by Tina Bampton, PhD, Faculty, Liberal Arts and Christopher Jarmark, Adjunct Professor, Liberal Arts
ITI Faculty Fellows for Exemplary Pedagogy
“Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business” (Palmer, 1990, p. 11, emphasis added).
When Parker Palmer wrote those words some 30 years ago, who knew that they would still ring so true today? Teaching in any context is always a challenging, but deeply satisfying experience—why else would we do it, right? As educators, we are imbued with a passion for our discipline and a burning desire to share our knowledge with the world. It is our duty to shape the future through teaching the next generation of doctors, nurses, lawyers, scientists, historians, and educators—a task that very few of us take lightly. However, as we see the changes in the world around us, the social movements taking place, and we are introduced to the current and next generation of learners (Gen Z and Gen Alpha), we as educators are faced with new challenges related to how we are to best serve our students.
Each generation brings with it its own passions, interests, and unique attributes. For many of us, we are tempted to immediately look at some of these things as being deficits, something holding the new generation back from reaching the great achievements of those before it. When we think of Generation Z, we may be quick to think of the role that technology has played in the shaping of this generation and their perceptions on life, learning, and the world itself. Out of our own frustrations we may, however, claim that “technology is dumbing down our kids” and that services like Google are “robbing our kids of vital critical thinking skills.” However, to what extent is this really true? Research on cognition would tell us that multitasking has long been a part of everyday human life and that it plays a vital role in how we complete our daily personal and professional tasks (Salvucci, 2013). While it has been argued that too much multitasking could possibly result in Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder (Rothman, 2016), Generation Z’s digital upbringing has resulted in them being adept to survive in a world bombarded by constant updates, something that many of the previous generations’ struggle with (Schwieger & Ladwig, 2018). In terms of critical thinking, Generation Z is known to be a task-driven, skill focused generation that values and learns best through experiential learning (Schwieger & Ladwig, 2018). If nothing else, these attributes alone serve as a call to us as educators to rethink and reframe our approaches to teaching and learning in our classrooms. While the traditional lecture still holds a very important place in learning, it is also important for educators to be dynamic in the classroom, recognizing not only their students’ needs, but also educators’ own strengths and interests as knowers in their discipline. Palmer (1990) explains that educators should be less focused on developing a single technique to reach their students, and instead “discover and develop methods of teaching that emerge from their own integrity” (p. 11). While it is true that as educators we assume the “knower” role by default in academic spaces, that role should not be static nor should it be reserved for us alone. Students need to be provided opportunities to not only absorb knowledge, but also to feel comfortable and encouraged to share their ideas and co-construct knowledge and meaning together, with each other and with us as educators.
As we ponder and explore the idea of teaching this generation and what it means to be dynamic in our profession, we must keep in mind the notion that there can be no “one size fits all” approach to teaching and learning. What works for some may not work for others; which, though as apparent as it may seem, requires a level of sensitivity on our part and a willingness to be reflective in our approaches. Before we are able to make these changes, however, it is important to better understand who this generation of learners is and the complex backgrounds that they bring with them to our classrooms, labs, and lecture halls.
Trigger Warnings and Covid-19
As a community of teachers, administrators, and scholars at D’Youville, we have banded together in the last 4+ weeks to reimagine teaching, learning, and mentoring our students during a global pandemic. For the entire D’Youville community, this has been both wildly impressive and stressful. This seems like an apropos context to discuss triggers both in online curriculum and in any and all campus communication.
Clear messaging is a critical component to helping people psychologically understand and prepare themselves in ways that are constructive and do not lead to panic or destruction. As teachers move their lectures online, and hopefully are loosening the deadlines and forms of assessment we create for students in this time, it is important to think deeply about the messages we are disseminating online. It can be very triggering to even have to open the computer and face scholarly and educational tasks when in isolation. We as a campus are doing all we can to move student support and student resources online, but sometimes the way to be the most ethical as an educational body is to start with the words we are streaming to our students and colleagues every day.
We can start with the communication forms and styles we use with our students (and each other) on a daily basis. Just something as simple as the subject line of an email or Canvas announcement can be very jarring or even triggering to people during times of high anxiety and societal crises. We have been asked to create welcoming spaces online via videos that aim to reassure our students about meeting academic and financial deadlines and goals. We have also sent countless re-assuring emails and announcements. Thinking about the subject line to those is important. For example, a line reading “HELP!” or “Respond ASAP!” is not in fact very helpful in these times, and we have all received such emails at one time in our professional and academic lives. During this sensitive time, even the use of the exclamation point can convey urgency or elevated emotions that students just may not be able to cope with well in consecutive daily doses, or even at all. Let’s work to keep the messages simple and cut the amount of text we expect each other to read each day to fend off messaging-assault or overwhelming students with information.
For many of our Gen Z students, this is the first global crisis they will ever remember. They are scared, and they are looking to each other and their instructors, parents, and advisors to guide them in their understanding and processing of this new unchartered territory. In general, our messaging practices should convey understanding, empathy, and openness while also being as clear and concise in our expectations and reasoning for those expectations as possible. We are aiming for full transparency when the zeitgeist is riddled with the unknown.
When it comes to assignments, we need to weigh the possible damaging psychological effects that assignment directions may have on students. For example, I have decided to make the reading of the post-modern, post-apocalyptic book In the Country of Last Things, by Paul Auster, optional for my ENG 221 students. This book comes with a time-specific trigger-warning now that we are facing such high volumes of illness, death, and economic hardship. These things are all dealt with in the novel. Some students may find reading such a novel at this time helpful, or somehow cathartic. But others may find it unbearable. I need to understand that any possible benefit may be undone by the risk that the triggering content can create lasting psychological damage for students. They can always return to the lessons of post-modernism at a less sensitive time. Right now, it is not the priority for most.
Additionally, as we ask students to reflect on their experience of COVID-19, it is important that we make sure that asking students to write and narrate that experience doesn’t become self-indulgent and triggering. Many students are asked to put in writing their struggles with racism, fear, lack of resources, health insurance access, and close affiliations to the illness itself. Making these kinds of narratives optional is highly suggested at this time. Lastly, when possible, let’s not make demands on students’ time for synchronous online learning unless it is absolutely necessary. It is important that students are not feeling pressured and triggered by demands for their time that are becoming more and more impossible to meet.
We remain hopeful that the D’Youville community will emerge from this season even stronger and more closely united than before. This is just the beginning of a discussion of trigger warnings as we navigate teaching Gen Z. This is a time of great uncertainty, but it is also a time that presents so many opportunities. How we think about our community and broader society during this time can leave an imprint on the global psyche and creates a moment of possibility for growth, learning, and the fostering of ethical teaching and learning practices that can re-shape and reimagine the limits of higher education.
Palmer, P. J. (1990). Good teaching: A matter of living the mystery. Change: The Magazine of
Higher Learning, 22(1), 11-16.
Rothman, D. (2016). A tsunami of learners called Generation Z. [PDF].
Salvucci, D. D. (2013). Multitasking. In J. D. Lee & A. Krilik, (Eds.), The oxford handbook of
cognitive engineering (pp. 57-67). Oxford University Press.
Schwieger, D., & Ladwig, C. (2018). Reaching and retaining the next generation: Adapting to
the expectations of Gen Z in the classroom. Information Systems Education Journal, 16(3), 45-54.