What You’ve Taught Me: Semester Wrap-Up for Fall 2016

Today marks the thick of another finals week here at Penn State University. As comes with the end of all semesters, there is a whirlwind of questions about exam materials, stressed students coming and going from my office, and papers to grade.

Despite the whirlwind that is finals week, I find it edifying to take a moment to reflect on the lessons the semester brought for me. As the old adage goes, my students teach me every day.

I love my job–every Fall and Spring I’m presented with the opportunity to meet, connect with, and learn from 400 new individuals as we meet in classrooms across University Park campus and discuss topics I find compelling and fascinating. Seriously–what could be better?

Reflecting on Fall 2016, I have only become more enamored with my job and with this cohort of students who represent the future of our culture and our world. Here’s what I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. My students are Resilient.

It’s an unfortunate statistical likelihood that, given my large group of students, I will work with men and women who are coping with a variety of tragedies and traumas as they pursue their studies. This semester was no exception–death, grief, sexual and physical assault, and mental health crises all crossed the threshold of my office. And yet, even as these students coped with their trauma, they demonstrated such strength and  determination. They sought out support from friends, family, and faculty. They pursued treatment from mental health professionals and counselors to heal their psychological wounds without shame or  embarrassment. And they actively sought to advocate for themselves and other students coping with similar situations in their own lives. Although these students suffered, they refused to be victims, and their personal power inspires me every day.

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My HDFS 432: Developmental Problems Class (and the first selfie of the day, as you can tell by my less-than-composed expression). My class, though? They look fabulous!

2. My students are Kind.

I cannot count the number of  times I noticed students sitting with each other before class, sharing notes or readings, and asking each other relevant clarification questions about course material. Within class discussions, especially when we would cover topics that ranged into the personal (e.g., mental health struggles, histories of peer victimization, parental loss/grief), my students showed each other not just respect, but empathy. In one discussion, where the topic was Attachment in Adult Relationships, one student shared her experiences with maintaining her long-distance relationship with her significant other. Immediately after, another student raised her hand to comment on her own experiences with her long-distance relationship, and to offer support and commiseration to her classmate seated across the lecture hall filled with 150 students. Even when we don’t ‘know’ each other, there is a shared knowledge and compassion inherent in humanity that my students express regularly with each other.

I can also add, from my own personal perspective, the kindness students have shown to me. E-mails they’ve sent to express their enjoyment of a topic of the course sit in a special folder in my inbox, where I sometimes go to read them when feeling stressed and less-than-competent (as we all do at points in our careers). Students thank me for holding review sessions, answering e-mails, answering questions, meeting with them to go over study tips. All of these are activities embedded in my job, and yet my students take the extra step to thank me for it. It’s certainly not necessary, but it does bring a brightness to my work that sustains me.

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Second Selfie with my HDFS 229:001 Infancy and Child Development course. Getting better. (Can you spot the students taking a photo of my photo–how meta!)

3. My students Care.

Today’s university students are often maligned for being focused entirely on grades, and not on growing as thinkers and professionals. My experience, though, is quite the opposite. My students regularly asked questions in class that delved deeper into material–not because they were worried about being tested on it, but because they were genuinely curious. My meetings with students after exams and papers were returned often involved students coming to review what they missed in order to edify their knowledge-not to argue over points.

As one example, a young woman stopped by to review her paper–which was excellent already–just to discuss the two small issues noted on the rubric about her paper. Not to argue for points, but because she sincerely wanted to improve her scientific writing skills further. After she left, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. The Millennial generation, however often maligned in the media for its lack of accountability and determination, seems to be doing just fine from my perspective.

Students ask to borrow books for further reading. They ask to sit down and chat about career options, volunteer opportunities, ways to give back to populations and organizations whose missions they value. They are not afraid of hard work and they are not afraid of challenging themselves. If there is one thing my students seem to be afraid of, it is of not challenging themselves enough to grow during their college experience.

