The One-Way Bridge, Part 2

At a conference last week I heard several people defend the approaches to popular culture and literacy pedagogy that I define as the “One-Way Bridge.” They talked of the ways they would ask students to talk or write about popular culture texts so that material could become the content for class discussions or assignments that would help the students become more successful at school-sanctioned reading and writing. Yet at the end of their comments was often a question about why students still seemed to resist such efforts. Why, they would ask in mild frustration, shouldn’t the students be more excited about having popular culture “brought” into the classroom?

When they describe their attempt to connect to students’ interests, however, I hear descriptions similar to what I have observed in classes from middle-school to universities. There is an attempt, an exercise or discussion in which the teacher solicits material or ideas about what the students read and write outside of school. Yet what often happens is, after a few minutes, the teacher begins to drive the students over the one-way bridge to show how their work outside of school can be transformed into more valuable school work. It’s not that this is necessarily a wasted effort, but many students I talk with describe these moments as ones in which they feel as if they’ve been had. And the result of this pedagogical bait-and-switch, before too long, is that students begin develop a wariness of being asked about their out-of-school literacy practices. As one university student put it to me, in a disdainful tone of voice, “You know that if a teacher asks about movies or music you like, their just going to turn it into the lesson for the day. I’ve figured that much out.” Many students learn to regard these moments in the same way they do as a teacher-designed digital project that feels to them like a “creepy treehouse” — they learn to stay away, or perhaps play along, but keep their most interesting ideas to themselves.

Part of the allure of popular culture, including digital texts students manipulate themselves these days, is that they feel a sense of control over the interpretations, the uses, the emotions of the film, TV, games, and websites they encounter. The only assessment involved in popular culture — for them and for the rest of us — comes from our own tastes and our discussions with our friends. School work, on the other hand, is all about assessment. Now, more than ever, students have learned that the “lesson of the day” will always be graded — and that it only counts and is worth learning if the teacher grades it. It is easy to see, then, that if the students see school work as always involving the assessment of an adult, it is the antithesis of what the sense of control, pleasure, and mastery they feel when they read and compose with and about popular culture.

There are a lot of reasons this happens in the classroom and very few of them are because the teachers have nefarious motives. Instead I think that, for some teachers, there is a genuine belief that the bridge should only allow travel in one direction and that their responsibility is to bring students over that bridge to the literature and literacy practices valued in school. That’s an ethically defensible position – one that I happen to disagree with – but understandable. For other teachers, the pressure of standardized assessment and the standardized lesson plans that go with such assessment leaves them feeling they have little room for straying from traditional school-based literacy practices. For still others, there may be a sense that popular culture content may get out of control, bringing controversial work and disturbing representations into the classroom.  I believe there are answers to all of these concerns, and others, that I will continue to write about soon. But we first have to realize that a fake two-way bridge isn’t fooling anybody.

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