04/09/2014 01:20 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Take the Time to Know Your Students, Even If You're Famous

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni just wrote a column about our fractured media culture in which he mentioned how disappointed he was that his Princeton students didn't stir when he mentioned the film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Really? This surprised him? I admire Bruni. He's witty and insightful, but let's get real here. The film is 45 years old. It's not The Sound of Music, Dr. No, Goldfinger, The Night of the Living Dead, Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, The Lion in Winter, Judgment in Nuremberg or other '60s movies his students might possibly have seen with friends, their parents, or in classrooms.

Perhaps film studies students might know the movie he brought up (me, I barely remember it). But why should college students be expected to respond to any specific movie half a century old, even if they're among the supposed elite?

I was invited to teach at Michigan State University a few years ago after publishing and reviewing for over two decades. No matter what English class I teach, I never presume that my students know any book I've read or any film I've seen.

I start from a completely different place: I ask them what they've been reading. I also ask them how they pick the books they read and why. I try to discover what their tastes are. That doesn't make me alter my book lists or dramatically change how I teach, but it does help me understand their reading backgrounds better and gives us more of a common language.

So when a discussion of plotting somehow leads to The Walking Dead and then the original graphic novels, I bring up my favorite, an under-recognized great: The Sky Over the Louvre. And when I sit down with an independent study fiction student who says he's partly modeling his heroine on Danaerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, I don't bring up Daisy Miller or Becky Sharp, I say, "She's got Dany's surface gentleness, but what about the steel underneath and the way circumstance has hardened her?"

When you teach, isn't it better to assume less and try to enjoy more? Otherwise, you're turning the classroom into an echo chamber.