Sorting through my thoughts about Generation Y

First, check out this great post I just discovered for Arts Managers working with Generation Y.

Depending on who you ask, I’m a member of Generation X or Generation Y. I guess it would be most accurate to say that I was born into Generation X, just on the cusp of Y. It seems like there is a lot of talk lately about Generation Y (also referred to as the “millenials”) and I did not think much of the topic until very recently. At some point in my working life I started noticing a generation gap where I had not seen one before. I started personally struggling and watching peers my age and just a few years younger with banging heads with colleagues from an older generation. In most cases it was not so much a matter of the “X/Y” colleague skirting work or actively trying to be disruptive to others — but just that the fact that those in the “X/Y” continuum often seem to simply work differently than some of their more established colleagues. I myself struggled sometimes with a sense that the ways I worked most effectively and productively might appear “unprofessional” to others. More familiar with technology than some previous co-workers, I would become very annoyed if they did not follow thoughts on how  a computer issue could be  solved or a piece of software would make things “easier.” And on the other hand they might be very annoyed– mystified even– by the suggestion that I work an irregular schedule or have a meeting with someone via instant messenger.

At a recent meeting with college professors I heard a lot of talk about what a problem students texting in class is. I heard a lot of talk about this among professors at the AATE/ATHE conference as well. This is clearly a relatively new issue and I suspect that at least in some cases this behavior may be less insolence or immaturity on the part of the student than a matter of simple generational differences.  Students from Generation Y have never known a time when computers weren’t available. They live in a complex world that makes many demands on them, not the least of which is the demand of multitasking. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, multitasking is such an expectation among people of our generation that when he encounters new clients or colleagues who simply can’t multitask it seems to be an enormous roadblock in communication and productivity.

I realized listening to these other instructors that I’m not really sure how I feel about texting in class (on the college level at least), but that I’m confident I’m less appalled by it than some of them were. To be honest, I rather adore texting as a means of getting/giving important messages during a Tech Rehearsal, for instance– I perceive it as a means of quick multitasking that won’t disturb someone else.  I certainly wouldn’t text during a one on one conversation, but I might discreetly read a text briefly in the middle of a meeting where my full attention wasn’t necessarily required. I’ve often doodled in the margins of my notebooks while listening to lectures, and sometimes even write down the grocery list developing in my head– almost “putting the information aside” while I listen. I’m sure that there were times I faded out of a lecture in college or grad school but in general I would say that the kinesthetic activity of drawing and noting amidst a meeting/class actually keeps me more present in the room sometimes.

Now, in fairness, rude is rude. If a professor identifies texting in a lecture based class as disrespectful (and I suspect the vast majority of them, whatever generation they were born into,  you shouldn’t do it. People have the right to define what respect means to them and it is common courtesy to follow suit. And it’s fair to say that if a student is texting at length about topics that are non-urgent and have nothing to do with the class then they probably aren’t devoting very much attention at all to their learning. I’m just not sure that such students are necessarily going to pay “more” attention without the phone– many of them are just going to space out anyways. Are teachers offended that their students are texting because it means they are not showing respect for them through their undivided attention– or are they concerned that their students are not learning because their attention is divided? Which is most important? How much of a “problem” is a “problem behavior” if it has very little impact on the student’s performance in class. Maybe texting is a symptom of a larger issue in the student’s performance. But I’m toying with the question of whether, in some cases,  it might not really be all that big of a deal..

I guess I also come from a school of thought that says, if they’re not paying attention to me what can I do differently? Working with young kids so much has taught me that you always need a gimmick when teaching–or at the very least give the student a reason to listen. Taking the phone away from the student isn’t going to force them to care about my lecture. I can’t change the fact that the student may not be riveted by the content, but I can change the way I teach it. I would say that more experiential learning is called for with Generation Y-ers anyway, as a whole sitting and listening isn’t their best way to learn. Maybe if the college classroom included more cooperative activities and opportunities for kinesthetic learning those texting students would be too busy and distracted to text.

With young drama students I often say “Show me your listening with your eyes,” to explain to them that it is possible to listen without looking at me, but there’s no way for me to know you’re listening unless you look towards me when I speak. As teachers I think it’s important to tell our students what we need for them and also to distinguish between what behaviors simply annoy us and what behaviors are going to interfere with someone’s learning. The “rules of the class” themselves are less important than the careful thought that went into them.

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