The Digital Natives Are Restless

August 21, 2014

Regular readers of the higher education press have had occasion to learn a great deal about digital developments and online initiatives in higher education. We have heard both about and from those for whom this world is still terra relatively incognita. And, increasingly, we are hearing both about and from those commonly considered to be to be “digital natives” –- the term “native” conveying the idea of their either having been born to the culture in question or being so adapted to it that they might as well have been.

When we think of digital natives, we tend to think of students. But lest we think that things are easy for them, let us bear in mind their problems. Notably, they share the general difficulty of reputation management or what we might consider the adverse consequences of throwing privacy away with both hands when communicating on the internet. More to the point in the world of higher education, many suffer from the unequal distribution of online skills most relevant to academic success –- yet another factor in the extreme socioeconomic inequality that afflicts our nation’s system of higher education.

But let us turn our attention to the faculty, and first to those relatively unschooled in new information technologies. At the extreme, there are those who view the whole business with fear and loathing. We must find ways to persuade them that such an attitude is unworthy of anyone who has chosen education as a vocation and that they would do well to investigate this new world with an explorer’s eye –- not uncritically, to be sure, given the hype surrounding it –- in order to reach informed positions about both the virtues and the limitations of new information technologies.

Others are more receptive, but also rather lost. They are fine with what Jose Bowen calls “teaching naked” (i.e., keeping technology out of the classroom itself), since they have been doing it all their working lives, but are unable to manage the other major part of the program (that is, selecting items to hang in a virtual closet for their students to try on and wear to good effect, so that they come to class well-prepared to make the most of the time together with one another and their instructor). What these faculty members need is the right kind of support: relevant, well-timed, and pedagogically effective –- something far less widely available than it should be.

Digitally adept faculty have challenges of their own, some of which are old problems in new forms. There is, for example, the question of how available to be to their students, which has taken on a new dimension in an age in which channels of communication proliferate and constant connectedness is expected.

And then there is the question of how much of themselves faculty members should reveal to students. How much of their non-academic activities or thoughts should they share by not blocking access online or perhaps even by adding students to some groups otherwise composed of friends?

Many of us have worked with students on civic or political projects –- though not, one hopes, simply imposing our own views upon them. Many of us have already extended our relationship into more personal areas when students have come to us with problems or crises of one sort or another and we have played the role of caring, older adviser. We have enjoyed relatively casual lunches, dinners, kaffeeklatsches with them that have included discussion of a variety of topics, from tastes in food to anecdotes about beloved pets. The question for digital natives goes beyond these kinds of interaction: To what extent should students be allowed in on the channels and kinds of communications that are regularly –- in some cases, relentlessly and obsessively –- shared with friends?

Not all of this, to be sure, is under a faculty member’s control. Possibilities for what sociologists call “role segregation” hinge on an ability to keep the audiences for different roles apart from one another –- hardly something to be counted on in these digital times. But leaving aside the question of how much online information can be kept from students, how much of it should be kept from them?

Will students be better-served, as some faculty members seem to believe, if they see ongoing evidence that their teachers are people with full lives aside from their faculty roles? Should students be recipients of the kinds of texts and tweets that faculty members may be in the habit of sending to friends about movies, shopping, etc.? Given how distracting and boring some of this may be even to friends, one might well wonder. Some students will perhaps get a thrill out of being in a professor’s “loop” on such matters, but do we need to further clutter their lives with trivia? This is an area in which they hardly need additional help.

To put this issue in a wider context: In her 1970 book Culture and Commitment, anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction among three different types of culture: “postfigurative”, in which the young learn from those who have come before; “cofigurative”, in which both adults and children learn a significant amount from their peers; and “prefigurative”, in which adults are in the position of needing to learn much from their children. Not surprisingly, Mead saw us as heading in a clearly prefigurative direction –- and that years before the era of parents and grandparents sitting helplessly in front of computer screens waiting for a little child to lead them.

Without adopting Mead’s specific views on these cultural types, we can find her categories an invitation to thinking about the teaching and learning relationship among the generations. For example, should we just happily leap into prefigurativeness? 

Or, to put it in old colonialist terms, should we “go native”? Colonial types saw this as a danger, a giving up of the responsibilities of civilization –- not unlike the way the Internet-phobic see embracing the online world. The repentant colonizers who did decide to “go native”, motivated either by escapism or by a profound love and respect for those they lived and worked with, sometimes ended up with views as limited by their adopted culture (what is called “secondary ethnocentrism”) as were limited by their original one.  This aside from the fact that attempts to go native are not always successful and may even seem ridiculous to the real folks.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of ourselves first as anthropologists. We certainly need to understand the world in which we ply our trade, not only so that we can do our work, but also because we are generally possessed of intellectual curiosity and have chosen our vocation because we like working in a community. We believe that we have much to learn from the people we study and, at the same time, know that we can see at least some things more clearly because we have the eyes of outsiders.

But we are also missionaries, since we feel we have something of value to share –- to share, to be sure, not simply to impose. What might that something be?

In the most basic sense, it is the ability to focus, to pay attention, take time to learn, looking back at least as often as looking forward. Most of our students live in a noisy world of ongoing virtual connectedness, relentless activity, nonstop polytasking (how tired are we of the word “multitasking”?). Like the rest of us, they suffer from the fact that too much information is the equivalent of too little. Like the rest of us, they live in a world in which innovation is not simply admired, but fetishized.

So, even as we avail ourselves of the educational benefits of new information technologies, we might think of complementing this with a Slow Teaching movement, not unlike the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 with the goal of preserving all that was delicious and nutritious in traditional cuisine.  We have such traditions to share with our students even as we become more knowledgeable about the world in which they move.

Our students and junior colleagues don’t need us to be them; they need us to be us. Or, as Oscar Wilde so engagingly put it: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Bio

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.

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