Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Teaching Millennials Part IV: Existential Angst, Google Lawyers, Deathstroke the Terminator

 Today's post will focus on some aspects of the collective "Millennial" personality, at least as it appears on the private liberal arts campus.  The ultimate ramifications are well beyond my ability to forecast, but my suspicion is that they are going to accomplish great things, but at the cost of some social cohesion and traditional values that many of us have become comfortable with.  

 The"Radical Chameleon" Formula:  Multidisciplinary + Multicultural + Nonjudgmental + Non-Reactive + Self-Amused = Sophisticated, Elite, Cool, New Aristocratic

The writer Shamus Khan, reflecting on his years as both a student and faculty member at one of the nation's most elite schools, observes that reverse-snobbery and the cultivation of a deep sense of all-inclusive worldliness marks the attitude of the youthful upper class class:

"Privilege means being at ease, no matter what the context...what students cultivate is a sense of how to carry themselves, and at its core this practice of privilege is ease:  feeling comfortable in just about any social situation.  In classrooms they are asked to think about both Beowulf and Jaws.  Outside the classroom they listen to classical music and hiphop.  Rather than mobilizing what we might think of as 'elite knowledge' to mark themselves as distinct---epic poetry, fine art and music, classical learning---the new elite learn these and everything else.  Embracing the open society, they display a kind of radical egalitarianism in their tastes.  Privilege is not an attempt to construct boundaries around knowledge and protect such knowledge as a resource.  Instead, students display a kind of omnivorousness.  Ironically, exclusivity and puritanical attitudes mark the losers in the hierarchical, open society.  From this perspective, inequality is explained not by the practices of the elite but instead by the character of the disadvantaged.  Their limited (i.e., exclusive) knowledge, tastes, and dispositions mean that they have not seized upon the fruits of our newly open world."

What Khan describes is a perfect articulation of what I have personally witnessed in terms of how the most educated and ambitious Millennials view the world.  They tend to see things from the perspective of a nomadic tribe of extra-national, affluent global tourists, equipped with the resources and honed aesthetic tastes to choose elements of various world cultures which appeal to their individual personalities, and then to incorporate those elements into their lives in creative ways.

So a hypothetical peak-form example of the breed would be a young Nigerian woman who was educated in the United States and England, worked at a non-profit in Peru, enjoys French wines and Spanish guitar and Japanese clothing and American porn, trains in a Filipino martial art, occasionally uses Colombian narcotics, goes on vacations to New Zealand and Romania, and currently lives on a sailboat in Miami and dates Cuban ballet dancers.  She has proudly achieved what Stalin attacked as "rootless cosmopolitanism".

One of the challenges of being a professor in a classroom that contains students like this---or who aspire to be like this---is that the bar for satisfying intellectual breadth is set rather high.  I believe the practical solution is to try to become a turbocharged version of the worldly, cosmopolitan tourist that the students venerate.  You have to pay your dues in the currency that they accept in this training milieu, and the coin of the realm for Millennial elites is multi-disciplinary cosmopolitanism combined with disassociated, veteran-of-the-extremes social cool. 

"No Alpha Left Behind":  Reward Enthusiastic Alpha Males and Females

A small percentage of students (I'd speculate that it's about 10%) may become extremely enthusiastic about the course material and seek to discuss elements of it in more detail.  It is well worth your time to meet with these students outside of class, to provide additional readings, and so on.  You may not make a deep connection with many undergrads, but when you do you should not be afraid to encourage them to really take their skills and knowledge to the next level.

The Millennial campus still has its share of Big Man On Campus ("BMOC") types and their female equivalents.   The Alphas seem to be particularly drawn to certain classes and subject matter; as they are socially networked, high-status individuals, they have special powers to recommend (or not recommend) a given professor.  Confident and usually quite affable, the Alpha student is nonetheless a seeker of good role-models for his or her post-college life script template.   Every instructor's experience is probably different, but in my view these are typically the students who will want to socialize with a professor outside of class and to pursue mentoring relationships.  I think a professor should find ways to accommodate these requests if possible, but of course one must be a bit cautious these days.

(make time for those who want to go further with the material:  you never know how that wild-drinking fratboy may turn out...)

Don't Be Google-Replaceable

Millennial students all know how to use Google to search for info.  They can all go to youtube and find TED talks, or go to iTunes to find podcasts.  In a room with 25 to 30 students all equipped with laptops, tablets, and smartphones, the professor does not control even the immediate market in information.  On the teaching side, we're all still trying to figure out how to best incorporate technology into course architecture; many campuses uses the Blackboard application, which allows teachers to set up private forum areas, wikis, group e-mails, etc.  I personally don't use it very much, but if I had larger classes I probably would not have much choice. 

