So they don’t know John Hughes or the Cure or have a generational identity. This Gen Xer now sympathizes with Gen Y
BY JENNIE-REBECCA FALCETTA, Salon.com, May 25, 2013
Like many of my colleagues in the American academy, each fall I consult the Mindset List for entering college freshmen produced annually by Beloit College of Wisconsin. Designed to identify “the experiences and event horizons of students and . . . not meant to reflect on their preparatory education,” the list is marked by a frequent use of “always” and “never,” reminding us that many cultural and experiential commonplaces for those writing syllabi are foreign, inscrutable, and sometimes ancient history to the syllabi’s intended audience. On the list for the class of 2013, three facts controverting my own early experience catch the eye: one demographic, one geographic, and one pedagogic. First, in these students’ lifetime, “Smokers have never been promoted as an economic force that deserves respect.” The Marlboro Man never galloped across their television screens, nor will they recall Virginia Slims’ women’s-lib-hijacking “You’ve come a long way, baby!” advertising campaign. On the geographic front, the Soviet Union never appeared on their map, and thus “Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia have always been independent nations.” No Cold War–era living in the shadow of the bomb, no anxiety of “The Day After” variety for these students; they have lived instead with the horrifying shadow of 9/11 falling over half of their lives.
As a member of Generation X (b. 1970), I have long attributed the difference between my contemporaries and the Generation Y, or Millennial, students I teach (born between 1979 and 2003 or so) as one of substance and content. As I saw it, the “event horizons,” cultural benchmarks, references, and commonplaces that constitute Generation X’s intragenerational language and cultural formation were not on Millennials’ radar. I have taken to creating my own set of benchmarks to note the important-to-me facts and experiences that will never be true for my students. For instance:
• On “Sesame Street,” Elmo has always been a major presence; Roosevelt Franklin, never.
• Millennials never held a tape recorder next to an LP player to record a song.
• AIDS has always been a global, predominantly third-world epidemic, rather than a mysterious disease decimating the gay community and cutting a deadly swath through America’s fashion, art, and creative worlds.
• During the Millennials’ college years, a large percentage of their communication will occur via text messaging, e-mail, Facebook, and cell phones. As an undergraduate, I had access to none of those technologies.
• They have no idea who the Solid Gold Dancers were.
• They never had to await their once-yearly chance to watch “The Wizard of Oz” or “The Sound of Music” on network television, preceded by the familiar, spinning “Special Presentation” logo.
While I could to some extent quantify the differences, the chasm between my cultural literacy and theirs (which is not to call either party illiterate, just differently schooled) nonetheless baffled me. As one of Generation X’s hallmarks has been a continual engagement with popular culture, I fancy that I am (to some degree) familiar with my students’ reference points. I have not seen “Twilight,” but it is difficult to avoid knowing Robert Pattinson’s every move. Lady Gaga I regard with a mixture of horrified fascination and respect for her arch cultural commentary. For six seasons, I obsessed over “Lost” and wept prolifically through the last episode. Like my younger students, I send text messages, check Facebook incessantly, and relish certain favorite viral videos and Internet memes. But despite keeping relatively current with the pop culture my students also share, I cannot for the life of me determine what will be culturally relevant to them. Thanks to DVD re-releases, I can now count on their familiarity with “Schoolhouse Rock,” but the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally a great unknown. When teaching excerpts from Susan Bordo’s “The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private” a few semesters ago, I had to explain to my class who James Dean was.
I was stunned. Didn’t everyone know James Dean?
When I was their age, a college freshman, I papered my small campus with memorial signs in the early morning of September 30, 1988, the thirty-third anniversary of his death—the kind of dramatic and expressive but anonymous gesture to which I was given in those days. In my college dorm room, his famous image looked out from postcards, posters, and calendars. And yet some of my students had never even seen his brooding, unmistakable visage?
Another example would seem to second the notion that Gen X and the Millennials have merely been steeped in different cultural waters. On the first day of class each semester, I ask my students to list on a three-by-five card their contact information, major, hometown, clubs/activities/athletic teams, favorite book, film, and music. Despite being an English professor, I am most interested in the third of that triad. I hope against hope each semester to see listed the Decemberists or Nick Drake or Sigur Rós or even U2. What I get instead is a lot of second-rate hip-hop, former American Idol contestants who’ve landed recording contracts, or—worst of all—“I listen to anything.” One semester a young woman who indicated English as a potential major also listed Britney Spears as one of her favorite musicians. I said to her, “Is that ironic?”
