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SMACKDOWN AT MIT

College credit for watching TV? Area students dig into the 'cultural significance,' and the water-cooler back stories, of popular shows.

CAMBRIDGE -- On a recent Thursday afternoon, a dozen students gathered inside classroom 169 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitaker Building. They were there to grapple with tough topics and contemplate questions such as this: How did Kevin Federline manage to launch a new career with World Wrestling Entertainment ?

Indeed, that's a puzzling concept some academics might shy away from. But not in this class. The guest lecturer that day was Jim Ross -- known to wrestling fans around the country as "Good Ol' J.R.," the veteran ringside announcer for the WWE -- and he had the answer. Federline, a rapper known more for his marriage to Britney Spears than for any athletic prowess, made his wrestling debut when he got bodyslammed by WWE champ John Cena in October. How did this come to be? Well, Federline "was a pop - culture flavor of the week," said Ross, in his Oklahoma drawl, "and -- not to be crass here -- he needed the work."

Such discussions are a normal part of the newest full-credit course offering in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program: "American Pro Wrestling." The class explores the history of an American institution that brings athleticism, theatrical performance, and choreographed stunt work together in a square, roped-off ring. During the semester, students watch dozens upon dozens of wrestling matches, from 1980s clashes between Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage to modern-day battles on "Monday Night Raw." Students examine how technology has transformed wrestling into a multimedia business, and how the styles and storytelling methods have changed over the years. The required reading on the syllabus includes colorful titles such as "Steel Chair to the Head" and "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks."

This quirky addition to the MIT course catalog was the brainchild of grad student Sam Ford, who designed and teaches the curriculum. The class has created buzz on the campus and beyond. One blogger called it "The Undisputed End of Higher Education." Ford said a radio station in California called the class "a sign of the apocalypse."

Why study wrestling? Ford hopes students "use the class to learn more about how to critically analyze, discuss, and write about the popular culture they consume." And he's not the only one who sees the academic value of it.

"We've been very supportive of this course," said Henry Jenkins , director of the Comparative Media Studies program. "The WWE is one of the most successful -- and innovative -- media franchises out there today." Jenkins -- who has an essay in "Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling" -- said wrestling is worth studying because it's one of the oldest forms of entertainment, one with ties to vaudeville and theater. At the same time, he said, it's also a "window to the working-class culture in the United States."

Since February, the students have been studying the flamboyant heroes and villains on the pro wrestling circuits, and the cultural evolution of these brawny characters and their friendships and feuds. Ross told the class that pro wrestling's soap - opera story lines are reminiscent of prime-time dramas such as "Dynasty" or "Dallas," but with "headlocks instead of guns."

The class also maintains a group blog (mitcmsprowrestling.blogspot.com), where students post commentary about matches ("Flair actually wins with a pretty standard wrestling move, not his figure four leg lock"); discuss the motivation of the characters ("The relationship of Dave and Robbie is one that seems to be repeated over and over in wrestling -- the promoter/ booker taking in the downtrodden, punky kid and making something of them while also providing them with a sense of family"); and even their appearance ("when Hulk Hogan first entered the WWF, he was supposed to have red hair").

In the world of academia, the topic of professional wrestling does come up from time to time, most often in courses on pop culture. But only a handful of schools offer courses entirely on pro wrestling. One is the University of Victoria , in British Columbia, Canada, which offers a fine arts course titled "Professional Wrestling as Theatre." Another is Penn State Altoona , which offers a business seminar titled "The Professional Wrestling Industry." (No doubt, it is a big business: WWE generated $415 million in 2006.)

Ford helped design and teach the curriculum for a class on pro wrestling while he was pursuing his undergraduate degree at Western Kentucky University . He co-taught the class in the spring of 2005. A longtime fan of wrestling, Ford said he was fascinated by "the verbal wit and serialized story lines that stretch 52 weeks a year .

"And, most of all, I'm impressed with how pro wrestling, as compared to most other types of media presentations in our culture, allows for the audience to be a central part of the show, through the ways that the crowd itself performs."

Ford has first-hand knowledge: He moonlighted as a professional wrestling manager and occasionally performs for Universal Championship Wrestling in Kentucky. He plays the role of the league owner, an "arrogant intellectual" who defected from Kentucky to Cambridge. No stage name here -- even in the ring, he goes by Sam Ford.

Ford lamented that much of the academic attention devoted to pro wrestling was "often looking at how pro wrestling may lead to imitative behaviors or an increase of violence and aggression." He wanted to offer a class that "took professional wrestling seriously as more than just some danger for our children and our society."

But his enthusiasm was not shared by everyone at Western Kentucky. Ford said some faculty members expressed disdain for professional wrestling, and others questioned why an undergraduate was helping teach a college-level course. All of the skepticism "just made me that much more determined," Ford said.

After he graduated in May 2005, he moved to Cambridge to attend MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. He floated the idea for another course on pro wrestling. The proposal was embraced by faculty and students, 12 of whom registered for the course. It's a diverse group -- eight men and four women, a mix of graduate students and undergrads. There are wrestling fans majoring in computer science and engineering, and students who didn't know much about wrestling but were intrigued the phenomenon.

Before taking the class, Rob Stott had very little exposure to pro wrestling.

"If anything, I looked down on it a bit, though mostly I just didn't think much of it," Stott, a senior undergraduate pursuing a joint major in comparative media studies and computer science, said in an e-mail. "When we first started watching wrestling matches for class, I approached them in a very distant and academic way, and think I was able to appreciate them as entertainment for their intended audience, though not personally. However, over time, certain characters have started to really stick with me, and I find myself starting to just genuinely look forward to and enjoy seeing them wrestle.

"So, would I say that it has turned me into a fan? I don't think so, though it has turned me into someone who can at least enjoy and appreciate wrestling to some extent, which is a big change."

The class meets three times a week and occasionally features guest speakers such as Ross; Sharon Mazer, author of "Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle"; Harvard- grad-turned- pro- wrestler Christopher Nowinski, who retired from the WWE in 2003; and Mick Foley , a bearded, burly WWE World champion-turned - bestselling author. Foley's lecture tomorrow , which takes place at 5 p.m. in Building 54 (Green Building), is open to the public, free of charge.

Much of the class time is devoted to watching matches on video or DVD. Ford encourages his students to talk during the matches, and discuss what's taking place on the screen, just as regular wrestling fans do.

"Nobody ever watches pro wrestling in silence," he said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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