On one of the final days of the semester at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Tisch School instructor Jayson Jackson is lecturing his students on the finer points of controversy.
“When you’re holding a stolen gun, we call that a burner,” he explains, a sprawling flowchart of assaults, murders, and arrests scribbled on a whiteboard behind his head. “If you’re defending yourself, then it is what it is, but if you’re planning to do harm and get away with it, you use a gun that’s stolen or a gun with the serial numbers etched out so you don’t get caught.”
The course is “Topics: Sean Combs and Urban Culture,” and Jackson is referencing the infamous night in 1999 when his subject — known at the time as Puff Daddy, in later years P. Diddy — found himself at the center of a near-deadly shoot-out at Club New York, ultimately leading to an acquittal on weapons charges. Later during the same class, Andre Harrell, the former Motown Records CEO often credited with discovering Combs Skypes from California to help recount the night in 1997 when Puffy’s Bad Boy Records labelmate Biggie Smalls was murdered.
Billed as a crash course in ’90s hip-hop and urban entrepreneurship, Jackson’s seminar may feel a tad out of place at a prestigious institution of higher learning, but it’s only one of a growing number of college courses in the tri-state area centered on celebrities and pop culture. This summer at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs marked the inaugural semester of “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and Media,” which, according to the school’s course description, follows the pop princess from “Disney tween to twerking machine” and deals with issues of gender stratification and cultural appropriation. Rutgers University offers a women’s studies class called “Politicizing Beyoncé,” which explores race, gender, and sexual politics “through the music and career” of the self-described feminist singer. College students can now learn about everyone from Bob Marley (NYU) and Frank Zappa (Indiana University) to Jay-Z and Kanye West (University of Missouri), all the while working toward a degree from an accredited four-year university.
While bold titles and name recognition certainly help fill seats (two separate sections of the Beyoncé class filled up on the first day of registration), they’ve also spawned claims that studying celebrity is a waste of university resources, as well as students’ time and tuition. Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus at Queens College and author of Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, puts it bluntly: “If you’re paying full sticker price and taking four classes a semester, you’re spending about $6,000 on one of these courses when you could just be reading Spin or some other magazine.”
Still, many universities believe pop culture and academia can mesh in meaningful, thought-provoking ways. One method is to focus on the business aspects of celebrity, immersing students in the world of a particular artist or media mogul and bringing in members of the subject’s inner circle to impart insider knowledge.
For Jackson, who ran the marketing department at Bad Boy in the late ’90s before becoming Lauryn Hill’s manager, the reason to devote an entire course to Puff Daddy was obvious. “Sean Combs is the only guy worth $700 million that I can get on the phone,” he explains nonchalantly. “I’ve worked with Puff; I’ve known him since I was 16.”
Many of Jackson’s students hope to launch careers in talent scouting and artist manage-ment, with some already interning at major labels like Columbia Records, and the course aims to outline how one might succeed in such a competitive industry. Final projects consist of “elevator pitches,” in which students have five minutes to make a viable business proposal to a would-be team of senior Bad Boy executives. When guests like Harrell visit the class (other cameos have included Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, former captain of Bad Boy’s legendary “Hitmen” production team; and James Cruz, current president of Bad Boy Management), students are urged to treat the experience like a business meeting and make lasting impressions. The goal is not only to tell the narrative of Sean Combs’s rise to fame but also to simulate real-world experience in a notoriously cutthroat and lucrative business, something NYU has preached for years in its experiential-education programs.
“Roy Disney was no fucking Papa Bear. Steve Jobs was no fucking nurturing kind of employer. It’s really sink or swim,” Jackson says. “For Sean Combs, I don’t think anyone has really considered his achievements in business, and that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to do the class.”
The alternative approach is to use a pop star’s career as a lens through which students can view larger sociopolitical issues such as race and gender inequality. Looked at that way, the scathing response to Miley Cyrus’s performance at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards — including criticisms of her body to her haircut, her outstretched tongue, and her apparent appropriation of black culture — offers plenty of material for an intensive, five-week sociology course.
