The Best Online Pop Culture Courses

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For many college students, it's easy to let your eyes glaze over in a boring class. But what if you could learn about something a lot more intriguing — something like genetic trait prediction in the Harry Potter universe?

That's exactly what you'd do if you signed up for the online Science of Harry Potter course at the University of California, San Diego.

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Several colleges and universities offer classes that delve into film, television, music, and other cultural phenomena.

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Or maybe you'd like to study a more timely topic, like how societies react during a pandemic. In that case, you might check out Michigan State University's online course titled Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse: Disasters, Catastrophe, and Human Behavior.

Several colleges and universities offer classes that delve into film, television, music, and other cultural phenomena. While some of these courses use pop culture as a hook for other topics — such as how UC San Diego uses Harry Potter to talk about science — others explore unique aspects of pop culture and their impacts on society.

Below, we introduce some of the most interesting pop culture college courses you can take online and on campus.

Free Online Pop Culture College Courses

Want to take a college class, even if you're not currently enrolled? Fortunately, many higher education institutions have digitized their pop culture courses, offering them at little to no cost to students.

You can find open-access courses at websites like edX, MOOC.org (which stands for "massive open online courses"), and Coursera. Below are some of the most unique pop culture courses you can take online, organized by category.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • This course explores topics such as how comic books nearly vanished during the 1950s McCarthy era and how superheroes gained blockbuster popularity in the 21st century. The late Stan Lee, who created many Marvel characters, contributed to this class curriculum.
  • The TV show "Star Trek" not only profoundly influenced the science fiction genre but also had a huge impact on society as a whole. In this course ⁠— and its two sequels ⁠— you'll learn about the ongoing effects of this hit series.
  • Known as the "Tolkein Professor," Dr. Corey Olsen used his expertise to create this three-part college course on hobbits, wizards, dwarves, elves, and the One Ring. You'll study the famed fantasy novels in depth through a series of free podcasts.


Hollywood and the Film Industry

  • This online pop culture course delves into an array of interesting topics, such as Hollywood's history and the intersection of politics and business.
  • If you're curious about why we remember certain events and forget others, or why our memories often become distorted, this course may be for you. In this online class, you'll investigate psychology through the framework of popular film.


Music, Art, and Writing

  • In History of Rock, students learn how rock music became psychedelic by the late 1960s and transformed into punk and disco in the '70s and '80s. You can supplement this program with two Beatles and Rolling Stones courses, which focus exclusively on the iconic British bands and their continued impact on today's music.
  • This project-centered course teaches you how to design a compelling world for your very own TV series and culminates in the submission of a pitch-ready script for a pilot episode. Students share feedback with their peers and spend most of their time brainstorming and writing.


Memes and Games

  • Obsessed with the internet? Believe it or not, you can study memes, like Salt Bae or the Kombucha Girl. This online course, which describes memes as a "new folk art form," even asks students to create their own memes.
  • MIT posts several courses on its free MIT OpenCourseWare site, accessible to everyone. This course in particular probes into digital games, spectatorship, and performance.


Society and Culture

  • This online course takes a meta look at the MOOC platform: How can open-access courses contribute to social activism? Students also learn about the artistic and cultural practices of modern social movements.
  • Athletes and sports fans may find this online pop culture course interesting, which digs into the relationships between money, politics, and sports.

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On-Campus Pop Culture Courses

Sometimes colleges and universities conduct on-campus pop culture courses for students. Schools might integrate pop culture into general education requirements or offer these classes through their American studies and/or social sciences departments.

Television and Film

  • Classed as a general education course, this Harvard course zeroes in one of HBO's most popular — and controversial — TV shows. You'll learn why so many people associate "Game of Thrones" with the Middle Ages despite being set in a fantasy world, and explore key events and people of the medieval era.
  • Offered by UCLA's film and television department, this course takes a look at the past four decades of MTV. Students study MTV's cultural significance, especially how youths and MTV have influenced each other.
  • Race, racism, and anti-racism protests continue to make headlines in 2020. This course examines how TV shows portray race, starting with the civil rights movement and ending with various genres in today's cultural landscape.
  • Jordan Peele — writer and director of the critically acclaimed films "Get Out" and "Us" — has a knack for creating horror films with sharp social commentary on race and privilege. This course analyzes his work.


Music and Podcasts

  • Do you listen to 2Pac on repeat? Or maybe you're more of a Notorious B.I.G. fan. This course covers the history of hip hop, including its birth in the 1970s, the socially conscious art of the '80s and '90s, and what hip hop culture looks like today.
  • Over the past decade, podcasts have become more important in society's cultural landscape. This class considers how podcasts have contributed to the public dialogue on art, race, and urban life.

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