A conversation on Twitter this afternoon (shout out to @_mesk) reminded me of a classroom activity I’ve been doing for a few years whenever I teach mass culture theory and/or taste hierarchies in relation to media consumption. (It’s a simple thing, and I’m sure I didn’t invent it, but I can’t remember where I first saw it, or what it was like in its original form versus how I’ve ended up adapting it.)

Here’s how it works:

I start out by writing “High Culture” at the top of the chalkboard and “Low Culture” at the bottom. Then I draw a vertical line connecting them. Then we populate the continuum with the names of specific media texts. (Unfortunately I don’t have a picture – I’ll try to remember to take a photo next semester). I throw out the first few example texts to get us started. So I’ll ask things like “where does American Idol belong on the continuum?” I usually begin with examples that I think everyone will agree on — NPR and The New Yorker are pretty easy to stick near the top, Jersey Shore pretty reliably ends up near the bottom. I’ll throw out an example, and then sort of move the chalk up or down the vertical line until several voices tell me to stop. Then I write in the media text next to the line. As we fill in more and more examples, the hierarchical comparisons between different media texts become clear. (This activity is also a great way to involve all the students if the class is small enough – on the first day of my media classes I ask every student to share their favorite piece of pop culture – a tv show, a film, a band, etc. I write these down and try to use all of them as examples during this exercise. This way everyone is assured to have a stake in the discussion of which texts belong where.)

The conversation gets interesting when there are disagreements among the students over where certain texts belong. At this point I usually have to remind people that we’re not ranking the texts in the order of how much we personally like them, we’re thinking about where they belong in the cultural hierarchy between high and low culture. With specific comparisons, I ask the students why one text should be ranked higher than another. So, when Project Runway gets ranked higher than America’s Next Top Model, as it inevitably does, I ask students to think about why. For example, one thing that comes up is the cultural value of niche cable networks (PR was on Bravo, then Lifetime) compared with teen-targeted network TV (ANTM was on UPN, then the CW).

(A favorite side activity of mine is, when the Real Housewives come up, to ask the students to rank the different RH casts – New York vs. New Jersey vs. Beverly Hills vs. Atlanta, etc., etc. This can become a jumping off point for talking about cultural hierarchies of class, race, geographical region, etc. I’ll admit that sometimes this side activity doesn’t work as well – it really depends on having a group of students that is devoted to and familiar with the Real Housewives franchise.)

Once we’ve got the chart all filled in, I ask the students to reflect on how they knew which texts went where. Because we were able to achieve consensus on most of the texts, it becomes a good opportunity for deconstructing taste hegemonies. Many students have never thought about why exactly NPR is more legitimate than US Weekly. Starting this conversation can be a great way to expose how education, upbringing, and class status enter into the personal tastes that most people take for granted. The relationship between gendered audiences and cultural legitimation may also become starkly clear, depending on the texts discussed. It’s also a great way to introduce the concept of “middlebrow” when you look at which texts ended up clustered around the middle of the continuum; also when students argue over whether a text should be high or low and it ends up in between.

I think the visual and interactive nature of the activity works really well to make it stick with students – I will often have students mention the continuum later on in the course or even reference it in exam answers. The key is to make sure students are able to connect it to some of the more complex, theoretical concepts that are relevant to cultural legitimation, like hegemony and distinction, and don’t just remember “The New Yorker = better than Real Housewives” as the takeaway. This I can’t speak to without some more systematic evaluative research… would love to hear from anyone who uses this exercise with more or less success on this point.