Millennials, Part 2: Anthropology

Late in the semester, Bellarmine faculty literally packed the Fireplace Room for a talk about generations. Over one-quarter of the faculty showed. Half that count would be nice when my collaborator and I present in early February. The conversation focused on the differences between pre-Boomers, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the current college Millenials. Each generation attempts to fix some flaws of the prior one. For instance, pre-Boomers had a large focus on community and sacrifice, with the Depression and Great War. Boomers maintained the outward idea of process, while privately revolting against stifling convention. My people, Generation X, fixed the grave contradiction between public and private, and can no longer believe in hypocritical institutions. We kept private focus and reduced hypocrisy, but destroyed the public process; we preferring to do separate things and interlink them. Wikipedia could only be a Gen X creation. The latest group, Millenials, maintained the suspicion of Gen X, but wanted some interconnectedness. Their groups became extremely tight and extremely compact, a short loop. With better communication, keeping in touch with close friends and family becomes paramount. My generation had abandoned kids; we offer helicopter parents to the millenials. If you look closely, you can see a pattern:

  1. Wilderness, neither private nor public groups: Generation X.
  2. Village, private but not public: Millenials.
  3. City, private and public: pre-Boomers and likely post-Millenials.
  4. Destruction, not private but public: Boomers.

One problem with education is that senior teachers are two generations removed from their students. There have been changes in the 15 years since I began college. Without my time at the Catholic center, I would be removed now. People 30 years away have to be distant. To examine the changes, people write books like My Freshman Year. It has a psuedonym of Rebekah Nathan from AnyU, though the author was revealed as anthropologist Cathy Small from Northern Arizona University. Northern Arizona is a fourth-tier large state school. The ACT quartile range is 20-25; Bellarmine’s is 22-27. There are differences between normal and elite institutions, and smaller and larger schools, thus I’m going to concentrate on the major points, particularly those that surprised me about American students. As Dr. Small notes, international students find the American system confusing, more outwardly affable yet more inwardly hollow.

What do students want? Friendly Fun in College Culture. “Friendly fun is associated with spontaneity, sociability, laughter, and behavior (including sexuality) that is unconstrained.” Formal rules come from outside, which need to be minimized or avoided. Several students called classes the “price one has to pay” for access to college culture. That stings. I never thought that. To be fair, I didn’t take enough advantage of Harvard’s culture, focusing instead on class learning and knowledge building. I enjoy academics. I savor the pursuit of knowledge, politics, and theology. Most of her students don’t; neither do most of mine. We professors need to remember that our students don’t look for consciousness; they seek interest and relevance.

How much do students study? Less than what professors work. For each in-class hour, I spend very close to two hours between preparation, grading, and reporting. Professors generally recommend that 2:1 ratio. At Harvard, I followed that 2:1 ratio; I allocated 8-10 hours weekly for most classes. Computer Science and Math took more.
Looking back, I followed the ratio because I was a motivated student in a challenging program at an elite institution. That’s a very small portion of the college population. In general, the quartiles of the study time distribution are much less. The median student studies less than ONE hour outside class for each hour of instruction. National surveys report that; Dr. Small reports that; the group from my class that surveyed study time reported that. None of the data points from my class reached 2:1.
Given this information, I’ve decided to go for 1:1. If my students did that, I’d be pleased. It hurts to reduce the goal, but one of my strengths as a statistician is the ability to follow the evidence, no matter how painful. I’ve done it before and need to do it again.

How do students organize themselves? As individuals, in compartments. Universities often cite a large amount of activities and events as evidence of the much-desired community, and large counts of minorities as diversity. That’s not true. Large counts with small attendance are the exact opposite of community. I call it Balkanization, but today’s students might not know Yugoslavia. As the author writes, “Community in the American university is paradoxically a private and an individual decision.” The shared group with general membership and goals has disappeared. I’ve seen the idea, but only the idea, thanks to Boomer corruption. We in Gen X couldn’t even provide the concept to the Millenials. Now, students have close friend groups of less than six. New dorms have individual bedrooms and bathrooms, larger private spaces at the expense of hall areas. 15 years ago, we used common rooms from time to time, and converted spaces into common rooms when necessary. Now, the Super Bowl is a good example. The hall big-screen TV attracted FIVE people. Instead, people had festivities inside individual rooms.

Individualism also applies to actions in class. Dr. Small’s work as a professor was very illuminating. In her anthropology class, she asks the lecture hall to identify the witch. Typically, students identify the best students from the professor’s eyes, those engaged and prepared. Aligning with the professor is suspicious, like witchcraft. As a student, she felt this push towards silence. I shouldn’t be surprised, because I spoke little in undergraduate classes. At my large elite school, though, lecture halls were normal and even small classes taught in lecture style. Recitations led by graduate students rarely served the intended purpose of discussion. Most became sequential statements of opinion. At least one TA checked off when we spoke, so I made sure to speak once per class, thoughtful or not. “Yes, but …” was the phrase to ensure the participation point, though it didn’t lead to coherence or flow.

On the other hand, my Bellarmine class is (barely) small enough to allow personal notice, and I include time for practice and questions. Like many professors, I consider students speaking a success. Perhaps I need to reconsider. My goal is not students speaking, it’s students learning. If quick answer questions don’t help and make students uncomfortable, I should rethink my approach.

Finally, how do students view school and us professors? As things to be managed. Student reports suggest a boss and worker relationship. Like schedules and workload, professors need to be managed. The workers must be publicly friendly, while private opinions may differ. That’s OK; I will be affable as well, but we won’t be friends. An evaluator can’t be a friend, anyway, since the intimacy of true equality can’t happen. Instead, we get strategies.

One management strategy suggests sitting in the area of the center T, the front row and the center aisle. Knowing this, I try hard to spread my time throughout the room; I might even underserve people directly in front of me.
Others relate to tone. I understand the students. We’re not in this together; they have substantially different goals than I. I don’t think the ideal of academic purity ever existed, but it certainly does not now. From a philosopher’s perspective, Economic Man has won. Every action balances cost and reward. If the students look at class as work, I’m willing to be the boss. I’m willing to learn about them.

Oh, as for the book, it’s nice. Not everyone needs to read it, and I wish she would think a little more about reasons behind reasons, and her effect. Despite that, I learned a lot. It gets a 3 out of 5.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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2 Responses to Millennials, Part 2: Anthropology

  1. Patrick says:

    Yes, but:

    I worry that labelling generations in this way is a gross oversimplification of the conflicts and differences within and among them. I cringe now at a statement like “Boomers maintained the outward idea of process, while privately revolting against stifling convention,” as we would cringe at a statement that, say, “Women display a stronger sense of empathy than men”.

    That is, there almost certainly is a kernel of truth in such a statement, but putting it in the commonsense language of classification falsifies it and makes it a springboard for wrong ideas. It’s much better to distinguish and qualify, even if it makes the statements far less eloquent.

    That being said- what you observe about classroom dynamics is intriguing; I’ll have to come back to this next semester when I’ll be teaching again.

  2. Patrick says:

    That comment was more than a little fatuous. Sorry.

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