Working from Home: Helpful Tips from Tom Chick While He's Also Working From Home

Nancy’s home office.
(Hey, Tom, send me a picture of yours!)

As many of us have had to shift to working from home, I asked my brother to share some advice from his many years of experience rocking the home office. –Nancy

Guest Post by Tom Chick

So you’re working from home and discovering that there’s no such thing as work or home anymore.  They’ve melted into a timeless slurry of chores and leisure. An hour here, an hour there, no hurry to get this done, might as well do a little more work on that.

As a freelance writer, I’ve inhabited this slurry for a couple of decades.  I know how to deal with it. I’m here to help. The solution to this sort of chaos — any sort of chaos, really — is boundaries. And not just establishing them, but maintaining them.

Physical boundaries are the most obvious.  If you can, set up a physical space where only work gets done.  Ideally, a separate room with a door that closes. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a cliche for a reason.  If not a separate room, maybe one end of the dining room table you don’t use very often? A coffee table in the living room that you can move to one side when you’re done?  For heaven’s sake, don’t use the same seat and screen where you watch Netflix. At the very least, have a work chair where you only sit when you’re working. Think of it as butt mindfulness.  You need something that physically and spatially defines your workspace as separate from the rest of your home.

The physical boundaries won’t help if you don’t also establish temporal boundaries.  Set a time to start and stop working. Don’t give in to the temptation to just work a bit and then do not-work for a bit, because you’re home anyway, so what harm can it do to take a break?  The greatest pitfall of working from home is time management.

For instance, it’s one thing to slack off when you’re at the office, because it’s easier to bounce back from the slacking.  But at home, you’ll discover slacking off has a whole new gravitational pull. All the amenities of home — pets, family, videogames, Netflix, your guilty pleasure bookshelf, fixing stuff in the kitchen, lazing around in the backyard — are at your fingertips.  You must carve out a time when they are prohibited. Be sure to explain this to your family, who might otherwise think you’re as good as home from work. Kids will want to play, spouses will want to hang out. Tell them you need their help with boundaries. You can try to explain this to your pets, but it won’t work.  They won’t care. You’ll just have to think of every day as “bring your pet to work” day.

And just as you have to keep home amenities out of work, keep work out of the rest of your home.  Don’t let yourself work past your cut-off time! This is one of the hardest things to do. If you thought the gravitational pull of at-home distractions was great, wait till you feel the more subtle but insidious gravitational pull of work.  Resist it. Don’t let gravity drag you across your newly defined boundaries. When you put work down for the day, leave it down.

If you’ve got a morning ritual of showering, shaving, putting on make-up, or whatever you do to get presentable at the office, keep doing that as a way of psychologically marking when work time starts. Then, when work time is over, throw on a robe and slippers. Heck, slip into your pajamas. You’re not going anywhere anyway. Nothing says boundaries quite like a change of clothes. There’s a reason Mr. Rogers took the time out to put on his sweater and sneakers at the beginning of every show, and it wasn’t just to give himself time to sing that song.

Hopefully, you’ll find this helpful.  I found it helpful as a way of not getting any work done while I wrote it.  I probably should have mentioned this won’t be easy. Good luck.

Understanding Today’s Students

Part 5 (and Last) in the Series: Implications for Our Teaching

“Trying to connect to this generation is not the same as selling out to them.”1

One of my greatest frustrations with discussions of this generation of college students is the way some talk about their protected childhood and its consequences (see “Being protected & becoming risk averse” in Part 2). This is one of the many reasons I prefer Jean Twenge’s book iGen (see Part 1), which doesn’t pull any punches on the facts but resists the judgy tone and problematic conclusions of some others.

In Part 3, I described how we might draw on these students’ experiences to inform how we think about learning (i.e., as applying and producing knowledge, and “‘serious play,’”2) and teaching (i.e., as the joint pursuit of creative complexity). Then, in Part 4, I described how we’ll need to complement their experiences with lessons in critical research and slow learning. Today, in the final installment in this series (that could go on and on), I’ll address two more areas where I think we need to dig in.

