Post midterms, post the arresting experience of "50 Shades! The Musical," I find myself at the first massive, meltdown-worthy teaching challenge.
That’s not to say I haven’t had a litany of moments when I pull my hair out over grammar or sit stunned by students’ refusal to simply come to class—despite knowing that logging just one more absence translates into an F.
But this recent obstacle is a doosie, and it seems my students are not the only ones blithely clueless about their state of oblivion.
Remember Mike Tyson’s comment following a particularly brutal loss to Lennox Lewis? Remember the eloquent musing that he was going to "fade into Bolivian"? Yeah, he really said that to a reporter; and based on Tyson’ life track after that, he wasn’t half-wrong.
When it comes to this new classroom challenge, sometimes I feel like my students could easily, happily even, fade into Bolivian.
But let me backtrack.
One of English 101’s four units is a text analysis paper. The students choose a text—typically an advertisement, though other teachers opt for music videos, movies, books, TV shows, etc.—and analyze the text’s content, purpose and rhetorical appeals in a five-page paper.
Sure, I could confine our classroom discussions to ethos, pathos and logos Aristotle-style; strategies for writing a thesis statement; and the latest revisions to MLA citation standards. However, the unit lends itself to the wide and wonderful world of cultural criticism.
Given the amount of texting and Facebooking my students do in and out of class, I feel strongly about delving into—or, if we’re honest, really and truly hammering home—ideas of consumerism, oversexualization and other examples of manipulated representation.
A 2009 New York Times article reported on a study that revealed adults spend eight and a half hours a day staring at a screen. The study isolated the portion of the screen time composed exclusively of advertisements: 61 minutes.
So in one day, my students are experiencing at minimum a solid 61 minutes of TV and YouTube commercials, as well as the pop-up advertisements now ubiquitous on social media platforms.
Wouldn’t it be helpful, then, to understand the forces at work beyond the marketing of hair products, kitchen appliances and eHarmony? Wouldn’t it be helpful, even perhaps necessary, to be able to think critically about the whats, whys and hows of advertisements?
Enter bell hooks and her concepts of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. hooks is an educator and intellectual who excels at framing intensely complicated cultural theoretical concepts in terms of popular culture, thus making her big three accessible to those not operating solely at the level of Ph.D. cultural criticism vernacular.
Imagine the choice between reading a dense essay penned in scholarly language about the pervasiveness of our consumer culture and discovering through classroom discussion how an Extra gum commercial reinforces our consumer culture by equating the purchase of gum to the development of a lifelong father-daughter bond.
It’s a no-brainer. What is apparently more of a brainer is the doing of this kind of analysis.
I’m willing to understand that my students have likely never encountered bell hooks and her buzz words and am even willing to admit, with chagrin, that depending on their major or academic interests they are potentially unlikely to get this kind of lesson while at WVU.
What I stubbornly refuse to concede and am struck by is that they wouldn’t want to know this stuff.
Yes, my students have to use these tools to analyze an ad for a paper. Yes, that means the anxieties about grades are at play. And to be absolutely fair, some of them are onboard for this challenge, despite the struggle it presents. But still ... before I asked questions about problematic advertisements with them … did they not have concerns?
Or were they simply lounging in "Bolivian"? And after this unit, will the students who are unwilling to engage in this kind of critical thinking be perfectly happy remaining languid?
I wonder—because I can’t bring myself to answer the second question without feeling like a failure of a teacher and a human being—how much of the detachment stems from seeing peers engage in inexcusably inappropriate ways.
Case in point: Last spring, a reporter for WVU’s campus newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, landed on Jezebel.com for likening rapper Macklemore to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., casting the musician’s single "One Love" to the civil rights icon’s "I Have a Dream" speech.
The student’s comments weren’t embedded in a review of Macklemore’s album or an article profiling the musician, who did play a concert at the Morgantown campus this August.
The comparison was instead front and center in an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s speech.
I don’t like to lament my new school or my new job as a teacher or—least of all—my students, but reading this and several other articles in The Daily Athenaeum and continually imploring a sea of apathetic faces to just ask a question, I can’t help but think, "What is wrong with kids these days!?"
Because Charlie Barley Behringer could not simply disappear from Nooga.com, Mountain to Mountain will follow her and her mother's adventures, dispatch-style, in Morgantown as they tackle graduate school, first-year teaching and living in West by-God Virginia.
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