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One of the cardinal rules of teaching is to know thy audience. This is particularly important given that the generation gap between ourselves and our students inevitably grows over time. To paraphrase the deeply profound line from Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused: you get older … they stay the same age.

When we keep our finger on the pulse of the changing undergraduate culture of our institutions and the individual identities of our students, we are better able to connect in the classroom. This is not about making them like us. Rather, it is about establishing the necessary rapport to drive home subject matter effectively. Some of the most effective learning environments are those that connect what our students learn to their overall life experience. Making the effort to know where our students are coming from also helps us to maintain our own empathy levels, a feeling that is sometimes fleeting after one too many student emails addressing us by “hey.”

But how? Although essays on teaching commonly exhort us to know our audience, they rarely explain how. A few professors take extreme measures. Take, for example, anthropologist Michael Wesch, who hangs out with his students and produces “Life101” podcasts about the experience. Or consider Rebekah Nathan, who, after re-enrolling as a college student and living in the dorms, produced an insightful ethnography of modern college life.

While the average faculty member is unlikely to go to such lengths, it’s worth taking a look at the conclusions they draw from their experiences. For the rest of us, there are a few simple techniques, some of which come quite naturally, to get a basic character sketch of who our students are. We suggest that you:

Use your online roster. At the most basic level, we can start by connecting student names with faces. Whereas we used to have students wear name tags or photograph the class and then write names on the photo, online enrollment software now available in many institutions makes this association process easy. Online roster data can also give professors an advance sense for classroom demographics, as well as students’ majors and years. Knowing whether the class consists primarily of majors, for example, allows instructors to make certain assumptions about whether students enter with background information about the subject matter.

Understand student population trends at your institution. Despite the wealth of quantitative information that already exists about our students, their identity remains a mystery for many professors. Most colleges and universities have an office of institutional research that can provide reports showing how trends have changed among students (and faculty members) at your institution over time. It’s often possible to get department-level student data. When we work with our faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, we often show them trends from the CIRP Freshman Survey and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which contain demographic information, student opinions and values, and past experiences. Many other institutions participate in these surveys, allowing us to assess how our students may differ in important ways from the national average.

Sometimes our faculty members are surprised by the trends. For example, the NSSE shows that 65 percent of our seniors at UMass report working off-campus while juggling a full load of classes, and more than 60 percent of our entering first-year students expect to take out student loans. Knowing what our students are experiencing outside the three hours a week we spend together in the classroom is an important check. And, of course, it’s always a shock to remind ourselves how much money our students and their families are paying for tuition, room and board each year.

Seek out individual stories. While having an awareness of the broad strokes of our student population is important and gives us a sense for what the overall student culture may be like, we can also source individual information directly from our students themselves. Some faculty members start off each semester by asking their students to fill out a getting-to-know-you form. That can help to collect relevant information about students’ reasons for taking the class and their background knowledge, and it’s also an opportunity to learn a little bit about them personally.

Some professors ask students to write about their academic and extracurricular interests, as well as what their favorite books, TV series, movies and the like. Such information can provide a useful hook for capturing student interest when introducing specific topics in class. Incorporating relevant student interests into the way we frame our content is not dumbing it down, but rather making ideas more relatable and engaging. And being able to quickly reference a student’s personal information before meeting with them for office hours goes a long way toward helping the professor or TA understand where the student is coming from. As the semester goes on, many professors also have their students engage in journaling and other sorts of class assignments that provide personal insights.

Tune in to local student culture. Everyone has experienced being at a concert when the lead singer references some small detail about their city. Even a comment as generic as “Hello, Chicago!” can make the crowd go wild. While our students hardly see us as rock stars, reminding them that they are part of a larger community is also effective in the classroom. Referencing something the students all have in common reminds them of their shared connection and brings the class together. When students feel comfortable and a sense of belonging, it facilitates their willingness to engage in class and the learning process.

An effective way to keep abreast of the local zeitgeist is to read the student newspaper. One faculty member reports showing images from the students’ own annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities when teaching about how we understand national and local cultures globally. Some faculty members occasionally dine at the student eating commons so that they can see what student life is like outside the classroom. And almost every institution has online top-10 lists and a steady stream of memes that are adapted to local campus issues and circulated by students.

