The Campus Simpsonologist
Karma Waltonen’s first-year seminar on The Simpsons isn’t about watching cartoons. Students discuss themes explored on the show (bullying, mental health, sex and more), write their own scripts for the show (one student wrote a story that had the titular family visiting UC Davis for Picnic Day) and talk about how the show reflects the time in which it was made.
“We explore how particular issues are shown through that prism,” she said.
Waltonen also teaches other, more traditional courses through the University Writing Program, but studies pop culture because it reflects the values and experiences of those who create it, she said.
The continuing lecturer teaches three first-year seminars that examine pop culture: courses on The Simpsons, Dr. Who and author Margaret Atwood. She alternates them, also offering one on stand-up comedy. This fall she covers Atwood.
Some might doubt the seriousness of her studies, but Waltonen teaches a class on William Shakespeare, and she said his work was pop culture in its time.
“Margaret Atwood and The Simpsons — they’re explorations of modern society,” she said. “They’re mirrors of us.”
She was introduced to Atwood’s work when she read The Handmaid’s Tale. Then, when Waltonen was a high schooler in Pensacola, Florida, a doctor was murdered by a man who said he wanted to stop the doctor from performing abortions. Waltonen said the event felt like something straight out of the pages of the book-turned-Hulu-series, and she was hooked on Atwood’s work. She now serves as president of the Margaret Atwood Society and edits the society’s academic journal.
She said she appreciates how Atwood’s writing has a sense of humor, and said she’s always been interested in work that uses humor to examine society.
Waltonen has co-authored two books on The Simpsons — one on how it can be incorporated into classroom lessons — and a forthcoming collection of essays (hers is on how the show explores sex).