Some rubbish cultural references for lecturers

As an ageing lecturer, I often find that my cultural references generally fall flat with late teenage/ early 20s students. Still, I persevere because I forget which ones are completely pancake, which ones still work if you explain them a little bit, and which ones work again because there has been a film remake. So, here is a repository to help me remember, followed by some tweets by similarly ageing colleagues:

Things that still just about work

The Matrix seems to work for just about everything, which means that it works for nothing (‘I remember we talked about it, but what was the point again?’)


A JFK scene sort of works as a vague reference to ‘the whole system’ (but undermines regression analysis of discrete variables)

Joe Pesci JFK the system

Mr Robot might work – eventually – if you don’t have to subscribe to Amazon to get it


Things that don’t work

Don’t refer to a ‘sliding doors moment‘ in British politics unless you want to look like a lecturer stuck in the 90s or a wellness guru


I have also almost given up on describing ‘universal’ policy concepts in relation to an old Martini advert from my childhood (‘any time, any place, anywhere’).

Things that work again but don’t really

Ghostbusters works again because of the remake, but mostly serves as a reminder that my multiple streams analogy doesn’t work because of the number of streams


Things that work only if you invest too much time

King Canute works if you really go to town with the explanation, but the Emperor’s New Clothes is surprisingly not-memorable

King Canute

If you like going all meta, I recommend the ‘Darmok’ episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. On the one hand, the episode is pretty much about two characters getting frustrated for ages about not understanding each other because they have no common cultural, historical, or language-based points to which to refer. So, it is perfect to explain the problem you’ll have with your students. You could even shout ‘DARMOK AND JALAD AT TANAGRA” a few times. On the other hand, they won’t have seen it, so you’ll have to explain the show, the episode, and your original point, before everyone gets bored. Then you’ll realise that you’ve spent 20 minutes on the whole exercise when you could have just said ‘tell me if this metaphor or cultural reference does not work’ in 3 seconds.

Things that don’t work and should be avoided

Of course, these cultural references generally refer to a very specific culture, which runs the risk of excluding some people in a group if only a select number of people ‘get it’.

I say this partly to clever-up my recent silly attempt to describe a politician’s Road to Damascus moment while giving an Erasmus talk in the Czech Republic. The old Christian tales don’t always travel well, especially in former communist states.


The moral of the story

In each case, I reckon you can (a) begin by thinking that a cultural reference will point people to a shared story that you can use as a shortcut to the memory and (b) help build a memorable scholarly point, but (c) end up by producing an unexpected shared story in which you are the clownish figure, not the hero (‘remember when that guy told us about a scene in Seinfeld and we had no idea what he was talking about?’).


Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “Some rubbish cultural references for lecturers

  1. Good observation. We have to be careful when coming up with our own favourite examples and stories. I know it well from my years of experience working in post-conflict countries (and running workshops, delivering training to various audiences). Sometimes the shortcut you provide may turn even counter-productive because it triggers quite different, if not opposite, response. I have a habit adjusting all my stories/shortcuts to local culture and context (both generation and background-wise)–there is always an analogue. It takes time, but the benefit is two-fold: you get your point trough and establish a connection with audience as a person who knows their symbols (practice shows, it is appreciated culturally in all kind of communications).

  2. Pingback: Friday links: nominations open for the ASN Young Investigator Award, Tinder for preprints, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Reblogged this on Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy and commented:

    Reblogged to coincide with all those tweets from lecturers realizing that they are getting old and their cultural references are ancient or inappropriate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s