Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 3
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Outsmarting Pop Culture’s “Be Stupid” Pedagogy
Kelly S. Bradbury, College of Staten Island (CUNY), NY
Kelly S. Bradbury, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English specializing in rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies.
This article argues for positioning popular culture texts like clothing company Diesel’s “Be Stupid” ad campaign as the subject of rhetorical analysis in a composition class because it can help students critically examine—and consequently challenge—influential cultural artifacts mediating views about learning, education, and intellectualism in American culture.
Last year, the clothing company known as Diesel launched its “Be Stupid” ad campaign—a campaign espousing the philosophy that to “be stupid” means to take risks, to think outside the box, to pursue “a regret free life.” The message—clearly targeted at youth culture—is delivered through ads with playful slogans and provocative images, and a hip video replete with dance-inducing disco rock music. Hinged on the ironic argument that to “be stupid” is actually “smart,” Diesel’s ad campaign at first seems compelling and refreshing. However, the billboard-style ads, with their life-size text shouting slogans like “Smart May Have the Brains, But Stupid Has the Balls” and their shocking images of bikini-clad young women exposing themselves or young men engaging in dangerous behavior, send more than a “think outside the box” message. These ads equate a regret-free life with “being stupid” and depict that life as one based on destructive, reckless, lewd, and lascivious behavior.
At a time when Americans are bombarded daily with a flood of criticism citing a problematic decline in literacy and critical thinking and corresponding rise in national ignorance and anti-intellectualism, popular culture media texts like Diesel’s “Be Stupid” campaign function as what Henry A. Giroux has called a substantial “educational force” (2)—in this case a force influencing values, beliefs, and behaviors concerning intelligence. Positioning these texts as the subject of rhetorical analysis in a composition class can help students critically examine—and consequently challenge—influential cultural artifacts mediating views about learning, education, and intellectualism in American culture. This work is particularly relevant for composition classes because at the heart of composition studies is learning how to recognize and employ rhetorical strategies in the art of communicating ideas. It is also relevant because these popular culture texts are part of the rhetorical situation in which students are being educated. In this article, I argue for teaching students to analyze popular culture “educational forces” like the “Be Stupid” ad campaign, and I share the materials I have used in my classes to help students outsmart popular culture’s rhetoric of ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
Popular Culture in the Composition Classroom
Motivated by the work of cultural critics like Giroux and Neil Postman who argue popular media serve as a type of “public pedagogy” (Giroux 4), educators have been bringing popular culture media into the classroom as “specimens to analyze” (Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity 188) for some time. As far back as 1961, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued a report titled Television and the Teaching of English that named television “a primary source of literary experience” for children and argued English teachers “must help the children qualify their enthusiasm with thoughtful criticism” (Postman, Television 1, 73). Despite this recommendation by the NCTE, rhetoric and composition scholars have not always agreed about the place of popular media in the classroom.
Those who argue against the use of popular culture studies see it as “lowbrow,” as pandering to student interests, and as distracting from a focus on writing skills. Like English Professor Mark Edmundson, critics acknowledge the benefits to students, but feel the class discussions tend to veer from analysis and writing and result in discussions of students’ likes and dislikes about what they have seen or heard. They also see the study of popular culture as another way for universities to cater to students’ desires—to please the customer in an increasingly consumer-driven education system (48).
A prominent proponent of the inclusion of popular culture critique in the composition curriculum, James Berlin charged English studies with giving students the tools they need to respond critically and actively to a variety of influential cultural texts, including popular culture media. He states, in Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, “Our business must be to instruct students in signifying practices broadly conceived—to see not only the rhetoric of the college essay, but also the rhetoric of the institution of schooling, of politics, and of the media” (93). Other scholars argue analyzing popular culture texts in the composition classroom helps students become “critical consumers” (Penrod 14), “incisive writers,” and “astute citizens” (Weed 23). English professor Rich Lane states the benefits this way: “The development of these types of critical literacies is crucial to composition students, helping them understand and develop the ‘skills’ in reading and composing that turn passive readers and writers into ones that see these activities as social actions through which they can be active and powerful participants in the processes of consuming and producing texts” (111).
Though the debate continues, a glance at contemporary college composition readers indicates popular culture criticism remains a vital part of many composition courses . What is not reflected in most of these readers is an awareness of the current rhetorical situation resulting from the repeated labeling of Americans (particularly young Americans) as anti-intellectual, ignorant, and aliterate . Because this rhetoric (streaming from popular culture and best-selling texts) surrounds students and contributes to a “public pedagogy” of anti-intellectualism and ignorance that affects the environment in which students learn, think, and write, I argue compositionists should position such texts as the subject of rhetorical analysis in their classrooms.
