For most people, reality television is just a leisure activity. It’s sheepishly labeled as a guilty pleasure or “trash TV” and collectively write it off as irrelevant.
However, English professor Ian Westwood sees it as more important than that.
To him, every piece of media tells an important narrative. Stories told through film, print, illustration and other mediums reflect society’s values and interests.
Media can appear vastly different upon first glance. When comparing “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” it is initially hard to find anything in common. But Westwood argues that even these seemingly different pieces of media can have striking similarities in the stories they tell.
“We’re taught to readily dismiss a lot of popular culture. ‘It’s just TV, just a movie, it’s just a song or album. It’s here today, gone tomorrow,’” Westwood said. “And while the majority of it won’t last, it falls into a pattern that captivates us through human interest.”
This particular study of historic literature and contemporary media is offered in Westwood’s class, Topics and Issues in Values, Media and Culture (ISLA 320). The course is offered under the Interdisciplinary Studies in Liberal Arts (ISLA) department.
In the course, Westwood teaches students about the similarities between old works and new media. He argues that although stories are changing shape and form as time goes on, a closer look reveals that many of them share common themes, storylines and characters repeated throughout history.
The course’s reading requirements include a range of works from different time periods. Among them are Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy” and Plato’s “Symposium,” two texts he sees a connection between.
“Plato establishes his academy designed to teach young men about the necessary, rhetorical, logical, philosophical, artistic, legal things necessary to be well-informed voting citizens,” Westwood said. “Hugh Hefner did this same thing [with Playboy] in the mid-1950s. He created this conversation … an on-going, philosophical text that says ‘You need to learn about music, you need to understand the popular books, you need to understand the sexual liberation movement that’s an undercurrent of post-war life.’”
The idea for this course originated in the mid-1960s with Cal Poly faculty member Richard Keller Simon, who started developing the curriculum as a graduate student.
While listening to the radio, Simon found similarities between rock music and romantic poetry. He thought they both expressed the anxieties and yearnings of the youth’s voice. He created the course curriculum, wrote the textbook “Trash Culture” and after teaching the class for several years, offered Westwood the opportunity to take over instruction in 2004.
Westwood jumped at the opportunity, excited for the chance to give students reading material other than dry and traditional textbooks.
“I thought, ‘This is an outstanding way to continue reaching the students so that it doesn’t seem as though we’re trying to walk students through the library,’” Westwood said.
ISLA 320 represents the changing values of generations through works of art. Though students today may not be as familiar with classic literature as older generations, they may have seen classic stories revived for contemporary audiences through modern-day film, television and written works.
“Students by and large don’t have the same relationship with some of the cultural touchstones, but they’ve read ‘Harry Potter,’ they’ve read John Green,” Westwood said. “It’s about being entertained but being enlightened as well. That’s really the core of one approach to the role of art is that it should be to teach and delight.”