Yada Yada: Using Seinfeld, Pooh, Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Popular Culture To Teach Serious Stuff

I wrote an earlier version of this post back in 2010 and focused on some academics using the TV series Seinfeld in their courses. But in fixing some broken links in that post, I discovered a whole industry has popped up using popular TV shows to teach more serious stuff.

Now, you can find material on using everything from using How I Met Your Mother to teach philosophy and popular culture, to using Doctor Who (Bigger on the Inside) to teach. As Chris Hansen (editor of Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who ) says: "Do you want theories and contradictions of time travel? It’s in there. Do you want a deep examination of the nature of identity, as understood through the Doctor and his regenerative ability? It’s in there."

What got me to jump into this rabbit hole was Seinfeld which ran for nine seasons on NBC. I have seen every episode. Multiple times. In our household, Seinfeld references are a common thing.

The phrase that was always attached to the show (and became a meme in the show-within-the-show that George and Jerry create) was that it was a “show about nothing.” But almost every episode is about at least three different stories which are often very cleverly intertwined.

Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer encounter odd people and unusual situations that are surprisingly not so different from our own lives. For example, have you ever had to deal with a rental car agency at an airport?  Then you can probably identify with Jerry's consternation at a reservation that doesn't actually reserve a car for you. They can TAKE a reservation. They just can't HOLD it. And holding it is what really matters.

There's a good classroom discussion-starter in that scene for a business class. That's true for many of the episodes.

As a child of television, you can always get my attention with a clip. I'm not original in this idea of using TV clips in class and some academics have decided to use Seinfeld in their classrooms.

I first saw a piece on a Wall Street Journal blog about a professor using the show in an economics course.

“This is a paper about nothing.” So begins Princeton economics professor Avinash Dixit’s academic paper “ An Option Value Problem from Seinfeld.” The paper uses option pricing theory to deconstruct Elaine’s decisions in the “Seinfeld” episode number 119 “ The Sponge.”

In it, Elaine’s preferred contraceptive sponge goes off the market, sparking an ultimately fruitless hunt for a greater supply. Her limited supply of contraceptive sponges forces her to reassess their usage, and decide whether a potential partner is “sponge-worthy” or not.

Using these clips (as well as clips from other television shows or movies) makes economic concepts come alive, making them more real for students. Ultimately, students will start seeing economics everywhere – in other TV shows, in popular music, and most importantly, in their own lives.

“You are deciding whether or not to make an investment decision,” Prof. Dixit says. “The mathematical techniques are exactly the same as financial options.”

There is also a site called "The Economics of Seinfeld" that has the nice URL of  YadaYadaYadaEcon.com (an inside Seinfeld joke). The site creators select clips from the shows and suggest economic concepts that might be taught using them.

For example, in "The Apartment" we look at Jerry's NYC rent-controlled building. If you want an apartment, you need someone to die, because no one moves from a rent-controlled place.  Elaine is looking for a place and when Mrs. Hudwalker dies, she finds out about the opening from Jerry. She's the first one to get it, so it goes for $400 per month. But then the super realizes he can play around with the demand side of this situation. Yada, yada, yada, he is offered a $5,000 bribe and Elaine doesn't get the place.

Lessons? Price ceilings and rationing mechanisms.

Jerry talks about locations where no business can survive in the “Bermuda Triangle" and it can be used to discuss "free entry and exit" - "a term used by economists to describe a condition in which can sellers freely enter the market for an economic good by establishing production and beginning to sell the product. Along these same lines, free exit occurs when a firm can exit the market without limit when economic losses are being incurred."

The site offers some clips and the DVD information (season, disc and the times for the key scenes) for using them. A department could pick up the Seinfeld complete series on DVD or just the seasons needed.

I never smiled once when I took economics as an undergrad. This would have eased the pain and helped me stay awake.

These economics professors are not the first to consider another side of Jerry and friends.

I bought Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing when it came out. It's for those with or without any real philosophical background.

There are essays grouped into four acts.

Act One looks at the four Seinfeld characters through a philosophical lens - Jerry and Socrates: The Examined Life?

Act Two examines historical philosophers from a Seinfeldian standpoint (Plato or Nietzsche? Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld).

Act Three is Untimely Meditations by the Water Cooler, which explores philosophical issues raised by the show - Is it rational for George to do the opposite?

Act Four is called Is There Anything Wrong with That? and has discussions of ethical problems of everyday situations.

Years earlier, I had read through a set of books that use the characters from the Winnie the Pooh series in a similar way. I read the Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet and really enjoyed this other way of viewing the "children's books" I knew from years ago.

Then came from another perspective: Winnie-the-Pooh on Success and Winnie-the-Pooh on Management (subtitled: "In which a Very Important Bear and his friends are introduced to a Very Important Subject") and then Winnie-the-Pooh on Problem Solving.

I suppose with the holidays coming, these might make good gifts for that academic on your list - or for that non-academic to feel better about watching Seinfeld reruns and clutching their Pooh stuffed bear while reading on the couch.

But here are the new kids on the block.

I added Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts to my Amazon Wish List and I discovered there an entire popular culture and philosophy series that is available.

I used House as a way to teach critical thinking and problem solving, but it could easily be used to address ethical questions. (The book for HOUSE is subtitled " Everybody Lies").

And you know there had to be a Star Wars and Philosophy edition too.

I'm sure you have students you followed Breaking Bad and binge-watched entire seasons of this engrossing drama. The tale of the mild-mannered chemistry teacher with an an advanced cancer diagnosis who goes from trying to provide a nest egg for his family to becoming a feared drug lord and remorseless killer is full of lessons and questions on ethics, morality, justice, the drug trade and family. How about starting with asking why TV viewers remained loyal to a series where the hero becomes the villain? Does Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty actually play a role in the arc of the show's story, as suggested by the main character, and rule our destinies?

You can find ways to use Lord of the Rings (One Book to Rule Them All).

If you already teach Ender's Game, then using the frighteningly title "Genocide Is Child's Play." The book's blurb talks about discussing" "the violence and cruelty of children, the role of empathy in war, the balance of individual dignity and the social good, the justifiability of pre-emptive strikes, how Ender’s disconnected and dispassionate violence is mirrored in today’s drone warfare, whether the end of saving the species can justify the most brutal means, the justifiability of lies and deception in war, how military schools produce training in virtue, how Ender as the “good student” is held to a different educational standard, which rules can be broken in games and which cannot, Ender’s world as a mirror of our own surveillance society, the moral hazards of child warriors, the value of Ender’s ability to sympathize with his enemies, the meaning of a “hive-mind,” the limits of our ability to relate to one, the relationship between Ender’s story and Card’s Mormonism." You couldn't even fit all that in one course!

Did you have trouble understanding Philosophy 101 AND you were confused by the Matrix films too? Then The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real is perfect for you.

With Breaking Bad over, the current hot property is The Walking Dead which also has a book (The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now).

It's even more interesting to me that Canvas Network has offered a MOOC about the series that examines some of those same issues. Does equality or fairness have any place in the post-apocalyptic world? Do theft, assault and murder become acceptable under desperate circumstances?

Consider using some popular culture in your syllabus because - well, for one thing, it is popular. Having something that students are already interested in reading, watching and talking about is a great start to the serious discussion or writing to follow.


Trackback specific URI for this entry


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

The author does not allow comments to this entry