Being Relevant (or Hip or Cool or Whatever)

Getting older has caused a number of changes in how I approach the classroom, but there’s one change that I didn’t expect.  The references I make when I’m teaching have become dated rather quickly.  When I was first teaching college, back in the early part of the 21st century, references to The Matrix, for example, helped illustrated a point I was making.  In fact, I once joked to a class that I didn’t know how I taught before that movie, given how well it worked to support what I was saying.  Now, it’s been fifteen years since that movie came out, and most of my students haven’t seen it.

I was thinking about that this week, as I made several references that my students didn’t know.  Honestly, though, I didn’t even expect them to get them.  When we were talking about identity (which is not a surprise for anyone who knows how I teach my classes), I turned to them, “So tell me, who are you?”  I paused, waiting for a response, but no one said anything.  I then began to sing just a bit of that classic from The Who, and one student said, “Oh, CSI.”  I pretended to be so distraught that I got down on my knees and laid my head down on the desk.

From time to time, I hear experts on teaching say that we need to stay relevant in our examples.  We need to draw from the music or movies or television shows that our students are watching, so they truly understand the concepts or ideas we’re talking about.  The argument is that students need popular culture references to make sense of ideas that are complex, and those references need to come from the popular culture they understand.  I suppose “It’s All About That Bass” after all.

I don’t actually agree with this argument, though.  Let me start by saying that, should you bring in the latest pop culture because it’s honestly what you enjoy watching or listening to, then that’s great.  I once had a colleague who loved music, and he could draw on a whole host of musicians in his classes, and it came from the person he truly is.  Let me also say that I’m not just one more older person insisting that my pop culture is better than their pop culture.  While I am going to use Monty Python references in class and claim that The Matrix is a fabulous movie, I will not argue that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure are better than whatever WB show is currently out.  My pop culture is simply different, not better or worse (well, much of mine from the 80s is probably worse, especially as we’re in a bit of a golden age of television right now).

Part of the problem is that professors shouldn’t use references just to try to look relevant or, even worse, hip or cool (using those words is clear evidence I’m not whatever the equivalent of those words is today).  As one of my former colleagues once said, “It is more important to be respected than to be liked.”  I’m not my students’ friend, though I’m glad I teach at a place where I actually do become friends with some of my students.  The goal, though, is not to try to be someone I’m not just to make them think I’m like them.

A couple of weeks ago, I said something in class about parents pressuring students, and one young woman said, “Retweet.”  When I asked her what she said, she appeared sheepish and tried to back track from what she said.  I asked her to explain the term, as I hadn’t heard it in a context outside of Twitter.  Another student explained that it was like “Amen” (this is one of those places it’s clear I teach at a religious university).  Armed with my new knowledge, I went into a senior level class I teach, and I jokingly used the term with them.  They were horrified and told me never to use it again.  I joked that I was trying to stay relevant, ahead of the curve even.  They assured me that only freshmen used that term and that I just appeared silly.  Retweet, indeed.

Another problem is that there is no way to find references these days that all of our students know.  At times, I do see movies they also see, and I’ll use them when appropriate.  Thus, last spring, I tried to use the latest superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as an example.  The students said they had no interest in it, surprising me greatly.  This semester, I used it in another class, and they enjoyed it, saying that the other class (whom I had told them about) was crazy not to enjoy it.

I ask them about shows and music and movies from time to time, just to see, and there is never any clear consensus.  I can’t find a single reference that will hit the entire class, and I even struggle to find one that half the class knows.  I made this point in class once, and a student argued with me.  I told him to come up with something everyone knew, and he tried Game of Thrones.  I asked the class how many watched the show, and he was the only one.  He knew what I often feel like in class.

One other reason I don’t feel compelled to change my references to match up with my students’ interests.  I want them to hear about culture that is different than theirs.  I want them to hear about Boyhood and Dear White People and Run-DMC and The Beatles and whatever else I’m watching or listening to these days.  They need to know there are cultures outside of the small one they’re living in as college students, even if their interests are radically different than mine.  And maybe, they’ll appreciate The Matrix or Pee Wee as much as I do.

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They’re Not Interruptions

We’re about to get into the really busy part of the semester now that we’re returning from Fall Break.  There are only about five weeks until Thanksgiving, then maybe one week after that before finals (we only have two days after break until finals, actually).  The pace picks up rather significantly at this point.  That’s not just in the classroom, either.  On top of all the grading we will have to do, we’ll have advising and Homecoming and visiting speakers and meetings to finish up the work of the department or university that started earlier in the year.  It will be busy.

