June 28, 2006
JPC Editorial Reminds Us of Theory's Place

The current issue of The Journal of Popular Culture begins with what I think is an important reminder for academics and an important message for the rest of the world to realize about the academic community. The short piece, written by Gary Hoppenstand from Michigan State University, emphasizes that theories are not there to be proven or to cloud things, make them seem more obscure, but to help make complicated things make sense.

Of course, that's theory in theory. In practice, academics often get caught up in their own verbiage, their own jargon, and their own theories, to the point that theories are only used for theory's sake. And that's what gives academics such a bad name. It's especially scary in media studies, when theory takes precedence over the content to be analyzed, as Hoppenstand points out.

Hoppenstand writes that "academic jargon has a way of somehow making the obvious appear unknowable" (347). For any of you who have ever had any contact with the academic world, you know that this is sadly too often the case. When ideas are judged on their obscurity and their insularity, it just serves to distance the people who study our culture further and further from that culture ourselves. Sure, there might be some degree of value in objective distance, but not the hierarchical distance that this affords.

Our work with C3, engaging with corporate partners and writing this blog for instance, emphasizes the type of work that Hoppenstand writes about, a work that engages the world and engages the content of popular culture rather than trying to contort it to fit some bizarre theory that might make us famous in academic circles. If the object of theory is to know something better or to provide greater undersatnding about a subject, we shouldn't be afraid to engage content producers, to engage media fans and to engage the public at large about issues. In other words, we can't be afraid to make our theory accessible, to let people criticize and perhaps even disprove our theories, even if those people are...gasp...not "academics!"

Academia is facing some of the same problems that journalism is, as written about in Dan Gillmor's We the Media, where bloggers are being perceived as competition by professional journalists. When "amateur philosophers" are given a chance to interact with academics and engage in conversations with academics, how can we smart people prove that we're smart anymore...what if people realize that everyday people aren't dumb? Obviously, I'm stereotyping the academic community, but of course there is some degree of this sentiment.

Theory does have its place. In Henry Jenkins' and William Uricchio's classes on media theory, we have discussed the importance of theory in detail. Everyone is a theorist, as putting together "ways of knowing," as Hoppenstand puts it (347), is a part of understanding and functioning in life. But we need to keep theory in its place, use it as a tool, a means to an end, not as the end itself. Then, our colleagues in the corporate world, in fan communities, and in the general public might be able to engage with us on issues.

I wanted to commend Dr. Hoppenstand for his outstanding short mission statement at the beginning of June's JPC and hope that it serves as a continued drive to making academic discourse a conversation for all, focused around trying to know our popular culture better instead of just participating in insulated academic exercises.