College courses tackle The Simpsons

Continuing the trend of the media showing interest in college students getting credit for classes involving pop culture, here is a brief overview of college courses tackling The Simpsons:

He currently teaches a course about the Broadway theater and how “The Simpsons” have embraced various musicals and plays. Next semester, he shifts to an online literature course titled “The D’oh of Homer” that includes readings from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — all referenced in “Simpsons” episodes…

According to the SUNY Oswego website, “Sociology of ‘The Simpsons'” is still an accredited course at the Central New York school. Sociology professor Dr. Tim Delaney published a book in 2008, “Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us.”…

Jean acknowledges a theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C. Montgomery Burns character — the miserly owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant — to the lead character in the movie “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane…

“They need to reach students however they can. And using ‘The Simpsons’ to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant,” she says. “Fighting against pop culture isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

For those skeptical of such classes, here is my brief defense of using The Simpsons:

1. It is the longest-running American sitcom. That alone means it has a unique place among television shows. It has never been the most popular show but it clearly has staying power.

2. Television may seem irrelevant to the college classroom but given that the average American adult watches 5 or so hours a day (the figures do vary by age), it is a powerful force.

3. The Simpsons has a particular way of critiquing many aspects of American society. Perhaps it is the writers, perhaps it is the animated format that allows for a different kind of humor. I recently used the episode “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 Episode 8) in class to illustrate the debate between religion and science. This episode lays out the two sides and then in the end skewers both by suggesting the real issue is rampant consumerism.

Teaching student tech designers to treat users more humanely

Here are a few college classes intended to help future tech designers keep the well-being of users in mind:

The class, which she taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and the MIT Media Lab, attempted to teach a sense of responsibility to technology inventors through science fiction, a genre in which writers have been thinking deeply about the impact of today’s technologies for decades. “It encourages people to have that long-term version that I think is missing in the world of innovation right now,” she says, “What happens when your idea scales to millions of people? What happens when people are using your product hundreds of times a day? I think the people who are developing new technologies need to be thinking about that.”

Students in Brueckner’s class built functional prototypes of technologies depicted by science fiction texts. One group created a “sensory fiction” book and wearable gadget that, in addition to adding lights and sounds to a story, constricts the body through air pressure bags, changing temperature and vibrating “to influence the heart” depending on how the narrative’s protagonist feels. Another group was inspired by a dating technology in Dave Eggers’s The Circle that uses information scraped from the Internet about a date to give suggestions about how to impress him or her. They created an interactive website about a friend using his public information to see how he would react to the idea. A third group imagined how a material that could transition from liquid to solid on command like the killing material “ice-nine” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle could be used as a prototyping tool…

Neema Moraveji, the founding director of Standford’s Calming Technology Lab and a cofounder of breath-tracking company Spire, has a different approach for teaching students to consider the human impact of what they are designing. His classes teach students to create technology that actively promotes a calm or focused state of mind, and he co-authored a paper that laid out several suggestions for technology designers, including:

  • Letting users control or temporarily disable interruptions, the way that TweetDeck allows users to control from whom to receive notifications on Twitter.
  • Avoiding overload through the number of features available and the way information is presented. For instance, a Twitter app that opens to the least-recent tweet, “gives users the sense that they must read through all the tweets before they are done.”
  • Using a human tone or humor
  • Providing positive feedback such as “Thanks for filling out the form” and “You successfully updated the application” in addition to error alerts
  • Including easy ways to interact socially, such as Likes and Retweets, which allow people to interact without worrying about how they appear to others.
  • Avoiding time pressure when not necessary.
  • Incorporating natural elements like “soothing error tones, naturalistic animations, and desktop wallpapers taken from the natural world.”

These sound like interesting ideas that may just help designers think not just about the end goals of a product but also consider the user experience. Yet, I still wonder about the ability of tech designers to resist the pressure their employers might put on them. For example, putting these more humane options into practice could be easier when working for your own startup but would be more difficult if a big corporation is breathing down your neck to push the bottom line or end product. Think the Milgram experiment: can individual designers follow the ethical path? Perhaps some of this training also needs to happen at the executive and managerial levels so that the emphasis on protecting the user is pervasive throughout organizations.

Shared cultural interests leads to hiring at elite firms

A new sociological study argues having the right cultural interests or pursuing certain cultural activities can lead to getting a job at elite firms:

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds…

As a result, evaluators described their own and others’ firms as having distinct personalities related to employees’ extracurricular interests and social styles. Companies ranged from “sporty” and “scrappy” to “egghead” and “country club.” One outfit even specialized in hiring people with drab personalities.

Top-ranked firms uniformly favored applicants who cited upper–middle class leisure pursuits such as rock climbing, playing the cello or enjoying film noir.

Picking employees from the same cultural basket may have pluses and minuses, Rivera adds. Hiring people with common traits and interests may create a cohesive work force. But shunning prospective employees with different life histories could also make firms susceptible to reaching decisions quickly without evaluating alternative ideas.

This challenges the American ideal of meritocracy where hard work should lead to a job. While the study suggests these cultural interests don’t matter as much when organizations are hiring for more technical jobs, it does matter for white-collar and upper-class jobs. This could also challenge the role of college courses: how many college classes are about developing a “scrappy” or “country club” approach to life? In contrast, the experience outside the classroom at some colleges (plus the applicants’ earlier life history) might contribute quite a bit to learning about and then developing these cultural skills.

It would also be interesting to look more at the personalities involved in hiring and branding that companies develop. Marketing today often involves selling a brand and image more so than focusing on the particulars of a product. Is this branding simply about marketing or does it bleed through the culture of the entire organization?