No class I’ve ever taught has gotten as driven as much outside fascination as the Spring 2007 class I had the opportunity to teach on American Pro Wrestling at CMS. When I was teaching the class, Brian S. Wise said it was “the undisputed end of higher education”, while Steve Kelly with Newstalk 920 AM KPSI in Palm Springs, CA, declared the existence of the class as “a sign of the apocalypse” (both tongue-in-cheek…I hope).
Since then, the class made Mental Floss’ “12 College Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered” from Stacy Conradt; Metro’s “6 Crazy College Courses” from Bruce Walsh in June 2013; Sarah Kasulke’s list of “23 Awesomely Weird College Classes To Enroll In Immediately” on BuzzFeed’s community page; and OnlineUniversities.com’s “100 Hilarious College Courses that Really Exist”.
If I have indeed driven a coming apocalypse, I suppose I should be proud to have done so alongside such prestigious fare as turntablism, raptor captive management, zombies, circus arts, political ceramics, maple syrup, “how to win a beauty pageant,” and the phallus. But, while I enjoyed attention being given to how popular culture can provide a great lens into analyzing human culture, social connection, and our processes of meaning-making…I feared the depth behind why these subjects are worth studying could get lost in the process.
So I was excited when the CMS/W program asked for me to answer the question of what value there could be in such a class now, six years after it was originally offered. But, rather than me answering that question as instructor, I went back to four of my students to get an answer from the perspective that really matters.
First, though, let me provide some context for the class. I had originally taught a similar course with Dr. Pam Johnson at Western Kentucky University’s School of Journalism & Broadcasting, and I was lucky—through the support of great faculty members such as William Uricchio, Henry Jenkins, and Anthony Lioi—to be able to focus on teaching the class alongside completing my Master’s degree.
The American Pro Wrestling class at MIT focused on looking at the history of pro wrestling in the U.S. as an entertainment industry, a performance art, and a story world, and how all three have evolved, primarily throughout the 20th and early 21st century. Our goal was to dig deeply in one genre of popular culture to learn more about how story worlds are built and maintained over decades; about a genre of storytelling that crosses a wide range of media formats, including live performance; and the interplay among fans with and around media texts.
We were fortunate to have support from World Wrestling Entertainment, which sent up a range of its performers and personalities to take part in the course. WWE Hall of Famer, former multi-time champion, and multi-time best-selling author Mick Foley met with the wrestling class and other MIT classes while in Cambridge, culminating with a public lecture, now available via podcast, entitled “The Real World’s Faker than Wrestling”. (See Erin Smith’s Cambridge Chronicle piece about the class and Foley’s visit, as well as Benjamin P. Gleitzman’s story in MIT’s The Tech.) WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross (Good Ol’ J.R.) also visited the class, which generated a Boston Globe story by Emily Sweeney; a story by Jen Hunt on WWE.com; and likewise culminated in a public lecture, entitled “This One’s Gonna Be a Slobberknocker”. Other guests included retired pro wrestler and wrestler health advocate Chris Nowinski, former WWE executive Tom Barreca, local independent wrestling promoter Sheldon Goldberg and some of his local wrestling personalities, and a wide range of academics who have written about pro wrestling.
Carolina Vargas was studying psychology, aerospace engineering, and information technology at MIT when she took this wrestling class. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in computer science from UT-Austin and began her career in information technology. As a lifelong wrestling fan, she took the class to learn more about the entertainment that fascinated her. Looking back on the experience, she writes, “I was able to learn about the relationship between entertainment and the medium that society uses to access that entertainment; in particular, how technological changes and advances can drive changes in live entertainment. All industries in entertainment and pop culture are affected by these changes, from the invention of TV to the explosion in social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. This class provided closer insight into this trend and let me walk away with a different analytical eye towards pop culture in general.”
Omar Fabian was a materials science student at MIT when he took my class six years ago. Since then, he went on to an internship at NASA and then graduate studies at UT-Austin. Omar took the class because his dormmate was a major wrestling fan and asked him to sign up. Omar writes:
I simply couldn’t refuse. I mean where else, when else, would I ever get the opportunity to take a class on so outlandish a subject?
However unfortunate it was that Sam’s class featured no P.E. component, it was nevertheless enriched by a syllabus listing guest professors such as Mick Foley and “J.R.” Jim Ross, the very personalities who have shaped the history of professional wrestling in America and abroad. Indeed, it was refreshing to relearn the definitions of “polarizing” and “galvanizing” outside of my materials science curriculum.
