It's Just Not Relatable

Thursday 23 April 2015

I have recently returned from a holiday in New Zealand. Wonderful, wonderful New Zealand. Thank you. The food and drink is first rate. The people are friendly. The scenery is beautiful and remarkable. You should go.

I return with fond memories and a camera full of images of the most dramatic landscapes; that is to say, images of what lay beyond me – trees, lakes, mountains, and bigger mountains. I note, however, that many tourists these days have a preference for taking photographs of themselves, attaching their cell phone to a thing that I believe is called a ‘selfie stick’. This concerns me. Hopefully, you are concerned too.

In a recent article for the BBC, the writer Howard Jacobsen suggests that the selfie stick is ‘an agent of self-absorption, the lightning rod of narcissism, linking the self that’s being photographed and the device that’s doing the photographing, to the exclusion of all else’. Hear hear! Apart from being absurd, the selfie stick, most surely, is a visual representation writ large of society’s own narcissism.

Jacobsen extends his discussion of egotism and self-love to the act of reading, and he reminds me of why I will not accept the use of the word ‘relatable’ in my classroom. The ‘relatability’ of a text reveals nothing, showing little or no understanding of the text read. Instead, it simply exposes puerile self-interest brought about by intense, neck contorting acts of navel gazing.

The conversation I will not tolerate goes, in theory, something like this:

Student: I don’t like The Bell Jar.

Teacher: Why?

Student: I can’t relate to Esther.

Teacher: I see.

Student: And I hate Madame Bovary!

Teacher: Because?

Student: Emma is not relatable!!

Teacher: Well aren’t you fortunate…

Jacobsen acknowledges – and fair enough – that a pleasure of reading whilst young is to ‘read about characters who feel as we do’. But Jacobsen goes on to powerfully argue that literature ‘liberates us from the tyranny of being who we always are, seeing what we usually see, into the exhilaration of “wild surmise”’.

On the 13-hour return flight between New Zealand and my stopover in Singapore, I read David Didau’s excellent The Secret of Literacy: Making the Implicit Explicit. Didau’s book emerges from years of dedicated classroom experience and sustained reflection, but also draws on critical perspectives, past and present, to construct its arguments. Didau makes the point, borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu, that school needs to enhance the cultural capital young people need to lead worthwhile, successful lives. Personally, I have a few reservations about this view (and I suspect Didau shares them), but given the reality of social life, what alternative options do schools have? It is surely the duty of schools to (try to) equip students with the skills and knowledge that society values if they are ever to exert influence on their world for the right reasons.

And, here, we return to the issue of reading and the myopically self-interested self. Didau argues that schools need to teach students texts that ‘build cultural capital’. Stopping short of advocating a limited canon of DWM, Didau argues for the reading of alienating literature – texts that take readers further and further from their own experiences and familiar cultural perspectives.

I think Didau is right. At the same time, it is important that students have the opportunity to critically appraise their own lives and beliefs. This is a far cry from ethnocentric relatability – this book ain’t about me, so it can’t be any good! Students don’t need to read facile drivel to understand their own lives, but they do need to be challenged to read texts about people and places that are unlike them.

So, in designing your language and literature course, aim to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, if not too familiar. And, don’t allow your students to whine about the relatability of their texts. You may, however, advise your students to visit New Zealand. They will thank you.



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