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Cool for School: The Arts & Popular Culture with Anthony DeCurtis

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Cool for School: The Arts & Popular Culture with Anthony DeCurtis

By Gwendolyn Lewis.


At 1:30 pm on a Thursday, a creative writing seminar is starting on the second floor of the Kelly Writers House. After handing back the students' “Writing About A Photograph” assignments, the professor, Anthony DeCurtis, brings up the first topic of discussion.

“This live tweeting thing,” he says, “do we want to do that?”

“I would love to do it,” calls out one student. Next to her, another student buries his face in his hands and mumbles something about Twitter accounts and the word “mainstream.”

The assignment is to live tweet the Academy Awards together as a class. The students are to comment on what people wear, who wins the big awards, and anything “hilarious and stupid” that happens. The end goal is not to waste time on social media, but to create an aggregated collection of information in order to write a critical essay on the 2014 Academy Awards.

“It will be community building. It will also be a form of note taking. It creates conversation,” says Professor DeCurtis, or Anthony, as the students call him. “Then,” he continues, “you'll be sitting down and writing an essay about a whole range of topics: fashion, the awards themselves...”

This seminar is called The Arts & Popular Culture. The professor is an author, music critic and contributing editor to Rolling StoneIt's 2014, Twitter posts are 140 characters of culturally relevant information and journalists need to know how to tweet about things like the Oscars just as much they need to know how to report a news story.
 

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DeCurtis won a Grammy for album notes. He cowrote Clive Davis' memoir. He has interviewed and written about celebrities ranging from Prince to Paul McCartney. And, for the past 12 years, he has shared his craft with students at UPenn, recently winning the 2013-2014 Beltran Family Teaching Award, given, each year, to a professor for innovative teaching and mentoring at the Kelly Writers House. A man who helps define the popular opinion on many of today's most prominent artists, Anthony DeCurtis is a professor who combines his talents and career experience with unique teaching methods, providing students with lessons that transcend the classroom and encourage them to explore the city and the greater world of arts and culture.

“One of my favorite things to say when someone comes up with an idea is, 'That sounds like school.' I'm aware that this is a school, but I want people to bring their lives into the classroom,” says DeCurtis.

Arts & Popular Culture, taught each semester, is a seminar that allows students to “write about things that they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to write about.”

As someone who has built a career around analyzing the culture in which he lives, DeCurtis knows how to pinpoint the important aspects of what is seemingly just entertainment.

“In pop culture, things get popular for a reason. I'm not saying you can't enjoy them, but break them down a bit. It helps you to better understand the culture and world that you're moving around in. Bring what you'd bring to literature, theater or the 'traditional' higher arts, but bring it to pop culture,” he says.

As a part of that process, students write about what is “immediate” from TV shows to music, leading up to a final project in which students must write a 3,000 word profile on someone or something important to the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. They must reach out, interview and write — just like a real journalist.

 

    • Arts & Popular Culture Seminar
    • The Arts & Popular Culture Seminar meets on the second floor of Kelly Writers House. Photo by Arielle Brousse.


 

Putting two elbows onto the table, leaning on the front legs of his chair, DeCurtis begins his “interview talk” about important “stuff,” like how not to ruin “the thing” — but he doesn't mean to sound “glib.”

He tells the students to feel comfortable.

“I want these interviews done in person,” he says, “You have to think about this as an interaction with a person. This is still a person. This is still a Thursday afternoon and that person is still in whatever mood they're in.”

He takes questions.

“What if we end up with a jerk,” asks one student, “Do we let that jerk-ness come through in the piece?”

“Absolutely,” DeCurtis says, “That's the writers' revenge.” The class laughs.

He advises students to spend as much time with their subjects as possible, to observe the interviewees in their natural habitats, to take notes, but also to be sure to record the interview. Not afraid to reveal his own mistakes, DeCurtis draws from personal experience to illustrate what can happen when you have to rely on notes and memory alone.

“I wrote a story about Morgan Freeman,” he begins, “It was a while back, an early profile...” Students gasp and poise their pens for note taking.


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In addition to offering students a unique experience in the classroom, DeCurtis works to help shape students' lives after they graduate.

“When I was in school, I loved music, film, and literature, but I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do with all this?' This class has reflected the changes in my career.”

For the second half of each class, DeCurtis brings a professional to share their career experience and to answer questions from the students. Besides journalists as traditionally defined, guests have included staff from Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue, and recently, the director of 20 Feet from Stardom, which was nominated for an Oscar.

“I want to give a real world point of view with the guests who are doing writing related things. If you like writing, you might like working in television. You don't have to get out of here and lock yourself in an attic and write a novel,” says DeCurtis.

Over the years, DeCurtis has even been able to bring back former UPenn students, who are now establishing careers.


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Students return from a 15-minute break with cups from Starbucks and mugs of tea from the Kelly Writers House kitchen. At the head of the table is someone who looks like she could be one of the students.

“I was a Creative Writing major,” she says, “I had most of my classes in this room.”

Melody Kramer, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (C'06), describes her career trajectory as fluid, telling students not to worry if they don't have a set plan to follow. She works as a Social Media Strategist for NPR. NPR is on Facebook. NPR is on Snapchat.

“Just the other day, I helped a 64-year-old reporter to make a Twitter,” she says, “ because he wants to live tweet the Oscars.”

Laughing with the rest of the class, DeCurtis calls out, “Well class, there you have it!”

 

 
    • Real Arts @ Penn
    • Anthony DeCurtis leads an information session about RealArts@Penn internship opportunities. Photo courtesy of Kelly Writers House (Flickr).

 
 

In addition to the fun that happens inside of room 202, DeCurtis's ultimate goal is to “build people who can be critical about their own work, their own ideas, and everything that they consume in this culture.”

Students may write about the TV show “Girls,” or about the Oscars, but what matters is the writing.

“I love breaking down a sentence or just an effect. Like, that's really funny. How does it work? Is it this one word that makes it funny? These things are not miracles — they're all strategies. Somebody makes the decision and enabling people to do that is what it's all about,” he says.

DeCurtis's own passion for writing about the arts drives his love for teaching students, for helping to mold a new generation of skilled culture critics.

“I still remember what a liberating thing it was to realize that if I have an idea, I can express it in writing. That's what I want to give. That's what I want to create. I want to put [students] on that road,” he says. “It doesn't happen in one semester. Even I am still learning.”


Gwendolyn Lewis is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, studying English and American Sign Language/Deaf Studies. She works at the Kelly Writers House, where she can always find food, friends and tea. Outside of school, she enjoys journalism, music, fashion and using her creativity in the business world.



Edited by Naomi Shavin.

Top Banner photo by Arielle Brousse.