Thursday, May 08, 2014

Sidebar Lives: A Rant

Sometime during the first decade of the 21st century a friend referred to her life outside of our town and her work as college professor as her "sidebar life." Now that the concept of the "sidebar" has pretty much withered away from the usual on-line experience (blogs and websites still have sidebars, but fewer and fewer people seem to pay attention to them).

Many people, including me at times, have double lives. We have the life that involves the people we interact with in person, whether at work, play, or at home. Then we have our virtual communities, which sometimes involve commerce. Then we have our communities of social media friends, who are not necessarily people we spend time talking with, even though we might live in the same town or occupy the same work space.

We seem to be bound to our various cultures by our devices, and our virtual cultures (or cultures of "stuff") have become so rarified that it seems there is very little in the way of actual (if I can even use the word "actual" to refer to something different from "virtual" at this point) culture that serves as a point of reference.

There are only a few elements of culture that seem to affect all the people in proximity to me, but except for the weather, which is always a surprise these days, they are hard to find.

There seems to be one thing that unifies everyone under the age of 40 and most people under the age of 80: cell phones. Cell phones (and computers, tablet and otherwise) seem to be the entry point for just about everything concerning culture.

At rehearsal breaks it seems that everybody under the age of 40 communes with their virtual world by way of a cell phone. There are sometimes people I would love to speak with, but I feel like I'm interrupting something when I invade someone's cellular space. The cell phone seems, in many ways, to push away possibly activity in the non virtual world. In some ways, partly due to social media (i.e. Facebook), we know too much about one another, so actual real-time personal talk can seem superfluous.

My college students no longer seem to recognize cultural references. Television used to be something that provided a great deal of cultural common ground, but that is no longer the case. I suppose that people who watch the same shows have a kind of community, but that community is more virtual than real. I even notice an ambivalence to cultural references. Perhaps my students are lost in a digital polyculture, and they don't have the ability to recognize landmarks on a "map." Then again, there is no map.

A few years ago I played Copland's "Hoedown" from Rodeo for a class. The students all seemed to be engaged, and one student even responded by enthusiastically saying, "Pork, the other white meat" because he recognized the music from a television commercial. I responded, "Beef, it's what's for dinner." Everyone laughed, and a good time was had by all.

Today I played Bonaparte's Retreat, and followed it by "Hoedown." Sure. The cultural context I gave them was the correct one, but I found it sad that nobody recognized it from a television commercial that was popular during their childhood. It is pathetic, in a way, that I am grasping at television commercials for cultural context. It's a new cultural low for me. Nobody recognized "Rhapsody in Blue" from its use in commercials either.

I used to feel that there was a divide between popular culture and non-popular culture (the cultural stuff that made "culture" an operative term). Now I just don't know. I stopped trying to keep up back in the 1990s. I don't know how anyone can keep up now. How are we supposed to teach our students to recognize something of value in this cultural quagmire? Maybe they can recognize value when it is explained to them during actual class time, but how can we expect students to remember how to recognize something of value when they don't even have the skills (or the desire) to read the virtual map?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"How are we supposed to teach our students to recognize something of value in this cultural quagmire?" According to the New York Times in 1998, "Jesse Jackson, joined students at Stanford in chanting, ''Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!'' The Times said it its title, "Western Civ Fights Back." Apparently Western Civ is not fighting to win, if your personal observation says what it says.