Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Oh my GOD I'm old!

Holy crap! Where did the time go? You mean, when I spent a large part of my graduate career (and definitely all of the ABD section where I felt I was barely treading water) hiding my head, ostrich-like, in the sand, time was actually passing by? I don't feel any older! I didn't want to get older! How does this work?

Recently, thinking about what I can expect my students to know, and what they need to know, and what cultural references they should get (for some reason Mayberry and I Love Lucy were in constant replay on my parents' cable channels while I was visiting, but Welcome Back Kotter was nowhere to be found, so let's just retire that particular imitation, m'kay professor? You know who you are ... or would if I had the guts to tell you this personally.) I did some math. Whoo boy. This proves my point that you should avoid certain numbers at all costs. It appears that our incoming freshmen, if 18, were born in 1990. Nineteen-friggen-ninety!?!?! I remember 1990! My oldest niece was already born in 1990! What the hell.

There's this college that puts out a list every year of what students grew up knowing about; go check it out if you like. It's kinda terrifying. But I realize --- and am shocked by --- how much certain current events shaped me that they never experienced. Whereas my sense of "falling into history" and becoming aware of momentous events is tied to the fall of the Berlin wall and the Tiannamen Square massacre, both of which I remember watching on tv and were about the time I started reading newspapers and news magazines, theirs is probably 9/11, which happened when they were middle-schoolers --- and which marked the start of my second year of this Ph.D. program. (sigh)

I pity the historians; from what I hear, most public schools still peter out on history around WWII, just like when I was in high school (people have suggested to me it's on purpose; it allows high schools to avoid presenting deeply polarizing histories like the Vietnam war that parents might get all up in arms about the way they are taught), but all of this really important stuff has happened since then.

More annoyingly, I know quite a few profs and teachers who are still teaching as though the civil-rights movement and civil-rights era segregation were recent memories, even though our students would have been toddlers at the time of the Rodney King riots and, I would argue, grew up in such a different racial climate that it is difficult to even recognize privilege and racism today if you set the segregated South as your baseline. (I could say more about this if you're interested, or just go read Patricia Hill Collins's Black Sexual Politics.)

More pertinent to me than what the Beloit College Mindset list includes, our students not only don't remember the Cold War but barely remember the Clinton scandals. The Simpsons is older than they are, the original Law and Order show is exactly the same age as them, and MTV is almost my age (you could argue that MTV got to its "we never actually show videos anymore" stage right around these kids's birth, but they might have had another patch of non-suckiness in the late 90s when I had already given up watching.)

Disney Channel moved from premium to basic cable when they were 6, and Cartoon Network first aired when they were 2. Combined with Nickelodeon (which has been around even longer --- 1979, with 1984 or so marked as a nationwide cable channel), our students have been able to consume immense quantities of programming without any of it being anything you have heard of (or would want to). This means that they have had access to a vast swath of kid-specific programming on multiple channels. This may explain why the studies can say they watch 32 hours of television a week or whatever the number is and still have never seen or heard of anything I mention. More insidiously, I would argue, this proliferation of channels allows them to create a media cocoon around themselves, which may account for the increased immaturity and dependency we keep hearing about from college freshmen (this could, indeed, however, be a result of the "hey, you kids! get off my lawn" effect.).

MTV's The Real World, and the attendant plague of reality television, debuted in 1992, again when our students were just toddlers. (Survivor, that interesting combination of colonialism and precursor to torture film, was a bit later ---- 2000). They started first grade when South Park debuted --- and perhaps saw it then too --- and they weren't even 10 years old when the Columbine massacres occurred. I'm sure that made a big impression on them, or at the very least the attending hysteria and school crackdowns impacted them directly. (BTW, because either Parker or Stone grew up in Columbine these two things are forever associated in my mind, for better or worse. I only bothered to watch the first couple of seasons --- and The Simpsons must have been irrelevant for a few years now as I don't know anyone who watches the new episodes any more. Anyway.)

One thing from the list linked above that I did find important was that these students have always had their privacy invaded and threatened, and therefore have no concept of what that means. On the education side of things, NCLB passed in 2001, which means our students have had about 7 years of their k-12 schooling fucked up by those stupid tests; that has to be showing up in our college-age students by now (and to think I just shuddered and buried my head in the sand and said, "that doesn't concern me! It will be abolished by the next president who will fix all the shitstorms this current chucklehead is unleashing! Just wait for 2004!" Sigh. My bad. I feel myself trying to do it with the financial meltdown mess too.)

There were more things I wanted to look up, but forgot in the process of looking up all these. Instead of waltzing down nostalgia lane watching all those "I Heart the 80s" shows on VH1, I should be taking notes on some sort of "Remember the 00s" documentary. Sigh. And I haven't started on the weird feelings I am getting watching all the 80s clothing and fashion come back and recognizing actual trends I had participated in; that's just too depressing to get into right now.

