July 14, 2017

Studying pop culture’s view of higher education

University of Redlands Associate Professor of Higher Education Pauline Reynolds often wondered about the representations she saw in popular culture of universities and colleges and their administrators, faculty and students.

“Coming from England and seeing how different institutions were depicted made me really interested in the representation of higher education in popular culture,” Reynolds recalls. “There are so many pop culture messages and stories about what higher education is and who it is for.”

She reached out to other scholars in the field of higher education and met with them to discuss their work in the subject. Those conversations resulted in a collaboration with colleague Barbara Tobolowsky of the University of Texas, Arlington, to co-edit and contribute to Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education (January 2017). The book provides the first comprehensive exploration of the fictional representation of higher education in a range of media including novels, TV shows, movies, comics, and video games.

In the book, the two professors, and their contributors, shed light on the key findings that support the claim that popular depictions do affect student beliefs. Each of its chapters presents an individual scholar’s original research from diverse perspectives in higher education and the media.

In Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, Reynolds writes about higher education in comic books, and the symbol of the book in US movies, 1930-50. Other contributors examine the characterization of female college students and campus racial diversity in film, the depiction of student affairs professionals in early novels, the representation of professors in tv shows, and higher education in video games.

Reynolds, who also chairs the University of Redlands Department of Leadership and Higher Education, plans to use the book in her pop culture and higher education class beginning in fall 2017.

She says her favorite part of teaching Redlands’ graduate students is their diversity. “My classroom has people with different ranges of experience,” she notes. “Students are always diverse, in ways I haven’t experienced in programs at other institutions, and that is exciting.”

As a member of the Redlands community, Reynolds says, she appreciates that all three sides of her work—scholarly research, teaching and service—are respected. “This is a place where you can do all three and all are valued.”

Having studied at the Royal College of Music, UK, as an undergraduate, and then Indiana University for her MMus and Ph.D. she was first attracted to Redlands because she “loved that I could come to a place that valued me as a musician and someone interested in pop culture. My work wouldn’t be as valued at a research institution. Here, I’ve made a niche in my field.”

Redlands, she says, “is perfect because it allows me to be the scholar I want to be and to make a mark.”