The initial review:
Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student by Arthur Levine
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I gave this book two stars not because it was bad but because a lot of it is redundant. If you work in education, and you have been doing so for a while, you probably already know a lot of what has been written in this book. When I started reading it, my initial reaction was, "do we really need another book on the Millenial students and how different they are and how they have to be treated with kids' gloves because they have been coddled all their lives? How clueless can administrators and educators be on a topic that, to be honest, has been tossed around and dissected for a while now?" So, unless you have been living under a rock for a while, you can safely skim this book for the few good insights it has and move on to other things.
At times they can't even get their generational labels right, such as what is commonly agreed to be Generation X versus Generation Y for example (at least the sources they use for their definitions do not seem to be the best based on all the others I have seen and read, and I have read a lot in my line of work). I think at that point the authors were just grasping at labels to make the point that a generation is hard to label. Yes, we get it.
I did take some notes because I often found myself arguing with the authors or just plain wondering about some things. I will likely post those to my blog soon. However, for now, I will say the book is ok, but it is not great. The authors are drawing on a more recent study of undergraduates that covers them after the Great Recession of 2008, but again, it is stuff that we have heard before. A lot of it has already been on the news even. So, unless you really need a primer on this topic, you can probably skip this book. However if you do need a reminder, this may be a book for you.
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My additional notes and comments:
Now, let me rant a bit. What we have here is a challenging generation of college students. They are the way they are, in large measure, because their parents and adults in their lives failed them miserably when it came to raising them with some decent values and work ethic. In other words, those adults failed at their jobs-- pure and simple. As the authors write:
"Parents have not been able to teach their children to be more responsible about their health. Schools have not improved their students' academic skills. Colleges have continued to inflate undergraduate grades. Our political leaders have not given college students any more reason to trust government or be hopeful about the future of the country" (Preface, xi).
To which I can only say, "duh!" All we've had in society as of late is a lot of passing the buck, failures of will, and attitudes of doing the least amount of work to get by while expecting the high end rewards. Then we wonder why things are as bad as they are. I could go on a longer rant, but for now, let's place the blame where it belongs: on the egg and sperm donors who fail miserably at being parents. I am a parent. It is hard work, and you have to put the work in. You have to be the adult, not your child's college drinking buddy (as we see later in one example from the book). You have to know when to say no, and once in a while, it is ok to let little Susie or little Jack skin the knees a bit. As a high school teacher, and later college teacher, I saw plenty of these coddled self-entitled kids and their helicopter parents. In fact, those parental failures were the real obstacle in terms of teaching. And from them, the rest of the vicious cycle goes on.
In brief, what the book does:
"This book presents a snapshot of US undergraduates enrolled in college between 2005 through 2014" (1).
The first chapter going over the whole generational differences thing between the Millenials and their tech fixation/fetishism (in some contexts, this could be labeled as twopointopianism) and their parents who are mostly clueless and left behind. In other words, there is nothing new here unless you have been living under a rock. As I read, I honestly hope this book gets better because so far, I've seen all this before, and I am not impressed. After finishing the first chapter, I can say that most readers can probably skim the chapter or skip it altogether to get the substance of the book.
The book discusses how digital technologies have shaped today's undergraduates. Yes, this is the whole natives versus immigrants rhetoric we have seen before. The authors do point out that the technology has often made them more selfish and annoying:
"Digital technologies have made current college students a 24/7 generation, operating around the clock, any time, any place. However, they attend colleges with fixed locations and fixed calendars-- semesters, course schedules, and office hours. How many of us have gotten e-mails at 3AM from students who are annoyed when they do not receive a response within a few hours" (21-22).
I don't think that is a trait worthy of praise. It tells me these students don't know when to close the laptop, put down the cellphone, and take a break. It also tells me that no one taught the good manners or consideration given most people are usually asleep by 3am (except for them apparently). Does any of my four readers remember the old rule of no phone calls before 9am and after 9pm? At the end of the day, these kids just do not know how to take a break. To be blunt, they will be the frazzled dumbasses who take their Blackberries on vacation, then whine because they have too much work. Me? My time off is mine and sacred. Notice the authors make the point of how there is a disconnect between the colleges and the students. However, that should be taken with a grain of salt. Students do need to learn that the world is not just all going to bend over to their schedule of waking up when they feel like it and showing up to work when they feel like it. Granted that non-traditional students do benefit from flexible hours when it comes to their education if they are also working, but even then, they still have to learn things like managing their time and doing the actual school work. Calendars, so on are the reality of life. We are not doing students any favors by wanting to abolish them, which, while the authors do not right out say that, it seems implied in the book.
There is more on what digital technology does, including adding to incivility, which is a problem:
"New technologies change the way students meet, entertain, protest, get their news, shop, participate in politics, spend their time, and use campus. They change rules for how people conduct their lives, establish new standards of decorum and create new opportunities for incivility" (23).
The incivility is a serious issue. Need proof? Just go into any Internet comment area with little to no moderation, or think of the last time you experienced an asshole with a cellphone in a movie theater. I am not a Luddite by any stretch, but technology should not be a license to be rude, condescending (something that often happens in librarianship courtesy of certain high falluting twopointopian librarians, whom I will not name in the interest of protecting the not so innocent), or obnoxious and inconsiderate.
Finished the second chapter. In brief: Yes, students want more technology. They are more rude with it. Professors think they are lazy because all they do is try to pass Wikipedia and Google for research. Inflated grades and plagiarism.