The Rhetoric of Ignorance and Anti-intellectualism
As the best-seller lists of even just the past four years indicate, there is no shortage of accusations of American ignorance and anti-intellectualism. In 2008, English professor Mark Bauerlein declared “the intellectual future of the United States looks dim” (The Dumbest Generation 233). According to him, despite an increase in access to information via “digital technologies,” the average twenty-year-old is abysmally ignorant, unprepared, and apathetic (7-10). Nicholas Carr shares Bauerlein’s concern over technology’s influence on our abilities to read, think, and write. In his highly publicized 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—and his most recent book The Shallows (2010)—Carr argues our interactions with the Internet are changing the way we read and the way we think, making us less patient, less focused, less contemplative readers and thinkers. The consequence of the Internet’s “rewiring” of our brains for fast, interrupted engagement with information, he says, is the absence of deep reading, which he equates with deep thinking.
In her 2008 best seller The Age of American Unreason, cultural critic Susan Jacoby calls America “ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism” (xx)—resulting from, among other things, popular culture’s unremitting stream of images and noises that “leaves no room for contemplation or logic” (xi-xii). History professor Richard Shenkman followed Jacoby’s lead when he called the American voter ignorant, uninformed, inattentive, shortsighted, and a passive absorber of information (Just How Stupid Are We? 2009).
Writer Charles P. Pierce, in Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (2009), blamed the rise of idiocy in America on skepticism about expertise and said it reflects “the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good” (8). In the same year, journalist Chris Hedges painted a picture of a culture that, by moving away from being a “literate, print-based world,” was giving up “a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence” (Empire of Illusion 189-90).
Just a sampling of recent rhetoric of American ignorance and anti-intellectualism, these voices represent a contemporary rhetorical situation framing the experiences and attitudes of the American public. Not surprisingly, popular culture media often perpetuate and reinforce this rhetoric, affecting more directly the attitudes of our students. We can, in the composition classroom, give students the tools to, as Berlin said, “see” the rhetoric of the media.
Mind Matters in the Composition Classroom
For the past ten years, to engage my first-year composition students in the important work of thinking and writing critically about the messages concerning education and intellectualism surrounding them, I have been introducing them to the prominent voices—both academic and popular—sending these messages, and I have been teaching them to examine the context, rhetorical strategies, and potential consequences of such messages. The primary writing assignment I have used is what I call a popular culture artifact analysis. The assignment: select a popular culture artifact (i.e. tv show, film, advertisement, commercial, song, etc.) that sends a message about thinking, learning, intelligence, intellectualism, and/or education in American culture; analyze the message it sends; interrogate how it sends that message (the rhetorical strategies used to persuade the audience); and consider how that message may affect society’s beliefs and actions. My goal for this assignment is to employ reading and writing assignments that engage students in exploring their own and their culture’s views of education and intellectualism.
To prepare students for this analysis, I assign several texts that introduce them to some of the primary contributors to this cultural conversation. These texts have included articles by the above-mentioned authors that present the central argument of their best-selling books. I have also used a few articles that model for students the type of popular culture analysis I am asking of them. Those articles include Dianne Williams Hayes’ “Athletes, Outcasts, and Partyers,” which argues films about African Americans in higher education rarely depict them as anything but an athlete, outcast, or partyer; Aeon Skoble’s “Lisa and American Anti-intellectualism,” which claims The Simpsons sends an anti-intellectual message; and Steven Johnson’s “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” in which he contends some television shows do require critical thinking.
In addition to discussing the course readings, I prepare students for the written assignment by modeling, with them, the process of rhetorically analyzing a current popular culture artifact. Most recently, I have used Diesel’s “Be Stupid” ad campaign. In the past, we have analyzed an episode of the television comedy Community, the game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, and advertisements for various universities.
The “Be Stupid” Pedagogy
When Diesel released its “Be Stupid” ad campaign in 2010, not surprisingly, it received some significant attention immediately. Critics were appalled by the lewd images and the call to “be stupid,” while others lauded the company for promoting uniqueness, thinking outside the box, and fun. I encountered the ads last fall as I was walking through the subway tunnels in Manhattan. On my long walk to the subway exit, I was greeted by the “Be Stupid” mantra again and again, along with a plethora of sibling slogans like “Trust Stupid,” “I’m With Stupid,” “Stupid is Spreading,” “Think Less. More Stupid,” and “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid.” I was repeatedly startled not only by the slogans but by the accompanying images of young women exposing themselves and poised in provocative positions and young men walking confidently away from destruction, engaging in dangerous behavior with a smile, and behaving lasciviously.
