According to Skidmore College, twerking pop sensation Miley Cyrus is a great example of how intellectual academia can be relevant and apply itself to the world. The New York liberal arts college will now be offering a summer class called “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” taught by professor Carolyn Chernoff in which Cyrus will be a case study of feminism and media representation. According to Chernoff, Cyrus will be a phenomenal example to lead the class through topics involving core sociological theory.
The idea began with the MTV Video Award ceremony. The professor watched Cyrus grinding away with her tongue lolling during her performance but saw more than just a media stunt. “In that moment, it illustrated a lot of the types of cultural conflicts that I research.” Soon after Cyrus’ appearance with Robin Thicke, she began forming the outline of the course. “The performance was so clearly drawing on certain tropes and stereotypes about a particular vision of black culture,” Professor Chernoff said. “But most mainstream pop culture reporters only discussed it in terms of gender and ‘bad, sexy Miley’.”
Other universities have paved similar ground, and just like “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” they are not the blow-off classes that some might think. Cornell University offers “Gossip” where Freud and Kierkegaard are studied in order to “investigate the ways in which gossip may produce provisional maps of the world.” Some even focus on other stars, such as Rutgers University’s “Politicising Beyoncé” and University of Missouri offering “English 2169: Jay-Z and Kanye West.” Classes of this type are not just found across America. Across the pond a student can achieve an MA in “The Beatles, Popular Music and Society.”
It truly is all about kickstarting the conversation and using media to stay relevant. Miley Cyrus as a case study for this college class is about more than attracting attention or assuring a full seating chart. “I wish it were a savvy marketing move,” admitted Chernoff. “But it actually is that I think Miley Cyrus is a really rich example of how race, class and gender are performed in the media.” The professor pointed out that she makes a great case study because academics are often asked “to make our disciplinary theories and training relevant to the real world… I agree with [the academic] Raymond Williams that culture is ordinary, culture is everyday.” By using Cyrus to stimulate conversations, the students will learn to turn a critical eye on the culture that surrounds them.
It will not be an easy task. Chernoff said her students were looking forward to “unpacking” these sociological issues with her. She admitted that the name of the course would pique interest, but the students would have expressed interest in the class even if it were named “‘Intersectional Feminism and Modern Media’.”
Naturally, these classes do raise the occasional eyebrow and words of skepticism. Kevin Allred has been against the naysayers personally and urges them to research before they form their opinions. He teaches at Rutgers and his “Politicising Beyoncé” course is offered through their Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Just like “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” his course is not a class to sleep through. It examines the famous music videos through a black feminist lens led by Alice Walker and Sojourner Truth.
Allred said that sitting through a class would be the easiest way to sway those who have misconceptions. He explained that the students are not learning choreography, or the biography of a pop star. “We’re using academic sources and the writings of noted black women through history to discuss gender, race and struggle, and using the music videos to talk about how they affect people today.”
Anticipating the students that will enter expecting to put forth little effort, Chernoff has designed her class to demand depth from those taking it. “And if people don’t understand that, then they will certainly get it after the first lecture.” Miley Cyrus has affected the world in several ways, as any pop star does, however, being a case study for college students might be her biggest contribution yet.
By Whitney Hudson