Despite the allure of getting to study a host of colorful characters and, of course, being assigned to watch Monday Night Raw as homework, it became clear that the class was designed to serve as a vehicle through which to understand more complex issues in our popular culture. By carefully abstracting professional wrestling into theater performance, we were able to perceive how cultural archetypes, such as the masculine and the feminine and the conflict thereof, are pitted against one another and molded into works of entertainment. It was alarming to realize not only how controversial subjects that some media outlets would rather remain tacit about—not the least of which are race and homosexuality—are literally masked and incorporated into the wrestling program and sold for consumption by an all-too-eager audience, whether or not they are aware of it.
Since my days of poring over the rather extensive literature dedicated to professional wrestling, I have been able to adapt the tools of cultural dissection afforded by Sam’s CMS class to perceive the subtle cues embedded in broadcast media such as television programming, political campaign efforts, and sporting events (the recent drama leading up to and including the Floyd “Money” Mayweather vs. Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez conjured up a wealth of concepts we had discussed in class at some point or another). I am truly happy that the CMS program has been able to foster the creativity of instructors and their students by offering classes such as Sam’s that are just north of normal. Of course, at MIT, could we expect anything else?
Kate James was a graduate student in MIT’s Visual Arts Program when she took the wrestling class. She has worked as a design researcher in addition to her design, fashion, and performance art accomplishments. Kate writes:
Taking the Comparative Media Studies class about pro-wrestling was a no-brainer for me. I saw it, thought, “This is why I love MIT,” and signed up. I had always loved watching wrestling when I was a kid, even won a couple of tickets to Wrestlemania by obsessively calling into a radio show during high school. I never really knew why I loved it; I just did. The class would help shed some light.
The reaction I got from others about me taking the class ranged from “weird” (almost everyone) to “what a joke” (my mother and some Harvard friends) to “let’s talk about what happened on last week’s WWE Raw” (my father-in-law). I never felt much need to defend the class or explain it to anyone. It was incredibly rigorous and visionary, using the performative medium of professional wrestling to look at subjects including gender dynamics, performance tactics, good-evil duality, religion, race, and the use of the human body in the throes of violent enactments of cultural paradigms. If others didn’t get it, so what?
Being a former wrestling fan and a student in the Master of Science in Visual Studies with a focus on performance and video art, I gained a veritable cartful of applicable knowledge. I didn’t take away a lot of specific facts about the sport of wrestling or it’s particular characters (I’ve never been good with remembering names!), but I did gain a huge insight into what makes a performance work. I used concepts of timing and suspense, as well as the relationship of the performer’s body to the audience, from the class in many of my performances and videos. It was absolutely one of the most useful and interesting classes I took during my graduate studies because of that.
Back when Luis Tenorio took my class, he was a nuclear science and engineering student at MIT. Today, he is a practicing nuclear engineer. He had grown up a wrestling fan and had just gotten involved in watching pro wrestling again as a college student at MIT when he found the class. He said taking the class helped him better understand the business, history, and performance art behind something he spends a significant amount of his leisure time on. “I knew the moves, the wrestlers at the time and maybe who was champion. Taking the class I learned about the history of the business, from its beginnings as a legitimate traveling show, and just the way the wrestling itself works inside the ring.” He cited that “learning about how the business works” was the most beneficial aspect of the class for him: “Booking venues, how choosing your champion can affect business, how bad stories can drive away the audience…(how wrestling was an) innovator in such things as large scale sports presentation, cable TV, pay-per-view and the Internet…The most useful thing I learned was how changes to presentation and product can take one of many small promotions and put (it) above the rest and how (another) so successful, so big, with billions of dollars behind it, can fail so miserably.”
I’m proud to see a range of different reasons the class was valuable for my former students…from learning more about their own fascination with the genre to using it as a lens to better understand phenomena from how we relate to pop culture, for how media producers construct their stories, for the business behind entertainment properties, and for various aspects of performance art.
I look forward to the opportunity to teach the class again—whether at MIT or back here at Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. In the meantime, though, check out the archive of my students’ blog from the class back in 2007, or even take the opportunity to take the class yourself, via MIT’s OpenCourseWare. There, you can not only find the syllabus and assignments but even find several of the term papers students produced, including Carolina’s “Professional Wrestling: The Ultimate Storytelling Device” and Kate’s “Wrestling with Body Discourse”.
Sam Ford is a research affiliate and alum with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. He is also Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm and an adjunct lecturer with the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. Sam is co-author of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture and co-editor of the 2011 book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era.