“O captain my captain”: using pop culture in your essays


The 1989 film Dead Poets Society follows an English teacher, Keating (Robin Williams), who inspires his students at an elite boy’s school through his teaching of poetry. The film has been included in awards lists for Academy Awards, nominations for BAFTAs and most recently, my summative essay for my first year Education module (leaving the most prestigious for last, of course).

At school, I had the unfortunate disposition of believing I had a great sense of humour – that’s to say I was really annoying. I was serious about doing well, but it was a sort of challenge for myself to see if I could do well un-seriously, to make my teachers laugh while marking my work. This included a PowerPoint presentation about how Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Horatio were really gay lovers, backed with textual evidence and literary criticism. Nothing excites me more than when I can include some pop culture references while I’m at it. It feels like a big inside joke with whoever is reading or listening to my work. For instance, one of my school council election speeches relied on the extended metaphor of myself being Jesus Christ (and at Catholic school, is there a bigger pop culture icon? Apart from perhaps Derry Girls’ Sister Michael).

I’d like to point out that these pop culture references have never failed me. However, it’s not something I thought I’d be able to continue at uni. My sixth form teachers who’ve known me for years are a somewhat different audience to the academic staff at uni, who wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a line up.

That being said, last year I was sat down to write my first summative for an Education module. It felt so daunting wondering about how much reading I needed to do – would I end up mindlessly churning through academic articles indefinitely? The general idea of the essay was about the strengths and weaknesses of the Romantic conception of education. The strengths included that it was child-centred, progressive and fostered creativity in students, meanwhile the drawbacks focussed mainly on its barriers to implementation and its inaccessibility which could contribute to elitism.

Pop culture references have never failed me

As I was writing I thought back to a film I watched in my year eight (or nine) drama class – one of those lessons at the end of term where no one can be bothered anymore with actual lessons. The film was Dead Poet’s Society. I remembered enjoying the film, I also remembered that I spent most of it chatting to my friend about how fit the character Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) was. But the desire to procrastinate led me to revisit it.

I couldn’t help but notice that the issues I found with Romanticism (which were not really problems I had with the concept itself, but with our current education system, in which there seemed no realistic place for it) were captured perfectly in the film. I mean Keating was everything I could possibly want in a teacher: passionate, knowledgeable, caring. And yet, the end of the film saw him fired from his job, disliked by parents and fellow teaching staff – although dearly missed by the students, as highlighted in the moving ‘O captain, my captain’ scene.

So, I set off on a rampage, writing all my thoughts about it in my essay. Then I went and cut it down so there was an actual relevant point I was getting across. Rather than getting told off for including non-academic sources, my marker said in my feedback:

“The use of the example of the Dead Poets Society is a really great one – I am very taken with the inclusion of this as it couldn’t be a better evocation of some of the key themes in your essay!”

Ultimately, I think what is good about relevant inclusion of pop culture in academic writing is it makes the knowledge and discussion more accessible. Culture like media, TV and film reflect the dominant ideas and values of our society. Although they’re not academic, peer-reviewed sources in themselves, they can be surprisingly effective for driving home your academic arguments.

Image credits: Victor He via Unsplash

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