March 27, 2014 at 6:09 PM ET
A liberal arts college in New York is offering students a chance to get schooled in the ways of Miley Cyrus.
Skidmore College, a private campus in upstate New York, is offering a sociology course this summer that will use the controversial pop star as a way to examine gender identity, entertainment, media and fame.
“The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender and Media" will examine the way women and their bodies are represented in society, according to the course's instructor, Carolyn Chernoff, a visiting assistant professor in the school's sociology department.
It also will provide "a better understanding of the way we see social problems play out through mass media, the way even trivial things, like entertainment, reflect larger cultural conflicts," Chernoff told TODAY.com, "on race, class and social inequality."
The course was, in part, prompted by a class on youth culture Chernoff taught last fall at Skidmore. When the topic of Cyrus and her attention-grabbing twerking performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards show came up, Chernoff said her students initially demurred and offered few comments about the 21-year-old "Wrecking Ball" singer. But when the professor showed the class the actual video performance, her students suddenly found their voices.
“Not only did they have a lot to say, what they were saying enabled them to make good use of social theory," she said. "Through watching the actual video that they had only heard about until then, they were able to say, oh, not only is it an interesting and fraught performance to analyze, they made better sense of the reactions people were having to it."
Chernoff doesn't have a syllabus yet for her Cyrus course, but according to a flier for the class posted to Twitter and Imgur (which she confirmed was real), it will examine what happens to Disney stars as they age (including Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and others), “gender stratification and the hyper-commodification of childhood,” and “bisexuality, queerness and the female body."
Chernoff said she has received numerous calls about the class from across the world and reactions have been mixed, but passionate on both sides. She said that's just fine with her.
"How does it happen that somebody like Miley Cyrus becomes interesting?" she asked. "That everybody says, they love her, they hate her, that they don’t care? Yet people are busy retweeting the course description, talking about Miley, talking about how silly it is to have a class on her — or how great it is to have a class on her. That just reinforces why we use celebrities to try to do some rigorous academic thinking."
The Skidmore sociology course will be the latest college class to center on a pop culture figure.
Rutgers University's Women’s and Gender Studies department offers a course called “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé,” and the superstar’s husband, Jay Z, was also the focus of a college course, a "sociology of hip-hop" class taught at Georgetown University. Other celebrities with coursework dedicated to them include Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen.
Chernoff said one reason for the influx of college courses that focus on a particular celebrity is because today's students are "native users of technology."
"They understand celebrity, reality TV and social media, so it's a way of providing case studies, and providing primary sources they can analyze," she said. "What you're seeing with the Beyoncé course, the Jay Z and now my course are actually some really rigorous ways of looking at social theory and applying it to everyday life, which is the goal of a liberal arts education."
Registration for the summer class, which begins in late May, has just begun. Chernoff wants to keep the class small and intimate. However, if all the recent attention leads to massive interest, she may have to change her plans.
"I'll have to adjust according or just remind everybody that this is serious sociology so if they all want to stay, great, but we need to get to work," she said.