It’s not the students’ fault we professors got old (but here are 3 things we can do to bridge the generation gap)

A friend and colleague of mine from my student media days posted this on Facebook last week just to take the temperature in the academic room:

Three of my 32 first-year journalism majors had heard about Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas. That’s ____________.

What followed was the general “tsk tsking” from people in our age group, noting that this was sad, unacceptable or Exhibit A as to what’s wrong with kids today.

I went another direction, noting that this event happened about 12 years before these students were even born. I received a couple messages telling me essentially, “That’s not the point. They should know stuff like this. Shame on them.”

The implication I often get from youth-shaming posts is that by not knowing IMPORTANT THING X en masse based on events that happened more than a decade before they were a “twinkle in their daddy’s eye,” the students don’t value the lessons associated with it.

(In the case of Hill/Thomas I’d argue that they probably DO value those things (probably even more than the Senate did back in 1991, or 2001, or 2011…) but they have their own cultural touchstones like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein to (unfortunately) name only a few.)

The truth of the matter is probably more about us than it is about them: We got old really fast and we really don’t like it.

Journalists and by extension journalism professors are storytellers. We use examples to help people understand things, often relying on the newsworthy events that are happening around us. We also tend to recall things that had an impact on us, thus allowing us to feel more connected to the example and better able to use that “for instance” in a meaningful way.

What happens, however, is the longer we use examples or the more often we rely on certain ones, the less relevant they become, because they are no longer at the forefront of everyone’s minds. What “just happened” in our world NEVER happened in theirs.

If you want to depress the hell out of yourself, follow me down this rabbit hole:

Let’s say you are a professor who has just gotten tenure and you are a real hard charger who has taken the most direct path to get there, so that was seven years of your life.

2021-7 = 2013 is when you started as a professor.

You had to do your Ph.D. and a master’s degree to get that job and you were lucky enough to get that job right away after graduation. In journalism, a Ph.D. can take between three and 817 years, but let’s just say it was four for the Ph.D. and two for the master’s.

2013-6 = 2007 is when you started your grad career.

You probably didn’t take the grad-school plunge until after you had been in the “real world” a while, doing jobs in the field. Let’s say you did the six-year approach of two three-year stops for jobs (a decent “stay-awhile, learn some stuff” couple of gigs.)

2007 – 6 = 2001 is when you graduated with your bachelor’s degree.

You were one of those miracle kids who got the four-year degree in four years, so…

2001-4 = 1997 is when you started your degree at age 18. That means you were born in 1979. Subtract 12 years from that and that year (1967) is exactly as relevant to your students as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings are to your students.

I  did the math for my life journey and landed on the 1962-1963 era, so around the time of the Kennedy assassination (which I would argue everyone gets taught at some point in school). Beyond that, here are things that I’m guessing the “Tsk, Tsk, Damned Kids,” people would expect me to know at age 18 based on what was big news or cool stuff at that time:

  • Barry Keenan’s trial
  • The quote: “If we’ve been telling lies, you’ve been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
  • Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
  • The battle over the Poll Tax amendment
  • Mike Mansfield

Truth be told, I didn’t know ANY of those things (although I did recognize the song from Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs that held the number one spot on the pop charts the longest that year).

Not only do we get old, but what also happens is what I call “Wooderson Syndrome,” in terms of keeping track of who is in our classes. I don’t mean this in the creepy “alright, alright, alright” sense, but more in the “age-gap” sense:

I really started coming to grips with this about two years ago when I started to write an intro to mass com textbook. I was putting in references to things that seemed both new and relevant and my editor kept sending my chapters back with notes about needing to get “more current examples.”

At one point I got exasperated and asked how in the hell it wasn’t relevant to put references to media coverage about 9/11 in there. He responded, “Your readers weren’t born yet. You should think about the things your daughter would remember and stick with those for examples.”

Zoe? That’s ridiculous. I remember changing her diapers, teaching her how to read, taking her to kindergarten…

Annnnd when the book is set to publish, she’ll be exactly the same age as the kids taking a class that would assign the text…

Dammit. “Old” caught me.

I don’t like the fact that my students don’t get my references to the Miracle on Ice, “Reality Bites” or Duran Duran lyrics. I also don’t like that my music is now on the “oldies” channel, or worse yet, PLAYING ON (EXPLETIVE, EXPLETIVE, EXPLETIVE) AM RADIO STATIONS. I hate that I’m getting mail-order fliers for hearing aids and AARP memberships. I really dislike the fact that my attempts to remain “with it” are met with comments like this:

Me: I heard this “One Direction” song, and…

Student: Oh, Dr. Filak! It’s so cool that you like the oldies, too!

