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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Learning writing through popular culture

As part of the undergraduate general university requirements, first year students are required to take a University Writing Seminar (UWS) for the purposes of coaching students on how to write in a university setting. Though required courses such as the UWS class are frequently dreaded by students, UWS offers a variety of topics offered by English and History Ph.D. students who have used the best part of their creative imaginations to conjure interesting ideas for students to write about.

One such class happening this semester in three sections is instructor Ms. Bofang Li’s UWS 31A: Britney, Bronies and Beliebers: Fans, Culture and Society. The course guides students through a sociological study of fandom and fan culture behind the societal crazes that sweep through the country. The study of these topics is meant to foster the progress and development of the student’s writing abilities through the practice of critical writing about fan culture. Exploring fan devotion to mainstream trends, the course allows students to focus on interests from pop culture stars to science fiction film series to sports teams.

The instructor of the course, Li, lectures in the Brandeis University Writing program. Her interest in popular culture has developed throughout her undergraduate and post-graduate studies. In her master’s program, she wrote a dissertation on fan culture, which she used as her basis for the creation of her UWS courses. She maintained this research interest in media cultures while at Yale, where she taught similar first year writing courses.

Her interest in popular culture influenced the creation of “Britney, Bronies and Beliebers.” Like all other UWS topics, the subject focus is a means through students practice analytical reading and academic writing skills. Students taking UWS courses have the option to select from a diverse group of topics to meet the goals of the course.

When Li created this class, she underwent a proposal process that gauges how the subject fits into the diverse range UWS topics—preventing large overlaps between the different courses offered. Another important factor in the building a UWS is the scope of the subject, said Li. They must allow for creative freedom while remaining focused and purposeful.

Each of the UWS courses has a set format featuring three essays—a close-reading essay, a lens essay and a research essay. In this way, “UWS has a single identity” across the different courses, Li said.

“It’s important UWS has a recognizable identity,” Li said, touching on its identity as a general university requirement that all first year students must take. Since every student must take UWS, she said, uniformity to a certain extent is important so that students can gauge their experience in relation with their peers.

The format of UWS is meant to guide students through writing essays in a university setting, also emphasizing good analytical reading skills as a part of becoming a better writer. Li also seeks to develop critical thinkers in her UWS courses. “It’s so easy to consume pop culture without being critical about,” she elaborated. “Britney, Bronies and Beliebers” asks students to examine popular culture under a closer, more critical lens. Students are expected to analyze popular media and what the “fan objects reveal about the workings of social, economic gender hegemonies,” rather than as a form of basic entertainment, according to the course description.

“I love being surprised by my students,” Li said when asked about her favorite thing about teaching the course. She is frequently and pleasantly surprised by the topics her students come up with for their essays, as well as their varied interests and the specific topics students delve into under the umbrella of “Britney, Bronies and Beliebers.”

“UWS is a vital part of one’s time at Brandeis,” Li concluded. Good sophisticated, writing is an important skill to have going forward in students’ career studying in the university and beyond, Li emphasized. Students should not take for granted the opportunity to take a UWS course, especially one like Ms. Li’s “Britney, Bronies and Beliebers.”

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