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Some thoughts on how to draw out, engage and encourage the millennial learner. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

In May, Time magazine ran a cover story on “The Me Me Me Generation,” the social media loving, status-sharing millennials that writer Joel Stein described as “entitled narcissists.”

Yet despite the entitlement he finds so irritating, Stein acknowledges millennials also have the potential to be our saviors. He just might have that part correct, but helping them channel that ambition, creativity, and belief in self appropriately is the key to the salvation he describes.

The millennial generation includes those born between 1980 and the early 2000s. Born in 1980, I squeak by, but I consider my nine years as a writing instructor to college students a much more useful look into how millennials think, how they get their information, and what their expectations are. After all, when I graduated college in 2002, we had cell phones, but we used them just to call people. We had e-mail, but no social media personas.

This isn’t another iteration of the age-old mudslinging about “kids these days,” because it is more productive — and fair — to look at the opportunities we have to draw out these students.

There are so many things my students do — like create fluid Prezi presentations, or script and edit movies with ease, or develop highly polished media campaigns — that are beyond me. They exude a confidence and technical savvy I envy. Their willingness to embrace innovation makes for a more enriching and dynamic classroom. This creativity and flexibility will carry through into their workplaces, and their more fluid, adaptable approach to roles and responsibilities has the potential to counteract stagnation and apathy in the workplace.

At the same time, the tech-centric worldview Stein criticizes — where re-Tweets and Facebook likes can often replace actual discourse and face-to-face interaction — does have its downsides.

Over the course of each semester, I find myself offering advice my own professors didn’t have to give: Please turn your ringers off. Please don’t text during class (yes, I can see you). Please don’t eschew built-in class time for feedback and consults with a promise to e-mail me later.

But is it really all that different from what my teachers wanted from me? Aren’t I just asking them to pay attention, to avoid distracting their peers; in essence, to make the time they are in my classroom their priority while they are there? The only difference is that I am asking them in the terms that reflect our current realities.

This isn’t another iteration of the age-old mudslinging about “kids these days,” because it is more productive — and fair — to look at the opportunities we have to draw out these students.

Being accessible and approachable are important traits, but there’s a fine line between being available 24-7 to answer student clarifications about assignments over e-mail versus, say, responding to e-mails about what is due the next class (there’s a syllabus for that). For both online and virtual office hours, I make a point to tell students to come prepared with specific questions, to have spent some time working through the assignment before declaring defeat.

Sometimes, students need the time and space that the easy, immediate answer does not yield. I want them to wait to look for answers until they understand the questions, and to know the difference between simply reacting to what they see, hear, and share, and thinking critically about it. Information comes at them in so many forms and from so many sources, and giving them the tools to be discerning readers will help them become more discerning writers.

I get frustrated with the implications of our cultural predilection for instant feedback and gratification, but as educators, it’s our job to help students define the boundaries of the immediacy…

I see this struggle when I ask them to search the same research topics in Google and in scholarly databases and compare the results. Slowly, discussions about reliability and credibility translate into concepts they can see firsthand. The highest volume or quickest return of results isn’t always best, and their final, polished research arguments, which often impress me in their depth and scope, reflect an awareness of this.

I also find myself questioning the same technology that makes it convenient to contact my students, or create a multimodal classroom. For example, if I need to send a class-wide email to go over an assignment, perhaps that is an indication I could have been clearer in my original prompt. In adding in multimedia assignments and e-portfolio platforms, I have to make sure the technical bells and whistles enhance the writing process, rather than overwhelm it.

Most of the students I’ve been fortunate to teach are hardworking, diligent, and approach challenges with an open mind — I find I learn a lot from them in this regard.  I get frustrated with the implications of our cultural predilection for instant feedback and gratification, but as educators, it’s our job to help students define the boundaries of the immediacy they seek and we all share, and make sure it is not at the expense of their accountability and analytical skills.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Marie

    “graduate college”? Some writing instructor!

    • dz0

      Language mavens are bores.

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