Recently, an Anonymous Academic wrote: ‘I’m not LMAO at ridiculous emails from my students‘ for The Guardian. The emails this professor cites are pretty ridiculous, in which students write that they missed class because they were in bed with their boyfriend, or they slept in, or their baked potato was still in the oven. However, the article is just as ridiculous for those excuses as for the disdain this professor has for their students.
In my experience working with teachers of all grade levels, it seems that the higher up in school we go the more we expect the teachers before us to have done the work of teaching basic reading, writing and math. I teach high school. Students consistently come into ninth grade several grade levels below their expected reading and writing abilities. In a country where Kindergarteners now spend more time on reading and math than play and creativity, those of us teaching specialized content in high school and college assume we are absolved of our responsibilities to teach communication skills that serve in our students’ best interests.
The content I teach is environmental sustainability. I know that to accomplish my content goals, students need to know how to apply for grants, speak in public, write a formal email and lead community workshops. So I teach those skills along with the content. All of us who have participated in K-16 education have had to become familiar with communication styles that cross the boundaries of formality, context and appropriateness – from how we communicate to our peers versus our teachers versus the principal, not to mention police and other authorities. Writing a resume, cover letter or formal email doesn’t come naturally to anyone, no matter how educated you are; these skills are taught through a system of social rules and norms. Furthermore, those dominant norms are shaped by white, wealthy styles of communication and are forcibly imposed onto everyone else as the only appropriate format. We assume if a student can read they are “literate,” without acknowledging the ways we are expected to be socially literate in order to advance in our society. What communication strategies is this professor teaching students during their valuable class time together?
I’m concerned about the pervasiveness of a dismissive approach that blames young people for simply communicating in new ways. The rules of communication naturally change with each generation. In the 1860’s a new format was introduced which was rapidly adopted by millions: the postcard. In a fantastic 2013 op-ed ‘Tweeting by mail’ Monica Cures writes: “The postcard’s popularity baffled and even appalled the cultural elite…. Some even blamed the postcard for a decline in literacy and argued that its shorter format led to poor grammar,” calling it “the utter capitulation of individuality.” Sound familiar? From postcards to the telephone to email to Snapchat, there will be resistance and backlash from the old guard. The new ways that our students communicate are not deficiencies but assets and unique expressions of the times we live in. Dismissing millennials as an “instant gratification generation” is dangerous — especially coming from an educator.
Most importantly, I want to know: How does having disdain for young people affect the way you teach them? And what role do condescending educators play in defeating of will and growth of our students?
I do want to do something about this “problem” – I want to reframe how we see and value young people in our society. I want to type emojis back to them and learn their language, and grow as an educator and a human from honoring my students and being their ally. It’s not an issue of manners, it’s a question of respect. When I respect my students, they accomplish great things and show up, because I am here for them no matter how many “LOLs, LMFAOs and OMGs” they type. That is <3.