The fall semester is coming soon. I'm feeling the pressure. More work now is less work later, I like to tell myself. So after I write this I'm working on my syllabi. I'm thinking of new 18-year-olds in my classroom. Should I read the latest research on millennials so I know how to teach them? I suppose I could, but more likely I'll draw on two key things to remember:
1. Don't overgeneralize.
If I read a list of all the things that happened before the incoming first-year students were born, it serves as a useful reminder that students are young and professors like me are not. I was born in 1972. If I make an obscure reference to a baseball player that I loved when I was a kid (Oscar Gamble) there is no way in hell they will catch the reference. But that doesn't mean all 18-year-olds are the same. It's a mistake to paint all 18-year-olds with a broad brush and, for example, assume they're technology whiz kids. I find in conversations with students (and in simple observations) that youngsters are, in some ways, like oldsters. Some 18-year-olds have their phones in their faces while others don't. Amazing. People are different. Oldsters shouldn't assume all 18-year-olds can't function without iPhones and PowerPoint just as 18-year-olds shouldn't assume oldsters don't know anything that happened after 1986.
No, the students won't catch my Oscar Gamble reference, but some of them have watched The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Those specific movies come to mind because I can remember two of my students recently making references to them. So while I'll stay away from super obscure popular culture references, I won't avoid more obvious references. They know who Michael Jordan is and I can mention him if I talk about consumption and Nike or if I want to assert he's better than LeBron (although for the first time in my life I'm wavering on this point and close to shifting to LeBron being the better player. Stay tuned).
In conclusion, don't overgeneralize. People think and act differently. Don't broad brush. And if and when someone who is 18-years-old tells me Oscar Gamble was a clutch pinch hitter then you'll get a mea culpa from me for assuming he's too obscure a reference.
2. Treat students with respect.
The thing about 18-year-olds is that they're people and here's one thing I'm 100% confident about having lived on this warming planet for 44 years: people like to be treated with respect. You already know that, right? No one likes to be disrespected. It's true for 18-year-olds and 80-year-olds. If we do the best we can to treat students with respect, I think we'll usually find the student-professor relationship falls into place. Mistakes will be made, as they say, because we are human and thus imperfect, but we should aim to give respect to our students. They notice. They appreciate. [If you are thinking "Hey you said don't overgeneralize but you're overgeneralizing by saying all people like to be respected" then consider this an exception to my don't overgeneralize rule.]
So there you have it. Don't overgeneralize and be respectful. You're almost ready to crush it in the classroom when the new semester begins. So shape up your syllabi (sooner than later) and have fun when school is in session!