11/05/2010 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Going Gaga

This Halloween, Lady Gaga costumes may have been all the rage, but one fan has taken devotion to a whole new level.

This fan, who has attended some 28 Lady Gaga concerts worldwide (so far!) and created an "adoring fan" website, happens to teach sociology and has developed a new sociology course, "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame" at the University of South Carolina, as reported in the New York Times (on October 29th). It is often said that the tenure system is founded in academic freedom, allowing instructors to teach subjects without constraint, hopefully with the students' best interests in mind. This example begs the question of where do you draw the line? Can a professor teach a course based on a personal obsession (or are all courses taught that way?) And what defines an academic pursuit? Is Lady Gaga an appropriate topic for a college course?

What are students expected to learn from the course? According to the instructor, "Students should also have garnered empirical knowledge of some of the most important social dimensions of fame as exemplified by the case of Lady Gaga." Don't get me wrong. I believe it is possible to teach a course focused on a superstar, as a way to connect to students using something that they can relate to in their daily lives -- as long as the subject itself, in this case sociology, is the core purpose of the discussions.

Focusing on superstars in academia is nothing new. There is a veritable body of academic literature devoted to Madonna, ranging from books to journal articles. I am not a musician or a musicologist, but I question the validity of a hypothesis that Madonna's musical compositions are based upon "male" and "female" notes, as suggested in one thesis. Academic books devoted to Madonna include Madonna: Bawdy and Soul (University of Toronto Press, 1997) and Female Gender Trouble: Pursuing the Perverse with Madonna (Doubleday, 1991). This is but a small sample of the products of academic research on one female superstar.

What do you think? Is this going too far? Is it an example of a professor using a personal obsession to teach his students, or is it a creative way to teach his subject by connecting to students using an attention-grabbing superstar?