Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta wrote a fascinating piece for Salon (“I Don’t Hate Millennials Anymore!“) about the understanding gap between Millennial students and GenX professors. I felt like I was reading about my own experiences the whole time. The way she described her experiences with Millennial students fits my own experiences so well.

It’s a piece my GenX colleagues should read, if only to understand their students a bit better. But I also think my own students and their peers should read it. They are increasingly having to work with GenX professors and we don’t really take time to explain generational points of view when handing out grading rubrics. Both generations could benefit from it.

I make the same disclaimer Falcetta does, that these are broad brush generalizations and individual students do vary from this characterization. But by and large, I found her characterization of both generations to be stunningly accurate.

I found myself nodding vigorously here:

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. … 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.

The takeaway in this piece is that GenX was reared in a culture where you make your own structure and define success for yourself. When I was in college, I had a professor whose rubric for a English lit term paper was that the more impressive the scope and depth were, the better the grade. I relished that, and I took risks and tried to be creative. I tried that once in a class and it freaked out most of my Millennial students. They tend to be risk averse and struggle with grading standards that aren’t comprehensively defined.

This part also stands out, because it explains my own experience as a student so well.

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. … 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. … 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.

I’ve tried to describe my educational experience to students and they often find it bizarre. Brad King’s wonderful Tigger Talk, in which he stresses that grades don’t matter, is foreign to them now and it’s only at the end of their schooling that they tend to see this. For me, “grades don’t matter” was my rallying cry throughout college. I’ve learned so much from failure (and so little from success) that I try to put myself in a position to fail as a professor, knowing that it’ll make me better at what I do. Ask a Millennial to try that and they’ll think you’ve lost it. They’ve got 10-year-plans and career goals and every little grade is a step toward that …. going outside the path is a recipe for that all to fall apart.

But the result is the same no matter the approach. I have students who want to teach at a university someday. Their structured approach is as likely to get them there as my nonstructured approach has. I think it’s important that they see that.

I would bet most of my students see themselves as creative and free, unbound by the weight of grades and expectations. The truth is, in a given graduating class of 25 I am lucky if I see two here at Lehigh. Not coincidentally, those are the ones who really go on to amaze me post-graduation.

I take to heart some of the conclusions. For all the benefits of structure, it really can squelch creativity and innovation and I do worry about that. Maybe “impress me” is a scary way to talk about grading, but I’m working toward more open-ended rubrics in skills classes. Maybe I have to meet them in the middle, but that requires that they learn more about my GenX approach and why I think it is important.

Once my students graduate, the tests stop and their ability to be creative in unstructured situations will be the thing that sets them apart. At some point, they’ll need to learn how to make their own goals. God knows the academy has failed them on this.

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Millennials, GenX, and understanding
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