Zombies, cyborgs, and other New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development

Zombies, cyborgs, and other New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development

labor organizers: An introduction 25 (1) 5-17

to representations of adult learning theories and HRD in popular culture

Robin Redmon Wright[footnoteRef:1] [1: Pennsylvania State University—Harrisburg Corresponding Author: Robin Redmon Wright, Pennsylvania State University—Harrisburg, 777 West Harrisburg Pike, Middletown, PA, 17057, USA E-mail: rrw12@psu.edu Copyright © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company ]


Too often, educators, researchers, and practitioners in the fields of adult education and human resource development rely on traditional curricular materials and an academic body of knowledge for teaching, evaluating, and training adults. This assumes a coherent body of prior knowledge, assumptions, worldviews, and experiences in their students that can enable them to seamlessly connect to those materials. Of course, the reality is something different. Yet within the arena of popular culture, diverse individuals often share an enthusiastic, unifying space called fandom. It is in this shared social space that holistic meaning-making and transformational learning may be given succor. Through facilitated discussions around issues examined in popular cultural artifacts, sensitive and disparate perceptions can be explored and new, more critical worldviews can be examined. This article provides an overview of recent research on the intersection of popular culture and human resource development as it relates to workplace learning and workplace assumptions and attitudes. It explores innovative and alternative ways of framing workplace learning on a variety of topics and discusses the use of popular culture for critical workplace pedagogy.


popular culture, HRD, adult education, cultural studies, television, horror, science fiction, learning theories, critical theory

Consider this frightening fact: In the last ten years, control of U.S. media has shrunk “from fifty competing companies, to five” (Miller, 2007, p. 16). Moreover, as of 2005, the 118 people on the boards of those conglomerates are directors of a total of 288 other national and multi-national companies (Miller, 2007). Adult educators and human resource development (HRD) professionals are competing with those few powerful corporate agendas for learners’ time, engagement, credibility, and interest. And many times, the narratives so dramatically presented in the media depict a version of reality that is in direct opposition to the philosophies, ethics, and curricula taught in many adult education and HRD classrooms. Yet, while much of what passes for entertainment media effectively manufactures consent for an undemocratic system that consistently reproduces massive inequities and represents huge disparities as being the natural order of things (Chomsky, 2003), consumers of that media sometimes create alternate meanings to those intended by the hegemony that produced it. But occasionally, creators of media produce allegories of contestation. Brookfield (2005) argues that, “Subversion sometimes sells. And sometimes we gain a glimpse of alternative worlds in the most unlikely arenas” (p. 77). It is that potentiality that offers enticing inducements for HRD trainers and instructors to use popular cultural artifacts as tools for facilitating, as well as for illustrating, adult education curricula that is anchored in a sound theoretical framework.

Connecting Popular Culture to Adult Learning and HRD Theory

Cunningham (2004, p. 228) points out that HRD professionals, like other North American educators, “act as though individuals have no debt to their social group—but where do individuals find their culture, their values, their ethics, their meaning in life if it is not from their group?” She goes on to stress that ignoring an individual’s culture promotes a “myth of individualism” and perpetuates a focus on HRD practices with “buzzwords” and trends such as “portability” and “high-performance culture” (p. 229). These buzzwords, she argues, dominated the HRD sessions of late at American Association of Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE) conferences. They represent a current trend toward strategies that emphasize individual job performance, promote human capital theory, and uncritically support corporate interests over individual growth (pp. 229-230). Such HRD practices isolate workers and reduce learning to an act of survival rather than a lifelong practice for self-fulfillment and growth— create corporate cyborgs rather than fulfilled human beings. Leaving out workers’ cultural influences precludes “learning for living” (p. 230). The popular cultural products consumed by students and trainees help shape who they are and how they view work, leisure, education, and politics.

