Talkin' 'bout my generation

To professors, 'Moby' means Melville; to students, he's a reference to electronica. Welcome to the new generation gap. Crossing it isn't easy.

During a classroom debate at Arizona State University, one student charged that a venerable drug company in Germany still carries ethical baggage today for its actions in "some war."

Right there, professor Marianne Jennings halted the discussion. It wasn't "some war," she corrected. "It was World War II" - the dominant conflict of the 20th century.

Such lapses are frequent. As a result, she is careful about off-the-cuff references to the energy crisis of the 1970s, Watergate, or Reaganomics. Such cultural artifacts require detailed explanation to be part of a lecture or homework, she says.

Welcome to the new generation gap. There's always been a culture gap between professors and students, of course, most notably in the 1960s. But the faster pace of technological and cultural change since the 1990s, combined with a graying faculty, may be creating a divide that undermines classroom dialogue more than ever before.

Colleges routinely tout the healthy campus rapport between faculty and students. Yet gaps between the two are growing, surveys and interviews with students and faculty indicate.

This year's freshmen were born in 1985. For them, Banana Republic has always been a clothing store, not a Latin American puppet government, according to this year's "mind-set list" released this month by Beloit College.

"The gap between generations today is different from the generation of the '60s and '70s," says Tom McBride, a Beloit professor and coeditor of the list. "Back then there was a chasm between war and peace and civil rights. Today the gap is about information."

The list is aimed at that gap, he says, a good-natured bid to remind faculty to keep their lectures fresh so students aren't left wondering what planet their professor is from. Yet professors are from a different world, if not another planet.

Part of the problem is simple demographics: Hiring freezes and delayed retirements mean the average professor is far more likely to be a member of the AARP than the MTV generation.

Today, 36 percent of faculty are 55 or older compared with 24 percent in 1989, according to national surveys by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California at Los Angeles. Faculty under 45 years old fell from 41 percent to 30 percent in the same period.

Age differences are not automatically a barrier to learning. However, the generational disparity is most noticeable in technological expertise, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Survey. For example, students today can barely remember a time when there was no e-mail or instant messaging.

"Right now there's a tremendous mismatch between students and faculty," says James Paul Gee, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "And that mismatch is killing us. It's turning off kids to what we do, why things like Shakespeare are important - because we're representing it as if it was [in] the 1950s."

Only 47 percent of college students say they are required to use e-mail in their classes, the Pew survey found. Just 5 percent of students had used Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, or instant messaging to communicate with professors.

One result: Professors miss out on ways to increase communication with students, who report feeling isolated from those who teach them. In its most recent survey of freshmen after their first year of college, the HERI study found that just 12.2 percent of students reported they had gotten to know a member of the faculty, the lowest level ever.

That doesn't mean professors are running back to their offices to watch music videos, or are lacing their lectures with the latest reality-TV plot twists. Still, professors who are more familiar with "Moby Dick" than electronica musician Moby are rethinking their approach to course work.

That may mean incorporating digital cameras or simply signing up for instant messaging so students can reach them on their own terms. Students today expect to learn by multitasking, studying, and talking in collaboration with their peers, says Professor Gee.

Jerry Smith has gotten the message. On a recent day, the 60-something professor of religion at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., took his Rural Religions class to a country cemetery for a lecture on the typology of headstones. He directed students to snap pictures of headstones, then send him an e-mail with attached photo files, both illustrating and explaining the headstone.

It's an assignment that appeals to students who enjoy processing information using multiple channels, Dr. Smith says.

"These kids are used to having the television and stereo on, sitting at the computer, and talking to somebody with their dorm room door open," Smith says. "They're clicking around, monitoring, and going back to the computer to type a few lines. They have learned how to learn outside school, and if you don't know that you'll have a difficult time with them, because their education is media driven, not classroom driven."

Jake Luskin, a first-year graduate student at Northeastern University in Boston, says he sometimes found communicating with his undergraduate professors difficult, but that now, "the professors here are younger and maybe more technologically savvy."

On the other hand, Suman Majumdar, a Northeastern sophomore majoring in biology, generally connects better with older faculty. By older he means over 40.

"They're just more relaxed," he says. "They know what to expect of students. I had one older physics professor who had a pretty nice website."

The biggest challenge for faculty is deciding whether and how to incorporate pop-culture references into their material.

At Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where Virginia Vaughan has taught since 1976, she is conscious of not pandering to students or watering down her lessons.

"It's phony for professors to immerse themselves in youth culture - sitting through novels they don't like or music they can't stand," she says. "But when students recommend contemporary things related to the subject of your teaching, it's worth taking a look."

In her Shakespeare class, she shows two video versions of the same scene - the Leonardo DiCaprio version of "Romeo and Juliet," for instance - then compares it with the text.

"Each generation reshapes Shakespeare in its own image," she says.

Peter Havholm, a professor of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio has been teaching for 32 years. He says he never lectures. Instead, he tests students' knowledge of a novel by asking questions and debating their answers. (It all sounds suspiciously Socratic.) But he also includes films. When comedy is discussed, he pulls Internet clips from the movie "Animal House," Laurel and Hardy films, TV commercials, and "Seinfeld" episodes.

"I would not have done that 30 years ago," he admits, "but only because it would have been far too difficult to do then than now. If I patronize the material or the people whom I'm trying to teach, then I'm harming learning. "

Trying to bridge the generation gap without seeming to pander is a tough trick to do, says Russell Barclay, associate professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. He's acutely aware of this because this 50-something professor has for years used a friend to help him connect with students in his introductory classes - Elvis.

"After teaching for 25 years, I've realized the generations are separate and you can't relate the way you could 20 years ago. I use Elvis because he's an agreed-upon spoof that spans generations. He's everywhere, a universal joke. If you can drop Elvis in for no good reason once in a while, it especially loosens my first-year students up."

The King makes impromptu appearances as a slide in Dr. Barclay's PowerPoint presentations, as a reference point in discussions ("What would Elvis do?"), and even on exams. There's also an Elvis cookie jar with candy to draw students to his office hours.

Some colleagues might think he's pandering, he admits. But that's not how he sees it.

"I don't have to relate to these students or understand their generation," he says. "My job is to convey information, but it doesn't have to be onerous."

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