Be reflexive about the ways you bring popular culture into your classroom.

“I don’t understand the things that you are saying. They do not make sense to me.”  

When I heard these words, I could feel my entire body tense up. We were discussing a new theory in class, and I had just made a reference to “New Girl” one of my favorite shows, to make a point about it. I had always relied on making these references to help myself understand new concepts and materials. As a Communication Studies teacher, it was one of the ways I triedto be an “effective communicator.” I had always prided myself on my ability to convey ideas in clear and simple ways. In the moment, I had to face how this way of communicating and and trying to relate was potentially alienating my students and colleagues. From recalling my experience, I can provide some advice on how we can better share our interests with our students and colleagues. 

Nerds from Different Places 

The words above came from a classmate in my PhD program. I was a first-year student and she was a third-year preparing for her comprehensive exams. Because of our different positions in the program, I felt I was letting down a mentor. She continued to elaborate on why she found me confusing. The problem was my constant references to Popular Culture.

Being a huge fan of popular culture has always been core to my identity. Quoting movies, television shows, books, and song lyrics were how I learned to make friends when I was younger. For example, my laptop bag as a young teacher had a logo for “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” which was like a beacon of acknowledgement for any other fans of Marvel Comics’ X-Men. This had always been a way for me to connect with other people. This classmate had revealed the dark side to this communication. My references were a way to cement the differences between us.

Those differences were many. I was a White man who had, until recently, spent his entire life living in East-Central Indiana. I had never been anywhere I could not see myself: In appearance, culture, language, or otherwise. In contrast, she was born of Japanese and Brazilian parents, and grew up in Brazil. She had discussed many of the painful experiences of not belonging in either culture. Now, we were both living in Denver, Colorado. She was facing the challenge of navigating an overwhelmingly White city in ways I was not. She had learned to express her needs clearly and plainly. Telling me “I don’t understand the things that you are saying” could be understood as a method of survival.

Reflecting on Our References 

On my drive home, I found myself reflecting on her comment. My thoughts trailed back to other intercultural interactions I had, particularly with my students. Considering the power dynamics of the classroom, it was likely my way of communicating had been affecting them silently throughout the years. Examples I used to illustrate my content were having the opposite effect for these students. Instead of finding new and better ways to articulate a concept, I was straying farther from the point. A strength I relied on could easily be a weakness.  

These weaknesses can show up in the classroom in many ways. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted there are many courses turning to discussions of Taylor Swift to teach a variety of disciplines (Matherly, 2024). Much of the reaction to this article involved debate about the potentially negative impact on scholarly rigor focusing a class on a celebrity may have (Parker, 2024). What stuck out to me was not a question of rigor, but more a detail of why these professors are turning to discussions of Swift.  

One teacher interviewed mentions many failed attempts to engage students in the past, including using Harry Potter as a framework (Mathery, 2024). As an aging Millennial, I have come to see Harry Potter as a cultural touchstone that my generation is mocked for obsessing over by younger people. I’m still stinging from the first time I saw an Internet comment using the concept of “Which House do you belong to?” as an embarrassing thing to care about. Personally, I was faced with a difficult situation when using pop culture to teach about group work. My references to a 90’s cartoon called Captain Planet just served to confuse students. Instead of leaving the reference in to amuse myself, I updated the reference to the more relevant (at the time) cast of the Netflix version of Queer Eye. This demonstrates how precarious references can be, as I feel that I would need to update the reference again to keep things relevant for students next time I teach the course. 

This conversation should be focused on relevance to students. It serves us well to see both how our use of popular culture can be understood both across social contexts AND relevant to our audience. Popular culture can be a powerful tool to engage students, but it cannot simply serve as a way for us to insert our own biases and culture into our classes to dominate conversation. Things like race, ethnicity, gender, age, and many other intersections of identity inform what we find “relatable” as a cultural reference. As with most things in the classroom, we must be intentional and willing to admit when we need to change.

Think Before You Quote

In the years since my fateful interaction, I have let my students lead the way on their cultural references and touchstones in the classroom. Popular culture must be defined by the terms of our students before being employed in the classroom. Instead of inserting my own interests into interactions, I approach this by listening to what students are interested in and adjusting to what they are talking about. This keeps the reference points in the classroom focused on them, instead of me. Using ice breaker activities and open discussion boards can be a wonderful way to watch them relate and gain ethnographic intel on your class. As I get older, this feels like a necessary strategy to keep myself and my bank of examples from becoming dated. There is also no shame in googling a trend or meme that they are talking about to keep yourself up to speed. The next time you think of a great way to blend pop culture into a lesson plan, what questions can you ask yourself about your students to ensure it improves your teaching?  


Matherly, Charlotte. 2024. “For Some Professors, Taylor Swift Is a Student-Engagement Tactic.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23, 2024.

Parker, Ben. 2024. “About That Taylor Swift Class at Harvard.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2024.

  • Caleb Green

    Caleb joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in February 2024. He taught various courses in the Communication Studies Departments at Ball State and the University of Denver focused on topics such as Persuasion, Voice and Gender, Interpersonal Communication, and Popular Culture. His interests include the intersection between instructional design and delivery and strategies for success among First-Generation students. Above all, he loves getting to know people and finding out how he can help them.