A few days after running into these ads, I brought them into the second-semester composition class I was teaching at the time. I assumed my students would find the ads funny and effective and that I would have to push them a bit to analyze the rhetoric of the campaign. To my surprise, an often-quiet class could not say enough about the ads—and none of it was positive. They were surprised and angered by the ads—ads they confessed they had never seen. After showing them several of the ads, I played for them the video available on the Diesel website titled “The Official Be Stupid Philosophy.” The video, absent any of the images found in the ads, seems motivational with statements including the following: “Like balloons we are filled with hopes and dreams but over time a single sentence creeps into our lives: Don’t be stupid. It’s the crusher of possibility. It’s the world’s greatest deflator,” “Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret free life,” “Stupid isn’t afraid to fail,” and “The fact is if we didn’t have stupid thoughts we’d have no interesting thoughts at all.”
After watching the video twice, we returned to the ads. I urged students to explain, in rhetorical terms, what they disliked about the ads. After all, the pathetic appeal of sexually-explicit ads is nothing new. When we talked about the message of the video and the text in the ads, the students acknowledged that the ironic tone of the slogans could be interpreted as a positive logical argument for being creative and bucking conformity, but they felt the visual representation of this “think outside the box” message rested on a completely different pathetic appeal. To them, the images, alongside the text, seemed to be arguing that for women to be “stupid” (i.e. smart, creative, cool), they need to take their clothes off, position themselves provocatively, and emphasize their bodies over their brains. For men to be equally “stupid,” they must be destructive, reckless, aggressive, funny, and engage with women’s bodies, not their brains.
I was still a bit surprised that my students were making these arguments (rather than me), and were not telling me or each other that they were “reading too much” into the ads (something I have heard routinely when analyzing various popular culture media with my students). I nudged them further to see why they didn’t identify with these ads at all. Their age group was, in fact, the target audience. When we looked at who, according to the ads, was “smart enough to be stupid” (One of the campaign slogans is, in fact, “Are you smart enough to be stupid?”), the students noticed all the models (except two) were white. They also informed me that they have never identified with the Diesel brand because their jeans are really expensive. Products of working and middle-class families of mixed races and ethnicities and enrolled in an open-admissions public college, my students couldn’t “see” themselves in the ads and they knew they couldn’t afford the clothes. For them, the ads indicated that the people who can afford to “be stupid,” are white middle-to-upper-class youth with the privilege of a good education and exceptional financial support.
Following our analysis of Diesel’s ad campaign, we discussed several of the readings I mentioned earlier and then “reread” the ads in light of the larger cultural narrative of American ignorance and anti-intellectualism. The students concluded that Diesel’s campaign was most likely successful in appealing to a youth culture subsumed by the narrative but privileged enough to know that their “stupidity” would not prevent them from gaining access to the resources and cultural capital they desired. My students did not possess such security. Our discussion of the ad campaign and the readings became a springboard for students to compose their own rhetorical analysis of a self-selected popular culture artifact speaking to the issues of education and intellectualism. From my perspective, this curricular unit did not appease the customer/student, as some fear, but instead engaged students in thoughtful, critical exploration of the consumer-driven culture “educating” them.
 Some recent examples include Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, The Pop Culture Zone: Writing Critically about Popular Culture, Picturing Texts, and Reading Popular Culture: An Anthology for Writers.
 Reading Popular Culture: An Anthology for Writers does contain a unit I collaborated on with editor Michael Keller that focuses on raising this awareness.
Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures. Urbana: NCTE, 1996. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic July/Aug 2008. Web. 4 April 2011.
---. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Diesel S.p.A. (DIESEL). Diesel.com. Diesel. n.d. Web. 4 April 2011. <http://www.diesel.com>.
Edmundson, Mark. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students.” Harper’s Magazine Sept. 1997: 39-49. Print.
Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and The End of Innocence. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.
Hayes, Dianne Williams. “Athletes, Outcasts, and Partyers.” Black Issues in Higher Education 12.23 (1996): 26-28. Print.
Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. New York: Nation Books, 2009. Print.
Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008. Print.
Johnson, Steven. “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” New York Times Magazine 24 April 2005. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
Lane, Rich. “Location, Genre, and Intertextuality: Music Videos in the Composition Classroom.” Penrod 103-112. Print.
“The Official Be Stupid Philosophy.” Online posting. Diesel.com. n.d. Web. 4 April 2011. <http://www.diesel.com/be-stupid/>.
Penrod, Diane, ed. Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore: Popular Culture and the Composition Classroom. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Pub., 1997. Print.
---. “Pop Goes the Content: Teaching the Ugly and the Ordinary.” Penrod 1-21. Print.
Pierce, Charles P. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Print.
Postman, Neil. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979. Print.
Postman, Neil and the Committee on the Study of Television of the NCTE. Television and the Teaching of English. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1961. Print.
Shenkman, Richard. Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2008. Print.
Skoble, Aeon. “Lisa and American Anti-intellectualism.” The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer. Eds. Aeon Skoble, William Irwin, and Mark Conard. Chicago: Open Court, 2001. Print.
Weed, David M. “Meaning is Cool: Political Engagement and the Student Writer.” Penrod 22-29. Print.