The Quest for Relevance: blog post for 2/17/16

This week’s readings provided a wide variety of ways to think about how institutional structures of education can exist to perform many different a social functions–from indoctrinating Native peoples into the fear of Satan, to designing reading for women’s colleges that will prepare students “to be an agreeable companion for a suitable man,” to elevating students’ culinary complaints to the level of multi-cultural activism–and once again I am drawn towards the question “What (and whom) is the institution for?” and more specifically “Who decides?” In this post I will pursue these question in terms of how they are situated within the increasingly dominant ‘consumer’ model of higher education, and begin to ask how this model encourages a kind of “student-centered” approach that appears to be more concerned with avoiding potential lawsuits than it is with avoiding reproducing authoritarian structures.

I was immediately struck by the assertion made by one of the students in Mike Wesch’s short video “A Vision of Students Today” that only 26% of the readings she had been assigned were “relevant” to her life. What, I wonder, is the criteria through which she has decided what is/isn’t relevant? The question of relevance is important for all educators, as it is one of the determining factors in whether or not students are engaged and attentive during class, and an important factor in what students will retain after class is over. But this particular idea (expressed explicitly by Welsch in his TEDx talk on the same theme) appears to imply that if a student believes that only 26% of their readings are “relevant” then this indicates “a 74% failure rate.” For me, this raises the question “What constitutes ‘success’ in higher education?” Is a ‘successful’ course design one in which students’ own sense of ”relevancy” is paramount? and if so, should educators adopt a policy across the curriculum in which students’ own individual / subjective / emotional inclinations are allowed to determine the scope and design of college courses?

If, in the neoliberalization of higher education, students are the “consumers” and teachers are the “service providers,” and if we believe the customer-service protocol that “the customer’s always right,” then perhaps we have no choice but to supply the demand for “relevancy” by kowtowing to whatever interests students today. This, I imagine, puts educators in a difficult (and perhaps even fatally defensive) position, given that students are now in a position to mobilize around their “interests” with unparalleled ease, while they are not necessarily always the best judges of how these interests fit into the larger scheme of what higher education is capable of.

As Hua Hsu points out in his article “The Year of the Imaginary Student”, “The logic of virality that governs life on the Internet has given student activists a sense of common struggle, as well as the means to escalate their grievances with relative ease,” and while this often a positive step towards empowering students to participate and have a voice in the structures that govern their lives, there is also the fact that not all such mobilizations are positive and empowering for all. Hsu continues: “Identity politics…are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party.” Must we then, as educators, cower before demands for “relevance” even when they are oriented around narrow-minded and repressive world views like those of Trump and the Tea Partiers? Is not one of the essential functions of higher education the challenging of students’ preconceptions and inherited understandings in order to foster productive debates and the advancement of knowledge? Can the quest for relevance in the classroom transform a pedagogical focus on students’ investment in their own education into a quest to avoid discomfort and/or lawsuits?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt assert in their cover story for The Atlantic “The Coddling of the American Mind” that the “Socratic” method of teaching critical thinking functions through “encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them,” and they note that “such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.” They conclude that the quest to avoid discomfort through mobilizing for mandatory “trigger warnings” (a “student-centered” principle that I believe is similar to the principle that courses should cater to students’ already-established sense of what is “relevant”) allows well-meaning students to unwittingly damage their institution’s ability to carry out this essential training in critical thinking, and it may even provide a counter-productive example of how to operate in the world, since this kind of protectiveness essentially “prepares [students] poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.” Lukianoff and Haidt conclude that “If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.” Engaging conflicts is an essential part of all progressive action, but I am concerned that letting students dictate what is and isn’t “relevant” to them will be akin to letting them maintain their preconceptions unchallenged, and it may even foster the belief that the experience of challenging one’s own preconceptions is antithetical to getting the best educational “service.”

In his article “6 Principles of Critical Pedagogical Course Design,” Sean Michael Morris challenges the notion that academic writing must absolutely maintain certain tedious and stodgy standards at all times, and he makes the assertion that “Perfect grammar shakes no one’s hand, gives no hugs.” While I am fully on board with the notion that allowing and encouraging non-standard or informal writing expands the bounds of what constitutes academic competence in a more progressive and inclusive manner, one might ask if shaking hands and giving hugs is becoming necessary to pedagogy, and whether this emphasis on student comfort ends up de-emphasizing other potentially “relevant” or even vital aspects of education simply out of fear of producing discomfort.


  • Zeb,

    I really like these questions you’ve posed, especially regarding the potential danger of allowing students to determine the trajectory of course topics based on their interest and “relevance” to their lives. I actually thought the same thing when the girl in the “Vision of Students Today” video held up the sign about the 26% of course material being relevant to her life. Is learning a complicated equation in a statistics course relevant to a students life? I think yes, always. However, the challenge sometimes as an educator (and I think where we often miss the mark) is guiding students towards understanding how deeply relevant the course material is to their individual lives. I think that also speaks to the example you gave on Michael’s blog post in your response about how you connect Shakespeare’s work to broader issues that are contemporary and “relevant” to your students.