The students just don't need you for open-source information that anyone can get off the web.  They don't need you to provide what they can replicate with a few mouse-clicks; they need a mosaic that includes theory, storytelling, real-world experience, research, and practical application.  In fact, what they ultimately need you for is to illuminate cross-disciplinary relationships that may grant those in the know an edge.  Talk about how an experimental result in a cognitive neuroscience study may have practical applications for an individual running an emerging markets investment portfolio, or how a naturalist's observations of trophic systems in New Guinea may apply to counter-insurgency campaigns.

Maintaining such a posture increasingly means that you need to maintain a broad array of interests, and be willing to track developments in many different fields.

What students often *do* need is some background in how experiments are conducted and why so many social science research results are never successfully replicated.  The pop science-news sites run on a journalistic headline/it-bleeds-it-leads mentality and so they will frequently grab a recent study, post a provocative, overstated headline on it, and run it.  They are usually not interested in carefully examining study design issues, peer-review critiques, or replication attempts, because they have an insatiable appetite for new research results and continually face deadlines.

Google Lawyers

There is an unusual type of student that I will simply term the "Google lawyer" or "Google scholar".  The behavior involved with this person goes something like this:  the professor or guest lecturer brings up a new concept or phrase.  The Google lawyer student immediately conducts an online search for the concept while the professor is still talking.  The student then presents some aspect of the material---usually a critique---back to the professor, but in a confident, know-it-all way, as if the student had been aware of the concept all along, as if it had been part of his or her worldly education long before the class.

The Google lawyer is similarly prone to having strong, perhaps even dismissive opinions about books that he or she has not actually read.  It's a glib, "5 Minute Manager" approach to education, and the G.L. seeks to be plausible to a relatively naive audience, not to have layered, nuanced intellectual cultivation.

The strangely belligerent, argumentative attitude of the Google lawyer is marked by his or her desire to attract attention by appearing contrarian.  This is a creature that has long stalked the halls of higher education, probably based on a fairly rational cost-benefit analysis.  If 25 people agree on something, the 1 who defects and takes the opposing side *may* be immediately elevated in status.   Why?  Because drama and controversy are satisfying on some level, and the operative device of the duel usually requires offering each side equal time.  While each of his counter-parties may only now get 1/24th of the attention allocated to that side of the argument, the defector now enjoys complete command of his or her niche.

It may be important to note that the GL looks for arguments; this is the student that does not particularly like consensus and harmony in a classroom.  If necessary, he will pursue grandiose "phantom arguments" with public intellectuals and historical figures and the like. 

Their arrogance is unfortunate, but Google lawyers are potentially useful to have in class because they just enjoy debate for its own sake, which can spark lively in-class discussions.  You may occasionally become annoyed with them because they do tend to extend themselves beyond their true levels of formal intellectual training and background, and their knowledge is rarely backed up by relevant experience.  However, they are normally smart enough to only engage in a fast-moving, soundbite type way that can survive shallow questioning (it collapses under intense thesis defense, Oxbridge tutorial-style engagements, etc., but these are not the usual teaching formats for undergrads in America).   Just don't let it get out of hand or allow them to be too aggressive with their peers (I have made this mistake in the past and am now quicker to intervene). 

For various reasons, the weaknesses of the Google lawyer tend to be higher mathematics and in systems-type thinking.  When I have to silence one quickly because of classroom disruption, I have occasionally resorted to econ/finance partial diffs, rescaled range analysis, Extreme Value Theory, or probability.  However, these can turn out to be blunt trauma impact weapons that "hurt" many innocent students in order to deal with a single irritant.   Suddenly going quant in an inappropriate setting can also have the effect of making it seem like the professor has become insecure and is trying to appear intelligent and qualify himself to the students. 

In extreme cases, they can be deluded and forget that everyone else has access to Google, too; this kind of cognitive blindness has resulted in big problems with plagiarism on campuses nationwide. On papers and take-home exams, Google lawyers almost always commit either outright plagiarism or more subtle forms of intellectual property theft. 

There are professors who are so disgusted with GL types that they have essentially banned the use of tablets, laptops, and even smartphones in class.  I normally don't get attacked by Google lawyers---I think it has happened maybe 3-5 times, and in each case I was quite familiar with the counter-arguments and critiques that were being parroted.   Even if they feel that confronting the professor is a bad idea, they will often turn on and attack each other:  if one Google lawyer is doing an in-class presentation, others may use the opportunity to stage a raid.

