A student in one of my writing classes said this today, as we discussed Bono as a rock-and-roll celebrity. Is he a sell-out? Something else? In what way is it antithetical to talk about celebrities as role models in the context of rock-and-roll celebrity? How do our expectations for rock stars differ from those that we have for celebrity actors, athletes, or pop stars? These were the questions I wanted them to ask, that I thought they'd be invested in asking, and to have a "kid" (and I put that in quotation marks because he's probably only 10 years younger than I am) say with such seriousness that there might not even BE rockstars.... Well, it was about the most interesting thing a student has said to me this semester. And I think he might be right.
I designed my writing courses around this theme of celebrity in part to attempt to appeal to a range of students, all of whom would not have any interest at all in taking this advanced writing course but who are required to take it in order to graduate. The course is broken down into units - Defining Celebrity (for which we focused on Harry Potter both in terms of Harry's celebrity and in terms of the celebrity status of the series and of J.K. Rowling), Celebrity as Role Model or Product (the unit that we're currently finishing up, and in which we focused on Chinese basketball star Yao Ming and Bono), Celebrity and Politics (in which we'll be talking about Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal), Celebrity and Gossip (a unit focusing on the rhetorical arc of tabloids), and then the course ends with their own research on some aspect of celebrity. Ultimately, my thinking was that we'd be talking about something that could interest all of us and that has broader significance to our everyday lives. But what were/are my assumptions and what are the realities of my students. If there aren't rockstars anymore, what's really the point?
You know, we ask ourselves why students aren't engaged in politics or why students don't seem to be committed to challenging injustices or even just the status quo with which they were raised. We blame students' apathy or acceptance of social norms on helicopter parents and a culture of ultra-planned after-school activities. We blame the internets or video games or the fact that children are being tested within an inch of their lives so that none of them will be left behind.
Today, in my writing class that was pretty much designed as fluff, with a topic that would keep me going when the student writing made me want to cry, it occurred to me: Maybe the problem is that there aren't rockstars anymore. Or that students don't believe there are rockstars. That students don't care one way or another if a rockstar "sells out," nor do they necessarily see what's wrong with selling out. If these things are true, then why would students feel empowered to change anything? Why would they feel like they'd need to?
6 years ago