The relevance gap

I recently stumbled across a newly-published article entitled The Making of an Epic (American) Hero Fighting For Justice: Commodification, Consumption, and Intertextuality in the Floyd Landis Defense Campaign. My first thought was: interesting even though off topic. Hey — maybe its even teachable? But in fact my intuitions about how to connect actual events in life to teaching usually go astray — and I think I might have discovered (another) reason:

The time it takes for academics to study, write, and publish something about a current event is about the same amount of time it takes to enroll a cohort of students too young to remember the event.

Thirtysomethings like me blanche with terror at the realization that our students no longer remember not just the coldwar, but grunge. Even 9/11 is a from a time in their childhood when major events are hazy memories rather than adult realities. For someone who was 8 when we invaded Iraq, how much pulling power can a class really have when the Big Draw is “we’re going to get to the bottom of this WMD claim once and for all”. Even events that occurred four or five years ago — i.e. at just about the speed anthropologists can really write about them — are back in the middle-school range of traditional students.

Call it the relevance gap.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

18 thoughts on “The relevance gap

  1. I’ve come to the same realization time and again when drawing on events from my own living memory to illustrate various ideas and draw students into discussion. In the past, I used David Duke & Louis Farrakhan as examples of “Americans” with very different notions of what it means to be “American”, when discussing ethnicity & race in introductory classes – only to realize that undergraduate students have NO IDEA who they are.

    But an equally perverse factor that influences the reference points they understand is the fact that in many high schools, “current events”, “history”, and “social studies” are given less emphasis as schools strive to improve test scores in math & science to meet various benchmarks. So we have students who have no critical eye to understanding the social & political world the inhabit, other than what their parents may have provided them. And for many, that means little more than the 11 o’clock news & the daily tabloid.

  2. Rather than something to shake our heads and regret, I think this a powerful call to action. It’s certainly the project of blogs like this to offer a more timely anthropological take on events (current or not) than that offered by the peer-reviewed or monograph angle… and we certainly offer those takes to each other over coffee in offices, at cocktail parties, in seminar discussions.

    This makes me think of an issue that’s always peeved me: anthropologists who denigrate journalism without acknowledging its profound importance. Why shouldn’t our discipline also strive for contemporary relevance, acknowledging that a quick-and-dirty interpretation is both quick-and-dirty and a crucial starting point for deeper questions, more thorough reflections?

    If our best exemplars aren’t fresh for our students anymore, that’s a juicy challenge to keep looking! And if we feel that anthropology can only do good work over years, not months (much less days or less), then we either have to accept that ours is an historical discipline, or take up the theoretical, methodological, and practical gauntlet and *work* to make anthropology a science of life-as-it-happens. (Again, blogs like Savage Minds are doing this, and make my heart glad.)

  3. Right on, Christine.

    I guess the question is what we want to accomplish. I’m not always sure that reaching for relevance with students is inherently a good move – I was once enthusiastic about it, but over time have found that often as not students happily stay inside the horizons of their own narrow experience and interest if given official permission to do so. Meeting them where they are but not letting them stay there is a tricky business.

    So where are they? They know a few things, but not much. Their perspective is narrow and their imagination for other perspectives is poor. Their curiosity has been stunted by an information environment saturated with easy superficialities and by schools that simulate education with packaged answers for standardized tests.

    In the long run it would be good to develop their commitment to the kind of deep investigation that takes four or five years. But getting there from their current disinterest in anything that isn’t about them and attention span of about ten minutes is not a one-step process. In the shorter run showing students how to shoot from the hip more accurately is a good step forward.

  4. For some reason — I’m not sure why — I think it is my job to get students to have more thoughtful and more opinions about the political and societal forces that are shaping their lives, so I quite like taking things they thought they knew enough about, understood enough about, and had unproblematic moral judgments about. But Christine is exactly right — if I (or others) want to do this, the answer to this conundrum is to delve into the existing material (copious now, thanks to the Internet) and put together our own cae studies. It’s a lot less fun than having someone else do it for us and then just cribbing off of them, and it takes more time but hopefully it can connect more — especially because you can talk about local politics/issues.

  5. A friend of mine is teaching a course at an architecture school this summer on urban planning, social space and The Wire. He’s using David Harvey. His students have never heard of Blade Runner, or William Gibson. They don’t even know the origins of their their own imaginative worlds let alone those of another generation or country. That’s either tragic or disgusting.