Adult education has a long history of recognizing the intersection between lifelong learning and popular culture (Wright & Sandlin, 2009a). In fact, cultural studies sprang from the field of adult education (Woodhams, 1999). Many of the early cultural studies scholars were adult educators, including Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E.P. Thompson (Steele, 1994). Miller (1999), too, points out that cultural studies took root in adult education yet, she adds, to date “there is little evidence of insights from cultural and media studies being applied to the study of adult education” (p. 3). Moreover, Miller (2000) notes that adult education has always privileged the concept that adults learn from experience. She claims it is a common assumption throughout the discipline that adults “learn throughout their lives, from their work and leisure, from their experience in social and domestic contexts, and from their personal relationships” (p. 72). Workplace learning is not compartmentalized knowledge acquisition held apart from people’s social/cultural learning and meaning-making. Workers bring learning from every day experiences with popular culture into their HRD training classrooms.

Yang (2004) makes a solid case for developing a framework of adult learning theories for HRD professionals. While acknowledging that many in the field argue that HRD is included in the broader field of adult education as a specialty area of practice, he asserts that “the two fields are different but interrelated” (p. 135). Both fields include the philosophies of liberalism and progressivism (pragmatism) and it is within these philosophies that the study of learning with/from popular culture can contribute to both. Adult learning theories offer the field of HRD insights into broader philosophical questions like: “What is knowledge?”, “How do adults learn?”, and “How do adults know [learn] right from wrong?” (Yang, 2004, p. 140). Furthermore, Yang insists, adult learning theory “can provide a foundation of HRD theory and practice” by facilitating understanding and utilization of the “informal and unintended learning that also influences individual and organizational performance” (p. 140). It is this informal and unintended adult learning through engagement with popular cultural artifacts that is the impetus for this issue.

Connecting Popular Culture to Critical HRD

Some scholars are critical of the HRD field for their corporate-driven, capitalist goals that often preclude democratic interests, critical reflection, and individual growth (Cunningham, 1993; Fenwick, 2001; Schied, 2001). Bierema (2000) posits that “HRD theory and practice have historically aligned with corporate interests, oftentimes at the expense of workers with less clout and power” (p. 282). Yet Cunningham (2004) argues that there has never been a greater need for critical HRD practitioners:

There is no permanent rapprochement until those in HRD engage in critical pedagogy in the workplace as should their colleagues in academe. . . . The most direct result of globalization is the “race to the bottom” itself, the reduction in labor, social and environmental conditions that results directly from the global competition between states for jobs and investments. . . . The direct result of this competition is a lowering of average wages (a decline of 15% in the United States since 1973), slashing of social benefits (subsidized housing, education, health care, economic safety net), temping of the workforce, and longer hours for the worker. We have environmental degradation, exponential growth in greenhouse gases, and overharvesting of national resources in the name of profit and power. Finally, the accumulation of debt causes the money that is earned to be spent on debt reduction rather than consumption, investment, and development. (p. 236).

Clearly, HRD professionals in the post-Enron/WorldCom era have an ethical responsibility as educators of adults to “educate workers on globalism. . . and what is going on in labor movements in other countries” (Cunningham, 2004, p. 237). Cunningham goes on to ask, “To what degree are students [in university HRD programs] made aware that many corporations are greedy and impossible places for principled educators to work? How are HRD personnel helped to gain tools for critical analysis?” (p. 237).

Taking up Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) argument that in a classed society, the battle for workers’ rights is fought in the realm of ideology and propaganda, some critical adult educators insist that there is a dialectical relationship between ideological change and material change in both society and the workplace. I posit that it is the informal learning from popular culture that often shapes individual ideologies. Popular culture, while overwhelmingly corporate-serving and hegemonic, provides opportunities for both subversive production of counter-hegemonic artifacts and counter-hegemonic negotiated audience interpretations of hegemonic representations. In other words, there are explicit representations of resistance to corporate hegemony in popular cultural artifacts such as The Rachel Maddow Show on television and Capitalism: A Love Story in theaters, but there can also be counterhegemonic interpretations of the corporate ideology permeating right-wing dominated popular media.