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Selfie #3 in HDFS 229:002–look at all those smiles! What a great semester we had.

So, for those in our country worried about the next generation of professionals, parents, and thinkers–don’t be. We are in good hands.

Lifelong Learning: Lessons from a Prof on #Modern Romance

 

 

 

This semester I’m teaching a course called The Transition to Adulthood. It’s a senior level course that has evolved (partly as a result of research on emerging adulthood still focusing for the most part on the college experience) to be a class that examines the developmental experience of college students. For their written project, I decided to try something a little different, as much for my own benefit as their’s (nobody wants to grade research article summaries–if they say they do, you have my permission to slap them in their pompous face).

I assigned them Aziz Ansari’s and Eric Klinenberg’s new-ish book, Modern Romance, which provides a hilarious yet informative presentation of sociological data collected for the purposes of understanding the modern dating scene and, as proved inevitable, the ‘phone world’ Millennials (and many other people) live in now.

I just graded the first wave of essays, which required students to track 2 hours of phone usage for themselves or a willing friend during a time with heavy ‘social traffic’ and then write about patterns that emerged in the data.  The next essay will ask them to connect those patterns back to the data in Modern Romance.

I can honestly say that, in my decade of college teaching, I have never enjoyed grading an assignment so much.  These essays gave me insight into the lives of my students that a more standard research project would have never afforded.  And, to my great delight, the observations my students made about the integration between their phones and their social lives were not just revealing, but totally endearing too. Here’s what I learned:

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Lesson 1: College students LOVE Snapchat (and not just for sending d*** pics)!  As a mother of teens who reads way too many articles about how social media might fuel depravity, I honestly thought Snapchat was used primarily for sending pics of particular body parts. What I discovered, instead, is that my students stay connected to friends back home or siblings via brief Snap videos or pictures that showcase how they look and feel that day. For busy young adults, these served as a way to affirm feelings for each other, support each other through difficult experiences, or just share a laugh.

 

Lesson 2: GroupMe is for Everyone. Back when I graduated high school, the idea of staying connected with friends back home while you were at college was something you said at the end of August during tearful goodbyes, and then forgot about until you were trying to decided to invite your high school bff to your wedding or not. Keeping high school friends was just too difficult, save for a few really special connections. In contrast, my students reported that they often have GroupMe set up with their friends back home, such that group text messages are sent to keep their friendship circle up-to-date with their life’s happenings.  In fact, in my small (and admittedly non-representative) sample of more male students used GroupMe to stay in touch with their high school friends than female students. One young man wrote that his friends would text each other daily, just to stay informed about each other’s lives. A decidedly different approach from what I saw in both men and woman I graduated with back in the late ’90s.

Lesson 3: The Game is On. In almost every single time-log, there was a pattern where a romantic interest or significant other would not respond quickly enough to a text, to which my student would then delay their response even further, leading to another delay on the receiver’s end, and so on. While playing the waiting game, though, my students reported feeling anxious and constantly checking their phones to see if their object of interest had texted back yet, even though they played it cool in the timing of their actual replies.  It struck me that so much power is embedded in the texting relationship for whomever was the receiver last, and that to be the last sender was a precarious and stressful position to find yourself in.  No wonder my students literally whip their phones out even before I finish saying we’re done for the day!

 

Lesson 4: ‘Life’ Cycle. Most of my students reported circulating through their social media apps, e-mails, and texts in one fluid motion that never ended.  They’d check Instagram, then Tinder, then Snapchat, then e-mail, then texts (or these would be on automatic push notifications already), and back to Insta. Their phone worlds were a constant vortex of activity in their efforts to stay updated and responsive to their friends.  Some of my students noted that it was a little exhausting at times, but worth it for the amount of support and connectivity it afforded them.

So there you have it.  College students might seem to fetish-ize their phone to the point of it being a second appendage, but it’s not for mindless reasons. We humans are social creatures–Millennials included or, perhaps, especially so.