The Value of Struggle & Difficulty

Yes, they’ve been sheltered and kept close to home, which has exacerbated their discomfort with struggle and difficulty. A 2019 study by Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callaghan, and Kestin demonstrated that students may perceive the labor and delayed success of active learning and cognitive effort as not learning, and the ease and confidence resulting from passive experiences like listening to lectures as effective learning.3 The latter may be more familiar, given how they’ve experienced school thus far, so it makes sense that they may not recognize learning that doesn’t “feel like” learning. (The Deslauriers et al., study is titled “Actual learning versus the feeling of learning.”)

But this doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t learn through struggle, difficulty, discomfort, etc. Think about the disconnect between this generation’s risk-aversion and desire for ease–and gaming, which is “centered on solving problems before they can move to the next level” and where “they realize that each time they fail, they have just learned one more strategy and now know that it won’t work.”4 They do have experience (and probably joy!) with resilience, persistence in the face of difficulty, productive struggle, appreciation of challenge, grit, a growth mindset, and more. Context matters. Effective learning connects new experiences to prior ones, so why are they willing and able to deploy these important ways of thinking and being in some contexts, but not (apparently) in our classes?

One reason is clearly our grading system. You know what I’m going to say next. Grading solely on high-stakes assignments (i.e., summative assessment) actively penalizes those very experiences that we want students to bring to class, described above. A grading system that integrates plenty of low-stakes opportunities for practicing new skills, making mistakes, rebooting and trying again (i.e., formative assessment) encourages and cultivates these skills in the new context of college learning.

There are plenty of resources out there for building in more formative assessments, such as this piece from Edutopia, this page from Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and this page from the Center at Indiana University.

In addition to building in and recognizing the role of struggle in the learning process, we can also normalize academic struggle by making it transparent. Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty introduces a small but powerful activity called “the difficulty paper.” Their prompt is below, worth quoting in full.

These brief (1/2- to 1-page) writings are examples of a low-stakes formative assessment (win!) that encourages metacognition (winwin!) about the relevance and importance of struggle (winwinwin!), bringing it front and center into the regular part of the learning experience.

These are papers in which you identify and begin to hypothesize the reasons for any possible difficulty you might be experiencing as you read the assigned texts. Each week, you will write a difficulty paper. Each week, I will select one or two of them as unusual or representative examples of the readings you produce. I will photocopy, distribute, and use them to ground our discussions. My goal, in doing so, is to move all of us from judging a difficulty as a reader’s inability to understand a text to discerning in it a reader’s incipience awareness of the particular “demands” imposed by the language/structure/ style/content of a text.5

The idea here isn’t to “water down” content or sacrifice rigor. The idea is to make the experience of learning (as we see it) recognizable, to offer them a “way in” by connecting to their prior experiences that may be from other contexts.

In-Person Interactions & Interpersonal Skills

Finally (for this series, that is), we don’t do this generation of students any favors by letting them interact primarily in digital spaces. Twenge’s book and Gretchen McCulloch’s delightful Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language offer thoughtful discussions of how these students have been using various technologies for interactions that are far more complex and meaningful than we appreciate. But they do, as a result, have less experience with in-person interactions and all of their subtlety and nuance. I won’t belabor the consequences, but consider the resistance to group work, the difficulty with sexual messaging, employers’ ongoing pleas for more attention to teamwork, and their well-documented increase in loneliness with this generation.

Hybrid or blended courses with some components intentionally shifted to the online environment, online office hours that offer greater flexibility and access for students when they’re off campus, digital assignments and activities that motivate these students by drawing on their strengths–all of these are positive developments in higher education. But let’s also look at how we design face-to-face activities as teachable moments. Let’s make the roles and rules for different contexts transparent, such as the following:

Show them what effective use of office hours looks like, and think about your office hours pedagogy.
–How do you help them use that time as practice in a certain kind of interaction?
–See this article in Inside Higher Ed, and this article in the Faculty Focus newsletter, and this study from the journal InSight and this page from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Learning Center.