Owned by Viacom, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report are huge money generators for their parent company, while at the same time, using the medium of comedy, they brilliantly deconstruct the unregulated capitalistic hegemony that allows them to exist. Subversion does, indeed, sometimes sell. On the other hand, The Food Network offers no resistance to corporate hegemony and is, instead, a 24-7 tribute to over -consumption and the myth of the American good life (Wright & Sandlin, 2009c). The Food Network’s programming serves the corporate hegemony of consumerism by reinforcing the amoral aspects of human capital theory and the myth of an achievable Utopian consumer society—work harder, buy more, be happy. The reality most workers live doesn’t result in the picture-perfect kitchens, personal satisfaction, and happy family times the network dramatizes. Instead, the constant pursuit of consumer goods mean longer working hours, greater debt, and increased demands on increasingly limited time—resulting in poorer health, dissatisfaction, and family struggles. Resistance to such programming can only be found in the margins of popular culture like public access television. The Post-Punk Kitchen with Isa Chandra Moskowitz is such a space. Post-Punk Kitchen’s “focus on the politics and health of food, and its DYI production and distribution . . . constitute a resistant stance that positions this show in opposition to the celebrity chef shows and their corporate backers” (Wright & Sandlin, 2009c, p. 406). Moskowitz created this site of resistance as a reaction to The Food Network’s corporate agenda. Her resistant interpretation of typical celebrity chef programming led to action opposing them. As she puts it, she determined to create a “’BAM!’ free space for vegetarians and food-lovers everywhere” and she “really, really, really could not take another second of Rachel Ray saying ‘EVOO!’” (Wright & Sandlin, 2009c, p. 406). Adults exposed to alternative popular cultural messages such as Moskowitz’s, may make different choices in their workplace decisions from workers obsessed with The Food Network’s hegemonic messages.

Graham (1989) exhorts adult educators to facilitate emancipation “from the spell of media’s construction of reality” (p. 160). He calls on educators working with adults to “stimulate intellect and imagination so that adults may be enabled to move towards understanding the workings of culture and power in their lives” (p. 160). Few adults will come to those understandings without contextual information and facilitated discussion. Brooks (2004) argues that this kind of transformational learning—gaining a new perspective on their working lives—offers HRD practitioners the tools with which to help workers cope with “such workplace-specific changes as contract work, management style, the need to address issues of racism and sexism, and the requirement that workers self-manage” (p. 211). Such pressures “require employees to think and perhaps reconceptualize their identities, values, goals, core beliefs, and behaviors” (Brooks, 2004, p. 211). This shift in meaning perspective provides workers with a frame of reference that is more “(a) inclusive, (b) differentiating, (c) permeable, (d) critically reflective, and (e) integrative of experience” (Mezirow, 1996, p. 163). Transformational learning, then, can enhance job performance and adaptability as well as expand personal worldviews and individual growth.

Gibson (2004) points out that research framed by social learning theory/social cognitive theory (SLT/SCT) in HRD curricula and practice indicates that performance is matched to social models. These models “can be either an actual person or symbolic, such as a book, television, or film character, a picture, a demonstration, or a set of instructions” (p. 196). Yet, few scholars have focused on integrating the informal and incidental learning from models in books, television, film or other popular cultural products that workers bring to cubicles, offices, desks, locker rooms, stations and factory floors.

The reasons for the paucity of such research vary, but as Tisdell, Sprow, and Williams (2009) point out, one of the reasons for this lack is that funders want quantitative research with large data sets. Still, they argue, research on the media is valuable and useful when: (a) it engages people about what they experience every day; (b) it raises people’s consciousness about the hegemonic power of the media, as well as how it can be used for counter-hegemonic purposes; (c) it enables educators to see how they can use media and popular culture in their own teaching contexts; and (d) it leads people to action. (p. 416).

