Professor Chernoff Talks Miley Cyrus: Media Rumors Demystified

Posted by Sarah Benson

Several other national outlets have already covered the news of your course slated for this summer, "The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender and Media." Can you tell me a little bit about how word got out?

So at this point we're a couple weeks into it, and I've been on Swedish radio, and I've been interviewed by French TV; there have been a bunch of other international outlets both mainstream and huge, and also tiny, that have expressed interest. So there's actually been a lot of media coverage, most of it useful. In the first wave of media coverage, I believe a student had tweeted a picture of the course flier. I made five whole fliers and posted them around Tisch, and the student tweeted it. I guess Context Magazine, which mostly writes about street style and culture, somehow saw the tweet, and reposted the picture with a kind of snarky article-you know, doing the usual thing of decrying, "Oh, the liberal arts." It turns out the student who originally tweeted the flier sent me an email saying that they had posted it because it looked really good and they wanted to take the course, so they were very, very sweet and apologetic, thinking that they had somehow brought unwanted attention. And I let them know: it's cool. I'm always happy for the opportunity to speak about the importance of sociology. So I think it was just one of those weird social media explosion moments, where somebody tweeted a picture, an online street culture mag did an article, there were lots of comments, and I think maybe Skidmore Unofficial was the next to do something about it. I talked to two local newspapers; one of the articles was a little more in-depth than the other. Though I'm not sure what people are using as their source. So again, this is a great case study about viral media, old and new, the way that that twitter, the internet, internet-only blogs and magazines, TV news journalism, print journalism with on and offline presence form an echo chamber. So again, it's useful. Even the outrage and the snarky stuff provides me great material for the start of the course, which is that some of the reaction to the course parallels the reaction to Miley's public representation. So it's a great object lesion analysis.

Other colleges have offered courses about musicians and controversial public figures. Why is your course, which features Miley as the central person of interest, so particularly news worthy?

The short answer is, it's not. It's a sociology class. We're looking at intersectional identity, race, class and gender. We're looking at media and representations of culture, so those are pretty standard things, and many of the other college courses looking at a particular celebrity are doing the same thing. Maybe what's different about my course is, in some ways, I'm looking at somebody who is young, but who has had several phases to her career, somebody who now seems to be interpreted through the public eye as low-status, or trivial, or trash, which has nothing to do with Miley herself or what her fans think. The courses on Lady Gaga or The Wire people are less likely to criticize, although they criticize the Gaga class more than The Wire Class because the latter was started by William Julius Wilson, who's the preeminent urban sociologist of our time and he did that in Harvard as a grad class. So I think the context matters. The higher status schools doing things at a grad level with tenured professors who are well known get a little bit more latitude. I think Miley's an easy target, which is one of the reasons why she makes a great focus for looking at identity and representation through a sociological lens.

What feedback, if any, have you received from fellow faculty in the sociology department and across disciplines?

The sociology department here is fantastic. That's one of the reasons I'm here, and I'd like to stay here as long as possible. My colleagues are really good, rigorous scholars and teachers who are interested in creativity, but also in reading reality like a text. One of the best things sociology does for us, regardless of your major, or your future career, is help you engage with contemporary social problems. It helps you develop your critical reading skills of pop culture texts, your analysis, your ability to suss out what's happening in terms of larger culture wars. So yeah, all of my colleagues here, and across departments, and at other schools are super supportive. They all get it.

On ABC.com, in the comments section after an article about your course, someone vehemently claimed, "Skidmore should lose its accreditation." On the NY Daily News website, another anonymous reader concluded flippantly that the class must only be about STDs. What do you say to these skeptics?

