December 17, 2014 - 12:28 PM
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Bart and Lisa Simpson have been in elementary school for 25 years. But that hasn't stopped them from showing up on college campuses.
Universities across the country are using satirical references from "The Simpsons" to grab students' attention and convey lessons in literature and all manner of popular culture.
"If the references are important enough to be lampooned by 'The Simpsons,' these works must be important cultural milestones," says Hofstra University adjunct English professor Richard Pioreck, who has been incorporating the denizens of Springfield into his courses for about a decade.
He currently teaches a course about the Broadway theatre 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.
"Teachers need to keep things fresh," says Denise DuVernay, an adjunct English professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago, co-author of the book "The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield."
"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."
In recent years, other universities have had courses focused on the primetime show — which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Wednesday — including Oswego State University in New York and San Jose State University in California.
Longtime "Simpsons" executive producer Al Jean says he's not surprised professors have embraced the program. "Some people may think we are very vulgar, but then they find there is a lot of warmth and emotion and many people are surprised at the intelligence of some of the jokes," he says.
Pioreck says he decided to use the show after a friend of his daughter's passed an exam on "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by watching a "Simpsons" episode that focused on the story.
He found that the sitcom usually aims for more than just the easy punchlines, with writers layering the plotlines with humour that can be appreciated by lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow audiences alike.
For example, in one episode that parodied "A Streetcar Named Desire" ("A Streetcar Named Marge"), the dynamics of Homer and Marge Simpson's marriage are deftly illustrated through a comparison to the relationship of the couple in the play, Stella and Stanley.
"'The Simpsons" do a great deal of parodying, whether it's a complete script or a number here or there," Pioreck says. "Quite often they choose family relationships; what makes a man a success is one of the things that we pursue. And you can see what happens to Homer. Even though it looks like he's not a good father, he steps up and he comes through in the end."
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.
"Mr. Burns ... he doesn't have fulfilment in his life even though he's the richest person in town," Pioreck says. "Here are two people who have it all, they have more money than they know what to do with and yet they're not happy. Homer has no money, but has friends and family."
Almost incredibly, at least one young Hofstra student confesses she'd never seen the sitcom before signing up for the Simpsons-Broadway course.
Elizabeth Sarian, a 21-year-old music performance major from Plainview says she signed up because of her interest in Broadway, not the cartoon.
Still, she says, the connection to "The Simpsons" is hardly trivial "because it really does teach you a lot from watching it."
Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.
News from © Associated Press, 2014