What about you? What cultural benchmarks have I forgotten ---- either what our students would know, or missed out on?


Anonymous said...

1) the other day in my Legal Writing class, it became clear that basically none of the other students remembered the OJ Simpson trial. Which meant none of them remember OJ from BEFORE the trial. I, too, am old!

2) I've definitely noticed the privacy-threatened kind of thing, too. Students (both when I was teaching them last year and in my classes now) endorse things that sound amazingly authoritarian to me without even blinking. (Thankfully, the profs call them on it, but seriously, the students have no idea what it sounds like, to hear them pretty much ready to hand over their civil liberties in the name of security.)

Anonymous said...

ok, this is a weird one. As recently as about 5 or 6 years ago, when I was teaching the death class, all of the kids remembered seeing bambi when they were small and we could all concur in that the death of his mother was traumatic. No more than five or six years later, they don't know Bambi. They never really saw it. No, they were traumatized by the death of Simba's father in the Lion King.

How am I supposed to talk about Walt Disney's obsession with dead mothers when they don't remember Bambi??

Belle said...

Okay kids. You're not old. I am. Your 'falling of the wall'? My assassination of JFK. I have one thing that makes it all the more surreal: I spent 1989-1993 living abroad. So there is this huge sanity break in my life; these kids were being born then. When my students insist they know Mayberry and the Cleavers, I'm just damned grateful. I don't know the Simpsons or MTV even during the video phases. We had Desmond Tutu on campus a couple of years ago. The faculty were agog, excited, amazed. The students had not clue one. One history major told me that being excited about him was silly; 'he's making a living off of one thing he did like 40 years ago.'

I made her go look him up. She could then take comfort in that he was black and African, and therefore a troublemaker and not worthy of her time.

Horace said...

We are not old. They are young (as were we at that age). Willow had a student the other day argue that Insane Clown Posse essentially invented the die-hard touring fan cult, which meant that not only did she not acknowledge the Grateful Dead, but she couldn't even muster up Phish.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

What's interesting to me, though, is that there is some decontextualized knowledge that they have largely because of the 500 channel universe: a lot of my students know the Jeffersons because it's on Nick at Nite. I've moved to starting my terms now with a sort of timeline of whatever the subject is just so they can get a sense of important things that came before.

Lau said...

The used-to-invasion-of-privacy point is really interesting. You should write a paper on that!

I always think it's funny (as an ethicist who occasionally dabbles in political theory) when students freak out about the evils of communism. You were in diapers (if that) when the iron curtain fell!

And, does it count against my involvement in the current financial crisis that I am simply poor and intend on staying so?

medieval woman said...

Sigh - my biggest benchmarks are that I remember VERY well when MTV went live in '84 - I remember the first video - the Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star" - and I also remember seeing the original Star Wars in the theatre (7 times) when it had first come out - GOD WAS THAT THE MOST AWESOME THING EVER???? And my students have no clue what a big deal that was - because they weren't even born - weren't close to being born. Hell - I probably went to school with their parents!

The 80s still rock, tho...I'm just sayin'....

I liek what Horace said - we're not old - they're young!

Anonymous said...

Annoying perhaps, but I do teach the civil rights movement and one of the points I'm trying to make is exactly what you say here - it's a different racial climate, yes, but one that was shaped by what went on before. So it can be a kind of baseline if you help students trace what is different about their world/experience from their parents, and their grandparents - which in the grand scheme of things is not that long ago.

Susan said...

Well, I'm even older than Belle, because my moment is the election of Kennedy (my mother dragged us up to 125th St. & Park Ave in Manhattan to see him during the campaign); the assassination is the beginning of a more continuous political memory. On the other hand, between 1972 and 1988 I didn't even have TV most of the time, so I'm totally out of it. Also, I spend a fair bit of time in Britain, where I miss US TV, and also get a different set of news!
But the Beloit list is always instructive.

I also wonder how much my students pay attention to the news. I illustrated what an allusive reference might be by saying "a governor from the north", and they all looked blank. (That could be an 8 AM class, too!)

Flavia said...

I teach a sex-religion-politics themed comp class, and so many of the events and cultural moments referred to in our readings, which seem relatively recent to me, are from when these kids were tiny: Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill; aspects of the date rape and political correctness debates; even the Lewinsky scandal.

For some reason, though, what blows my mind is the realization that they were only ELEVEN on 9/11. Dude, I was in grad school!

Anonymous said...

omg, you are so right... i looked at the list, i wish they had older classes on there... i remember when the microwave came out. how big that was, to have your food cooked so fast. and yes, it's crazy that most schools do not do recent history. i mean the OJ trial? come on! that was huge! The LA riots. even the walkouts of the 70s!