When I saw University of Iowa English professor Adam Hooks bemoaning “relatable” on Twitter, I asked him what his experience had been with the word in the classroom. “‘Relatable’ is a sign of a failure to engage with the work or text, a failure to get beyond one’s own concerns to confront the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable,” he wrote to me in an email. In other words, the quest for the “relatable” circumscribes the expansion of empathy that you can gain through exposure to new things. When the word “relatable” really means “relevant to me,” as it often does in the classroom, anything outside the purview of “relatability” looks like it’s not worth examining.
Hooks teaches Renaissance drama, and thinks that the unfamiliarity of that form provokes the use of “relatable” more frequently in his classroom: “Language is a factor,” he writes. “Students often find it very difficult, and so grasp for something to make it more comprehensible and familiar.” The problem arises when “relatability” becomes the sole interpretive lens.
Rebecca Onion.. Preach it, people.