Using Pop Culture in the Classroom: Footloose FTW!

2 August 2019, 1749 EDT

I love this tweet as it puts the usual dynamics on their head:

Tip for students going off to college: study 80s/90s pop culture. Particularly Ferris Beuller, Princess Bride, Simpsons seasons 2-5. Your gen x/early millennial profs will try to connect with you through these, and will be confused/sad when you stare blankly at them. Not joking.

— David Mimno (@dmimno) August 2, 2019

Each summer, profs are reminded how much younger the students are and then the onus is on them to update their references.  This tweet nicely makes fun of profs by suggesting the reverse.

As always, I have two reactions to this:

a)  I use Harry Potter, which is timeless.  Or at least, not yet obsolete.  I long ago gave up references to Monty Python.

b)  When a pop culture reference is super-handy, I show it.  I have used Star Trek and Babylon 5 to show the different notions of ethnic identity–ancient hatreds vs. infinitely elastic, for example.  But the go-to reference for me is Footloose.  It shows the power of a fully armed and operational cultural reference.  And, yes, I have discussed this before, but not everybody is going to dig through my old posts where I explain how to make a good pop culture reference for IR.

Let me explain, show, and then explain some more:

One of the key concepts for the discussion of international security is the use of threats.  Thomas Schelling did great work to explain the complexities of using threats in competitive situations.  The game of Chicken where two players have the choice of heading directly at each other or swering to avoid disaster.  This can be expressed in a 2×2 of payoffs that help to illustrate the use of threats and their limitss.  Boomer profs might refer to James Dean, but this one scene from Footloose shows lots of the dynamics that Schelling sought to explain and which do play out in many situations in International Relations.  Indeed, Schelling and Kevin Bacon go together like the music in this video with the action:

So, Ren (Kevin Bacon) is driving one tractor, and Rusty is driving another.  The stakes essentially are the girl (Lori Singer), and I will let those using a feminist lens problematize that.  When I show this to the students, they notice the most obvious and important thing: Kevin Bacon is tied to the tractor so he can’t swerve.  That one of the ways to win Chicken to surrender one’s ability to swerve.  This puts the onus on avoiding disaster on the other player.  Schelling talks about burning bridges behind oneself, for example.  In IR, tripwires serve the same kind of purpose–that the deaths of many of one’s soldiers ties one’s hands and create the sense of automaticity.  The idea of a dead man’s switch fits in here.

Ah, but this example allows me to point out to the students that Ren did not communicate being tied to the tractor to Rusty, so things get closer than they should have.  That communicating threats and how firmly one is locked in is key.  To be fair to Ren, his mishandling of the tractor itself is useful signalling–that he can’t control it as well as Rusty can control his tractor, so, again, the onus for avoiding disaster is on Rusty.

But that is not all.  I point out that both teens (who both look like they are in their mid 20’s) have their friends with them.  This is not at night, they are not alone.  In the IR literature, the parallel is audience costs.  That threats are more credibly if there are domestic audiences who might punish a leader for not following through on their threats.  One could even suggest that Ren has more audience costs than Rusty since Ren is more of a consensus seeking (democratic) kind of guy, and Rusty is a bit of a dick (an autocrat) who cares less about his friends’ admiration, etc. I never did play this regime type stuff up before, but that is the joy of this short video–each time I watch it, I see another IR dynamic playing out (not sure how making fun of a young Sara Jessica Parker fits, but whatever).

I always ask what did Rusty do wrong, and the students say that he smoked pot (yes, these Canadian kids!)  My response is that the mistake was not smoking pot, but not telling Ren that he is high.  Pot slows reaction times, reduces (perhaps) sensitivity to costs, and makes it more likely he will not swerve (or at least swerve at the last minute).  My point is that Rusty needs to inform Ren so that the latter is more nervous and swerves. This is the equivalent of Schelling’s “toss the steering wheel out the window” to signal a loss of control.

Finally, Ren is new to town, his reputation is not clear.  Which makes it harder for Rusty to figure out what Ren would do.

I just realized something I need to ask the next batch of students (yes, I am teaching undergrads IR theory again–woot!): what happens if they play this game a second time.  A third?  Hmmmm.

Nice to be excited about teaching again with, gulp, just one month left before the students come back.