are manipulated in this museum space, from the effect of transparency in the museum’s structural design, which my students agreed was an illusion, to the limited few sponsors’ names on the exhibit labels.

I know we are always looking to the young to help us out of our problems, but with this generation of budding artists, I am hopeful that they have the talent and imagination to visualize better things, and an alternative way of thinking and living.


  1. What a fascinating course, Lisa. Thanks for sharing your work with us. It is an interesting idea to study our own culture from a critical standpoint. I often find that learning about other cultures is a great way to discover things about my own. But I imagine your students come away with a similar new awareness of things they took for granted.

  2. Lisa, sorry for the late weigh-in, but I'm with Heidi---what an interesting subject to study in these most fast-paced times. I'd love to hear how your course evolves over time.

    1. Hi Supriya,
      We're teaching Contemporary Culture again this semester and we're asking students to read this blog. We'll let you know how the course goes. I've made changes to the reading list and much has happened in the world since we last visited this subject.

    2. Sounds fascinating, Lisa, and we'd love to hear more about the changes to this course. You have really taken on such a huge topic -- that too, one that's difficult to nail down as it keeps changing so quickly. Thanks so much for including our blog in your class reading list! What a huge honor for all of us here. Let us know how it goes.

  3. This course sounds fantastic. Thank you for sharing your perspective on teaching our culture in a way that enhances critical thinking. I also love the pictures and video.

    I can tell you are an awesome professor with an innovative teaching style. Your students are lucky!