    “I was literally floored last week when one of my students asked, What is apartheid?’ ”

    “If our best exemplars aren’t fresh for our students anymore, that’s a juicy challenge to keep looking! ”

    Wrong.
    If they don’t know even recent history someone has to teach them; maybe that someone should be you. Or do you really want to follow along while representational of schemes knowledge get flatter and flatter? Who needs history when you have ideas?
    Just forget that discussion of ideas without history is meaningless formalism.

    I posted a link on this page showing the gulf between what the academy was and is. The humanities isn’t computer science. If your students don’t know even recent world history then someone’s failed. Ignoring that fact then becomes your failure.
    Marking to the mean exerts downward pressure on the mean; dumbing down the dumb because it’s not your job to do better.
    It is your job.

  6. Rocks and glass houses—while my undergraduate advisor worked on the fly analysis of current events and pop culture into the majority of our class meetings he also made the time to keep up with both, as opposed to wearing the phrase, “oh, I don’t really watch TV/go to movies” like a merit badge. I used to think this answer meant that playing classical guitar or volunteering at the local prison or snowshoeing were filling up the individual’s free hours.* But that almost never seems to be the case. The post landline demographic is not alone in being narrow is all I’m saying.

    *Yes, I know academics lead busy lives but so do migrant workers and I see them playing football in the park. And “I have a family” only counts if you actually do something with them. Making sure your child is in his/her room doing schoolwork does not really count as doing something with your child!

  7. Seth, I think you may have taken me amiss. I’m not trying to say that history is unimportant, nor that educators should pander to ignorance. What I wanted to put across is that we and our students could both benefit by an anthropology that strives to remain current.

    “Relevance” in this thread is linking a contemporary (or popular) example to deeper ideas and histories – as in the OP’s e.g., the Landis doping scandal to issues of identity commodification, the role of media in creating/directing the audience for “official” statements of truth, etc.* How is this dumbing things down?

    I’d thoroughly agree that never pushing your students to think outside of what they already know is damaging, and I don’t think that educators should obsess over whether their Twilight references are hip enough to grab students’ attention. But “relevance” as a tool keeps scholars busy looking for evidence to confirm or challenge previous assumptions, and engaging with the world instead of withdrawing from it.

    Re: the student who didn’t know apartheid, that’s a shame (though good for him/her for asking!). But just in the past two years we’ve had District 9 (and Invictus, though I thought it was dreck) do quite well in theaters – there’s tons of journalistic coverage about the legacy of apartheid with regard to the World Cup – contemporary touchstones that could pique student interest or identification with the issues we want to open up for them.

    Seth, you’re right that ignorance is unfortunate. But why should it be tragic *or* disgusting? For an educator, or even just a lover of knowledge, that’s a pretty damning way to look at things.

    Kids to whom Blade Runner and Neuromancer were mindblowingly fresh were most likely ignorant of *their* imaginative genealogies, too. Or do we assume that they read Dashiell Hammett, Flatland, E.T.A. Hoffmann, just for a start? Maybe someone in your friend’s class will discover these this summer – one of the main reasons (I hope) we teach them in the first place.

    *Frankly, doping is so constantly in the news that I think this would be perfectly teachable – esp. considering that there’s a wealth of immediately contemporary media for students to analyze *themselves* in comparison to Mean, Kassing, and Sanderson’s conclusions.

  8. Christine:Kids to whom Blade Runner and Neuromancer were mindblowingly fresh were most likely ignorant of *their* imaginative genealogies, too. Or do we assume that they read Dashiell Hammett, Flatland, E.T.A. Hoffmann, just for a start?

    Well, actually, yes. I think what Seth, and even myself, are upset about is the information age has transformed what “being informed” is all about. And why even stop with the imaginative past, why not just the past, period. I, for one, do assume this generation does read Hammett, Flatland and Hoffmann, largely because I did.

    Each generation has its blind spots, but there seems to be a trend to fast information over gained knowledge (the hours spent pondering just what an event means, or how a theory relates to the world, or simply the time spent re-reading what is already familiar). Perhaps part of the problem of relevance is not to be so current, but to ascertain present blind spots. But what will such blind spots be filled with: information or knowledge?

