From monsters to Dothraki, students at the University of Alberta are diving into the world of pop culture.
“I don’t know why university can’t be fun,” said Julie Rak, an English and film studies professor.
Courses inspired by popular culture at the U of A this term include History & Comics, Creative Writing for Video Games and Fictional Languages in Science Fiction and Fantasy Worlds. The latter looks at made up dialects like Klingon and Dothraki, spoken in the hit TV series Star Trek and Game of Thrones.
“Somewhere along line we’ve decided that knowledge is not just serious but that it actually is dull and repetitive.”
“And that’s not actually true,” Rak said.
Fear the pop quiz
Professor Liz Czach teaches a 300-level course titled Monsters, Slashers and Ghosts. The film studies offering delves into horror movies through history and how they reflect moments in time.
“We do zombies, vampires, monsters, slashers – we cover the whole gamut,” Czach said.
To those who might question the academic value of learning about monsters and their ilk, she points out a perhaps unexpected benefit.
“We’re exploring one of the primordial emotions of human beings, which is fear. And understanding what motivates people and what makes people fearful, I think, is actually a really important thing to understand and interrogate.”
Czach says courses like this help students develop a critical eye when it comes to consuming popular culture.
Is writing for video games a real job?
Ben Gelinas left a journalism job in 2011 to work as an editor for video game giant Bioware. He went on to be a writer for Bioware too, working on big name games such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Control.
“I try and do a lot of things in my life thinking about teenage me and if teenage me would give me a thumbs up,” Gelinas said.
Now a maker of indie games and a freelancer, his current projects include some top-secret work for Warner Brother’s WB Games Montreal studio.
The job brings an enviable cool factor, but the learning curve can be arduous.
“Looking at it from the outside, game writing seems like, ‘Oh, that’s the coolest job ever.’
“But on the inside it is a lot of work and not all of it is fun work,” Gelinas said.
For example, on the day of the interview with Global News, Gelinas was writing something called barks — variations on small pieces of similar dialogue.
“So you end up in a spreadsheet writing hundreds of lines that are just subtle variations of one another,” he explained.
“After a while your brain turns to mush.”
Still, he says he loves the job — mushy brain and all.
Learning to learn
Back on campus, while pop culture may not seem to fit with serious academic pursuits, professor Rak says choice helps students define their interests.
“One of the things that you do need to do is to offer a variety of courses, because we want students who are young people to explore as many interests as they can.
“They don’t always know what they want to do.
“Being able to look at popular culture and understand what’s going on requires critical facility,” Rak said, noting many of her students have gone on to non-academic jobs.
“You have to be able to weigh evidence, you have to be able to sometimes even put your emotions aside about something that you love or that you hate in order to understand how it works.
“Those are all things that transfer into marketable skills.”
Would a university course have helped Gelinas, who jumped straight into the complicated world of video game narratives?
“There is so much technically that I wish I knew going into games, that courses can help with.”
Is it a viable career? Yes, Gelinas says, with a caution: he’s noticed an increase in post-secondary programs, but completing one doesn’t guarantee a job.
“It’s very hard to get in though, because it is so specialized.”