From ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Grendizer’: Connecting with Students through Popular Culture
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Teachers get older while their students stay young. This is certainly the case on my campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. I mostly teach undergraduates who are between 19 and 22 years old. As time passes, I move further away from their age group, and many of the historical subjects that I teach become ever more distant.
Even relatively recent events—like the attacks of September 11, 2001—are now ones that happened before some of my course participants were even born. How do I then relate to them?
Staying connected with the culture of one’s younger students is a challenge for any educator, especially those teaching subjects that are oriented toward the past, like history, archaeology or paleontology. Having children of one’s own can help a little bit. I have learned about Disney’s “Frozen” in part from my own daughter, for instance. However, even as one’s own children grow up, the student body is constantly being rejuvenated.
“When I played the theme song of ‘Grendizer’, I saw the students becoming excited in ways that they rarely did in more theoretical discussions of ‘modernisation’. Students even stood up to record with their phones the appearance of this beloved Japanese cartoon in their classroom.”
It is always advisable to learn about the popular culture of the generation you are teaching. This is especially important if you are working in another country than the one in which you were trained. I gained my degrees from universities in Austria and the United Kingdom, for example, before starting as an assistant professor in Qatar in 2013.
Although I have spent years studying Arabic language and literature, I still immerse myself in important aspects of mass culture in the Arab world. They include Japanese anime series dubbed into Arabic and originally broadcast on Arab television channels during the 1980s and 1990s. “Captain Majid”, “Grendizer” and others are widely recognised icons still today.
Even if you are not particularly interested in Japanese cartoons, I encourage you to familiarise yourself with at least one or two of them if you are planning to engage a classroom full of Arab students. You can find the most impactful shows easily on YouTube and references to it across social media.
In a class on modern Middle Eastern history, I asked my students to reflect on the extent to which the region has been Westernised. I thus facilitated a debate comparing the influence of American and Japanese media on Arab countries. When I played the theme song of “Grendizer”, I saw the students becoming excited in ways that they rarely did in more theoretical discussions of “modernisation.” Students even stood up to record with their phones the appearance of this beloved Japanese cartoon in their classroom.
Are you planning to analyse aspects of the FIFA World Cup this academic year? See whether “Captain Majid”, which is about young football players, gets students’ attention in similar ways.
Of course, students don’t need to watch a movie in every class. In upper-level seminars and electives, students should be sufficiently interested in a topic to be able to cope with a drier mode of presentation. However, even then, playing clips in class can be more than a superficial exercise.
In a class on medieval Islamic history, I not only deliver facts about different dynasties. I also challenge the students to examine how the Abbasid Caliphate, for example, has been romanticised and idealised in modern times. We thus critique various Hollywood renderings of the “One Thousand and One Nights”, whose protagonists include Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his Grand Vizier Jafar.
“Childhood films that students remember in adulthood are evidently stored in their long-term memory. For your learners to retain course contents, you want them to tie new information precisely to their long-term memory.”
It is relatively easy to detect and criticise orientalist stereotypes in Disney’s “Aladdin”. When I then show similar Egyptian adaptations of the “Arabian Nights”, I also stimulate more complex conversations about self-orientalisation and the global circulation of cinematic tropes beyond a simple West-against-East binary.
Television series, films or video games with historical themes further allow students to examine the more distant and the more recent past at the same time. Take “Magnificent Century” (“Muhteşem Yüzyıl”), for example, a Turkish television series about the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Hürrem Sultan. It visualises life in the sixteenth-century Ottman Empire while also shedding light on twenty-first-century Turkey, when it was made. As noted in The New Yorker, “‘Magnificent Century’ looks like a quintessential product of the Erdoğan years,” even though the Turkish leader himself was “not a fan.”
Watching cartoons does not necessarily make you any younger. However, knowing the shows that your students love helps you connect with them. Moreover, childhood films that they remember in adulthood are evidently stored in their long-term memory. For your learners to retain course contents, you want them to tie new information precisely to their long-term memory. This is true whether the subject is itself about the long term (like history is) or not.
Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.