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

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.

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.”

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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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.

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

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    This is a very good article that I can relate to having these same feelings when I was a teacher. Students have a difficult time spending the time to engage in critical thinking. I, too, believe that capitalism in it’s rush to make quick profits, for example, plays part.

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      Thanks so much for your comments. I noticed you said “was” a teacher – please tell me this shift didn’t have anything to do with you no longer being a teacher!

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    I share some of the author’s sentiments regarding contemporary pop culture phenomenon as critical engagement artifacts in our classes. Though compelling and exciting issues, many students tend to apply ‘feeling’ rather than critical engagement. Seldom are comparisons, contrasting theories and concepts that require them to read and think through past events, strategies and approaches to problem-solving. I teach a foundational history/social welfare policy course, where many students (not all) do not wish to retain content, apply new conceptual frameworks and integrate content data. No doubt what we are living in today becomes history for succeeding generations, but problem-solving for today becomes lessons for how those who came before us responded to societal issues that framed such behaviors that we witnessing in social institutions today.

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      Hi there Colita (if I may). Are there any particular strategies you use to combat some of these concerns we’ve raised?

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    This is a really great article, and I thank you for your critical engagement regarding students. However, as an undergraduate student, I oftentimes find myself having similar feelings about authors and scholars. You cite bell hooks, for example, whom I love. hooks’ “Teaching Critical Thinking” has oftentimes been assigned to me and my peers. After reading and engaging with it, many of us have felt underwhelmed. When we bring this up to our professors, they tell us how they also feel underwhelmed. And so all of us are left with a lesson: we read that book because bell hooks wrote it. What I am trying to say, is that there needs to be the same accountability for academics and professors. We should not be thirsty for bell hooks’ new books simply because they are written by bell hooks.

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      Hi Chris. Thanks for your feedback here, and it’s especially helpful to have your perspective. My citing of hooks here was meant to be ironic. That she is a go-to figure in some regard is it own thing (and perhaps its own post?) – that hooks was also critiquing capitalism is her blog that I cited is another. So yes, you’re right, educators also need to be held accountable. Accountability and doing work that really expands these discourses though are things that take time, which so few seem to have. Robust exchange need not be shortchanged, no matter whose work we’re engaging, which is why I believe that the onus is on us all, and especially those of us at the helm of classrooms.

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    We are currently students attending a predominately white academically rigorous/prestigious institution. Based on our experience there, we can say wholeheartedly that this post is particularly provocative. At institutions like these, we know that not many white faculty are willingly invested in cultivating an enriching experience for black students. Yet, some black professors, especially black woman professors, who coexist on these campus often times suffer from one of two (or both) disease that stem from the belief that academic prestige makes them who they are and contracted as a result of wielding a terminal degree in spaces of prestige (while on their own journey to survive in those spaces). They are: 1) Thirst for academic legitimacy and 2) Hunger for replicating students who are just like them.

    While these illness are complex in their own right, they do not in any way shy away from Audre Lorde’s critique, when situated in this conversation. Lorde writes, “What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?” We can apply this to college students, particularly black college students, and especially black woman college students. There are many ways to “to help students develop the skills that will separate the wheat from the tare” including subconsciously presenting your own flaws as techniques to climb the academic ladder. It would be more productive to think of the reasons why the culture of immediacy has led to this shift. What is your role? What mechanisms undergird this shift? How do we transition from the “old head who is nostalgic for the days of you” to the “tower dweller completely aware of just how steps there are to get to the top and sound the bell?” Are you invested in productively engaging these questions? Doesn’t sound that way.

    We are in a different place. So we end with a few questions for you and the other nostalgic old heads: How do you have intergenerational conversations that are both critical and encouraging? How are you complicit in creating this culture of thirst/hunger (terms used the same colloquially, one as an exaggeration of the other)? Are there any particular strategies you use to combat some of these concerns you’ve raised?

    But who are we? In the good words of the wise Chance The Rapper, “In the real world, we just people with ideas.”

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