A New Generation of Professors for a New Generation of Students?

by Emily Bailey

I have to admit that despite how ridiculously excited I am to be nearing the final stages of the  graduate school process—to get into the classroom and put some of this knowledge to practical use—I’m a bit afraid of the students who will be sitting on the other side of the classroom. As I observe the next generation of students I can’t help but to be aware of a new set of expectations that students have for their faculty—the kind of expectations that leave me wondering if we, as future faculty, are adequately equipped to deal with?

As new faculty entering the field we will be dealing with a population of students who have been using computers and other forms of technology on a constant and regular basis since they were old enough to type with their tiny fingers. This is a generation of born “techies”; young men and women who can’t imagine the world before digital everything.  They are their own academic breed, wanting not only information, but to be entertained every step of the way. While this can be problematic for practical purposes (how much more time consuming is it to prepare a multimedia lecture versus a traditional one?),  there is also a delicate balance between using technology as a tool for learning and having it become a mere distraction.

I will admit that although I might be considered part of this “new” generation of students, the rapid technological advances of the past decade have somewhat eluded me. I didn’t own a computer in my first two years of undergraduate school. My cell phone at that time was the size of a small brick, could only make phone calls, and was fueled by pre-paid cards, strictly for emergencies. There were no iPods, no iPads, no Smartphones, and Facebook was still restricted to the student bodies of a handful of colleges and universities—and yet, I considered myself to be technologically savvy. I wrote all of my papers on a computer and did a considerable amount of research online. And all of this wasn’t that long ago—I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2006. Yet the generational gap that I feel at times between the students that have recently come under my tutelage, feels as wide as that between me and my parents, or even my grandparents.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think that technology is a bad thing, nor am I against us learning to use all of the tools available so that we can teach as effectively as possible in the field. What I’d like to highlight instead is that it is incredibly important for our new generation of faculty to not only utilize the technologies available to us, but to use them thoughtfully and responsibly for their maximum benefit in the classroom. Beyond (what have started to feel archaic) PowerPoint presentations, we are fortunate to now have constant access to our students and their work through Blackboard programs, digital grade books, and course blogs. What concerns me most is not the resources that we have, but those that students now have access to. How can we use these technological tools to enhance, rather than cheapen students’ learning? For despite new standards for their instructors to keep their attention through multimedia teaching, I’ve witnessed that students’ expectations for their own work have slackened dramatically.

In my experience as a teaching assistant, fellow, and instructor there has been a marked increase in plagiarism with information taken directly from online sources. And there is another new disturbing phenomenon on the rise, as more and more students seem to think that it appropriate to use texting abbreviations on exams, and (the horror!), in papers. Spelling and grammar is going by the wayside, as students rely on their technology, rather than their own knowledge to correct their mistakes. While this behavior is certainly in no way indicative of the whole, it has been prevalent enough in my experience to make me wonder about the future of higher education.

In other words, with technology has come a sort of apathy. As far as I’m aware, it is still a privilege to be accepted into a college or university (with over 20 million enrolled as of the 2006 U.S. census).  Yet, the standards for many of these institutions seem to be falling short of the expectations placed on undergraduate scholars mere decades ago.    Short of circling and underlying in red pen less than scholarly submissions, what is an instructor to do?  How can we make learning interesting and productive for Generation Next without compromising academic standards? What can we do to help students stand apart from their equally technologically savvy peers as they move through higher education and into the job market? I think that it’s time for a little tough love.

As their instructors we need to make students aware of their strengths as well as the areas in which they can improve. I can’t speak for the students that you’ve worked with, but many of the ones that I have encountered (some 800 now in my years of working as a teaching assistant and instructor) are intently focused on the almighty grade. How can we use technology to foster an academic environment in which students are kept engaged with material and the learning process, while also helping them to be effective critical thinkers and writers?—by re-establishing the high (but fair) standards that our esteemed institutions have traditionally expected of them. Students need to know that technology is a tool for learning, and not an easy way out; a medium for more knowledge, and not the bare minimum. It seems to me that this will be one of the most significant components of our work as the next generation of faculty; helping to guide our students through their technologically enhanced higher educations and world, without sacrificing what it means to earn a college degree.

Emily Bailey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at
the University of Pittsburgh, working on her dissertation “Women, Food,
and Power: the Protestant Moralization of Eating in America, 1830-1925.” 
Her research areas include religion in America, gender and religion,
religion and food, and spirituality and sustainability.

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4 Responses to A New Generation of Professors for a New Generation of Students?

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    “They are their own academic breed, wanting not only information, but to be entertained every step of the way.”

    In my experience, there are certainly these pressures, yes, but a surprising number of students are still very eager to work through serious material–by listening to a lecture and working through some implications in their heads, whether in the spot of in time for the next class–without the technological bells and whistles that administrators often bring to their faculty as a way to moderate the effect of increasingly large classes that the faculty are expected to teach. If such a lecture can be done in an engaging manner, drawing on eg’s with which the students can identify (which, I think, is different from entertaining them), then I think they’re more than up to the task.

    • Emily says:

      Absolutely, there are still many students who can engage without mere distractions. What I am concerned about is the fine line between engagement and entertainment when employing the many new tools that we can use to enhance teaching. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Chas says:

    Is physical gadgetry really the issue? Or is it the expectation that you should have access to all knowledge with two clicks? Or is it the loss (or gain) of certain habits of mind conducive to academic success?

  3. Pingback: The Media and the Message: Doing a Dissertation in the Digital Age | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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