Freshman English and the iGen Intervention

I’ve worked in higher education as an instructor of English for over 10 years. Most of my academic focus has been on first year writing courses or what can be generally described as Freshman English. I love it. There’s a real opportunity to educate and inform the manner which students will comport themselves as thinkers and communicators throughout not just their academic lives but their lives as professionals and citizens as well. I also really like college freshman as people, young and enthusiastic, on the dawn of adulthood. I dedicate much of my non-mechanics’ curriculum to matters that are relevant to college freshman. We write a lot about our lives as an exercise in identity as determined, in part, by the context of the times in which we live.

My students have been what I always believed to be Millenials, the generation defined by (among other things) tolerance, entitlement and - of course - technology. While I applaud their tolerance and cringe at the entitlement, technology has always been a primary focus since I’ve been acutely aware of the manner which smart technology affects focus, something I consider a massive detriment to success in the myriad ways I envision success for my students. It’s also a pain in the ass to keep asking students to put their phones away during class.

Somewhere over the last four or five years, my Millenials began to display traits beyond lack of focus that first had me curious but now leave me both heartbroken and deeply concerned. It began with what appeared to be something akin to arrested development, where my students (who are mostly female at LIM College in Manhattan, the school where business meets fashion) suddenly were unabashed about their love for boy bands, Disney movies, and TV shows they should’ve aged out of in middle school. It’s like they were forever tweens. And while this irked me in some regard as a believer in art and culture as a means of critical thinking and emotional maturity, I tend to keep my aesthetics to myself (the occasional Kanye-bashing notwithstanding). But what had me really wringing my middle-aged hands was not One Direction t-shirts or evaluation essays on Frozen, but the rise in debilitating anxiety in my students who had morphed, unbeknownst to me, from Millenials into a unique generation far more affected by technology than their predecessors. They are iGen. And it’s a scary time to be on the dawn of adulthood.

The term “iGen” has been coined by Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology who has researched and written extensively on matters of social psychology in the 21st century. Her newest book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood* (*and What That Means for the Rest of Us), details with great depth the things I had been unofficially observing for the past few years: college freshman, especially girls, addled by anxiety, depression and other manifestations of insecurity that have been heightened, if not exasperated, by the ubiquity of smart technology. What makes iGenners unique from Millenials is that the former - born in 1995 or after, did not know any stage of adolescence without smart phones. They came of age with smart phones in their hands and, as an extension, constant access to the devastating impact Social Media can and often reaps. The statistics in the book, gleaned from thorough and numerous studies of iGenners across the breadth of American youth, are as staggering as they are disturbing.  

The book should be required reading for any parent of a teen and all educators tasked with teaching this new and wholly unique generation. I’d say this focus on educators is particularly important for those of us teaching Freshman English as we have an opportunity within our curriculum to address what is quickly becoming a mental health crisis with dramatically raised rates of young adult anxiety, depression and suicide.

We are not psychologists or counselors (nor should we act as if we were), but English instructors work within the practices of reading and writing, actions that can empower and heal. I’ve adjusted my curriculum to first educate my students on this new identity of theirs (they don’t even know that they are iGen) and then to recognize its realities: frequent exposure to screen time (especially on Social Media sites where image, often manipulated, is at a premium) coupled with less face-to-face time with friends/peers results in the isolation and insecurity that foster mental health issues. It makes sense. As does the effort to at least recognize that there is a problem and that it is unique to their generation. Beyond my lectures, I’ve collected numerous articles along with excerpts from Dr. Twenge’s book to provide the knowledge acquired through reading (something each generation does less and less of). As for writing, I assign frequent journal topics focused on the emotional impact of technology and assign essays where they have to explore the role of technology in their lives and come up with practical remedies to find ways to live with technology in a healthier, more productive fashion.

I often tell my students that when my parents were their age, the conventional wisdom was that smoking wasn’t bad for you; therefore, much of the population smoked until they found out it caused cancer and other medical maladies. It’s kind of like that with technology and their generation; at first, we didn’t think it was bad for you. Now we know.  

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