Respect My Authority: Interdisciplinary South Park Class at McDaniel College
Need another reason why college is different from high school? In college, you can find a class for just about any subject – including South Park! Such is the case at McDaniel College where students had the chance to take part in this unusual college class that combines philosophy and sociology!
Special thanks to Dr. Sara Raley and Mr. Josh Baron, the brains behind this surprising meaty class at McDaniel College, for sharing their views. And like Cartman, we’re left saying, “kewl.”
Most people wouldn’t see South Park and think “college class!” How in the world did this come about?
I (Dr. Sara Raley) started using South Park clips in some of my classes as a way to engage students while underscoring points about various social issues. When we examine a tough issue like racism using the humor of South Park to highlight the extremes of the issue, it loosens students up to talk about these topics more freely. Every time that I used a clip in class, I would talk about how I wanted to do a whole class on South Park. One of my students mentioned that there was another faculty member on campus who frequently referenced South Park in his classes and suggested I get in touch with him. It turns out that this faculty member, Josh Baron, had also toyed with the idea of doing a whole class on issues raised in South Park. When we met we found that between the two of us, there were many topics that we could cover from both a philosophical standpoint (Josh’s discipline) and sociological perspective (my discipline), and our class was born.
My College Guide noted that this was an interdisciplinary course. What are the subjects that students cover?
Josh is a philosopher and I am a sociologist. The topics we cover include: social constructions of gender and their role in media and television, racial and ethnic stereotypes and their impact on social interactions, capitalism and question of morality and corporations, Facebook and the nature of friendship, and many more. The class really strives to discuss not just broad social issues, but also specific examples and phenomena relevant to students today.
Are there textbooks or other readings? What are some of the books that students have read in relation to the South Park episodes?
In lieu of a textbook, which would be difficult to find, Josh and I use a combination of historical texts found online, journal articles, and our own personal research. So, in addition to excerpts from the writings of philosophers and sociologists like Plato and Marx, students read academic journals that are themselves interdisciplinary. Please visit our course website for more details.
Has student viewpoint ever shifted after reading the supplemental text?
That’s a good question. We don’t ask them directly if they change their minds after reading the articles we give them, but we definitely present them with new perspectives that challenge the way they see the world. On one of the first days of class, Josh does an exercise connected with the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode where the students have to prove they exist. We also have students come up to us after class and talk about how their opinion on subjects like gay marriage shift after discussing it in class in connection with the episode, “Follow That Egg.”
What have been some of the surprising things that this unusual class has discovered after watching South Park? Any big revelations in there?
Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least to the students, is that the creators of South Park actually have some intelligent cultural commentary to offer. It seems silly to ask students to take a cartoon seriously, but when they do, we see that we can have open discussions about topics that are often too controversial to discuss honestly in a conventional academic environment. The humor helps to lighten the mood on topics that can be emotionally charged like racism and homophobia. That is not to say that we use South Park to make light of serious topics, but rather the reverse: we use the non-threatening medium of South Park to convey how serious and deeply ingrained in our culture these issues are.
What has been your favorite episodes to share with the class so far? What has been the most difficult episode to discuss as a group?
My favorite episode to share with the class is probably “Gnomes,” which is about these gnomes that are stealing people’s underpants in the pursuit of profit. We connect this episode to Marx’s notions of worker alienation. What better way to make Marx memorable in the minds of undergraduates then to have them associate his ideas with underpants gnomes? I also just find it hilarious that we now have a cadre of students who might think of the underpants gnomes when they think of Marx. Josh’s is “Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes,” which portrays the impact a new Wal-Mart has on the town and its residents. Even though the South Park adults just decide to shop at True Value instead, the episode raises a whole host of issues about corporations and social responsibility. The episode that is the most difficult episode to discuss as a group is probably “Starvin Marvin” where we discuss poverty on a global scale and really challenge students to think about their individual responsibilities to alleviate the sufferings of others.
So – what does Cartman teach us about society?
Let’s face it, Cartman’s a jerk. But at the same time, there is at least one moment in one episode when all of us can relate to Cartman in some dark way. Sometimes Cartman says the things that people are thinking but know it’s inappropriate to say out loud. Again, he really opens up the door for Josh and I to discuss and address all perspectives, even those perspectives people may be reluctant to admit that they have. Without Cartman, our discussions might not be as lively or as honest.
Anything you want to add that our readers should know?
For countless years humor has been used to make profound social commentary. Contemporaneous shows with South Park such as Saturday Night Live, Chappelle’s Show, and The Daily Show all bring to light deep and complex social issues using humor and a fresh perspective. Although reasoned arguments and research provide the evidence for needed social change, sometimes the greatest motivation to think more about the absurdity of some deeply held social or personal beliefs comes from a good laugh; even if it is at our own expense.