Give them specific roles and describe the skills for working in groups and teams.
–What does a “facilitator” do?
How does a “devil’s advocate” disagree constructively?
How does a substantive “amplifyer” build on others’ good ideas?
–What do they need to listen for when their classmates talk?
–How can they engage “social loafers,” or groupmates who aren’t doing their part?

Oh goodness, this is already a long post, and I really need to get back to focusing on my in-person interactions with campus colleagues. I hope these brief explanations and strategies are useful. Most importantly, though, read Twenge’s iGen because the key really is not in having a toolkit of techniques but in better understanding the students who are actually in our classrooms. Effective practices will follow.

1 Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter (2019) “Creating an iGen Pedagogy” in National Teaching and Learning Forum
2 Erica McWilliam, “Teaching Gen Z” (2015), available online here
3 Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestin (2019) “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” (available online here)
4 Darla Rothman (2014) “A Tsunami of Learners Called Generation Z” (available online here)
5 Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty

Image credit: “5/365: Weight-ing Patiently” by kalebdf is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Understanding Today’s Students

Part 4 in the Series: Implications for Our Teaching

“They may comfortably become passive consumers of their education…. It is our responsibility as faculty to not let this happen.”1

Because of some of the characteristics of iGen students (see Parts 1, 2, and 3), some of our work as teachers is both more difficult and more important. When I review these characteristics and think about my interactions with them—and with my colleagues who interact with them—a few key areas come to mind where I think we need to dig in. 

Insert noises of frustration here.
I have so many thoughts but don’t want to write a book of blog posts,
so I’ll focus on just a few below.

Research & Information Literacy

I see this iGen cohort as natural researchers, in a way–in their curiosity and their readiness to act on that curiosity.  As a result, they may see research processes and information literacy as unnecessary–even more than previous generations–because they already know how to “research.”  But this research is fast: they quickly find, quickly believe, and quickly use information. This speed serves them well in some circumstances, not in others.

What do we do?  As with all good teaching, addressing students’ prior knowledge is crucial:

“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.”2

We know that we have to teach what research looks like and how it works in our fields, but we need to also teach it in juxtaposition with how research has worked in their lives thus far. 

— How are these models of research similar?  Different? 
— What are their purposes, processes, and results? 
— What kinds of questions can (and can’t) be answered by each?
— How are the knowledges produced by these different models different?
— Why does it matter?

Gerald Graff offers a possible entrypoint for this conversation with students in “Hidden Intellectualism,” in which he compares the “nonacademic” fascination with baseball with academic expertise.

And following on my previous points about what iGen’s learning might look like (Part 2), we can’t just tell them, “Do research this way because it’s better.” We have to “meddle” with them (Part 2), and they need to practice, struggle with, apply, and play with these different approaches to research (Part 3).  

Slow Thinking & Learning

“Meaningful learning is slow learning. Students need time and practice to think, be curious, make mistakes, and re-think.”3

Given how they have experienced time (see “Chunked time, not narrative time” in Part 3), this generation of college students is less familiar and less comfortable with deliberation.  Although some may be adept at immersive videogames, “These otherwise fast smart young people”4 need guidance and practice in work that is slow:

  • Carrying out long-term projects
  • Paying close and sustained attention
  • Reading long texts, carefully
  • Thinking and speaking in paragraphs
  • “Staying in the grey of ‘not yet’”5

I’m not saying we should fill our syllabi with all of the above, but as they are relevant to our courses, let’s neither shy away from nor apologize for this kind of challenge.  This is what we mean by ‘rigor,’ isn’t it?

But as I said in Part 2, “we can’t simply teach challenge and difficulty the same way we always have and expect the same result.” We can model these processes, and be explicit about their purpose. We can build in low-stakes practice, feedback, room for mistakes, and metacognition through which they reflect on these processes.

