Popular Culture and Common Knowledge

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The question of what constitutes common knowledge, for purposes of documentation, has come up here on the Bits blog, so I thought that a particular look at common knowledge and popular culture might be in order. Indeed, since one of the fundamental premises of Signs of Life in the USA is that our students’ existing knowledge of popular culture makes that topic especially useful for teaching critical thinking and writing skills, the question of how to document that knowledge is an important one. The distinction between common knowledge and knowledge that needs documentation is often rather relative. It is common knowledge, for example, that Family Guy is a popular animated situation comedy. Any statement in a paper to that effect does not require documentation in any popular culture class that I teach. But in order to analyze such a program semiotically, students must be able to situate it in a generic and historical context, and here things get tricky. Any analysis of my own, for instance, will involve years of accumulated knowledge and viewing experience—what might be called “cumulative common knowledge”—that cannot and need not be documented. I watched The Flintstones as a child, for example, and so can immediately bring it to bear upon an analysis of later animated family sitcoms without needing documentation (indeed, how could I document it?). But my students do not, and cannot, have that sort of experience, so must conduct research to find the kinds of TV shows that may be relevant to their analyses, and I require them to document their sources for any information that they find. A semiotic analysis also requires knowledge of the historical context of a popular cultural signifier, and that knowledge, too, must be researched by our students. What may be common historical knowledge to me is not likely to be so for my students, and their research to find it must be documented to ensure both accuracy and honesty. Students frequently include quantitative information when discussing popular cultural phenomena (e.g., audience numbers, years in serialization, and so on) but often do not realize that just about all such information is not a matter common knowledge and had to be found somewhere, and, hence, documented. Similarly, the real names of all the performers in television programs are not a matter of common knowledge (okay, that Hugh Laurie plays Dr. Gregory House can count as common knowledge, but not the names of most of the rest of the cast), and when I see performers’ names listed in student papers I expect to see documentation of the source(s) for those names (indeed, a complete list of cast names is often a tip-off to an undocumented Wikipedia consultation). What it all comes down to is simply that if a writer has to look something up (which is not only fine but necessary in conducting a successful semiotic analysis of popular culture), whatever is looked up (wherever it is found) must be documented. The fact that a lot of people post the same information (anonymously) on the Internet does not change the fact that the student had to look it up. The point is not one of intellectual property but propriety: that is, one gives credit where credit is due. Still, there is always going to be a certain amount of uncertainty (gray area, if you will) when it comes to separating common knowledge from citational knowledge. I always advise my students that if they are in any doubt about citing something, it is best to go ahead and cite it. They just can't go wrong that way, and they get the experience of documenting sources that a college writing assignment is partly designed to facilitate in the first place. And if they are really in doubt, they can always send me an e-mail for specific guidance. With the whole state of documentation in such flux thanks to the newly emerging conventions of digital communication, I think that this last bit of advice just may be the most reliable of all.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.