Some women have spent hours obsessing over the songs of "Les Misérables" since the movie's release last year. But on a recent afternoon, female students at Touro College took an unusual angle: analyzing parallels between the film's song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" and the work of German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt.
They were led by Assistant Professor Thomas Rozinski, who teaches political science at Touro, a New York school oriented toward Jewish students. He uses songs from such varied sources as musicals, rock bands and the Swedish pop group Ace of Base to illustrate classic themes in nearly every class.
To wit: The professor said Supertramp's "The Logical Song" is "basically the story of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau," the French philosopher; the theme song from the 1966 movie "Alfie" reprises a debate from Plato's "Republic"; the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" from the musical "West Side Story" is "an indictment of the social welfare state."
"I'm constantly on the look for these things," Mr. Rozinski said. If songs can "convey a message and help people understand, then they can participate in a conversation" with philosophers and theorists that's been continuing for 2,000 years.
Mr. Rozinski, who presented his approach at an academic conference this year and is planning to publish a paper on the technique, is part of a growing wave of academics who use popular culture to illuminate traditional intellectual concepts.
Students say they appreciate the effort. "A lot of times you're dealing with abstract concepts and abstract ideas," said Raphaela Abramson, a 21-year-old senior at Touro. "When you have a song you've heard of, it brings it together."
Professors tread a fine line when they integrate pop culture into their lectures. "It's always tempting to become an entertainer in front of the classroom and to become popular and trendy and cool," said Michael Baur, an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University. Mr. Baur has used Coldplay songs to illustrate the principles of stoicism. But he adds that if the professor isn't careful, "the pop culture sort of takes over."
Another challenge is using cultural references that resonate with today's students. John Davenport, an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University, used to try to tell classes that Han Solo, hero of the original "Star Wars" films from the 1970s and early 1980s, embodied all three types of Aristotelian friendship. It fell flat. "None of the students knew what I was talking about," said the 46-year-old professor. "It's pretty sad."
When William Irwin started teaching 16 years ago, his tastes kept up with those of his students. Now, at 43, "my references don't go over the way that they used to," said Mr. Irwin, who teaches philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania. "There's nothing less cool than somebody who's trying to force a hip reference that they don't really get themselves."
Princeton University sociology professor Mitchell Duneier teaches a class inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen. One issue: Many of the students "tell me they're taking the class because their parents are making them take it," he said, adding that the class is packed on parent visiting day.
The class, offered roughly every two years, is divided into two lectures a week; in the first, a musician will perform a Springsteen song live. Then Mr. Duneier will lecture on topics such as working-class life, the connection between people and their cars and teenage mothers.
In the second session, Mr. Duneier interviews someone from New Jersey whose life embodies the themes of the song. There also is a mandatory class trip to Atlantic City that has included interviews with cocktail waitresses and boardwalk vendors.
Despite their initial reluctance, Mr. Duneier said he often sees former students when he goes to Springsteen concerts—and he's been to more than 100 of them. "They say, 'I'm so glad I took this class,'" he said. Students start "thinking sociologically about things that they had not been thinking sociologically about before."
The debate over pop culture is crystallized in a series of books overseen by Mr. Irwin. It all started when the professor used characters from the TV show "Seinfeld" in his classes. "Jerry is like Socrates in this way," Mr. Irwin would tell his students. "George decides to do the opposite in this episode. Is that rational according to Aristotle's theory of rationality?"
When the show ended, "I was not only sad as a fan to lose the show but sad as a teacher to lose a pedagogical device," he said.
So he wrote a book. "Seinfeld and Philosophy," published in 1999, explains some of the academic lessons he drew from the show. To his surprise, it was a hit, selling more than 50,000 copies. "That sort of opened the floodgate," he said.
There are now more than 50 books in the series, which have sold more than a million volumes combined, Mr. Irwin said. Topics include TV shows "The Sopranos" and "The Big Bang Theory," the heavy metal band Black Sabbath and James Bond. A book based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel "The Hobbit" is subtitled: "For When You've Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard and Your Way."
With success, the focus of the books has shifted. "As it broadened in audience, the mission broadened a little bit, too," Mr. Irwin said. "I think an equal amount of people find it either too fluffy or too rigorous."
Some books in the series find that balance better than others. With a "30 Rock and Philosophy: We Want to Go to There" edition, he said, "I think we stretched a bit."