How About a Pop Culture Litmus Test? -The Toast

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Recently, in the rhetoric class I teach at Boston University, we read an essay that included a forward by Arthur Clarke. I opened the discussion by asking who Arthur Clarke was. My students all just looked at me. They must practice variations on the blank stare late at night in the dorms. There’s a bit of deer-in-the-headlights in there, but there’s some defiance too. Rather than skim the reading for hints, they continued to stare at me, sinking down in their chairs a little bit, as though gravity had somehow just strengthened. It’s hard to tell whether there’s any shame in that stare, but I hope there is.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad—after all, they’re 19 years old and Arthur Clarke’s heyday was decades ago. And I could close the gap easily:  “How many of you have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey?” I waited for the hands to go up. They didn’t. As I described the plot and HAL’s big red eye, one girl said, “there’s an alarm app for that.” I felt a little like crying, but I pressed on.

“How about Stanley Kubrick?” It’s simply not possible that fifteen intelligent college students don’t know Stanley Kubrick, right? Wrong. More stares.

The Shining?” I hoped my voice didn’t indicate my level of desperation. A couple of them had seen the film and a few more had heard of it, but at that point, it hardly mattered. I had to go four references deep to get even a glimmer of recognition. My original point about Clarke, ethos, and his stamp of approval on the ideas in the essay was irretrievably lost. More than that, I was troubled. Was I becoming one of those teachers who talks about trudging to school for miles uphill each way and resents the modern conveniences afforded to kids these days, or the kind who starts sentences with, “back in the day, we didn’t have…”? Did their unfamiliarity with the reference reflect more about them than it did about me?

This wasn’t the first time I’ve bombed when making a pop culture reference I was certain my students would understand, if not find helpful. Despite my efforts to keep up with the breathless pace (and, often, the inanity) of current pop culture, my students and I don’t share the same reference points-each year, I get older and they get younger. Still, some pop culture references are so important and endemic that they transcend pop and simply become culture. And my students should know them. Still, I have to question my perspective. Are these references as culturally relevant as I believe they are, or are they simply relevant to me?

The first time this happened was in 2008 when I was teaching a tenth grade honors English class. We were talking about invented realities and I brought in a wonderful short story (Jennifer Shaff’s “Leave of Absence”) about a girl who conjures up Spock–the Vulcan, not the doctor–to keep her company as she copes with the loss of her parents. During our discussion, a student raised his hand and asked, “Who’s Spock?”

“Someone please tell Jonathan who Spock is.” I lobbed the ball back to them, but they met me with that stare. Not a single one of them knew Spock. They’d heard of Star Trek and they knew William Shatner from the Priceline commercials, but that was it. Sure, Star Trek was before their time (this was before the recent movie reboots), but the show and characters are so deeply embedded into popular culture that one doesn’t even need to have actually watched the show to understand the reference. And given how much ground that show broke, surely it constitutes straight-up culture, not just pop culture.

The next time was in 12th grade World Literature. We were reading The Stranger and I played The Cure’s “Killing an Arab.” No one knew the Cure. I pulled up a picture of them on the internet and the kids laughed at Robert Smith. “How many of you know Marilyn Manson?” I asked them. Most of them did. I told them that artists such as Marilyn Manson were a subsequent generation of goth, not the inventors of it, that gothic music had grown out of punk and that bands such as The Cure helped define it. The term “gothic” is actually much older than that, I tried to explain, referencing architecture, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein. By now, you know the look they gave me. To them, gothic just means goth, which is synonymous with “emo”—the depressive kids with multiple piercings, pale skin, black boots (Doc Martens still exist, but aren’t as popular these days), and dark clothes.

My high school students impressed me when most of them recognized James Brown and some recognized B.B. King when we watched the Mohammed Ali documentary When We Were Kings, but none of them knew Simon and Garfunkel or Neil Young. They were famous around the same time, so what was the difference? James Brown is by far the most visually recognizable of all of those musicians–I wouldn’t expect my students to know Neil Young by sight–and he was arguably more famous across the board than the others. As famous as “Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” are, it’s a lot more likely that one will hear James Brown’s “I Feel Good” blasting from an open window. Brown carries more cool cred than the others and probably has greater universal appeal both as a musician and a person. And perhaps the fact that my students know him demonstrates the ability of certain cultural giants to stave off obscurity by justifiably passing through the narrowing bottleneck of pop culture relevance.

But even those references we think couldn’t possibly become obscure aren’t immortal. The first semester I taught at BU, one student in my sci-fi class hadn’t seen Star Wars. She was good-naturedly chided throughout the semester until she watched it. That was five years ago. Now, there are a handful of students in each class who haven’t seen Star Wars, and given episodes I-III (and maybe VII-IX), it’s even more important that they know the “real” ones and not lump them all together.