These unofficial sources provide insights, often humorous, into student culture and potential classroom references that can be effective ways to draw students in. Another way to tune in is via social media apps like Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. (See how college students tend to use each of these here.) In particular, Yik Yak and Snapchat’s Campus Stories are each powerful lenses into student Weltanschauung. Some faculty members are self-described lurkers who have installed these apps on their phones in order to keep up with what students are doing and thinking.

The popular Snapchat Campus Stories feature allows people from a specific campus to upload pictures and narrative in an unfolding, communal story. Yik Yak, a largely anonymous app that sources comments from the geographic vicinity of the local college campus, is less regulated and can be highly problematic; however, many comments posted to the app are prosaic reflections of everyday student life. With Yik Yak, the private becomes public, sometimes revealing the inner, vulnerable thoughts of our college students. Because it is one of the few locally crowdsourced forms of anonymous social media, Yik Yak reflects what many of our students are feeling and thinking, for better or for worse. It may disappoint some faculty to see that academic-related posts are far less frequent than those related to dorm life and sundry extracurriculars, but we quote two recent postings at our institution that reference the classroom:

“Took a lot of courage and my heart was pounding like a &*# but I just spoke out in a class 300 ppl and I have serious social anxiety.”

“One of my professors just asked me if I want to write a paper with him. Omfg! omfg! omfg! I’m almost in tears, I’m so happy.”

This is the kind of thing we sometimes share with our new faculty members to give them a sense of how intimidating it can be for a student enrolled in a lecture course at a large public university, and what a difference it can make in a student’s life to have the opportunity to conduct research with a professor.

Understand shared popular culture. Taking advantage of students’ media literacy to make reference to larger popular culture can also be an effective pedagogical platform. Of course, there is a generation gap between our popular culture knowledge and that of our students. Today’s traditional-age college student was born between 1994 and 1998; the average faculty member was born in 1960.

As Beloit College’s annual Mind-set reminds us, entering 18-year-olds will not remember a time when the United States military was at peace. Nor do they know the simultaneous frustration and joyful anticipation of having to wait to watch their programs at a scheduled time! (See The Onion for an amusing spoof on the Mind-set list).

But despite the hype around the generational gap between faculty and the entering Generation Z cohort, baby boomer and Gen X faculty often express surprise that their college students have some passing familiarity with their music and pop culture. It’s not just that Generation Z has excellent taste but also that they also have online access to the best of all previous eras of popular culture in a way that previous generations never had.

Nevertheless, it’s well worth familiarizing ourselves with the current popular culture that our students enjoy -- and it’s often fun. (Note: the Urban Dictionary might come in handy.) Some older faculty members describe the “hippest” points in their teaching careers as bimodal: when they first left graduate school and a couple decades later when they had teens in their household.

One middle-aged faculty member with whom we talked employed an undergraduate TA to help him revamp and liven up an introductory course that he had taught for many years. Together they went through his syllabus and lecture slides with an eye toward current images and clips that would help the course material better resonate with young students.

While employing popular culture may be a more obvious entry point for humanities and social science classrooms, instructors can bring popular culture into any discipline. For example, the American Chemical Society has a popular culture teaching page (for example, is it possible to create the poison that killed Joffrey on Game of Thrones?) and several scientists have oriented their freshman seminars around the physiology of superheroes and the physics of Star Trek.

Share your own identity. In seeking to learn more about our students, should we not also reveal a bit of ourselves to our students? In bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, she argues that professors must practice the same vulnerability they expect from their students. But how much we care to divulge about ourselves is a highly personal decision and depends greatly on the individual faculty member’s comfort level. Some professors -- for example, recent Ph.D.s or those who often find their authority challenged in the classroom -- prefer to maintain more distance between themselves and their students.

Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that humanity binds us with our students, and when we show that we are human, it creates connections that draw them in at a deeper intellectual level. One student shared with us what a difference it made in his engagement with the class after the professor shared how he, too, had struggled with the complex material back when he had been an undergraduate. Knowing who our students are, while also letting them know who we are, is often the key to a warm and conducive learning environment.

We would like to hear from you about how you navigate the terrain of identity in the classroom. How do you get to know your students? How much of yourself do you reveal as an instructor? What has your experience been like vis-à-vis your institution’s local student culture?

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