Connecting Popular Culture to Theory and Practice

Findings uncovered by the few researchers who have looked at how informal learning from popular cultural models impacts workplace learning and performance support Tisdell, Sprow, and Williams’ claims. Carter and Howell (1998) insist that the study of cultural artifacts is “one of the many lenses available to help understand and interpret issues of workplace learning” (p. 85). A critical analysis of the Dilbert cartoon series revealed that office workers felt the cartoon was “disconcertingly similar to their own day-to-day work lives” (Carter & Howell, 1998, p. 88). Moreover, “Dilbert readers had little understanding of, or concern for, inclusivity for marginalized and silenced voices” (p. 88.). The HRD professionals in Dilbert teach “solely to the needs of business, buttressing bureaucratic strangulation and reinforcing employment practices where workers not only have to have specific job knowledge and skills, but also have to present themselves as certain kinds of people” (p. 88). With its running commentary on the goals of workplace learning, “Dilbert can be a powerful pedagogical tool. . . it is possible to critically engage workplace issues, disrupting the deep structures and nuanced meanings found in the comic strip. This is where critical workplace learning comes into play.” (p. 88). Carter and Howell conclude that “important epistemological questions come from decoding the values associated with Dilbert” (p. 89). However, without critical education and HRD facilitators, Dilbert, like most popular cultural artifacts, simply reinforces capitalist hegemony and the attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate worker exploitation.

Armstrong (2005) also looks at office workplace learning and HRD through the lens of a popular cultural artifact, the wildly popular British and American versions of the television spoof documentary, The Office. He points out that adults entering the workplace are not blank slates waiting to be inscribed as model employees but, instead, arrive with pre-conceived ideas of what their new position will require based on media representations. Moreover, “there will be a degree of convergence or divergence between those preconceived ideas and the realities as they are socially and culturally constructed through experience” (¶ 1). He argues that the stereotypes and representations encoded into popular cultural artifacts are “intentional and deliberate” (¶ 37). And, particularly when those representations involve critical issues such as diversity or gender relations, HRD practitioners must facilitate the decoding of those messages. In The Office, Armstrong found, “diversity” is reduced to race relations and the representations are heavily stereotypical. HRD response to problems of race relations are represented as patronizing neoliberal discourses of tolerance that ignore the reality of the social, political, and cultural structures underlying such tensions.

Another theme Armstrong examined in The Office is managerial incompetence and limited intellectual ability. The message encoded in this recurring theme is that workers must function and perform without administrative or managerial support; workers must learn to cope on their own. This effectively removes responsibility for worker dissatisfaction and job stress from the corporate/capitalist/political system and places it on individual workers. Problems of educational and structural inequality, race, socio-economic disparities, and gender discrimination are ignored and the victims of those social and political inequalities must continue to fend for themselves.

Jubas (2009) explores another popular television show as a source of informal learning about work. Her focus is on medical professionals’ learning from the US prime-time soap, Grey’s Anatomy. Using a Gramscian framework, she insists that such popular cultural artifacts offer opportunities for adults to “reflect on and challenge, as well as confirm, hegemonic discourses and structures of social organization” (¶ 3). Like Gramsci, Jubas is “interested in how inequitable social structures surface in the cultural realm and yield a ‘common sense’ understanding of social life” (¶ 3). She identified three themes in her analysis:

(a) the ways medical professionals learn about the social structures in which they are imbedded, (b) the role of ethics in medical practice,

(c) the portrayal of medical education, especially the importance of experiential learning through internship.

She concludes that the consumption of popular culture offers opportunity for informal learning that is not only work-related but lifelong and continuing. HRD professionals must recognize and value learning derived from engaging with popular cultural artifacts outside the workplace.

