Inaugural Highlander-Con dives into pop culture

For some people, it’s the Beatles or Bob Dylan or the crackling sound of vinyl on a turntable. For others, it’s Batman watching over Gotham or the Powerpuff Girls fighting criminals in Townsville. And for many, it’s the joy found in the mysteries of the Force or zipping around time and space in a police box or the Starship Enterprise.

And, don’t forget Shakespeare. And “Pride and Prejudice.” And paintings like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

However you slice it, pop culture has various meanings and influences for many people, as was evidenced March 1 when a group of Radford University students, faculty and administrators gathered for an hour-plus long discussion about the power and allure of pop culture at the inaugural Highlander-Con in Hemphill Hall.

Participating in the panel discussion were College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences (CHBS) Dean Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Anthropological Sciences David Anderson, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of English at Radford University Carilion Kevin Farrell, Ph.D.; Assistant to the Dean of the Artis College of Science and Technology and City of Radford Mayor David Horton; Assistant Professor of Psychology Nicole Iannone, Ph.D., Jessica Long, a graduate assistant in the School of Communication; and School of Communication Assistant Professor and director of the Cinema and Screen Studies program Michael J. Meindl, an organizer of the event.

“One of the main purposes of this event is to get Highlanders from all across campus to come together and share their love of pop culture,” Meindl said. “We want to talk about why we love it and why it is important because a number of us study pop culture.”

As the discussion began, the panelists spoke briefly about their pop culture influences and expertise. Farrell said it was difficult for him to “overstate the importance of pop culture,” particularly music, to his personal and professional lives.

“I have so many very close friendships and relationships, even my marriage,” he said, “that all have roots in late-night conversations about our favorite albums and songs, even our favorite singers and bands.”

Farrell said his children have inherited an affection and appreciation for music. “My 7-year-old is a full-blown Beatles maniac now and insists on going to record shops,” he said.

Pop culture characters have a unique ability to create a sense of community in various ways, Iannone explained. “For me and others, it has been a way to connect with other people, and it can provide a sense of belonging with characters you can relate to that maybe you don’t have in real life and can provide people with para-social relationships at a time when you don’t have as much belonging in your real life as you would like.”

Horton’s love of pop culture blossomed, like many people, when he was a child, but it was galvanized at the age of 9 when “Star Wars” first appeared on movie theater and drive-in screens. The mayor said he sees pop culture growing to even larger proportions now with the “advent of mass media and a global community system.”

Anderson said he has never regretted studying archaeology, but if he had known at age 17 what he knows now, “I could go back to that age and say to myself – you know what? – you can study [“Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R.] Tolkien” at a high academic level.

“I’ve built a career on studying pop culture and have been very fortunate to do so,” said Smith, donning “Doctor Who” Tardis cufflinks while describing the changes in attitudes toward pop culture studies over the years. “People have come to appreciate that there is something valuable and interesting and meaningful to the cultural stories and artifacts and practices that are being engaged.”

To demonstrate, Smith played for the Highlander-con audience the trailer for the film “Batkid Begins,” which documents how thousands of people came together one day in San Francisco to make a wish come true for a 5-year-boy with leukemia who wanted to be Batman.

“Pop culture has a way [of touching] people’s lives in ways that are meaningful,” Smith said. “That, to me, is where it’s at.”

In addition to Highlander-Con and a Superhero Smackdown discussion last November, the School of Communication offers a summer field study course to Comic-Con in San Diego, California. Following the panel discussion, Meindl held an information session for students interested in the upcoming course and trip to Comic-Con. To learn more, contact Meindl at

Highlander-Con, which organizers hope becomes an annual event, was sponsored by Radford University’s School of Communication, the Department of Theatre and Cinema, and the Cinema and Screen Studies Interdisciplinary Minor.

Mar 21, 2022
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761