“What do you mean?” she replied.
Oh, that’s right, I thought. Millennials don’t do irony.
Perhaps unfairly, I want my students to define themselves personally by defining themselves musically. I want them to care deeply for one band or musical genre over another. A lot of my cultural bonding with friends occurred because of music. One always knew who had been at the big rock show the night or weekend before, because everyone wore concert shirts to school the next day. The coolest kids at my school were the skate punks who listened to the Dead Milkmen and Anthrax and 7 Seconds. In high school, I found it difficult to be good friends with people who couldn’t appreciate the Cure. At my high school proms, it was my friends and me who took over the dance floor at the opening riff of the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster”—after sitting down through all of the Taylor Dayne, Bob Seger, Miami Sound Machine, and Tiffany preceding it. Underground music in the 1980s truly was an alternative to the likes of Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Debbie Gibson, and the proliferation of syrupy romantic duets (like “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing”). Marked by “deep,” literary, or socially conscious lyrics, melodic buildups that defied the three-minute pop format, innovative vocals, and like as not a British pedigree, alternative music was a revelation to me and my left-of-center peers. Millennials, on the other hand, “do not have a generational music.”
Given this anecdotal evidence, it is tempting to believe that the sum of the generation gap between us can be encapsulated by a “content item” like “The Breakfast Club”—a sacred text for Generation X (and for a long time my half-serious litmus test for friendship), the alienation of which does not generally reflect Millennial experience. In reality, however, the difference is one of method and mode; not only have the “experience boxes” of Millennials been filled with different content, the manufacture of the boxes themselves has followed a process as deliberate and structured as the formation of Generation X was laissez-faire, relativistic, and nonintentional.
Thus the third Mindset List item to catch my attention actually carries more significance for the classroom than the first two. Because “American students have always lived anxiously with high-stakes educational testing,” there are no casual assignments, exams, or requirements in the classroom for these young learners. They are more dutiful and thorough than they are risky and innovative. The truth of this statement on the Mindset List lies at the heart of my students’ approach to learning—and I happen to have another anecdote beautifully illustrating this very point.
On the last day of a particularly “tough sell” class of freshman core literature, after reviewing for the exam I told my students I wanted to read them Marge Piercy’s poem “The Art of Blessing the Day” as a benediction of sorts. One of the better students in the class, a lovely young woman who had engaged the semester’s work with intelligence and enthusiasm (despite a documented learning challenge), nonetheless raised her hand to ask . . . you know what’s coming . . .
“Do we need to know this poem for the exam?”
I was less bothered by the question than by its source. The student (I’ll call her Alice) was exemplary in her class preparation, depth of inquiry, and innovative approach to assignments. She had written a sensitive and penetrating character analysis on one of the course novels at midterm; she exhibited a marked leadership role in discussion and class activities within that reticent group. If even Alice, who appeared to appreciate the course on its own merits, was thinking such “mercenary” thoughts, so to speak, what might be on the minds of the students with a lesser degree of interest and engagement?
Deploying this incident as illustrative of my teaching life would be more than a little bit misleading. Since beginning my tenure-track assistant professorship in English, I have had many classroom moments for the ages—like the informal jam band that appeared on the last day of a writing class when I asked students to “bring something to share.” (One of the band members wasn’t even in the class.) Or the student who wore a T-shirt bearing the Thoreauvian mantra “Simplify, simplify, simplify” on the day we discussed “Walden.” Or the voracious appetite shown by an entire class of English majors for the sensuous interpretive delights of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” And yet, Alice’s cut-to-the-chase question reveals the implications of that third Mindset List point. The dominance of both standardized testing and outcomes-based education in the public schools has to a large degree formed students into results-oriented educational consumers. Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has researched Millennials, technology, and learning and claims that institutions will need to change drastically to meet the needs and expectations of this rising demographic. Outlining this generation’s lifelong access to choice and customization, Sweeney writes, “Millennials expect a much greater array of product and service selectivity. They have grown up with a huge array of choices and they believe that such abundance is their birthright. . . . They desire ultimate consumer control: what they want, how and when they want it.” In tandem with the control requirement, Sweeney argues, are expectations of flexibility, convenience, instant access, and constant feedback.
