Wednesday, November 18, 2009

old;or, the death knell of my cultural literacy

Yesterday, in a one-on-one conference, I told a student that her essay was like an ABC After School Special. She stared at me blankly. I said, "You don't know what that is, do you?" She said, "Nope."  I just laughed. And then I explained, even taking the time to retell the plot of one of my favorite ones..."And then the kid from The Wonder Years throws Candace Cameron from Full House--who is also Kirk Cameron's little sister--in the bottom of a lake, and the lesson was to tell someone if you are being abused." She said, without any hint of irony, "And you watched these after school?" I returned to talking about her essay, just a little bit sadder than I was a moment before.

In a separate, and much more serious conversation, I asked a student to "Help ME, Help YOU!" and without a flicker of recognition he said, "Just do your thing, and I'll do mine." After I pointed out that "his thing" was resulting in a D, I couldn't help it, even in one of the most difficult conversations with a student of my entire career, I had to say, "Jerry Maguire? You haven't seen Jerry Maguire? Tom Cruise yelling at a naked Cuba Gooding Jr in the shower? Really? He won an Oscar..." I think I was more taken aback by the fact that he didn't know what I was talking about than the fact that this student was refusing my help. Much later in this conversation, even as he walked out on me--also a first for me--as I offered a weak and tired, "Just remember you are the one who is walking out." I was still thinking, really? Not even Jerry Maguire? Huh.

Now, it would take a pretty good bit of manuevering to classify Gulliver's Travels as pop culture, but still, my students have NO idea. At all. I said something about Yahoos, I may or may not have called my class this, I neither confirm nor deny this. Anyway, in explaining what the term meant, I asked about Gulliver's Travels. One girl had seen a film in her high school english class and described it as "This freaked out movie where all these weird and terrible things happen." I stopped her mid-sentence, with a perhaps overly harsh, okay, thank you Megan.  After I explained about Hounyhnhms and Yahoos and Jonathan Swift and Gulliver and Satire they nodded and a few of them said,"That sounds like a cool story." And I just said, "Yeah, it is."


  1. I was expecting that first student to lead you further down, "What's the Wonder Years? What's Full House?"

    And, really, are we so much older than our students that they really don't know Jerry Maguire?

    I suppose I understand the Gulliver's Travels one, because I'm guessing most people would much more quickly associate Yahoo with the internet than Swift.

    Anyhow, here I was thinking, "Oh god, everything that I loved (that is no doubt annoying) when I was young is coming back to haunt me in raising my own child: My Little Ponies, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears...." Gag me, and I'm sorry to my parents.

  2. Oh, and nice One Minute Writer post. I didn't even see it until I noticed your badge on the side there.

  3. You are right. She just stared at me while I talked about Full House et al, I think she just wanted to humor me.

    The Gulliver's Travels was the most painful for me. It really shows that literature is dying. We used to think of that (mistakenly) as a children's story. And now, well, literature is disappearing as a part of our cultural literacy.

  4. I like your "mistakenly" comment. I'm sometimes amazed at what ends up in the children's section of bookstores.

    What are people moving on to now? I don't have much of an answer, as most people I know value and continue to read literature. Are they replacing the old canon with something newer or are they replacing it with more reality tv, more (gasp) blogs, more...what? Are people really just reading less, and if so, what are they doing with their time?

    Actually, based on conversations with former students, I'd have to say a lot of cultural "literacy" now consists of knowledge of tv shows, movies and video games.

    (Sorry about the rambling.)