Pop Quiz on Pop Culture: Get Out a Piece of Notebook Paper and a Pencil

I know a lot of information useful in only very esoteric and specific contexts. For example, I know that a regular turn in the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons consists of a move, a minor, and a standard action. This is of course impacted by a number of other factors, including whether or not you use up an action point and if your character is ridiculous. Anyway, thus far in my academic career no one has given me a quiz on the ins and outs of role playing games. That’s never even been a course offering that I’m aware of. That would be epic. I would so take that class. What am I saying? I would teach that class. The point is, much of the knowledge I have and use on a given day has little to nothing to do with what I learned in the classroom.

Or at least that is the perception my students seem to have in my classes. In fact, a great deal of what I do in my courses is make the content as relevant as possible. Thinking critically about the visual and verbal messages that surround students on a daily basis is a central theme of my current course. Case in point: the assignment my students are working on right now is creating a BuzzFeed post. One of the main goals for this assignment is to steer students away from mistakenly thinking that I, as their instructor, am somehow the audience for the compositions they create. Through the visual composition process, they are hopefully discovering that if they attempt to tailor their posts to me, they will probably be ignored on a website whose main audience demographic is 15 to 20 year my junior. Although in fairness, according to a pop culture tastes quiz I took last night, BuzzFeed thinks I’m 19. I don’t know what criteria they’re using to come up with that. I clearly selected Pretty in Pink as the definitive teen movie and Whitney Houston as my favorite pop music star of all time.

I gave a pop quiz to my students on Friday. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, they also thought so, in part because I said I would use it in place of a big fat zero on an earlier quiz that about 80% of them had received (because they forgot to take it, not because it was hard.) So, it was Friday afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds outside our classroom windows were singing, and I was giving them all a pop quiz. I put four questions on this quiz, accounting for twelve points, which equates to exactly 1% of their total course grade. Clearly, a low stakes endeavor. The quiz asked students to identify a number of key concepts from the course, which we had gone over repeatedly throughout the semester, including getting them to identify what “audience” means to rhetoric, something they have had to do on literally every single assignment this semester. Sadly, the average score on the quiz was four out of twelve. The high score (achieved by only one student) was nine. I suspect there are a handful of students who would have aced the quiz if I had actually included questions about D&D.

What’s the point? First, this pop quiz was freaking easy. I didn’t even try to trick them. As I was making it (which took me all of about five minutes,) I was intentionally trying to think of questions we’d gone over repeatedly in class. Secondly, the very basic concepts on the quiz are actually relevant and pertinent to the pop cultural artifacts they interact with on a daily basis, not the least of which being the BuzzFeed website that they’re using for the current assignment. Seriously, I asked them about audience and purpose in communication; it’s not rocket surgery. I said this in class. My conclusion about what happened with such low scores on the quiz is that students aren’t even listening to me at all. They’re playing D&D Online on their phones during my lectures. That’s the only possible explanation. (Since I have actually witnessed students playing Settlers of Catan on their electronic devices, I think this is a fair assessment of the situation.)

But professor, you might be saying, can’t you ban electronics from your classroom? Sadly, no. In fact, that’s a bad idea. Many students now rely on their phones and tablets for the actual textbook, style manual, and for non-native English speakers, translation devices. It’s way too late to eliminate tech from the classroom. I’ve therefore tried to integrate it rather than eliminate it, hence the BuzzFeed assignment. One thing is clear: tech or no, I can’t make students listen if they think the course is useless, even when the content is awesome. Also, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him stay awake during your PowerPoint about the rhetorical canon. Even when every slide is riveting—with pictures of cannons and everything.

In summation, this blog probably needed a “pop quiz hotshot” quote from the movie Speed, grading BuzzFeed posts may prove more challenging than I originally planned, and thinking critically about popular culture is actually a useful skill.