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Monday, July 2, 2007

Cultural Literacy

There was an AmEx commercial a few years ago starring Jerry Seinfeld. It opened with a scene of the comedian bombing on a Great Britain stage. His brand of "did you ever notice" cultural humor wasn't playing well abroad. So he studiously toured the streets, diligently observing the everyman, picking up the lingo. By the end, he had his audience in stitches.

I want to use this commercial as an example of how important cultural literacy is in teaching. There has been a lot of discussion and a more surprising degree of argument at Dy/Dan in the past month concerning the usefulness of television in teaching. What the debate boiled down to was one of cultural literacy. Dan's point, and for one so seemingly obvious it was wildly misinterpreted, was that a teacher who voluntarily excludes themselves from the culture of the students is cutting themselves down at the knees. (Perhaps I made that opinion clear by the very fact of referencing a television commercial.) Many of the comments in opposition voiced concerns about the dumbing-down effects of television as a medium. They seemed to feel that it was somehow beneath them, and they had no qualms about turning up their erudite noses at the thought of even the slightest familiarity with its many offerings. The counterpoint was made several times that TV is one of myriad tools at our disposal and that like all tools it depends upon the skills and discretions of its operator, a point which Dan again drives home in this recent post.

When I first graduated from college, I took a job with a direct marketing firm. I was basically a door to door salesman, working on straight commission and doing nothing but cold calls. I was good at it and found it enjoyable for a brief time. One of my best tricks was to read the front page of each section of the newspaper each day. Then when I was with customers I could size them up and competently discuss a current event of interest to them. Usually, this ended up being Tennessee Volunteer football. It is important to point out that even though I am a graduate of the University of Tennessee and lived in the athletic dorm, I despise the sound of Rocky Top, I hate the color orange, and really couldn't care less about football in general. But how much selling do you think I would have done if I shared that with my customers? Probably about as much as some of those "too good for tv" teachers can teach.

I watch a lot of TV. I always have. I also see almost every movie that Hollywood releases. I have a kind of rating system based on the previews that tells me whether to pay full price, see a matine, Netflix it, or wait until it's on tv. I end up seeing 3-4 a month in the theatre, 30 a month via Netflix, and probably 5 on tv. I still find time to read 8-10 books a month ranging in topics from assisted reproduction to graph theory to tort reform. Most of this voracious appetite is made possible by the fact that I don't yet have a family or a terribly demanding job, which leaves me the time to pursue all of this. Many teachers simply don't have the time to swallow as much of the culture as I do. But it's important enough to make as much time as they can. If you can't speak the same language as your students, how can you teach them anything?

There's always talk about the generation gap, but I don't believe it's a necessary thing. It is a conscious choice a person makes to grow obsolete, to stop participating in the conversation of culture. If you decide that your music, books, movies, sports heroes, and sitcom stars were better than today's, well that's certainly your right to do. But you should expect your students to return your disrespect and disinterest when you try to share your algebra, biology, and literature. Whether you are a teacher, salesman, or stand-up comedian, your success with your intended audience has everything to do with your knowledge of its culture.


BSB said...

Completely agree. Although I teach college political science classes, it has definitely been my experience that it is easier to relate to students on your terms if you're willing to relate to them on their terms as well. Generally, they find this amusing but they're willing to help. And the good news is, it turns out I kind of like emo and facebook doesn't really take up that much of your time. On an unrelated note, Tony, how did you end up in the athletic dorm?

Tony said...

For the rest of you, BSB is an old school chum of mine and is merely extrapolating from what she remembers of me. In no way is she attempting to insult my athletic prowess. And the answer to her query, which will involve name-dropping of other mutual friends of ours,is this.

My Freshman year at college I was limited to dorm choice. I ended up rooming with my best friend, Eric Kieschnick. Toward the end of the year, we started looking around for better living arrangements. Our parents weren't cool with us living off-campus yet, so we devised a clever scheme. Gibbs Hall was the name of the athletic dorm, and it was extremely posh. With twice the square footage of a standard dorm room, it had a layout that was extremely amenable to a suite scenario. Rooms were accessed via exterior hallways and were connected to rooms on the backside by a shared bathroom. One key could gain entry to both rooms. So when Eric and I heard that the NCAA had ruled that a segregated athletic dorm was a violation of policy and were therefore displacing 50% of its occupants, we flew into motion. We found two more friends, Tony Yam and Ted Sheen to be our suitemates. Those two were enrolled in the Honors program and had first choice of room assignments. The four of us got in with no problem. We put bunk beds in one room and used the other for a living area, complete with couches, big screen TV, and foosball table. Thus concludes the story.

Dan Meyer said...

The generation gap being a matter of choice, that's interesting. It's something my early-20's friends and I have kicked around occasionally, all of rabidly interested in a lot of things. Like, why do our musical tastes have to do like our parents' did and become calcified forever by their late teen years?

We suspect the generation gap can be vanquished through effort, but I reckon only time will tell.

BSB said...

No, it wasn't meant to be a comment on your "athletic prowess" at all - just that, to my recollection, such prowess did not run in the direction of the team sports that generally get one situated in the athletic dorm. That WAS a clever scheme, and though I haven't thought of Tony or Ted in years, I bet that was one rockin' dorm room ;>

Jackie said...


I too agree. I've found throwing in comments to which the students can relate greatly helps on many fronts. My most recent examples... a distance, rate & time word problem involving traveling between Springfield and Shelbyville, and graphing inequalities (graphing x <3, singing "to the left, to the left..." As I'm over 30 (cough, closer to 40), the last one had most of my students' jaws on their desks!

Do I like the same music they do? Most of the time, no. Do I listen occasionally? Yep, gotta stay somewhat current.