Kruse and Prettyman (2008) discuss organizational learning about women’s leadership practices as they are represented in the popular musical Wicked. They argue that the media teaches consumers powerful lessons “about whether or not women should be leaders and how they should act if they are leaders” (p. 462). Popular culture teaches women “to consider different paths to and for leadership, different ways to use and dislodge power, and different ways of being in the world” (p. 462). For HRD professionals in university classrooms and in HRD practice, facilitating this learning can impact the gender dynamics of the profession in powerful ways. They help determine how future female leaders will be perceived—in this case, as Glinda (the Good Witch), Elphaba (the Wicked Witch), or Madame Morrible, the academic who influences and shapes—and inhibits—them both.

Likewise, my research (Wright, 2007; Wright, 2009, Wright & Sandlin, 2009b) on women’s life-long learning from watching the first feminist on television, Dr. Cathy Gale, in the 1962-1964 UK crime drama The Avengers, revealed how powerful an impact such learning can have on women’s life and career decisions. This empirical study indicated that learning from popular culture is not only meaningful, but may be recalled, reaffirmed and reapplied throughout the life-span. Women in their sixties, who had embraced informal learning from the representation of a strong, single, professional woman when they were in their twenties, explained how they recollected, analyzed, and reinforced that learning throughout their lives and careers. Like the learning experiences shared with a favorite, gifted teacher, they continued to draw inspiration and to learn from the TV character they admired long after the model was no longer available to them on television.

Clearly, evidence is mounting that HRD professionals must consider the informal and incidental learning adults derive from popular cultural artifacts and subsequently bring into classrooms and workshops. The work in this issue suggests that they also should consider adding popular culture to their training and teaching toolbox.

Suggestions for Classrooms and Professional Practice

Of course, one practical consideration surrounding learning from popular culture concerns the question of media literacy. Yang (2004) stresses that holistic learning theory is needed if HRD professionals are to understand “the complex phenomena of adult learning” (p. 241). Holistic learning theory posits that “learning is not an individual activity, but also a social event” (p. 245). When any social group (i.e. student cohort, a pool of employees, etc.) interacts, the topic of conversation often revolves around the popular cultural artifacts they consume—the latest blockbuster, favorite soap, or most-watched sitcom. For educators, the question is whether or not those groups critically analyze the messages and the lessons represented in those artifacts. There is overwhelming evidence that, without some sort of facilitated critical discussion, popular culture reinforces and sustains the capitalist hegemony that creates it (Bordieu, 1996, 2000; Giroux, 2000, 2001, 2003). Educators and trainers who encourage critical analysis and discussion about the pleasures and the messages in popular media are facilitating media literacy.

There are a few recent studies on utilizing popular culture in adult classrooms to help students grasp difficult theoretical concepts, investigate power structures, explore diversity issues, ponder human development, and recognize the interconnectedness of societies across the globe. Tisdell and Thompson (2005) argue that “because adult learners are large consumers of entertainment media, critical media studies/literacy have a role to play in adult education. It is especially relevant in teaching about diversity and equity” (p. 425). Research conducted by Bambas (2002) with adult literacy students found that using the popular Harry Potter novels for teaching adult literacy enabled adults to improve literacy skills while simultaneously building self-esteem. Adults learned to use their imaginations to try out solutions to problems in Harry’s world, as well as in their own. Reading Harry Potter also facilitated lively classroom discussions surrounding issues of race, class, and gender from a position where marginalized adults felt safe—the world of fantasy and fun. Yet those discussions developed essential critical thinking skills, and facilitated heightened political and social awareness in the adult students she observed. Likewise, Norton-Meier (2005) has found that using clips from the popular Harry Potter movies, as well as comic book movies like X-Men stimulates critical thinking and promotes engaged writing about social and political issues in her undergraduate and graduate education classes. She posits that “when we connect literacy to popular culture, our students can understand difficult content in new ways, as well as learn to question the media they are presented with on a daily basis” (p. 611).

Timpson (2002), a critical educator and peace activist, advocates using films like Basketball Diaries and Amistad which can “augment instruction in engaging and dramatic ways, providing students with powerful images and sounds, and a shared classroom experience that can serve as a reference point for learning, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation” (p. 112). He incorporates music, television, and other forms of popular culture into his classroom practices in an effort to teach peace, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001.