But the wish for customization does not translate into a desire or a need for complete freedom. Millennials are more comfortable with structure and continuous feedback than with an open-ended, blank-canvas situation. In a writing assignment, Millennials appreciate a choice of questions (to which they always adhere faithfully) but would be terrified if I said, “Write an essay on a topic of your choosing using a text we have read this semester.” They have not been trained or prepared for such an endeavor. The same characteristics that marked their upbringing inside of protective structures that did not allow them to fail (T-ball and standardized testing) have shaped their expectations of college. They neither seek nor anticipate the version of higher learning depicted in the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” a song often heard drifting across the quad during my college years:
I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin, and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
I got my paper and I was free.
I hold up this stereotype of college—an addled, existential wrestling with knowledge among arcane intellectuals—not as an ideal, but as a dramatic foil to Millennial expectation. Their generational confidence, optimism, and highly developed sense of teamwork did not set them up for a prostration of any sort. In “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” Neil Howe and William Strauss credit this emerging generation of upbeat, tech-savvy high achievers with reversing the disaffected youth topos of the James Dean variety that has dominated teenagehood since its cultural inception in the 1940s. (Maybe that’s why my students don’t recognize him.) While I admittedly find Howe and Strauss a little bit rah-rah about the Millennials, the writers’ combined approach of research and anecdote is thorough, effective, and not inaccurate to my experience. Millennials have proven themselves to be “good kids”—polite, positive, dutiful, conscientious, and bright. At the Catholic university where I taught for five years, students exhibited a high level of interest in service, social justice, and charity. There was a striking lack of rebelliousness, “bad attitude,” negativity, and existential angst.
Also apparently missing from the Millennial generation are an appreciation for irony, an individualistic self-concept, and the kind of originality born of feeling alienated and out of place. Where is the Sylvia Plath-obsessed would-be writer who shopped quite happily at the Salvation Army? Or the rabid Monkees fan who idolized the 1960s and lit her basement dorm room with a lava lamp? Or the poet/actor/playwright/jack of all literary trades who could mimic anyone and came back to teach at his alma mater? My initial reaction to teaching the students at my first institution was to think, “I don’t look out there and see myself—or for that matter, anyone I went to college with.” The longer I teach, the more I realize that, well, I wouldn’t. They are not us. The cultural trappings, I am beginning to understand, are just the outward signifiers of generational otherness. The most pervasive differences are those of upbringing, attitude, and educational approach.
Furthermore, a recent epiphany has caused me to realize that many of the elements, dynamics, and features of my pedagogy are quite the opposite of what the research indicates is optimal for my students. As a professor of English, I place a huge premium on form and genre, and on a piece of literature’s relationship to culture. I lecture very rarely (to the dismay of more than one student, if course evaluations are to be believed). I decline to give my students a tidy takeaway from a text, preferring instead to explore various meanings and encourage their development and defense of an interpretive point of view. Shaped perhaps by the pervasive moral relativism of my 1970s childhood, that feature of my teaching often sits poorly with students who spent many years learning “the test” and earnestly desire “the right answer.”
In order to gain some insight into how my teaching style and their needs for learning might be in opposition, I turn to our respective generational characteristics. My Millennial students came of age with a parenting ethos, educational environment, and political climate much different from mine. To invoke some large-scale stereotypes, I was a latchkey kid; they were over-scheduled. I was well into adulthood on 9/11; the freshmen of fall 2011 were younger than ten years old. I was edified and liberated to learn that media- perpetuated images of female perfection were impossible and destructive; my female students today are “so over the body image thing.” While I remember the occasional standardized test, the curriculum of an entire year did not stand or fall around it, as my students report it did for them.
Yes, we are different. But not—I think, irreconcilably or unproductively so. Considering how my students have been taught to learn, to encounter culture, to absorb texts has caused me to reflect on my own enculturation, the prelude to my formation and practice as a university professor.
