by Tina Bampton, PhD, Faculty, Liberal Arts and Christopher Jarmark, Adjunct Professor, Liberal Arts
ITI Faculty Fellows for Exemplary Pedagogy

In late August we hosted, via the ITI office, an all-campus Development Day. The theme of that day was “Engaging and Empowering Generation Z” The day was filled with an informative critical response to the best selling book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), by Lukianoff and Haidt, as well as a keynote presentation from a high-energy speaker, Nathanial Turner, and concluded with a panel session comprised of DYC faculty, administrators, and Generation Z students. Together, we as a campus community, defined who Generation Z is—our perceptions/preconceived notions of these students—their possible needs, and who/what they may hope to become.  To better understand who Generation Z is we began thinking about who we are and how our generational identities help(ed) to shape who we have become/are still becoming. The ways that we know ourselves, others, and the world around us is often linked to our generational perspectives. We found understanding this to be a crucial first step in how we can learn to better serve Generation Z and the soon to follow, Generation Alpha. Further, by listening to and engaging with Generation Z students from our own D’Youville community in our intergenerational panel discussion, we began to understand their concerns, interests, and hopes, as well as the world that they hope to foster in the future. This allowed us to reinterpret the varied roles that we play in supporting the future generations of students as they work towards becoming the future leaders of society.

Development Day set the stage for the fall semester as we began to write and rewrite our syllabi and set intentions for what we wanted to see happen in our classrooms. This was specifically so because the undergraduate classes we both teach are predominately populated by freshman, and by and large Generation Z. We know from the literature on Generation Z that a.) they come from an academic tradition of assessment, accountability, and achievement in relation to high-stakes testing culture; b.) they are the most diverse generation in terms of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality and also the generation that is most accepting of diversity; and c.) they are the most multi-tasked generation to date—their attention is continually pulled in multiple directions at once, and they can in fact reasonably attend to many things simultaneously.

This is the landscape we are teaching in. It is both an exciting and scary terrain. The challenges come from fielding “first-weeks’” energy. This energy includes anxiety (Gen. Z is the most anxiety stricken generation on the whole when compared to their generational predecessors), the remnants of high-school academic habits that may not work too well in college (i.e. learning material solely to pass a test without thinking of the greater implications of what they’re learning, writing a term paper the night before, and sleeping in class), and general growing pains that accompany the transition to college-life and the academic workload. We decided that instead of fighting these energies, we would attempt to hone in on them. How can we illuminate the energies in the classroom that are traditionally antithetical to learning in order to encourage students to recognize them and start to think critically about their own culture, generational trends, and habits?

As we critically reflected on these characteristics about Generation Z and our incoming students, we began to think of ways that we might be able to better tailor our classes to meet their needs, while still satisfying our own academic agendas as instructors. Rather than solely thinking of ways that we could help our students understand and absorb materials, we instead focused on ways that we could help cultivate a learning experience that encouraged connections between the materials and who our students are/and who they are becoming. For both of us, this often meant being cognizant of the authors (voices) that we were planning to teach, taking our time to purposefully select pieces that came from researchers and authors of diverse backgrounds. Further, this also meant thinking of how we could create ways for our students to see themselves better reflected in the materials that we were exposing them to.

This fall, we both teach ENG 111, a class that is now a required co-requisite with LSK 067 (a developmental writing course housed in D’Youville College’s Learning Center). As a result of our shared students and shared learning outcomes where the two curricula blur, we conference often to report on student progress, reflect on what is working or not in the curriculum, and plan for future assignments to address the trends we see in student need when it comes to writing instruction. Two things that seemed to arise again and again, as we discussed the progress freshman were making in the first half of the semester, is that it was clear that writing skills were not necessarily the problem that was leading to failures in application of those skills on major assignments. Case and point, there were several students who performed well on in-class writing assessment in 067, but who could not manage to write a thesis statement in ENG 111. Where was this disconnect coming from? The skill, on paper, was one they had seemingly mastered, plus they had received supplemental instruction on thesis composition in their 067 meetings.        We began to ask our students, at the start of each class, what the experience of taking 111 and 067 felt like for them. It was clear they trusted us, as their answers came swiftly. They felt confused; they felt lost in the details of the literature; they felt “depressed” reading about realities of human existence and sought out an escape from reality via literature; they felt strange discussing topics like grief or death or sexuality. Isn’t this the most “woke” generation, we thought? Doesn’t every film and music lyric they are exposed to touch on these same ideas? Surely this isn’t the first time they are being asked to read canonical literature. Why do they feel so uncomfortable? And then we thought back to what we know about Generation Z.

Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) talk extensively in their book about concept creep, when two otherwise loosely related concepts become synonymous. The most heavily cited in their book is when feelings of discomfort become feelings of being unsafe, and in the most extreme cases traumatized. This is of course the argument for trigger warnings, that uncomfortable or sensitive material can trigger students to recall or relive traumatizing experiences or memories. We do not mean to debate the effectiveness of trigger warnings here, however, but do note their ties to concept creep. We wanted to address the discomfort students were feeling in their first few weeks of literature class without “fixing” it. Isn’t it in fact possible to feel uncomfortable and safe at the same time, and might it be the case that growth, learning, and maturity come from feeling uncomfortable? Of course! As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, what is the point of the gym without the weights? What is the point of the classroom if there is no hard work, no discomfort, no resistance? What follows are two practical examples of classroom activities that our students have participated in this semester that asked them to engage with instead of resist those feelings of discomfort.

Tina’s ENG 111 classes, during the introduction to the poetry unit. We had just wrapped up our unit based in the short story, so I asked students to start to think about the differences between poetry and prose. After we covered some basics about poetry in terms of form and function, and after we discussed what poetry is and is not, students were asked about their experiences with poetry and their feelings about heading into the unit. One student shared that she “hates poetry” because “I just don’t ever understand it no matter what I do or how much it is explained.” In her answer, I realized that she was still expecting the meaning to be constant, a puzzle that some people can put together and others just can’t. All the talk we had just had about poetry being about what words and images make one feel, (emotion rather than denotation), and she still wasn’t sure she could ever trust herself to engage with a poem without being told what it meant.

I went home and I thought about her response. I decided to rely on what little I know about reflection research, mindfulness, and meditation. I decided to respond to her by saying: “If what is there [on the page] confuses you or seems inaccessible, let’s start with what is not there. The caesura, or the pause. The line break. The spaces in the poem.” I told her, “. . .poetry is arguably more about what is not being said than about what is.” The next class meeting, I passed out the lyrics to “Outside,” a popular song by Childish Gambino. The students spent half the class listening to lyrics that were familiar to them and they filled in the blank spaces in the margins with what they were thinking as the line was spoken/sung—kind of like that word association exercise.

Following this exercise, I asked the students to do something unconventional. I asked them to put the paper away, turn their chair so it was facing away from everyone and toward a wall and to just close their eyes and think. I set a timer for five minutes. And we all just sat there. Silently. We just listened to lines about poverty, gang-violence, classism, racism, domestic discord and now we sat. All of these things are “uncomfortable” and often when they are brought up in a classroom setting they are analyzed, hypothesized, and conceptualized to the point that they become divorced from any lived experiences. The students sat in the pauses or the caesuras. They thought about what was said and what wasn’t said. No one moved. No one sighed. No one rustled their feet. It was really an amazing experience, especially in a room full of Gen. Z students whose attention spans are short. Later they told me no one ever asked them to just take the time to think. And it struck me: thinking takes time, and when all 24 hours in a day are crammed with scheduled tasks, when do we just get a chance to notice what’s not so obvious in the textbook, the syllabus, between the tick and the tock of the clock? When do we just sit to think, or rather, when is that time afforded to us? What might be possible if we make it something we need in order to understand and engage with our discomfort, and thus learn?

