"Don't Feel So Down": When Your Students Don't Understand Your References

Author: 

Jeffrey Boruszak

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I recently had a teaching experience I could only compare to being on a sinking ship—like the band on the Titanic, I played my song dutifully as I sunk into the murky waters. With every word I spoke, attempting to explain the material I prepared, I could sense the students’ disinterest, disengagement, and utter confusion. This wasn’t the first time I experienced this sinking feeling of a total misfire while teaching, nor do I expect it to be the last time. And do you know whose fault it was? Julian Casablancas. 

Well, let me clarify—it was not Julian Casablancas himself that sunk my lesson, but rather the expectation that my students would know that in the early 2000’s there was a popular band called The Strokes. You see, I was in my introduction to rhetoric and writing class, and the topic of the day was identifying different kinds of evidence and relating them to the main argument. The centerpiece of my lesson was a group exercise involving an op-ed in The New York Times earlier that week. In “Brunch is for Jerks,” David Shaftel argues that Manhattan’s indulgent brunch atmosphere has hit a critical mass, and that the meal’s ubiquity is evidence of widespread gentrification and the failure of the ultra-hip millennial lifestyle. Or, in the words I figured wanted my students to get—“People may think brunch is still cool, but really it’s just two-thousand and late.” 

The key to Shaftel’s argument about the hip-ness of brunch is his use of a Julian Casablancas quote at the beginning of his article: “I don’t know how many, like, white people having brunch I can deal with on a Saturday afternoon.” Shaftel comes back to Casablancas two more times in the piece, representing him as an arbiter of what is cool. “Perfect!” I thought, while preparing the lesson. “This example is straight out of the textbook’s chapter on evidence, and between talking about brunch and referencing a hit rock band, I can keep a fairly dry topic upbeat and engaging.” 

WRONG. Once we were in the actual class, my students didn’t seem to really be getting to the “cool” part of Shaftel’s argument. I slowly tried maneuvering them to the paragraphs where Casablancas is mentioned. Still nothing. Finally, a student brings up brunch’s cool factor based on another paragraph. Here is my moment—I ask them to find evidence for the article’s argument on brunch’s coolness, but they can’t find it. As the search gets more and more drawn out, I eventually write Julian Casablanca’s name on the board. Crickets. They’ve never heard of this name before. “He’s the lead singer of The Strokes,” I tell them. Then came the moment I hadn’t been prepared for—my students had never heard of The Strokes. 

I had been told this would eventually happen. Another professor told me that his students no longer understand his references to The Matrix, and that one day I would struggle after making what I thought of as a still-contemporary pop culture reference to something my students had no idea about. 

And so there I was, caught entirely off-guard by a reference that my students just didn’t understand.  And in this critical moment, I fumbled the ball. How do you explain what “cool” is, especially when your reference to what is cool is a rock star whose hit songs you suddenly realize came out over a decade before? Now my students seemed more lost than ever. I wanted to just move on—what I had prepared as the crown jewel of my lesson was a total wash. But there was nothing to move on to—I had to deal with “cool” on my students’ terms, not my own.

And so they left the class with bewildered looks on their faces. It didn’t help that my other examples besides Shaftel’s article also failed to hit their mark (one of these exercises was staging a debate over which Austin burger is better—Whataburger or P. Terry’s…except none of my students had been to nor heard of P. Terry’s). The next class I picked up the shattered dregs of my dignity, and gave them a boring Powerpoint reviewing kinds of evidence to reverse the effects of a disastrous lesson.

And so I am left with numerous questions: What do we as teachers do when we fail to connect with our students, especially when it comes to pop culture? It is something that will only get worse as time passes. But more importantly, what do we do when our references fail? How do we recover? For me the answer is now contingency plans—from this point forward, if I use a pop culture reference as a focal point in a lesson, I need to prepare options so that I don’t leave my class confused and bewildered.

But like I said before—despite my best intentions, this will not be the last time I have a lesson that falls apart in front of me. Maybe it won’t be from pop culture references next time. I’m sure that any teachers reading this have had their share of misfires in the past, and the fear of a bad lesson plan is a constant source of anxiety. So maybe the only option is to take a deep breath, and know that no matter how bad any individual lesson goes, there is always room to recover. Just remember to listen to Julian Casablancas: “Oh baby, don’t feel so down…gonna be alright.”

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