Monday, August 20, 2007

Be Cool, Realize You're Old School

Zach Kramer has cool taste in music.

So does Dave Hoffman.

Of course, they are barely older than (and perhaps are younger than a few returning/double degree) their students. So I have to take that into account when calculating their Coolness Ratio.

I enjoy reading the pop culture posts by law prof bloggers. It helps me figure out where I'm situated relationally to my future colleagues. I'm not that old, being still under 30 (but in the "late 20s" era). But it's a vague age of quantum possibilities--I could still be wandering around in life, figuring out what to do (no, that is not called "grad school") while writing bad fiction and poetry and working a clerical job. I could be in the third year of my life-long career, instead of where I am currently--back in school. I could be married and mortgaged up. I could be exactly where I am--in between all of those states.

So I read the kids' movies review by Christine Hurt and Gordon Smith at the 'Glom. I read with interest what Orly Lobel does with her kids' drawings. I also like to check out the hipness quotient of my favorite bloggers. I'm surprised how cool some of them are--really, Dan Filler, you like Sufjan Stevens? Awesome! Dave Hoffman, you are not just puffing up your coolness cred with the White Stripes and Magnetic Fields? Snap!

My favorite sometimes-blogger, Hipster Law Prof, is extremely cool. But he could always use a little help. Listening to The Shins since way back in 2002 does not make you "so hip that you know bands that don't even exist yet" (real t-shirt slogan). I have younger friends who wish they had more social capital at their new firms. Why, oh why don't they know classic rock or old fogey pastimes? I imagine that sometimes profs want the reverse---to be able to relate more to their students, and pepper their lectures and exams with references that are more current and relatable. Social capital seems to go both ways. It is a fortunate thing that I can get most pop culture references from now back to 1930. I can talk to almost anyone. I imagine though that it takes more work to stay current though. Just what are these crazy kids listening to nowadays?

So that's what I'm here to do. Help you profs learn how to be cool. Don't try to be your students' friends (that is awkward for the most part, toes the line of appropriateness if you hang out, and they will always think of you as their professor--I can't help but laugh whenever I refer to my Brilliant Employment Discrimination Prof by his first name). Don't think that you'll ever be as cool as a 24 year old with enough time to check out the local music scene AND travel to music festivals AND listen to independent college radio. Give it up, dudes. You're past your coolness prime. Social security starts for you in five minutes, and I do believe that was your foot tapping to Genesis--the Phil Collins years.

I'm in a good position to help. I'm of the right age, being young enough to know other cool young people (your students) and close enough in age to them such that it is not weird and Mrs. Robinson-like. I'm also not very cool or hip. I'm the un-Hipster, much like how 7-Up is the un-Cola. It doesn't even try to pass. It accepts its zero-buzz, neutral taste. I got most of the jokes in my Hipster Haiku book only because I have hipster friends. I dress in business casual as a matter of course (even with my youth and in my casual environment), and can't for the life of me rock those clever graphic t-shirts or Converse shoes without looking like I'm trying very, very hard and spending too much money to look unemployed. I've had friends step on the white caps of my Converses to dirty them up a little. Every time I buy a jar of pomade to achieve that messy-on-purpose look, I give it away in resignation and accept that I like brushing my hair.

So I will never be cool. But I know cool people. And I think I've figured out how to be cool and relate to people my age.

Off the top of my head, only three tactics come to mind (I really am not that cool):

1. Join Facebook.

I will delete my profile when I go on the market and reemerge with a nothing profile, but for now it's fascinating to watch what my classmates (and sometimes I) do on social networking sites! I do research in social network theory, and it's seriously amazing how obsessed students are about these sites. You can see what Generation Y are up to, and their mass trends. Don't believe me? Read Danah Boyd.

2. Mine Facebook for information.

It's always funny to me to see students "friend" their professors, thereby alerting them to their status updates (often emotional states) and pictures of drunken revelry. Ignore that. It's interesting, but just confirms the generational gap. And you will feel even older when you hear yourself say "those kids today....". I like to check out twee young emo hipsters for their music and movie picks. Somewhere buried in that list of 40 bands may be three or four that you can actually stand. The rest will make you want to slit your wrists or take an Advil at too much sound distortion. And the movies....ahhh, the hipster youth and their po-mo rejection of narrative.

3. If you have cool friends, keep them.

Social network theory taught me that my Bacon number is 3, and that weak ties are as important as strong ties. My strong tie to my Former College Radio DJ Lawyer friend (who has artistic, musical friends) makes me pretty close to cool. She sends me music suggestions and mix CDs all the time. I then pass this onto Hipster Law Prof. Hipster Law Prof is now only one degree away from cool.

Of course, it doesn't really matter that you are cool. It matters most that you teach well.

But it wouldn't hurt you to check out Wilco, American Analog Set, Blonde Redhead, Bloc Party, Shout Out Louds, Call and Response, Aislers Set, Futureheads, The Walkmen...

But if at the end of the day, you really can't relate to your students--it's okay. No one is expecting you to. I am bemused and amused by how many posts there are in the legal blogosphere about using pop culture or current events in exams. Staying current seems to be a concern of law profs. And the posts on pop culture speak volumes about how each professor views themselves situationally with respect to their students and colleagues. Law profs are as obsessed with pop culture as they are with gossip. You are all so busy, but you seem to want to make time for movies and music in your life, and then you want to blog your opinions about them. Maybe it's not to establish coolness--but it does speak to your desire to stay well-rounded, and have extra-legal interests. And that's the same goal as your concert-hopping, too-cool-for-school students. What appears to be an obsession with coolness and currency (and inane social networking sites) is the same other-life-building exercise for 22-25 year olds. I'm sure you can recall what it was like to be recently graduated from college and try to hang onto old hobbies like working out, arthouse/revival film watching, bass-playing, bar-hopping. You just can't do it anymore. And it's okay. No one expects you to, and I don't think you really want to. I wonder that anyone can keep all that up (and have a real job) past the age of 27.

You can try to bridge the generational gap, and it'll probably be easier to if you're close in age. But you can't, and shouldn't bridge the professional (professorial) gap. And some generatoinal gapness is okay. It's okay to be olde school. You're still in school, but you're the professor. So teach your students to be lawyers, and they'll teach you how to stay cool (maybe).