I was thinking about that this weekend of my Fall Break, and I remembered a story I’ve heard in different places, but couldn’t find online.  It might be apocryphal, but the point is still one worth remembering.  Two professors are talking about how busy they are, with one of them going on and on about all he has to do.  He ends his litany of complaints by talking about how he has all these interruptions when he’s trying to get work done in his office, what with students coming by to talk about their papers or exams.  The other professor responds, “Those aren’t interruptions.  They’re the reason we’re here.”

It’s oddly easy to forget that about our jobs, especially the more responsibilities we’ve taken on in departments and across the university.  We believe that the grading we’re doing or the committee work we’re doing is more important than the students for whose benefit we are supposedly doing those things.  Granted, we need to get that work done, as it is important work, but it is not more important than those students who are coming by our office or emailing us to seek help with their papers or their exams or even their lives.

This week, I had lunch with one of my best friends who is also a professor.  We were talking about life at our different institutions, and we ended up on the subject of teaching, in general.  Both of us were talking about how enjoyable it is to make an impact on students’ lives, how rewarding it is to have a job where we do meaningful work and can truly change the way someone sees the world or him or herself.  It was a nice reminder of why we do what we do, which is always good to remember.

I added that I thought having the ability to influence students provided us with a great deal of responsibility, then told a story from several years ago.  I often make off-the-cuff comments in class, almost always in a joking fashion, that I don’t expect students to take seriously.  One year, we were talking about Lent, for some reason, and I talked about how people give up chocolate or caffeine because that is truly participating in the sufferings of Jesus.  I said something like, “I mean, Jesus goes to the cross and gives up his life for us, and we give up chocolate.  That’s a fair trade.”

I didn’t think about that conversation again until halfway through the next semester.  It was Lent, and I was returning quizzes to a class.  I gave one to a young woman who had been in that previous class, and I noticed she was drinking a Vitamin Water.  I asked, not thinking about much of anything, “Nothing to eat today?”  She responded that she was giving up food for Lent, an honest fast for forty days, and then she referenced the comment I had made the previous semester.  She had taken it seriously.  I watched her rather carefully for the next six weeks.

Only a couple of years later when she overheard me say that I was giving up chocolate for Lent did we clear up the confusion from my original comment.  What I learned from all of this was that students listen much more carefully than we give them credit for doing.  They are often looking to us for wisdom and guidance, even if they don’t ask us for them outright.  When they come by the office to talk about a paper, they might be wanting to talk about something bigger than that assignment.  They might also just need help on the paper.  Either way, they are not interrupting whatever it is I’m doing.  They’re reminding me why I’m there.

You Just Never Know

Some colleagues and I were talking about a student this week, wondering whether or not they (I’m going to use the plural to avoid gender here; I know I have a pronoun-antecedent agreement problem, but it makes more sense to me to do it this way than any other) would be a good candidate for graduate school.  This subject is particularly problematic in the Humanities, given the job market and the ongoing discussion about whether students should ever go to graduate school in our field (see William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” for the extreme version).

The student in question hasn’t shown themselves to be an outstanding student, but they are motivated and curious and willing to work hard and trying to improve and all the things we want out of students outside of academic ability.  Not that they’re bad in academic ability, just not the cream of the crop, which is normally what we look for when we’re talking about graduate school.  Thus, our discussion.  We talked about whether or not we should encourage them to apply, but we were also quick to add that we don’t really know how they’ll turn out (or any of the students we send off to graduate school, for that matter).

I shared a bit of my story, which they know by now, so I could shorthand it for them.  You see, my professors probably thought I wasn’t a good candidate for graduate school when I was in college.  During my sophomore year, I was rooming with one of the smartest students on campus.  One of our professors described him as the sharpest mind he had ever seen.  This student made a hundred on the final exam of a Humanities class that just killed students; he was that good.  In the first week of school, we had a Matriculation service, where professors marched in regalia and new students signed their names in a book, showing they had officially joined our community.  It was one of my favorite days of the semester, and it was my roommate’s, as well.  He was standing next to me as the faculty members walked in, and he said, “I’m going to wear one of those one day.”

He never graduated college, and I, the person who was planning to become a high school math teacher, have worn regalia numerous times by now.  He made a few bad decisions, and I simply stuck it out.  I was definitely not the cream of the crop, not even the strongest English major out of the thirty of so we had.  I wasn’t even in the top five and probably the top ten.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if I would even make it into the first fifteen.  I wasn’t an awful student, as I did all of the reading (for English classes, at least) and came to class, though I seldom understood all of the reading (or, sometimes, any of the reading).

I came to English late, so I was always trying to catch up with what everyone else already knew.  I made low Bs and high Cs on papers, though I would usually at least make Bs on exams.  I could usually make As on presentations, as I was pretty good at standing in front of people and talking.  I graduated with a 3.186 GPA overall, and I only made two solid As in English courses (and only one of those was a literature course).

