Intellectual Hunger vs. Academic Thirst: On the Culture of Immediacy

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By Dr. Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant
Associate Professor of Africana Studies
Williams College

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I admit it. College-aged students increasingly vex me, and I am hoping, desperately, that I am not alone in my exasperation. I have the great fortune to teach at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. And yet, I too am faced with a particular, elitist dilemma—that of increasingly encountering students who lack deep intellectual hunger, but are filled, rather, with academic thirst.

Let me explain. My use of the terms hunger and thirst are not at all an affront to people of the world for whom the attainment of fundamental resources that we need to survive—food and water—is difficult or impossible to achieve. Rather, I am tapping into colloquial uses of the terms that emerge from hip hop culture. That is, where hunger reflects a deep, intense drive while thirst is a cursory, though equally driving impetus that is, however, lacking in its substance.

Perhaps even this distinction is controversial. Call it the impact of modernity or the culture of immediacy where technological advances (think the Internet, yes, capital “I”) have ensured that we can get access to—and say—just about anything we want quickly, with little effort, and to large audiences. But it is this culture of immediacy and how it permeates the contemporary classroom that I am also trying to resist.

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I admit it. I want students to be good historians, the kind that explore all kinds of archives, that are open to interdisciplinary approaches, and who are excellent in their ability to capture the nuance of a story on the page as they are to actually hear one. I want students to delve deeply into and to wrestle with the contents of what we are reading in class. I want students to be thoughtful not only about what they say, but how and to whom they say it. I want them to struggle with theoretically sophisticated materials (which is not synonymous with poorly structured or unnecessarily dense materials), and to move beyond a surface, “thirsty” reading that merely answers the question, “do I agree with what the point this author is trying to make?”

Rather, I hope students leave prepared to not only determine if they agree or not, but can also articulate the steps an author takes to “build” her case; can explain the techniques, strategies, and methodologies they use to make their case (and the related terminology); can identify who any author is speaking to and the larger conversations in which they are a part; and can distinguish what the author’s contributions are to their respective fields. This, I believe, helps cultivate hungry students, and is the least I can do to prepare my students for a world where it is never enough to simply say what you like or dislike, but where you must always be able to express why.

But students are increasingly less interested in these things. They often want the easiest route to interpreting materials. Not necessarily Cliff’s Notes, but the path of least resistance. And worse, as they seek the path of least resistance, they simultaneously want to have their ideas published, to have that happen quickly, and to have it happen en masse. They are literally thirsty for an audience.

Admittedly, then, my desire for what I would like for my students occurs in full recognition of the time period in which I write: the era of the modern “think piece.” The moment a new album, headline, or hashtag emerges, many—my students included—feel compelled to be first or at the very least, to respond right away, and to do so publicly (yes, I am thinking specifically about the prodigious response to Beyonce’s Lemonade). As Janelle Hobson and Jessica Marie Johnson’s “#Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List” expertly demonstrates though, there is a serious distinction to be made between fleeting efforts to create history via the think piece, and sustained efforts to curate history. But do the culture of immediacy and the Think Piece Era do us any favors when it comes to building students who are intellectually hungry versus thirsting for status —academic or otherwise?

To be clear, I take my responsibilities to students seriously, and I am not responding to popular discourses that gripe against coddling students. I also have no desire to limit who can contribute to or the extent of robust conversation. Nor am I being an “old head” who is nostalgic for the days of yore when students sat in libraries for hours, immersed themselves into the worlds of books and archives, or put extensive time in researching what they express before they do so—even as there continues to be a place for this form of intellectual rigor.

And yet, if I am being honest, the demands from students who want academic achievement without putting in the required analytical work are real. I believe that our current culture of immediacy does little to cultivate critical reading and create conversations about ideas that are sustaining. Moreover, the think piece model, which has been readily contested since 1930, invites a surface treatment of rich and often complicated ideas. After all, who will “pay” people to take their time to write thoughtful, well-researched essays that take considerable time? In the end, think pieces tend to be hastily compiled and marketed “en masse,” which is also, as bell hooks has recently and controversially suggested, “the business of capitalist money making at its best.”

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I recognize that the onus is on me, as a teacher, to help my students develop the skills that will separate the wheat from the tare, the substantive from the vacuous—the hungry from the thirsty. Improving critical readings skills, I believe, is one way of parsing out those distinctions. And in the end, perhaps my curmudgeonly stance is not merely generational. While walking the hallways of my building last week, I overheard one student saying to another, “I don’t want to see another think piece about Lemonade—it just came out—can we breathe?” Well now, hope springs eternal.

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