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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Bridging the Gap

By Katherine Hedland

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Kendall Blair '05

Kendall Blair '05 creates databases for science faculty members, can discuss the crisis in the Middle East with authority and knows how to navigate the Internet with ease.

But this bright, articulate 19-year-old PLU freshman has no knowledge of John Hinckley's 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. And she had never heard that three others also were hit by bullets.

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David Wolbrecht '05

"I didn't know he'd been shot," Blair said. "I think I knew there was some kind of attempt, but I thought they missed."

David Wolbrecht '05, a Regents Scholar, remembers something about the Berlin Wall falling down.

"I remember there was a big wall and a lot of people cheering then I went and played with Legos," he said.

Blair wasn't even born when Reagan was shot, so of course she doesn't remember. Wolbrecht, also 19, was only 7 when the wall crumbled in 1989.

These are examples of the generation gap that exists between today's students entering college at the traditional age of 18 and their elders. Wolbrecht and Blair agreed to discuss the generational differences to help understand how what we know because of how old we are affects how we relate to other generations.

The inherent age difference between professors and students or parents and children creates a generation gap in and of itself. But the increase in available information, the pace of technological change and the stimuli young people are exposed to has resulted in cultural differences like never before.

PLU Provost Paul Menzel said it's crucial for faculty to be aware of the knowledge their students bring with them to college, and for students to see all that the older generation has to offer.

"It takes a certain amount of generosity from all generations to get to that level of understanding," Menzel said.

Professor Tom McBride of Beloit College in Wisconsin develops a list every year to give faculty an idea of the mindset of incoming freshmen.

"One of the things we have to be aware of is that faculty get older every year so the students seem to be getting younger," he said. There has been a "hardening of references," meaning things that are culturally significant to a professor in his or her 40s have virtually no significance to an 18-year-old and can't be easily used as examples, McBride said.

For instance, today's 18-year-olds were born after the 1980-81 hostage crisis in Iran and were toddlers when the Space Shuttle exploded in 1986.

Compact discs were invented before they were born, and they have never used a record player-or even a cassette player, let alone an eight-track. A mouse has never been just a rodent to them.

Many experts in generational theory refer to those born from 1982 on as the "Millennial Generation." They made up the Class of 2000. Those in the previous generation, born from 1961 to 1981, are still called "Generation X" by some or the 13th Generation. Before that, of course, are the Baby Boomers.

PLU Campus Pastor Dennis Sepper became interested in generational theory several years ago and has done extensive research into how the gap affects relationships between college students and their elders.

"Each generation has some common experiences that define how they react to things," he said. "It bonds that generation. I'm bonded to other Boomers because of the assassination of JFK and because I stayed up until 2 in the morning watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon."

Eric Nelson '82, professor of classics at PLU, has been faculty development director for the Freshman Experience Program and is a strong advocate for integrating technology into the classroom. He concedes his comments occasionally fly by students who don't relate.

"Oftentimes when we're communicating with someone or lecturing, we do so in terms of shared knowledge as a reference point, even if it's a reference to a 'Seinfeld,' episode," he said. "That kind of shared knowledge is harder to come by."

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One of the biggest changes is the number of ways to communicate...

Generation goes from the Dewey Decimal System to the World Wide Web

The rapid shift in technology has presented some obstacles, as children are becoming experts on computers earlier and earlier in life and older people are trying to catch up.

Where students in the '80s spent hours in the library searching through card catalogs and poring over stacks of books before returning to their room to compose a paper on a typewriter, today's students are more likely to be found sipping a latte in a coffee shop while browsing the Web on a laptop computer.

"A card catalog?" Blair asked, straining to remember the relic relied upon by so many before her. "Wow, that was a long time ago-first or second grade-and then it switched to computers. I remember the switch though. That was a big deal."

Sepper says that proves his thesis that the changes in the last two decades are monumental.