What I did have, though, was passion and curiosity.  I had begun to find authors I really enjoyed, such as Kurt Vonnegut.  I was willing to sit down and read authors I didn’t love because I was supposed to know who they were.  In graduate school, I started making reading lists for summers and whatever free time I had.  I would take syllabi from the previous semester, then read one more book by everyone on the list.  I would write down the names of books professors mentioned in class, then add those to what I would read.  I was willing to do the work to get better.

That didn’t translate into my writing, and it took me much longer to learn how to do that well (actually, I never learned that in graduate school, but I got there eventually).  I am still not a scholar.  My focus is on teaching, as that’s what I truly love.  However, I’ve published a few articles and a scholarly book, which is much more than anyone would have guessed of me at twenty (or maybe even twenty-seven).

My conclusion here should be obvious by now.  We have no idea which students are going to do well in graduate school and which ones won’t make it through.  Perhaps, then, it’s not our decision.  Granted, we can give them suggestions and advice, but, once they make their choice, we need to get behind them, to give them as much support as we can.  Not one of my professors doubted I should go to graduate school.  They wrote me wonderful letters of recommendation and talked with me after I had begun advanced studies.  I should do the same for my students, no matter what I think about their chances.

A Bit More on Testing

I wrote about testing a couple of weeks ago, but I had another conversation about it this past week, so I wanted to say one more thing.  I was having a review session with students, and they asked me if I would count off for spelling an author’s name incorrectly.  They actually asked if I would count off if they had one letter wrong.  I assured them I wouldn’t, that I was more interested in their ideas than in having them memorize the spelling of authors’ names.

The way I view testing (or grades, in general) is that we put point values on what we value.  That’s at least what we convey to the students.  If we mark off for spelling, then we tell them that spelling is what matters to us.  If I mark off for ideas that aren’t developed, then I convey that ideas are what matters.

Note that that might change from one class to another.  I care more about such details in my freshman classes where I’m trying to get them to learn the basics (thesis, evidence, structure) than I am trying to teach them ideas about literature (though those are there, of course).  When it comes to majors, though, I’m not sure why I would care that they can spell every author’s name correctly.  If they don’t understand the ideas we’ve been discussing, correct spelling won’t get them very far.  For the record, almost all of them spelled almost every author’s name correctly.

Being a Bad Teacher

This week (Tuesday, to be exact), I was not a good teacher.  I knew I was not being a good teacher, and I didn’t do anything about it.  I’m not being ironic here, and there’s no twist coming.  No, I simply didn’t teach nearly as well as I’m capable of teaching, and there’s no sugar-coating it.

Here’s what happened.  In my first-year writing class, I was teaching a longish short story I have taught numerous times in a second-year literature survey course.  I was supposed to teach this short story to the first-year students last semester, but the schedule got shuffled around because of a snow day, so this was my first time teaching this story at this level.  I did almost no preparation for this class.

My thinking was that I would simply teach it the same way I had taught it in the survey course.  I would raise the same questions, and we would have a very similar discussion to the ones I had had in previous semesters.  There were several problems with this approach.

First, the writing class is twenty-five minutes longer than the survey class.  Second, they’re on two different levels of thinking.  Third, it was a busy week, so the chances of students not having done the reading or finished the reading were higher.  All of these problems led to a rather lackluster class.

Now, let me quickly say that the students probably didn’t think the class was all that bad.  When I know, consciously or not, that I don’t have enough to say, I can easily fill up the time by talking about tangential subjects or simply being entertaining.  They were definitely entertained that day, but I don’t know that they learned very much.

We did discuss the questions I wanted them to explore, and they did perfectly fine with them.  They didn’t discuss the story at the depth the survey class usually did, not surprisingly, but they did fine for the level they’re at.  I didn’t take the discussion where it needed to go, and I certainly didn’t connect it to their writing, which I should have done.  Essentially, I missed an opportunity to talk about interesting ideas and use those ideas to help improve their writing.

We all have days like this, of course, so I know I shouldn’t beat myself up over it, but I also know I could have done much better.  The students deserve better than that, and so do I.  It wasn’t enjoyable for me, as I knew the entire time what was happening.  Not surprisingly, class went much better on Thursday, as I made a focused effort to connect the reading to their lives.  They not only enjoyed class, but they seemed to take something away from it, as well.

Perhaps we need these days of being bad teachers to remind us of the good days, maybe to even make the good days possible.  Perhaps we have better days than we might have had otherwise because the bad days made us want to be better.  Perhaps I just tell myself this to try to feel better after a clearly bad day of teaching.  Perhaps.