    The challenge with students sometimes (that I experience) is that if they don’t find a topic immediately interesting or “relevant” they are able to very quickly tune out, especially through their contemporary access to social media, text messaging, etc. they truly believe they’re able to multitask, but I’m not a full believer in that. Do we want young aspiring doctors who are multitasking through their anatomy class? Can you imagine a surgical resident multitasking while watching a mentor surgeon perform a careful procedure? I love the idea of active learning and using technology to engage students, but I’m conservative about how/when that line should be drawn in a classroom environment. Can you imagine all of us sitting around our classroom table with Cathy and texting or writing emails on laptops while she was asking us discuss ideas? I think some of the impulse to tune out is a result of students being expected to be passive learners. But some of it is very much a challenge of creating policies/expectations around new technology. I think we forget sometimes just how new some of these things are.

    • Erica, I should have been clearer about the methods in that video. Prof Mike Wesch had his students do research and ethnographic surveys of other students. Each student in his large Digital Ethnography class then holds up a sign representing, in code and short hand, a distillation of the research they did. So there probably was a survey question by one student asking: “Do you think your courses are relevant to your life?” And only 26% of those she asked said “yes” unequivocally.

      I’d love to talk about the difference between a short video representation designed to provoke and engage–over 5 million viewers!–and to start a conversation and a research paper. At the end of this, Prof Wesch invites discussion and the other class assignment, perhaps in the subsequent lecture (I forget now), had students tending to responses as part of a class project with the world.

  • “A Vision of Students Today” also left me with some uncomfortable questions. What does it mean to determine that 74% of your assigned readings are irrelevant, having completed only 49% of them? What does it mean to say that 18% of your teachers know your name, without noting how many students they have on average per year, or how much they’re being paid? The student as consumer model Zebulah mentioned helps to falsely divide students and teachers, and keep them from seeing themselves as subjects of the same system.

  • It’s interesting that you both focus at some length on Prof Michael Wesch of KSU’s digital ethnography class and “The Vision of Students Today,” which the students made in 2007. If you read about this famous video, it turns out the signs held up were the ethnographic research the students did for the course, interviewing KSU students and then compiling the data and writing it all into a script and making a wildly influential video. It’s impact continues to be enormous, all these years later. I am not sure any of the students feels they have to solve all those world problems tt they all hold up on their signs–war, ethnic conflict, inequality, poverty, etc–but what they hold up on the next sign is correct: “I did not create the problems but they are my problems.” Not every class needs to be “relevant” in the sense that it directly addresses each and every one of the problems students today inherit. But I certainly hope we can come up with ways of teaching students that are superior to “teaching to the test” because the world they’ve inherited certainly presents them with far greater tests than the ones that can be answered A, B, C, D, or None of the Above. I don’t consider “trigger warnings” to be part of “student-centered learning” and their role in the academy is greatly exaggerated by the anti-Millennial “blame the student” pundits. In fact, if you look at the data analyses of the organized protests going on at campuses all over America, “trigger warnings” don’t even make the list. The real, material issues of inequality, however, do. This will be well worth talking about in class. I find the whole “coddling” rhetoric really hard to justify given the actual material lives of students today. I like the distinctions you are drawing here and I want to return to them in class and see what other conclusions might be drawn. Education as self-exploration? Education as job preparation? Education as training for the status quo? Education as liberation or subjugation? These are the deepest pedagogical issues from Socrates forward.

  • Zeb I enjoyed reading your post. In addition to Mike Wesch’s video which I had to view twice because the first time I was like ” ooohh wow” and the second time as a mother of a child entering college in Fall 2017, I was thinking to myself should I or should I not show this video to my son and then have a discussion with him. My son currently attends a mid-size boarding high school. It was all his idea not mines for my only child to attend boarding high school. he made the choice from an academic standpoint that he wanted to expose himself to a different type of learning and living environment that would help not only to prepare him for life in college but also a chance to expand his maturity on being responsible for his academic and social growth. Once he made this decision than Jelani’s next step was to get himself nominated for a program called prep 9 which is a 2 years program for minority middle- grade students that helps them to prep for boarding high school admission interviews and to succeed in balancing life and academics away from home. We visited at least five schools and though most of the New England schools varies in size I believe most if not all of them have in common the size of each class (10-12 students ratio to one professor) and the desks are set in a circle round table structure. My son choose his school because it wasn’t too large for him to get lost in a sea of faces but also wasn’t too small. Though he has been receiving daily tons of mail here at home from colleges we haven’t done any actual college tours yet (will in March), I think about what type of college experience and choice my son will make. When I attended college for my bachelor’s degree the school I attended (Medgar Evers College), is I guess a mid size college and each class held about 15-25 students, however my professors knew each of us by name and face. That’s another reason I chose to attend the Grad Center was the size of each class (though the down side is that the class you may try registering for is closed). I have learned that one of the main differences between a college and a university is the size of the classes and I always wondered other than the fact that the more bodies, the more money the school is taking in, but why have classes that big as in Mike’s video. I wonder and worry about the college freshmen who for many are now experiencing their first time away from home and having to be responsible and proactive in their educational goals and physical well-being and as the video pointed out, there is also an increase in the social and electronic distractions that tempt the students literally right in class. Add that to as one of the students wrote and that I am sure many students feel and believe that 1/4 of what they are paying to learn and read is relevant to their lives and that makes me not only agree with your statement about the possibility of a 74% failure rate. So then my question now becomes what can we do as parents and educators for both the current and future scholars to change the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes of feeling that college is a waste of time, money and effort in today’s job market and society?
    This week’s readings about the earlier educational system for women (who were being educated in order to become proper and cultured wives for their husbands) and for the Indian children (educated so they become civilized ) had me shaking my head constantly, but in all honesty I would not be surprised that in this day and time that there are still schools and communities that are designed to educate and train women and minorities to becoming productive and cultured “citizens”.