Before I launch into the story of my own learning, a disclaimer: Even as I attribute to Millennials a set of generational characteristics, I acknowledge them as unique individuals. Just because they have been encouraged to focus on outcomes and numbers, they are not one-dimensional. Although they differ greatly from me and my fellow Gen Xers, I have no wish to suggest they are shallow, inferior, or lesser. I enjoy my students a great deal and have very cordial extra-classroom relationships with many of them, but I do notice our cultural and generational differences coming into opposition in the classroom. This memoir-cum-analysis of mine, then, is part of the task of understanding and embracing that wise (but often difficult) truth: teach the students you have.
* * *
I was born in 1970 to a college English professor and junior high school English teacher who had met in an English graduate class at Michigan State University. Ergo, a bookish household was going to be a given for me. While my public education in two Massachusetts towns was just fine, the luxury of time to browse my parents’ library constituted as much of my learning as anything I picked up at school. My mother and father must have kept Time-Life Books in business, collecting whole series like This Fabulous Century (my brother and I nicknamed them “the decade books”) that explored the culture and events of twentieth-century America in ten-year increments. Reading these, I learned what a lunch menu from 1910 might feature, memorized the order of Liz Taylor’s husbands, opened pages onto photos of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, semiclad revelers at Woodstock, and Ethel Rosenberg. The World of Michelangelo, The World of Matisse, The World of Duchamp, The World of Picasso (and similar volumes of the works and milieus of seminal male visual artists) provided my art historical education. I would lose myself in those books, moving through phases of taste and attraction over the years: a little frightened as a young girl by Picasso’s distorted faces, I gravitated toward the tableaux of gods and goddesses by Titian and his contemporaries. Like the culture at large, I participated in the French Impressionist craze of the early 1980s, but by age fifteen I had cast my lot with modern art and developed a deep preoccupation with all things Warhol.
Paging through the black and white images of “The Torch Is Passed: The Associated Press Story of the Death of a President” added another layer to my cultural understanding. I found the only color pictures—gorgeous Technicolor portraits of Jack and Jackie Kennedy—arresting and unspeakably beautiful. Though Camelot’s allure and the shock of November 22, 1963, predated me, I nonetheless felt something of the era’s glamour and devastation both. Thanks to several perusals of Life Goes to the Movies, I recognized the famous faces of Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, and Ann-Margret. These books of my parents schooled me in visual culture, high and low, current and past. But my point here is less what or how much I might have learned than that I had the time in which to learn it. No one suggested I read these books; they were just around, and I found my way to them, returning and returning because they fascinated me so. In my remembrance, I had worlds enough and time to luxuriate in leaf after leaf after leaf of images.
Nor was I only reading: I took piano lessons, sang in a children’s chorus, watched enough TV to have a major crush on Davy Jones, and roamed the woods around our cul-de-sac with the neighborhood kids. More than once, my mom packed a lunch for me so I could spend all day in the tree house at the end of the street with the other kids. I don’t recall my parents expressing any fear for my safety or a need to know my exact whereabouts every second.
Between my childhood and my students’, a number of shifts in parenting culture did away with the relaxed ease that characterized my generation’s elementary school years. I sense that my students did not the have the same amount of freeform browsing, playing, and exploring time that was the norm for children when I was growing up. The Baby Boomers’ intense desire for children and late-1980s fears around missing children, teen drug use, and other potential hazards turned many a 1990s mother and father into “helicopter” parents. According to Howe and Strauss, this protectionism came to rest on one generation but not on the one preceding it: “America’s most vexing social problems invited leaders to start drawing a triage line between the two generations then cohabiting the pre-adult age brackets: older Gen X teens, who were beyond hope, and younger Millennial children, who were redeemable.”
If national fear and a great deal of parental investment led to the protection and sheltering of this generation, a second trend joined it, further curtailing the amount of unconstructed time allowed my current students. The “baby brain” research emerging in the late 1980s encouraged classes, activities, and other stimulation from the womb on, along the lines of the “Mozart effect.” The desirable environment became a structured, programmed one, leading to the phenomenon of the overscheduled child (who became the overachieving high schooler and the overcommitted college student). These trends reflect “the urge to shape [Millennials] into a better and smarter generation than the Gen Xers whose lagging achievement prompted the ‘Nation at Risk’ report [in 1983].” As a demographic, Millennials became in some senses a receptacle for the aspirations, hopes, ambitions, and fears of late twentieth-century America—a heavy burden to carry. No wonder these young people often feel a tremendous pressure to achieve.