    It’s sad and disturbing when students have no historical knowledge of apartheid. Is this a reflection of the position of Africa in their world knowledge? What happens when students have no historical knowledge of the Holocaust, of the Khmer Rouge, of Stalin’s Gulags? Or the rise of capitalism, the growth of imperialism, the modern social world? If the absence of historical knowledge of these events is a reflection of the students’ blind spots, what does it say about their world view? And when they do bring something forward, is it just as information (does fact checking even come into it)?

    I sympathize with Seth’s concern. Simply moving on to the new, the next, while absolving onself of knowing the past does not seem a happy medium to the problem of relevance. Neither does applying current examples to identity commodification without grasping the emergence of identity commodification in its earliest instances. By applying only to current examples, such a practice might create a new blind spot in which students interpret such ideas as fitting only recent cases. How then might such an approach challenge a student’s world view?

  9. Seth wrote:

    “If they don’t know even recent history someone has to teach them; maybe that someone should be you. Or do you really want to follow along while representational of schemes knowledge get flatter and flatter? Who needs history when you have ideas?”

    I dont really see the clash here. Is this really a situation in which we have to choose one (history) or the other (relevance)??? Why the dichotomy between history and ideas? It makes sense to me to find ways to talk about contemporary concepts and issues, while also reminding students that what seems “new” might, in fact, not be without historical precedent. The present didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. The old folk singer Utah Phillips has some good quotes about that.

    I fully agree with the need to teach history. But I also think there are plenty of contemporary issues/concepts that can be tied into these discussions. I also think that sometimes talking about contemporary issues can help illustrate certain historical events/issues as well. There is no need to choose between one or the other.

    “The humanities isn’t computer science. If your students don’t know even recent world history then someone’s failed. Ignoring that fact then becomes your failure.”

    Ok, so “someone” has failed. Now what? Should we sit around and lament that fact or do the best we can to start to push students to look at the world a little more openly and critically? If some student does not know about apartheid, for example, then I suppose it would make perfect sense to talk about this issue. But it’s not possible to fill students with thousands of years of world history and politics in a couple semesters. Usually anthro courses just introduce tiny fractions, and A FEW students continue with anthropology, sociology, history, etc. For the rest, they might only take 1-2 classes anthropology classes, ever.

    So how should these classes be put to use? The goal is to try to inspire them to look at these things on their own–and to teach them methods for doing that. If talking about certain contemporary issues helps to spark interest, then I’m all for it.

  10. ryan a:But it’s not possible to fill students with thousands of years of world history and politics in a couple semesters. Usually anthro courses just introduce tiny fractions, and A FEW students continue with anthropology, sociology, history, etc. For the rest, they might only take 1-2 classes anthropology classes, ever.

    You are right, that with so few anthro classes taken, it is just impossible to convey the immensity of historical (or any) knowledge to a student. However, I take issue with the implied assumption that the university classroom is the only time or place a student will be receptive to such knowledge. What ever happened to students reading on their own? Let’s face it, part of the problem lies with the students. Are they so passive, they require to be fed this information? It puts me in mind of Nirvana’s song Smell’s Like Teen Spirit: “Here we are now, entertain us.”

  11. Fred wrote:

    “By applying only to current examples, such a practice might create a new blind spot in which students interpret such ideas as fitting only recent cases. How then might such an approach challenge a student’s world view?”

    Who is arguing that ONLY current examples should be discussed?

    Worldviews can be challenged not only by taking a deeper look at history, but also by finding ways of looking at contemporary issues/examples that students assume they know everything about. There are many ways of talking about present and past realities. Why limit ourselves to just one or the other?

    “I, for one, do assume this generation does read Hammett, Flatland and Hoffmann, largely because I did.”

    Why would you assume that? If a class of 60 students hasn’t heard of some foundational text or film, then what? Should we complain about “the system” or “kids these days”, or should we find some way to get through to them?

  12. Fred,

    “However, I take issue with the implied assumption that the university classroom is the only time or place a student will be receptive to such knowledge. What ever happened to students reading on their own?”

    I definitely don’t think that the university classroom is the only time or place in which a student will be receptive to this kind of knowledge. But it IS one of the primary places where anthropologists interact with a broad base of students, since most undergrads are not lining up to head to the annual AAA conference or buying the newest edition of American Anthropologist. The university (and community college) classroom is one of the main places where students can actually learn about contemporary anthropological perspectives and findings.