Chris’s ENG 112—finding the mirror in course materials. Often when we are teaching our students we do so from the perspective that there are things that we “have to teach.” It isn’t uncommon for instructors to feel pressured to have to try to fit everything and anything that they can into a 15/16 week semester course. When we operate from this perspective we neglect to think of two important aspects of learning—seeing ourselves and our own interests reflected in the topics, themes, and materials that we teach; and, creating ways for our students to see themselves reflected in what we’re teaching them and the learning experiences we are sharing with them. What is the point of teaching something that you do not care about? What is the point in learning something that feels meaningless to you?

When I designed my ENG 112 course this semester—a class rooted in the teaching of reading and writing about research—I wanted to create a course in which anyone could walk through the door and connect with the materials we were covering. To do this I thought, what better topic than “Identity” to create an inclusive environment that celebrated diversity while simultaneously cultivating community. To spark more interest in the materials, I purposefully linked the theme of identity to contemporary media. Each week, my students critically explore various identity constructs, stereotypes, and tropes through assigned materials and their own observational research (watching television and keeping a research journal). Quickly, they come to realize that identity is a complex concept and that there are many factors that go into how we view, know, and construct identity within society. At first, my students tend to struggle to see beyond the superficial constructs of identity, which creates struggles and moments of tension for them at the beginning of the semester. However, to combat this, I developed an assignment that gets my students to critically engage with the material in ways that is personal and unique to them.

Through the use of what I refer to as the “Identity Mask” assignment, I challenge my students to think deeply about who they are, how and why they present themselves to the world like they do, and how they view and influence the identities of others. When we think of masks we often only think of the ornately decorated front that we show to the world—rarely do we ever think of what is on the inside. For this assignment, students must use images and symbols (drawn or found) to decorate both the outside and the inside of their masks. On the outside of the mask, they should draw/place images of what they want the world to see—these are the features that the world enforces and often projects onto them. On the inside they should draw/place images describing how they look out onto the world—these are the things that they project onto other people.

This assignment begins as a collaborative piece, students working in pairs to develop symbols and images that are reflective of who they are and what they value. As they engage in dialogue around the concept of identity with each other and negotiate their ideas, they come to realize how our relationships with others can influence what we value, as well as how we see and present ourselves, and how we view others. This ends in a share-out during which everyone presents their collaborative masks and we discuss the trends that we see emerging. Interestingly we begin to see how where we sit and who we sit by influences how we present ourselves (e.g. the students who were sitting in the corner near the Catholic nun in my class all made reference to faith, whereas those who sat at the other end all made reference to money and wealth). After completing the collaborative identity mask in class, my students are then assigned an independent version of the same project for home work that we discuss and share in class the following week.

The independent identity masks, like my students, take many different shapes and forms. Each student makes conscious and purposeful decisions to showcase who they are and how they perceive their own identities and those of others. As each individual shares their work, they begin to draw connections between themselves and each other, as well as the different pieces that we have read up until that point in class. While the complexity of identity only continues to grow, my students’ understanding and relationship with identity as a construct strengthens and they become more secure with speaking about the themes and content that we are covering. Using projects like this to better understand each other as individuals in relation to the things that we’re learning about helps to cultivate a stronger community of practice in which each individual feels valued, supported, and encouraged to contribute to the collective learning that is taking place in our space.

By allowing students to re-present their learning in ways that seem unique, creative, and less traditional, we are giving them opportunities to rethink their perceptions of what they’re learning and how and why they understand things the way that they do. Coming from a culture of testing in education, our students are often more concerned with finding the correct “answer” than they are with actually taking the time to figure out how/why what they’re learning is, or should be, meaningful to them. Creative assignments like the “Identity Mask” that allow for students to visualize the material in a way that is different from something like a PowerPoint presentation, creates avenues between the students’ lives and school—something that is extremely important in higher education, especially here at D’Youville, where we are “educating students for life.”

Identity Mask Examples. Here we can see examples of the purposeful decisions that students in Chris’s class made when designing their “Identity Masks.” The red mask, for example, depicts eyes and a mouth inside the box shape (without a head), because people are expected to conform to whatever society expects of them, seemingly leaving them trapped in a box. Conversely, on the inside, the student has a smiling face (head shape and all) with a scar going across it, because they want to see the individual for all they are—good or bad—and all of the potential they have.