If Gen Xers lacked attention from the culture as a whole, we also escaped any potentially crippling expectations. As a generation from whom little was expected, we cultivated an aleatory, “slacker” ethos—well depicted in Richard Linklater’s film of the same name. As a slacker student, I tended toward a kind of laziness in which I played to my strengths. I worked hard in the classes I liked and cared about, and did minimal work for those I didn’t. I stayed up all night to finish Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry” for my Renaissance lit course but skipped Cells and Systems to drink frappes at the campus snack shop—much to the detriment of both my GPA and my figure. I knew I was a decent writer, and so I relied on that ability to cover a multitude of sins (such as thin content or a missing thesis). I did not work up to my potential in many classes because I wasn’t motivated to do so. Unlike my students, many of whom feel they must achieve on a high level no matter what the subject, I felt completely at liberty to take my education á la carte, picking and choosing what I deemed useful or relevant and getting by in all the rest. I cultivated no competition with others, possessed no sense of how my courses might prepare me for a career, experienced no desire to get my general educational requirements “over with” so I could “get on with my major.” Talented with a pen and addicted to literary angst, I knew I would find a home in an English department. I figured the rest would follow.
I worried little about grades in high school and college, and it was only in graduate school that I worked up to potential at last because my courses were finally all literature and writing. But in college, when my advanced composition instructor revealed that I had a mere B+ at midterm, I was shocked and sobered. Didn’t she know who I was—the best writer in my high school class (so I thought at the time) and the recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing? Still, I never, never would have questioned her expertise or her rationale for grading. She was a writing specialist; if I had a B+, there must have been a good reason for it, as disappointed as I was. While I wasn’t thrilled with a series of C+ grades I received in freshman and sophomore years, I did well enough in other courses to graduate with a decent 3.36 or so. That was good enough for me.
Mine may have been the last generation that didn’t expect (or even feel the need) to graduate college and enter the workforce with any sort of a status job. Generation X may even have been the last college-going group to major in “impractical” humanities in large numbers. My college friends were, by and large, music performance, English, or history majors. I even recall a James Taylor–loving philosophy major down the hall. A few of the most practical were in early childhood education, on track to receive their teaching certification. Now one might argue that my particular cadre of friends will reflect certain values and proclivities apart from the generational, but if I tick off their professions as adults, a healthy percentage work within the humanities, educational, or nonprofit sectors rather than in corporate culture. Leaving aside the dozens of Gen X academics I know, I count among my friends and acquaintances a historic preservationist, a park ranger, a couple of ministers, a working screenwriter/published novelist, a harp retailer, two artists, at least three professional actors, and many, many teachers. A close friend, married to a Presbyterian minister, has a master’s degree in Biblical Hebrew and a second in education and worked most recently as a grantwriter for a nonprofit organization. One college classmate, a political science major and sometime actor, has since become an Episcopal priest. Another friend—one of only a handful working within his undergraduate major field—actually majored in recreation and leisure studies (and don’t think he didn’t take some ribbing for that!). Generally unpressured by high parental expectations, free from the outcomes-based “standards movement,” Gen Xers experienced a relative freedom to explore various disciplines and to “follow our bliss” rather than focus on career goals. Our work lives, rarely permanent, a patchwork of talents and experiences, reflect the “nomad” status of our generation. As nomads, we are “cunning, hard-to-fool realists” and know when the time comes to move on professionally.
My students tend in quite the opposite direction: extremely goal oriented, procedure conscious, and career driven, they often astound me with their calculated, organized approach to selecting courses, securing internships, and planning for their work lives. Howe and Strauss claim of the Millennials that “the majority of today’s high school students say they have highly detailed five-and ten-year plans for their future. Most have given serious thought to college financing, degrees, salaries, employment trends, and the like.” The Millennials are far more structured and disciplined than Gen Xers ever were. When I give an assignment or announce an extracurricular event or speaker, out come the planners and calendars (a fact this somewhat haphazard individual finds impressive). In the process of completing an assignment, the young men and women in my classes send lots of midstream e-mails about details of production and procedure: “Should I do a complete Works Cited page for the sources I have used in my PowerPoint?” They really want to produce a correctly done final product.