I’ll wrap up this series in Part 5 by writing about two other areas where we can (and probably should) address some gaps in their experience.

1 Christine Chun, Kelly Dudoit, Shirl Fujihara, Mariana Gerschenson, Ann Kennedy, Brad Koanui, Veronica Ogata, and Jeff Stearns (2016) “Teaching Generation Z at the University of Hawai’i” (available online here)
2 Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (available online here)
3 Nancy L. Chick & Peter Felten (2020) “Slow: Liberal Learning for and in a Fast-Paced World” in Redesigning Liberal Education (eds. William Moner, Phillip Motley, & Rebecca Pope-Ruark)
4-5 Erica McWilliam, “Teaching Gen Z” (2015), available online here

Image credits: “Search.” by Jeffrey Beall is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and There couldn’t possibly be a better…” by nashworld is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Understanding Today’s Students

Part 3 in the Series: Implications for Our Teaching

Yesterday, I described some overarching experiences and the resulting traits found in this generation of college students called iGen. Today, I’m going to consider what learning might look like for these students.

From Learning by Consuming & Reproducing to Learning by Applying & Producing

In many ways, they’ve been educated in consuming or reproducing what’s already known:

“With moral panics around declining literacy levels and with policy settings fixed on standardised curriculum and testing, young people could be forgiven for presuming that learning is about passing tests or pleasing parents and teachers. Moreover, students can be a most powerful force for conservatism once they have been enculturated into schooling as passive consumers: ‘Just give us the 10 main points and we will serve them back to you in exams!’”1

Their learned approach to school—“allocating most of their effort to graded assignments, seeking information about the grading criteria and trying to negotiate over instructors’ grading decisions”—make sense when considering these experiences.2

Now, although they’re accustomed to quick answers and shortcuts, they want to get beyond what’s already known or “’Ungoogle-able’”3 and do something beyond what’s known–or beyond what they know.  This may come out as the following:

  • frustration or boredom with memorization, worksheets, anything with a hint of reviewing “old” knowledge,
  • “intolerance for being lectured to or talked at,”4
  • “prefer[ence for] engaging with multi-functional gadgets and with websites, apps, and social media outlets that invite them to be interactive creators, disseminators and evaluators of ‘stuff’ – of texts, sounds, images and any combination of these.”5

Mike Neary’s notion of students as producers rather than consumers of knowledge is a way of thinking about the possibilities that directly responds to this change in how students want to experience learning. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has embraced this approach as its annual theme for the last year years.

Learning as Play: A (The?) Skill of the 21st Century

“The ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century.”6

In “New Learning Environments for the 21st Century,” John Seely Brown describes play as “a questing disposition,” which is “learning to be” and not “learning about,” “innovation” and “not typical problem solving.” It is the “ability to engage in experimentation.”7

The play of iGen is embodied by what an ethnography by sociologists Horst, Herr-Stephenson, and Robinson8 describes as three different “genres of participation” in “different social groups and cultural affiliations” and in new media. These three types of participation (which became the title of the broader book9) are as follows:

“hanging out”
the social spaces & activities of getting together (online, offline), often with friends, sharing information and stories, and “work-arounds, back channels, and multitasking”
“messing around”
“fortuitous searching” or “looking around,” “experimentation and play,” finding new times and spaces for these activities
“geeking out”
growing “expertise and geek cred,” “rewriting the rules” and other limitations, and “having what it takes” within a “highly social and engaged…community of expertise” not necessarily made up of friends but mostly with peers with similar interests10

These familiar activities “could,” say Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, “frame a progression of learning” or even a New Culture of Learning, as suggested in their book’s title.11 What might this look like?