Such examples provide evidence that using popular cultural artifacts to facilitate discussions of sensitive issues can soften defenses, open lines of communication, and encourage critical thinking.

Without training in critical media literacy most consumers accept the neoliberal propaganda that permeates popular culture. This certainly affects students’ and workers’ expectations and attitudes. Fans of Friends or Seinfeld sometimes assume that middle-class, educated but often unemployed actors and coffee shop wait staff can afford to live in fairly large apartments and wear the latest fashions in New York City. The working-class, on the rare occasions they are represented in television prime-time shows, often live in large homes, drive nice cars, and manage to participate in a number of leisure activities, while the middle-class often have live-in servants (Who’s the Boss, The Brady Bunch). American life as lived on television and in movies exemplifies the “American Dream” neoliberal myth.

Yet these neoliberal messages can be deconstructed and decoded to instruct and facilitate transformational learning. Moreover, there are also counter-hegemonic messages in popular culture that can be recognized, identified with, and incorporated into worldviews. Some science fiction promotes critical reflection and illustrates critical, transformational, and self-directed learning theories. Science fiction, particularly, stimulates viewers’ imaginations and depicts narratives of alternative ways of interpreting the world. Mezirow (2000) asserts that imagination is central to the possibility of transformational learning. He insists that “the more reflective and open we are to the perspectives of others, the richer our imagination of alternative contexts for understanding will be” (p. 20). Science fiction often presents workplace learning as sites where adults expand their imaginations to assimilate new experiences, design self-directed learning activities to improve their performance, and undergo perspective transformation as the dénouement. Moreover, science fiction and fantasy sometimes represent non-western styles of learning. These representations can be particularly instructive to HRD professionals who might be required to facilitate learning for non-Western employees.

The need for critical facilitation of social learning from science fiction is paramount. Many times, science fiction, at surface level, projects a rosy future where the US version of democracy, meritocracy and neoliberal mythology has prevailed. Uncritically observed and imitated, such narratives further entrench nationalism, racism, classism, and ethnocentrism in our collective cultural consciousness. Anijar’s (2000) investigation into the worldviews of Trekkers based on lessons learned from their obsession with Star Trek uncovered disturbing results. Data revealed that “At best, Star Trek is a bourgeois myth” (p. 229). It offers a representation of a future where “the emergent faith in American technological genius, wedded to the older faith in America’s manifest destiny, engenders ascetic visions that would enable America to defeat all evil empires, wage war to end all wars, and make the world eternally safe for democracy” (p. 229). This was also the message of many of George W. Bush’s political speeches during his warrior presidency.

The use of the cult TV classic, Star Trek, to promote neoliberalism and corporate-driven global capitalism can be found in business self-help literature. Consider the work of corporate consultant and strategic management professor Richard Raben and career-counselor and corporate-outplacement practitioner Hiyaguha Cohen (1995), authors of Boldly Live as You’ve Never Lived Before. Praising Star Trek’s curriculum for living as a way to model one’s life and work, they delineate the character types their readers should imitate to achieve success. These types, according to Raben and Cohen, are “heroes” of their own lives because they are successful in business. They describe Warriors who “don’t knot up inside debating with themselves about what deserves retribution and what does not. They see the world in black and white and react swiftly to anything that violates their moral code” (p. 47). Is that not the definition of “going postal” in our current urban dictionaries? Raben and Cohen consider this type of personality to be valuable components of the US corporate structure. Warriors “tackle problems head-on, applying exceptional focus, self-discipline—and if necessary, aggression—to get results” (p. 17). They offer exercises to “develop your inner Worf” (p. 75) for self-helpers and for HRD professionals.