If they have followed the essay prompt to the letter, addressing each suggested point or approach as if it were required; if they have met the length requirement; and if they have few grammar mistakes, they expect at least a B, if not higher. Such is the legacy of outcomes-based education. Millennials have been taught to “the test”: figuring out what the situation requires and then delivering accordingly. “The test,” however, measures factual knowledge and applicable skills; “the test” does not measure imagination, innovation, or originality. While I carefully construct essay questions to be a diving board of sorts into students’ own imaginative responses, I must acknowledge that what I look for and value in their writing may never have been taught them. Assignments are, to them, a means to securing grades that translate into high class ranks and competitive GPAs, rather than vehicles for a deeper understanding of ideas or texts. In the race to achieve high marks, however, “It makes no difference that grade inflation is continuing its three-decade-long climb since the 1960s. . . . So many A’s merely magnify the penalty of the occasional B or C. This is how the ongoing grade inflation is reinforcing the Millennials’ fear of failure, their aversion to risk, and their desire to fit into the mainstream.” Viewing Bs as average and Cs as punitive, Millennials have difficulty seeing themselves as the bell of the well-known curve. Students play it safe, particularly on writing assignments, because “a risky and creative project cannot earn a grade above an A—but, if it misfires, could easily result in a lower grade and blight a transcript.” Innovation and originality often get sacrificed at the shrine of the bitch goddess Grade Point Average.
While I regret their obsession with letter grades, I cannot blame my students. My admittedly lax attitude toward my own marks was probably the luxury of a less competitive time, a less career-driven era. For this reason I may be out of sympathy with the Millennials’ intense preoccupation with GPAs. In any case, grading constitutes my greatest area of struggle as a teacher. My evaluation process would be a lot simpler and less anxiety-ridden if I knew I would never be gainsaid by any student. With this, as with the other areas of my analysis, reasons for the difficulty lie on both sides of the generational divide. As a Gen Xer, I am distrustful of authority for authority’s sake. Not disrespectful, but distrustful. That I would be uncomfortable with my own professional authority is hardly a stretch. I make use of a relatively easygoing demeanor in the classroom, faithful to the “older sibling” view Millennials typically have of Gen Xers, who are “more fun to be around” than Boomers. When that easygoing personality then turns around and “grades harshly” (as the course evaluations so often say), the students feel—somewhat understandably, perhaps—surprised and maybe even a little bit betrayed.
My students’ attitudes toward my authority have been tempered by the twin forces of consumerism and the self-esteem movement. As I discussed above with the essay prompt, Millennials expect to get what they pay for. If they are paying what they deem to be the price (of time, of effort, of intellectual currency) for an A or B, an A or B is what they expect. Like the well-trained consumers they are, they will inquire after any less-than-satisfactory result. While it may be the case that they merely seek further clarification and do not intend a challenge, I have difficulty with their frequent questioning— in part because I feel only just barely comfortable with the task of grading. Selecting a single symbol to communicate several weeks of a person’s presence in class, attempts at communicating, and intellectual effort strikes me as deeply arbitrary at best—and demeaning and reductivist at worst.
The extreme goal-oriented approach of the Millennials often requires some persuasiveness on my part to forget about assessment and just enjoy the narrative ride. I suppose that I have bought into the “Dead Poets Society” version of an instructor, one capable of rousing even the most complacent into passionate engagement with literature. (Although set in the 1950s, that film strikes me as reflecting a very Gen X notion of culture as subversive and empowering.) Thus I cannot help but think that if I were just entertaining/ committed/caring/engaging enough, the students would all have a huge meta-noia about literature—maybe even about the grading system. To that end, I try to create an atmosphere in my class of comfortable discourse, a safe environment for skeptical and unconventional interpretations alike. I would be perfectly satisfied if every class meeting were an unstructured exploration of meaning sparked by (but not necessarily limited to) the readings. But there is that pesky little matter of grades—anathema to me, both carrot and stick to them—and I must take into consideration their need for constant feedback and their fixation on that arbitrary alphabetic signifier.
