• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Millennials to the Rescue?

Young academics, branded as industry killers, should slay these higher education traditions, too.

December 11, 2018
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson recently earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Starter homes. Marriage. Chain restaurant casual dining. Bar soap. Fabric softener. American cheese.

According to media reports, millennials nationwide are supposedly “killing” all these things. If you’re a 21- to 37-year-old grad student or early career researcher, chances are you’re being blamed (or praised) for some major economic and demographic shifts that are marking significant departures from enduring norms. We’re to take their lack of interest in these fixtures, their restrained spending habits, their embrace of perceived natural and healthy products, and their other consequential behaviors as a collective diss of longstanding institutions. As a proud Gen-Xer, I can say that in my day [at this point, adapt a craggy-sounding voice], we had our hard, slippery bar soap, and we liked it just fine. But when it comes to the real struggles that grad students of all stripes often face in higher education, millennials may be the ones to finally kill the institutions in the academy that need to die.

Insensitivity to mental health. Ignorance of the needs and inadequate support for first-generation students. Insufficient or nonexistent funds to finance conference attendance and presentations. “Veils of secrecy” between profs/advisers and budding scholars. The glorification of intense isolation from family and friends for the sake of continuous research, teaching, and course prep.

Are academic millennials the heroes we need to help kill these and other “traditions” and force much-needed change in higher ed?

If the first list, which features some of the institutions that are dying at the hands of millennials, is disconcerting to economists and industry managers, the second list certainly demands a pause and consideration among higher education leaders. It’s this list that if unchecked may continue to perpetuate some historical “traditions” that are deleterious to graduate students’ mental and physical health, scholarship success, and overall academic progress.

Social media has allowed many grad students – including those who prefer anonymity – a platform to amplify their voices on these and other concerning issues. For me, following and connecting with other academically minded peers and colleagues on the Internet has revealed their joys and pains, and triumphs and defeats that graduate student researchers, young and old, have experienced along the journey to pursuing advanced degrees. Academic millennials, in particular, are sharing their experiences, calling out for help, and saying out loud what grad students previously expressed only within the tightest of circles, if at all.

“I’d like to thank God, my Mom, and my therapist.” Recently, I read this sentiment online, which, of course, garnered numerous “likes.” Over the past several years I’ve seen variations of this refrain posted by graduate students who had achieved some monumental academic goal, such as successfully defending their dissertations, passing their comps, having articles accepted for publication or achieving promising and productive lab results. Whether or not they meant such declarations as tongue-in-cheek statements, a survey of hundreds of graduate students and faculty members from Harvard reported that mental illness on university campuses, especially, among stressed doctoral candidates, has reached epidemic levels.

All this is not to say that the burden of correcting some of higher education’s ills should rest solely at the feet of millennials; however, some of the most noteworthy changes they’ve apparently already forced within major industries illustrate their potential political power to influence significant shifts in academia.

College campuses often are hailed as bellwethers of change; so, too, should scholarly minded millennials, who helped force discussions and draw attention to the need for increased resources to address mental health and academics, who have expressed both pride and anxiety at being first-generation students, and who have conveyed their rights to have professors, mentors, and advisers who will assist and advocate on their behalf during their intensive academic pursuits.

Are there institutions in higher education that you believe should be slain? What changes have you seen millennials force in academia? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter!

[Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash and under the Creative Commons license.]

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