  • We would “re-imagine the learning process as one in which our students … experience the pleasure of the rigour of complex thinking through serious play.”12
  • We would develop learning environments where students–and where we!–can be “curious, energetic, creative, dynamic, synergistic, imaginative and fearless in the face of an unpredictable, competitive, fast-paced, technologically-demanding, emergent world.”13
  • Our courses would “[engage] in ‘serious play’ with slippery concepts across and beyond traditional disciplines.”14 For example, a class that’s built around the question,

“‘How would you explain plastics to Henry the Eighth?’ moves both the History teacher and the Science teacher away from their traditional turf. It is valuable not only for the fact that it is ‘Ungoogle-able’, but also because there is no one correct answer. And its value lies in the space it creates for imagining and creating as well as for investigating both the properties of plastics and Tudor times. This sort of play is predicated on holding incompatible ideas together to create a third unanticipated space or idea.”15

We might thus think of teaching and learning as the joint pursuit of creative complexity.

But really, this is just a start. So much more work is to be done on how we can expand our approaches to teaching and learning to draw on the strengths of this generation of students.

In Part 4, I’ll offer some ideas for how we can address their experience gaps and faulty expectations.

Read Part 4.

1 Erica McWilliam, “Teaching Gen Z” (2015), available online here
2 Rebecca D. Cox (2009) The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
3-5 McWilliam
6-7 John Seely Brown (2005) “New Learning Environments for the 21st Century” (available online here)
8 Heather A. Horst, Becky Herr-Stephenson, and Laura Robinson (2010) “Media Ecologies” in Ito, et al.
9 Mizuko Ito, Sonja Baumer, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Rachel Cody, Becky Herr-Stephenson, Heather A. Horst, Patricia G. Lange, Dilan Mahendran, Katynka Z. Martínez, C. J. Pascoe, Dan Perkel, Laura Robinson, Christo Sims, Lisa Tripp (2010) Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out
10 Horst, Herr-Stephenson, and Robinson
11 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change
12 McWilliam
13 Christine Chun, Kelly Dudoit, Shirl Fujihara, Mariana Gerschenson, Ann Kennedy, Brad Koanui, Veronica Ogata, and Jeff Stearns (2016) “Teaching Generation Z at the University of Hawai’i” (available online here)
14-15 McWilliam

Featured image credit: Napina Biceps Icon Free – Bicep Png

Understanding Today’s Students

Part 2 in the Series: Implications for Our Teaching

Technology as part of life

“Growing up in an always-connected cloud-based environment of data, friends, and entertainment is what distinguishes [them] from generations before them.”1

For students in the iGen generation, technology has been simply part of their daily lives.  More specifically, the onset of the smartphone in 2007 and the relatively easy access to information have shaped their experiences.

As a result, the following are familiar: uninterrupted connectedness, easy access to information and answers, instant results, quick and constant feedback, shortcuts (“Cheating and hacking are considered brilliant…”2), and infrequent in-person social interactions.

Erica McWilliam’s “Teaching Gen Z” has a fascinating section contrasting Freddie Mercury’s (singular, charismatic) 1985 Live-Aid performance with the more current Blue Man Group performances (“playfulness,” “relentless … activity, with multiple things going on at any one time and multiple identities performing in multiple ways, including the audience”) as illustrative of the shift in what engages this generation’s attention — “’hands on, minds on, plugged in.’”3

Their technology-infused lives have many implications for our teaching, some of which I describe below and in subsequent posts in this series. These students don’t necessarily want technology to dominate their learning environments, but since it’s been part of their regular experience, its absence is noticeable—especially when it would facilitate or improve learning.

Being protected & becoming risk averse

Much is written about iGen’s expectation for “safety.” Their youth is largely spent as “’home bodies,’ staying close to their digital gadgets and … their parents,” spending time in the unsafe outside only when it’s structured and coordinated by adults, and “stay[ing] dependent and vulnerable well into childhood.”4 The frequent awards, rewards, and congratulations to promote self-esteem in their earlier years (similar to the previous generation) reinforces and extends this expectation of protection, safety, and risk-avoidance. As a result, they have far less experience with alcohol, drugs, driving, and sex than previous generations of students.

