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Webster Matjaka teaches the Hip Hop Music Culture class at UNM on Thursday night. This class teaches students about the political and artistic foundations of hip hop.
Webster Matjaka teaches the Hip Hop Music Culture class at UNM on Thursday night. This class teaches students about the political and artistic foundations of hip hop.

Pop culture courses add substance to material

But UNM also offers several courses based on popular cultures that don’t seem to have educational value at first glance. A variety of pop culture-affiliated curricula are offered at UNM and its branches, including Rock Music Appreciation and courses centered on Route 66 and even food.

Yet instructors in these courses — like those focusing on hip-hop, Harry Potter and fashion — do feature typical academic approaches and concepts that serve higher educational goals.

Webster Matjaka, an American studies graduate student who facilitates a hip-hop music and culture course, said that by exploring the music genre’s origins, students learn about specific societal movements whose mark can be seen in history.

“What we like to teach in the American studies department is critical thinking skills,” he said. “What I mean by that is students being able to situate things or events in a broader context. I use hip-hop as a case study.”

Matjaka said that even though most modern hip-hop artists are driven by money and selling platinum records, it didn’t start out that way.

“It developed under conditions of people questioning society and their identity, as a way for people to comment on their social conditions in places of oppression,” Matjaka said.

Surprising as it may be, Matjaka said if students are at least interested in taking a certain pop culture course, they will find that the subject matter explores exponentially more than students initially expect.

Julie Hillery, a professor in UNM’s Honors College, teaches two classes focused on contemporary fashion and also said that by studying the subject matter, students can learn much about the world that they live in.

The majority of Honors College courses tend to delve into multiple academic fields, and Hillery said her class curriculum examines fashion from sociological, psychological, anthropological and business perspectives.

“[The courses] are very much rooted in social science, meaning we look at clothing in the context of society,” she said. “We can tell a lot about what is going on in society at any given moment by examining what people are wearing at a particular time. We look at topics such as beauty ideals, gender issues, aging and appearance, race and ethnicity and body modifications.”

Hillery said it is common for students to judge her classes simply by the word “fashion” and envision an easy class. She said they turn out being surprised at the academic value her courses hold.

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“I believe that there is definitely a stigma concerning fashion classes and that many of them think of the classes as blow-off courses,” she said. “I have had many students tell me that they didn’t expect to learn as much as they did, and that the classes were much harder than they expected.”

Michael Rogers-Oty, a sophomore East Asian studies major, said he was surprised and excited to see the Honors College’s Harry Potter course, and signed up for it based only on its reference to the popular book and film series’.

According to the syllabus, the course highlights character analysis and compares views of standards of morality in the series to real-life philosophies and theological theories.

“It’s a bit more than I expected,” he said. “I guess from reading the description I didn’t fully grasp the kind of materials we’d read. I’ve learned more about Harry Potter and just the general theme of the class: good and evil in the world.”

Rogers-Oty said it was hard beforehand to see the educational value in something so mainstream. He said the teacher, Sheri Karmiol, has even had to defend the legitimacy of the course because it is so engrained in culture as a topic of entertainment, not academics.

“The majority of people at UNM grew up with Harry Potter and a lot of people see it as something for kids and therefore see no value to the class because it is so entwined with Harry Potter,” Rogers-Oty said.

Matjaka said students come into his course curious about what exactly they’ll take from it, but he starts the semester by hoping that their perspectives about hip-hop change as the class progresses. They usually do, he said.

“One of the things I was afraid of was that students would think this class is too easy. That they can just come in and take the class and think they can just have fun,” he said. “Most students who come in this class are very interested in hip-hop. They come in curious. What I find is that there are changing interests from the beginning to the end because they are learning new things.”

David Lynch is a staff reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.


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