Now somewhat sadder but wiser about my students’ attitude toward their educational endeavors, I will confess that for several semesters I did not follow what I now understand to be wise advice from Michael Wilson and Leslie Gerber: “Our experience is that today’s college students do not function well in courses with loosely organized, schematic syllabi. We suggest that instructors deliberately over-estimate the desire of students for clarity—and resist the temptation to regard those students as somehow deficient in character for the fervency of such a desire.”
The seeds of these words found fertile ground in my understanding, to be sure. I know from experience that transparency makes me a more effective instructor. And yet I wrestle with a strong sense of rightness and propriety and a belief in high academic standards. I don’t think everyone’s artwork should get hung on the fridge, so to speak. I believe in freshman, JV and varsity teams; I believe in honors classes. I believe in one valedictorian—not in thirty students being accorded that status, as occurred within one Texas high school’s class of 2010. And Chris Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University, agrees. “It’s honor inflation,” he says. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.” Millennials raised in an “everyone wins” environment will not be prepared for the highly competitive workplace into which they will graduate. They are legion (as indicated by those rejected labels “Baby Boom Echo” or “Boomlets”), but there are fewer jobs now than ever since the Great Recession. Competition is a hard fact of life—a fact that the conditions of their upbringing have delayed for many Millennials, but against which Generation X sharpened its self-reliant entrepreneurialism.
This ethos of equality and mainstreaming has also dealt a significant blow to nonconformity. Gen Xers took pride in distinguishing themselves—at least from other social groups—embracing the semiotics of dress, body language, and style marking them as preppies, jocks, burnouts (denim-jacket-clad smokers who listened to hard rock), skatepunks, alternakids, or theater geeks. For the most part, my students do not seem interested in standing out or differentiating themselves. Thus there is no “fringe” to appeal to. Nowadays, the alternative is the mainstream: “indie” culture is no longer underground, sub rosa, or on the margins. I have a hard time understanding my students’ contentment with wearing clothes, sporting hairstyles, carrying bags, and wearing shoes similar—if not identical—to everyone else’s. I worked hard to look on the outside as different and alienated as I felt on the inside. For me and my friends, to conform was to sell out. Furthermore, I wanted to be noticed—and since I didn’t expect to get a second look for my beauty, I used my wardrobe. From high school into my early twenties (especially my year of British affectation abroad), I gravitated toward the funky, the army surplus, the oversized, the Euro-leaning, the vintage, rather than the pretty or the feminine. A thrift shop polyester pink dress with Dr. Martens boots? Check. Black tights with white machinery gears labeled “Wheels of Industry”? Check. A used German army jacket still bearing the name “Hindinger”? Check. I listened passionately to the Smiths, the Cure, Kraftwerk, and Echo and the Bunnymen because they weren’t on the Top 40 charts. I papered my dorm room with art posters and pages from the New Yorker and an unusually beautiful black-and-white shot of Marilyn Monroe. I was a culture hound and an intellectual, dammit! And the nongirly, left-of-center manner of dressing I adopted, the décor of my rooms, the music I swore by all trumpeted my difference.
Culture was code, a shorthand by which we understood each other. If someone could quote all of a John Hughes film to you, that told you something about him. A person dressed as a hippie was declaring a musical taste and an ethos as well as a fashion preference. With rare exceptions, I don’t see my students using culture as an identification badge. Sure, they watch, listen, and read (and they enjoy it), but they don’t seem to look to music or novels or films for identification. Culture is entertainment (and plentiful), but generally not salvation or even revelation. For cultural production to function as code and for such code to be decipherable, everyone has to have drawn from the same media pool, watched the same sitcoms, considered the same movies iconic and quoteworthy, listened to the same bands. The Millennials, especially those born in the 1990s, have had access to such a vast proliferation of cultural forms—network and cable TV shows, Internet sites, video games, YouTube videos, downloadable music, and so on—that the once usual phenomenon of shared media experience has become splintered and fragmented. Notable exceptions exist, of course, among them “The Daily Show,” Olympic coverage, the “Lost” series finale. But if we accept Richard Sweeney’s assessment that Millennials “have no generational music,” might we also assume that they lack generation-defining film, television, and cultural experiences as well?