When they come to college, then, these students aren’t used to discomfort, uncertainty, failure, and struggle. They prefer “’low challenge’ learning tasks leading to ‘easy success’ over ‘high challenge’ tasks that demand intellectual risk-taking.”5 This doesn’t mean they’re lazy. It doesn’t mean they can’t be challenged. It does mean we can’t simply teach challenge and difficulty the same way we always have and expect the same result.

Chunked time, not narrative time

“Learning activity … moves beyond the singular, silent individual working routinely, to engaging with communities of shared interests which are themselves liable to fragment and/or merge with others. … learning action is more sideways, slippery and short-term than vertical, linear and lasting.”6

iGen’s experience of time is punctuated. Episodic. Chunked. Staccato. As McWilliam suggests in the quote above, in learning and other activities, they dip in, skip over, engage, disengage, and reengage. They multitask (or task-switch, actually), and they move–and move on–quickly.

In Present Shock, Douglass Rushkoff describes this experience of time as part of “presentism” in which “Everything is live, real-time, and always on” because the past and future are out of mind. It’s about being “’of the moment’” rather than “in the moment.”

Rushkoff would also point out that this chunking of time predates the internet in a different kind of surfing: “the remote control changed the way we relate to television, its commercials, and the story structure on which both depended.”  A consequence is “narrative collapse”: we’ve lost the old stories and narratives, which are longer and more labor-intensive, and which frame time as past-present-future. But a new kind of narrative, Rushkoff says, provides meaning now:

“Computer games may, in fact, be popular culture’s first satisfactory answer to the collapse of the narrative.” Gamers have taken on narrative authority: “Instead of finding new storytellers, they become the equivalent of the storytellers themselves.” Computer and videogames “engage with players in an open-ended fashion, they communicate through experience instead of telling, they invite players into the creative process,” and they are infinite without rules, “boundaries,” and “fixed endings.”7

Class periods focused on a single activity—especially if the students are passive—will struggle to motivate this generation. Varied in-class practice and participation (e.g., interactive games, collaborative activities, individual and team challenges) are more likely to motivate them.

Here’s also where the notion of multimodal presentation comes into play for me. Integrating visual elements and activities when relevant and possible will help break up singular modes of communicating with students and enhance what they can take in by dual-coding. It will also help keep these students motivated, engaged, and in somewhat familiar territory. (Note: this does not mean they are “visual learners.” That whole idea of being a “kind of learner” who does better when we teach to their specific learning style is bogus.)

Co-Inquiry with Peers & Professors

“Faculty need to acknowledge that students possess great ideas about how teaching can be improved to increase their engagement in the classroom.”8

This generation’s everyday experiences also affect how they may best interact with their classmates and with us. Although they are “used to solitary research on a smartphone or computer,”9 purposeful, well-designed team-based and collaborative activities—especially virtual activities—will resonate with them.

McWilliam describes the “meddler in the middle” as a generation’s alternative to “guide on the side,” which was an alternative to “sage on the stage.”10 This approach to teaching is “both interactive and interventionist, positioning the teacher and student as mutually involved in assembling and dis-assembling cultural products.”11 It gives students some level-appropriate choice and flexibility in their learning. It also sets up a collaborative dynamic between teacher and learner—now co-inquirers, “co-directors and co-editors12—in which “the faculty is learning and doing, making mistakes, and engaging in trial and error, alongside students.”13

McWilliam also enumerates how model has implications for what’s considered “’good teaching’”:

  1. “less time giving instructions and more time spent being a usefully ignorant team member in the thick of the learning action;
  2. less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter, risk-taker and learner;
  3. less time spent being a forensic classroom auditor and more time spent being a designer, editor and assembler of high challenge tasks;
  4. less time spent being a counsellor and ‘best buddy’ and more time spent being a collaborative critic and authentic evaluator; and,
  5. less emphasis on grades and more emphasis on the achievement of PBs (personal bests).”14

In Part 3, I’ll describe some of what this means for “learning” for this generation.

