Relevance – Stepping into Student Culture

One thing I’ve noticed is that my cultural references and illustrations increasingly fall on deaf ears (and I’m only 31 years old!). A reference to Seinfeld or Friends might get a couple chuckles (or a full out laugh from that one 35 year-old college student), but for the most part my early millenial, 90s, and 80s culture occupies limited space in students’ working memory. What’s an out-of-touch professor to do?

Two words– “cultural artifacts.” I’m talking about youtube clips, popular songs, facebook posts, tweets, comic strips, or any pieces of popular media that contains insights and/or anti-insights related to the topic of the day. These are worth their weight in platinum. I like to start every class with 5-10 minutes on a cultural artifact. But where do I get them? Students, students, students. Early in the semester I ask students to send me anything they think is relevant to the class topic. Not every student sends them to me, but given how much of their culture “goes viral,” if one has seen the artifact, doubtless most others have also.

Asking students for cultural artifacts is a win-win. It’s a win for me because I am virtually guaranteed that whatever I show will actually connect with the lives the students are living right now. Because the students are the ones finding the artifacts, I know the vocabulary and images are the ones they actually encounter and will be attempting to navigate in terms of the theological categories we’re using in class (hopefully). It’s a win for the students because their contribution to class is affirmed and respected. Finally, its a win for everyone because my leading with the artifacts sets a tone of “engagement” rather than simply “ivory tower” irrelevance. They know from the start that we’re going to be doing theory, but that ultimately ideas have consequences. Our theories about the good life show up either explicitly or implicitly in each artifact presented. Part of what they are learning is how to excavate the detritus at the surface of these artifacts to unearth the ethical assumptions upon which they rely, and finally to assess the value of appropriating or dismissing those assumptions for their own lives.

In one class, a pair of cultural artifacts given to me by a student has become a staple. The pair is Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Love Jesus but Hate Religious” and Fr. Burns’ response, “Why I love Jesus and Love Religion.” These two videos have born great fruit in discussions early in the semester on the question of being “spiritual” or “religious.” Does being “religious” actually help us attain the good life? Or do we simply need to be “spiritual?” These two artifacts help point out the false choice built into the assumed dichotomy between those words.

I can’t be the only person using cultural artifacts…I’d love to hear about your own best “cultural artifacts” and what topics they help introduce. Let us teach the way of Christ!

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