And where does that disbelief in culture as revelation leave literature? The college English classroom always seemed to me to be the refuge of the sensitive, the disaffected, the alienated, the misunderstood. English majors were always quirky, nerdy, knowing, or a little subversive, and quite often cooler-than-thou. In my textual pedagogy, I cannot necessarily rely on the appeal of an antihero—nor can I expect that students will experience a particular sentiment or idea that seems to break through the static and speak precisely and passionately to or about them. For whatever reason, Millennials don’t seem to value that singularity as my generation did. Told from the beginning they were special and raised in a climate of protection, attention, and privilege, perhaps they never doubted their worth. Indeed, “most first-year college students arrive not as inwardly tormented Holden Caulfields but as self-assured go-getters.” If that is indeed the case, then more power to them.
This opportunity to write and reflect on the teaching and learning of Millennials has coincided beautifully with my own slow understanding of the slippage between Generations X and Y. Over the course of my pedagogical encounters with this generation, I have shuttled between frustration and bafflement, moving gradually toward understanding and sympathy. From the beginning, however, I have appreciated their enthusiasm and positivity. Millennials tend to be cheerfully “game” to do what one asks of them, particularly if it is a little unusual, makes use of technology, or applies a pedagogy that “relates to them.” Despite the pressure and anxiety that often characterize their schooling, students take their learning seriously and are generally willing to invest in the educational endeavor. Granted, they have made different investments than my generation, more toward the sciences and professions and less in the humanities, but it gladdens my heart to see so many young women interested in and talented at the sciences. In a recent honors class, one of the two finest essays in the class integrated our literature course texts with the Federalist Papers. The young woman who authored it, while deeply interested in political studies, opted instead for a mathematics major because she “missed calculus.” This young student’s bright, well-rounded competence and love of her studies is not untypical of her generation. I put all of my eggs in the English basket, but these Millennials diversify.
The subtitle of Millennials Rising, “The Next Great Generation,” associates the Millennials with the G.I. or “Greatest” Generation of Jimmy Stewart, John F. Kennedy, and Katharine Hepburn. For Howe and Strauss, Millennials carry potential as a generation to fulfill the “hero” archetype, given their great store of positive energy, enthusiasm, technological savvy, resourcefulness, teamwork, and acceptance of diversity. If the predictors are right, Millennials will earn a place in history like the G.I.s and the “Republicans” of Thomas Jefferson’s era, a generational type “that does great deeds, constructs nations and empires, and is afterward honored in memory and storied in myth.” I would be very glad to see the students I teach emerge as a major force for good and lasting improvement in society. As their predecessor—albeit one from a “youth generation widely deemed to be disappointing”—I am tasked with the important work of facilitating the Millennials’ written expression, adding to their imaginative understandings, and introducing them to a few rich texts beloved by me for expressive language or insight into the thorny human condition. I in turn can learn much from their goodwill, acceptance of difference, serious investment in learning, and lack of interest in linking identity to alienation. In Howe and Strauss’s generational taxonomy,
Every generation, including Millennials, possesses biological parents spread over the prior two generations. . . . Throughout American history, however, the rearing of each new generation has always been dominated by the elder of two parental generations. . . . [Members of the Silent Generation] like Norman Lear and Jim Henson set the tone for Gen X kids during the 1970s (though Boomers were then raising plenty of late-wave Xers). Likewise, Boomers like Steven Spielberg and Laura Schlessinger are setting the tone for today’s kids (though Xers are now raising plenty of late-wave Millennials). Gen X will in turn set the tone for the batch of kids coming after the Millennials—and Millennials for the batch after that.
One day, not terribly far in the future, this article will be dated, the Millennials having all graduated. The entering freshmen in my classrooms will no longer be part of the Millennial generation, but children for whom Gen X has “set the tone.” Generation X’s (post-Millennial) children have yet to be named, labeled, categorized, or predicted. Who they will be as learners, as thinkers, as people is yet to be known. Will they be easier for Gen Xers to connect with in the classroom because we have already taught them as parents? Assuming I am still teaching, I will have the opportunity to engage with them in intellectual work, to read the Greats with them, to discuss the social problems of the day with them. Will we have imparted to them enough of our own sensibility that they will bear the traces of our own cultural engagement? What about Gen X’s tone-setting will they have sculpted themselves against? What will be their hopes and expectations for the college experience? I figure these children, first born in 2005, will be arriving on college campuses about 2023. I’ll talk to you then.
Excerpted from “Generation X Professors Speak”.