Read Part 3.

1 Christine Chun, Kelly Dudoit, Shirl Fujihara, Mariana Gerschenson, Ann Kennedy, Brad Koanui, Veronica Ogata, and Jeff Stearns (2016) “Teaching Generation Z at the University of Hawai’i” (available online here)
2 Darla Rothman (2014) “A Tsunami of Learners Called Generation Z” (available online here)
3-6 Erica McWilliam (2015) “Teaching Gen Z” (available online here)
7   Douglass Rushkoff (2013) Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
8    Chun et al.
9 Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter (2019) “Creating an iGen Pedagogy” in National Teaching and Learning Forum
10-12 McWilliam
13 Chun et al.
14 McWilliam

Understanding Today’s Students

Part 1 in a Series

Originally, I set out to write a few paragraphs in an email responding to colleagues’ comments about struggling to understand the current generation of college students.

But I now have too much to say, and I don’t want to simplify more than necessary. That email has now grown into a series of drafted blog posts. I have the content mapped out, but I’m already regretting how much I have to omit. I have other work to do, and you don’t want to read a full article (or more) disguised as a blog.

“Students these days are different.”

Yes, they are. But the explanations that often follow this observation too easily drift into territory that doesn’t sit well with me. They’re too superficial, too insulting, too blindly nostalgic, or too bent on blaming.

These students have been referred to as Generation Z, the Anxious Generation, Memennials, the Homeland Generation, and more. But the most fair, data-rich, reasonable discussion of the current generation of students I’ve found is Jean Twenge’s book iGen, the name she gives the generation born between approximately 1995 and 2012.

iGen book cover

Caveat: “[W]hen we speak of a particular ‘generation’ – Baby Boomer, Gen X, Y or Z – we are inevitably talking aggregates, not individuals. [The name given to any generation] is a construct that allows us to simplify (and also to by-pass) the complexity and multifaceted nature of individual behaviour…. [It’s] a short-hand for pulling together masses of disparate psychological, sociological, demographic and other data in order to render large and diverse populations both homogeneous and distinctive as age-based social categories.”1

Watch Twenge introduce her idea of iGen in this 5-minute clip (and notice how she keeps trying to resist oversimplifying):

I’ve read Twenge’s article in The Atlantic, watched her TEDTalk, and looked at the summaries, but none quite captures what the book does.

Read the book. Or listen to the audiobook.


In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield urges us to investigate our teaching from our students’ perspectives (among others). To do that, we need to understand the experiences and expectations they bring with them.

Without this understanding, we risk the disconnect described by a professor who famously went back to school disguised as a student: “’I could see why my former ‘solutions’ had not changed [students’] behavior…. I often design solutions to student problems that do not address the actual source of the problem.’”2  

We may also assume students aren’t “much concerned about learning,” but “A more thorough examination of students’ orientation to college…reveals that students sincerely hoped to learn something important and meaningful in college.”3 We need to find out what they mean by learning.

Given this ease of misunderstanding, an unfortunate gap in most of the explanations of this generation is a thoughtful discussion specifically for those of us in higher education. Most advice is directed toward parents (“Protect them less!”), K-12 schools (“Challenge them more!”), and cognitive behavior therapists (“Reframe their thinking!”), but what about college teachers?

What are the implications for our teaching? We can build on these students’ experiences and expectations. We can also address their experience gaps and faulty expectations.

I’ll explore these implications in the rest of this series, starting tomorrow.

Read Part 2.

Rollins colleagues, the book is now available from Olin Library via online access

1 Erica McWilliam (2015) “Teaching Gen Z” (available online here)
2 Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year qtd. Cox
3 Rebecca D. Cox (2009) The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another

Featured image Photo Credit: Sixskinsia Flickr via Compfightcc

SoTL as Public Scholarship

My discussion-starting handout for the Elon conversations.

