For me, one of the most challenging aspects of working in higher education is that I am very close in age to the students. It will not be until February of next year that the last of the students who attended Middlebury while I also attended Middlebury will have graduated (not including the handful of students who are spending more than four years here). When it comes to working with the oldest students, I have to draw on every last drop of my two degrees and three extra years of life experience (bonus points for paying property taxes!) if I want to say anything remotely profound. Thank goodness for the incoming class of 2015: I was already writing expository paragraphs by the time they were born.
My proximity in age to the students tends to create unrealistic expectations among my senior colleagues. Some often look to me as an interpreter of student behavior and attitudes. They stare at me expectantly, ready to hang on my every word. In reality? I am just as befuddled as they are. I am a stranger here myself.
It’s really amusing/helpful/horrifying when colleagues send around articles that seek to explain student or Millenial culture to those less fluent. (There’s no judgment here—I totally do this, too.) Amusing because the observations are usually spot-on; helpful because I can better understand and empathize with the students I try to support; and horrifying because I usually recognize a bit of myself!
Take "Dwelling in Possibilities" by Mark Edmundson (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2008), for example. That’s the latest one to appear in my inbox. As Edmundson summarized the student mindset—“Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites…”— I couldn’t help but notice that I was flitting between activities. In the course of reading the entire piece, I planned a book talk, wrote 20 (quick) emails, put the finishing touches on text for a new website, researched office furniture, printed seven documents, and ate an apple. Your turn!
Many of Edmundson’s observations ring true for me. Here are a couple:
"They live to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to."
Intellectually speaking, I am afraid of commitment. This is why the liberal arts and I get along so well, and why my current line of work is very becoming on me. There’s so much in this world that I find fascinating that it would be difficult to devote myself to just one thing. Certainly, I can devote myself to higher education, but its main appeal is its variety.
Back in Spring 2010, when I was a carefree, unemployed grad student, one of my friends and I spent an afternoon musing about what comes next. I was reaching the end of my program; he was reaching the end of his employment contract. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could find a job doing stuff?” I wondered aloud. By doing stuff, I imagined a position in which I would not perform one job function, but several. And by several, I meant a lot. The Universe must have heard me because one year later I find myself doing just that. My work encompasses student life, academics, environmental issues, advising, money, technology, problem-solving, facilities, managing (up, down, and across), music, social media, art, communication, diversity, writing, and on and on.
But perhaps there is danger in this, yes? The danger that I will become a jack of all trades and a master of none.
"At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? ‘They’re talking to their friends.’ About? ‘About another party they might conceivably go to.’ And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they’re now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity."
This? This I try to avoid. I hate it when friends are busily texting when we are, as Edmundson puts it, chillaxing. Scratch that: I don’t have any friends who are busily texting when we’re chillaxing because I have subtly but successfully weeded those people out. In turn, I do my best to ignore my technology and live by the philosophy of The Three Questions, a children’s book based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. Spoiler alert! The answers to the three questions are: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.” This probably sounds painfully cheesy, but, when I feel those mental tugs pulling me away from the present, I silently recite these answers to pull myself back.
This post draws long and the hour grows late, so I’ll leave with a final thought: we’re not so different, higher education professionals and students. I’m not saying this because I just was a student. Rather, I look to my colleagues, many of whom are well into their 30s and 40s and 50s, and they are nearly every bit Millenial as they are Generation X or Baby Boomer. They have a “spectacular hunger for life.” They, like Emily Dickinson, “dwell in possibility.” They, too, are delighted by “gazing upon all the pleated skirts the world doth hold.” They are tuned into their smart phones and iPads and iPods. Some even use Twitter and Facebook more than I do. They trade music like baseball cards. They overextend themselves, and they need an authority to tell them, “It’s too much. It’s OK to ease up. It’s OK to rest.” Trouble is, they often are the authority. Edmundson himself is quick to perceive himself as a “five-drafter” fuddy-duddy, but read his wide-ranging article and you will see somebody who is more like his students than he thinks (even if he doesn’t get caught up in the M.C. Escher infinity of simulacrum social engagements, or disengagements, as the case may be).
Perhaps those of us who are most perplexed by student behavior and attitudes—most of it delightful, some of it not so much—need only to look to ourselves for the answer. Age differences aside, we all live in the same world. Through technology, we all create unreasonable expectations for ourselves: what we must see, what we must do, what we must know, what we must own, what we must accomplish. Like Edmundson, I am tempted to say “honor to us” for “convey[ing] hope that the world is still in some measure a splendid place, worth seeing and appreciating.” But, as he recognizes, “To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are.”