One of the interesting facets of having completed 36 years of teaching is the observable differences between today's students and those that I taught at the beginning of my career. There's no difference, of course, in IQ — my current students are every bit as bright as those I taught "back in the last millennium," as I love to say when referring to my younger years. One thing I do notice, though, is that what today's students know and don't know is vastly different from what my former students knew and didn't know.
I try to stay current on some aspects of today's pop culture so that I know what my students and others are talking about. I'm not always successful in that endeavor, though — there's just so much to keep up with and so little time! It's quite a balancing act trying to keep up on (dreary) current events and to dabble in several of the many avenues of social networking as well as trying to do as much reading as possible on French Literature from the Middle Ages in preparation for my course lectures. Talk about having one's feet planted in two different worlds!
During one of our many interesting lunch room discussions last school year, a colleague mentioned something he had read online. One professor in a community college contends that he has found only one thing with which his students, who vary greatly in age and background, all seem to be familiar. Here's that portion of the article:
One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don't read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don't really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don't remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte's Web? You'd think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn't work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They've all seen The Wizard of Oz.
The preceding quotation is from an article in The Atlantic  online called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by Professor X (really)
I'm not sure that we could justify applying his findings to all college students in America, but I've made enough allusions to things in the Wizard of Oz in my classes to know that most of my students always seem to catch them. When we learn the French -re verbs, I enjoy presenting one that's not in our book — fondre. I demonstrate its meaning by writhing, sinking down towards the floor, and saying "Je fonds" in a high-pitched voice. Most of my students catch on right away that I'm saying "I'm melting" and imitating the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I guess that that would lend some credence to Professor X's statement.
Through the years I've had to drop one reference after another to pop culture as I saw that that year's crop of students no longer recognized the references. I was thrilled this summer to see an ad for a Big Mac using the old "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun" jingle that will allow me to resurrect a joke I used to love to tell but that had become hopelessly lost on the young.
When students come to us, they know only what they have been exposed to by their families, their schools and churches, their peers, and their own reading. As Professor X stated, many of them don't read much, that is if you don't count text messages and websites.
At this time of year, I always think of the list put out by Beloit College that reminds teachers of the "mindset" of that year's incoming freshman class. If you want to feel old ... even some of you who may only be in your late 20s, check out the list on their website (link is below). Here are a few of my favorite items from this year's list:
BELOIT COLLEGE'S MINDSET LIST (edited) FOR THE CLASS OF 2013
Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1991. (That fact alone is alarming!)
They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
Salsa has always outsold ketchup.
There has always been blue Jell-O.
The KGB has never officially existed.
Women have always outnumbered men in college.
There have always been flat screen televisions.
Nobody has ever responded to “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
Margaret Thatcher has always been a former prime minister.
Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has always been a flavor choice.
I'm very glad to teach in a Christian, liberal arts university where we strive to take our students from where they were when they came to us and to expose them to many cultural ideas with which they are not familiar, but should be. It's been gratifying to me already in this semester's Survey of French Literature class to have students tell me that they were surprised to learn they could enjoy literature from the Middle Ages! It's great fun also to point out various aspects of modern French culture whose roots are in some of the literature we are studying. Ah, the beauty of a liberal arts education!
Do you have a recent experience of finding out how "dated" some of your experiences are when you related them to people younger than you? Any thoughts on the value of a liberal arts education? By the way, please let me know if you did not understand the Venn diagram at the beginning of this post.
"God hasn't called us to be hermits or monks." - Drew Conley
Young at heart. Slightly older in other places.