A closer look at Disney

Reflecting on one of U.Va.’s most popular classes


Prof. Carmenita Higginbotham was inspired by a Disney class she took when she was in college.

Courtesy University of Virginia

In the spring semester of every odd year since 2009, Prof. Carmenita Higginbotham has offered a class on Disney through the University’s American Studies department.

“We have a lot of flexibility here at the University to … teach whatever we want. There are the required classes — intro classes, foundational classes — that someone has to teach, but beyond that, you’re given a lot of creative license,” Higginbotham said.

When Higginbotham decided to teach Disney, she wanted to focus more on popular culture and was inspired by a Disney class she took when she was in college.

“I wanted to revisit the topic at some point in my career [and] it seemed like the right time. So, I came up with a syllabus and decided to give it a go,” Higginbotham said.

Ever since the class was first offered, students with a wide range of interests have applied to take it, hoping to study the media corporation that transformed into a ubiquitous and integral presence in American culture.

“I’m a studio art major, so I was on the lookout for not only art history classes for the requirement, but also classes that might just expand my knowledge of other kinds of art,” said third-year College student student Elizabeth Reid, who took the Disney class in 2015. “When I picked up the class I realized it was way more based in looking at Disney through an American Studies view but … I’m not disappointed at all with what it turned out to be.”

This class’s popularity is proven time and again by the sheer number of students who apply — although the class is generally comprised of about 30 people, over seven times as many that applied this year alone.

“I’ve had offers from people to sing Disney show tunes to get in the class, I’ve had students come to my office hours three, four, five, six, seven times to get into the class, flood me with emails,” Higginbotham said. “I try to stress to them that it’s just a Disney class, and it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get in.”

Fourth-year College student Dallas Simms, who also took the class in 2015, praised the class.

“It’s in the American Studies department, which I feel like not a bunch of people know about … but I think it’s a golden gem at U.Va. and people do talk about it,” Simms said.

Higginbotham’s passion for the material she teaches not only encourages some students to

enroll in her American studies and art history classes — it also motivates them to pursue majors in those fields.

“Really because of the Disney class and Professor Higginbotham, I became an American Studies major,” said third-year College and Commerce student student Harry Gillespie, who also took the class in 2015. “[Disney] was the first class I took with her, and I ended up taking an art history class with her and another American studies class with her. She’s one of the best professors I’ve had here.”

Higginbotham’s exuberance isn’t just something those who have known her for a long time are exposed to. It’s a trait that even students, who just met her this semester, have noticed.

“She’s very smart but still very approachable, which is cool because a lot of times the two aren’t necessarily synonymous … she’s good at making the room feel energetic, and she’s so entertaining,” said first-year College student Morgan Kurst, who is currently enrolled in the class. “I already love the class so much — it’s so great.”

The class’s three main objectives are to study Walt Disney — both the man and the corporation — as well as its sort of mystical entity. Although it only lasts 15 weeks, it seems to be a fairly eye-opening experience for those who take it because many are unfamiliar Disney’s role as a corporate giant.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Disney isn’t just the shows or movies or anything like that,” said fourth-year College student Laura Tracy, who took the Disney class in 2015. “Disney owns ESPN, housing developments, just so much of our day-to-day lives that we don’t know about, so just getting to learn more about this company that so greatly affects how we live our lives and popular culture was really interesting.”

Although some students retain specifics about the Disney corporation after completing the course, that’s not Higginbotham’s main goal for them.

“Some people cling to their fandoms, but [they] are at least able to ask more critical questions by the end of it,” Higginbotham said. “All I want from students is for them to ask more critical questions of something they’re very close to, and [learn] how to interrogate something that’s hard to interrogate, because I think that’s what college is, or at least should be, about.”

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