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.


2 thoughts on “Being Relevant (or Hip or Cool or Whatever)

  1. I can remember, long before the decade we currently find ourselves in started, looking over at a like-minded student that was trying to get my attention during one of your introductory literature courses at Lee. He simply said, “You know, someone should write ‘Dr. Brown: A Compendium of Pop-Culture References’ and it should be a required text.” All I could do was nod in agreement. That was the first and unfortunately last time I was in a class where the instructor referenced everything from the A-Team to Zsa Zsa Gabor and all points in-between.


    • There’s now a running joke that I need to release a reading/viewing list for my classes at the beginning, so they’ll be able to get my references. If I only knew what was going to come up in class, I’d get right on that. Maybe some student (or former student) will take that on for me. Thanks for the memory (though I have no idea how I referenced Zsa Zsa Gabor; I don’t doubt that I did, though).


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