I personally don't mind these students---they are simply using a ubiquitous technology and sometimes challenging the professor about things that they have found.  For the prepared, these are opportunities to show competence and dignified comportment.  In persuasion or influence tactics-related coursework, however, the GL is typically among those students who have to be taught the difference between a fight and an argument, and the difference between an interpersonal persuasion engagement and a grandstanding public display.  The vast majority of persuasion situations do not feature an audience; they require a 1 on 1 interaction.  If your skillset is based on the idea that you will be trying to sway a third-party (i.e., an audience) rather than a direct influence target, you may adopt a persona which insults the true persuasion target in an attempt to win points with the mob.  It's a terrible approach to life mastery strategies. 

Eccentricity is OK

The mad scientist.  The absent-minded professor.  The wild-eyed visionary.  The megalomaniacal supervillain.  The "Dark Triad" bad boy.  This rogues' gallery of colorful characters shares a similar quality:  an eccentricity which marks the person as an independent, rebellious thinker who in some way may pose a threat to the stability of the rest of society.

In my experience, professors are allowed a certain amount of latitude in the eccentricities department, and this may be a quality that deserves special cultivation.  To spend so much time in the world of ideas is to pursue a somewhat insulated life in which theory, intellectual stimulation, and aesthetic concerns frequently trump practicality.  This of course is reinforced to some extent by the tenure system.

If you have a colorful personality, style, and/or background, you should highlight it in class to differentiate yourself from other professors and guest lecturers.  Perhaps you should have some "signature" moves or props.  Academia is generally one of the most tolerant spheres of activity when it comes to an individual's ability to personalize his or her immediate work environment, so there is little excuse to leave things bland or to avoid the occasional measure of dramatic flair.  Charismatic villain templates are probably particularly effective because they imply the lethal trifecta of freedom, success, and wildness.

 In simple terms, the sources of Credibility as a professor are the same as they are everywhere else---Competence (demonstrated command of the subject matter), Caring (as mentioned before, this means a generalized, non-judgmental warmth and acceptance of individual value), and Consistency (the ability to maintain frame).

Consistency deserves some special mention here.  The generation of students in question has been well-schooled in moral relativism and in cultural contexts for ethical judgment.  They are naturally contrarian and skeptical about authority.  Thus, big, sweeping value judgments and moral outrage should be used quite sparingly. The worst thing you can be from a Consistency standpoint is a hypocrite:  from a style perspective, it is better to endorse a Wild West free-for-all of amoral behavior and realpolitik than it is to appear sanctimonious, puritanical, or otherwise "stuffy" to your students.

When you appear prone to making moral condemnations, many of these students will immediately and intuitively start looking for signs that you are a hypocrite---they have been conditioned to expect this to be the case.  They will normally find what they are looking for.  As I have stated before, the students won't necessarily say anything to your face---they just will consider you "uncool" and socially undeveloped, and this will be used as a filter on everything else you say.

 If you do wish to teach moral reasoning or to include an ethical dimension to your discussions, I would personalize advise you to either stick with the philosophical basics---Categorical Imperative, etc.---and formally attempt derive your moral points from there (this easier said than done), or, better yet, to allow the students to voice their own opinions on the matter and to debate these issues with each other rather than with you.   You become less of an advocate and more of a moderator.

Practical Philosophy is Your Secret Weapon

Philosophy seems to be making an academic comeback, although not necessarily as an undergraduate major.  When you feel lost, disoriented, and disillusioned by your surroundings, you may tend to fall back on systems of wisdom that have withstood the test of time. While I still would not recommend moral sermonizing to Millennials as it will seldom be well-received, I would strongly recommend being at least somewhat versed in the major philosophical schools of the ancient world, and in their core ideas regarding questions of "the good life" and "happiness" (the meaning of happiness and the proper pursuit of same deserve special emphasis).

Frequently students appear in college with proximate benchmarks in terms of career and social success, but with no underlying, tightly-examined philosophical roadmap on which to overlay these benchmarks and related decisions.  So you have people who are highly ambitious and competitive about getting to places if life, but they may not have had time to figure out if they will really enjoy those places if and when they get there.  It's a recipe for potential heartbreak, even depression, down the road. 

The solution, in my opinion, is to have students think things through to their logical consequences, and to determine major priorities and threats.  "Bespoke lifestyle design" is the execution platform, but the analytical toolkits usually come from philosophy and positive psychology (the branch of psychology specifically concerned with studying the phenomena of "happiness").  I would go so far as to say that if you are a professor, at least in the social sciences, you must ultimately become a de facto practical philosopher.  My own journey has moved from Stoicism to a modified, evo psych-friendly form of "neuro-Epicureanism" over the years, although I believe that those involved in positions of great austerity and sacrifice (most notably the warrior professions) would probably be better-served with a heavy dose of the Stoics.

Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner has been teaching at Harvard for decades.  His thoughts on Millennial students:

"Today's youth approach their education as 'practical credentialists' who complete the tasks necessary to get the diploma they need to secure a desirable job.  They are far more focused on 'daily life management' than on developing a long-term purpose.  Consider that in 1967, 86 percent of college freshmen said that 'developing a meaningful philosophy of life' is 'very important' or 'essential' to them, compared to just 46 percent in 2012.  

"The pragmatic, careerist focus of today's college students occurs within the context of a broader societal trend toward individualism and away from a more community-minded, institutional these community ties loosen, they're replaced by a 'moral freedom' that allows individuals to define for themselves the meaning of a virtuous life and doesn't require them to sacrifice their personal needs and desires in the process.  

"Individualism goes hand in hand with a focus on self, and there's evidence that today's youth are more self-focused than youth in decades past...The rise of volunteerism and social entrepreneurship among today's young people seems at odds with these statistics.  It's true that the percentage of youth participating in some form of community service has risen notably in recent decades.  Although we see this trend as distinctly positive, we're also mindful that, for many young persons, their motivation may stem more from a desire to pad their resume than to give back to society (Seb's note:  this has often been an accurate observation of underlying motives, at least in my experience, and the social entrepreneurship is increasingly linked with self-promotion and naked political ambitions.  Be wary of resume-padders who want the world to see them as "philanthropists" or "activists for social change").  Seen in this light, the current rise in volunteerism among today's youth may be a product of the packaged self:  it's a box to check off as one follows the super-app of life."  

Virtual Friends, Fame, and Facebook

Gardner emphasizes this "packaged self" aspect of Millennial social life, citing the way that Facebook profile elements are arranged to "package the self for public consumption."  He notes that "in addition to its carefully crafted, packaged, performative quality, the externalized self also lends itself to measurement and quantification---increasingly an imperative in today's market-driven, big data societies", and he cites "published research indicating that many young people would rather be the personal assistant to a celebrity than to themselves be a prominent executive, author, or researcher."   

In other words---rather than having direct, face-to-face contact with a relatively small circle of real-world friends and using Facebook as a means to communicate with those friends, many Millennials are using Facebook as an online persona or avatar in which to communicate with virtual "friends" who they will never actually meet in real life.  The expectation becomes that the virtual friends represent an audience or, worse, a "flock" who require guidance or tips---not to put too fine a point on it, the "virtual friend" may be transmogrified in a person's mind into a"virtual fan", which allows a Millennial to feel like something of a celebrity by collecting such "fans" on social media (in fact, the achievement of fame is repeatedly cited as a critical life goal for members of this cohort).

I've had students tell me that they spend at least 3 hours per day on Facebook, that it is the first thing they check in the morning and the last thing they look at before they go to bed.  Some have even said that they screen their real-life activity options to make sure that they are Facebook-friendly.  A down-range consequence of this soundbite, FB-ready approach is that Millennials have pressure to become masters of strategic social positioning, of revealing only the edited, more glamorous aspects of their lives.  Real-world relationships, which of course will involve occasional episodes of tedium, may be seen as substandard when compared to a showbiz version that is being promoted via social media. 

An unfortunate outgrowth of the "Facebook persona" aspect of Millennial social life is that cyber-bullying, often through anonymous critics or at least critics who know that they will never have to stand in front of you and be held physically accountable for their behavior, is a problem.  We've all heard about the Facebook-fueled suicides.  There are people who behave online more or less as they would behave in person, but there are others who find that the internet provides a mechanism for being particularly nasty and escaping the consequences.  A surprisingly large percentage of Millennials have come to rely on the internet for most of their social activities. There isn't a whole lot that a professor can do about it, but it's something to be aware of with this generation.

The Facebook persona stuff also creates pressures to be more glamorous, exciting, and dangerous, but this deserves its own discussion. 

All in all, Gardner's findings only further the case for embedding tools of self-examination and insight into classroom lectures.  The most significant teaching experiences I personally have had have occurred when a student found that a particular body of research resonated within him or her, and decided to study this material outside of class requirements.   Sometimes a person will completely change his or her educational, professional, and social goals as a result of exposure to a particularly interesting idea.