  • Relevant is such an ambiguous word in this sense as if the professor doesn’t make it feel reliant it’s not. When there isn’t any greater connection of the readings to why it matters, of course 76% of the readings do not seam relevant. I think it is the responsibility of the professor to show the relevance of readings and projects to something greater as Zeb you mentioned you do with Shakespeare. If there is no follow up about the readings, and not just a A B C D test, many things so seem ireeivant. I can’t ignore Nicky’s comment about schools that are still in existence to train people to act a certain way. I had a very similar reaction when reading, but then I reflected in the network I work. The way my school district functions is to help mostly minority children up for success in a white system of power. We have longer school days to catch them up where they are lacking academically, a very strict dicipline system as the reality for many of my children they aren’t protected by police as I would be as a white woman, incredibly challenging hands on curriculum with a lot of homework to make them confident and competitive in college and beyond, a civil service component to help them become active citizens, fully paid for international trips 8-12 grade to give them experiences their white affluent counterparts would have access to, etc. all of these tools though, are training to be successful in a white world. We have made some progress as a society, but it also might just be a mask to perpetuate systems that have been in place for a long time.

  • Nicky, if I forget, remind me to tell you all about the class of Mike Wesch’s that Danica and I visited this year. It was the Anthropology of Aging—and he had his students live in a retirement community for a semester. Imagine that! More later. Thanks for this excellent post. It would be great to see what your son has to say about this video. It is old now, 2007 or 2008 . . .

  • Zeb—I get you about ‘playing to the crowd.’ But I don’t want us to confuse the word “relevant” with “revisionist.” Relevant or “pertinent to the matter at hand” org. came from the Latin “helpful” while revisionist, coined after WWI, has a connotation of “rejection”—of different views, ideas, causes, effects. I was trained to teach college history by exposure, an experience of mimicry—I talk you learn. When I applied this method to rural classrooms, e.g. Wahaiwa and in the budding ‘small cities’ of Oahu, e.g. Kapolei, Mililani, I was appalled at how no student spoke or asked questions. After two classes of this, I finally asked my first small class of 15-students what are they interested in? I was teaching U.S. History to 1867, so I gave the examples of “native americans, slaves, women, wealthy landowners, revolutionaries, military, business owners, religious leaders,” and etc. including “children” on one or both sides of the Atlantic—the idea being trying to identify any segment of documented American history. And I accepted their suggestions, one student, for example said, “historians” :). The only way to get them talking, I figured, was to make them the experts of a given point-of-view. Did I make the subject of American History relevant to them? I hope so. Did I encourage a democratic meritocracy? I figure I did. But did I have them critique the power their roles of authority conferred. Nope. I totally played devil’s advocate trying to pierce through certainty and did have other groups question, question, question another groups arguments, but it just had the effect of grounding any subjective perspective into place. Nobody changed their minds. Nobody said ‘well, I guess I was wrong” or “my perspective is eerily similar to that group.” They had learned to mimic too! I always found it easier to teach in New York City, where I could focus on listening skills. Maybe I should go back to the country; try it out again!

  • Hi Zeb,

    I really enjoyed reading your post as well, and it was great to further explore these topics in discussion with you during class. I am wondering if your question about both discomfort and relevance in the classroom might go both ways. In other words, in addition to addressing the question of the degree to which we might push students outside the boundaries of their comfort zone, how much are we as educators willing to subject ourselves to discomfort in the process of engaging with our students? As others responses to your post have noted, “relevance” can be a very complex and ambiguous word, and again it seems as if we could consider pedagogical strategies to bridge the chasm of relevance[s] and resonances between, for example, The Tempest and Black Lives Matter, in ways that might produce some discomfort for teacher and students alike, that might be a start. Not that I have any concrete suggestions, mind you.
    It also struck me that the neoliberal approach to (or assault upon, depending on your perspective) higher education that you describe is merely an updating of Freire’s “banking” model of education that we’re reading about this week, wherein the student “vessels” become “consumers” who have paid for “educational product” of the “depositer” teacher (now the “service provider”). The question that interests me here is not necessarily whether “the customer is always right,” but whether or not this shiny new neoliberal educational protocol is in fact as alienating as Freire’s “student containers to fill” narrative.
    Also, although I’ve already posted a link on the class site to the Harper’s article I mentioned in our discussion, here’s the url:
    I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. See you next week.

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