How to Be Popular
As its etymology suggests, that which is popular (from the Latin “populus”) must simply relate to or concern the “people.” Many things can be popular: people, art, music, culture – but also opinion or belief, urban spaces, the democratic vote. Sometimes being popular entails being universally loved or accepted, other times it is used as a pejorative by those who seek to distinguish between “low” and “high” culture. There are those who aspire to it, others who disdain it. In this course, we will think through the popular in dialogue with an interdisciplinary and transhistorical series of texts that concern themselves with that slippery collective called “the people.”
Far from nailing down exactly what universally constitutes a popular text, our goal will rather be to critically question its popularity – recognizing the forms that make a text popular (as opposed to, say, highbrow or obscure) and speculating on its imagined public. Our studied objects will range from the early modern populist dramatics of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar through the 19th century German folk revival at work in the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers to the folk-pop fusion of Joni Mitchell’s studio album For the Roses.
As a Reading and Composition course, our goal will be to hone our close reading skills, understanding writing itself as a key method of grappling with a diverse series of texts. Short writing assignments will be assigned at regular intervals throughout the semester, with two longer assignments planned to train our ability to develop and sustain an argument. This course satisfies the first half of the university’s Reading and Composition requirement.