The assignment was an elevator pitch, and Kristina had chosen to convince the rest of the class to try a new book series she had just finished. “It’s about vampires,” she said, “But don’t worry—it’s not another Twilight.”
It sounded exactly like another Twilight to me, quite frankly, but it didn’t matter much because the rest of the class laughed comfortably at her reference and we moved on to Holly, who convinced us to buy a puppy.
I have the distinct privilege to teach introductory speech at Purdue University this semester. My students are fascinating a mix of studious, awkward, forgetful, and shy, and boy, do I love them. I could complain until I’m blue in the face about Maddie submitting her reference page two days late for no reason at all, or John getting up in front of the class and saying, “I, uh, really think you should read this book because it was, like, super interesting and stuff. Yeah.” But in the same breath I’d have to stifle a giggle because Jacob used the pejorative “janky” to describe his own notecard and Lucas gave such an effective elevator pitch about movie date night that every student in the class—male and female—would have agreed to go to join him for the evening.
Introductory speech is important, but there are so many other things I would rather teach them. I’d love to teach Don that it’s okay to be passionate about a school assignment and Karen that getting a B will not kill her. I want to teach them all to appreciate Tom Lehrer’s music. I want to teach my boys that wearing nice clothes is important and teach my girls that leggings are not pants and bras aren’t shirts. I want to teach all of them that “respect yourself” means respecting your intentional and loving creation. And honestly? I’d like to teach them about Twilight.
I’d like to teach them about the hegemonic power of humor and how making a person’s passion into a joke burns the life out of her. I’d like to tell them the real story of Twilight: that a few years ago a bunch of teenage girls got really passionate about something uniquely theirs and it got squashed. By everyone. I’d like to teach them that “It’s not another Twilight” actually says, “What teenage girls value isn’t important. They should grow up and learn to appreciate vampires properly: no sparkles.”
That story, of course, doesn’t fit anywhere into the lesson plan my course directors gave me. Nor does it appear much in the students around me. One student, who I have not-so-affectionately named “Bro-Man,” in a class I’m taking (not teaching) shocked my naïve assumptions about undergrad’s awareness of social issues. Bro-Man earned his title from saying things like, “So, is our teacher like a feminist or something?” and “It’s be cool if we had donut place near campus and only girls with big boobs could work there.”
In class! He said this in class! And people laughed! I was so surprised I didn’t even slap him in his unwashed, stubble-face.
How do you teach a classroom of sleepy freshmen that feminism is about equality, not (necessarily) bra-burning? That making fun of someone denotes privilege, not power? That happiness and freedom are not the same word and that neither of them are as simply related to good as people like to pretend? A fifty minute class period seems long when you’re planning feverishly the night before, but not when there are ten minutes left in class and Kristina, who probably read Twilight with as much enjoyment as I did, says, “Don’t worry. It’s not another Twilight.”
If you’ve ever taught before or are, perhaps, less dramatic than I am, you already know what the solution is. You know that telling and teaching aren’t nearly as effective as showing. You know there are deadlines to honor, bosses to which to report, and that there is a season for every activity under heaven and that teachers only have so much control over their classrooms. If you’ve ever taught introductory speech before, you might want to remind me, as I remind my students, that a one-minute elevator pitch won’t change the world. Start small. Dream big. Pray for grace.