Course Spotlight: Using Pop Culture to Teach Psychology in the Bachelor’s Completion Program at William James College

Michael Peters with Tupac Shakur album and picture

Michael J. Peters, LMHC, MA, came of age in the late 1980s and has the vintage cassette tapes to prove it. His favorite artist was American rapper Tupac Shakur who, from the very beginning, gave voice to the systemic issues unfolding in his community—something that resonated with Peters on many levels. Growing up in an inner-city, surrounded by underserved populations who were struggling, Peters was inspired to seek out the stories of individuals often hidden by society and bring them forward. This semester, he’s at the helm of a new course, Tupac Shakur: His Life and Art Through Psychology, which not only pays homage to one of Peters’ all-time favorite artists but also offers students a unique approach to understanding human development.

“My goal is for students to take the work of someone like Erik Erikson, funnel the broad strokes into a very particular focus, and apply it to Tupac’s development,” Peters explains of a course that, not unlike others he has taught (among them Black Panther: Why Wakanda Matters and Contemporary Issues in Psychology: Game of Thrones) can be distilled down to a semester-long case study.

Peters can trace his penchant for using pop culture in the classroom back to his current colleague Kerri Augusto, PhD, Director of Undergraduate Studies, who he met while a graduate student at Becker College in Worcester. He remembers approaching his then professor with an idea: “What if we aspired to teach students about psychology through the perspective of individuals as opposed to just reading a book,” said Peters who, at the time, was a big fan of The Wire, an American crime drama set in inner-city Baltimore. 

“Go write the syllabus,” said Augusto and, like any diligent student, Peters did. He eventually ran the course and remembers what his students really appreciated about the approach: “Applying theory [to the characters, albeit fictional], became something tangible for them to hold onto,” says Peters of a lens that continues to serve students. Since joining the teaching faculty at William James College in the fall of 2022 (at the urging of Augusto who arrived the year prior), Peters has been adamant about one thing within the confines of his classroom: Letting people of color tell the story while he narrates the class. “As a white male, I’m coming from a place of privilege,” says Peters, cognizant of the need to center Black voices without overstepping the bounds. Last year, his course centered on Shuri (the fictional Princess of Wakanda); this year, he was drawn to the life of Tupac Shakur—largely because of Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur. 

 “Tupac and his mother are unique in that they were both highly documented,” says Peters, underscoring that Afeni Shakur’s standing trial as a Black Panther (during an eight-month trial in which she not only represented herself but was also pregnant with her first son) became the centerpiece of Tupac’s short life.

“Look at what Tupac went through, relocating over and over again [when he was a child]; How did that disrupt his development? How did that affect his attachment to others?” Peters shares, positing the types of big-picture questions that form the backbone of his course—one he calls a semester-long case study, rife with rich discussion and debate. If Tupac’s politically charged lyrics were informed by the Black activists around him, it makes sense that other facets of his life were affected as well.

“His mother transmits her fear [of the government among other things] to her son,” says Peters which, for a Black woman born in North Carolina in 1947, makes sense. Using Dear Mama, the deeply personal five-part series documenting the bond between the mother-son duo, Peters and his students have been examining each episode from a wholly psychological perspective. Peters pushes his students to explore Tupac’s own paranoia—namely whether it’s pathological or simply a natural response to his upbringing.

“Labeling reactions is not nearly as powerful as understanding where they come from,” says Peters, in a nod to the deep rage that ultimately replaced Tupac’s early desire to address the failings of society. Peters wants his students to be curious about that transition—and not simply that it happened.

“Why did that transition happen?” says Peters, of how causality is imperative when working with clients and understanding their respective journeys. By focusing on singular aspects of psychology, in particular broad-strokes concepts such as nature vs. nurture and epigenetics, Peters hopes his students will find organic inroads to working with potential clients. 

Of the myriad ways Peters (who teaches in the bachelor’s completion program) connects with his students, pop culture is just one of them. His own path was far from conventional: Peters was working as a mechanical engineer when, three years sober, a mental health counselor suggested it might be time for a career change — the premise being that helping others might help him progress in his own recovery. Embracing the idea of change and aspiring to make a difference with his life, Peters enrolled in the Addiction Counselor Education Program (through Westfield State University) at AdCare Hospital in Worcester. While in training to become an addictions counselor, another mentor encouraged Peters to go back to school—something he was hesitant to do after earning paltry grades while working toward his associates degree. While making progress towards his BA in psychology (and earning a 3.98 GPA in the process), Peters began working with inmates in the state prison system which further cultivated his empathy for underserved populations. While there, he bumped up against a barrier of sorts: He was told, time and again, he could only work on addiction, not mental health. Understanding from experience that the two go hand-in-hand, Peters returned to Becker where he earned his MA in mental health counseling in 2017.

“I found what I love, and I’m passionate about it,” says Peters who will not only mark 16 years of sobriety in May but who is also modeling that educational and career paths are not always straight lines—making him a perfect ambassador for the flexible, blended program at William James College (complete with hands-on field experience) available through the BS in Psychology and Human Services. 

All Eyez on Me, Tupac’s last studio album while living, was released in February 1996—seven months before he was shot. Among the artist’s many words of wisdom are those included in, “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”: I guess change is good for any of us. Indeed.


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