I started a new job last month. Making the change has brought with it a lot of fun and a lot of challenges, and while I’m still learning the ropes and figuring out my new role, I wanted to write at least a little bit about the transition and adapting to a new organization. I hope to write more in the next week or two, but I wanted to start with a weird thing I noticed…
As part of my onboarding process in this position, I attended new faculty orientation last week, spending a couple of days with a few dozen of my new peers from across campus, talking about our work and what we can expect of our new university. By and large, it was a really positive experience, and one that reinforced my suspicion that the chaos of uprooting my family and moving across the state has been worth the effort. It was a good move to make, and this new position will give me the chance to have new experiences and challenge a lot of my assumptions about the nature of my work. It is going to be fun.
Still, amidst all of the excitement of orientation discussions and campus initiatives, there was an odd undercurrent in the presentations that I wasn’t expecting. It’s something I’ve encountered in higher education before, but it’s not really a big part of my thinking as a librarian/teacher/person. And yet, there it was, showing up again and again.
At this point, at least some of the people reading this think I’m writing about snake people, thanks to this brilliant Chrome extension. For those that aren’t using that extension, I’ll be using the term “millennial” interchangeably with “snake people”- this way we can all join in the fun of realizing the absurdity of generalizations and labels.
I’ll admit, I didn’t fully appreciate the absurdity of that Chrome extension until last week, as I sat in those orientation sessions. The discussions about “people of a certain age” was jarring. What do they expect from faculty? How do they approach their schoolwork? How do they behave in class? What does it mean to teach these millennials? Who are these snake people?
The reason I found it jarring is because, well, I am a millennial. I am a snake person. I am, apparently, some kind of anomaly. I prefer public transportation. I compulsively check my phone. I will likely never own a home. I don’t eat meat. I have the attention span of a hummingbird. There are a million other characteristics which I embody which apparently make me of this time, but I don’t want to dig into that too much. (I’ll leave that to the Beloit List, which… guh…)
Instead, I wanted to reflect on how negative some of the generalizations I heard were. Rather than blanket allegations of narcissism to which I’ve become accustomed (insert joke about selfie sticks), I was told that “kids these days” are cheating and plagiarizing in record numbers. That, for some reason, they require more than rote lectures and scantron assessments. That they are needy in the classroom, “demanding to know what the point of the class is…” (like that’s an outrageous request?!).
I guess I was really thrown by the fact that these generalizations, and the discussions around them, were informed by two false assumptions. The first is that millennials weren’t in the room. (Hi! I’m in the room! Please tell me more about my insufficient academic integrity while you use photos in your slidedeck without attribution!) The second was that our students are all of a specific age. (you know? < barf >“traditional students”< /barf >).
Beyond the falsity of these assumptions, this kind of labeling strikes me as incredibly dangerous when conceptualizing pedagogies and curricula. I say it’s dangerous because it becomes a means through which students are made into “others.” Perceived shifts in student demographics, and the stereotypes attached to the people in those groups, become hurdles that prevent us from perpetuating a “traditional” curriculum. It’s a nostalgia which privileges “the way things used to be,” conflating that with “the way things should be,” and ignoring “the way things are.” More than that, there’s no room to consider “the way things could be.”
In practice, these assumptions lead to the view that snake people are coming in with a deficit, and that this deficit must be filled if they are to be on par with their peers from years past. They are viewed as being “outside,” and it is our job to give them directions for getting over the wall (the wall that we built, by the way). I guess this bugs me so much because I’m genuinely excited about where and when I am right now. There are more people on college campuses bringing with them more unique sets of lived experiences than at any other time in our history. Shouldn’t that be something to embrace, rather than fear? Doesn’t that mean we can have conversations that would have been impossible in the past?
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a person of intersectional privilege, and I could think of nothing more boring than talking to a bunch of people like me.
I wonder if that’s a snake person trait?