Monday, July 30, 2007

Today's Narcissistic Students

I came to campus today, in the middle of summer (my "time off") to prepare for my fall classes. I was greeted with the Summer 2007 edition of "FACCCTS: Journal of The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges." I proceeded to flip through the pages and found the article "'I, Me, Mine' on Steroids -- Are Today's College Students and Young People More Narcissistic?" written by Suzanne Crawford, English professor at Cerritos College. The article comments on the supposed self-centeredness and rudeness that some professors identify as a brewing epidemic amongst today's younger generation of "millennials" or the "net-generation." The current dialogue about "narcissism" surfaced after a "research" survey was published last spring out of UC San Diego. The "study" was, interestingly, released in tandem with Twenge's book "Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before: Generation Me."

I have concerns about this growing dialogue amongst faculty. It seems to me that many college professors are eager to jump into this discussion and identify examples from their classrooms that support the "narcissistic" characteristics of their younger students: they arrive late, they are more likely to turn in homework late and expect it to be accepted despite a clearly articulated policy in the syllabus, they pay their tuition and 'expect' a good grade in return. All of this self-centeredness, according to the "I, Me, Mine" argument by Crawford and Twenge are a result of new forms of social networking technologies like MySpace and YouTube which encourage, heaven forbid, self-expression and sharing of one's personal experiences.

I read this situation much differently and I am, frankly, very concerned that the eagerness of faculty to jump on board with this dialogue is doing nothing more than expanding the gap between "us" and "them." First, we all should critically approach Twenge's theory. The students that were surveyed responded more positively than previous generations to questions like, "I think I am special" and "If I ruled the world it would be a better place." Could we not read this as a positive shift? Do we, as educators, negate the importance of believing in one's power to leave a positive impression on the world and embrace our own uniqueness? As a mother, I would only hope to see my child respond positively to these questions. Are we, as educators, saying we want our students to view themselves as meek, insignificant, powerless creatures?

I do agree that I have students who seem to "not get" the importance of timeliness and expect more forgiveness when an assignment is late. I do not bend on my policies in my classes but I also want to stress that most of my students are engaged, present and eager to learn. I recently learned that local high schools (I am in Placer County in California) have adopted a "no fail" grading process. This means there is no such thing as receiving an F. Students who do not meet the criteria to pass a class are provided with a "no mark" which means they are provided with another chance to complete the necessary work before they are graded. This to, to me, is more indicative of a cause of the traits highlighted in the Crawford article than social networking.

Interesting to me is the fact that Crawford noted a 2006 publication titled "Are They Really Ready To Work?" which sites comments from employers who note a lack of "profesionalism and work ethic in young people." Colleagues, are we preparing the Millennial Generation for success? Do you feel you are teaching your students the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century? Have you considered what these skills are? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies some of these skills as problem solving, finding innovative solutions to everyday challenges (i.e. creativity), and working collaboratively with a diverse group. We need to ask ourselves if *we* have these skills because if we do not, how can we teach them?

Herein lies the heart of the issue. Today's educational model is providing today's students with skills needed to succeed in the 20th century, not a digital society that requires the ability to learn independently, think for oneself and make sense of endless streams of information (including textual, auditory and visual information). Perhaps the disconnect educators are observing in the classroom has to do with the fact that most professors today do not have these 21st century skills and, therefore, are not crafting their students' learning experiences to ensure they are leaving our classrooms with applicable skills. Is the "rudeness" we perceive simply a lack of connectedness or engagement? Students today are used to personalization, self-expression and being part of a network. Then they enter our classrooms and they're told to sit down, read the syllabus, follow the rules and learn.

I know, I're thinking I'm "one of them." I'm one of those educators who lets my students walk all over me and never incorporates "rigor" into my curriculum. I assure you my students work hard and the follow rules. However, they are also given options and opportunities to share their thoughts. My students know they are part of a community; I expect them to help each other and contribute. Instead of viewing technology (like MySpace and iPods) as a threat to human evolution, I view social networking and digital tools with excitement because of their potential to engage my students and enhance their learning. I have transformed my way of teaching in the past two years to include web-based assignments (including lectures as podcasts and online movies) and require students to create blogs that are, essentially, online journals that are viewable and commented on by the entire class. Learning is non-linear in my classes, much like the learning patterns of today's younger students. My students learn as much from each other as they do from me. Students need to be taught to solve problems instead of recite information. Education today is about teaching students to use information, not giving students information.

Yes, MySpace and YouTube place individuals on center stage. They also promote collaboration, sharing and creativity (all right-brain traits, by the way). Isn't this a format educators could adopt to share teaching ideas and collaborate on projects? Couldn't we learn from the Millennial landscape? For years, I have heard colleagues discussing their interest in getting students to engage and participate in discussions. Don't social networking technologies hold potential for this in education? Our classrooms no longer have four walls if we are willing to step inside the shoes of our students and explore the tools they use to interact.

My concern, again, is that I see a large number of faculty willing to contribute to the discussion about "today's narcissistic students." Whether or not Twenge's theory has validity is open to interpretation; however, the energy it is creating is widening the gap between professors and students. Educators teach the importance of making decisions within a context. If you are a an educator, I encourage you to reconsider the perceived lack of etiquette and interest you may have identified in your students and examine your teaching methods. The rest of society has adapted to our societal shift into the digital age, when will higher education do the same?
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