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In my opinion

Keeping up with the undergrads

You’re not cool – please don’t try to be.


The girl strode along the campus sidewalk ahead of me, in her cut-off jean short shorts. How short? Let’s say, cheekily so. I could not help noticing that the girl kept casting her hand back as though to tuck … things … in.

Who wears short shorts? University students in their teens during a September heat wave, that’s who. Who doesn’t? At least one grateful contract instructor.

Moments like these remind a woman of a certain age that she is well past certain things in life, and mostly that’s a good thing. When I started teaching postsecondary students, I was old enough to be an older sister to most university-age human beings. Nearly 20 years later, I’m older than some of their parents and closing in on grandparent age for some of the younger ones. I’m so old, I never know now when they call me “Miss” whether to feel flattered that they might take me for a pre-Ma’am type, or whether the unspoken word at the end of that is rightly Marple, or Havisham …

It’s wise to keep this reality in mind when standing in front of a class of people whose parents are younger than you. It means many things, but mainly it means: You are not cool. You cannot be cool. Do not try to be cool. Unless you are Leonard Cohen, in which case you might stand a chance of slipping into your dotage still looking great in black, still managing some frisson of hipness and relevance. But you probably aren’t him, so – see previous advice.

Memories of professors who tried to be cool (partying with students, passing out and drooling on the shoulder of one in the back of a cab never a good idea) have always kept me humble, but occasionally I am reminded of just how tragically unhip I am. Like the time my students were designing a web magazine and decided to use a particularly cool effect on the visuals called rotoscoping.

Wait, rototilling? Rotoscanning? Robocopping? No matter how many times the term was bandied about, I couldn’t get it on first go. I still can’t. This is, I admit, pathetic.

I recently asked first-year writing students who were about to do their debut live interview assignments whether they all had tape recorders. They laughed. They all have smart phones. No one has tape recorders anymore, old trout. I might as well have asked if they all had Duo-Tangs, or if they were going to the sockhop on Friday night.

I felt a twinge of humiliation by proxy for the professor whose students I overheard dissing his lecture style, which included ludicrously dated references to TV shows from the 1970s – Mork and Mindy anyone? Even I would anticipate the blank stares and open contempt that will be the fate of any professor who attempts pop-cultural “relevance” without first checking the latest celebrity tweets for the new in-thing, at least for the hour or so before class.

As for music – do not even try to go there. You will not get it, any more than you get tongue piercings and droopy-drawer pants. Even if you know the names of the acts involved – and I’ll have you know, I am up on at least one, DeadMau5, pronounced Dead Mouse, of course, you idiot – you may find yourself watching the act in question perform live at the Grammy Awards, furrowing your brow and asking lame questions, like: Why, exactly, does he wear that huge, fake mouse head with electronically flashing teeth over his own head? (You can find the answer on Wikipedia; it has to do with a mouse carcass he once found in his computer keyboard. It’s so cool, it’s dead …) WhatEVerrr.

In some ways, oddly enough, it’s “plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose” when it comes to student fashion: The long hair, big dark-framed glasses (though not, god forbid, aviator shaped), jeans, t-shirts and boots that were de rigueur 30 years ago are still staples. But so are leopard-print high heels, extreme cleavage, visible thong underwear (mercy!) and faux fingernails with elaborate patterned polish. Then there’s the generational tattoo divide. Some of us grew up at a time when the only people with tattoos were ex-cons and war vets. It was not cool. Now it is. But I am not.

Back to my evenings of The Antiques Roadshow, jigsaw puzzles and warm milk before bed. Though I will say, I got close to cool recently when I ran into a student at the liquor store, and he smiled and gave a thumbs-up when it turned out we had the same brand of wine in our carts, and a pretty decent one too. Perhaps it was for his mother, I don’t know. And will never know. We bid each other a polite good day, and went off to drink our wine in, no doubt, very different places.

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  1. Leigh / September 11, 2012 at 15:42

    Loved it; words to live by!

  2. Tracy / September 13, 2012 at 13:12

    It’s Deadmau5, not DeadMau8. The “s” sound comes from the 5 looking like an s.

    Sorry, you are definitely not cool!

  3. Anushri / September 29, 2012 at 12:34

    reminds me of my teenage son who cries ‘lame’ for every comment i post on his wall on facebook. Considering he is still in high-school, i should see to it that my vocabulary is revved up by the time he is in college……..Or have i really lost the bus? or aged ? or

    Will my sons’ reply to this be — YOU ARE NOT COOL – please don’t try to be..

    Nice write-up. Makes me feel i am not alone.

  4. Technophyr / October 3, 2012 at 12:20

    I think in an age of engineered popular culture and massified education, the very notion of “cool” has itself been gutted. What used to mean exclusive and avant garde, seems to reflect what the crowd is doing – and often this is a mindless, unreflective practice. Deadmau5 operates in an industry of nanosecond fads and instantaneous popularity, whereas higher education makes reference to things in the past, as a means of interpreting our present context. Mork & Mindy may not be relevant, but Star Wars remains a relevant phenomenon. As with all social phenomena, human behaviour is rational – even in its incomprehensibility. What learners must accept is that (in the words of Paul Simon) every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, and therefore teachers must march forward in the quest to transmit knowledge to the next generation, in spite of the demand for novelty and coolness.