Well, it's that time of year again--fall semester start-up. (For me, as for most anyone I know who works in education, the "new year" does not start in January--it starts now. Hence the slightly slower pace of my blog posts--I always find these semester start-up periods to be more insane than the actual semesters, at least until finals time.) This afternoon I'll greet incoming freshmen at our dean's welcome, and next Tuesday I'll face a new group of "deer in the headlights," only a few weeks removed from high school. I'll try to help give them tools to navigate an increasingly crazy world (or so it seems to this old geezer, anyway). It's a funny thing about teaching traditional-age freshmen (though I do teach many nontrads as well): Each year I find myself a year older, but most in the incoming class are still eighteen, another year removed from my own reality. Given all the factors listed above, how in God’s name is a self-respecting AARP member supposed to teach this generation?
I begin by silencing myself. Shutting myself up. Dropping all my preconceptions about the supposed degradation of the current culture we live in, who my students are, what they are capable of achieving. I know, I'm supposed to teach to a predetermined set of "student learning outcomes," but who really knows any of us "should" be learning to survive in our current crazy world anyway?
What if I begin by listening? What if I ask them to write about the world they are living in, the world they have grown up (and are still growing up) in? What if I recognize that, as young people who have never held power, it's ourselves we should be pointing the finger at if we find today's young people to be somehow lacking? What if we remembered our own youths a little more accurately, rather than through the psychedelic glasses of nostalgia (with a Beatles soundtrack playing in the background)? After all, for every "The Long and Winding Road" that came along, there was a song like "Seasons in the Sun" (or worse, "Billy, Don't Be a Hero"). We might not have torn our jeans or dyed our hair purple, but we did feathering and curly perms, and we wore flared gauchos with midriff tops fashioned from bandanas. (Nowadays when I look at pictures of my teenage self, I have a bit more sympathy for my poor late dad and his periodic, "Young lady, do you really want to leave the house looking like that?")
Point: The world we know is gradually disappearing, piece by recognizable piece. (I know I keep harping on celebrity deaths, but they're a stark reminder of that.) The older we get, the less we recognize our surroundings. We lose our bearings. This has happened to every generation, and it will also happen--someday--to this dyed, pierced, tattooed, vaping, effing, texting, abbreviating, selfie-taking generation we call the Millennials. Of course we probably won't be around by the time they're able to tell us, "I finally understand"--just as too many of our own parents and grandparents are not around for us to tell the same thing. But it will happen, whether or not we're here to see it.
Change is the way of things. What if, rather than bemoaning the inevitable, we instead decided to learn about our current world from the perspective of our students? In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire posited a teacher who "is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself [and herself] taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught teach.” A lot of educators I know like to quote passages like this. We call it dialogical education. Touting ourselves as "dialogical educators" makes us sound cool at conferences and in our reappointment and promotion dossiers. But do we mean it?
One of my assignments calls for students to write an ethnographic fieldwork essay about a subculture--either one with which they identify, or one that they wish to learn more about. Sometimes when I see their topic choices, I feel ill-prepared to assess them--I say things like "What is cosplay?", which makes the whole class laugh when I didn't even think I was being funny. As I read the drafts, though, I am always struck by a common theme that emerges collectively: the search for, and the need for, a sense of community, human connection and meaning in a world engineered to isolate us from one another. I remember sitting around campfires singing "If I had a hammer" while people played guitars. I remember my parents and grandparents talking about the silver linings of great depressions and world wars--"at least everyone pulled together." I remember squeezing my teenage self and all my girlfriends into photo booths, or asking random fellow tourists to snap pictures of me in front of various landmarks with my Kodak Instamatic, and I remember when Polaroids were a popular party accessory, and then I wonder why my generation is so freaked out about "selfies." You won't ever get me to say "totes" (except in quotes to indicate I'm not really saying it), but I read my high school yearbook where every other person told me to have an "outrageous" summer, and I'm frankly not sure which is more stupid.
And then--despite justifiable media outrage about cyber-bullying--I see young people gathering together on Facebook to prevent a suicide (who talks about this?). I see young people encouraging each other. I see young people who accept differences and dream of creating a better world. Sometimes, in them, I even see a version of my own younger self--when I look past the blue hair and the nose ring and stop to listen.