"I really think there is a major cultural shift going on, and technology has accelerated that," Sepper said. "It is as big as the shift from the oral to the written word when Gutenberg invented type. It's something that only happens every 500 to 600 years."

Wolbrecht laughed when asked if he ever used a typewriter.

"Way back, when I was 5 or something to play with, but that was a one-time thing," he said.

And music? He's never seen an eight-track player.

"My parents have a record player," he said. "I don't think I've ever listened to it though."

Provost Paul Menzel cautions against making too much of the so-called generation gap.

Kendall Blair and David Wolbrecht commented on some of the major cultural events in the past two decades based on their own knowledge. Here are a few examples:

The Cold War
“I have no idea of even what the connotations of that would be for my life.” —Wolbrecht

The Challenger Explosion
“I know a little about that, I think I’ve seen the footage once.” —Blair

Waco Disaster
“I’ve heard about it before, but I couldn’t tell you what happened.” —Blair

“I knew there was something about a house in Texas.” —Wolbrecht

The Aids Epidemic
“It was just something else they taught in health.” —Wolbrecht

Desert Storm
“We watched that on TV all the time. It was kind of terrifying as a little kid.” —Blair

"Generational differences can easily be overblown," he said. "They can't be ignored, but there's something inherently trendy about talking about the generation gap. It doesn't make that big a difference—the fundamental components of a good piece of writing are the same in 2002 with a computer as they were in 1982 with a Selectric or in '62 with a manual or in 1862."

But how students go about researching and communicating is vastly different.

"One of the biggest changes is the number of ways to communicate—-with cell phones, voice mail, email, they expect you to learn about their communication and respond right away. People will get back to us in a much shorter period of time than they did 30 years ago," Menzel said.

And research is entirely different than in years past.

"I always go to the computer first," Blair said. "Then magazines and articles, and then I go to books as kind of a last-minute resort."

Blair, a biology major, says she can find almost all the scientific research she needs online.

But she understands how the computer age can be baffling to older people.

"I used a computer in first grade. I'm not afraid to mess around with it," she said. Technology has grown by such huge leaps and bounds in the last decade so I can see why it would be hard for people who haven't grown up with it. My parents and my grandparents are not really willing to explore very much. They're afraid they'll break something if they do."

But the students are keenly aware that some see using technology as the easy way to do things.

"We don't have to do anything to get ahold of someone across the country," Wolbrecht said. "I think we expect things instantaneously."

"I know a lot of older generations think we're lazy," Blair said. "It may not take us quite as long to get things done, but it's higher quality. Maybe we have a little more free time."

On the other side of the argument:

"We're almost lazier because we have the technology," Wolbrecht said.

But even at the tender age of 19, Blair already sees generational difference in those younger than she is.

"The kids I babysit are even better at using a computer than I am and they're in fifth and sixth grade," she said.

Technological advances result in changes in teaching and learning

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...the fundamental components of a good piece of writing are the same...

All this change has necessitated reforms in how professors design courses, how administrators plan events and how students respond to activities. College students these days are accustomed to TV, video and computer enhancements with flashy graphics and multiple images. Also, they prefer to be participants, rather than observers.

"They think in collage," Sepper said. "We've got to provide that kind of stimulus."
Sepper supplements sermons with images projected on screens, and uses PowerPoint presentations for youth gatherings.

"Just sitting and watching is a very Boomer thing to do," he said. "In a classroom, that can be a challenge to a professor used to standing in front of a classroom and giving a 40-minute lecture.

Sepper says most professors are making the transition, pointing out campus historian Phil Nordquist's Heritage lecture last fall. Nordquist '56 traced the history of the basketball program at PLU using huge images displayed through computer to a screen towering above him in the new high-tech lecture hall named for Nordquist.

Nelson, the classics professor, has been at the forefront of the push to integrate more technology in coursework, and he says the faculty has worked hard to keep up with advances.

"There have been big changes in a short period," Nelson said. "We used to have complaints from students who were required to get an e-mail account. Now we get complaints from students when faculty don't use e-mail and post things on the Web."

