“Who are you? Who, who, who, who?”

by Brian on May 28, 2013

The Who in Hamburg in 1972

Author’s note: This blog post is Part 2 in a two-part series examining effective course framing. The previous blog post focused on the instructor’s role in the “framing equation” and was entitled, “Frame It and They Will Come?

Have you ever stood in front of a college classroom and caught this classic tune from “The Who” echoing in your head as you gaze into the eyes of mostly 18-22 year olds? You have? Me too! Usually it occurs after I have adeptly worked in a particularly relevant line from “Seinfeld” and rather than laughter, I can hear crickets chirping and blank stares look back at me. Each time this occurs, I am left contemplating not only the aforementioned classic rock song but also the Mindset List from Beloit College that annually provides a pop culture-oriented list for the entering class of first-year college students.

I suspect that as the gray in my beard continues to grow, I will ask “Who are you?” more and more. As those who have read previous blog posts know, I made a pact with myself early during my path towards a career in higher education that I would never let that age-old tendency to become jaded towards the next generation interfere with my teaching or my approach to my students. I added the italicization of never after the fact; after my self-realization that this goal, while virtuous, was essentially an impossibility to live up to its literal and self-imposed idealism. Despite this pact and my professed passion for teaching and for the accompanying impact on the next generation, it is still for me a constant battle to keep from being jaded. I hope that my reflection on this subject will help others who I suspect might be grappling with the jaded tendencies likely inherent within all of us and that we might all emerge on the other side a little less cynical and ready to learn more about our students – and,  in the process, become better teachers.

Today’s generation of college students, dubbed Millennials, Generation Y, or the Net Generation, have also been referred to as “digital natives.” This term is indicative of their existence being predominantly in the Digital Age, an age where information and digital media have always been at our beck and call. Today’s generation of college students have always had the Internet, email, and phones that do more than “call and talk.” Yet, as instructors, we must be cautious and understand that while more comfortable with technology, they are not all experts on the tools that we may perceive to be basic for functioning well in higher education or a professional world. Most are only experts on their own tools or mediums, whether it be smartphone apps, Facebook, or YouTube. Assumptions along technological lines, whether it be Excel, learning management systems (e.g., PolyLearn, Blackboard, etc.), or more advanced publishing software, can be wrought with accompanying frustration as students push back with their own frustration. Invest time in recognizing that digital natives may need support and encouragement to fully embrace new technology or even new uses of their technology (e.g., Twitter).

This past quarter, I developed an assignment via Twitter and learned several valuable lessons along the way. My motivation for utilizing Twitter was to “meet them on their own turf” and show them how Twitter could be used in a more professional way. I had recently been exposed to how Twitter was being used as a powerful information medium in the professional world. Unlike Facebook where it is very difficult to develop multiple personal accounts, Twitter allows for both a personal and a professional persona, so I created an account via my Cal Poly email and was quickly immersed in a cascade of relevant and fast-evolving information for my professional interests (simply by following related professional organizations and individuals).

Sally's breakfast. She's hungry!

In introducing the assignment to students, I took my own advice from Part 1 of this blog series and successfully framed the assignment by drawing on the aforementioned benefits. I brought humor in to play and said that Twitter can be so much more than what “Sally ate for breakfast” or what “Joe is wearing to the club!” They were sold on my reasoning, and I was stoked. That excitement soon diminished, however, once the first tweet was due. Why? I had erred in assuming that all students are Twitter whizzes. Many had no idea how to use Twitter effectively, and the hashtag (#) strategy for assignment collection “crashed and burned.” I also realized that one of the tenets of the assignment (post a timely, credible, and informative article on a given topic) was lost on my students in not understanding how to evaluate the myriad of information sources available to them. Lesson learned…again!

I had previously learned this same lesson when adopting iPod Touches for use in a Distance Education course in 2008, and when developing my Twitter assignment, I should have remembered the following passage from a paper I co-wrote about the study. Windham (2005), a college student and member of the Net generation, echoed the lesson learned above:

They [college faculty] will either try too hard to transform education into the virtual language I understand or too little to accommodate for the differences between us. (p. 5.2)

If you failed to pay attention to the recent Occupy movement and protests, you might not be too surprised to learn that a relatively large percentage of the voices were from college students or recent college graduates. After all, our country has a rich tradition of counter-culture protests from younger generations. Yet, you might be surprised to learn that a relatively high percentage of the protesters were individually motivated by a furor over their own student debt, a debt made all the more troubling by increasingly limited career options. For those of us who are all too aware of the vicious cycle of poverty that grips many in our nation and the continuing divide between the haves and the have-nots, it may have been difficult to get behind a populist movement that included seemingly whiny recent college graduates crying about their privilege not being privileged enough. Yet, if we take a step back, separate the issues, or even examine the context of the discord without the inherent privileged biases, we might learn a bit about our students.

The reality is that our students do exist in a world where they worry about whether or not a college education will truly “get them ahead” in life and career, and we cannot group all of our students into a “privileged lump” without potentially doing them all a disservice. Each and every student has a story to tell, and while knowing each and every story is impossible, the recognition and validation that those stories exist builds an empathetic nature that helps us become better instructors. We as faculty understand (or should) why a college education is not solely vocational training, but particularly at a comprehensive polytechnic like Cal Poly, we must also understand that some students may not fully embrace nor fully understand the importance of an education balanced and made whole by the liberal arts.

As Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) noted:

Educating the Net Generation is a privilege and challenge. They expect a great deal of us, just as we do of them. To find the right balance point, we need to understand each other well. (p. 1.5)

Ultimately, the primary message is that each and every generation is different. We have two choices. We can embrace the differences and learn from each other, or we can build up walls and pretend that the differences are the barriers that keep us from inspiring each other to reach greater heights. I prefer the former; I hope you do too!

 

References:

Kanters, M. A., & Greenwood, P. B. (2009). ipods and iTunesU in online education. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 13 (4), 56-60.

Electronic copy available via Cal Poly’s Digital Commons at:
http://works.bepress.com/pgreenwo/6/

Oblinger, D. C., & Oblinger, J. L. (Eds.) (2005). Educating the Net Generation. Louisville, CO: Educause.

Electronic copy available via Educause at:
http://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/educating-net-generation

 

Postscript (05/29/13): After reading my post, one of my fellow bloggers sent me a link to a salon.com article entitled, “I don’t hate Millennials anymore” by Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta, an assistant professor of liberal arts at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Falcetta’s article on Salon is an excerpt from a book entitled, Generation X Professors Speak. I must admit that after reading the first sentence where Falcetta mentions the Beloit College Mindset List, the thought crossed my mind of “Oh, no, I hope no one thinks I ‘stole’ the idea from her!” Alas, I did not, but if you did even remotely enjoy my piece here, I think you’ll enjoy Falcetta’s article even more. And the book is now on my summer reading list.

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