Leave it to who?

Photo of  Marie Glynn, assistant professor of General Education. Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services. Cartoon images courtesy of South Park Studios.

Ward and June Cleaver may still show up on cable somewhere, but they aren’t in Linda Arthur’s lecture notes anymore.

“I used to be able to refer to ‘Leave it to Beaver’ as an example of a rigid notion of family,” said Arthur, a professor in Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

But that show ended in 1963 and, though a generation or two still watched it in reruns, Arthur has noticed that since the explosion of cable channels, references to The Beav are mostly lost on her students.

Similarly, Matt Bumpus, an assistant professor in Human Development, got only blank stares when he said, in a discussion about children’s responses to traumatic events, “You probably remember where you were when you heard about the Challenger disaster.”

Well no, he realized a beat later, probably not. Some of them hadn’t been born yet.

Not-so-common knowledge
It’s not easy keeping track of what’s common about “common knowledge.”

“The colloquial knowledge that students have is so different from the colloquial knowledge we had,” said Chuck Pezeshki, professor of engineering and chair of the Faculty Senate. For instance, he said, when he asked students what the Saturn V was, only about 25 percent identified it as the moon rocket. Some of them thought it was a model of car, he said, “and these are engineering students.”

The answer isn’t to sneer at their ignorance, he said, but to meet students where they are, acknowledge the different experiences, knowledge and skills that they bring to the table and then engage them in the curriculum in ways that allow them to build on what they already know.

“If you disavow their experiences you aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said.

Sometimes, says Joan Anderson, it helps to lay out some of the differences that separate the generations.

“I sometimes tell my students, ‘I existed in a time when there were no remote controls for TV, telephones were attached to the wall and I had to wear dresses to go to school,” said Anderson, a colleague of Arthur’s in AMDT. “And they do look at me like I was crazy.”

Working to keep up                   
To help faculty figure out where their students are coming from, each August since 1998 Beloit College in Wisconsin has released a Mindset List (see www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/mindset) cataloging some of the cultural touchstones that have shaped the lives of incoming college freshmen.

This year, many in that group were born in 1988. That’s the year George H.W. Bush was elected president and the top-grossing movies were “Rain Man” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Though former President Bush (and Tom Cruise’s agent) must think that was a lifetime ago, for many of us it seems like last week.

Marie Glynn, assistant professor in General Education, said she works hard at keeping up so she can avoid those blank stares that greet witty references to “Hill Street Blues” (Hey! Let’s be careful out there), or “American Graffiti” (Do you want to end up like John? You can’t stay 17 forever).

“I listen for the things I hear them talking about and then I find out about them,” Glynn said. “I watch ‘South Park’ and I watch MTV,” and she paused before adding, “…not with rapt attention.”

Making the connection
But still, it gives her great material. Recently she was discussing changes in ancient Greek sculpture, from the Egyptian period through the classical period to the Hellenistic period, and compared it to the change from the “round-headed cartoon characters” of the 1970s to the “round-headed cartoon characters” of the 1990s. When her students laughed, she knew: “They got it!”

That recognition — from Peanuts to South Park — allowed her to move directly into her next assignment: Pick two things that have changed over time and explain societal changes that might account for that change.

“It’s me keeping up that makes that possible,” she said.

Glynn, whose next foray into youth culture involves checking out her niece’s posting on MySpace, said her first impression of South Park was that it was the most disgusting program she’d ever seen, but her second and third impressions were more favorable.

“It’s absolutely brilliant,” she said. “It helps me to see the contemporary USA through a young person’s eyes.”

Class of 2010
Here are a few highlights from the Beloit College Mindset List, describing the class of 2010.
• The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is as scary as the student union
• Bill Clinton came to office when they were 4 years old, meaning they’ve only known two presidents.
• There has always been only one Germany
• Smoking has never been permitted on U.S. airlines.
• Google has always been a verb.
• Text messaging is their e-mail.
• Madden has always been a game, not a Super Bowl-winning coach.
• They have rarely mailed anything using a stamp.
• “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” by Dr. Suess has always been the perfect graduation gift.
• The U.S. has always been studying global warming to confirm its existence.
• Professional athletes have always competed in the Olympics.

For a complete list, go to www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/mindset

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