    Also, there are plenty of young people who do read on their own–and there are plenty who do not. Overall, I don’t worry about that all that much, since when I was just out of high school I was just some surfer kid who didn’t really know a damn thing about history, anthropology, or politics. But I took some great classes at a local community college that really opened my eyes up about not only human history, but also local histories and issues (teachers never really talked about Native American people in my high school classes, so my first archaeology class kind of blew my mind).

    “Let’s face it, part of the problem lies with the students. Are they so passive, they require to be fed this information? It puts me in mind of Nirvana’s song Smell’s Like Teen Spirit: “Here we are now, entertain us.””

    I think this is a HUGE generalization. Sure, there are plenty of kids who don’t really give a damn. But is this REALLY a new story? Hardly. I personally think that there are tons of really bright and smart kids out there…maybe some of them are less interested in reading 1000 page books. Who cares? The point is to get them thinking and to start discussions, not to lament the decreased popularity of one particular medium of communication.

  13. ryan a:Why would you assume that? If a class of 60 students hasn’t heard of some foundational text or film, then what? Should we complain about “the system” or “kids these days”, or should we find some way to get through to them?

    If a student puts up his hand and says, “I haven’t read X,” the response is not to complain about the system, but just say to the student, “By next week, have X read.”

  14. “If a student puts up his hand and says, “I haven’t read X,” the response is not to complain about the system, but just say to the student, “By next week, have X read.””

    Makes sense to me.

  15. “I think this is a HUGE generalization. Sure, there are plenty of kids who don’t really give a damn. But is this REALLY a new story? Hardly.”

    Exactly.
    I think we have a tendency to myopically view the span of time that exists not only during our lifetime, but within the last few decades of our life. Let’s not forget the fact that a right to education, and especially the concept of universal education for everyone is very recent, and only among a certain group of states.
    In post-WWII Japan people still largely used in-door outhouses (holes in the ground) for toilets, and now if you go the toilet seats are heated and have various buttons for options. In the 1980’s everyone was afraid of a Japanese take over, and now Japanese kids are about as lazy and ADD as our kids.
    The fact is that the academic florescence that took place in the US after WWII was the exception to the rule historically, not the norm. It’s roots are based in the material infrastructure of industrial superiority and the structures created by the 1930’s market crash leading to the New Deal and the GI Bill. Currently, kids can afford to be scholastically lazy, because they are afforded a very extended childhood, based on material economic conditions, which are is constant flux. The recent cultural narrative of glamorizing criminal life, and rejecting “book smarts” will crumble very soon after people will actually need to get jobs. In fact this narrative is largely a function of the hippies who were the first generation of spoiled kids that had extended childhoods, and who also helped to remove the repressive stick from America’s ass. A double edged sword that came about because it could.
    When the market collapsed recently there was a wave of college enrollment, and because traditional colleges couldn’t handle the increase, a wave of for profit colleges popped up.

    Also, many anthropologists are responsible for their own irrelevance by falling in love with rather irrelevant forms of ideationally based philosophical anthropology, that rejects any empiric grounding. This fad too is a product of a surplus of tenure jobs, which have been becoming more scarce. As this trend continues, I imagine that anthropologists will find themselves considering that their research needs to have real-world application that can be put on a resume, and not a CV. Then students will see the discipline as not some blow-off elective, but a stepping stone to a career.

  16. Fred- “Kids to whom Blade Runner and Neuromancer were mindblowingly fresh were most likely ignorant of *their* imaginative genealogies, too.”

    Their imaginative genealogy begins in about 1978. Readers of detective fiction know the history of their love. These are computer tech architecture and design students. My example is the equivalent of a self-described fan of Pop Art not knowing Warhol. If it happened before they were born they don’t know it.

    My general argument was even more basic, but I know that practically speaking it’s untenable: If your students’ minds are that ridiculously blank [and in my own experience it’s true] then perhaps every college should have a mandatory remedial year before the 4 year program, and all of you should be teaching freshman comp. And since I’m describing my fantasies, we should also bring back the draft with no college deferment.

    “Why the dichotomy between history and ideas?” Because history includes the history of the academy itself. The preoccupation with ideas as opposed to the older history of experience is new. Your own sensibilities are the product of cultural transformation. Studying history as idea is studying it as if you were outside it, as if you were measuring an inanimate object with a metal rule. In language units of measurements change over time. Categories change. I pointed to an example of that in the link.

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