Thursday, December 13, 2007

End of Semester Teaching Rant

Disclaimer: I'm tired. There are a lot of typos, probably. It's the end of the semester. I fell over backwards while attempting a fancy headstand in yoga class last night. I think I've given myself a minor neck and upper back strain. It's minor, I've decided, but it hurts. Ok, now on to the post:

There's a fairly substantial conversation happening on a professional listserv I'm on about Millennial Students. Technically, the Millennials are the generation after me--1982 on. According to my colleagues who have actually read about it, Millennials tend to be:
  • Relatively sheltered
  • They tend to feel positive about their economic future, because the economy has generally been positive during their high school and college years.
  • There parents are extremely involved in most aspects of their lives--through college and beyond.
  • They view themselves as tolerant, positive and upbeat.
  • They grew up in an era of fairly intense kid safety rules and public school lock downs.
  • They are technologically sophisticated.
I know these characteristics are generalizations, but I find them helpful. When I moved to Carlsbad, I started working with a ESL student body very different from the one I encountered in Washington, DC. In DC, I was working with students who were mostly my age or older: mostly generation Xers and a few Baby Boomers. Now, most of my students are my age or younger than me by about 5 to 10 years. Many of my students work hard, and many of them are intelligent and fun, but on the days that class is terrible, these are the things I complain about:
  • My students do not read directions. They become actively indignant when I tell them that the answer to their question is on the syllabus and that they need to read the syllabus.
  • They are uncomfortable with flexibility. They have intense trouble deciding on a topic for a presentation, for example. They prefer it when I tell them exactly what to do.
  • They either have no opinion, or they refuse to support and elaborate on their opinion, either verbally or in writing.
  • In fact, they appear to have a deep lack of interest in most things. If they are interested and passionate about things, they do not express it.
  • They expect me to go out of my way to accommodate their schedules. They expect me to be available constantly to answer their questions. They would rather write me long email explanations and questions than read my syllabus or talk to me during office hours or on break.
  • They have had very little personal freedom. Most of the traveling they have done, if they've done any, has been with their parents. Many of them still live with their parents, even if they are 25 or 26.
  • They have a very vexing sense of entitlement. They pay for the class, they expect to pass the class. Of course, most of them aren't paying for the class, their parents are.
Probably, many people my age could have done with a bit more parental involvement, and we probably would have gotten fewer injuries if we'd been forced to wear helmets on our bicycles and wrist guards while skateboarding. It's good that my students get financial support from their parents--also something that many people my age didn't get to quite the same degree.

Still, I can't help but feel that my students might be better off if they'd had more out of control experiences: a few more close calls, a night or two smashing mailboxes, part-time jobs they didn't want to have, drugs. They seem to understand that a lot of rules and norms are arbitrary, but they don't seem to care. Sometimes I feel like the passive-aggression I encounter in my classrooms is a way for the students to rebel against their parents. But G-d, what a lame way to rebel.

But now I'll be kinder: I have no idea what it's like to have that kind of overbearing pressure from my parents. I have no idea how I'd feel about school if it was something that I was forced to do, or if there were a specific field or business that I was expected to go into. I can only imagine how beholden I'd feel to my parents if they'd payed for everything for me my whole life. I'm sure I would be more positive about my future economic prospects if I had no debt. Etc, etc.

And, of course, there are exceptions. Right now I have several fabulous students: it's true that most of them still live with their parents and have had everything paid for their whole lives, but they seem to understand that they are lucky to not have intense economic pressure. They don't all feel that they are entitled to everything. They do have personal and intellectual interests beyond getting a job and making money and pleasing their parents. They're learning to be creative and take the initiative. Some of my students have just left their homes for the first time, and they're realizing that all the day to day decisions that their parents have been making for them are actually quite complicated...


-k said...

I used to stand on my head all the time as a kid. Eventually I learned to walk on my hands, and I became fairly good at it. I once walked about half the length of a soccer field. Later it got to be a fun trick at parties, i.e. to see how far I could walk on my hands after too much drinking. Now it's been a while since I've tried, and I feel some public inhibitions. I couldn't do it in my yard because the neighbors would see, and I'd need more space than inside my house.

-k said...

Perhaps a yoga class would be a good way to go. It would give me an excuse to walk on my hands. Or is it only headstands? Because walking on hands tends to be a clumsy activity. It involves leaning one way or another and then catching yourself with one hand before you fall. You steer by letting the weight of your legs dangle in one direction or another, kind of like the rear propeller on a helicopter.

rodney k said...

Great post, LKG. Something I've been curious about: do you find a Christian leaven? A vaguely megachurchy, I want my sermon with bouncy drums and guitar, to be critical is sinful to be sweet & chill divine, kind of vibe? I've been impressed by how kids under, say, 30, seem to have grown up in a more 'churchy' kind of atmosphere, even if they're not churched themselves. But I have trouble figuring out if this is a personal crotchet or a genuine social change.

rodney k said...

P.S. I meant "students," not kids, and was thinking probably more early-mid '20s. That's what you get for hitting the blogs before coffee! Apologies to all those 29-year-old "kids" out there in blogland.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

K--in a yoga class, you usually don't get to walk on your hands until you can do a handstand in the middle of the room. I know that it's possible to walk by falling backwards and keeping up, though.

I find headstands more difficult than handstands, although that's kind of weird. To really do a headstand well, you need to have fairly strong shoulders and an open, flexible upper back and chest.

Rodney--I do think that, in general, the students I was talking about tend to focus on having a positive, upbeat, even churchy attitude. In practice though, I don't think that means they always feel positive, upbeat, and churchy. They seem a bit shocked by expressions of pessimism or sadness though.

There is, I think, a very chill / it's all good / accepting vibe of certain kinds of diversity. Differences of opinion are fine, as long as everyone acts pleasant and upbeat while it's happening.

Regardless of age, I think that an insistence on an upbeat attitude is a sign of an unexamined life (wow, I sound like a pompous asshole, don't I?) I don't mean that being thoughtful and reflective leads to pessimism. I just mean that an unwillingness to engage with negative emotions and ideas is a sign of immaturity.

David said...

Having taught for a number of years, your post struck a chord. Gah, sometimes maintaining your cool when the students are going off the walls takes super human willpower.

Jessica Smith said...

i've been thinking about this post a lot, because john is very much in this millennials group. as is my little brother. they're 23. it always amazes me because i don't think about there being that much of a difference b/t my brother's age and upbringing and my own. but it *was* a very different era.

i remember the fall of the berlin wall; he doesn't. my parents had a lot more money by the time he understood the value of "disposable income" than they did when i was growing up (the economy being better when he was in H.S.). he avoids political and religious discussions and anything smacking of racism or sexism, but he's politically moderate at best (like most kids his age, socially liberal and fiscally conservative).

it's weird because i identify more with Gen X, although I am at the tail end of it and kind of jaded about my own jaded generation. i relate better to my cousin who's 5 years older than me and introduced me to nirvana, than to my brother who doesn't remember where he was when kurt cobain died, was wearing diapers when the challenger exploded, doesn't really remember the first Gulf War, grew up with heightened security measures in his high school (I was a senior when Columbine happened) ...

it's very weird. i don't know what to make of it. i turn it over in my mind's hand like a complicated little curiosity.