So, since we’re all here in comfortable “Dad jeans” or “maxi skirts” and we can’t fully explain the true magnitude what it meant to have a car with a cassette player in it when we turned 16, let’s work the problem. Here are a few simple ways to do it:

If something is important, explain it to them: Instead of being incredulous about what students know or don’t know, let’s work a little harder on telling them stuff and helping them understand why they should care. It’s easy to look for superiority high ground; it’s a lot harder to help other people climb up there with us.

Have a simple explanation in your pocket for when students stare at you with a look like, “Is this going to be on the test?” and give them the 30-second version of what happened. If you really want them to to hang onto it, feel free to touch on a few of the more memorable details. (I still find it amazing that somewhere in the congressional record, Orrin Hatch is quoted dropping the N-word multiple times and referring to porn star “Long Dong Silver,” thanks to the Hill/Thomas trial.)

Then, explain WHY it matters in regard to the class they’re taking or the situation they’re discussing. If they get the “why” aspect of something, they’ll remember it more often than not.

Case in point: I put a simple sentence diagram on the board at the beginning of my intro to media writing class. It’s the same thing the nuns used to torture me with that I had no real use for until much later in life. I explain how they can use this to improve sentence structure, find the main idea of their lead or generally make sure they keep a focus on what matters most to them. I’m often gratified when I find scrap paper after a midterm and that little diagram is scratched out with a few nouns and verbs surrounding it.

Look for better and newer examples: I get that not only is it more fun to recall things that mattered in my life than to try to learn new stuff, but it’s also something that feels as comfortable as well-worn shoes. However, nobody really likes slipping into someone else’s old, nasty sneakers, so let’s go shopping for some new things, OK?

Again, I don’t want to have to look at TikTok videos or learn what the hell BTS is:

(I mistakenly referred to this group as BTK once, which would have been a serious problem if the kids were old enough to remember who the hell BTK was. it was one of the few times, I’m glad they lacked historical perspective…)

That said, the whole point of journalism is reaching an audience with content that is relevant, useful and engaging, so I’ve gotta practice what I preach. There is literally no shortage of current examples of people behaving poorly, so dig around and see what you can find.

If you want to talk about sexual harassment and exploitation stuff like what happened in the Hill/Thomas case, there are more current examples of it in today’s world (unfortunately).

If you want to talk about lawsuits from famous people who feel “hurt” by jokes in the public eye, the Larry Flynt v. Jerry Falwell case is the gold standard, but why not talk about John Oliver and Bob Murray?

If you want to talk about sketchy behavior and pyramid schemes, Bernie Madoff is old news. Look at the leggings empire covered in this documentary.

If you can’t find something good, stick with the classics. There’s a reason James Bond always can carry off a dinner jacket. However, in most cases, you’ll find an example that’s newer and quite good.

Take it easy on the kids: I often refer to the Johnny Sain Axiom of Old Timers’ Day: “There sure is a lot of bullshit going on around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” I’m quite certain that there were a few “Young Sheldon” types in my field, who scoured the newspapers, magazines and cable news shows to get full updates of every important thing at the age of 18 or 19.

However, most of us were probably more concerned about an upcoming test, if we had money in our meal account or whether that person we met at a party would “call us back.” (Yes, even that now is an ancient adage… Zoe: “You mean you would call girls you liked on the telephone? And they didn’t know who it was because call ID didn’t exist? Oh my GOD, Dad!”)

The person who posted the original item that started this rolling weighed in after we all had kicked in our two cents and it’s clear he gets this point better than most:

I don’t really expect them to know it. About the same number knew what Watergate was when I mentioned it a few weeks ago. I, personally——as both a journalism major and one of those all-A students——didn’t understand Watergate until I read All the President’s Men as a junior in college, and Watergate occurred about the same time I was born. I still don’t understand the Teapot Dome scandal, partly because it’s so dang complicated and partly because I’ve never seen it as being relevant in my life.
Part of the reason I use the Clarence Thomas example is so I can make connections to Kavanaugh and make the point that they need to understand history in order to be good journalists. Not seeing the Anita Hill situation as relevant for a profile shows a lack of news judgment to me. The fact that Anita Hill is all over the news because of her book tour also shows me that they need to be paying more attention to current news.
And, also, only about a quarter of them knew what NPR was. But they’re only 18. They’ll get there.
Especially with good folks like this guy teaching them.

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