My wife picks on me whenever we have students over, and the conversation moves from talking about school to talking about other interests, especially movies. Inevitably, I will ask about some new movie that I want to see, and I will be met with blank stares. I’ll then ask, “Have you heard of that movie?” and they almost never have (there’s occasionally an exception, some student who really enjoys movies).
I would say I don’t purposefully watch obscure movies, but that’s not completely true. I do seek out some foreign language films because I want to expose myself to a world beyond Hollywood. However, I also watch many of the blockbuster movies, like the new Star Wars or many of the superhero movies. I’m essentially a mutt when it comes to movie interests.
Some might suggest (and my wife is kind of hinting at this in her picking on me) that I should only talk to my students about the movies that they realistically might have seen. They would explain to me that I should be trying to make connections with my students, to use examples (when I’m mentioning movies in class) that resonate with them. That’s true to an extent, though I’ve found that the media landscape is so fragmented these days that there’s no way I could find a movie or song or show that even more than half of them have seen (something like Star Wars might be an exception, but I know I have a number of students who didn’t see the new one and haven’t seen any of the previous six films).
However, if I only have the interests my students have or only reference what they already know, they don’t see a different way of living. If everyone they encounter, including their professors, watch what they watch or read what they read, then they continue to believe everyone in the world lives they way they do, which implies that they think the way they do. If I show them a different set of interests, then they can see that there are other ways of living, which is part of what college should be about.
Let me quickly add that my way isn’t better; it’s simply different. I don’t believe they should all stop watching the latest blockbuster or romantic comedy and start watching Norwegian films. There are benefits to be found in a wide variety of stories. By showing them something that is different, what I’m hoping to do is give them options to choose from. They should watch blockbusters because that’s what they really love after they’ve given other types of movies a chance. If they’ve seen a different way of living, then they can choose from among them.
I’ve been talking about movies because that’s how this idea comes up most frequently, but it applies to anything. In my teaching, it comes up almost as often with books. Many of my students come into the English major because they loved reading the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books. Some of them are fans of the classics, such as Dickens and Fitzgerald and Shakespeare. As with movies, there’s nothing wrong with reading those books, but I want to show them that there are writers living today who are just as great, then let them choose among them. If they read Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer or Chimamanda Adichie or Cormac McCarthy, then still choose Shakespeare or Woolf, then they do so because they’ve chosen to do so.
College is partly about exposing students to a wider world, through the curriculum and through their encounters with people who are different than they are. While we should certainly try to find ways to connect with students, we should also find ways to show them how our lives are different. More choices mean a broader view of the world, and that’s what education is all about.