Millennials May Struggle with Existential Angst

Gardner seems concerned about alienation and mental health issues that may stem from reliance on social media to form one's own self-concept:

"Given the self-focus of narcissists, one might assume that they're self-assured and unaffected by the goings-on of others.  This turns out not to be the case.  As Sherry Turkle explains in her book Alone Together, 'In the psychoanalytic tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support.'  Instead of self-assuredness, then, narcissists tend more toward a fragile self that needs propping up by external reassurances (the classic example being Facebook 'likes').  Jean Twenge's research bears this out.  Along with rising levels of narcissism among youth, she finds increasing moodiness, restlessness, worry, sadness, and feelings of isolation.  In sharp contrast to Riesman's inner-directed persons, today's young people are more likely to feel that their lives are controlled by external social forces rather than growing out of an internal locus of control.

"...Several of our participants identified a similar incongruity between youth's external polish and their internal insecurities.  The camp directors we interviewed told us that campers today demonstrate more self-confidence in what they say they can do but are less willing to test their abilities through action.  They attributed this shift to youth's growing distaste for taking any tangible risk that could end in failure---failure that once might have been witnessed by a few peers and then forgotten but today might become part of one's permanent digital footprint." 

These are other reasons why I would suppose that anecdotes and stories in which the professor describes his or her own failures and embarrassments are so popular with students:  they serve as a pressure-relief valve that furthers the sense that the classroom is a "judgment-free zone" in which experimentation and trial-and-error are ok. 

"What You Think of Me is None of My Business":  Why Millennials Love a Good Bad Guy

(Slade Wilson, aka "Deathstroke", the world's most expensive mercenary/assassin, was always one of my favorite comic book characters as a boy.  A classic example of the charismatic anti-hero, Wilson is now menacingly portrayed by badass, part-Maori Kiwi actor Manu Bennett on the TV show "Arrow")

Just as a general, aesthetic observation, Millennials seem *far* more interested in darker, anti-hero characters than they do in Boy Scouts and Dudley Do-Rights.  As example:  when pop-culture icons such as 007, Batman, Jason Bourne, Green Arrow, and even Sherlock Holmes have to be re-imagined and reinvigorated for the Millennial audience, they naturally must become edgier, more alone, more violent, more psychologically tortured, and more prone to navigating the shadows of moral ambiguity.

My first thought was that the darker, more ruthless characters were appreciated because they were capable of running along an emotional arc, of showing a mix of prosocial and antisocial traits that made them seem emotionally richer and more interesting (i.e., Jaime Lannister, Loki, Damon Salvatore).  Now I believe that the anti-heroes are appreciated because they are judged to have skills and attitudes that are more realistic for the non-Manichean world that we actually live in---they reflect Millennial concerns about the harshness and hypocrisy they see in real life.

So in a world filled with conflict and uncertainty, the lone wolf, quasi-psychopath character becomes the individual who seems to have the greatest range of psychological tools to get his hands dirty and to take care of business. 

Oxford's Kevin Dutton explains some of our fascination:

Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.
The key here is keeping it in context. Let’s think of psychopathic traits—ruthlessness, toughness, charm, focus—as the dials on a [recording] studio deck. If you were to turn all of those dials up to max, then you’re going to overload the circuit. You’re going to wind up getting 30 years inside or the electric chair or something like that. But if you have some of them up high and some of them down low, depending on the context, in certain endeavors, certain professions, you are going to be predisposed to great success. The key is to be able to turn them back down again.

...I’ve interviewed a lot of special forces troops, especially the British Special Air Service. They’re like Navy SEALs. That’s a very good example of people who are pretty high on those psychopathic traits who are actually in a perfect occupation. Also, I interview in the book a top neurosurgeon—this was a surgeon who takes on operations that are especially risky—who said to me, “The most important thing when you’re conducting a dangerous operation, a risky operation, is you’ve got to be very cool under pressure, you’ve got to be focused. You can’t have too much empathy for the person that you’re operating on, because you wouldn’t be able to conduct that operation.” Surgeons do very nasty things to people when they’re on the operating table. If things do go wrong, the most important facet in a surgeon’s arsenal is decisiveness. You cannot freeze.

Tools for a William Gibson World

It may not be the Mad Men archetype in which "all of the women need to look like Marilyn Monroe, and all of the men like Rat Pack predators", but the archetypal Millennial vision of the world has its own noir-ish, decayed, cyberpunk elements.  Millennials are less optimistic about the virtues of being an establishment loyalist and seem less confident in authority figures more generally.  Few of them seem to cite their parents as examples to necessarily emulate---they love their parents, of course, but they see weaknesses and compromises in the life choices that their parents took.  This plays into a deeper concern that many Millennial students have with the concept of trade-offs, but I will get into that more in the next installment. 

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