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Saint Vincent College Faculty Blog

The Use of Popular Culture in Business Education

Posted by Michael Urick on Fri, Mar 18, 2016 @ 10:03 AM

One of the many reasons that I love teaching at Saint Vincent is because of its liberal arts culture. Students here not only learn about crucial concepts in their major discipline, but also experience a well-rounded holistic education related to areas outside of their primary field. As someone who constantly researches, teaches and interacts with Human Resources conceptsThe Hobbit cover and professionals, I can attest that such well-roundedness is a large part of what employers are looking for in new hires.

This liberal arts approach, however, does not only manifest in the college’s overall core curriculum but also in a variety of interdisciplinary programs and events held on campus. I have also had the pleasure to give presentations at Saint Vincent for a variety of interdisciplinary programs, most notably the Benedictine Leadership Studies program. For this group, I helped facilitate an interactive discussion on leadership in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” From my experiences, I find that such an interdisciplinary approach (i.e. applying theories developed by business academics to literature in this case) to be unfortunately rare at other institutions.

Avengers movie posterI also try to provide an interdisciplinary liberal arts approach in my classes and research. For example, when I teach about teamwork, I like to use clips from Marvel’s “The Avengers” to illustrate team stages (i.e. using film to illustrate business concepts).  In my research, I have co-authored publications related to the leadership style of 1930s-40s big band leader Glenn Miller (i.e. creating a music and leadership interdisciplinary connection) and pedagogically using “The Hunger Games” to illustrate concepts related to the negative implications of organizational politics and the abuse of power (i.e. linking popular movies/novels to business theories).

While I like to think of these examples as fitting in well with a liberal arts perspective, upon further reflection I also note that much of what I consider to be my “interdisciplinary” approach relies on leveraging popular culture. Some may question this unorthodox approach to teaching and research, Mockingjay_part_1_posterbut I find benefits to leveraging popular culture. I consider myself first to be a teacher and secondly to be a researcher and, as such, I continuously like to reflect on my classroom practices in an attempt to present concepts in ways that are as clear, relevant and useful (as well as fun!) to students as possible.

That said, as I consciously think through why I use popular culture in my classes, I think that this pedagogical approach helps improve my classes’ discussions of concepts. Especially at the undergraduate level, many students may not have much business/work experience. Certainly undergraduates don’t often have a lot of management experience and this can be challenging when instructing introductory management classes. Not only do we need to cover basic business/management terms and concepts, we need to relate complex ideas in a way that would relate to students’ current perspectives in order to build on what they already know.

Because movies, television shows, fictional novels and music are so accessible now with the rise of Movie service company logosstreaming and other tech services (such as Netflix, YouTube and iTunes), relating course concepts to areas of pop culture that students have easy access to (if they aren’t already familiar with the pop culture source) is progressively easier.  As such, if students have been exposed to a particular piece of pop culture, they will be able to relate course concepts to something with which they are already familiar. If students have not been exposed to the particular piece of pop culture, it is likely to be readily accessible (by either experiencing it in class or individually) while still also providing a clear representation of an identifiable piece of course content.

Dr. Michael Urick teachingA group of SVC graduate students (in the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program) and I recently published some research where we explored the implications that perceptions of managers have on students studying business. In it, we suggest that the portrayal of business leaders and managers in motion pictures can influence the way in which individuals in society believe these individuals behave in real life. As such, pop culture is impactful to the views that people have on business so it makes sense to draw on pop culture in the classroom to illustrate business concepts almost as though the piece of pop culture is a (usually fictional) “case study.” After all, case studies (in which instructors use business examples to illustrate good or bad business decisions) have been widely used by the Harvard Business School approach to education. A difference between the Harvard approach and pop culture approach is that the pop culture approach is more often leveraging fiction which, as found in my students’ and my recent research, might be extremely impactful in crafting an image of business practices and business leaders.

Not only is pop culture impactful, accessible and useful in providing clear examples of course concepts, it is often fun! Students seem to get excited when instructors talk with them about movies or music with which they’re familiar. When such media are brought into the classroom as learning tools, it provides an experience that is engaging, fun, and potentially informative. Many HR departments and training/development specialists have already picked up on this by adopting programs that leverage gamification (a goal-oriented learning technique in which concepts are structured in a way that participants feel as though they are competing). Gamification is successful because it is fun. Students associate the concepts that they learn through fun experiences with a positive emotional attachment so that they will remember the ideas long after the class is over. It hardly even feels like learning!

And therein lies the challenge. Using pop culture is not just about creating a fun experience. Students need to clearly understand how the pop culture relates to course concepts. Whether television, movies, music, books or other media are used, the pop culture examples must clearly exhibit the specific course concepts that students can identify, are further explored through class lecture and discussion, and are reinforced through assignments and performance on exams.

Still, given the challenges of using pop culture, this is an issue I hope to further explore. I am considering working on projects (research and teaching-related) in which I compare issues related to intergenerational interactions to the recent films “The Intern” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and I have been kicking around the idea of research relating power, leadership and politics to “Game of Thrones.” I hope to explore some of these projects in addition to other pop culture and business management connections in future blogs.

In the meantime, I hope to hear your feedback. What do you think about using pop culture to illustrate business concepts in the classroom? Do you have any ideas for pieces up pop culture that would be useful in illustrating business concepts? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Email me at michael.urick@stvincent.edu or get in touch with me through Facebook (www.facebook.com/urickmj) and LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-urick/a3/775/5b/).

Topics: Hunger Games, pop culture, Michael Urick, gamification, The Avengers, Hobbit, business, McKenna School

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

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