So, again, most of that reaction has nothing to do with me, or my scholarship, or Skidmore as an institution, or this class. The best thing about the tweet that started this all is that it showed the flier for the class, which shows sociological ways we're going to address things. Miley is a primary source. If you take the time to read the flier, you can see that all of the snarky comments are part of this larger culture war. Attacking Mily Cyrus and her image, and her public representation. Some of it, I think, feeds into the notion of, "If it's not either a natural science, or creationism..." There are a lot of people out there who think nothing else should be taught at college-well, natural science, creationism, and business. Those are the only things that matter. The humanities and the social sciences are useless. And again, that's clearly not true, but we're in a time of very polarized political rhetoric, so things as seemingly unrelated as food or music videos get dragged in as examples of this ongoing polarization. So that stuff is just stilly. It's both grist for the mill for my course, and it's amusing to me. The great thing is I'm still getting some interview requests that are asking the same questions that I've covered in eight thousand different outlets now, so I'm less interested in re-answering the same questions, especially because everybody just keeps putting out the same answers, but I've been talking more to really critical journalists who aren't looking at outrage; they're looking for better understanding of culture. So I'm talking to feminist journalists and bloggers, I'm talking to more race critical scholars and popular writers, so the types of people that as an urban and cultural sociologist I'm just in dialogue with anyhow through my research and through my more applied cultural work. So that's where we're seeing the useful writing coming out of this. Not through just the, "Can you believe this silly lady has the gall to teach a silly course about a silly lady!" I was actually surprised-you know Dave Chappelle's joke about how if the Internet were a real place, it would be disgusting and no one would ever go there-so there's also that. This is one of our few public forums and the anonymity means that we do the things we tend to do with new forms of media, which is post naked pictures and attack people. So I was actually surprised that more people didn't bring up how I look, how "hideous" I am, or how "silly" my politics are, because those tend to also be the ways we dismiss women in particular. If I listen to things people say about me, I'd never leave the house, right? That's part of being a human being in this society; everybody feels free to criticize you, not based on any actual data, just based on their own political agenda.

Would it be uncouth to ask for a "teaser" of sorts? What might be a sample lesson plan?

No. Cosmo.com wants to have exclusive rights to "leak" the syllabus before the class  starts, and again, I'm not going to do it, and if I did, they and their readers would be super disappointed because, although there will be some more popular texts, it's going to be a lot of academic stuff. On the one hand, that would be great to get out on the internet; on the other hand, someone will tweet it, or circulate it, or not. It's a course in development. It's a summer course, a seminar, an experiment.

If this class was to become a real hit, and you could offer a series of courses modeled after this one, who would be your next celebrity focal point?

Hmm, well let's say that if I were to stay at Skidmore for a while, and this were to become a rostered course instead of a "special topics," I think there's a lot in race, class, gender and media, because that's really what the course is about. Some things would remain consistent over the years, and some things would be different. I think it's useful to have real-world examples. All of my courses have them; I'm always asking my students as part of the vamp and intro into the class, "What's new in terms of social issues and social problems?" We're connected to the real world and the things we see unfolding around us. So on the one hand, the course could continue to be about media representation and intersectional identity with different examples, depending on what's current. I don't know if I would always necessarily choose a single celebrity or pop icon as a focus. I might do a focus on daytime talk shows, on mainstream media satire-like MADtv and Saturday Night Live. Some people in sociology do celebrity studies, and it's important and useful work, but I'm an urban-cultural sociologist particularly interested in conflict. Miley's perfect for what I do right now, but I'm not the sociologist of Miley Cyrus.

Do you listen to and enjoy Miley Cyrus' music in your free time, outside of professional research?

Officially, I enjoy nothing. I hate music. I hate everything. One of the jokes I make in my class that many of my colleagues here and elsewhere also make is that sociology ruins everything you think is fun because it forces you to reveal the deep inequalities that are being reproduced through seemingly trivial channels.

How do you stay passionate about teaching sociology if everything's a downer?

Well, again, I'm a conflict sociologist in one sense, so I'm horrified, but also amused. My background before I became an academic was doing activist work, especially around dating, domestic violence and conflict resolution. In the trenches you get that humor, where stuff is really, really bad, but at the same time, people are working to change it. So that's something that I say to my students, and that I also believe as an engaged scholar: social change-progressive, positive social change-is a historical fact and a contemporary reality. Even in the middle of so many very real social problems, people are changing the world, and that's hopeful. Also, I make a lot of jokes; is everything a downer? Do I hate everything? I don't know. Ask some of my students.

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