Another essential Trekkian personality type Raben and Cohen praise is the Analyst. Businesses need Analysts in order to become increasingly profitable. To do this, Analysts “must have a healthy dose of detachment” (p. 109). After warning that too much detachment could result in cases like the infamous Leopold and Loeb who kidnapped and murdered little Bobby Franks in order to analyze what it felt to kill someone (p. 109) and a litany of other horrific crimes perpetrated through the years by over-zealous Analysts, they exhort the virtues of “truly-balanced Analysts” as making “savvy, logical business decisions” (p. 116). This is followed, again, by “exercises to develop your inner Spock” (p. 117). The list of Trekkian personality types also includes “Leaders” and “Relaters,” culminating in Rabin and Cohen’s final exhortation to “summon your inner heroes, become the hero you were destined to become—and then find a good crew to aim for the stars with” (p. 241). As Anijar (2000) points out, this type neoliberal analysis of popular culture products perpetuates particular ideologies deeply embedded in the larger social order, finding expression in mythic representations. . . The elimination of the economic in the myth depicts a Utopian status quo. The elimination of inequities and struggles of race, class, gender, and ethnicity presume a successfully melted pot where everyone works together for the supreme male leader (p. 229).

The confusion between these deeply entrenched myths and the reality of workers’ every day existence can result in the frustration associated, during the current economic recession, with the rise in angry mobs that spit on US Congress-members and the recent rapid resurgence of militia movements. As McLaren (2000) notes,

Roddenberry’s imperialist nostalgia. . . . revitalized—in sublimated fashion—the glory days of the empire by teleporting the wild west. . . .—with its sheriffs, posses, wranglers, Rangers, rustlers, and ‘savages’—into the future, into galaxies unknown. . . [and] the conquest of ‘outer’ worlds became internalized to justify the subjugation of ‘other’ worlds, other people, and this meant that the world of the individual—human subjectivity—became colonized accordingly. Star Trek is not a simple transmission of ruling ideologies. While they didn’t use the term hegemony, the Star Trek creators knew what the term meant and how it operated (p. 231-232).

The Trek creators wanted to show the world “how consensus and harmony can be achieved—[but] such harmony was usually brought about by bringing (or hijacking) the ‘other’ on board the holodeck of white male bourgeois values and social practices handed down by our ‘WASP’ fathers” (McLaren, 2000, p. 232). The impact on the lives of Star Trek fans has represented a backlash against critical progressive ideals and the further entrenchment of neoliberalism in US society. These ideals become “common sense” and permeate HRD and adult education classrooms, as well as society as a whole.

Still, there are contrasting counter-hegemonic messages represented by science fictional cultural products as well. An example of more progressive representations of human evolution can be seen in the British cult classic Doctor Who, a production of the BBC. Most major cities in the US, as well as the UK, are home to a particularly fanatical social group called The Doctor Who Appreciation SocietyDoctor’s Who’s version of the future (and the past) is less rosy and more complex than that of Star Trek. In another article (2010), I briefly describe the show for the uninitiated and explain the use of one particular episode, “The Long Game,” in a classroom setting as a tool for communicating the concept of capitalist-media hegemony within our globalized society and the need for deconstructing and analyzing its products. I also detailed an episode called “The Doctor’s Daughter” for use in a college graduate classroom to help facilitate a discussion of violence in the media. “The Doctor’s Daughter” represents, among other things, an overt lesson in non-violent community action and the promotion of cross-cultural communication in organizational leadership.

Another popular genre with cult-like fans is the genre of horror. As Newitz (2006) observes, some subplots of horror movies can be interpreted as narratives of the human condition as it might exist when HRD professionals do not advocate for workers in a poorly organized and poorly managed work environment. The subplots explicate a critical approach to adult education and HRD by portraying

Serial killers whose murders are reenactments of conditions under which they must labor, and zombies who cannot rest because colonialism has consigned them to a horrifying halfway point between life and death. Mad doctors experiment on themselves to escape the mental alienation of professional jobs and cyborgs struggle to deprogram their corporate-controlled minds. (Newitz, 2006, p. 182)

Analyzing the messages in these films may help HRD professionals understand complicated critical and postmodern adult learning theories in a corporate/business context. As Bambas’ use of Harry Potter indicates, placing sensitive issues in the realm of the fantastical can smooth tensions and allow for more open communication.