“I’m not necessarily a sociologist of Miley, and I’m not necessarily a sociologist of celebrity,” says Carolyn Chernoff, the professor who teaches Skidmore’s Cyrus course. “I do urban and cultural sociology, so I look at the role of culture in either reproducing or interrupting social problems. It’s less about using a celebrity as a hook or a trick and more about looking at how power and inequality operate through entertainment, through the stuff that we’re surrounded by every day.
“Miley is a lens,” she adds, “a useful lens because she’s so polarizing.”
That argument is a hard sell for many academics — including some involved with other celeb-based courses. Clive Davis Institute chair Jeff Rabhan was the first to approve the Sean Combs class before sending the proposal on to a university curriculum committee. Two years ago, he taught a similar course on Jay-Z, which incorporated guest lectures from Dream Hampton, co-author of Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded, and former record executive Steve Stoute.
“Respectfully, there is a huge difference between Jayson Jackson teaching a course on Puff in New York and having access to all the people, all the information and real-life experience of that, versus somebody teaching a Puff course at any other university, really, in the world,” Rabhan says. “For Skidmore [to offer a course on Miley Cyrus] — and I don’t know the context of the class — but I just don’t see what that’s providing. Unless she’s coming and talking, or unless you have access to the real inner circle so you know what’s going on, what you’re doing is essentially generating publicity, press, and interest based upon something that is not really serving the needs of the students.”
Yet some students say they appreciate courses that help them view modern media representations with a critical eye. Samantha Reisman, a sophomore at Skidmore, describes “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” as one of the best courses she has taken. Despite some early skepticism from her peers and her parents, she says, she felt intellectually stimulated by the assigned readings, in-class discussions, and guest lectures from bloggers at Jezebel and BuzzFeed, who provided context concerning the media’s obsession with the pop star.
“We would be looked down upon and kind of have to justify the reason we took the class when we were telling people about it, because they assumed right away that it was a history class on Miley Cyrus,” she explains. “We weren’t looking at Miley as a person, because we don’t know who Miley as a person is. We were looking at Miley as a brand and how she relates to the greater social world and the media.”
Still, name recognition does play an important role in choosing topics for these courses, especially as schools seek ways to hold the attention of increasingly distracted, millennial students.
“At least for me, in my teaching of other topics, you see just how hard it is to get the kids interested,” admits Kevin Allred, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student at Rutgers, who teaches the “Politicizing Beyoncé” course, which incorporates a long list of weighty texts from feminist theorists, authors, and women’s-rights activists like Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, and Angela Davis. “They’re on their phones and Twitter and doing a thousand things at the same time,” Allred says. “Certainly, using ‘Beyoncé’ in the title, and as the subject matter, is a way to get students interested in something they otherwise maybe wouldn’t think about signing up for. There’s a gimmick title, but it is a real class.”
The rise of celebrity courses is an indicator of a shifting landscape at American universities, where schools are in fierce competition to offer the most enticing classes in hopes of attracting the best, the brightest, and the largest volume of applicants each year. Though NYU received a record 48,606 applications in 2013, the mentality may very well be to give the students what they want now or risk losing momentum in the future.
Professors, too, are changing, as younger, media-savvy instructors enter faculty and adjunct positions at major institutions, pushing for universities to accept pop culture as not only a kitschy elective but also a legitimate subject of academic discourse. If a class on a rap mogul or a pop singer helps prepare students for careers in business (or, at the very least, gets them looking at media with a critical eye), maybe these courses are indeed serving a real intellectual purpose.
For many students, though, the impetus for taking a course on their favorite celeb remains relatively simple.
“I think it was evenly split between people who were very interested in the topic and wanted to take the class for their life and their career, and then people who really just wanted to take a cool course,” says Alfredo Tirado, who enrolled in the Sean Combs course. “I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to take a course on Diddy?”