Review: #EconTEAching Seminar 17: Diversifying the Use of Pop Culture in the Classroom: K-pop Music, by Madeleine Adamson (UCL)

When I saw on Twitter that Jadrian Wooten (Penn State University), Wayne Geerling (Monash University) and Angelito Calma (University of Melbourne) had written a paper on “Diversifying the use of pop culture in the classroom: Using K-pop to teach principles of economics,” I knew it would be super fun to have them be a part of CTaLE’s EconTEAching seminar series. With all of us spread across the world and much time coordination involved, Jadrian and Wayne were able to join us for a chat on 23 Sept 2021. During university, Korean popular music aka K-pop was always a topic of background conversation, but I wasn’t hooked until a friend and I got tickets to the BTS “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour in Wembley (yes, both days) and spent the months before the concerts catching up on 6 years of material. Like what Jadrian and Wayne discuss further below, with the abundance of translations online it’s far easier now to immerse yourself into foreign language media. K-pop has also slowly taken over CTaLE. Ramin likes to curate playlists to play before class and during intervals and I remember in 2019 having a quick chat about how Blackpink’s songs had made it on to his list. In 2020/2021, when we were all working and teaching online, other members of CTaLE found it helpful to engage with students and set the tone of the class through the use of music. This was the perfect set up to sneak in BTS’s Dynamite and Butter into our CTaLE conversations. So we’ve got the music, we’ve got the K-pop, and now we wanted to hear more of how that combo could be used in a way to teach economics.

Music in economics has been around for a while and there’s rich literature in this, with examples given of Matthew Rousu’s (Susquehanna University) work on Broadway music, and Mark Melichar’s (Tennessee Tech University) analysis of country music. What’s notable is that instructors stick to what they know best which are English-based songs. Jadrian, Wayne, and Angelito’s project pushes this boundary with the mindset that just as students will come to university not knowing much about economics therefore they’ll learn more about the subject, this can be applied to K-pop.

Out of all genres, why K-pop? In the past few years, paid subscriptions to streaming services have increased, opening the world to different types of music. Though one may not initially understand a song in a foreign language, these differences can be overcome with the availability of translations. Enter BTS, the best-selling artist in South Korean history, sitting at #6 on Spotify’s Top Global Artists of 2020. Their success lies within dabbling in a range of genres and incorporating personal and social commentary lyrics into their songs, being relatable through the openness of their struggles. Combining these elements have led BTS to achieve multitudes of accolades with being named Time magazine 2020 “Entertainer of the Year,” selling out Wembley Stadium and Rose Bowl Stadium in 2019, honoured as the youngest ever recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit (2018) and Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture (2021) by the President of South Korea, and addressing three United Nations General Assemblies. Basically, K-pop (and BTS) is now a pretty big deal.

Wayne and Jadrian’s seminar presentation introduced us to their 10–15-minute lesson plans, with the example of analysing BTS’s song N.O through the lens of externalities. The idea is to start with a general question about the topic (“why is education important to you”) and poll or free response for answers to set the scene for the lesson plan. The music video clip would be shown followed by discussion questions, which in this example was the positive and negative externalities of education within the context of Korean society thus exposing students to not just economic considerations but policy ones amongst others. Currently, these lessons plans are used in introductory microeconomic courses but can be used in other levels or even special interest courses such as game theory and behavioural economics. Jadrian incorporates media into upper-level economics courses by re-introducing the clips at the beginning of class and going over what was analysed in the introductory level, and then branching off to deeper discussions. As for assessments, Wayne notes that whenever media is used within the classroom a post-tutorial quiz online would follow. Jadrian mentions for in-person classes to have polling or both in-person/virtual to have students reflect on their thoughts via discussion boards. There are so many ways for assessments to be incorporated, it’s just important to have them to ensure students are thinking about what was being taught.

Key points were also raised by participants in the seminar. Within UCL, there is a large South Korean student population, so a big question is how instructors approach presenting on Korean culture within the K-pop lesson plan. Given that BTS are a global phenomenon already taking a stance on platforms such as the United Nations General Assembly and partnering with UNICEF for the Love Myself campaign against pressure young people face, Wayne mentions that it feels more comfortable to use them as an example within class as BTS themselves are commenting on their country’s system. It is definitely something that should be thought about for any song chosen to be used within the course. To form the most accurate analysis as possible in terms of translations and cultural contexts, there are subtitles for many songs on YouTube and if in doubt, Wayne verifies with a friend who knows the foreign language in question.

Thinking further on student perception of K-pop in the classroom, is there a risk students won’t like the music genre or that teaching would ruin something they find personally fun? For Jadrian, the beginning of the course includes Top 40 songs and popular TV shows, so K-pop comes later. Students will ease into the class structure with media references used as examples and trust that it’s a teaching process. So far, there’s not been push back from students not knowing a particular show or song and no student has complained about spending too much time on media and pop culture. The view is to leverage interest in media and quirky points in the course to get a better understanding of economics applied to the real world. On the other hand, there’s also instructors’ response to teaching with global multi-media. There is an assumption that using media in class is just for entertainment but that isn’t true as each music clip is intentionally chosen and there are follow-up discussion questions too. Newspaper articles and cartoon strips already used within lesson plans are all considered culture – music is a branch of this!

Reflecting on the seminar and my own experience of being a student in an undergraduate economics course, I echo Jadrian and Wayne in that incorporating music videos would have been useful in helping to connect theories with aspects of the real world like who knew a song (Blackpink’s Kill This Love) about relationships could be related to decision-making and utility?! I probably would have appreciated and remembered more of what was actually being taught (apologies to my professors). Though it does take time to look through songs, whether they’re foreign language or not, and to extrapolate the economics at play, the research, guidance, and lessons plans created by Jadrian, Wayne and Angelito form a solid starting point. Using music is another tool for instructors to have in their toolbox and the most important thing is students will hopefully come away with a media reference, know there is an economic link behind it and will have the ability to spot more concepts in everyday life.

Thanks to Wayne, Jadrian and Parama for a great seminar!


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