I did find an amusing part in this otherwise dry, statement of the obvious book: Stories of the helicopter parents. Just when I thought overbearing, clingy parents could not get more ridiculous, here is further proof that they can exceed any expectation with their sense of self-entitlement. The chapter was amusing in a sad way. This is the chapter that features the story I mentioned earlier: When parents visit their kids in college over the weekend, and the kids are teaching them how to play beer pong (because they are such good "buddies"), it may be time to cut the umbilical cord. Just a thought.
This next part made me think a bit about library outreach, and why at my previous MPOW it was so difficult to get student participation at events. I really had to put a lot of effort in planning and especially timing so events would not take place at certain times I knew for sure were bad. For instance, avoid Wednesday nights, they tend to be "church night." And heaven help you if one of the Texas colleges has a football game the same evening. That sort of thing did make a difference, and that was in addition to other factors, such as the ones the authors describe:
"A majority of students attending college part-time or working twenty-one hours a week or more are not involved in campus activities or events either, with the exception of using the library. Undergraduates over the age of twenty-four are also poor attendees of campus events (Undergraduate Survey, 2009)" (qtd. in 54).
At least they use the library, but they do not attend events in the library for the most part. Here in my current MPOW, the college is residential, so that does make a difference. Then again, the college makes a very active effort to inculcate in students the value of attending cultural and educational events. And unlike in other campuses, all students here do work (part of the labor program), which means the "excuse" of "I have to work" does not fly around here. The contrast just made me think a bit. I think we may have a bit of an edge here where I currently work.
Moving along, this next statement can be good and wonderful, but it also highlights how teaching information literacy is much more important now and how more challenging it is to teach it as well:
"Young people today have an astounding array of choices for getting news-- every website in cyberspace, thousands of radio and television stations, and an enormous assortment of print media. The consequence is that there is no common source of news content or even what could be called common content. The common sources of content of the past have largely disappeared" (139).
Further along, in discussing some solutions, the authors provide what I think is a simple and useful definition of critical thinking. This is something undergraduates (and a lot of adults today) really need to learn. Critical thinking is:
". . .the ability to ask hard questions, the capacity to formulate and solve problems, and the balanced judgment necessary to make decisions and choices" (164).
Add information literacy to this because in order to make those decisions, you need to have the best information possible, and you need to evaluate that information and know how to use it well. In addition, the authors also argue that, given a constantly changing world, the students today need to learn creativity and continual lifelong learning.
A small aside: The authors write about how higher education should look up to, or at least use some ideas from for profit colleges. Given ethical lapses of for-profit colleges, their questionable practices and results, I would not be holding them up as something to emulate for colleges and universities, which are nonprofits with a mission to actually teach, not just sell a diploma. Higher education in general often gets into trouble trying to act like a business. Education is not a business, and the sooner institutions as well as students and their parents realize that the sooner things may start to get better.
Now, let us summarize the current undergraduate generation. No matter how much the authors try to ameliorate, it is not a great picture. These students do have some very strong assets, and they do have some very noble moments. But that is simply not enough, and I also think libraries can and should playing an active role in making sure these young people and those who come after them learn what they need to learn (more on that a bit further down):
"Their digital experience and networking skills will need to become literacy in the use of technology, information, and media. Their comfort with diversity and globalization will have to grow into multicultural and interpersonal competence. And their demand for change will need to translate into a set of skills required to live in an era of continuing flux and to work for the changes they desire" (163).
The authors, as they keep on ameliorating, go on to write:
"This should not be taken as a slap or dismissal of current undergraduates. . . " (163).
The ones who need a serious slap are the parents who raised these full of potential yet very deficient students who were always given awards, often for just showing up.
And what do you know? The authors actually mention the library and it having a role in making things better. This right here is more than you see in other "higher education in crisis" books you see out there. I have said this to a few folks: that indeed we should be the knowledge authority on our campuses. That we should be about more than flair and flash:
"The library must move from the periphery of the college campus to its center. It has to be transformed from a storehouse for content to the central campus authority on knowledge-- the discovery, incubation, distribution, application, and recombination of knowledge. Colleges and universities are populated by faculty members who are experts in content but they know relatively little about the structure and use of knowledge. Libraries will have to lead their campuses in this regard" (169-170).
And here is another thought, and this will be the final items I will note. Colleges and universities need to make a stand: a brick campus, a click campus, or brick and click? By the way, I think libraries also need to be asking this question and deciding where to stand. I get the feeling a few are already going to be click libraries, which may or not be a good thing. But that line of thinking may be for another time and blog post. Meanwhile, I am thinking of my current MPOW. Here at Berea College, we are clearly and proudly planting our flag as a brick campus, but we still strongly embrace and seek to learn from and about technology to enhance the primary personal learning experience. As I often say, you do what works for you, and that is what works for us. It is who we are. Other campuses have to think and see who they are and what they want to be, and I will add, without adding any delusions of grandeur (if you are primarily a teaching campus, for example, you are not going to become a research campus overnight no matter how much wishful thinking you do. And yes, I have been in places where this was the big delusion, places that will remain nameless, again, to protect the not so innocent). What happens at brick campuses then when it comes to technology:
"At brick campuses, technology is a means of enriching, expediting, expanding, and supplementing face-to-face education by enhancing instruction, expanding services and resources available to the college community, and enlarging the scope and reach of the campus" (170).
Now note the contrast to what a click campus does:
"At click campuses, technology is the primary means by which instruction, services, and resources are provided" (170).