Faculty members have had to catch up technologically, then learn how to best fit what they know into their curricula. They want to supplement and improve upon their syllabi and lesson plans, not just add on extra work, Nelson said.

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research is entirely different than in years past

And they have to be prepared to help students navigate the technological sea as well.

"Students come with a wide variety of technological skills," Nelson said. "They may know how to surf the Web, but they don't really know what it is. They know how to search for something on Netscape, but they don't know about the electronic resources at the library."

Also, students now have access to seemingly endless information that doesn't go through any filter. Rather than consulting a World Book Encyclopedia like previous students, they search on the Internet and find a wealth of information—but it can't all be taken as presented. Colleges must teach students to be more critical of the information they find, to confirm sources and challenge some of what they read.

Blair said it's important to learn to look critically at online information.

"Anybody can put anything on the Web," she said. "It's important to know how to pick out what's reliable."

She and Wolbrecht said they appreciate all their older professors have to teach, but they sometime communicate better with those who sincerely try to relate to them.

Blair says most professors try hard to keep up-to-date, noting that one of her science profs even found a way to integrate pop star Britney Spears into a lecture about molecules.

At the same time, Menzel says students can't write off a professor with a white beard or gray hair-and he doesn't think they do.

"I think we have a remarkable number of older faculty who are greatly appreciated," he said. "I think it's a little more difficult for some older faculty to communicate and relate to younger students, but not that much. Humor isn't limited to culture, nor is hearing one's stories or caring about someone."

Beloit College creates frame of reference for students and faculty

Each year, Beloit College in Wisconsin assembles the Mindset List, a compila- tion of items that indicate the viewpoint and frame of reference of entering students. The vast majority of first year students in 2001-2002 are about 18, having been born in 1983.

Since Beloit started distributing the list to other colleges and the public, it has become widely circulated. It's not meant to be scientific, but to give an idea of students' frame of reference.

"What the list says to me year after year is how much this particular generation has been enjoying a really good time," said Professor Tom McBride, who oversees compilation of the list. "The '90s were really a time of peace and prosperity. This is a generation that for the most part has lived with no cold war or recession. It is important that we think about the touchstones and benchmarks of a generation that has grown up with CNN, home computers, AIDS awareness, 'Just say no' and the Bush political dynasty."

One of the most striking things to McBride is how older people view the list. "Old hippies are becoming old fogies and they're not really liking the idea," he said with a laugh.

Here are some of the things included on the Mindset lists for 18-year-olds the past three years:

  • The Kennedy tragedy was a plane crash, not an assassination.
  • They have no clue what the Beach Boys were talking about when they sang about a 409, and the Little Deuce Coupe.
  • They only know Madonna singing "American Pie."
  • They neither know who Billy Joe was, nor wonder what he was doing on the Talahatchee Bridge.
  • They have never used a bottle of White Out.
  • IBM Selectrics are antiques.
  • They feel more danger from having sex and being in school, than from possible nuclear war.
  • Recording TV programs on VCRs became legal the year they were born.
  • There has always been Diet Coke.
  • They never heard anyone say, "Book 'em, Dano," "Good night, John-boy," or "Kiss my grits," in prime time.
  • Artificial hearts have always been ticking.
  • The Social Security system has always been on the brink.
  • They have never experienced a real recession.
  • Boeing has not built the 727 since they were born.
  • They don't remember Janet Jackson when she was cute and chubby.
  • They have always had access to email.
  • Tylenol has always been impossible for children or adults to open.
  • Volkswagen beetles have always had engines in the front.
  • Ron Howard and Rob Reiner have always been balding older film directors.
  • They have probably never used carbon paper and do not know what cc and bcc mean.
  • Major newspapers have always been printed in color.
  • They are the first generation to prefer tanning indoors.
  • Most of them know someone who was born with the help of a test tube.
  • With a life expectancy of 77 years, they can anticipate living until about 2060.

 


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