My references to science fiction indicate my own personal and pedagogical interests—my insistence that students know Star Trek and Star Wars sheds light on my value system, which is connected to my upbringing and life experience. My dad used to watch Star Trek, and anything that captured his interests captured mine, or at least immediately escaped frivolousness. He watched Star Trek for some of the same reasons he (and I) later watched MacGyver—a fondness for action, but also a desire to watch imaginative television that depicted people in difficult situations in which they relied on their intelligence, wit, and resourcefulness to survive. My parents brought me as a baby to a drive-in screening of Empire Strikes Back, and as I grew up we watched The Cosby Show, Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore reruns. I didn’t love everything, but I was positioned at a very early age to engage in and appreciate pop culture and to familiarize myself with the tropes of storytelling, and I was lucky to have the opportunity and means to do so. Clearly, many kids grow up without easy access to some of these reference points or without parents to steer them. On the other end of the spectrum, just as many kids grow up with unfettered access to the mountains of crap out there, where they remain engaged or even just distracted as the landmarks of popular culture slip through the cracks.

imgresSometimes I worry that I’m exercising a teacher’s prerogative toward self-indulgence, but these pop culture staples not only inspire a slew books, movies, and TV shows that my students do know–how much funnier would Family Guy be if they caught half of those references?–but seminal science fiction continues to inspire scientists, technology, and countless aspects of contemporary and future life. Being able to trace ideas back to their artistic and cultural beginnings, or at least to the introduction of the ideas to the masses, allows a broader view and appreciation for how inspiration, concepts, and tropes have developed to reflect real life and the knowledge we’ve gained over time. Popular culture is like a parallel view of history—key moments in popular culture can provide insights into human nature and the trajectory of civilization just as key moments in history can.

Still, I like the idea of creating a pop culture litmus test to gauge exactly where our pop culture knowledge diverges, or where that of the younger generation ends. I’m not talking presidents and countries and the type of stuff one (hopefully) learns in school, but beyond that, I have to admit the criteria for such a list would be difficult: what’s the age requirement/limit? Are some references so obvious that including them on a list is silly, if not insulting? Does a show or book reference automatically include all the actors/characters? And what about books in general-even though I know and am saddened that five times as many students have read Twilight than Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s hardly surprising given how much more difficult it is to read than watch television or movies. I think books belong in the category of knowledge that one should learn, or at least begin to learn in school, as the list is endless for even the most informed and voracious reader. I think I’ll borrow from the Supreme Court and say we’ll know it when we see it.

Post ideas in the comments if you have them, but here’s my list so far, aside from the works already mentioned: Woody Allen, Tang, Stevie Wonder, Kevin Bacon (and the game), Sonny & Cher, Saturday Night Fever, National Lampoon, Mork and Mindy, Frank Sinatra, Golden Girls, Twin Peaks, The Coneheads, The Clapper, David Hasselhoff, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Super Mario Brothers, Qbert, Gilligan’s Island, Andy Warhol, The Goonies, Saved By the Bell, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Urkel, The Godfather…okay. Maybe this is an endless task, but I suppose that’s the beauty of popular culture and its ability to become so ingrained in our consciousness.

As I think about drawing up such a list, I also think about how responsible I am, or should be, for teaching pop culture. Most people absorb popular culture as they’re living it. They don’t know what will stand the test of time, but if they’re paying attention or sometimes simply not living under a rock, they’ll later be able to access the reference. But what about all the pop culture moments already passed? The teaching of history is narrative and contextual—if each event were taught discretely, some pretty significant causal relationships would be overlooked. Pop culture is the same. Out of context—out of the students’ context especially—the value of that information is decreased, which is why relatively few pop culture references survive the generations. Still, if someone doesn’t introduce the references, if someone doesn’t say hey, this the first movie (and book) in which an AI in space tried to kill its human operator, then the younger generations can’t discover, or rediscover, what stories transcend time and why. Shows such as South Park and Saturday Night Live help by making pop culture references inherent to accessing the comedy or plot, but it’s easy to watch an episode and not even know that a reference has sailed overhead. I guess that means it’s incumbent upon the older generations to nudge younger folks toward these treasures, to pull them up from the past like one would pull an old toy from the depths of a sandbox.

If my students let me, I’d love to bring in a list of a dozen references and see who has heard of what, and perhaps even how they came to know them. I might be pleasantly surprised. After all, just the other day I heard one of the students talking about attending a screening of Casablanca. Sure, she couldn’t remember the name of the movie–she referred to it as that “old black and white movie that’s supposed to be romantic and there’s a guy playing the piano”–but that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

Joelle Renstrom teaches at Boston University, maintains the blog Could This Happen?, and writes for Giant Freakin Robot. She's addicted to chapstick, loves the color orange, and hopes to keep the number of countries she's visited higher than her age.

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