Where does a procession of Zombies trudge to feed on the fat flesh of the capitalists at the head of the food chain? Shopping malls, of course! At least according to George Romero in Night of the Living Dead II. It makes sense. After all, Marx told us that “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Marx, 1967, p. 233). Once sucked dead, labor wants revenge. So, many times, the zombies in films are working class stiffs (excuse the pun) while the vampires represent the wealthy capitalist elite. HRD professionals sometimes must choose his or her part: Van Helsing or Renfield? As Newitz (2006) effectively argues, horror movies represent the horrors of unregulated capitalism’s most egregious crimes against humanity and the inevitable retribution of the laborers. These lessons learned from culture are not checked when workers punch the time-clock.

Leading Where No One has Led Before: Final Considerations

Films, novels, and television programs can all be used to illustrate the effects of social cognitive learning in the lives of adults. Adult learning is most often socially constructed, and popular culture is filled with narratives representing such learning moments. Examples of embodied, spiritual, and constructivist adult learning theories and their HRD applications in practice can be culled from popular music, best-selling novels, feature films, and primetime television dramas.

As HRD students engage with popular culture artifacts that illustrate adult learning theories and workplace learning, their conceptions of the scope of the profession will necessarily expand with their understanding. They may also begin to recognize that organizational policies and decisions can have far-reaching, international implications—implications for which they are partly responsible. Popular narratives can expose systemic bias and promote social justice agendas as part of an organization’s responsibility to its workforce, to its clientele, and to the community at large. As they experience the pleasure, pain, emotion and comprehension that accompanies pedagogical uses of popular culture narratives, HRD students and professionals alike will be compelled to acknowledge the benefits of learner engagement for effective instruction and training. Furthermore, popular culture products can, “provide stories with universal themes experienced without organization-specific bias. This, ultimately, . . . helps facilitate flexibility in thinking about how to address an issue” (Callahan, Whitener, and Sandlin, 2007, p. 159) and fosters creative approaches to problem solving. With the rise of YouTube and other video-sharing sites in the last decade, the possibilities for utilizing popular culture for workplace training and development have expanded exponentially.

While writing this article, I was also engaged in teaching a graduate course entitled Popular Culture and Informal Learning in Adult Learning and Teaching. Students taking the course were enrolled in masters and Ph.D. programs in adult education, HRD, and information technology sciences. The course focused on the various forms and locations of adult education, curriculum, pedagogy, and learning that occur outside of formal schooling or other institutional sites. Specifically, over the semester, we reviewed inquiry and theorized on the pedagogical aspects of popular culture, including television, movies, sports, designed informal popular sites of education (such as museums, aquariums, zoos, and monuments), market/consumer culture, art and public performance, and cyberspace, among others. We also focused on popular culture as it is reflected in and affected by political agencies and policy. The course concluded with a brief section on public pedagogy research and methodologies, emphasizing the particular ethical and epistemological issues at stake in applying educational inquiry methods to non-institutional, informal, public sites of learning.

Several students have told me that, after the course on critical adult learning theory, this course was the most valuable in their program. They used words like practical, useful, and applicable. A number of these students are already HRD professionals in a wide range of settings. Like the authors in this volume, they are discovering that separating “work” and “school” from popular cultural pursuits is an artificially constructed fantasy that does not resemble reality. Removing popular culture from the sphere of adults’ daily work and learning will, indeed, leave only zombies and cyborgs—decontextualized, desocialized, dehumanized—victims of the vampires of capitalism. Ushering popular culture into the classroom and the workplace reconnects adults to what makes them human—their passions, their emotions, their pleasures, their expectations, their dreams, and their daily experiences.


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New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 25 (1)

New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 25 (1)

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