Sunday, February 2, 2003

Retired professor put 'pop' in culture at Bowling Green

By John Seewer
The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio - Does wallpaper reflect how society has evolved? Do comic books hold the key to enlightenment?

Ray Browne thinks so.

Browne, 81, is a pioneer in the study of popular culture - a phrase he is credited with coining. The now-retired Bowling Green State University professor in 1972 developed the first - and only - academic department devoted to studying what he calls the "people's culture."

Browne for decades has worked to convince academics that seemingly insignificant elements of our lives provide a snapshot of society.

"Culture is everything from the food we've always eaten to the clothes we've always worn," he said.

Much can also be learned from bumper stickers and cartoons, he said. He has written more than 70 books on popular culture - including the Guide to United States Popular Culture.

Though he stopped teaching in 1990, Browne still spends time researching and writing on campus. He's working on five books, including a popular culture textbook.

Browne, whose gray hair and suits don't distinguish him from other campus professors, said he made a mistake in 1967 when he came up with the phrase "popular culture."

"If I had called it everyday culture or Democratic culture, it would not have been so sharply criticized," he said.

Universities for centuries eschewed the study of popular culture, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"Ray Browne and (a) few others began to realize how silly that was," Thompson said. "One of the great ways to open up the secrets of our lives is to look at things we use by choice.

"If you're going to understand our history, you also better understand about lawn ornaments, holiday songs and comic books."

Professors at universities nationwide thought Browne, an English professor, was trying to demean or trivialize what they were teaching when he founded the popular culture department.

That wasn't the case, he said.

His interest was rooted in finding out how society affects culture and how culture affects society.

Dozens of schools now offer classes rooted in popular culture. And Browne receives dozens of new books about pop culture each week to review.

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