When Sam Ford SM ’07 found out that a class he had taught at MIT in 2007 was featured on the July 9 episode of Jeopardy!, he was ecstatic. After all, how many college courses are mentioned on national television more than seven years later?
“Maybe I should retire; what can top this?” Ford tweeted. “My MIT class was the answer to @Jeopardy last night.”
Then again, the course focused on a topic rarely—if ever—associated with MIT: professional wrestling.
Since its one-time offering, Topics in Comparative Media: American Pro Wrestling has been no stranger to the purview of popular culture. It was profiled in the Boston Globe; one blogger declared the class “the undisputed end of higher education”; and Mental Floss, Buzzfeed, and the Metro all named it among the strangest courses offered by any U.S. college.
“One radio host called it a sign of the apocalypse,” Ford says. “In reality, it looked at the cultural and media history of American pro wrestling. The course brought an eclectic mix of students from media studies, humanities, science, and engineering.”
Internet quips aside, the course focused less on powerslams and dropkicks and more on the idea of wrestling as performance art and how it has evolved with new media technologies. Through a partnership with WWE, the world’s largest professional wrestling organization, guest speakers included broadcaster Jim Ross, wrestler-turned-head trauma expert Chris Nowinski, and author and wrestler Mick Foley, whose Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W) colloquium packed a Green Building lecture hall.
“I never felt much need to defend the class or explain it to anyone,” graduate student Kate James wrote in a 2013 CMS/W blog post. “It was incredibly rigorous and visionary, using the performative medium of professional wrestling to look at subjects including gender dynamics, performance tactics, good-evil duality, religion, race, and the use of the human body in the throes of violent enactments of cultural paradigms. If others didn’t get it, so what?”
Ford, who is now director of audience engagement at the marketing firm Peppercomm, originally co-taught a version of the wrestling course as a quadruple-major undergraduate at Western Kentucky University. A life-long wrestling fan and licensed professional wrestling manager, both Ford’s honor’s thesis at WKU and his graduate application to MIT centered on WWE.
“My thesis focused on three areas: Mick Foley and the changing views on masculinity in the 21st century; a business perspective of WWE as a trans-media empire; and the ethnographic role that the audience plays at WWE live events,” Ford says. “Part of my MIT application looked at how wrestling fans trade videotapes of matches and what the media could learn from those practices.”
Ford, who maintains a research affiliate position with MIT, also taught the CMS/W course American Soap Operas in 2008. Now based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he’s bringing the wrestling course back from the mat this fall at WKU. He’s open to bringing the class back to MIT.
“It was probably the most enjoyable class I’ve ever taught,” says Ford. “It was definitely unique subject matter. I have a great affinity for Boston and I’d love to come back and teach it again.”
For more information on Topics in Comparative Media: American Pro Wrestling, listen to CSM/W podcasts with Mick Foley and Jim Ross, read the course’s blog archive, and revisit the course the via MIT’s OpenCourseWare.