Saturday, March 22, 2008
There seems to be a great deal of discussion about the Gen X/Gen Y/Millennial law student. This discussion is distressing to me because I belong to all of those generational categories. I was born in '77, so I am a young Gen X'er, or an old Gen Y'er/Millennial, depending on the cut-off date. So often, these discussions are framed as "us v. them"; "us" being professors, and "them" being students who want "just-in-time" learning, always available online, with easy access to all resources, including teachers. Because I am both "us" and "them", I see the pitfalls to labeling our students instead of recognizing changes in culture and learning that impact all learners.
The need for "just-in-time" learning is more than generational; this is a change in our culture that happened in education for middle-class and upper-middle class students. Computers became a part of education for school systems that could afford them. Computers also became a part of life for all people in jobs that needed them, and a part of families that could afford one at home. My father needed a computer for his job long before I needed one for school; he was proficient earlier than I was. He traveled for his job; he had a cell phone long before I did (or my sister or brother). My father's long-term partner has a cell phone stuck to her ear 18 hours a day; she works in real estate, and she must be in contact with work so she knows what is bought and sold. Yet I hear that my generations "just-in-time" learning and connected-ness are a part of our age, instead of a culture change that impacted many people across generations. However, these culture changes that were brought about by technology (especially the personal computer) did not necessarily impact higher education the same way they were impacting other professions. I still know of professors who don't use email or own a cell phone--in most professions, this is not possible. Because we professors have not needed to adopt technology at the same rate as other professions, it's easy to see students brought up with and around those technologies, and the culture changes that accompanied them, as other, strange, and sometimes difficult to teach.
Another quality attributed to Gen X/Y students is an increase in rudeness and a lack of professionalism. Having attended law school in the Southeast, where manners are paramount, this makes me want to laugh. Southern students could pick out many of my fellow Yankees by our lack of breeding, regardless of our age. I am routinely questioned about my work wardrobe; I dress in high heels and dresses for work most days I have student contact. I was taught that a female lawyer wears dresses or skirts to court or risks being thrown out by some older, more conservative Southern judges. The relaxed look I've seen students wear is regional, not generational. No self-respecting Southerner goes to work looking the way many Northerners insist is necessary due to weather. I am a Northerner by birth, breeding, and choice, however, I learned manners and professionalism in the South. It's not my generation, but the region, that made all the difference.
It's important to see our students as a part of a changing culture, instead of "other". I have as much in common with law students as I do with my colleagues. I feel divisions like everyone else, but I recognize them for what they are; social, cultural, regional, and national. Instead of belittling them, I try to understand the divisions and how they function in my student's world.
For a great article on some very real changes that have impacted our culture, with special emphasis for younger students, see The Chronicle Review, "Dwelling in Possibilities" by Mark Edmundson, March 14, 2008. While I think this article suffers from some of the misunderstandings present in many articles on generational divisions, this is one of the more thoughtful, nuanced pieces I have read.