Earlier this year, I spoke with a few groups of faculty at Elon University about academic blogging as public scholarship, especially when thinking about our work in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  The blogosphere invites us, as David Perry acknowledges, “to experiment  with form rather than content, to find ways to make an academic concept accessible to a broader public.”  Beyond blogs, though, the 21st century provides us with plenty of other public spaces where we can and should be communicating what we know and what we want to know in SoTL.

I acknowledge that I’m a little late to this particular party.  The SoTL Advocate‘s Jen Friberg, Kathleen McKinney, and guest bloggers, and ISSOTL’s social media (Twitter, Facebook, and the ISSOTL blog) powered by Jessie Moore immediately come to mind as just a few of the platforms extending the reach of SoTL beyond academic journals, books, and conferences. More of us need to be reaching out, though, and we need to reach even further — to the platforms frequented by that broader public beyond the university.

Contrary to the arguments against academics taking to the social media streets, where apparently our “power … evaporates” or we’re purportedly reduced to “rancorous factionalism” (Fraser, 2019), I believe we can, in fact, effectively contribute in these public spaces. (I confess that Fraser’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article asserting that “Social media has made scholars impatient, vicious, and dull” is what inspired agitated me to finally write this post.)  As Dan Bernstein has observed, “SoTL-active faculty members are already telling the story of teaching” and serving a kind of translational role between our local campuses and various “external intellectual communities” (2013, p. 36, 38)–not to mention translational roles between different disciplines.  We’re used to think about communicating within and across different audiences, practicing (but certainly not perfecting) an agility in how we talk about our knowledge and our work. So we’re primed for what we might call SoTL as public scholarship.

The two have common roots in Ernest Boyer’s expansion of recognized scholarships: his notion of “the scholarship of teaching” (1990) grew into SoTL, and his later description of “the scholarship of engagement” (1996) encompasses what we now call public scholarship, with the goal of developing spaces where “the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other” in order to “[connect] the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems” (p. 27).

Goettel and Haft’s (2010) definition is often cited when describing public scholarship. More often than not, though, it’s excerpted in a seemingly definitive list of requirements, but I here paste it in full to include its flexibilities:

In the arts, humanities, and design disciplines, engagement is initiated by artists, scholars, design professionals, and citizens, and encompasses multiple types of knowledge creation. Such scholarship and practice can take a variety of forms including work that expands the place of public scholarship in higher education itself by developing new engagement programs, methodologies, and evaluation metrics, as well as artistic, critical, and historical work that contributes to public debates and to understanding pressing social issues. Often, such scholarly and creative work is jointly planned and carried out through campus and community partnerships. The basic unit of such work is more often the project than the course. The final products of this activity also can take a variety of forms, such as books intended for broad audiences, community dialogues, art installations, and collectively conceived performances. (p. 363)

Their chapter’s focus on the arts, humanities, and design–fields that aren’t always at the center of traditional conceptions of “scholarship” or research–is helpful in illustrating more broadly the range of possibilities for what public scholarship might look like, and what SoTL as public scholarship might look like.  Here are just a few starting thoughts inspired by Goettel and Haft’s definition:

  • SoTL as public scholarship can be “initiated by [practitioners], scholars, … professionals, and citizens,” so the work can start with questions and concerns from lots of places, not just our classrooms (where we most often start), which means that its “basic unit” may be “the project more than the course.”
  • SoTL as public scholarship can be “jointly planned and carried out through campus and community partnerships,” and can “contribute to public debates and to understanding pressing social issues.”
  • SoTL as public scholarship “encompasses multiple types of knowledge creation” and “can take a variety of forms,” including but not limited to “artistic, critical, and historical work,” as well as “books intended for broad audiences, community dialogues, art installations, and collectively conceived performances,” and more.
  • SoTL as public scholarship “expands [its] place … in higher education itself by developing new engagement programs, methodologies, and evaluation metrics.”

Imagine what this might look like. Quick: think about some of our most pressing social issues or public debates. Better yet, ask someone off campus. In what ways might SoTL contribute, challenge, resolve, or illuminate?